Experience: Lake Tekapo stargazing

Experience: Lake Tekapo stargazing

As the wonders of the night sky have recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, sparked by the global Aurora phenomenon (caused by a severe geomagnetic storm), MCD’s Esha Chanda turned her attention skyward ahead of this surge of interest, unravelling the secrets of the cosmos in an immersive experience guided by Chameleon Stargazing at Lake Tekapo.

It’s a pity that my Lake Tekapo trip was planned a couple of months prior to the rare geomagnetic storm that caused the spectacular light show recently across New Zealand skies. The Auckland display of the Aurora Australis had plenty of wow moments, too, but there was a gnawing feeling that I had planned my Tekapo trip a little too soon.

I’ve always been obsessed with the night sky – ever since I can remember – so, when I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand nearly 10 years ago, there was a natural pull towards learning more about the wonders that adorned the Southern Hemisphere.

I remember the first time I spotted the belly of the Milky Way. It was one of the first-ever road trips in New Zealand: the night was dark as ink, with only a sliver of moonlight faintly illuminating the sky, and there it was – a sparkling bridge across the sky.

Celestial playground

Experience: Lake Tekapo stargazing
Under the pristine skies of Lake Tekapo, the Milky Way unveils its beauty

Lake Tekapo is a celestial playground, known for its pristine skies and minimal light pollution, offering an unparalleled canvas for stargazers. As a Dark Sky Reserve, you’re often treated to a one-of-a-kind experience no matter when you visit. While I’ve been to Tekapo a few times, during my last visit (with my family who were on their first-ever New Zealand trip), I chose to sign up for a night sky experience. Google spits out numerous recommendations, each worthy of the dollars you spend, but instead of going the mainstream route, I chose something less commercial and a little more intimate.

Chameleon Stargazing is a one-man operation spearheaded by George Zheng – an endeavour born in the wake of the first COVID-19 lockdown when many tourism companies were shutting shop. When his former employer decided to hibernate the company, George invested in a telescope and started his own business.

Small And Perfectly Formed

“It was just for fun at the beginning, as there were no tourists from overseas. Many guests enjoyed their stargazing experience with us, and more people got to know us by word of mouth, so the company survived.”

George’s interest in stargazing was sparked early on as a kid: “I liked reading books about stars and astronomy when I was a kid. Stars have been shining upon us for billions of years before civilisation, and they will be there after we destroy ourselves. I think it is very cool to study something far beyond our life.

“Understanding astronomy makes people less self-centred. If there was life on another planet, humans would be described simply as ‘Earthlings – one people’. Earth is not the centre of the universe, just a minutely small part of it. If we as individuals don’t position ourselves at the centre, we start to respect other people.”

Immersive experience

Experience: Lake Tekapo stargazing
Left: Capturing the moon’s majestic beauty through the lens of a telescope
Right: George Zheng

George offers the option of a shared tour or a private tour. While we opted for the former, it was still a small group with a maximum of 12 people. It was towards the end of March and cold enough to wrap ourselves in layers. A well-guided path led us to the location (close to the town centre) that was engulfed in darkness, occasionally lit up only by the headlights of cars making their way to the spot (RVs can park there, too). A lovely set-up welcomed us: outdoor furniture with pillows, mattresses, blankets, and a cup of hot chocolate to keep us warm and cosy throughout the 90-minute guided session.

The real magic began once the headlights from the cars were switched off and our eyes adjusted to the darkness. Despite the moon casting its semi-luminous glow, which obscured our view of the Milky Way, the dark, velvety sky stood out.

George is an exceptionally knowledgeable guide, leading us through the cosmos at a pace that’s easy to follow and giving ample time for us to grasp what we’ve seen: the Southern Cross, Orion, Nebula, Alpha and Beta Centauri, Sirius, the numerous constellations – all pointed using a beam of light flashing from what we think resembled a mini mystical wand (handheld lasers); it looked as if it was touching the sky.

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Beyond what we witnessed from our naked eye, the highlight was the time spent looking through the two telescopes – portals to distant realms. The smart eVscope 2 delivers the most stunning visual experience with an incredible amount of detail, definition, and the ability to zoom, and the 9.25” is a decent optical telescope, which is the same size as the one Stephen Hawking had at his home.

Experience: Lake Tekapo stargazing
Nature’s light show: The Aurora Australis, caused by the severe geomagnetic storm mid-May, dances over Lake Tekapo

The telescopes unveiled a tapestry of celestial marvels, revealing the intricate details of the moon’s craters and the bright, deep sky objects in the Southern sky: Wishing Well open cluster (1321 light years away, featuring around 150 stars); Jewel Box open cluster (6400 light years away, featuring a red ruby star, kappa Crux); and the Tarantula nebula (17,000 light years away, featuring a supermassive spider-shape nebula).

The experience was quite humbling: the universe is so vast and mighty, and our blue planet is just a tiny speck; so feeble. Despite its brevity, the tour unfolded seamlessly, only momentarily paused by a dramatic piece of stardust that almost fell in a slow-motion wonder into the Earth’s atmosphere. While I’ve witnessed many shooting stars in New Zealand, this one etched an indelible mark on my memory.

As the tour drew to a close, we gathered around a crackling bonfire, indulging in the simple pleasure of roasting marshmallows, before embarking on our journey back from the deepest and darkest depths of the night’s embrace.

Experience: Lake Tekapo stargazing
Making memories: the perfect family photo under the starry sky

Quick facts

  • Chameleon Stargazing offers both Shared Tours ($99 per person) and Private Tours ($1120 per group)
  • 90-minute guided stargazing experience
  • Access to two telescopes
  • Photo beneath the starry sky (edited and sent after the tour)
  • Best time to visit: April to October, according to George

For more information and to book a tour, visit chameleonstargazing.com.

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