August 10, 2019

Starry nights at Lake Tekapo

Observing the brilliance of a million and more stars, Sheriden Rhodes is privileged to enjoy a UNESCO-supported heritage reserve some call the ‘park in the sky’.

I’m gazing into the blackness atop Mt John Observatory at what is possibly the clearest night sky in the world. As we stand 300m above NZ's Lake Tekapo, with its translucent aquamarine hue caused by glacial silt, we are blanketed by millions of stars. Even with the naked eye, it’s impressive. The air is crisp, there are no lights to detract from the celestial view and around me I hear “oohs” and “aahs” as happy astro-tourists take in one of the world’s best views of the southern sky.

The observatory – home to the most southerly permanent optical observatory and the country’s biggest telescope – is the main site for astronomy research in the country. Just a short drive from Lake Tekapo, Mt John offers an uninterrupted 360° panorama of towering mountains, lakes and ancient glacial deposits. Most importantly it sits below one of the clearest and darkest skies in New Zealand.

Four years ago UNESCO launched the Starlight Initiative to protect the clearest and darkest skies from light pollution – a sight fast disappearing due to industrial light and pollution. Next came the move to set up a World Heritage Starlight Reserve.

50 to 60 million stars out there

On a clear night, Graeme Murray, who runs Earth and Sky stargazing tours, says the Mt John telescope looks at 50-60 million stars using an advanced form of space research called microlensing. The observatory has discovered a number of planets but its big breakthrough came about six months ago when astronomers were the first to discover rogue planets in deep space that are not attached to any solar system or sun. The latest prognosis is that there are twice as many of those rogue planets out there as there are stars.

After looking at various constellations, star clusters and Saturn through powerful telescopes, we move inside to the warmth of Mt John’s Astro Cafe to learn what makes the night sky here unique. Hot chocolate is served as we watch a presentation by astronomy guide Kristian Wilson.

“There are lots of places in NZ where it’s awesome to look at the night sky, but the weather is different. Here we have a dry location with minimal light pollution, dust, moisture and clouds. You can pinpoint particular stars and clusters with crystal clear accuracy, something you’ll never see in the city,” Kristian says.

Mt John is at the forefront of securing the first UNESCO listing for its night sky. The local Mackenzie Council has for two decades enforced strict lighting bylaws to protect the observatory and subsequent economic and tourism activity. Lighting is shielded from the sky and beamed down. Floodlighting is restricted and outside lights must be turned off between 11pm and sunrise.

Not everyone is happy about it. Some local farmers and business operators who need light to work at night, understandably, are against the push for what locals call the ‘park in the sky’; others do not want to be told by the United Nations how to run things. Graeme, however, argues that the UNESCO listing will protect Mackenzie’s pristine night sky for generations to come and put the Mackenzie district on the map.

Aside from some of the world’s best stargazing, Lake Tekapo’s surrounding snowcapped mountains and turquoise lake offer a spectacular backdrop for a bunch of fun Alpine activities. There’s skiing at resorts including Roundhill and Mt Dobson and bathing in hot pools, tubing and ice skating at the Alpine Springs and Spa Winter Park. An absolute must if visiting the area is a Grand Traverse flight with Air Safaris – fly eye-height with Mount Cook and Mount Tasman and over the 29km Tasman Glacier.

This story originally published in
Get Up & Go - Summer 2012
There are numerous places to base yourself while in Lake Tekapo, but my pick is Parkbrae Estate’s Aldourie Lodge, Tekapo’s oldest house with views of the lake and the much photographed Church of the Good Shepherd. After soaking in the local hot pools, we gather around the fire, drinking wine and chatting into the night. Eventually, I drag myself off to bed, but not before stepping outside one last time and gazing upward, grateful that something is being done to preserve this astonishing celestial view for my children’s children.

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