I woke early this morning and looked out my window just before the sun came up over the ocean in Timaru. I was planning for another long day/night as I planned to drive 2:30 hours to the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, do some hiking and then return to the Tekapo area to do some star gazing (more on that later). So I was probably looking at another midnight (or later) return…
I left my room heading for the kitchen and ran into my host Sandy, who I had communicated with several times the day before. She and I had a nice conversation about her Ford truck in the driveway. She loved US trucks with big engines. The particular one had been imported from the US and the steering column was still on the left side (US). She told me that they do allow left side vehicles in NZ but they only give a small number of licenses each year. She applied for one the year she purchased the truck and didn’t get a license so she left it parked until the next year, applied again and got one. That’s dedication! She also introduced me to her pet cockatoo who was being shy (or just rude 🙂 and didn’t want to say “hello”. 🙂
After breakfast I loaded up and headed out.
The first hour of the journey was pretty uneventful with not much to see. When I reached Tekapo I stopped and got some information on the Earth & Sky (Web) star gazing tours at the Mount John Observatory (Web, Google, Images). If you’re wondering what the big deal is with star gazing in this particular area, a large part of the central South Island of New Zealand was recently recognized as an International Dark Sky Reserve, the largest reserve of this type in the world (Web, Google, Images). It is home to the darkest skies in the world and has been labeled as “one of the best stargazing sites on earth”. And just in case you don’t know really dark skies is the difference between seeing a few stars and (literally) seeing thousands of stars….in the same sky (click on the “images” links above).
I’ve always been fascinated by the universe and love to star gaze so this was one of the first things I added to my list when I was planning my trip to New Zealand. Unfortunately however, it was an almost completely cloudy day so they were unsure if the tours would be held that evening. So I continued on to the Mt. Cook visitors center and told them I would stop by on my return and see how it looked.
When I arrived in Lake Pukaki (Web, Google, Images), about 20 minutes later, I got my first, albeit, very cloudy view of Mt. Cook (the bottom of it anyway) and the surrounding mountains (check out the “Images” link to see the view on a sunny cloudless day). Incidentally (and I actually didn’t know this until after I visited) LOTR fans might remember Lake Pukaki as the fictional “Lake-town” in the Hobbit movies The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies (Web). And as long as I’ve been here I still can’t get over the beautiful color of the glacier fed lakes….stunning…..
I turned right at Lake Pukaki and continued toward Mt. Cook stopping several times to snap pictures of the beautiful mountains….
When I arrived at the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park Visitors Center (Web) I spent some time checking out the multiple exhibits they had and familiarizing myself with the tracks (trails) in the area. I decided to hike Mueller’s Saddle on the Mueller’s Hut track (Web) and drove to the trailhead a mile or so from the visitor’s center.
The track began with a 1/2 mile or so of relatively flat trail but that soon led to a series of very steep, seemingly never-ending stairs (over 1800) leading to the half-way point of the climb called Sealy Tarns. From here the view was already magnificent….
After eating a quick lunch I started up the unmarked trail to Mueller’s Saddle (what we would call a “gap” in NC).
So if I thought the first half of this climb was challenging (1800+ steep steps) it was actually just a warm up for the second part which turned into another vertical scramble over large boulders and loose rocks (recall the hike to the summit of Cradle Mtn. in Tasmania in the Day 19 blog) and of course, straight up. This was a challenge to say the least but when I climbed over the crest of the saddle I found myself on the rim of a high alpine valley with glaciers on 3 sides….it was incredible! I hiked around the back side of the mountain that I had been hiking up and just sat and looked in amazement. Every direction was sheer beauty. I was totally blown away. And as if that wasn’t enough every few minutes I would hear (and even feel the rumble) the “thunder” of an avalanche as large chucks of ice fell to the valley below and echoed off the surrounding mountains. It was massively cool….and kind of spooky at the same time.
Of course the pictures do not even come close to doing this amazing area justice. I sat there and continued to listen to the “thunder” as some other hikers came over the saddle. They asked if I would take some pictures of them so I asked them to do the same….
|I didn’t realize they were so far away 🙂|
|Selfie with Mt. Cook “hiding” in the background|
Looking back up the valley from the viewing area was pretty amazing too…..
And the backside of Mt. Cook….
By this point it was getting dark and I had just enough time to make it back to the Earth & Sky center so I ran back down the trail, jumped in the car and took off.
Although it had been very cloudy all day the skies really began to clear just before dusk so I was hopeful they would have the tours. However, when I arrived at the Earth & Sky center they told me they had just canceled the tour due to cloud cover. Apparently they only do the tour if it’s a completely cloudless night because it looked pretty clear to me. I was disappointed but I decided to grab some dinner at the only place still open (a pub down the street) and do a “self tour” of the night sky. I ordered a nice salmon dinner and while I was waiting I went out back and started looking for the # 1 thing I wanted to see in the night sky of the Southern Hemisphere…..The Southern Cross otherwise known as Crux (Google, Wiki, Images).
For those who may not know The Southern Cross is not a song by Crosby, Stills & Nash (well it is but that’s not what I’m referring to :-). The Southern Cross is a constellation located in the southern sky in a bright portion of the Milky Way. Since it is viable year round in the Southern Hemisphere sailors have used it for thousands of years (the ancient Greeks used it) for navigation.
So back to looking for it…..there was some light pollution from the stores in the area and I had no idea what I was looking for so I wasn’t sure if I saw it or not. So I pulled out the sky map app on my phone and found it in about 15 seconds…..WOW! How totally freakin’ cool was this!!!! At this time of the year the Southern Cross is almost straight overhead in this area and once I knew where to look it was easy to spot as 5 of the 6 stars (4 in the cross and 2 “pointers”) are very bright.
I went back inside and ate my delicious meal (I didn’t really expect it to be this good in a pub), paid and hopped in my car anxious to get away from the lights of town. I drove about 10 miles outside of Tekapo and pulled down the first remote, gravel road I could find. I shut off the car and stepped out into a totally dark sky….aside from the literally thousands of stars. I know I’m a totally geek when it comes to this but I just stood, leaning back against the car for almost an hour just gazing up and around in all directions. The Milky Way was as clear and bright as I’ve ever seen and I saw several shooting stars and satellites as they passed overhead (if you don’t know you can see some satellites as they pass overhead all over the world if its dark enough and at the right time of night (Google)). The Southern Cross was clear and bright and I was totally mesmerized. And I realized something…when the night sky is really dark (remember, I was standing in one of the most dark sky areas on earth) the sky is actually not completely “dark” as there is a short of “ambient light” from the thousands of stars “lighting” the sky. It was really cool. Something else I noticed about a “really dark” sky….you can see stars all the way down to the horizon and not just overhead. As I was driving back later I kept thinking I was seeing airplanes in the sky in front of me when it was actually bright stars very low on the horizon.
So after an hour or so of standing and gazing at the stars I reluctantly (notice a pattern here? 🙂 got myself back into the car and started driving home. Before I did, I did my best to try and take some pictures of the Southern Cross but since you can’t control the shutter on my phone I got about what I expected (once again I found myself wishing I had a better camera for this trip) but you can make out 5 of the 6 stars pretty well……
And here’s an interesting tidbit that you may or may not have known….The Southern Cross is actually part of the New Zealand flag…..
During my drive back I saw 4 wallabies (the first I had seen in NZ…NZ actually does not have very many land based animals) and a couple of possums (different than the North American possum). And I stopped at least 3 times…in the middle of the road (I only passed 3 cars in 1:30 hours), got out and just stood (in the middle of the road) and looked up at the sky. 🙂 I just could not get enough…..WOW!
I arrived back at my room at around 12:30 again. So as I anticipated, it was another long….but absolutely fulfilling and totally awesome, day!
|Where Am I
(can you even see me…ha ha)