A tranquil trip to Lake Tekapo

Think of Lake Tekapo and images of a quaint church and a bronze statue of a collie dog immediately spring to mind.

It's Saturday night and I'm queuing for Saturn.

The queue extends beyond one of the funny-looking observatory domes on the top of Mount John, overlooking the Lake Tekapo township, and the night air is chilly.

Chris, one of our enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides on the Earth and Sky stargazing night tour, has already described the 1degC temperature as "nice and toasty".

"Believe it or not, this is a warm night.

"We're loving it.

"It's better than doing a tour in minus seven," he says.

A woman emerges from the dome and declares Saturn to be a "little weenie thing", while the woman in front reckons she can't see anything as she peers through the telescope.

And then it is my turn.

Initially, all I can see is darkness and I fear my fledgling career as an amateur astronomer is over before it began.

But then suddenly, there it is, the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest planet in the solar system - complete with rings - and about 980 million kilometres away.

Bingo - I'm impressed.

They are big on stars and planets in Tekapo, with a working party pursuing the quest of establishing New Zealand's first starlight reserve in the region.

The initiative aims to protect and control the amount of ambient light surrounding the observatory so people can learn about the night sky to better understand and appreciate the environment both above and around them.

Established in 1965, the Mount John Observatory is the principal site for astronomy research in New Zealand, situated below one of the clearest skies in the country.

It is calm and cloud-free the night we visit, perfect conditions for astronomy.

Star-gazing is clearly a very popular activity as the Earth and Sky office in Lake Tekapo's main street is bulging at the seams when we check in at 7pm.

Two buses transport us to Mt John and there is also a later tour.

Chris first gives the "naked-eye tour" and helps us navigate the southern night sky using laser pointers, accompanied by an entertaining and informative commentary.