A Window to the Universe

The town of Tekapo lies three hours west of Christchurch, past the Canterbury foothills and en route to the Southern Alps. With a resident population of 369, it’s one of a few small lake-side settlements in the Mackenzie Basin that provide hydroelectric power to the country.

Tekapo huddles up close to the southern shore of its namesake lake, a large turquoise body of water that feels more like a sea on windy winter days, with waves crashing against its pebbled beach. The brilliant aquamarine of the water is a result of its journey from the Southern Alps. Here glaciers grind up rock into tiny particles of ‘glacial flour’, which stay suspended in the water flow and turn it turquoise.

The high street is a single supermarket and a few decent restaurants, and the rest of the town is a cluster of houses set back from the main road. At the far end of the town is the Church of the Good Shepherd, a charming chapel overlooking the lake and one of the most photographed spots in New Zealand. The town now survives as a hub of tourism, with travellers using it as a half-way point for the journey between Christchurch and Queenstown. It has a hot springs spa and some spectacular views, but Tekapo’s real selling-point is its astro-tourism.

Tekapo is right in the middle of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. It’s the largest Dark Sky Reserve in the world and the first one in the Southern Hemisphere. Dark Sky Reserves are a form of conservation, dedicated to protecting the purity of night skies in the face of increasing light pollution around the world. Areas are designated Dark Sky Reserves due to the exceptional quality of their starry nights. Even from the township of Tekapo, you can see the band of the Milky Way traversing the sky, but for a view that’s literally out-of-this-world, take a trip up Mount John at night.

Mount John rises above Lake Tekapo and provides stunning vistas of the Southern Alps by day. By night it’s an observatory, home to New Zealand’s largest telescope that searches for distant planets by a fascinating process called lensing. No public traffic is allowed up by night, and the charter buses have to turn their lights off and wind their way up the hill in the dark. This restriction on white light extends to the passengers: you’re not allowed phones or camera flashes, and everyone is issued with a red-light torch to help them see.

The night I visit starts off cloudy, which turns out to be a blessing, as we get a rare peek at the telescope and control room, which are out-of-bounds as soon as the stars come out. After that, the layer of cloud clears and I’m staring at the clearest, most beautiful night sky I’m ever likely to see. Patches of the universe that I always figured were black are instead home to a myriad of pulsing spots. Our arm of the Milky Way is a huge swathe of white paint as it sweeps above our head in a halo that reaches to the horizon and beyond. We look through telescopes to distant Saturn – its rings clearly visible – and mountains and craters on the moon. It’s an overwhelming, humbling, profound experience, the sort astronauts always talk about when they view the Earth as a distant dot.

The clouds are a distant memory as we stand around in our Antarctic Weather jackets, sipping our hot chocolate as the sub-zero winds hurtle into the side of the mountain. In the distance, I can still make out the snow-line of the Southern Alps, a dull white in the darkness. Beneath us, Lake Tekapo is more grey than turquoise, and the cosy lights of the town sparkle on its edge.

All of it is no more than a wall compared to the window above our heads.

Snapshots of NZ

NB: I don’t have my DSLR with me, so photos of the stars aren’t happening. This is probably a good thing; it’s much easier to enjoy something fleeting when you’re liberated from the duty of trying to preserve it.

I did not take this photo. However I was there when it was taken, so it counts.

I did not take this photo. However I was there when it was taken, so it counts.

I'm in this photo, yay! No, I'm not the child. NO, I'M NOT THAT WOMAN. Shut up.

I’m in this photo, yay! No, I’m not the child. NO, I’M NOT THAT WOMAN. Shut up.

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Lens Flare!

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The view from my hostel.

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Maybe they should have collected the money *before* they started building the bridge…

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Even more lens flare!

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Ultimate lens flare! JJ Abrams would be proud of me.

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The town of Tekapo, as viewed from Mt John.

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New Zealand’s largest telescope, waiting for the cloud to clear.

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