02/12/2012 - 03/12/2012 24 °C
On Sunday, it was time to begin the trek north once more. Leaving Queenstown we drove up and over the Crown Range of mountains which gave us the most wonderful views back across Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables, which isn’t a boy band but yet another mountain range. The Remarkables are so called not only because they are pretty spectacular to look at but because they mark a direct North-South line.
We had intended to try another one of these activities that we are really far too old and sensible to even contemplate, but when we got to Omarama, gliding capital of the world, it was too windy to fly so we had second breakfast instead! We let Monkeh play on a display fleece (Omarama is also the sheep-shearing capital of the world), and drove on towards Lake Tekapo.
We went through Twizel (Pronounced twy- zell, not Twizzle which I would have thought was better!) which is a fairly new town, constructed to house the workers when the nearby hydro-electric scheme was built. The workers liked the area so much that they stayed and now it’s a well known ‘water activity’ centre. From then on we drove along the edge of Lake Pukaki and had to keep stopping because at every corner another spectacular view opened up. Mount Cook, the highest in the country, looked magnificent beyond the bright blue lake.
On the way along we’d admired all the lupins growing wild, all shades of blues, purples and pinks making great colourful carpets on the hills and by the roadside. Unfortunately, it seems that they are considered a pest as they spread fast and are taking over from the indigenous species.
Early afternoon and we arrived at Lake Tekapo, and our first port of call was the top of Mount John which is deemed to have some of the clearest air in the southern hemisphere and where the Canterbury University Observatory is situated. It might be a great place for star gazing, but it’s also pretty good for looking down over the lake.
Later we checked into Peppers Bluewater Resort where we were given a room looking out on to a small car-park and the back of another building. I explained at reception that we hadn’t travelled 13,000 miles to look at cars and a wall, so we were taken, in the hotel mini-bus, on a tour of the property and eventually selected a two story apartment overlooking the lake and mountains. It cost us an extra £30 but gave us a full kitchen and, oh joy, a washing machine and dryer!! Clean socks and undies again, yippee!!
We went down to the few shops and restaurants that constitute the village to investigate booking a night time trip to the observatory, even though it was still very cloudy. We were assured that the weather forecast was for clearer skies, so we signed up and then spent the next 6 hours glaring at the clouds and wondering if we’d wasted our money. Whilst we waited we ate some great steaks which were presented to us raw with hot stones, so we were able to cook them to our exact taste. At 10.15pm we were collected from our hotel and driven the 200 yards or so back to the village to be issued with goose down jackets to keep us warm on the mountain. Unfortunately, it was still cloudy!
We were driven up the steep winding mountain road in a minibus, the last kilometre without headlights to avoid light pollution for the telescopes. Quite scary. One or two stars had appeared by now but we were first shown some of the professional astronomers’ telescopes. The observatory had humble origins, but grew rapidly when the Americans wanted to plot the space junk that might have ruined the Apollo moon missions. It was they who built the access road, too.
The first dome we were shown housed one of the older telescopes with a 1.0m mirror, now retro-fitted with modern technology and used for spectroscopic observations of external galaxies, and the second one held their newest and largest telescope with a 1.8m mirror, which is used to search for planets circling distant stars by looking for ‘micro gravitational lensing’ events. The search for “life, but not as we know it, Jim”.
All this time inside, we were cocooned inside our goose down parkas, looking like a collection of fat, hot, chrysalises. I for one, was in danger of expiring from heat exhaustion but once outside, we really needed those coats as there was a gale force wind blowing but thankfully, the wind had blown away the clouds and the milky way stretched above us in all its glory. Three large telescopes with computer guidance systems were set up outside and trained by their expert operators on anything that was good to see... Jupiter and his moons, one of the very furthest galaxy we can easily see (11 million light years away), a star that had collapsed 64 years ago but still shone brightly because its light takes years to reach us...... clever stuff but beautiful and fascinating. We got back to the resort at about 1.30am and slept like logs!
When we did get up, we visited another local landmark, the beautiful and beautifully located Church of the Good Shepherd. In place of stained glass, its altar window frames the Southern Alps over Lake Tekapo...