It was not till my fifth or sixth South Island journey via Lake Tekapo that a friend mentioned the view from Mount John Observatory. I like views. I have seen a lot of amazing views here in New Zealand. Could this be any better? In a word … absolutely!
Lake Tekapo is situated in the Mackenzie Basin, roughly 3 hours drive southwest of the city of Christchurch. The lake is fed by the Southern Alps and as such has a vibrant aqua hue. Being fed by glaciers, don’t expect a warm swimming experience here. Even in the peak of summer, one will struggle to stay in the water for long. However, it is a location that I love.
Mount John Observatory
Mount John is located on the western shore of the lake. Take a right on Godley Peaks Road as you head west on State Highway 8 (Tekapo-Twizel). Earth & Sky run both daytime and nighttime tours up Mount John, and recently – due to very high demand, they have expanded their tours to include early morning. It would pay to book in advance. During the summer months, you can pretty much be guaranteed clear skies in this area of New Zealand as the climate is extremely dry.
While I have yet to actually do a nighttime tour, I have visited the observatory on several occasions during the day. As a keen photographer, the views of the Mackenzie Basin are simply stunning. Lake Tekapo appears like an oasis amongst vast plains of what is as close to desert as you will get here in NZ. You are free to wander around most of the summit, taking advantage of the multitude of angles available to capture the scenery.
The observatory is located in what is known as the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. Being far from city lights, the location has some of the darkest and clearest nighttime skies in New Zealand.
The summit features not just the observatory, but also a café where you can enjoy a meal and/or hot drink while taking in the views. For more information about the observatory and booking tours, visit the Earth & Sky website.
What else to do in Tekapo
Visit the Church of the Good Shepherd
The Church of the Good Shepherd was built on the southern shore of Lake Tekapo in 1935. At the time, this was the first and only church in the Mackenzie Basin. I would advise visiting outside peak times in order to get a clear shot of the church as it is said that this is one of the most photographed locations in New Zealand.
Stay at Peppers Bluewater Resort
I was lucky enough to stay at the Peppers Bluewater Resort on my last visit to Tekapo. The resort features its own lake and an aesthetic that fits well into the surrounding lakeside environment. The rooms are very comfortable and feature everything a photographer needs including wi-fi and a desk to process your photographs from your visit up Mount John.
I was lucky enough to witness a spectacular and somewhat close meteor shower from my balcony early one morning. It was a sight I will not forget in a hurry. This event has inspired me to take a nighttime tour to the observatory on my next visit.