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Star gazing in Tekapo

Did you know that a big chunk of the South Island, Mackenzie Country to be exact – southwest of Canterbury, 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.

Tekapo sky
The moon over Tekapo

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.

Mt John observatory
The huge telescope that can spy Saturn and its rings is in here

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.

Star gazing at Mt John
With a laser the guys can point out which stars and planets they’re talking about. (Pic Earth and Sky)

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.

Read more: you might like my 5-day Mackenzie Country road trip for ideas about where to stay and things to do in this beautiful part of New Zealand.

Read more: I took a Southern Lights flight from Christchurch for 10 hours as we chased the aurora across the southern skies. You can read all about that and see pics in this post.

Southern lights from plane
Pic Brad Phipps, from the Southern Lights flight I was on

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Monday 22nd of January 2018

Hi Megan What would our chances be of seeing the Southern Lights In June 24th to 27 th. I know this is unpredictable but is it worthwhile giving it a go about that time? I'm interested in your thoughts. Thanks Beverley


Monday 22nd of January 2018

Hi Beverley I think they are very rare from NZ. But you would be best to research them using words like Dunedin and Invercargill and Gore as they are the southern most towns in NZ. I want to see the Northern Lights! - Megan

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!