I have only just learned that a big chunk of the South Island, Mackenzie Country to be exact, sits under the largest dark sky reserve in the world! That’s why joining the astro geeks for a night time star gazing tour is absolutely something you must do in Tekapo.
I rocked up to Dark Sky Project (formerly Earth and Sky) office on the main street in Tekapo on a chilly July night (they said it was warm at 2˚. Last week it had been -12˚!) We assembled, all of us ready to see Venus and Jupiter that were aligning and causing much excitement among those for whom planets are their passion.
Our names were checked off and we were given huge, warm arctic jackets to put on over own (pathetic, as it turned out) puffer jackets. Onboard the bus we hopped and in the dark of night were driven up to the top of nearby Mt John, which is also an observatory university, about 15 minutes away.
The driver stopped and leaped out to open the gate (it’s after hours) and when we got near the top of the hill he turned his lights off so as not to affect the telescopes. I’m excited. I think I might also be a bit of a space geek.
We pull to a stop in the car park and step out into night lit by the near full moon. It’s a perfect night for star gazing – even if it is blowing like mad reducing the temperature to Brass Monkey.
Two cool space
cadets scientists in beanies come down to greet us and lead us up the path to the (closed) Astro Cafe, but coming up here for lunch is another must-do for the killer daytime views! They have set up two large telescopes and we start by finding the Southern Cross (with our naked eyes) and working out how early navigators used it to find true south. I can now do that.
Hot chocolates are handed around to all, then the guys zoom in to what looks to my eyeball like one star but when seen through the lens, is a virtual petrie dish swimming with flickering stars.
As it happens, tomorrow night there will be many star gazing boffins up here because Jupiter and Venus are lining up and here under the International Dark Sky Reserve is where gazers from all over the world will descend. Goodness knows what happens when the planets align, but tonight I’m more excited about Saturn. Its rings move all the time and this year they are wrapped around from top to bottom, rather than across the middle, so it looks like a white ball surrounded by a white hoop.
As you know, it’s also nearly a full moon and the honest highlight for me was looking at the craters and chasms that pock its surface. And to imagine the blokes that have walked on it. Mind. Blown.