We drove up the winding path to Mount John to visit the observatory during the day. The path is open to the public during the day but has controlled access at night. The panoramic view of the southern alps, the lakes and the Mackenzie basin is spectacular.
The souvenir shop nearby is decorated with old telescopes and beautiful astronomy posters.
There’s also an Atro Cafe nearby where you can grab coffee and snacks. I like this picture that’s hanging inside the cafe.
Initially, we didn’t plan to do the night observatory tour but we got excited seeing the telescope domes, so we thought we might just go to Earth and Sky Company (at Tekapo Town) to see what it’s all about.
So we went down, booked the tour, and went up again to Mount John during the chilly night. We gathered around 8.30 at the company, and a group of 20 of us went on the bus.
When the driver was half way on Mount John, he switched off the headlights to ensure that the light does not interfere with observatory viewing. It was pitch black. A little scary to be driving on a winding mountain road with no lights at all.
When we reached the top of Mount John, the guide showed us the milky way, the southern cross and a few other stars that I don’t remember by now. The guide uses super powerful laser pointer that points to the exact star that he is telling you about so it is really easy to follow. The moment you look up the sky, you will be amazed at the millions of stars up there and how the milky way is so bright, so visible and so close to you.
Our guide then lead us into the telescope dome where everyone lined up for their turn to look at Saturn, Mars, nebula and… I forgot the names of the other stars already! I was a little disappointed with the viewing as I was expecting to see much larger images of the stars. The stars looked tiny from the telescope! Imagine you are looking at sequins inside a kaleidoscope. The size of the stars look like the size of the sequins in the kaleidoscope. But I guess the telescope is designated for tourist use, so the magnification is lesser than the ones used for research.
It is a new experience – viewing stars with minimal light pollution and viewing stars light years away. The Tekapo and Aoraki Mount Cook region has been announced as the world’s largest International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR), making it one of the best places on earth to do star gazing. There’s really only three other places in the world that is an IDSR.
Viewing stars at Tekapo is beautiful and so easy. Just look up the sky wherever you are at Tekapo or Mount Cook region. You will see millions of stars up there, and you will see the stars in a way you’ve never seen them before.
Earth and Sky Mount John Observatory http://earthandskynz.com/earthandsky/index.html
The company offers day tour, night tour and astronomy photography sessions.