Finally, I get to tell you about my favorite place on the South Island: The heart of the Mackenzie Basin from Lake Pukaki to Lake Tekapo.
By this point in my travels around New Zealand, I had circled the entirety of the South Island.
The weather had cleared up and we were on our way to a location I had been anticipating for days.
Soon, we would be swimming in milky blue glacial waters and viewing constellations through telescopes which would lead to one of the deepest reflections I would have during my many months of travel.
Getting there via Lindis Pass
Carolina and I had just come from Southland and were now traveling up Rte. 8 toward the bottom of the Canterbury region.
We had arrived at Lindis Pass. Unbeknownst to us at the time, this stretch of road reaches the highest point on the South Island’s highway network at 3,186ft.
The climb was so gradual we never noticed it!
We didn’t spend much time here because the day was a hot one. To match the heat, the landscape of the area had turned to a yellow desert-like valley with the road winding between massive hills.
Beautiful in its barrenness.
Swimming in Lake Pukaki
Eventually we passed by the town of Twizel, the most populated town in the region with less than 1000 people. Here, the Southern Alps came into full view. We had entered the Mackenzie Basin.
Only a few miles north of Twizel, we were met with Lake Pukaki. Bam! There it was, the largest of three moraine-dammed lakes in the area. Its color hit us like a slap in the face. With Mount Cook as the Lake's backdrop, I could not take my eyes off of it.
The striking cloudy blue color comes from “glacial flour,” or tiny rock particles, left by the receding glacier.
The campsite was large. We easily found a secluded spot overlooking the lake but many loose rocks had to be tossed aside, the ground was hard to peg into, and the wind was strong.
The tent went up after some effort—worth the hassle for the unbelievable location.
To help further, we had acquired a spare tarp at a previous campsite to use as a wind breaker. With a little ingenuity pegging it to a nearby tree, we had a calm area to cook our meals for the next three nights.
That’s right, we decided to stay at Lake Pukaki for 3 nights in a row!
This was the last major destination Carolina and I would be staying before heading back North across the Cook Strait. We wanted to make it count.
After setting up camp we went immediately down to the lake for a swim. The sun baked the boulders lining the shore creating a perfect natural spa. A dip in the freezing cold glacial water was balanced by drying off on the warm boulders.
This is the life. And we were living it.
Mt. John University Observatory
Before we came to the area, locals had told us all about the Observatory atop Mount John. It’s the University of Canterbury’s very own astronomical observatory.
The observatory houses the MOA Telescope—the largest telescope in New Zealand with a 1.8m focus.
On our first night, Carolina and I drove to the observatory to see if we could climb up to stargaze from there. Turns out the road to the top closes after 9pm; open only to tour groups.
We went back during the daytime for the 360-degree views. Not disappointing at all.
Lake Tekapo is within view from the top of Mount John. It’s the third of the moraine-dammed lakes in the area and possibly the most famous of the three because of the town, Tekapo, named after it. The town is the hub of many tourist attractions for the surrounding area.
The best star gazing in the world
Light and air pollution around the world is causing humanity to lose touch with the stars more and more every day. But our camping spot on Lake Pukaki happened to be located under the largest, most pristine night sky on Earth.
The entire Aoraki-Mackenzie area became an International Dark Sky Reserve in June 2012. It is listed among only 9 other reserves in the world and is considered a gold star (top-tier) dark sky reserve alongside locations in Namibia and Ireland. It’s the largest Dark Sky Reserve in the world.
As an avid stargazer, I was practically wetting myself every night looking up at the stars.
Carolina and I could not pass up the opportunity for a legitimate stargazing tour while we were here. The skies looked clear for the next few nights so we booked a $75 NZD tour with Earth + Sky.
A bus picked us up from Tekapo and brought us out to Cowan’s Observatory. I didn’t want to get a tour of Mount John since we had been there the day before. I just wanted to see stars and this was a 1.5 hour stars-only tour.
I was not allowed to use my camera on the tour since only red lights are allowed. White lights and screens make our eyes have to work harder to see in the dark so you’ll have to be happy with using your imagination and the photos I took at the booking location!
Cowan’s observatory is an area set up in a big field with telescopes placed at the center of dug out craters in the ground. There’s also proper large telescopes there.
First, the guide gave us a talk about the southern hemisphere while standing in the crater. Using a high powered laser pointer, he directed our attention to the sky.
Only half of the sky in New Zealand matches that which is seen in the Northern hemisphere—and it’s an inverted view. For example, Orion can be seen in both hemispheres but the constellation is flipped in the South. Also, the iconic Big Dipper is only seen in the North while the Southern Cross is only seen in the South.
The best part of the tour was getting to look through the big telescope at a few different constellations and planets.
I got to see Jupiter and four of its most prominent moons. I could actually see the stripes on Jupiter!! So cool!!
Okay, okay, I’ll go back to pushing my glasses up my nose now.
Stars and deep thoughts
After the tour, we went back to the campsite and I dragged my sleeping bag outside the tent (even in summer it’s chilly at night here!). Curling up inside, I watched the Earth make its way across the star-filled sky dotted with speeding satellites.
The Milky Way was in full view and I could spot the Southern Cross now with ease.
I love to stargaze because it helps put everything into perspective.
Contemplating the vastness of the universe and the smallness of me, I fell upon my usual line of thinking in these moments.
We’re all so lucky to be conscious on this life-sustaining rock we call Earth. And yet, so many people are so wrapped up in their routines they barely have the chance to deviate. They rarely have the chance to explore life outside the bubble their birth-society has created for them.
Why not break free? Why not explore other places and people and options? The things we love and find comfort in can always be returned to. But we should support and encourage each other to experience novel environments and different perspectives. We should push each other to walk an alternate path and break out of the norm at every chance we get.
This is our time. And time is limited. It’s all we have and it’s everything.
Sunset on Mount Cook
Every night we camped at Lake Pukaki, the sun would set in the sky to the East of the lake. Every night I would catch a glimpse of pink light sopped up by the snowy peaks of Mount Cook.
The pinkified peak would glow for only about 20 to 30 minutes and then the sun would duck behind the Alps and the mountain would turn to shadow.
On the third night I waited for it. And when it came, I snapped one of my favorite pictures from the three days we stayed there.
The beauty of a fleeting moment in time; a snapshot of the human race: