We were on our way to Mount Cook when we came upon Lake Tekapo, a beautiful glacial fed blue lake. The weather was beautiful and the water looked almost impossibly blue. We stopped to admire also impressive as it was one of the many locations used in the filming of the hobbit! As we continued on our way to our intended destination, Mount Cook National Park, we drove by a sign advertising Mount St. John...an observatory on the plain between mountain ranges. There was not a cloud in the sky, so we took the turn and went up the hill. It was magnificent. The scenery was breathtaking and the telescopes were out. We saw the sun and venus and got our first look at Mount Cook which was visible above the surrounding ranges. Then we learned that we could come back at night and view the stars...but only if we took a tour, as access is restricted at night. We jumped on the chance and so...our plans changed on the spot...Mount Cook would have to wait.
We found a spot in the only camping ground in the area and set up our tent for the first night of the "great camping adventure". It took as a while to figure out the intracacies of our brand new tent, but we shortly had the beast tamed and were ready for the tour.
We left at 8:30 pm and were taken by bus back to the observatory, where we saw the last vestiges of the sunset. It was marvelous! In short order Venus and Jupiter were visible low on the horizon. I was already awe-struck, and the best was yet to come. While the sky was darkening, we were taken into the MOA observatory where we saw the 1.6 meter telescope! It was huge and so impressive. It is being used to search for planets outside our solar system. We learned that St. John is a) the most Southerly observatory and b) the gold standard of dark skies due to its location between Mountain Ranges and the dryness of the environment...(it being close to desert conditions). Later, we were escorted back outside where telescopes had been set up and the sky was dark above us. It was magnificent! The Milky way glowed so brightly, it was really so impressive and looked so different. The southern cross was clearly visible and so were some constellations we can see at home, including Orion and Sirius, but UPSIDE DOWN! This should not have surprised me as I KNOW I am in the southern hemisphere, but somehow it did! We saw some other celestial objects through the telescopes-the jewel box (a grouping of different colour stars); alpha centuri; Jupiter and five of its many moons; the Orion Nebula and the new stars nestled in it and; most notably perhaps, we saw the large and small magellenic clouds!!!! What a beautiful sight! Paul had the good fortune to see a large and persistent shooting star. I wanted to stay all night and watch the sky change...but sadly the tour ened and we had to leave.
We returned to our campsite, and discovered that although there is a great advantage to being in the desert, most especially dry skies perfect for stargazing, there is at least one disadvantage...the temperature plumets at night. We shivered our way back to the tent and crawled into our beds, wearing as many clothes as possible!