When you wish upon a star, you dream it’ll be in New Zealand. Join our evening of astronomy and awe when we went stargazing in Lake Tekapo, as part of our South Island road trip!
Our final stop on our South Island road trip adventure was yet another lakeside town, this time: Tekapo. Famed for lupins, the most photographed building in New Zealand, and a starry night’s sky it makes for a pretty special final stop on a road trip through this part of the country.
Driving to Lake Tekapo
Tekapo is easy to reach on the South Island of New Zealand, as it is connected by State Highway 8 which connects the towns of Wanaka and Timaru.
We drove from Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park through Mount Cook Road and around Lake Pukaki (one of the three lakes in the Mackenzie District) on the highway for around an hour long journey in total. A brief stop to enjoy the views across Lake Pukaki and we continued on through mountains and farmland to reach Lake Tekapo.
New Zealand country highways are unlike what you may be used to. The roads are single lanes, there is rarely traffic, and overtaking farm vehicles is much more common! Driving into Tekapo is well sign-posted and as the only town you come across since passing Lake Pukaki you won’t miss it!
What to do in Lake Tekapo
With stargazing in Lake Tekapo (unsurprisingly…) only possible at night, we spent the remaining daylight hours after our drive enjoying the small lakeside settlement’s attractions.
Church of the Good Shepherd
Considered the most photographed building in New Zealand, this tiny chapel on the edge of the lake could not be more idyllic. The path leading up to and around the church was pretty busy when we visited in the later hours of the day, as literal bus-loads of visitors stopped by to catch an iconic snapshot of this dreamy location.
With some patience, your chance will come to capture your own photos. It’s these spots where being respectful of other visitors is greatly valued – we all want to enjoy the same thing after all!
We poked our heads inside and enjoyed a panoramic view from the window at the altar of the church. Photos are not allowed inside, but this only added to the serene atmosphere.
The church views are popular throughout the seasons; with the purple lupins dominating the landscape in spring, the crystal clear lake waters in summer, the clear night’s sky in autumn, and the snow-capped mountains in winter. Could you ask for anything more from such a simple little building?!
Right next to the church sits a tall bronze statue of man’s best friend. Representing all the working collie dogs that aided their masters, the bronze sheepdog in Lake Tekapo was commissioned by local farmers to immortalise and celebrate the role played by these loyal pets.
After taking a quick snap of the statue with the beautiful mountains and lake behind, we soon moved on to avoid the crowds of tourists here to enjoy the views as the sun began to set.
Skip stones at the lake
Choosing to spend the remaining daylight hours at a quiet spot at the lake, we skipped stones and watched the bunnies emerge from their burrows in a beautifully peaceful setting.
Conscious that we were planning to go stargazing in Lake Tekapo later in the evening, the clouds that crept across the skies were a slight concern, but we tried to just enjoy the views as best we could.
Stargazing in Lake Tekapo
We had pre-booked our stargazing experience as we were only in Lake Tekapo for one night, and booked through Earth & Sky who are THE experts and only place to go when looking to do any stargazing at the Mount John Observatory in Tekapo.
We booked onlinefor the 8pm start of the 2 hour Mt. John Observatory tour. There is the option to select a 10.15pm tour, but with the season we visited 8pm was perfectly dark already.
Other tour options at the Mount John Observatory include:
Twilight Tour – Ideal for summer and viewing the gradually darkening sky after relaxing at the astro-cafe.
Cowan’s Observatory tour – A great introductory stargazing experience in the summer months.
Little Star tour – this winter tour is best for those avoiding the cold by being shorter and at the start of the evening.
How much does stargazing in Lake Tekapo cost?
Our tickets for the Mount John Observatory tour cost $150 (NZD) per adult. There are concession prices for seniors and children, or alternative tours at a lower price throughout different times of the day, and dependent on the season.
7.45pm – Meet at the Earth & Sky office
We arrived at the office of Earth & Sky who organised the tour, signed in and were handed our lanyards. Once everyone who had booked was signed in, the staff announced that they had been informed by the observatory that the cloud coverage was 90%, and it was highly unlikely to be an outdoor tour this evening. We could then choose to either take the indoor tour, or accept a full refund.
Of course, we were a little disappointed. After so much good weather it finally caught up with us! We decided to pursue the indoor tour, knowing that we couldn’t reschedule another night and that this was our purpose for visiting Tekapo. Most of the other guests however, opted to take the option to refund or reschedule their tour.
8pm – Depart for Mount John Observatory
With just 9 out of the original 30 visitors left, we collected our LED torches and Antarctic coats (they’ve really been down there!), hopped on the bus, and made the drive to Mount John. During the short drive, we were played a short commentary on the observatory and explaining the need for minimal light pollution – hence why even the bus headlights would go out!
8.30pm – Hot chocolate and our first telescope viewing!
Once we made it to the top of Mount John, our guide explained a brief history of the observatory and pointed out (with a very nifty little laser pointer), what exactly we could see with the naked eye such as the Milky Way and the Southern Cross. We all marvelled at the incomprehension that some of what we were seeing was so far away, and had taken years and years to be seen in this very moment!
The clouds had begun to clear slightly, and all the while our guide entertained us, other staff members began setting up telescopes and expensive looking equipment. Wrapped up in thick layers but still feeling the chill, we were each handed a cup of hot chocolate to warm our fingers and throats – it was very much appreciated!
At this point Kazimir and I realised that maybe we weren’t having an indoor tour after all, or maybe they would try and give us as much time outside while the cloud cleared before being forced indoors. Either way, we were thrilled to be getting the full experience!
A quick team photo from the astrophotographer, and we were soon allowed to look through the telescopes being set up to witness a few incredible feats of nature, way out in space.
What we saw through the telescopes at Mount John Observatory:
Alpha Centauri – incredibly, the star system closest to our solar system is 4.37 lightyears from the sun, that’s about 40 trillion km! That’s still pretty far away to me! We looked at this binary star (it’s lovingly attached to Alpha Centauri B) in depth, and it was fascinating.
Globular Star Cluster – this charmingly named group of stars is pretty much what it says on the tin: a giant lump of stars all together! It still blows my mind to see so many enormous stars like that. They probably are actually much further apart but to our tiny eyes they look like a mass of burning fire.
9pm – Entering one of the telescopes
Moving on to another area of the observatory, we would soon have the chance to go inside one of the dome telescopes – some of the most high-tech pieces of equipment on Mount John. Before doing so, the guide informed us that if we had a DSLR camera, the sky was clear enough that their astrophotographer would be capturing a few snaps for us! I eagerly handed over my camera, thrilled I’d get such a great souvenir from our visit.
As our guide explained more about what we were looking at through each telescope, it only really began to dawn on me that I was only seeing objects visible in this particular part of the world – namely the Southern Hemisphere. From the obvious such as the Southern Cross, to not seeing Orion (or at least, not always) there was a whole new perspective on how tiny we are, and how far I was from my own usual night’s sky. The craziest realisation was seeing the other side of the moon – in the Northern Hemisphere we usually say there’s a man in the moon (the pattern of dark patches apparently looks like one), but from this upside down perspective they say it’s a bunny rabbit! It was so awe-inspiring to realise, and I was grateful to be lucky enough to see from this vantage point.
What we saw from the second observatory spot and indoor telescope:
The moon – Such a simple thing to enjoy witnessing, but seeing the moon through a telescope with such clarity was amazing! I was lucky to also get a couple of shots on my DSLR of the moon, which I’m so pleased with. Can you see the bunny rabbit?
Jupiter & its moons – We were shown our first planet of the evening! It still baffles me to think about seeing planets from Earth, my mind struggles to comprehend anything to do with space so I truly thought the team working at the observatory were some kind of wizards; their knowledge knows no bounds! Seeing Jupiter and its moons was awesome, especially as we were told it was fairly common for the image to change between our first and second turns viewing – the moons are the clearest indicator if the telescope has shifted. Another reminder of how fast the earth moves and how important the tiniest of movements can affect the visibility.
Sombrero Galaxy – This was my favourite object we viewed through the ginormous telescope. An aptly given name, the spiral galaxy is stretched out with a bright centre and thick dust lanes (check out my lingo!) to appear like a sombrero!
Saturn – We were blessed to view not only Jupiter that evening but also Saturn! To be honest, by this point in the evening I was struggling to remember what looked like what, but for the keen-eyed observers you could clearly see the distinctions.
10pm – Depart the observatory & arrive back in Tekapo
Back safe and sound, we were gobsmacked at our luck of what an incredible evening it had been. We rushed back to where we were staying to flick through the photos taken on my camera, and couldn’t believe how amazing they were!
Tips for stargazing in Lake Tekapo – Visiting Mount John Observatory with Earth & Sky
- Book ahead for your preferred date. With limited numbers on each tour, it’s important to book ahead if you can to avoid disappointment.
- Stay more than one night in Lake Tekapo. We got super lucky with the weather clearing up, but some aren’t so fortunate! Although the sky is generally very clear in Tekapo (hence the observatory being here), they do have cloudy or rainy days that can cancel outdoor tours.
- Decide if you’d be happy with an indoor tour. When the weather doesn’t allow good visibility, Earth & Sky will offer an indoor tour of the observatory instead. Knowing this in advance will help you decide if it’s worth the gamble to claim the refund for another night, or take the indoor tour. If, like us, you’re told the visibility looks like 90% cloud coverage, many visitors opted for the refund. Those of us that were left however, ended up with an incredible outdoor tour in the end anyway, and with a third of the group size! Talk it over with your travel companion to decide if you’d take the tour anyway, even if it meant staying inside.
- Wrap up warm. Standing on top of a mountain is bound to be a chilly occasion at the best of times. We visited in cooler months and it was especially cold especially when there was wind. Earth & Sky provide you with snow jackets suitable even for Antarctica, however this won’t protect your fingers or head from catching the cold. Bring thick socks, gloves, and a hat if you really want to keep cosy.
- Bring your DSLR camera. If you’re lucky, you might get the chance for an astrophotographer to use your camera and his fancy pants equipment to capture some of the night’s sky on the evening you visit. It’s the perfect memento to remember the experience!
- Prepare a few questions. Whether you’re a keen astronomer or not, knowing what you’ll be looking at or asking questions about what you could see will certainly help your guide know what you’re most interested in. They are incredibly enthusiastic and eager to answer any questions, so don’t be shy!
At the end of such an amazing road trip through the south island, stargazing in Lake Tekapo was without a doubt one of our highlights, and a perfect way to finish the trip with a bang! For anyone with an interest in astronomy, science, or even a curiosity of the mysterious outer space, stargazing in Lake Tekapo at the Mount John Observatory is the perfect evening activity! Appreciate the magnitude of the universe and learn a few things about this fascinating facility – I promise that if you’re fortunate to get weather like we did you’ll have a blast!
Driving on home back to Christchurch, we were pretty darn chuffed with all we’d achieved on an epic 10 day road trip. Now we can’t wait for the next one!
Have you visited Lake Tekapo? Or taken a stargazing tour? I’d love to hear your stories!
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