From the picturesque harbor of Akaroa to the Tolkienesque mountainscapes of the Southern Alps, New Zealand’s Canterbury region spoils visitors with sweeping scenery, farm-fresh food, easy adventure, and genuine bonhomie. So what are you waiting for?
By Christopher P. Hill
Photographs by Stephen Goodenough
My week in New Zealand’s Canterbury region began in Christchurch, on the central east coast of the South Island. But I won’t talk about that just yet: a city still reeling from a series of devastating earthquakes is hardly the best place to kick off a travel article.
Shall I entice you instead with sightings of adorable Hector’s dolphins in the great volcanic bowl of Akaroa Harbour? Or with a ski-plane landing on the ancient ice of the Tasman Glacier, high in the Southern Alps? No—let us begin at the end of my trip, gazing up at the night sky above Lake Tekapo, a firmament so thick with stars that it glowed like silver filigree. This was atop the tussocky rise of Mount John, whose bland name does nothing to suggest that it is home to New Zealand’s premier planet-hunting facility, an astronomical observatory run by the University of Canterbury. It’s also the centerpiece of one of only four dark-sky reserves on the earth, a designation conferred on places where the quality of stargazing is, well, out of this world, thanks to few clouds and virtually no light pollution. (Even the bus that took us to Mount John’s summit was obliged to switch of its headlights before reaching the top, so as not to interfere with the observatory’s sensitive research equipment. It made for a few nail-biting moments.)
Had I known any of this before signing up for the Earth & Sky stargazing tour—there’s precious little else to do in the tiny township of Lake Tekapo on a chilly mid-autumn night—I might not have been quite so dumbstruck by that vast star-studded skyscape, though I did join in the chorus of oohs and aahs as our guide used his laser pointer to walk us through the heavens. We could not see a cloud because, as Lewis Carroll once pointed out, no cloud was in the sky. But we did see the Magellanic Clouds—two galaxies that orbit our own at a distance of tens of thousands of light years—and the entire arc of the Milky Way, called Te Ikaroa by the Maori, whose legends describe it as a great fish swimming across the sky. There was Orion to the west, and Scorpius rising in the east; the Southern Cross and a star cluster called the Jewel Box; gas clouds and nebulae; and Venus and Mars hanging somewhere overhead and clearly visible to the naked eye, once you knew what to look for.
By the time a round of hot chocolate was served I had a crick in my neck as bad as after my first visit to the Sistine Chapel. But the show wasn’t over yet. Though we didn’t have access to the observatory proper, we did have the use of a small observation dome housing a stubby but powerful telescope. What I saw through that was the last gift in a week that had unfolded like a well-wrapped present. It was Saturn, rings and all, a pale orb framed against the blackness of deep space. You could have knocked me over with a kiwi feather.