Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve was established in 2012, and at 4300 square kilometres, it’s the largest such reserve in the world. The most vital factor for a dark sky reserve is lack of light pollution, so it has to be in a remote location. The reserve includes Aoraki Mt Cook National Park and the towns of Lake Tekapo, Twizel, and Mt Cook. The best way to get there is by way of a rental car, as there are no scheduled air or rail links to these locations.
Use VroomVroomVroom to compare rental cars and find the lowest available rates, either from the Timaru or Christchurch, so you can ensure a great experience without breaking the bank. Turn off that GPS and allow the stars to guide you to Lake Tekapo (a one-hour 30-minute drive on State Highway 8 from Timaru, or three hours from Christchurch) and Aoraki Mt Cook Village (a one-hour 15-minute drive from Lake Tekapo).
For a personal stargazing experience, check out the Pines Beach walk, which runs from the Cowans Hill lookout carpark to the Church of the Good Shepherd. It’s an easy walk across Lilybank Road to the lakefront, where you can choose from two trails to enjoy a spot of stargazing: left to the Church of the Good Shepherd or right to Pines Beach. You’ll notice, driving around at night, that there is limited artificial light in the township of Lake Tekapo, so you may need to slow down in order to read the street signs.
Astro Café atop Mount John is “possibly the best place on the planet to drink a coffee” (Lonely Planet) and is a must-visit for its spectacular panoramic views. Open from 10am to 5pm, drive your rental car hire along State Highway 8, turn left at Godley Peaks Road and proceed until you reach this great location.Otherwise, keep driving to the end of Lakeside Drive to access the Mt John Summit walkway. Park the car and hit the trail, which will also lead you to the Astro Café after a two-and-a-half hour walk through larch forestry and open tussock grasslands. If you’re lucky, you might even spot the Himalayan chukar bird and native geckos.
A one-hour drive from Tekapo, Lake Pukaki offers spectacular sights of the stars in light-pollution-free skies. Keep in mind, however, that the closer you are to the village, the narrower your views will become due to the mountains.
Check out the Lake Pukaki campsite (The Pines) on Hayman Rd. Although there are no facilities available, it's free, and you’ll be treated to breathtaking sunrise and sunset views.
The Geraldine Observatory is a state-of-the-art private observatory run by Peter and Wyn Aldous. Peter has 72 years of experience as an amateur astronomer and offers tours on a donation basis. All proceeds go to South Canterbury Outreach Astronomy, which is all about making astronomy accessible to the public.
While the stars shine all year around, the winter months offer a chance for you to see the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights). You need a clear night with strong solar winds when the moon is at its darkest. Aurora Australis can be hard to predict, so it’s about being in the right place at the right time.