Lake Tekapo and the Astro Cafe

I get up early and take a stroll around the village of Lake Tekapo. It is completely tourist oriented. There’s no other reason for its existence. Even at this hour Japanese tourists are out taking comic group photos among the lupins by the lake. A more serious snapper has a tripod set up at the Church of the Good Shepherd. This is the iconic little kirk on the lakeside with the bronze statue of a sheepdog close by which features in all of Tekapo’s publicity.

The morning is fine and sunny. The lake and mountains look too good to be true. We decide to walk up the Mount John walkway to the observatory on top of Mount John which is about 340 metres high.
The road takes us past the lupins and California poppies by the lakeside and past the spa. It is up and doing with muzak merrily accompanying the people taking what seems to be an outdoor escalator to the top of a small artificial ski run. It takes all sorts.

The path runs up through the pinewoods. It is a well made earth track with some fairly steep bits but quite easy walking. This is not the trig walk on Kapiti Island.
In the pines it is cool and ideal for walking. We are hailed cheerfully by quite a few walkers already on their way down. Many are Japanese. There’s one block of accommodation in Tekapo I’ve already christened ‘LittleTokyo’. We take a few breaks on the way up and sit briefly taking in the view over the village.

We emerge from the pines onto open coarse tussock grass with a fine views back to town and the hills beyond. We climb a set of wood-framed steps and catch our first view of the observatory domes. Further climbing brings us out on a summit. It is rocky and stony and very reminiscent, says Alison, of the English Lake District peaks. But the view isn’t.

We now have a panoramic, three sixty view of the mountains and it is truly stunning. The air is beautifully fresh so that the peaks can be seen in exquisite detail. The colours are sublime. The whole scene is just impossibly perfect. As we walk about we keep stopping, looking up and saying ‘Oh, wow!’ and other similarly profound things.
Really there’s not much you can say about this. Just shut up and look.

We can see the observatory clearly on another, slightly higher peak a few hundred yards away. We make our way over there by a track. There is a stile over the wire fencing of the observatory. We wait for a Japanese party to pass in the obligatory red, pink and other brightly coloured jackets.

We go over the stile up a steep track and onto the road. Yes, you can actually drive up here. The car park is quite full. There are a lot of people on top but there’s plenty of space for them. We walk through the gate of the observatory, part of the University of Canterbury’s physics and astronomy department. ‘No smoking. No dogs’ say the signs and a comic addition ‘No Aliens’ with a blobby sci-fi alien in the barred circle. You’d have thought they’d be welcome. ‘Well, it is New Zealand’ says Alison. They’re not keen on introduced species.’

On to the Astro Cafe. This is just brilliant. You have to go there. Yes, it’s twelve thousand miles then a steep climb but believe me it’s worth it. It is made mainly of glass to take full advantage of the unbelievable view. They do have music, but it’s sort of astro-chill stuff. Not too beaty and cooly discrete. The young folk serving there are quietly spoken and courteous. It occurs to me that they may be fledgling astrophysicists working their passage. The coffee is excellent and the choc brownies with cream in which we indulged ourselves truly sensational. It’s the cafe at the end of he universe ( well, this end anyway). It’s the cafe on top if the world (OK, the Bottom of the World if you’re Northern Hemisphere oriented). It’s just dead good.

We sit outside afterwards on the veranda at a big, serviceable table along with a very cosmopolitan crowd who are there to soak up more of the view. There’s a toposcope which shows us where Aoraki, Mount Cook is, demurely situated among other more brash and extrovert peaks. It is well back from them and doesn’t grab the attention immediately. Above us and all around is the vast sweep of the sky.

Yet another group of young Japanese arrive. They are chattering and laughing and all wielding their cameras energetically. There are two motorcyclists speaking at their camera in Spanish. A video blog. I pick up the name ‘Peter Jackson’ and not much else. We ask a lady to take a photo of the two of us. I think she’s Russian. She is very obliging.

We make our way down by a longer, less steep route. It takes us, in the brilliant sunshine, over a very English moorland track through the tussock grass. There are small blue butterflies and brown butterflies. A young couple with a dog have steamed ahead of us. We let them go, we’re not in race mode.

It is difficult to convey the beauty of the colours here. They are exquisitely subtle. But they make the gaudy versions you’d get on a postcard look dowdy. The blue of the sky gradually changes from the palest turquoise just over the mountains to a deep ultramarine overhead. Wonderful swathes of light cloud are drawn across it in a supremely confident calligraphy.

We have a great view of the lake now. Lake Tekapo is famed for its colour. It is due to the presence of ‘glacial flour’, extremely fine sediment produced over millennia by the action of glaciers. Its colour is best described as aquamarine squared or indeed, cubed. It is a greenish-blue so intense you can’t believe it’s natural. I’m still to be convinced that the Tekapo Tourist Board doesn’t come out every night and tip a few tons of fluorescent paint into the water.

We’re now making our way back towards town. A Japanese lad wants a picture of himself In front of the lake. Rather unusually he is on his own. I have some trouble with the unfamiliar camera but am eventually able to oblige. We stop and have lunch wearing our coats over our heads as there is not much shade at this point.
We carry on towards town meeting the pines again, and the beautiful lupins and poppies. An athletic, tanned girl backpacker passes us striding it out. She has a woolly rabbit sticking out of her rucksack.

We have dinner back at base. The night is very clear and the stars and the Milky Way look terrific. I take in the southern constellations which are now looking much more familiar to me but no less wonderful. I’m thrilled that I’ve seen them.
The next morning, with genuine sorrow I read that Patrick Moore has died, probably as we walked to the Astro Cafe.


Read Alison’s Blog

One thought on “Lake Tekapo and the Astro Cafe

  1. Lovely trip, Harry. The lake and lupin photos are super and I found the enlarge ‘Click’ All your photos are interesting 🙂
    With your interest in the night sky I think it was a fitting place for you to be, for Patricks final moments.

Comments are closed.