Lake Tekapo / Mackenzie Basin

Stargazing in Lake Tekapo: The Mount John Observatory Tour

In small town New Zealand there generally isn’t much to do when the sun goes down. That’s not the case for Lake Tekapo though, as it sits in New Zealand’s only dark sky reserve, meaning it’s ideal for stargazing. Dark Sky Project (formally Earth and Sky) invited us to do the Mount John Observatory stargazing tour during our recent trip to Lake Tekapo and it was a lot of fun. Are you keen to go stargazing in Lake Tekapo? Keep reading to find out more about our experience!

Cloudy Skies

Our Lake Tekapo stargazing tour started with an 11.15 pm pickup from our accommodation. We were tired after a long day of hiking and driving, but the promise of getting up close to distance stars meant we were excited to head up to Mount John. We then looked up and realised the stars were covered by clouds. We had the option of going anyway, rescheduling or getting a refund (well, we didn’t pay in the first place so that wouldn’t have been an option). We decided to go anyway and hope for the best, and that’s what we got.

READ MORE: 16 Fun Things to Do in Lake Tekapo and the Mackenzie Basin

Stargazing at Mount John

A short time after arriving at Mount John Observatory the skies cleared, and the stars came out. Our guide, Sam, seemed happy about that — it can’t be fun running a stargazing tour with no stars! For the next hour or so our small group were treated to stunning views of distant star clusters through powerful telescopes and some hot chocolate!

Sam was great at explaining what we were looking at and is obviously very passionate about space. I am too, but my knowledge of space mostly involves TV shows, movies and David Bowie songs. From learning how to spot the Southern Cross in the night sky to being introduced to Globular Clusters, there were a lot of impressive things to see! I won’t go into too much detail about what we learned (mostly because my memory is bad) but it was a fun and informative tour and seeing the stars up close like that is a special experience. They do provide a few notes after the tour of most things that they showed on the telescope so you can look them up again if you want to or brag to your friends about it! 

You can obviously see some of the stars without the telescopes as well — the lack of light pollution (the entire town of Tekapo uses LED lights) means that the night sky is clearly on show. If you have a DSLR camera the guides can help you take photos. We left our tripod behind and the tour was a little rushed due to the cloud cover for the first 30 minutes or so, so we didn’t get any photos, but if you’re keen to get some let your guide know.

Photo Credit: Chris Murphy of  Dark Sky Project. Feature Image is from Igor Hoogerwerf of  Dark Sky Project.

Photo Credit: Chris Murphy of Dark Sky Project.

Stargazing in Lake Tekapo: The Mount John Tour Details

  • Where to book: You can book the Mount John stargazing tour on the Dark Sky Project website or at the office in Lake Tekapo (next to the supermarket in the centre of town).
  • What happens if it’s cloudy?  You can get a refund, reschedule the tour or go anyway. If the stars don’t come out the tour will mostly involve looking at the bigger telescopes and learning more about space and the research that goes on at Mount John Observatory.
  • How to get there: The tour starts at the Earth and Sky office. There you’ll be briefed about conditions and given a massive jacket — it gets cold up there, so you should probably take it. You’ll also get a red lit torch as normal lights are forbidden due to the sensitive equipment they have at the observatory. You can get picked up at hotels in Lake Tekapo (and the camping ground) — you can organise that when you book.
  • What time are the tours? The tours seem to run at different times — the first one is usually around 10.30 pm and the last around 1 am.

Mount John Observatory during the day

You can drive up to Mount John Observatory — it’s open between 9 am and 5.30 pm during summer and 9 am – 4.30 pm in winter. It costs $8 to use the road, or you can walk up from town which takes around an hour. There’s a cafe up there and the views are awesome.

Are you planning a trip to New Zealand’s South Island? Check out our in-depth travel guide!

Disclaimer: We were hosted by Dark Sky Project; all thoughts and opinions are our own.

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who has just returned home after 6 years abroad. Join me as I see as much of the South Island as I can.
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