Lake Tekapo, South Island New Zealand
Lake Tekapo is one of those small townships that is commonly recommended as a great place to visit during a driving holiday of New Zealand’s South Island. The township is situated in the arid Mackenzie Basin and the charms of this village do not easily reveal themselves at first glance. The Tekapo Lake and the surrounding scenery is similar to that of any self respecting region of the antipodes and is absolutely stunning. No, the real reason to spend a couple of nights in this part of the world is a little more elusive and a whole lot more eclectic. Oh and it also involves freezing your butt off in the cold night air!
The Tekapo township and the surrounding townships of Twizel and Mount Aoraki are part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. This reserve has received international gold tier status in recognition for its light pollution free night sky. What this means is that the night sky in this region is some of the busiest you will ever see with the naked eye! It is an indescribable feeling being able to easily spot the Milky Way streaking across the horizon! Of course these towns have had to make some town planning concessions to keep the night sky pristine. All of the street lights are one metre off the ground and are only allowed to give off red light to help limit light pollution.
Getting to Tekapo:
We landed in Christchurch and picked up our pre-booked rental car at the airport. The drive from Christchurch to Lake Tekapo was exhausting. It was only a three hour ride however coupled with an early morning flight to NZ and lack of sleep the night before we were pretty exhausted. The scenery during the drive though just kept getting better and better.
The views during our drive gradually changed from manicured gardens outside of Christchurch to the umber toned landscape of the Mackenzie Basin. We reached the Mackenzie Basin an hour before sunset and had a spectacular view of this golden landscape. The Mackenzie area is known for its arid, desolate, almost alien-like landscape which is completely different to the verdant green mountainous landscape New Zealand is commonly famous for!
Once we arrived at the Lake Tekapo township we were astounded by the overwhelming sense of isolation. The township is set far back away from the lakeshore and is sparsely habited allowing the wide expanse of the water to take up the panoramic view. The tranquil blue lake also provides a stunning backdrop to the Church of the Good Shepard that sits by its shore. This muted small building is unassuming in its austerity with rustic stone walls that blend seamlessly into the surrounding countryside.
Lake Tekapo Township:
Lake Tekapo is a small rural township, with a strip of shops on its Main Street. The town also boasts a generously sized supermarket, although it is a lot pricier than if you were to shop at one of the larger towns like Fairlie or Twizel. There are a range of restaurants, cafes and bars along the Main Street of Tekapo which cater for all meals throughout the day. However they do have early closing times of 9pm on weekdays and a little later on the weekends.
The town itself is set back in low lying buildings away from the road and the lake. We stayed in an AirBnB in the Tekapo village which is a relatively new development that sits on top of the local hill. It is a two minute drive to the shops on the Main Street however gives you stunning views of the surrounding countryside! If you want to stay closer to the lake there are serviced apartments and caravan parks available for hire by the lakeside.
Places to Eat:
The Japanese restaurant Kohan is a popular dinner venue and gets booked out quickly so be sure to make a reservation if you want to visit here.
We ended up visiting Thai Tekapo a small cafe/restaurant that specialised in Korean and Thai food. Surprisingly, for a rural restaurant the food here was fantastic.
We also bought coffee beans for the rest of our trip at the local cafe: Run 76 Deli and Cafe. The food here is wholesome country style cafe food and the coffee was fantastic!
Things to do
Visit Lake Tekapo:
Seems a bit counter intuitive, however it really is worth walking down to the lakeshore and taking in the breathtaking view of the turquoise-green water and the distant southern alps. Taking in the surrounding scenery is very a relaxing and peaceful experience, albeit once you can get away from the hordes of tourists that arrive by the busload for their 10 min photo visit.
On the shore of the lake sits the iconic Church of the Good Shepard. The sheer lack of ornamentation, its neutral colour palate and prime position by the lake makes this building stand out against the blue backdrop of the lake. The church is tiny and free of ornamentation in its interior, there are strict visiting hours for when you can go inside, however everyone is free to attend their Sunday afternoon service.
The Lake Tekapo hot springs is an outdoor hot spring which sits by the lake shore. At their top hot spring pool you get a beautiful view of the lake and surrounding mountains. They even have stargazing nights at the hot springs where you can view the stars by night in their outside pool.
The University of Canterbury has a research facility near the Tekapo township and its possible to do a night star gazing tour to explore the Southern Hemisphere skies. This was by far the highlight of our trip to Lake Tekapo. We booked a tour with Earth and Sky to visit the Mount John observatory. The tour is an expensive venture at 150 NZD per person, however it is so worth it! The start times of the tour are announced closer to the departure date and is dependant on sunset times. If you are planning a stargazing tour, you are best off to stay the night in the Tekapo region as you will most likely get back after midnight.
The tour agency provides everything you need for the tour, including a thick jacket to wear. It gets really cold up at the observatory after dark, so definitely take the jacket to put on over your clothes. Make sure to bring your own beanie and gloves and wear sturdy walking shoes.
The bus ride upto the observatory is an experience in itself. The last section of the road is a strict no light zone, which means the bus driver has to turn of the headlights and drive into the observatory grounds using the brake lights only! On arrival to the observatory you are introduced to the tour guides whom are incredibly knowledgeable. They very keen to educate guests and can point out many things to see in the night sky with the naked eye. The highlight of the tour for most people though is being able to view distant nebulas and galaxies using the the super powerful telescopes of the observatory. Seeing Jupiter and four of its moons was a definite highlight for me!
Whilst in the Lake Tekapo region, we decided to take a day trip to the Mount Aoraki National Park. On the way there, we took a rest break at the Lake Pukaki visitor centre which is set on the shore of the Pukaki Lake. Here we were able to take some stunning photos of the snow capped Mount Cook in the distance. The visitor centre is also the retail outlet for the Mount Cook Salmon Farm, where you can buy some of their fresh alpine salmon. They sell hot and cold cured salmon as well as sashimi salmon. This was a perfect lunch spot on our way to Mount Cook!
Mount Cook (Aoraki):
The drive from Lake Tekapo to the Aoraki National park takes under an hour and a half. As you head towards the National Park, the country becomes rocky and sparsely vegetated and the spectacular icy facade of Mount Cook looms up ahead to greet you. Mount Aoraki has a small township and there is access to guest accomodation, a few restaurants and nearby camping facilities.
We decided to travel to the National Park as we were keen to walk the Hooker Valley Track. This is an easy trail that takes 3 hours return to complete, the track is completely flat and meanders across alpine meadows. The really cool thing about the Hooker Valley Track are the numerous rope suspension bridges which cross the Valley floor. Put aside all notions of romanticism though as it can be incredibly windy on the bridges due to the high altitude!
The Hooker Track allows you to get closer to the iconic Mount Cook and the trail ends at the Mueller Glacier run off lake. The Muller Glacier flows over Mount Cook and the meltwater from this glacier travels down into this lake. If you’re lucky, you might be able to hold a piece of glacial ice that has washed up on the shore.
After the walk as it was getting late, we decided to eat dinner in the Mount Cook village. We ended up at Chamois Bar and Grill for a typical pub meal, however it was one with a fantastic view of Mount Cook!
Navigating the South Island:
- We hired our car through the company: Ezi car rentals. We also a hired GPS device which definitely helped to minimise stress during our drives.
- You will need to book your stargazing tour ahead of time and its best to try and book on your first couple of nights in the Tekapo region. This allows you the option of rescheduling in the event there is bad weather.
- If you see an amazing view on your drive from Christchurch to Tekapo in the Mackenzie basin – definitely pull over as it is constantly changing. The scenery in this region was very different compared to the rest of the South Island.
- Due to the latitude of the South Island of New Zealand, they have longer daylight hours in summer, which gives you more time to pack in activities within daylight hours.
- Restaurants and supermarkets close early in this area, so plan ahead and eat on the road if you are arriving late into the Tekapo village.