Gazing toward the stars on high


A passion for the stars saw the creation of Earth & Sky at Mt John Observatory in 2004. Eight years later it attracts more than 20,000 people annually.

Business reporter Emma Bailey talks to general manager Margaret Munro about the tourist operation.

MARGARET MUNRO Is the general manager of Earth & Sky, and started with the company in 2008. Previously she worked for the South Canterbury District Health Board for 14 years.

IMPRESSIVE BACKDROP: Earth & Sky at Mt John Observatory.
IMPRESSIVE BACKDROP: Earth & Sky at Mt John Observatory.

How did Earth & Sky come about?

Following a joint financial contribution towards a new international astronomy research programme instigated on Mt John in 2004, Hide Ozawa and Graeme Murray (two Lake Tekapo tourism operators) negotiated a lease with Canterbury University that gave them sole rights to operate a unique commercial tourism operation on the mountain. The two gentlemen both shared a passion for the stars and saw an exciting opportunity ahead of them. The business had a slow start, attracting mainly Asian customers, it wasn't until 2008/09 that there was a significant increase in European visitors.

What does Earth & Sky incorporate?

BIG TELESCOPE: Last light at Earth & Sky at Mt John Observatory.
BIG TELESCOPE: Last light at Earth & Sky at Mt John Observatory.

The business operates star-gazing and observatory tours both day and night and also operates the Astro Cafe which is situated on the summit of Mt John. We operate 364 days a year (closed only for Christmas day). The days in summer are long, our operation starts at 9am and finishes for the day at 2am to 3am.

What information are visitors most surprised by?

The distance between Earth and the closest star and the distance between stars, or the estimated number of stars in the Universe. Or the fact that on a clear day we are able to view stars through our telescopes on Mt John.

How many visitors does the business attract?

We had approximately 20,000 visitors attend our night tours last year. The Astro Cafe attracts a good number of visitors each year also, although actual numbers are unknown but it would be in the thousands.

What have these numbers grown from?

Visitor numbers to Earth & Sky night tours in 2008 were estimated to be around 9000, currently we are tracking to be well over 20,000 visitors.

What have been the challenges?

The weather is always our biggest challenge and frustratingly it is something we have no control over. Seeing the disappointment from visitors who have travelled to Lake Tekapo from all parts of the world to view our night skies and they are covered in cloud is really sad.

What have been the highlights?

There have been many - seeing happy and satisfied customers who do get to view a clear, dark and spectacular night sky from Mt John. Being recognised within the region and industry for operating an award-winning tourism operation. Having the region declared an International Dark Sky Reserve this year was a big milestone.

How many staff does Earth & Sky employ, what are their roles?

In summer we have our busiest time, so our staff numbers grow to 32 to 34, made up of fulltime and casual staff. We have a range of positions from astronomy guides, drivers, office staff and cafe staff. In winter when the international market slows we drop numbers to 24 to 26, this is also the time when our permanent staff enjoy their long-awaited leave. We are fortunate to have a very multi-national and intellectual group of staff. We offer our tours in Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin and English language options.

Where to from here?

The aim is to continue growth into new emerging international tourism markets. Also to establish a top-class astronomy centre for Lake Tekapo, based in the village. This will complement our operation on Mt John and help us out on bad weather nights. Watch this space.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up on a farm in Ikawai, which bordered the Waitaki River. I claim to be a loyal South Cantabrian, despite living so close to North Otago.

What is your favorite food?

Can't beat a good lamb roast and roast vege.

What is your favorite song?

Hard to say as I enjoy so many songs.

If the world ended tomorrow what would you be proudest of?

My family.

Who is someone who has inspired or mentored you?

My hubby – Peter, he has spent the last 30 plus years inspiring me to challenge myself.

The Timaru Herald