In the years I’ve lived in New Zealand’s South Island, the settlement of Tekapo has changed quite a bit. My first memory of it from 2012 is of a quiet little township in a gorgeous location. Within a few years, as tourism numbers in the country soared, it became synonymous with bus loads of tourists and ‘Influencers’ posing next to the lake, the lupins and the church. It’s still small, but there’s certainly been a good bit of development, one of which has been the brand spanking new YHA hostel as well as the observatory just along the road. Shortly after the hostel opened, I headed to stay there in January 2020. The C-word had been increasingly prevalent on the news but in our innocence and naivety, I thought little of it, other than being aware that Chinese New Year was just around the corner, and that flights from China into New Zealand were being restricted.
It’s a familiar drive across the Canterbury Plains and a mountain pass to get there from Christchurch, so I was there by mid-day, too soon to check in. It wasn’t the sunniest of days, but the outlook at the lake is divine so it was nice to take a wander along the lake shore before circling back. Integrated into the new hostel is a little burger bar which made a nice chill spot to wait out the remaining time until check-in. The clouds were just starting to part a bit as the afternoon wore on, and having gotten into the room and headed back outside again, a walk round the side of the building revealed a gloriously huge mirrored window spanning the two storeys of the gable end. It reflected the lake and the clouds and was simply stunning.
Some days, wind whips across the length of the lake creating waves, and this was one of those days. Walking along the lakeside and across the bridge past the Church of the Good Shepherd, the waves accompanied me, splashing against the many rocks on the shore. There were certainly still tourists about, but it was noticeably quieter than usual, the start of stranger times ahead. At this far end I could see glacier-like clouds snaking down the nearby mountain valleys, a really cool effect that I’ve seen several times here. The flowers along the path edge were in full summer bloom with bees floating around the invasive thistles and lupins that adorned the place. With long summer days, there was still hours of light left when I meandered back to the hostel ahead of dinner, and now the clouds had cleared enough to create an even more impressive reflection on the gable wall.
Tekapo sits within the Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, an internationally recognised region for optimum stargazing and astrophotography. When at last it was dark enough to see some celestial light, I headed round to the waterfront, crossing the arched bridge that was illuminated with downlighting. The lights in the town are specialised to minimise light pollution, meaning that both in town as well as up on the nearby Mt John hillside, there is ample opportunity to see some stars and planets without having to go far.
The next day was hot. Soaring towards the 30s with cloudless skies above. I’d booked a tour of the new observatory for mid-morning which allowed enough time to take another walk along the waterfront first. The guide was great at talking about the stars and planets for a mixed audience as we walked through a series of rooms covering various aspects of the local night sky. In one room there were large bright red orbs representing either stars or planets, and at the end we came out in the observatory itself with the giant telescope which we got to watch rotate and move. I love looking up at the stars on a warm night, so this place was really interesting for me.
It was time to get out in the heat and have some fun. My companion wanted to go to the hot pools but I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting in thermal pools on such a hot day. I had my eyes on the seasonal offerings at the Tekapo Springs complex, in particular the giant bouncy house they set up in the summer months. Most of it was under the direct hit of the sun, making the tarpaulin a little hot under foot, but I was all over it, and thanks to the heat, mostly had the giant playground to myself. My day to day job is exceedingly stressful and tiring, so letting my hair down at that point was just what I needed. I ran round and round the place, bouncing through obstacle tunnels, sliding down giant slides, climbing inflatable towers and throwing velcro balls at a giant inflatable dart board. Only when the heat got too much did I head inside the cafe to grab some water. But once I’d cooled down I was straight back out again to enjoy it once more.
Despite the ample opportunity in New Zealand, I’m not a particular fan of swimming in lakes. Partly it’s because I spend a lot of my time travelling solo, and partly it’s because I’m never quite sure what’s under the water. I hate the feeling of vegetation against my legs when I’m swimming or the discomfort of wading out over stony sediments, so rarely bother. However it was so hot on this occasion and there were so many people in the lake enjoying the water, that my companion didn’t have to work hard to convince me to get in. Of course Lake Tekapo is a glacial lake, so even with an air temperature of 31oC, the water was comparatively frigid, and it necessitated either dancing whilst talking to people, or continuously moving to save from getting a chill.
The evening light was gorgeous so I needed no encouragement at all to follow the foreshore with my camera to find a spot to watch the sunset. The surrounding hills turned a shade of red and a light breeze created small waves against the rocks once more. As I sat, I got quite irked about a trio of freedom campers who proceeded to head into the water and use products to bathe and wash their hair, the soapy remnants floating across the water’s surface. It amazes me how little people realise (or perhaps care about) the damage that even small quantities of these products can do to the lake and the shore. Dilution effect is neither accurate nor a good enough excuse, and especially in a sedimentary lake formed from glacial outflow. What’s more frustrating to me is that my introvertedness always prevents me from speaking up. I could hear from their conversation that they were French, and instead of speaking to them at all, I practiced the necessary French in my head, thinking it wouldn’t be so confronting if I spoke to them in their own language. Instead, I angrily stewed internally, and never let out a peep. Sadly, freedom campers had been starting to get a bad rep in New Zealand prior to the border closures of COVID that has since kept many of them out of the country. This incident wasn’t helping their reputation.
The stars eventually took my mind off it when it was at last dark enough to see them in all their glory. As I had sat on my rock, more and more people had gathered, and despite Tekapo having seemed relatively quiet during the day, the night brought hordes of people to the area around the church, including a couple of coaches that dumped a large crowd of people out of them. I hadn’t brought my tripod with me and I’m still learning how to get the best out of my camera in low light, so I tried very hard, but never really got an acceptable astro photo. When a chill hit around midnight, I weaved my way through the crowds to head back to bed.
The clouds were back the following day, but it was still warm and sunny. After breakfast at a local cafe it was time for a final wander around before heading home to Christchurch. The C-word continued to trickle through day after day as New Zealand watched events play out abroad. But it was summer, and I had some exciting plans coming up the following month to look forward to, including somewhere I’d been wanting to get to for years.