It’s a cold, late winter day in Tekapo and I’m sitting outside wearing nothing but my bathing suit. Admittedly I’m sitting in the hottest of three hot pools - 40 degree Celsius - which is just what I need right now. A couple of hours ago I was face down in the snow on Mt Dobson and the mountains are clearly visible from the pool.
A few yards away is an ice rink, also part of Alpine Springs Spa & Winter Park. Kids of all ages are trying out their skating skills, while most of the adults seem to be downing pies in the café or lolling about in the pools – or luxuriating in the sauna and steam rooms. The complex is new, but there have been rinks here for decades, fed by natural springs. Natural ice is harder to sustain these days, so a refrigeration plant is used to freeze the ice, and the heat produced by the plant is used to warm the pools, still fed by alpine springs.
Tekapo’s a tiny town – its resident population a shade over 300 – but its proximity to the mountains means there are usually hordes of people here. Mt Cook’s just over an hour’s drive away. Mt Dobson, Ohau and Roundhill skifields are nearby, and there’s the lake, of course, with the much photographed Church of the Good Shepherd on one shore. It would be hard to find a more perfect setting for a town anywhere – a perfectly still lake of a colour that looks barely natural, surrounded by snow-covered mountains.
It’s also one of the world’s best spots for star gazing. Canterbury University has an observatory on Mt John, above the town. On one project, it’s collaborating with other NZ universities plus Nagoya University, discovering new planets by studying changes in brightness amongst the stars.
Mackenzie District Council has issued ordinances to limit light pollution in Tekapo – that means sodium street lights only and house hold lights that face up, not down – so that the astronomers can get on with their job of searching for new planets.
The night before, up at the observatory, exactly 40 years and one month after the first moon landing, I heard first hand how some astronomers really feel about the moon: it’s not their favourite celestial body, reflecting so much light it makes star discovery difficult.
Through big telescopes, we saw Jupiter’s moons, nebulae and other wonders of the solar system. Looking at stars without the aid of a telescope is even more extraordinary, especially with the expert help of the resident astronomers armed with laser pointers.
It was a big surprise, returning to Mt John during daylight, to see what we missed at night. During the day, you’re compelled to look out, rather than up, at the endless mountain range, the little town nestled on the side of the lake, surrounded by tussock-covered hills, and, of course, the lake itself.
I’d already been treated to an aerial view of the area, on a flight from Tekapo in an eight-seater plane that took us up over Mt Cook National Park. It was an altogether more dignified way to enjoy the mountains than falling off my skis – plus there was the added beauty of glaciers, rivers and lakes.