From Sea to Sky: Christchurch to Tekapo

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009

Amongst the elevated company of the Hubble, the Leviathan of Parsonstown, the Great Canary and the Magdalena Ridge, it’s perhaps no great surprise that little old New Zealand’s best effort at astronomy is a telescope called John. Or, more accurately, the Mount John Observatory, but somehow John – not even Little John or Big John – seems to suit New Zealand and its twin-drawered dishwasher contribution to modern life.

John then, as we’ll call it, may be no titan of the astronomical aristocracy, but John’s surroundings are pretty impressive. The journey from Christchurch is initially largely unremarkable. The passage along the Canterbury Plain, parallel to the Pacific coast, is notable really only for the pristine and handsome cattle that seem to pepper the verdant pastures. There are a series of small towns with those ubiquitous names from the old country – Huntingdon and Hampstead to mention but two.

At Geraldine, the road turns West and, ahead, the foothills of the Southern Alps gently hove into view. This is MacKenzie Country, an area of farmed lowland and increasingly desolate higher ground which, sparsely populated though it may be, possesses a definite beauty against an approaching backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

The road peaks at Burke’s Pass, before slowly losing altitude again towards Lake Tekapo, a sensible day’s drive with comfort breaks from the city. Where the road meets the lake is a village of the same name, but really it’s the expanse of water that’s the star attraction.

For those familiar with the infinitely more-visited Lakes Louise and Maligne in the Canadian Rockies, the iridescent blue-green of the waters which results from the suspended glacial rock-flour contained therein will be instantly recognisable. It’s more obvious from viewpoints with slight elevation over deeper waters, but it’s stunning nonetheless.

On the lakeshore stands the tiny Church of the Good Shepherd, notable not only for its diminutive size, but also for the fact that the altar window, in recognition of the beauty of the landscape outside, is a wide, clear expanse of glass rather than a traditional stained-glass barrier to the view.

Nearby, the shepherding theme is continued with a stone-plinthed bronze of a border collie sheepdog, looking out across the lake.

It’s John that remains the star attraction in Tekapo however, in every sense of the word. Passing through the village and its small collection of tateramas, petrol station and cafes, a road branches right and skirts the lower slopes of Mount John, before turning again to climb the least formidable spur of the mountain and, eventually, gaining the summit at a carpark and café which abuts the observatories.

Guided tours of the complex are available for those who can book in advance but, for the casual visitor, the views across the lake and village, across MacKenzie Country to the East and towards the Southern Alps in the West are, not to put too fine a point on it, quite breathtaking. That you can also grab a cappuccino and look through a telescope is even better and, apart from the café provender, it’s free to enjoy.

To give John his official title, he’s the Mount John University Observatory, run by the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. The location here, high up and away from any major centres of industry and population and therefore air and light pollution, makes Tekapo one of the very best places to view the night sky without the hindrance of man-made interference.

It doesn’t take a radio-telescope to note the difference between the quality of the location and the ‘norm’ to which we might be accustomed. Simply looking skyward after dark in Tekapo reveals that the starscape above is far from backed with inky blackness, but is instead a swirling mist of whites and creams and greys, punctuated with the brightest studs of planetary reflection. It’s a glimpse of the many Worlds which may lie out there, from one of the remotest parts our own.


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