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If you’re looking for a stargazing experience that you’ll never forget, then take the Earth & Sky Night Tour at Mt. John Observatory, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand. It will leave an imprint on your memory like an etching that you can’t erase.
The region is renowned for the clarity of its sky and freedom from light pollution. On top of that, Mt. John Observatory is the most southerly optical observatory in the world and also boasts New Zealand’s largest telescope.
So, weather permitting, if you’re lucky enough to take a tour on a clear night, the sky will take off its cloak and present itself to you in all its glory.
Earth and sky night tour
The tour starts at the Earth & Sky office in Tekapo, where you board buses that take you to the summit of Mt. John. The trip to the summit takes about 30 minutes, where you’re met at the top by well informed astronomy guides.
They help you navigate the southern sky outdoors using green laser pointers. You can see things like the Milky Way and the Southern Cross, aurorae, meteor shows, constellations, supernovas, star clusters etc.
This can all be done by peering through the 9.25 inch, 11 inch and 16 inch telescopes that they provide.
I was particularly interested, when I took the tour, in a star cluster called “The Jewel Box”. It’s a small cluster of stars near one of the pointers of the Southern Cross, that can’t be seen with the naked eye, only through a telescope.
So I asked the astronomers in charge of the 16 inch telescope if I could look at this cluster. They very kindly moved the telescope around to let me see it.
Through this telescope, I could see the 3 stars in the centre of the cluster: 1 was red like a ruby, 1 was blue like a sapphire and 1 was white like a diamond, hence the name “The Jewel Box”. They sparkled like crown jewels in the night sky.
If you’re interested in night sky photography and have a good camera with you, they have an astrophotographer there to help you take that magical photo. You can also enjoy a complimentary hot drink at the candlelit Astro Café.
On cloudy nights, they take you on a journey to see behind the scenes of the observatory, not usually seen by the general public.
Tours start every evening (weather permitting) at 7.15pm and 9.15pm and last about 2 hours. The price for adults is 135 NZD, 80 NZD for children (aged 8+), 390 NZD for a family (2 adults + 2 children) and 450 NZD for a family with 2 adults and 3+ children.
Earth and sky day tour
They also offer daytours at the summit, which describes the exciting research that astronomers from the University of Canterbury (New Zealand) and Nagoya University (Japan) are conducting here. You also get the chance to see New Zealand’s largest telescope.
To get there, you need your own transport though. But the drive up there is well worth it, as the view, especially on a good day, is stunning. Mt. John is 300 metres above the azure blue waters of Lake Tekapo.
While admiring the view, you can enjoy a coffee and some fresh food in their café. This tour lasts aproximately 35 minutes and costs 55 NZD per adult, 30 NZD per child (5+), 140 NZD per family (2 adults and 2 children) and 160 NZD per family (2 adults and 3 children).
Tours are generally between 12pm and 3 pm but you need to check at the Astro Café counter.
Lake Tekapo itself is an idyllic little Alpine spot at the foot of Mt. John and only 40km away from Aoraki Mt. Cook. What’s extraordinary about it is the colour of the water in the lake.
It’s a beautiful turquoise blue, created by ‘rock flour’ from the glaciers. The glaciers in the headwaters of Lake Tekapo grind rock into fine dust on their journey down towards the lake.
This ‘rock flour’ is suspended in the water and in combination with sunlight, it’s this ‘rock flour’ that gives the water its colour.
The town has a lot to offer visitors who come here. Activities range from mini golf, lake cruises, fishing, mountain biking, scenic flights, night time stargazing tours and daytours to Mt. John Observatory, walking etc.
When you’re done with all of that, you can rest your weary limbs in the hotpools at the Alpine Springs & Spa, Winter Park. There is a variety of accommodation available to suit all tastes, with a choice of motels/hotels, bed and breakfasts, self contained apartments to rent, a few backpackers and even a motor camp.
Restaurants and cafes abound too with a mixture of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, pizza/pasta restaurants, with some establishments providing the local fare too. Don’t miss the Church of the Good Sheperd.
It’s a quaint little stone church, built on the water’s edge, with a window view to die for, overlooking the lake.
So even though Lake Tekapo might be one of New Zealand’s best kept secrets, it’s definitely worth discovering, if you’re an avid stargazer or not.
If you are, then their Night Sky tour comes highly recommended. Visit the Earth & Sky Observatory website: www.newzealandsky.com
For more information, read Earth & Sky's article here.
Also have a look at my blog to read about my experience there.