Monday, January 30th, 2023

Distance travelled 0 kilometres

Distance walked 20.4 kilometres

The day of our long anticipated stargazing experience had finally arrived. Together with penguins, glow worms and whale watching, this was on the top of our lists for non-motorcycling experiences. Thanks to the previously mentioned weather Apps that Lucie had access to, she had been able to spend some days fretting over various weather systems which had the ability to ruin our long anticipated night. The rains that had caused all the chaos in Auckland were originally predicted to move on over the South Island, but that had not yet happened. The forecast was a bit dubious for the late evening – but it seemed to alter hourly. All we could do was to wait and see.

Perhaps a bit selfishly, the post deluge situation in Auckland, although widely and dramatically reported, did not concern us except for the situation at the airport. As our final departure began to edge nearer, the news about flights was slowly starting to become quite important to us.

Anyway, back to the weather. It had rained during the night and it was drizzling lightly when we woke up.

Those dreaded Apps had predicted a light rain all the morning and even worse in the afternoon. Nevertheless, when we looked outside after our coffees, it seemed to us that it might not be so bad. So, we set off on our planned hike to St. John’s hill, (where the observatories were), with the idea that we would return by the fastest route if the weather turned nasty. We did not even take our rain gear.

Before starting the hike, we had a hearty breakfast at Greedy Cow Café (16 Rapuai Lane, Lake Tekapo).

It was the usual eggs Benedict with bacon for me and the child size serving of pancakes for Lucie (it still filled her up !).

As ever, water was complimentary. The delivery system, in the Greedy Cow, was a little bit unusual.

We were very nearly out of cash, so we walked to the start of the hiking path via the Four Square supermarket, but the ATM was still out of order. By then, the sun had appeared and it was already quite warm and sunny when the clouds did not obscure it.

The first part of the climb up the hill was mostly through the forest, which was was steep but nice.

When, in sight of (but not that near to) the summit, we came out of the forest, it was a bit windy so, even in the sun, it did not seem so hot. But, as the morning wore on, it became evident that not applying sun block, because we were expecting rain, was probably a mistake. I did not even have my hat. Suffice it to say that we both got a little bit burned.

Just below the summit, while we were playing with our tripod, we met a couple from Colorado.

The husband was of distant Czech descent and Lucie was able to posit a suggestion as to the meaning of his family name (tired, in the way a working horse might be …). We took a few photos with them and then walked the rest of the way to the summit, where we took some more.

Then, they turned back down and we took the steep path between the observatory domes to the Astro Café. The hill was originally a US military observatory. It was later converted to an astrological observatory and is part of the research department of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. One dome (nicknamed the “robo-scope”), is remotely controlled by the University of Boston. It was pointed out, perhaps a little ruefully, that those astronomers in Massachusetts could go to work in the sunshine and not at the dead of night.

The Astro Café sat at the very top of the hill.

It had a large terrace from which you could see most of Lake Tekapo.

There was also a beautiful view of the far smaller lake which is on the other side of St John’s Hill – Lake Alexandrina.

We enjoyed the views from the terrace (and some really delicious carrot cake) and then set off for the rest of the hike. Because, despite the Apps, it still did not look like rain, we decided to include the “optional” loop to the headland and then back along the lake shore. In theory, this was the “easier”, way back, but much of it was on a bare plain without a bit of shade.

When we finally arrived back in the town, we immediately headed to the shop where we bought long, cold, drinks.

We walked back up the hill to our lodging and spent a lazy afternoon. This inactivity was assisted, in no small part, by the belated arrival of the rain, which was of an intensity sufficient to deter any non-smoker from putting as much as a toe outside of the door !

In preparation for our night-time stargazing excursion, we had booked dinner at the Dark Sky Diner (1 Motuariki Lane, Lake Tekapo). The whole concept of the diner is based on the fact that those who are waiting for the excursion will probably have dinner there, or maybe have some drinks and then go straight up the hill. Strangely, therefore, the kitchen was only open until nine, which meant that we could make a reservation for no later than eight.

We went there, enjoyed a nice meal of Empanadas, that we shared,

lamb chops for me and salmon for the Doctor.

It was very filling and we had no room for desserts !!! The rain was pounding on the windows as we ate and we became really worried that everything would be cancelled !

The service was swift and efficient and we were finished before 20:45. We decided to return home after dinner anyway because it had, at least, stopped raining and we were not required to check-in for the excursion until 22:40. So back up the hill to the Sky Rim Lodge we went.

It might be worth recording here that, since Covid, there appears to be a chronic shortage of staff in the service sector. Signs advertising vacancies are in every restaurant and café and there are notices everywhere requesting patrons to be nice to the staff that there are as delays are not their fault.

At home we watched the cloudy skies (and, of course, the Apps) until, at about 22:20 we set off back down the hill, still far from certain that the excursion would go ahead. The Dark Sky Project means that there is a specific bye-law in Tekapo that prohibits conventional street lighting. The street lights are all about a metre tall and have “caps” to prevent light escaping upwards. This made the streets rather dark, but at least allowed us to see that some stars were visible through gaps in the clouds above our heads.

Even when we checked-in, at 22:40, the cloud situation was rendering our trip in doubt. We were issued with colour coded (blue in our case) lanyards which included a small red light.

In a way, it was almost as if the uncertainty, which lasted until the very last second, was a part of the whole “astronomy” experience. Cloud cover would, after all, prevent even professional astronomers from doing their thing. Finally, we were gathered together, informed there was a small chance we might NOT see anything and offered a chance to cancel and be refunded or to rebook. Some people did back out. As Homer Simpson would have said “So long, suckers !” For us, it was then or never anyway, so we trooped out to the bus with Josh, our driver. Lucie’s excitement was quite palpable !

The minibus took us up the hill where, after dark, elaborate security precautions exist. During the hours of daylight, anyone that is too lazy to walk can drive up there for a fee of 8$NZ – but at night, to keep light levels down (it can spoil long-exposure photographs taken by the scientists) traffic is forbidden. Even our minibus had to turn its lights off for the final ascent. This was not as scary as it sounds, Josh obviously knew every bump in the road – and the bus had a rather natty little night-vision camera mounted on the dashboard.

After leaving the bus, we were treated to a short lecture on why we should not use cameras with flashes, white-light torches (the reason why the lights in our lanyards were red) or even our mobile telephones. It destroys your night vision !!! So, sadly, there is no photographic memoir of our escapades. Then we were guided up to the terrace of the Astro café, where the educational talk began. The chief guide was Clem (which, in Kiwi, sounded like Clim) and he was absolutely bubbling over with excitement at what he was doing. I really like it when someone enjoys what they do and, believe me, Clem does ! It was still slightly cloudy and Clem used a powerful laser pointer to show us what we could see and, in some instances, where what we could not see and was lurking behind the clouds !

His method was to move outwards from orbiting satellites, through the moon (which was very bright), the other planets (we could see Mars quite clearly) and then out to the most distant stars. Because we were in the southern hemisphere, things like Orion and his belt, dagger and dogs were the other way up to the way which us northern hemisphere dwellers were used to. The Southern Cross, the star cluster on the flags of both Australia and New Zealand, was pointed out, together with how to tell it from other, vaguely similar groupings by finding its “pointers”, Alpha Centauri (the nearest star to Earth at four and a half light years away) and its slightly dimmer twin sister, Beta Centauri. A wealth of information was imparted in a pleasant, interesting and informative way. The list above is only a fraction of what was said – and every piece was fascinating.

What is really staggering are the distances involved. The only way to have meaningful comparison of distances is to use the “Light Year” as a unit. Light travels at around 300,000 kilometres per SECOND, so the distance it travels in a year would have so many zeros that it would have no meaning (9.461 x 10 to the power of twelve kilometres). Discounting all thought of distance and switching to time, this means that some of the light we could see had been travelling towards us since long before the earliest life appeared on Earth. As Clem put it, some of the stars we could see could have died before any recorded history and we, on Earth, would still not know !

Next came the true highlight of the tour, actually looking through telescopes ! Two portable ones had been set up and one of the dome type ones suitably aligned by Clem, Josh and a youngish girl whose name I regret that I missed. We got fabulous views of various clusters of stars, a zone where stars are forming (or were, 150,000 light years ago) and a cluster called the “Jewel Box” where various colours could be seen (colours are very significant to astronomers). Then, to me at least, came the proverbial “Jewel in the Crown”. A telescope was focused on Alpha Centauri. I did not know it before, but this is a “Binary” star. What that means is that, what appears to the naked eyes as a single point of light, is in fact TWO totally separate stars. They are close together in astral terms, but millions of kilometres apart. It was so obvious, even through a small, portable, telescope. I honestly think that I stopped breathing, so great was the sense of awe that I felt.

That was it. We returned to the bus and went back down, quite literally, to Earth. As Lucie and I walked home along the dimly lit streets, I looked up at the heavens and felt totally insignificant. The universe is quite a thing !!!