We continued driving beyond the lookout around the side of the lake with just about the slowest progess we have made driving anywhere we ended up stopping for some cheese and pickle butties at a fairly remote spot
. There was just us with no one else around then we heard beebing to see another Wicked van with people hanging out of the windows waving at us. After a prolonged discussion we decided to continue on the road to Lake Tekapo to see if the stargazing tour would be going tonight or if it would be better tomorrow (as it is so weather dependant). After nearly missing the Mount John Observatory road I locked up the wheels and we just made it. We drove to the top of the very steep and winding Mount John Road and admired the amazing views of Lake Tekapo and the surrounding Southern Alps and Mackenzie Plains.
I asked at the cafe about the stargazing tour and they promptly passed me a phone and a guy answered. The weather forecast was for a perfectly clear night and a heavy frost with very little wind, we decided to book on for that night on the latest tour which started at 22:30. We drove back down the hill and on into Tekapo town (a mammoth 315 people live here). We stopped at the i-site and got advice about free camping from a helpful lady then decided to nip into the office for the stargazing tour and try and rearrange our 22:30 pick up from the town to meet us at the gates of the observatory at 22:45 as the camping area we were staying at was down the Mount John Road.
We then headed off down to the lake and had a look at the statue of a dog (to commemorate the key role that sheep dogs play in farming the nearby land) and then back to the iconic Church of the Good Shepherd
. This church is very small and is situated right on the edge of the lake looking over the lake and out to the mountains. We took a few pictures out of the window of possibly one of the most scenic churches in the world. After a while sat next to the lake we headed off to find our free camp (well it is a council site with an honesty box). The site was on the shore of Lake Alexandrina on a nature reserve. It was a nice spot but had lots of caravans and busses on for the start of the trout fishing season. It quickly occurred to us that Erica was indeed the only woman on the site and the fella's were out drinking, farting and burping prior to embarking on another evenings fishing trip. We did a bit of planning for South America and cooked up dinner of pasta bolognaise with our first purchase of mince (obviously it was a super special price). We had tea and headed into the van as it was becoming a bitterly cold night. I drifted off and had about an hours sleep before Erica woke me up as requested at 21:30. We waited until 22:00 and drove out to the foot of Mount John in the pitch black night.
We pulled up in complete darkness and within seconds saw two shooting stars to start the evening off nicely. I had full thermals on trousers, two t-shirts, two jumpers, gloves, and a woolly hat. We started discussing the questions we wanted to ask and at about 22:45 we saw headlights in the distance
. As the bus approached we came running from our van and the bus pulled up, a guy got out and gave us another coat, the thickest and warmest jacket I have ever worn it was like a four season sleeping bag. We got the bus up the hill (no cars are allowed up at night as you have to drive with the headlights off so as to not put any light pollution into the air. It was really pitch black and you could not see anything around us. We walked up to the cafe area to see (just) lots of telescopes set up and a guy started an introduction to the night sky and space.
It wasn’t long until we were completely blown away with our minds starting to get warped. With a laser pen he pointed to the brightest star in the sky before explaining this was not actually a start but was in fact Jupiter. Everybody gasped. We then started to look at the distances involved, to get to Jupiter on a jumbo jet would take 80 years (17 days to our moon), however the light from the beam got there in a matter of seconds (Jupiter doesn’t creating its own light it was reflecting the sun). Hence a simple introduction of just how fast the speed of light actually is. We then looked at another star and when we were told that it may take 300 million light years to get to that planet (and the laser light beam would go around the Earth seven and a half times in a light second) your mind starts to twist in inexplicable ways
. We then got more and more detailed, had 6 of the 12 zodiacal signs pointed out to us and strangely there are always six in view at any one time and all twelve become visible throughout the night. Despite the cold the guy wouldn’t stop telling us just how special a night it was for stargazing and said it was really very rare to get evenings of this quality. After identifying how to navigate directly south by using the pointers of the Southern Cross to find another star then drawing a line halfway through to a gap with very few stars this was the polar south and the sky also rotated around this point. Also clearly visible stretching far across the night sky was our own Milky Way Galaxy and our guide then explained that what at first appeared to be two clouds were in fact the nearest two galaxies to us – absolutely astonishing.
We then watched the stars rise and started looking through telescopes. Whilst being tremendously geeky all the astronomers were great to talk to, so remarkably knowledgeable and able to try and simplify really difficult concepts for you. Some of the powerful telescopes were showing that what appeared to be an individual star to the naked eye (namely the middle star in Orion’s sword) was in fact millions of other stars and the concepts of time, distance and space really got our inner geek out for all to see. My first question was something along the lines of "if telescopes and satellites are so good now and we have had them for tens and tens of years thus being able to map out the sky and identify everything, what do you do or is this merely a tourist attraction now?", I think he quite liked the simple questions and he explained that he was responsible for identifying all matter in our solar system which could potentially crash into the earth and when and where this may happen
. That will be quite an interesting piece of research. I managed to gather a huge crowd when my simple line of questioning about space being finite rather than infinite, went from “what is beyond the edge then?”, and “what is beyond whatever is beyond that?” moved onto religion and the forming of religions to try and explain what humans at that time could not explain or understand. Indeed my inner geek was beating me up at this stage and I was getting into matters so complex that the astronomer simply suggested that humans use such a small part of our brains that perhaps we are still not supposed to understand what there is to understand and the concepts often do not appear possible with our laws of physics and the way our mind works, this culminated in a most bizarre statement that given my line of questions he recommend I should read Dr Stephen Hawkins book as a starting point and if I can get my head around those concepts move on to more complex and detailed texts. Now if me getting excited about reading books by Stephen Hawkins is not geeky I do not know what is.
With the free hot chocolate flowing to help with the super cold night up at that altitude we spent time wandering around the different telescopes set up focusing on different nebulae. We also got to see loads of satellites passing by overhead just a small selection of the 500,000 that are up there stuck in Earth’s orbit – two of the most interesting a glove from the first moon walk (no not Michael Jackson’s) and a tool box lost on a recent maintenance mission of the space station. The night truly fascinating and they even had professional photographers there who could do wonders with your camera and take some excellent photographs of different constellations. The time came to leave, though we didn’t want to and we were driven down the mountain but this time the bus put its lights on, in contrast to the way up. We got out of the bus and back in the Gimp at 1am jabbering like complete idiots about what we had just learned and seen. It took us a while to get to sleep that night our minds racing with so much information to process – oh and with the sunroof window open.
We woke up and the weather was still cloudy but no rain. We had a quick shower as we would be DOC or free camping for the next few days. We nipped into the library to use a bit of free wifi then set off towards Mount Cook. We passed over some of the most amazing electric blue coloured water in streams and as we approached the junction to choose either Lake Tekapo or Mount Cook we decided that we would head in the direction of Tekapo just to see the Mount Cook Lookout point. The sky had completely cleared by this stage and the sky was as blue as it could be and not a cloud in the sky. We found ourselves at Lake Pukaki which again was quite simply the most amazing colour, with Mount Cook in the background we must have stopped about 15 times before the lookout to take photographs and just admire everything around. We were pretty much blown away and unfortunately our pictures do not do it much justice. It is simply that amazing a sight to behold.