Earth and Sky's Stargazing Tour
19th of June, 2018
Having spent two New Zealand summers living in Twizel and the Mackenzie Country, I always appreciated the dark skies and the millions of stars twinkling down on us each night. On a couple of occasions, I was even fortunate enough to witness the amazing Southern Lights darting across the horizon. One evening we drove out to Tekapo Canal to watch the super moon rise, which was truly amazing. Naturally then when Geoff booked us an Earth and Sky Stargazing Tour I was super excited and extremely curious to learn exactly what I had been gazing at for the past two years!
We were booked onto a tour on a Thursday evening in April but unfortunately, it was cloudy. As we lived locally we were in the fortunate position to wait for a clearer night. The staff were very accommodating and helpful and recommended we postponed for a better night. That said if you are touring around and only have the one night, the experience is still interesting, If it is cloudy you are privileged to have the opportunity to visit the southernmost optical research facility in the world. The University of Canterbury Mt John Observatory is usually not accessible to anyone other than the astronomers, who are carrying out groundbreaking research each night. On cloudy nights, the stars are hidden from view and so the astronomers take a well-deserved break – allowing the knowledgeable astronomy guides to showcase the cutting edge research facility.
We waited for a week until we got our perfect clear sky night and headed off on our 40-minute drive from Twizel to Tekapo. As we were moving to Christchurch the next day all our clothes and coats had been packed and shipped up, so I was without a warm and toasty coat, not a happy bunny knowing we were going to stand on top of Mt John in extremely cold conditions! Mt John is 1029 metres above sea level and really exposed. But fear not, Earth and Sky have thought of everything. One of the first things we were offered were US Antarctic Expedition" jackets that really went to Antarctica, they were perfect, very warm.
The receptionist explained there was only 70% visibility for stars and gave everyone the option to cancel, but we now had no other day we could Star Gaze, so we choose to go as did everyone else. We boarded the bus which took us on about a 4 km drive. The driver was super friendly and enthusiastic and informed us halfway Mount John he would be turning his headlights off, but not to be scared as he done this drive many times before! I have been on the road to Mt John in the day and was aware that is was narrow and twisty, Not only did he turn off his headlights but he also covered the lights on the dashboard up. This is all done to protect the Dark Sky Reserve and enable us to have the best experience. In June 2012 an area of 430,000 hectares (1,700 sq mi) around the observatory was declared as the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve by the International Dark-Sky Association, one of only four such reserves around the world.
As soon as we got off the bus we were greeted by 2 very friendly guides. They gave us little infer red lights and asked us not use any white light at all. They offered to zip our coats up, I took them up on this, not easy to zip your coats in freezing weather in the pitch black. A short walk took us to our first viewing point and then we felt the magic begin. Randomly looking up at millions of stars isn’t really that interesting but when you have a super informative guide with an ultra mega bright green laser, the night sky becomes an open book.
It was like something out of star wars, without the sound effects. Suddenly star formations were being outlined and discussed. Light years were explained and my mind started to boggle! Everything up there is so far away and so old. In fact, some stars up there, in reality, are dead but we still see them.
I am no star boffin, and being English I am familiar with The Plough and that’s about it, so it was great to have all these new stars pointed out to us. Noticeably we saw The Southern Cross, Globular Clusters, The Jewel Box and also The Large and Small Clouds of Magellan.
The Southern Cross is used to find the South Celestial Pole (SCP). We also saw the Coal Sack nebula, which is to the untrained eye just looks like a patch of sky with no stars but it is, in fact, a dark region of the Milky Way where a cloud of dust and gas in space obscure the stars behind. Fascinating!
Globular Clusters are the oldest things we can see with our own eyes, usually 10 to 12 billion years old! Mind blowing!!!
The Jewel Box cluster is so named as it resembles a small box of brightly coloured jewels. As this is 6000 light years away we needed to view it from a telescope to see the many different coloured stars, simply beautiful. To me, it looked like a clump of glitter in the sky!
The Large and Small Clouds of Magellan are two dwarf galaxies and are 170,00 and 200,000 light years away. I kept thinking FAR OUT, this is ridiculous! With closer inspection with one of the super-powered telescopes we got to see the Tarantula Nebula, a huge star-forming region lit up by some of the brightest and hottest stars known!
We didn’t see the Moon, as it was too low, but that was a bonus as when the moon shines the night sky is too bright to see other objects.
As all of this amazing astrological science was being revealed to us, we were standing 1029m up, exposed to cold winds. From nowhere a lovely lady turned up with delicious and most welcomed hot chocolates. A professional photographer took our photo with the stars, seriously awesome!
As the tour was coming to an end the guides programmed the huge telescopes to certain coordinates which homed in firstly on Jupiter and secondly Saturn. There I was looking at the red lines on Jupiter and the rings circling around Saturn. Totally incomprehensible really, a truly unique experience which Real New Zealand Tours would encourage everyone to do.
It really is done so well, with passion, knowledge and an enthusiasm which I don’t actually think I have experienced anywhere else so far on my travels of awesome New Zealand.