Starring in the Mackenzie

Tekapo Springs at night. PHOTO: TEKAPO SPRINGS
Tekapo Springs at night. PHOTO: TEKAPO SPRINGS
Strung across the vast reaches of the Mackenzie Basin, connecting Fairlie to Tekapo, Twizel and Aoraki/Mt Cook, State Highways 8 and 80 have been evocatively renamed the Starlight Highway, underscoring the Mackenzie Country’s global bragging-power as the largest gold-standard International Dark Sky Reserve, writes Mike Yardley.

Purring  through lonely Burkes Pass, past the retro Americana novelties, antiques and giftware delights of Three Creeks, the jagged snow-draped fangs of the mighty Southern Alps suddenly reveal their full glory at Dog Kennel Corner, commandeering the high-country horizon.

My first overnight stop is in Lake Tekapo, where it is obligatory to pay homage to the sheep dog statue and the sigh-inducing sweetness of the Church of the Good Shepherd.

Sheep dog statue, Tekapo.
Sheep dog statue, Tekapo.
I chat with some fellow free-spirited Kiwi travellers, and we all remark on the novelty of savouring these time-honoured landmarks sans crowds of tourists.

The forest of selfie sticks was conspicuously absent. It felt like tripping through Mackenzie Country circa 1985. Tekapo was still sporting the aftermath of the previous weekend’s snowfall, caking Two Thumb Range in a deep and creamy paint job, while Mt John was fashionable flecked in a lighter coat of snow.

As the mercury plunged as fast as the dipping winter sun, I ventured across the road from my Tekapo abode, Peppers Bluewater Resort, to surrender to the unrivalled alpine bathing glory of Tekapo Springs.

Hydro Cafe, Twizel.
Hydro Cafe, Twizel.
Mercifully, the changing rooms are as toasty as a Finnish sauna, before succumbing to a few seconds of icy air, as you ‘‘stroll’’ at a brisk pace to one of the outdoor facility’s three hot pools — Ohau, Pukaki and Tekapo, which range from 36degC to 39degC.

Tekapo, a particularly soothing adults-only space, was perfect to watch the fleeting twilight give way to a canopy of inky-darkness in the wraparound alpine splendour.

If you’re up for a spot of star-gazing, Tekapo Springs’ guided tours have swung back into action.

Tekapo Springs’ stargazing manager Jack Randall says the company has been enjoying great numbers on the weekend night tours and is looking to ramp up its tour options. It’s one thing to gaze up at the glittering chandelier of constellations, but I’ve always found it better to be suitably navigated.

Hydro canals at Twizel and Ben Ohau Range. PHOTOS: MIKE YARDLEY
Hydro canals at Twizel and Ben Ohau Range. PHOTOS: MIKE YARDLEY
Dan was my sky guide at Tekapo Springs, sweeping us up in starry-eyed wonder. Through the telescopes set out on the deck of the Tahr Bar, we gazed at an array of celestial bodies, from the rings of Saturn to the intensity of star-birthing nebulae, revolving serenely above.

Dan’s knowledge and his engaging story-telling made for a compelling night.

The next day dawned crisp, clear and calm, so as the sun poked its head over Two Thumb Range, I pointed the car west on the Starlight Highway, passing the unrivalled radiance of Lake Pukaki, for a tootle around Twizel.

This plucky town of hydro dam creation is laced by canals that deftly serve as a super-sized mirror for the Ben Ohau range.

Church of the Good Shepherd. PHOTO: TEKAPO SPRINGS
Church of the Good Shepherd. PHOTO: TEKAPO SPRINGS
A lot of Twizel’s hospitality venues celebrate the town’s roots. Hydro Cafe is a playfully retro affair, with works project fittings and homely 1970s decor. Similarly, MOW Bar & Eatery is an evocative, celebratory salute to the guts and glory of the mammoth Ministry of Works project.

Just south of Twizel, High Country Salmon offers you the chance to feed alpine salmon, grab a coffee from the floating cafe and buy a fresh fish from the working salmon farm.

Another popular option is at the base of Lake Pukaki, where Mt Cook Alpine Salmon has set up a shop, stocking fresh fish, which are hand-fed and raised in the swift currents of the glacial waters of the Southern Alps.

It's impossible not to be uplifted and seduced by this superlative pocket of the Canterbury high country.

  • Mike Yardley is a freelance travel writer.


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