Stargazing at Mt John Observatory

Trip Start Aug 04, 2011
Trip End Jan 04, 2012

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Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Feeling a little weary and tired being a later night than most we have had in the wilds of New Zealand, Kate and I stepped out of the van at about 11.20pm, locked it all up and started walking out of Lake Tekapo Motel and Holiday Park towards the centre of the tiny village about a km away. For probably the first in the south island the night was absolutely clear. Not a cloud on the horizon. We couldn't have been any luckier for a stargazing tour if we tried, and we didn’t try because we just don’t have the power to move clouds.

The Earth and Sky office is located in Tekapo village along a stretch of about a dozen establishments including a little garage/supermarket, a tavern and a mini-golf centre. It is the base for all the trips up to the two local observatories, Cowan Hill (a lower lying little observatory) and Mt John (a much larger more sophisticated observatory with a café standing on a mini mountain (1000m+) in the wide valley of Lake Tekapo. We were going to Mt John and after checking in were given a huge Antarctic jacket for our use during the evening. It was amazingly puffy and warm and very much appreciated both by myself and of course by Kate who could quite easily have fell asleep standing up once she had been kitted out. The staff at the office were friendly and welcoming and before long we were on our short drive up to the observatory.

The driver explained the rules; no white light; and then explained that he would have to turn the coach lights off on nearing the top of the mountain. After driving the same route during the day and finding it a little treacherous, I thought this a little reckless but what the hell; these guys know what they are doing. Once the lights were off; that’s the last time I saw any faces until Kate’s once getting back in the campervan nearly 2 and a half hours later at 3am.

Greeted by a youngish man named Jack we were grouped with a Japanese set taking our number up towards 12 which seemed a little too many. Jack managed the group very well however and kept talking throughout the night keeping those not at the telescope interested by helping identify stars, star systems, nebula, astrology groups of stars and whatever else people were interested in. The site itself is dimly lit by red lights to avoid disrupting research being carried out, and looking around the vicinity below the mountain; only Lake Tekapo village produces any light –and that being managed to minimize the effect on the night sky.

The tour consisted of a brief introduction to one of the more expensive telescopes followed by a bit of star identification across the night sky with Jack’s pretty expert analysis. A student of Astrophysics, Jacks knowledge of the night sky was outstanding and his intelligence and passion for the subject were great to be around. He fielded basic questions without seeming above it all, and kept the tour flowing throughout. During our guide around the night sky a faceless lady gave us hot chocolate which was much welcomed and another guide was on hand to help with Astrophotography should anyone have a camera capable of handling the darkness. After some outside telescope time we went back into another manually operated telescope dome to look at some larger bits including a cool 'tarantula’ nebula and the Jupiter with its rings and moons.

The evening was a different experience to most that are received in New Zealand and for a country so revered in it’s exhilarating adventures; something with a bit of intelligence was much appreciated. I was slightly annoyed by the number of people on the tour; it would have been much better with a smaller group as it would have allowed us to look at more things through the telescopes. In the end with 12 people revolving around one telescope at a time you don’t get much lens time. It didn’t detract too much from the enjoyment though. At $105 each, the night isn’t cheap but is better value than a whale watching tour. The Cowan Hill Observatory tour is slightly cheaper at $65 and I expect it was just as good. It’s the clarity of the night which made it quite so exceptional.

Once the tour finished we were led back to the bus and driven down the hill; thankfully being dropped off at the holiday park as we were completely shattered.

The following day would be a 3hr plus drive to Christchurch to prepare giving the campervan back. I’m at the moment pretty glad to see the back of it; but I’m sure when handing over the keys it will be tough not to reminisce over some of the 4000km we have spent together and perhaps shed a sigh in a slight moment of sadness.

What a drive, what a country.

On a different note we have been led to believe that the Hobbit is filming nearby at a location we were at earlier in the day. It explains why I spotted someone wearing a "The Hobbit Stunt Team" jacket at the Hermitage Hotel in Mount Cook just a couple of days earlier. Gonna keep an eye out for us on the cinema release. We might be unassuming specks in the distant background completely unaware that filming is going on.
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