Earth & Sky Experience, Lake Tekapo
My high school had a planetarium, and I took a semester-long astronomy class. At the time, I could name a bunch of stars and constellations, and learned how to navigate based on the position of the moon and the North Star. I’ve since forgotten almost everything I learned… but, I still find astronomy very interesting.
Alex and I signed up for the Earth & Sky Experience, an observatory tour (which our friend Tricia recommended), near Lake Tekapo on the South Island of New Zealand. When I asked a TripAdvisor forum about it, all the visitors highly recommended it but the locals said they “didn’t get what all the fuss was about” and it “wasn’t worth taking a detour to Lake Tekapo just for the tour.” But, since Alex and I are such nerds, AND we were going to be spending a few days at Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park (about an hour’s drive away), AND my mom was there to stay with Baby M after we put her to bed, we decided, why not?
Having lived in a megacity like Seoul for the past almost four years, Alex and I hadn’t had a chance to see many stars (not just because of the light pollution, but actual air pollution). So, any place in New Zealand was going to be better for stargazing than Seoul, let alone the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, one of the world’s largest dark sky reserves. What’s a dark sky reserve? It’s an area that has superb sky quality (clean, clear air) that is protected from light pollution. What exactly does this mean? Well, when we were driving at night, it was kind of scary because the roads were pitch black. No streetlights. And walking around our motel complex, there were very few street lamps. It was dark. But, then we looked up into the night sky, and were completely wowed. We’d never seen so many stars before. And the Milky Way! It was surreal.
First, we had to be a little careful in picking a night for our 2-hour University of Canterbury Mt. John Observatory tour (Earth & Sky also offers a shorter tour of Cowan’s Observatory). The night sky is the darkest during a new moon (when the moon isn’t visible), so the stars and Milky Way are the most visible. During a full moon, the luminosity of the moon washes out the Milky Way and fainter stars. We actually planned our itinerary a little around phases of the moon in April, so that we weren’t at the dark sky reserve during the full moon! Of course, we didn’t have that much leeway, so we settled on a third quarter (half) moon.
Because the time of sunset changes (slightly) each day, we were informed of our departure time the day before our tour. Alex and I helped my mom put Baby M to bed, and then drove over to Earth & Sky’s Lake Tekapo office (an hour away). We were given a quick introduction, along with red-light flashlights (red is the color that is easiest on eye strain, especially in contrast to the dark — Alex explained that’s why BMWs use red for its dashboard display, and the best to prevent light pollution), and arctic parkas (we were told to dress very warmly, as it gets really cold up at Mt. John Observatory — Alex and I were both wearing thermal underwear and puffy coats… we probably could have done without the thermal underwear, haha!).
Halfway up to Mt. John Observatory, the bus driver turned off the headlights (and of course there weren’t any streetlights). It was a very scary ride in the pitch dark, but the bus driver said he relies on his experience and the bumps in the road to guide him! We met our tour guide, a spunky grad student from Singapore. She led us (carefully) to the stargazing area, where we divided up into groups of three.
We enjoyed hot chocolate while learning about the Southern hemisphere’s Southern Cross (we were surprised to learn that, unlike the North Star, which shows you directly where due North is, you have to “connect the dots” by drawing two lines to find due South — trust me, it’s much easier to find due North!!). We also learned about how stars that look close to each other (by the naked eye) aren’t necessarily close to each other (I think the example used was: Alpha and Beta Centauri look to be close together, but Alpha Centauri is actually closer to Earth than Alpha Centauri is to Beta Centauri…). Since Mt. John Observatory is actively being used for research, we were able to look through a few world-class telescopes to see far away stars, constellations, and nebula (with help from grad students — what a cool place to do research!). We had about an hour of really good stargazing, before the moon rose into the night sky, and washed out many of the stars (despite it being a half moon!). But, then we got to see the moon through a telescope, which was pretty neat!
[If you have a digital-SLR camera, make sure you bring it. One of the guides will hookup your camera to the telescopes so that you can capture some amazing photos! We only had our iPhones… And flash photography is obviously not allowed.]
Whether you’re into astronomy or you just want a good guided stargazing and observatory tour, check out the Earth & Sky Experience!
| Earth & Sky Experience |
FYI: They cancel tours due to inclement weather and high winds, but not for cloud coverage (with the reason being you can still learn about their observatory, the telescopes and stars).
| Earth & Sky Astro-Cafe |
The day after our star gazing tour, we drove up, during the day, to the Astro-Cafe at Mt. John Observatory. The view of surrounding Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki is spectacular! And the coffee drinks were pretty good too, although I was slightly disappointed that the barista didn’t make an astronomy-related pattern on our drinks… (I’ve seen some pictures of a planet or stars, haha)
FYI: The road leading up to Mt. John Observatory is private, so you’ll have to pay 8 NZD to drive up. Alternatively, you could hike up…
To read about our New Zealand South Island itinerary: Road Trip around New Zealand’s South Island