If you have already been to the Southern hemisphere and ever looked up to the night sky (especially from un-crowded places) you probably realized how amazing and different the stars are down here. I got hooked on star gazing during my first Southern hemisphere trip and whenever I am down here I particularly enjoy watching the night skies. So when Seth, who I had visited in Wellington earlier, proposed to have a closer and more scientific look at it I was immediately on board.
As it happens and due to its little population New Zealand’s South Island is a pretty dark place and thus ideal for star gazing. There’s a particularly dark area just two hours drive north of Wanaka – renowned for the clarity of its sky and the low light pollution the area around Lake Tekapo has been declared a dark sky reserve in 2012 and the university observatory located on top of a nearby mountain is one of the rare ones that are open to public.
Already the drive up to Lake Tekapo was a stunner but even more was the evening we spent on that mountain. It was around 8.30 pm when we headed up Mt John, equipped with extra warm arctic jackets and tiny red light torches to see the ground as we were walking. (White lights are prohibited in the whole area – even headlights for getting up the mountain). At the observatory there is hardly any light – and if it is red, even on the toilet where this picture was taken.
As we gazed at the evening sky one of our guides pointed out the Southern Cross, how to find South by drawing lines in the night sky, showed us the two dwarf galaxies that are closest to Earth (170,000 and 200,00 light-years away), explained constellations such as Libra or Scorpio, and – highlight of all – let us have a look at Saturn (who really has a ring around it) through a giant telescope. I was impressed but what I enjoyed most where the seats in the Café that let you lean back and get lost while looking at the night skies through the glass roof. (I have to admit that I enjoyed the underfloor heating too.)
Another amazing thing – probably more amazing for Seth – was that they helped out with star photography. Here’s one of the pictures that Seth caught during that night where you can see the milky way very clearly.
For me it was an impressive experience, especially how passionate people up there are about their work. And I once again have to admit that we were really lucky too – having perfectly clear skies during the tour – just before a snow storm rolled in later that night… Thank you, New Zealand for that truly amazing experience. And special Thanks to Seth who took all those amazing pictures all along the trip.