By day, the Mount John Observatory, which sits on a high hill above the town of Tekapo, gives tourists a great view of Lake Tekapo and the Mackenzie Basin beyond. By night, the observatory gives both tourists and astronomers an almost unmatched view of the skies above.
The Tekapo area, already very low in light pollution, has strong light restrictions to ensure that the University of Canterbury’s observatory enjoys the clearest, most unobscured views possible of the night sky. In fact, because of these restrictions, which include using yellow sulfur lights (and canopying any fluorescent lights) in the town below, the region has been able to apply to UNESCO for the right to be called a starlight reserve. Everyone is quietly hopeful that this will be approved in the near future.
The need to have as little light as possible around the observatory has another interesting side effect, which we were informed of by our driver shortly after departing the Earth & Sky Tours office with massively thick down jackets in hand. Once we reached a certain point, the bus lights would be turned off and we would proceed in the dark. He was pretty sure he would be able to get us to the top without driving off the side of the hill!
We did indeed make it safely to the top of the hill, where we were disappointed to find that the skies had completely clouded over. We were warned of this possibility and given the option to change our tour to another night when we checked in, but I’d decided to take my chances. It was looking like it might have been the wrong choice.
Even if the stars aren’t out, there’s still plenty to see around the observatory. We were taken in to see the largest telescope in the complex, the multi-million dollar MOA2 (which you actually can’t see if it’s in use on a clear night). This was an enormous, computer-controlled machine with an 86-megapixel camera (that has to be kept at -80C to ensure it doesn’t overheat from constantly taking pictures!). Next door to the telescope was the control room, where the astronomers spend their nights analysing data from the telescopes in hope of finding new planets.
Once we left that building, we all looked up expectantly…and were shocked to see the clouds had begun to clear. We could see the band of the Milky Way across the sky, interwoven with constellations like the Southern Cross and Orion. I had already been awed by the stars in Hanmer Springs and Akaroa, but this was on a completely different level. The stars were so brilliant in the sky and there were so many of them.
Because of this turn of events, our guides set up two smaller telescopes outside the cafe, where we could look more closely at some of the stars, like Alpha and Beta Centuri, while sipping on hot chocolate. It was very cool to be able to look through the telescopes, but I spent a lot of time lying with my head on one of the picnic tables, staring up at the sky and listening to our very entertaining guides tell their stories. Within minutes I’d already seen a shooting star.
At one point, we were told that anyone with cameras should head over to a woman with a very interesting tripod. After finding the appropriate tools to pry off my tripod mount, my camera was added to the four or so others mounted on a long plank of wood. Apparently, this tripod was designed to move as the stars move across the sky, so instead of getting star trails you can get clear photos of the night sky. All of the cameras were attached to a timer so one person could perfectly time shots with multiple cameras at a time. My camera was one of the last added so she said I’d only get one shot, but that was ok with me!
We were then split up into smaller groups. Each group was individually taken down to use one of the larger, domed telescopes via paths lit with dimly glowing reflectors. The first thing we were shown was a mystery nebula — we had to guess what it was called by its shape. One person guessed ET and I thought it looked like the alien from Alien, but it turned out that it was actually the Tarantula Nebula! Once I was told, I could definitely see it.
Then the telescope and dome were rotated — something that in itself was very cool to watch. The next object we looked at was probably the highlight of most people’s nights, and something that my eyes just wouldn’t believe. I leaned over the telescope and peeked in the viewfinder, only to see three dots (moons) leading up to what was clearly Saturn. It looked like they’d stuck a sticker on the end of the telescope, so much was it like a drawing of the planet. Leaning slightly, the rings encircled the white dot of a planet. How cool was that — I got to see Saturn with my own eyes (magnified slightly with the telescope)!
Soon, our tour came to an end and we found ourselves walking back to the bus for the dark drive down. I had a hard time not stumbling because my head was still craned towards the sky, taking in as much as I could. What a place, what a view.
Earth & Sky Tours offers a sunset tour and two nighttime tours daily. Their office is located on the State Highway in Tekapo near the i-site.