Lake Tekapo, Mount John, Stargazing, New Zealand

A Wonderful Stargazing Site in an UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo 7

As we drove off from Christchurch we were heading south to our next stop: Lake Tekapo. The lake lies along the northern edge of the Mackenzie Basin (together with Lake Pukaki and Lake Ohau), and it covers an area of 83 square kilometers. The drive took almost 3 hours and there is a small town situated on the southern end of the lake in the inland of the South Island. Officially, the town has a population of merely 369 residents, yet the sparsely populated area is quite busy throughout the year with tourists flooding in; It is a popular pitstop on their way from the other parts of the island to Queenstown, besides, the beauty of the lake made a reputation of its own.

Lake Tekapo 4

As I mentioned before, I was quite happy that we saved the South Island as the latter part of our trip to New Zealand because the natural beauty of the island was more impressive in my eyes. I would never get tired just looking at the rigged Southern Alps, glaciers, and lakes while we were driving on the road. Everywhere I looked was simply breathtaking. Be careful though, if you were the driver there might be some bunnies hopping out on the road and they might be the next roadkill if you didn’t pay attention.

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Homestay in Lake Tekapo

Before checking in to our homestay when we arrived (which I will talk a little bit about the place later in this post), we stopped and had a moment to appreciate the beauty of Lake Tekapo. Finally, “I am here!”. It was a wonderful day with no clouds. The water reflected the sunlight and it was such and it was the perfect kind of turquoise that I saw for the first time. Never had I saw this kind of purity and unique color of a lake, and it’s a different color as compared to Lake Pukaki (I had explained why Lake Pukaki has its unique baby blue in Tasman Glacier, the Explorer). We walked along the shore and it was a stone beach – and if you wonder what to see and do in Lake Tekapo, the area offers all sorts of outdoor activities from hot pools, camping, trekking, skydiving, kayaking to the farm tour. There are also dedicated pontoons at the camp to swim in, but for a regular visitor who just passed by, apart from admiring the gorgeous view of the lake, it is also part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve for stargazing.

Lake Tekapo - Homestay 1
Nothing better than having breakfast with a view of the lake.

Before we get into our night activity, we took a break and checked in to our homestay before dinner. The Airbnb owners were a very nice and friendly old couple and they moved to Lake Tekapo for about 3 years. I had to say their house was absolutely beautiful and the lady has an artistic eye and exquisite taste. The rooms were decorated to perfection and there were all sorts of artworks hung on the corridor, bedrooms, and lounge. The lounge had heartful refreshments and a homey feel that I almost didn’t want to go out! To me, the house was like a mini art gallery and I enjoyed it so much. In fact, there are many houses, apartments, or cottages in Lake Tekapo, though may not be as artistic as this one, have an unobstructed view of the lake and high ratings in travel website reviews, making it one of my favorite “relax vacation” or “slow travel” spots that  I have been to. Having said that, please make reservations if you are planning on having dinner out because many tour groups start dinner at the same time for the stargazing tours and the restaurants may get very busy (especially during peak season!).

What to see and do in Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo 5Being a popular sightseeing destination, there are some places to check out and different things to do.

Church of the Good Shepherd is one of the most photographed and featured in Lake Tekapo, and it’s now featured in the cover photo. The church, though it’s not big, has an epic location and a backdrop of the lakes and mountains of the Southern Alps.

Sheepdog Memorial. Around the corner of the church, the Sheepdog Memorial on Machenzie Street is a statue that was dedicated to the sheepdogs that played an important role in the region’s farming history. Certain angles of the statue have a great view of the breathtaking scenery of the lake.

Tekapo Springs. For someplace to relax, have a soak at the Tekapo Springs, it is a popular attraction and a fantastic facility that features hot pools, spas, water slides, steams rooms, sauna, and more!

Lupin viewing. The lupin blossom is beautiful if you are visiting between November and February.

Go jet boating or fishing. If you are looking for something active to do, join a jet boating tour, or go fishing. The lake has an abundance of waterways, rivers, and streams for some exciting trout and salmon fishing.

Cowans Hill Walkway. If you have a day in the area, take a hike and this walkway is one of the most scenic. The walk is only a one to two-hour walk, and it’s easy that’s suitable for different types of hikers. The trail offers a dynamic range of sceneries from the forest, to an open 360-degree view of Lake Tekapo.

Mount John Summit Walk, and the University Observatory. While I am going to talk about the stargazing tour, it is a night-time activity. But it doesn’t mean you couldn’t take a walk to the summit and visit the observatory during the day.

Earth and Sky, Stargazing in the Dark Sky Reserve

While you may sign up for any outdoor activities in other areas of New Zealand, the Earth and Sky observatory tour is quite a unique experience. As I said, here is a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve, making it a perfect spot for stargazing. The tour brought us up to Mount John University Observatory, a prestigious astronomical research observatory in the country situated at the peak of Mount John, 1,029 meters above sea level. The facility was established in 1965, and there are 5 large telescopes on the mountain that are in regular use to observe the southern night sky.

Lake Tekapo - Mt John 1

In order to keep the area dark, we were given a tiny red light torch and white lights are prohibited (a.k.a. No phones). It was because the white light would affect our night vision and interfere with the working telescopes in the observatory.

The guide gave us an in-depth (and humorous) backgrounder about the history and unique position of the facility, and we got to see the large telescopes. Then, we were brought to an open area to observe the stars. The guide was professional and shared his knowledge about stars. I learned how to navigate the night sky using the Southern Cross (just like Captain Cook); I saw stars and moon that were no longer exist (we call it supernova, an event that occurs upon the death of stars. They were light-years away and so its light took years to reach earth – we were basically looking back in time); I explored the Milky Way, Nebula (an interstellar cloud of dust and ionized gas), and Alpha Centauri (the closest star system and closest planetary system to the Solar system at 4.3 light-years from the Sun – and it’s in the southern constellation, and could be observed in the Southern hemisphere); I was captivated by the constellations and planets that make up our galaxy. More, I spot numerous shooting stars, satellites, and maybe even caught a glimpse of the international space station.

The entire experience was so fascinating that left me in awe. The incredible universe made me wonder how little we were and how little did we know about the vast space that we were in.

20 comments

  1. What a fantastic experience! I have friends from both the North Island and South Island whom I’ve met during my travels, and I owe them a visit. I’d love to see the night sky from a place so unaffected by light pollution. You’re giving me even more of a reason to take the long journey to New Zealand from the US!

    1. Haha, then I suppose the place give you a good reason to visit your friend, and maybe, go on a stargazing tour together!

  2. Unesco Dark sky Reserve? Count me in! This looks so beautiful and special! One more thing on my New Zealand bucket list- thanks for sharing!

  3. The natural beauty of the New Zealand South Island is indeed breathtaking. I’ve visited once Lake Tekapo but I had no clue about it being recognized by UNESCO as Dark Sky Reserve for stargazing, thanks for sharing!

  4. I did this experience when I was in New Zealand the other year! Such an amazing experience as the sky is sooo clear and the stars so crisp. Definitely worth doing this!

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