Mountains have a way of making you feel small, never more so than when you're in an eight-seater plane, skirting the cloud-piercing peak of Aoraki-Mt Cook.
We are flying at 3000 metres, and the mountain's south face looks to be just a few wing lengths away. "It's really about a mile from us," says pilot Tim Rayward as the plane does a gentle turn. This is Air Safaris' Grand Traverse, an hour-long flight from Lake Tekapo that takes in two national parks, a dozen glaciers, several lakes and a scattering of high country stations.
It really has to be the cheat's way of getting a view of the Southern Alps. No pack, no crampons, no ropes - just a nicely heated plane with big windows to frame the view. The mountains stretch along the faultline like a broken wall, blocking most of the weather from the west. On the Mackenzie Country side it's all blue skies, tussock and merinos, while just a 20-minute flight away on the West Coast, clouds sulk over the glaciers and rainforests.
The plane flies low enough for us to pick up the details. Near the top of one peak, I can see where heli-skiers have left ski tracks in the snow. The glaciers, a little grey and worn when you see them from the valley floor, look as luscious as freshly scooped icecream from the top. "The really big ones, like Franz Joseph, are about a kilometre deep in places," says Tim.
On the return leg, we swoop over Lake Pukaki. Like Lake Tekapo, it's an intense turquoise, milky with dust from rocks ground down by ancient glaciers. Both lakes maintain a more or less glacial temperature during the year. Boating, rowing and waterskiing are popular in summer but despite their swimming-pool hue, you'd only think about taking a dip in the lakes on the very hottest of summer days. And it does happen here; in the Mackenzie Basin summer temperatures often soar to more than 30 degrees Celsius.
We take our dip in the pools at the Alpine Spring Spa & Winter Park, just above Lake Tekapo. Miniature replicas of the lakes, they are all heated at a very respectable 36-40C. Here I meet a couple of North Canterbury farming families who bring their children for a week's break at Lake Tekapo every year. "It's still not over-touristy here," says one of the farmers approvingly.
Perversely, the busiest part of the township is the serene little Church of the Good Shepherd down by the lake. Rumoured to be one of the most heavily photographed buildings in New Zealand, it draws tourists by the busload. A few steps away, there's the statue of a sharp-eyed collie, a tribute to the Mackenzie Country's sheepdogs. "Without them, the hills would be alive with feral sheep," says a tour guide darkly.
I don't know about feral, but the merinos here do have a slightly feisty look, perhaps in keeping with the wildness of the landscape. It's incredibly beautiful, but daunting. I find myself wondering what my great-grandmother, brought up among the lush green valleys of County Limerick, would have made of it when she came here in the 1850s to work as a nursemaid at one of the big sheep stations.
Since those days, Tekapo has grown - but not too much. The little town does have restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops but if you're after the bright lights, this is literally the wrong place. All street lights are down-lit so they don't interfere with astronomical research at nearby Mt John observatory. Visitors are welcome on night or day tours. And yes, according to Mt John astronomer and guide Ade Ashford, it is possible to see the stars by daylight. "You just need to know where to look," he says.
You might miss the view of the lake on the night tour, but getting there is part of the fun. Our tour bus crawls up the steep hill road using parking lights only. We're told not to switch on torches or use light from mobile phones but to let our eyes adjust naturally to the pitch black. Surprisingly, this happens after a few minutes, to the point that light from a car at least 30 kilometres away looks like a searchlight beam in the darkness. "We are really only lit by starlight now," says Ade.
The observatory here has one of the clearest views of the southern sky, something that Ade reckons particularly impresses visitors from the northern hemisphere.
"There are more bright stars in the southern sky anyway, but there is also far less light and air pollution. It really gives us the edge." Plans are under way to create the world's first Unesco starlight reserve down here - a kind of park in the sky - so there are likely to be further restrictions on lighting.
We're encouraged to look through the telescopes at the moons of Jupiter, photograph the moon and use the tripods to make photos of stars tracking across the sky, all in starlit conditions. It's both fascinating and freezing, so ducking into the candlelit Astro Cafe for a cocoa is a welcome relief.
Getting there: Lake Tekapo is 3½ hours' drive from Christchurch. Flightseeing: Air Safaris' Grand Traverse flight costs $295 an adult and $195 a child. Accommodation: There is accommodation to suit all budgets and requirements, including hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, backpackers, rental cottages, holiday homes and camping grounds. See: peppers.co.nz/bluewater tekapoholidayhomes.co.nz laketekapo-accommodation.co.nz laketekapountouched.co.nz mtcooknz.com
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