E Noho Ra, Aotearoa

The original reason for our trip was in the main astronomical. To view the total eclipse of the sun and the dark skies above Lake Tekapo. Mission accomplished there. There was, of course, the novel experience of Australia and New Zealand themselves too. How rich and varied that turned out to be. We knew something of it of course, it is not a well kept secret.

We kept looking at the wall calendar sent to Alison by her far-flung (as she was then) cousin in Taranaki. The very distinctive peak of Mount Egmont as the Europeans called it became familiar to us. The calendar pictured it in different seasons from different locations as calendars do. It became something of a Holy Grail as we planned the trip. Reaching Taranaki became a goal in itself.

Well, we’d done it. The manner in which it was accomplished I’ve already related. Now as we flew away from Christchurch on a beautiful summer day, the plane passed over Cape Farewell on South Island. Appropriate. North Island came into sight and we passed very close to Taranaki. We had a last, wonderful view of the mountain from the air.

The green peninsula of the Taranaki region was set in an opalescent sea of faded pinks and greens. In the centre of that was the geometrically precise circle of woodland which surrounds the mountain and in the centre of that the peak itself. The white of the snow turned dusty blue with distance and etched with fine chasing to emphasise the symmetrical slopes. A train of light fair weather clouds trailed back from it towards the little town of Stratford where the hospitable Roslyn and Kevin live.

As the view faded behind us we knew this special holiday was coming to an end. But the iconic image remains with us. Not only a synopsis of all the photos we’d seen and taken of the mountain but a symbol of the trip and the country itself. Strange, remote, incredibly beautiful.

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The Late, Late Show

Penguin Show, Oamaru

The yellow-eyed penguin stood on the strand
With his feet in the seaweed and shingle and sand
And he called ‘Quach Ah!’
And he flapped his wings
But no friends came in from the sea to he
No friends came in from the sea

And the tourists watched
From the terrace above and from
France and Japan and Peru
They had all come to see the penguin show
In the city of Oamaru
And you
And I came to Oamaru

The little blue penguins all came ashore
In rafts on the rainy green sea and more
climbed the rocky wet shore
And stood in debate
And debouched to their nests in the green the green
They run to the green and they preen

And the tourists watched
From the stands by the side and
Oohed and they aaaahed and they aaawed
At the cute little birds of the penguin show
In the city of Oamaru
And you
And I went to Oamaru

(Envoi……)
In their hilly wee bushy wee nest box town
They sang a ‘Halloo!’ To the sea
And they preened their blue sheen
In their nests in the green
And they sang a ‘Halloo!’ To the sea

We visited the penguin colonies in the historic (well it IS for New Zealand) city of Oamaru which I am here choosing to pronounce ‘Oh-ah-ma-ru’ correct or not. We saw three yellow-eyed penguins on the beach, one at a time. We got quite good views with binoculars from a specially constructed observation terrace above the beach. Not close enough for a good photo though.
Later, around nine o’clock we went to the evening viewing of the little blue penguins at the harbour foreshore. Here there are viewing stands on either side of the rocky section of beach where these charming little beasts come out the sea around dusk to go to the nest boxes hidden in bushes which constitute their reserve. A colony of around five hundred birds is supported here.

We had seen blue penguins before on Kapiti Island. My camera card ran out just as I was about to get a photo. In Oamaru photography is not permitted. So no picture of a little blue from me, I’m afraid. Plenty online though.

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Karma

We’re on our way down to Queenstown. Outside Wanaka we pick up a girl hitch hiker. She’s a kiwi on her way down to meet friends in Stewart Island. She has the fine ginger hair of many of her fellow countryfolk. Her dress says ‘new-age’. She loads her immense backpack into the boot, obviously a strong girl, and off we go. It’s a very fine morning as we make our way down through countryside which gets more and more rugged. There is a lot of yellow broom in flower along parts of the road. After another steep and winding climb (how often you seem to use that phrase when describing this country) we reach the top of the Crown Range road. There is a vast spacious view from here and a plaque telling us all about it.

The descent is steeper and even more winding than the ascent with another viewpoint overlooking our goal, Queenstown. It is set in a spectacular alpine landscape on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. We’re booked for a fly-cruise-fly trip out to Milford Sound. We locate the airport at Frankton on the outskirts and then head back into the town for a look around.

It is a very pleasant, tourist-oriented place. There are broad pedestrian precincts with lots of busy cafes. A hair-raising cable lift up the steep, high, forested slope behind the town and a bustling lakeside area. There’s an esplanade where people are amusing themselves trying to dodge waves which splash over the wall as the lake is choppy. There are cruise boats. An old but very handsome steamer pulls in as we arrive. There are lively bars and restaurants and a large number of buskers.

We stop at a cafe and order coffe and a couple of blueberry muffins. This is our hitcherhiker’s breakfast. ‘We don’t want you having to rely on roadkill!’ I quip. The muffins take a while to arrive. When they do there are three smallish ones to an elegant modern plate for each one ordered. They are hot and delicious. We eat them and drink our coffee to the accompaniment of a Rheinhadt-Grapelli style pair busking at the end of the street.

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Alison and I relate yarns of our own hitch-hiking days. Trips through France on beer and peaches. Illegal swimming in Venice. The time one freezing cold March night my schoolmate and I hitched to Loch Lomond via Inverness and were so tired we couldn’t be bothered to put up our tent, we just used it as a blanket and slept in a field. The time Alison and I stayed on Orkney and were breakfasted by the farmer whose land we were on with eggs and bacon and invited into his tiny croft for cups of tea. The return journey when we were stranded in Helmsdale for a day as foreign tourists sped by in cars full of luggage.. Looking back to a time when hitching was the standard means of transport for the uncarred youth of Britain. Indeed a time whan there WAS an uncarred youth.

Maybe this morning will feature as a tale for future years when this young lady passes on the favour to another idealistic youngster seeking new horizons as we’re doing in a small way now.

Completing the circle one more time.

Karma.

One Drive, Two Climates

A drive from Lake Hawea over the Haast Pass.

The wind is still blowing strongly over the lake. The waves still make it sound more like the seaside. We set off and drive over the long unsealed road (dust-track) into the small township of Hawea.

The town is quiet, as usual. I don’t think it’s ever much else. We drive onto Highway 6, the Makarora road. The landscape around the lake is rugged. It’s a larger scale Lake District. Just to put it in perspective Hawea has ten times the surface area of Windermere and is five times as deep. The high peaks at the west end of the lake reach to over seven thousand feet.

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There is a long drive up to a saddle and then you are into the northern part of the valley of Lake Wanaka. Clouds were low over the lake with the sun breaking through at times, providing very dramatic views. The road becomes more winding and steeper. This seems to be a common fate of roads in New Zealand as once you start driving along them.

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After a while we are in a large, flat river valley. Very green, obviously farming country. High above us the peaks, streaked with snow, are draped in cloud. We stop at Makarora. It’s centre seems to be the campsite which has a sizeable cafe stroke gift shop attached. There’s a Wild West flavour about it. We’ve frequently found this in outlying places. There’s a wooden ranch house feel. Hunting trophies. A rather macho tone to it all. There’s the usual New Zealandry on sale, kiwis, tikis, silver ferns etc. The guy running he place seems friendly offering advice on the local walks, treatment for sandfly bites and so on.

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We take his advice a little further up he road by walking towards the blue Pools. These are just sections of deep water on the river. They have the strong aquamarine tint we’re becoming familiar with in this glaciated landscape. The walk takes us down through the native bush. We are aware of the change in the atmosphere as soon as we enter it. It’s still, cool, green You’re surrounded by bird calls and the faintly resinous sweet smell which is partly blue gum (eucalyptus) partly something we’ve not identified yet. And there’s the song of the tui. Bell-like and flute-like and captivatingly melodious. It’s the sound I think of as New Zealand.

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The track takes us over a wooden suspension bridge, another kiwi hallmark. There’s an interesting resonance as we walk suggesting that if we get the rhythm just right we might be making an unscheduled bungy jump over the side. Minus the rope of course. The track runs beside the river. It is very up and down. There are lovely ferns growing in fresh green masses all through the woodland. Eventually it opens up into a wide meadow between thickly wooded hills. The grass is long, lush, very green. It is thickly strewn with buttercups. The cene looks very like England, once again a bit souped-up and is oddly incongruous given the terrain we’ve driven over to get here.

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We drive on and the road once again gets steep and twisty. The clouds close in again. Without realising it we go over the top. The Haast Pass. We’ve crossed the Southern Alps and, as a large sign informs us, are now officially in Westland. It has been drizzling for the last couple of miles. Now it’s raining quite heavily. It feels wetter, colder. we’re definitely in a different climate.

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Where we have stopped is a waterfall. We go down the Haast road for mother couple of miles. We stop again. We are overlooking a vertiginous drop into a gorge. The clouds are all around us, the streaky snow still visible through the clouds in the sunlight above. We can see the road snaking downwards through the dark green, wet woods and clouds.

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We decide to call it a day. It’s getting late and we feel that we’ve got the gist of the landscape.
We make one more stop by the ‘Fantail’ pools, another waterfall. It’s force was utilised when he pass road was being built to generate electricity. The road building sounds like a tough old job.

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We cruise back over the pass and back through Makarora. We’re back in the dry climate again. The weather is much clearer too so we get grand views of Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. We pick up fish and chips at the shop in Hawea. A national dish in NZ along with bacon and egg pies. On arrival back at the bach we discover the chip portions are Hawea-sized. We could have dined on them for a week. Both items are decent quality though.

The wind blows on and the waves crash endlessly in the sunset.

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The Windy Lake

Lake Hawea

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Waves crash like the sea.
On Lake Hawea.
Walking is ‘like Norfolk in some ways’ says Alison.
The sea sound and the pines.
The sand dune feeling though without the sand.

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Flowers play truant from beds along the path.
California poppies! we barely saw them there
But here they crowd in hot gold clumps
And others, tall spikes of lemon yellow coins
And, of course, the lupins, always lupins

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We’re here with Benny Scruffy Bach
The darling of his aunts
Allowed to spend his never-ending holiday all unkempt
His old chairs, worn carpets, unmatched plates and cups
All pass for poetry in this rough scapegrace
Poetic thoughts, too, on the wall
He has a charm, don’t doubt it
Or if you do then read the visitors’ book
Where chunky, unlined comments
Ruffle his hair affectionately.

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The waves rush on at Lake Hawea

Odd for water that’s not going anywhere.
You’d think it would sit still and contemplate
These high and broken bookends of the lake
And not rush on to nowhere
You feel it whirls the clouds itself
Like boys who whirl their conkers round and round
In Alt-y-Ryn in autumn game
How time flies off in any hemisphere

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It grows on me, the crib
Becomes the prefab up on Ridgeway
Above the far-off channel of the Severn
Where I still find myself a boy
The Southern Cross notwithstanding.

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Could I have been as native to the bach
If I’d somehow, you know,
Been more unkempt, more tousled
More outgoing, restless
More inclined to truant
And whirl the conker high
And far, may be, as land beneath the Southern Cross

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Here I’ve come together with that other, bolder kid
We sit on the veranda watching
As the waves crash like the sea
On Lake Hawea

(I’ve christened the Deniston road Bach ‘Benny Scruffy Bach’. I grew up in Newport, Gwent or Monmouthshire as it was then known on the Severn estuary. That was in the prefab estate on Ridgeway by Alt-y-Ryn woods.)

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Starry, Starry Night

We join the Earth and Sky trip to the Mount John Observatory.

Lake Tekapo and the surrounding area has a reputation for wonderful night skies. It is high, around seven hundred and forty metres. It is also far fom any urban centres so there is little air pollution or thermal turbulence. Most important of all it has minimal light pollution. The whole MacKenzie area has been designated a Dark Sky Heritage site. There are strict regulations on public and domestic lighting across he whole region. I had booked a night-time trip up to the Observatory months in advance. It’s the same place we’d visited a few days before with less scientific curiosity for coffee.

Tuesday night was cloudy. We went to the Earth and Sky office in Tekapo. They do give you the option on cloudy nights of going up to look round some of the larger instruments and other research facilities. But we wanted stars. The real stars and nothing but the stars. The lady on duty was very helpful but said it was even more likely to be cloudy on Wednesday. I’d booked us in with a day to spare for exactly this eventuality. We stuck to our guns. We postponed. Wednesday would be the Last Chance Saloon.

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By evening on Wednesday the sky was clear with some cloud spilling in from the west which made seeing conditions slightly iffy. We got into our Antarctic gear. We’d been advised of very cold conditions on the mountain at night.

Wednesday evening. We turned up at the office early. We made a final commitment and signed up for the eleven o’clock session. There is one at twelve too. We were issued with a keyring type LED dark light. It is solar powered. So you could charge it while using it, as long as you don’t use it at night, lol. We were also issued with large quilted insulation coats. They take no risk on claims for frostbite or hypothermia.There were around twenty others there plus a large party of Japanese. In total two busloads of starry-eyed tourists. With everyone wearing the bulky jackets the bus had the feeling of our flight to New Zealand where space was at a premium.
We set off. It is a fifteen minute journey. There is an introductory talk by a recorded lady mainly about weather conditions and how to preserve night vision. Emphasis is placed on the need to keep all light down to a minimum, no flash photos etc. When that’s finished we are treated to several songs. One by a local lady, Becky Murray. She sings for the Tekapo Starlight Reserve Initiative among other work. Look out for the name. You heard it here first. ‘Rocket Man’ accompanies us as we head up towards Mount John. The driver turns the headlights off and drives up the dark, windy road on parking lights. It’s a bit warm with all our thermal gear on but through the window I can see plenty of stars. Looking good. Fingers crossed.

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We troop or rather stumble out of the bus like a group of shortsighted bears. There are faintly luminous guidelines on the paths across the observatory which are useful. It is now about eleven o’clock. It is late twilight, nearly dark. There are still a few bits of cloud around but a lot less than there were. The stars are already stunning. There are vast numbers of them and the Milky Way near the Cross glows brightly.

We are given an introductory talk by a youthful and enthusiastic guide. He uses a laser pointer towards the main stars and constellations to great effect. He comments on the upside down orientation of the northern constellations for the benefits of us hyperboreans. he describes the ‘Saucepan’ in Orion, guess which bit. Canis Major he says is lying on his back waiting for his tummy to be tickled. We find ourselves in competition with the Japanese group who have their own guide in their own language which provides an interesting counterpoint.

Then we are let loose on several telescopes around the site. There are a couple of nine inch Schmidts and, highlight of the show, a sixteen inch reflector housed in its own dome. We look at the Jewelbox, kappa Crucis. It is delightful. Strong orange, red, yellow and blue colours are evident among the component stars. We look at eta Carinae and its associated nebulosity. This is striking in the high contrast field of the Schmidt. The confident and informative commentary from several guides continues as we look. Questions are asked. the party is under way. The only drawback is the size of the groups, which at first means we are queueing for a look. Afterwards we pace ourselves a bit more cannily and move adroitly between instruments.

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The sky is now quite dark. The sight is just amazing. An overused word I always think, particularly after the Olympics. But not tonight. It’s about the only word that will do for this awesome spectacle. It is without doubt, the best view of the sky I’ve ever had.

I chat to a couple from Auckland who are quite keen amateurs with their own small telescope. They too have never seen the Southern constellations like this. A bearded gentleman with a red lantern which lends him a strong resemblance to Santa Claus approaches us. He is carrying a tray of mugs of cocoa. We gratefully grab one. There is a slight but chilly wind. We re now glad of our standard issue star-trooper coats. The atmosphere on top of the mountain is very sociable, relaxed and light hearted.

We look at several open clusters. I hadn’t heard of the Wishing Well cluster in Carina (NGC 3532), but there it is. We see the Sculptor galaxy (NGC 253). I thought the telescope was aimed at Cetus, then realised the object was named on the go-to display on the drive. Close but no cigar. This was a super view. The galaxy, sometimes called the ‘Silver Coin’, is nearly edge on. I could just make out a central nucleus and a hint of arms. The whole object seemed to me to have a reddish hue.

Several meteors, probably Geminids, put in an appearance to add a little more variety. Each one is greeted by a unison ‘Ooh!’ from the section of the group looking the right way at the right time. The guides take the opportunity to explain why ‘shooting star’ is a misnomer.

We looked at Jupiter in both the nine and sixteen inch instruments. Detail in the bands could be seen. It was slightly disappointing n the larger scope as the planet was by now quite low in the nothern(!) sky and some atmospheric shimmer was evident, also, since we were in a queue I just didn’t have time for my eye to adjust to the bright disk.

The highlight of the night for me was the view of the Tarantula Nebula (NGC 2070) in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The clouds themselves were a wonderful sight. The LMC shone in through the slit in the dome of the telescope. The nebula when I had focussed it with the handset was just fantastic. The definition of the glowing filaments was incredibly fine. The dark obscuring clouds looked velvety. The whole had a powerful 3-D effect. I felt I could reach out and touch it. Now I know what I want for Christmas. Yes, and a mountain location in New Zealand to put it on. The globular 47 Tucanae was mentioned as a possible target for he big telescope. Either I missed it or they didn’t get round to it. Either way it was a bit of a disappointment. However, overall the tour was excellent.

We are rounded up for a group photo against the stars. We have to hold the pose for around ten seconds to allow the starlight to register. There is some exposure adjustments with red lights and then we say a prolonged cheeeeeeese. The photo captures the night sky well, better than our faces (see link at bottom of page). Then off back to the bus. We are joined by the parallel Japanese group. A head count reminiscent of school trips to ensure that no one spends a night on the bare mountain, though personally I’d happily volunteer.

Back down the road. A slightly subdued and tired group. People are dropped of at various backpackeries. Eventually we are dropped off at the office. We deposit our big jackets in exchange for a star chart cum publicity sheet for Earth and Sky trips, and we get to keep our dark lights as a souvenir cum publicity device for Earth and Sky trips.

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When we get back we celebrate with cocoa and biscuits. Oh, we know how to party, I can tell you. I cannot resist the opportunity offered by the tremendous sky. I take myself outside to identify some of the fainter constellations I haven’t yet got to grips with down here. Antlia, Pyxis, Horologium. Norma as a constellation is virtually non-exisitent. It is between Ara and Lupus and as I look for it is low in the South. But the Milky Way here glows brightly in the clear air all the way to the horizon. With binoculars there are many asterisms and clusters. It’s a very rich region of the sky.
When I eventually go inside it is around three am. Leo is up, an inverted question mark. Crater and Corvus, upside down of course, are rising in the east. The Spring constellations. Correction. The autumn constellations. Boy, what a night!

If you have any interest in the night sky then as soon as you get the chance, make your way to Lake Tekapo.

LINKS:

Group Photo

Becky Murray

Dark Skies

Tekapo Dark Skies

Starlight Reserve

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Read Alison’s Blog

The High Chaparral

Tuesday at Lake Tekapo.
We decide to do something different.
There is an establishment called ‘MacKenzie Alpine Horse Trekking’ based quite nearby on the Godley Peaks Road.
We decide to go for a horse ride.
This turned out to be hugely enjoyable. We rode up through the pines and onto a track above the lake. Then back along the shingle beach and again through the pine woods.

A lady with an eye for a horse.

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Equestrian type……checking the fetlocks or something equally equine.

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Ready to hit the trail.

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On the trail.

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The High Chaparral.

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Anyone for a chukka?….

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Lord Henry and the Right Honorable Lady Tekapo “Tilly” Mount-John

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Read Alison’s Blog

Lake Pukaki and Aoraki, Mount Cook

Monday dawned brilliantly. The lake and mountains, the first thing you see on waking here, fairly sparkled in the light. There was one of the striking lenticular clouds in the sky over Mount John. These clouds seem to be a feature of New Zealand and particularly the high country.

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We decide to take a trip to Lake Pukaki. About thirty miles away. A road runs along the western side of Pukaki up to the Mount Cook village. This is a climbing and general tourist centre for New Zealand’s highest peak.
We drive out of Tekapo village and up on to the tussock grass plain of the MacKenzie country. If they have cars in heaven this is what driving one there will feel like. There are beautiful big purple and pink lupins growing in their thousands along the roadside. These have only been here since the nineteen fifties, courtesy of the Lupin Lady ( google her). But they seem to compliment the area’s rugged nature so perfectly that you feel they must be natives. Their light, sweet scent drifts in through the open window.

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The plains stretch out into the distance and in every direction there are snowy peaks peeking over the horizon. The effect is almost cartoon comic so that I found myself smiling back at them and sometimes on the point of giggling at them (OK, I should cut down on the lupin sniffing). It is a landscape totally unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Above this is a vast blue sky with one or two of the strangely elegant clouds. In some ineffable way the whole scene combines immensity, ruggedness and exquisite delicacy.
We begin to drop towards the valley of Lake Pukaki. There are more trees around. Our view of the peaks is changing. We are getting a different angle on this part of the Southern Alps. We sweep round a bend and up over a hill. And suddenly and unexpectedly there it is. Aoraki. Or as the Europeans called it, Mount Cook.

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It’s still a long way off. it is flanked by its subordinate peaks. And it is perfect. We pull over and get out.
This is what a mountain should look like. We are looking at it across the lake which, like Tekapo, is a beautiful aquamarine. It is calm with a little rippling of the wind. We didn’t realise we’d see Aoraki so soon and are taken aback.
The scene before us is just sublime. It’s like the ultimate oriental painting. Exquisite but robust. There are some expressive gestures of high light cloud like the brushstroke signature of the artist which is part of the picture.

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Numerous photos are taken. It’s like starting on a bag of maltesers, you just can’t stop.

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The duplicatus cloud is still there and developing. It’s sweeping curve adds to the other-worldly look of the scene.

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We’re just ecstatic to be here……now…..in the timeless moment.

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Reluctantly we drive on. Just a few kilometres down the road we meet the visitors’ centre. The view here is even better, though you do have the car park behind you.

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We go into the centre. As usual in New Zealand it is just so well done. They’ve combined it with a deli specialising in smoked salmon. There’s a display about the Maori gem, greenstone. There is information about the hydro scheme which uses the lakes Tekapo, Pukaki and others. The scheme, though big, is very discretely done. We’ve not been aware of it at all while we’ve been here.The window of the centre frames Aoraki magnificently.

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A couple of Dutch girls want a photo with Aoraki. Naturally. We oblige and they reciprocate. As usual the Dutch speak excellent English.

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On we go. Turn right onto the Mount Cook road. A wide, well made road with very little traffic this morning.
As we drive up the road the great mountain presents itself time and again, always slightly different. Always magnificent.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Driving to the MacKenzie Country

Picked up another Pegasus car out near Christchurch airport. Christine was the lady in charge and very helpful she was too.

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Out on to highway 1. Nice open roads with very little traffic. We took the 73 out to Darfield. Stopped for a salmon scone(!), very nice, the kiwis are very inventive with their scones.
On to 77. As we drive the landscape gradually changes from the flat plains around the city to the hilly and then the mountainous. We stop at the Rakaia Gorge where high snow-covered mountains tower over the jet skiing place on the wide river.

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On to the 72 and another stop at Geraldine. It is now a hot afternoon with a big, New Zealand-type sky. A smartly dressed accordionist is entertaining an empty street.

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On to the 79 and a stop for afternoon tea at the splendid Farm Barn Cafe above Fairlie. Super first view of the MacKenzie area’s mountains.

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Then on towards Lake Tekapo. We stopped on the high tussock grass plain above the town to admire the sweeping view of the mountains and the roadside lupins.

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Arrived at the house in Walter Black place after picking up supplies in the small but lively centre of the tourist oriented town.

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The view here is simply stunning. The intense blue of the lake sets off the distant, rugged, snowy mountains exquisitely. The house itself is on the top a hill above the town and could not be better placed. The houses here are well spread out so we have a large personal space.

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It’s a very modern place, light and well appointed. It has light coloured wooden floors which are good for skating on if you’re wearing the right socks. A dream place. It has windows down to the floor which are great with just one proviso. We both walk into them under the impression that they are not windows but open doors. This is not a good thing to do.

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We have a decking on the south side, ie not the sunward side! The north view is the fabulous one over the lake.

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