This stretch of the South Island is an 'astro-tourism' hotspot thanks to its ultra-clear night skies.
So that's Betelgeuse? The famously fickle, brightly pulsating orange/red star that forms the right shoulder of Orion, The Hunter? Perhaps the most easily identifiable constellation from anywhere on Earth since it can be seen from both hemispheres? To be honest, I couldn't even pronounce the star's name until Tim Burton's Beetlejuice ghost movie was released 30 years ago. And, since we're being candid, I had no idea until tonight that Beetlejuice – sorry, Betelgeuse – was the subject of so many apocalyptic legends about Earth blowing up when it eventually explodes as a Supernova.
An hour into this nocturnal English language tour, however, at a tad past 1am, (the Japanese language tour left on the same bus that delivered us to the mountain top) we're exploring the heavens from the summit of Mount John, a 10-minute drive from Lake Tekapo – a perfect and picturesque stopover if you are driving between the two tourist hubs of New Zealand's South Island, Christchurch and Queenstown. This is Big Sky country, home to some of the most unpolluted night skies in the world. Even the state road through the South Island's Mackenzie region was recently renamed "the Starlight Highway".
And Mount John Observatory is the most southern astronomy observatory on earth, playing a vital role in mankind's understanding of this ever-expanding universe.
To be honest, provided it is cloudless and night, you have an enviable view of the universe anywhere within the Aoraki MacKenzie International Dark Sky Reserves – the only one of the 11 regions on the planet to be certified by the International Dark-Sky Association in the southern hemisphere.
And there are several other places on the South Island where you can enjoy night sky tours – including Aoraki (the Maori name for Mount Cook). But Earth & Sky at Lake Tekapo is the pioneer of New Zealand "astro-tourism". The company has been running night sky tours here since 2004 when several Kiwi universities (primarily the University of Canterbury) agreed to build a new research telescope on Mount John with Japan's Nagoya University (hence the number of Japanese tourists who come here every year).
There's now also a Chinese language tour, daytime tours and a blissful mountain-top Astro Cafe (which, according to Lonely Planet, has "possibly the best location of a cafe on the globe").
Our tour officially begins at 11.30pm at the Earth & Sky offices in town where our group (mainly Americans, Europeans and English-speaking Asians) is given a safety briefing, a warm jacket and a keepsake pocket torchthat shines an orange light. The torch will help us see our way between telescopes on the mountain (white light is banned on Mount John, which is why we travel up on a bus which switches off its headlights halfway to the summit). But the tour really starts with our complimentary hot chocolates from Astro Cafe as we stare at the unadulterated heavens.
Tonight, the Moon is waxing, so we have a near perfect view of the stars. (When the Moon is full, its luminosity overpowers much of the night sky – so tours then concentrate on its lava plains from ancient volcanoes, its craters, and mountains). Our astronomy graduate guides – one Australian, the other Kiwi – are Julian (J1) and Justin (J2).
To begin, J1 points his laser torch at the two pointer stars of the Southern Cross – alpha and beta Centauri – and explains to the northern hemisphere guests how navigators have used them to discover the various points of the compass long before Cook "discovered" New Zealand.
Now it's J2's turn. He's set up a "a decent portable telescope anyone can buy for $NZ6000" focused on the Tarantula nebula. J2 describes the nebula as "the largest and most exciting stellar nursery in our local universe … it's only 200,000 light years away, spread over 1000 light years and has some of the brightest stars ever discovered".
I'd love to tell you how J1 described the "famous Jewel Box cluster named by John Herschel who thought it looked like a cluster of brightly coloured gems". Or how J2 took us inside one of the FIVE telescope observatories on Mount Cook for an insider glimpse. But it's a magical night, and I'm learning too much to take notes (besides, it's pitch black!).
Now it's time for questions. "If this is a working observatory, where are all the working astronomers?," some smart-arse asks. "Most of them are in Boston, Massachusetts, lucky bastards," J1 or J2 replies. "They get to sit at a desk and look at the images in daylight hours."
The next morning I realise how lucky I've been when I open the blinds of my apartment and experience what Kiwis call "a weather bomb". Torrential rain has hit the South Island overnight, and it's still pouring at 10am – meaning every tourist in Tekapo has either decided to have a leisurely breakfast or has headed to Tekapo Springs.
If you'll allow me a wild guess, Tekapo Springs may be the world's only purpose-built open-air spa complex with five hot spring pools (with temperatures ranging from 28 to 39C), a sauna, steam bath, massage treatments, New Zealand's longest inflatable water slide (in summer) – and an ice skating rink in winter.
The complex – by the edge of the lake, a five-minute walk from the town centre – uses amazing technology which I don't quite understand (but involves the natural spring water being heated artificially from heat transference from either the ice-making system in winter or the water slide in summer).
Some time in 2017, Tekapo Springs will be adding a new attraction – star-gazing from the hot springs. Is this the dawning of the Age of Aquarius?
Steve Meacham was a guest of Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism.
Airlines including Qantas, Emirates, Air New Zealand, Virgin, Jet Star and China Airlines fly to Christchurch from various cities in Australia.
Peppers Bluewater Resort has a range of rooms, villas and suites within five minutes' walk of the village centre. See peppers.co.nz/bluewater/
Earth & Sky offers a range of night and daytime tours. See earthandsky.co.nz
Tekapo Springs has something to offer, whatever the season. See tekaposprings.co.nz/