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Heather Schiller
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Tekapo and Aoraki/Mt Cook.

Chasing Night Skies and Mountaintops

 

Words by Emma Fenton-Wells

Blog #10 of her solo trip in NZ

 

 

Driving into Tekapo, prepare to be shocked by the brilliant cerulean blue of the lake. It’s unlike any colour I’d seen in nature. Surrounded by the southern alps, space lovers flock to Tekapo for its status as a Dark Sky Reserve and home to University of Canterbury Mt John Observatory, as well as the Dark Sky Project. This means that it is one of the best places in the world to observe the night sky.

 

Tekapo Lake, New Zealand

 

I drove into Tekapo and had a wander around town, down towards the chapel on the edge of the lake. It’s honestly stunning and on clear days, it can seem like the water and sky are one. Lake Tekapo Regional Park is minutes from town and has a number of lovely walks alongside the water. There’s loads of parking and you’ll easily lose an afternoon exploring the woods.

 

Tekapo Chapel

 

Lake Tekapo Regional Park

 

On the recommendation of several different people, I booked into a stargazing tour with Silver River. Their location has a 360 degree view of the night sky with a pretty nifty telescope. It’s also aimed at families and backpackers, with a much lower price point than many of their competitors. Around 9pm, we hopped on a bus up to acres of farmland for a night with the stars.

If you’ve never been stargazing before, where you can see the night sky without light pollution, Lake Tekapo is an excellent place to start. It might also ruin you for life as it’s truly spectacular. We were guided through the constellations, the planets and then turned to an almighty telescope to get a closer look. We caught several shooting stars and a glimpse of the rather grim line of Starlink Satellites that have been sent up in huge quantities recently. After a few days of cloud, the conditions couldn’t have been better. The entire experience was a total treat.

 

 

Stargazing in Lake Tekapo

 

Stargazing at Lake Tekapo

 

I stayed the night at Lake Pukaki, a hidden gem of a Freedom Camping spot

 

view of lake at Lake Tekapo

 

View of Aoraki/Mt Cook

 

In the morning, I found myself on a lake equal in beauty to Lake Tekapo, with the added treat of a perfect view of Aoraki/Mt Cook. With a morning coffee lakeside, I packed up in hunt of the famous smoked salmon and cooked up a storm at one of the lookouts (head towards the i-Site). It was a perfect start to the day.

After a quick stop in the Alpine town of Twizel, I was heading towards the Mountains.

The drive to Aoraki/Mt Cook from Twizel is one of the most spectacular stretches of road you’ll drive in New Zealand. Incidentally, it’s probably one of the most photographed too. Be prepared to take your time and use the plentiful spots to pullover for a snap. Note: the view is much better driving towards the mountains rather than away from them.

Road between Mt Cook to Twizel

 

Highway between Mt Cook and Twizel

There’s one place campsite that must be stayed in at Aoraki: White Horse Hill DOC campsite. In classic DOC fashion, no powered sites are available but the facilities are top notch. I recommend you book ahead. Even on a Monday, it was packed. Here, you’ll be camping in the wake of mountains and at the start of another of the Great New Zealand walks, the Hooker Valley Track. Trust me, try and park facing the Mt Cook peak so you can catch the morning glow.

campervan parked in South Island, New Zealand

 

Mt Cook morning glow

 

I’m sure you’ve heard the legend of the Keas. Well, if you haven’t had first hand experience, you might just get your chance here. At 6am, the entire camp was awoken to the terror of a gang of birds looking for anything they might dismantle. I recommend you strap everything down before going to sleep. I slid open the camper door to find a woman sleeping on top of her own van in a canoe, shooing away these bullying birds. It was a bonding experience for all those involved.

The Hooker Valley Track is not long nor difficult. For the average walker, it’ll take a bit under three hours to complete (excluding a leisurely lunch at the halfway point). The inclines are gentle, the path well trodden and toilets available throughout. You’ll even cross a few picturesque swing bridges. At the end, you’ll find yourself on the edge of a glacial lake with huge icebergs floating on its crystal clear surface, the peak of Mt Cook in arms reach. It’s the type of walk that rewards every step of the journey.

 

Hooker Valley Track, New Zealand

 

Hiking Hooker Valley Track

 

Following a few days canvassing the night sky and mountains of the Mackenzie region, I was off in search of the perfect meal. Which in New Zealand, isn’t a difficult feat in the slightest.

 

Mountains in the Mackenzie Region, New Zealand Photo Credit: Molly Spink

 

Extra recommendations:

  • On your way in stop by Fairlie Bakehouse. It’s supposedly the best pie shop in all of New Zealand. I’d have to agree that it’s definitely up there.
  • Geraldine is a quaint rural town and worth spending a few hours exploring too. For car enthusiasts check out the Geraldine Vintage Car & Machinery Museum 
  • It’s best to refuel, fill up water tanks etc. in Twizel. Once you get to Aoraki/Mt Cook there’s few (if any) options. They also have a nice big Four Square for all your hiking snack needs.
  • For adventure lovers, stop by the Sir Edmund Hilary Alpine Centre at the Hermitage Hotel. Filled with relics of his own expeditions, including how he used Aoraki/Mt Cook to train for Everest. It’s a wonderful tribute to one of New Zealand’s great adventurers. The bar at Hermitage is also a treat.
  • On the way out of Aoraki/Mt Cook, schedule an ice cream date at NZ Alpine Lavender. It’s absolutely enormous and their lavender ice cream is a dream.

 

Follow Emma to Moeraki and Oamaru in the next blog from her solo trip

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