In the heart of the Mackenzie country is the small, quaint town of Tekapo, famous for the Good Shepherd church and the stunning vista through its window behind the altar. However, when the lake and mountain views disappear after dusk and the skies darken our twinkly galaxy is exposed. It’s paradise for star gazers and a wonderful sight for young and old.
Whether you are a star gazer or just want to find out more about our solar system the Dark Sky Project in Takapo (Tekapo), is the place to start.
But before I talk about Tekapo’s terrific night sky, the town’s name needs an explanation. Tekapo was originally called Takapo. Takapō is the name the Ngāi Tahu tribe ancestors recorded. At Dark Sky Project they are extremely proud of their region and use the name Takapō, so that’s what we will call it.
Firstly, Takapo is one of the best places in the world to observe the night sky and it’s easily accessible. Minimal light pollution means the night sky views stretch as far as the eye can see.
Secondly, the Dark Sky Project offers a number of experiences where you can see and learn about our solar syatem.
I had signed up for the Summit Experience and Dark Sky Experience, but my trip coincided with some inclement weather. Thick cloud prevented me from doing the Summit Experience. But here’s a little bit about it.
Guests are taken by mini bus to the Mount John Observatory which is close to Takapo. The observatory is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, stretching over 4,300 square kilometres. It also includes Aoraki Mt Cook National Park.
The observatory is all about seeing the stars and planets through telescopic lenses. There are five telescopes, including the largest one in New Zealand. It’s not unusual to see Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, depending on the time of the year.
Dark Sky Experience
However, I did get to do the Dark Sky Experience as it’s indoors. On the shores of Lake Takapo is a sigificant building you can’t miss called the Dark Sky Project. Here you can have a coffee, lunch or dinner and also participate in a 45-minute interactive encounter about our solar system. Journeying through the different rooms you’ll learn about a famous Victorian telescope, the science of astronomy, our solar system, the big bang theory, supernovas and how Maori used the stars to navigate and much more.
Dark Sky Experience – Room one
This Victorian telescope was made in 1894 by a Pennsylvanian Optician, John Brashear. It found its way to New Zealand in the 1960s when the University of Pennsylvania and Canterbury were working together to establish the astronomy programme at Mount John. The telescope was to be the centrepiece of the new Mount John Observatory, but there were insufficient funds to house it. So it sat for 50 years until 2016, when the restoration began. It is now part of the Dark Sky Project, in its purpose -built room.
Dark Sky Experience- Room Two
The second room of the Dark Sky Experience has a multi-media installation creating an illusional pool of water with eels. It then changes to reflect the stary sky. The medium brings science and Maori knowledge together, depicting the many ways our solar system can help us with navigation, hunting weka (an iconic New Zealand flightless bird) and much more.
Dark Sky Experience –Room Three
The third room has a model of the sun and several stars. Our guide talked about a supernova (or explosion of a star). Many elements from the periodic table are created, including those that make up the human body. This is where the saying. ‘we are made from stardust,’ came from.
Dark Sky Experience –Room Four
In the fourth and final room I relaxed in a bean bag and enjoyed learning about our solar system and the big bang theory, a journey that started 13.8 billion years ago. The story wove Maori culture with science to create compelling story.
We also learnt about Matariki, the Maori name for a cluster of stars, signalling the Maori New Year. The stars twinkle in the winter months of June and July just before dawn. From 2022 the Government will mark Matariki with a public holiday.
The experience left me thinking how insignificant we are in this mesmerizing universe. However, the experience is a must for curious young and old minds and will lead to questions and conversations about how we came to be and what our future will hold.