Tuesday 9 June 2015

Little Lakes, Big Skies- Tekapo

Godley Peaks Road leaves the main road just south of Tekapo and reaches far up the west side of Lake Tekapo into the Godley Peaks Conservation Area and the foot of the Southern Alps. The Godley River feeds Lake Tekapo at the head of the lake along with a number of glaciers, including the Godley Glacier. We’re not travelling that far today, it’s about 60kms on a mostly rough gravel road through a number of large high country sheep stations.

We’re only going to explore the first 20kms or so before returning and driving to the top of Mt John to visit the observatory.

Not far along the road a DOC sign sits beside a gravel track that leads off into the tussock; Ben Ohau Range can be seen on the horizon, this range follows Lake Pukaki all the way up to Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain.

I open the gate and we drive along  to a worn patch of tussock, a lookout of sorts. Behind us is Mt John and high up on top are the telescope domes from the observatory.

And down in front of us on the edge of the lake, tucked into a sheltered hollow in the tussock plain, is a small gathering of fishing huts.

And laid out in front of us, reaching off into the distance is the narrow Lake Alexandrina (Maori name- Whakatukumoana), a wildlife reserve and obviously a fishing mecca with salmon and trout available, both rainbow and brown.

We wind our way down into the settlement and find it deserted except for a couple in a car on the waterfront having a cup of tea- they leave just after we arrive and we are left on our own in this totally amazing setting, hidden from the world around us. We drive along the waterfront to the end of the huts and park on the lake edge to have lunch. The views are stunning and the silence is deafening.

I walk back along the road taking photos of the huts along the way, there are three rows tiered back off the lake edge. And some of the ‘huts’ are a little more substantial than these ones. Gravel paths and tracks separate the huts from each other and nearly every one has a bit of the owners quirky personality on show; a horse shoe tacked to the door of a long drop, an animal skeleton wired to a netting fence, a sign on a deck "Refreshment Centre BYO", flotsam & jetsam collected from beaches & rivers . Back near the entrance to the huts is a small ‘camping ground’, a level grassed area where camping is allowed at the rather steep price of $20 a night.

Small jetties and dozens of up-turned dinghies line the lake front, no motorized boats are allowed on Lake Alexandrina. The fishing season is closed at the moment hence the reason the ducks and us have the place to ourselves. David sets the deck chairs up at the back of the ute, we use the tailgate as a table as we sit in the warm autumn sunshine eating our lunch and soaking up the peaceful surroundings and beautiful views up the lake. Life sure is tough.

Afterwards we head back to Godley Peaks Road and continue on up the road turning down another gravel road a few kilometres further on. We pass a small lake on the way in, deciding to stop at Lake McGregor on our way back later. The road ends on the shores of Lake Alexandrina again, a little over half way up the lake. There’s another fishing settlement at the end of the road, although not the huts of the previous community, these look more like holidays homes, a little more substantial than the others.

There’s also a fast flowing outlet stream beside the settlement, this stream feeds into Lake McGregor which in turns feeds into Lake Tekapo. David was standing on the bridge scanning for trout when he let out a yell as a big one jumped just off the outlet. I was taking a photo of the houses at the same time and if you look carefully in the picture above you’ll see the splash as it landed back in.

An information board in the carpark alerted us to the fact that there were Grebes (Australasian Crested Grebe) on the lake and sure enough as we walked along the shore under the willows we spotted not one, but three grebes out in the middle of the lake.

But once again they were too far out for me to get any decent shots. It looked like one of the birds was a juvenile and a parent was driving it away, they were scrapping a bit before the parent swam back in and started displaying with it’s partner. You can see a tiny dot in the right background, that’s the young bird.

While we were watching these three, another grebe came cruising by from further down the lake, a little closer but still not good for my lens. I included this shot though because here you can see the profile of the grebes large unusual foot. They spend all their lives on the water, their strong legs are set way back on their bodies to help with diving and the large feet help with swimming. They move through the water, both above and below very fast.

After watching the birds for a long while and with them not getting any closer, we left Lake Alexandrina and stopped on the side of Lake McGregor on the way out.

There’s a freedom camping spot on the edge of the lake, I’m sure it would be stunning in the summer but I thought the people in their tents must be very hardy(or very foolish), the overnight temperatures have been in the negatives most nights with heavy frosts on the ground well into the afternoon.

There was great excitement when we spotted another two grebes swimming very close to the lake edge. But by the time I moved in for a close up they had dived and surfaced further out towards the centre. And the one I did manage to get in a reasonable light was another juvenile. Oh well, I’m slowly working my way to getting a decent shot. Patience is the key. One day I will strike it lucky. In the end we saw 7-8 grebes on Lake McGregor, a good number for an endangered species.

We carried on further up the road for a short distance to see where the outlet from the two lakes ran into Lake Tekapo. There’s a large river (stream) delta and mudflat area near the outlet, this is also where the rare Black Stilt/Kaki breeds. There were a number of signs warning against disturbing the birds when they were breeding in the spring. We didn’t venture out onto the mudflats although had I had a bit more time I might have gone for a walk to check if there were any stilts in the area- unlike many birds, they don’t leave for the winter.

A little further on we turned around and headed back down the road stopping on a high point so I could get a photo looking up Lake Tekapo towards the mountains.

Our last visit for the day was to the top of Mt John where the Observatory is located. The road is narrow and winding and there’s plenty of traffic including many large motorhomes. Motorhomes driven by people who can’t read- downhill traffic must give way. We were forced off the road a couple of times by white knuckled people peering over the top of oversized steering wheels. To be fair, I don’t blame them, in a number of places it was straight down over the edge.

From the carpark at the top the views are glorious- it’s just a pity the sun sits so low in the sky at this time of the year, the best views are looking straight into it. Here’s a different view of Lake Alexandrina, you can see the road into the fishing village (the first one we visited). The huts are down in the trees on the left and the second settlement we visited is right up the top on the right where the lake meets the edge of the photo. The grid lines in front of the trees directly below are some sort of plant research.

And this pano shows the three lakes; Alexandrina to the left, tiny McGregor in the centre and Tekapo to the right.

And on the other side of Mt John’s carpark we overlook the township of Tekapo, There’s a little white spot on the edge of the pine trees, near the left edge of the photo behind a few bare trees. That’s where the NZMCA Park is located.

This township photo is a little clearer, the Tekapo River outlet is clearly visible- about all that you can see of the river, it’s immediately directed underground and into a hydro tunnel that takes it underneath the township to a power station a couple of kilometres out of town. The Church of the Good Shepherd can be seen on the far bank of the river near the lake edge.

The MacKenzie Basin has one of the most spectacular night skies in the world and is in fact the Southern Hemisphere’s first dark sky reserve and the world’s biggest. Aoraki MacKenzie International Dark Sky Reserve covers 4300sq kms of the MacKenzie Basin and takes in the villages of Tekapo, Twizel & Mt Cook who all have lighting regulations for their street lights to keep light pollution to a minimum. Residents are also asked to contribute to the low light too, all lights must face down, not up.

With a high number of clear nights throughout the year and the dark light-pollution free skies, Mt John is an ideal location for astronomers to watch the night sky.

The clear skies and low levels of local light pollution have helped astronomers put Mt John observatory on the international map with observations and discoveries in the southern sky. The observatory runs nightly tours (and shorter day tours) for visitors, I was keen to do a tour but balked a bit at the $140 price tag. I decided I could step outside the van any night I liked to see the amazing sky above but in fact found it way too cold to spend any length of time outdoors at this time of the year. Maybe I’ll do the tour when we’re next back through here, it was something that I had marked down to do.

One last photo of the cloud spilling over the Tekapo Saddle, across the lake on the Two Thumb Range. I’d been keeping an eye on it for a few hours as it appeared on the top of the saddle and started rolling down into the valley. By the time we left Mt John it was fast approaching the bottom.

What an unusual sight when there’s not another cloud in view.


  1. Looks so, so peacefull and serene...what a magical area!

    1. Just what you need to recuperate Jimu, though I suppose you'll have to make do with the photos. Hope all is going well.

  2. Thanks Shellie, Slowly coming right, even working on my first blog this year, will send a link for you & David.
    Ps the grebe doesn't stand a chance against your camera...just a matter of time!


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