Communion Of Dreams


Scenes from a trip: into the heart of darkness.
November 24, 2011, 12:19 pm
Filed under: Astronomy, Light pollution, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Science, Space

They say on a clear night you can see forever. But would the clouds ruin everything?

That was the forecast.

* * * * * * *

We breakfasted, then loaded onto the bus for the airport. A quick and easy jaunt through the security checkpoint (the agents knew we were Americans, made quips about how we didn’t have to act like cattle in their country) and then a 45 minute flight south to Christchurch.

We met our new bus driver there – like the one on the North Island, he was friendly, knowledgeable, personable. We got a brief drive around Christchurch, a chance to see some of the damage and rebuilding going on from the earthquakes earlier this year. The choir had originally been scheduled to perform in Christchurch Cathedral. We went by to see it. Or, I should say, what is left of it. There’s still a big debate going on in New Zealand over whether it is practical to salvage *any* of the structure.

After that drive-around, we went to the Canterbury Museum and the adjacent Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Martha and I opted to walk the gardens, which was wonderfully relaxing and beautiful. Many of the plants were in full bloom, it was sunny and warm, ducks were in and out of the Avon River, there were families with children and school groups.

Then it was on to Lake Tekapo, located in the center of the South Island, up in the Southern Alps.

* * * * * * *

It was a wet and rainy drive, very spring-like, but colder than it had been up on the North Island. The landscape reminded me very much of the inter-mountain area of western Colorado, between the different ranges of mountains. We stopped for snacks along the way, and Martha discovered the joy of hokey-pokey.

We rolled into Lake Tekapo, out the other side in an instant. There’s not much there. To our hotel, an odd sort of place called Peppers Resort. Oh, it was nice enough, but the place is sorta like an apartment or condo, with a bedroom downstairs and then a large family room and fairly complete kitchen upstairs. Which was fine, except that a second bedroom was glommed-on to some of the units, and the people in that bedroom would have to access the upstairs by going through the bedroom-bathroom hallway of the other one.

Further, the units were all scattered in clusters over a fairly large campus, meaning that you had to walk outdoors for long stretches, and most of them were some distance from the meeting areas and clubhouse. It wouldn’t be bad for someplace where the weather was always warm and nice, but here it had us scratching our heads a bit.

* * * * * * *

Martha and I got settled in, then decided that since the weather was clearing, we’d walk the short distance into the small town, have a look around.

Lake Tekapo is quite lovely, and the small town is pleasant enough. Here’s a good shot of the lake, just behind the small commercial strip:

* * * * * * *

We had a large buffet dinner that evening with other members of the tour. It was quite good.

Then after, the reason we were there: the Mount John Observatory.

It’s New Zealand’s premier observatory, operated under the auspices of the University of Canterbury. Mount John isn’t all that tall – just about a thousand meters above sea level at the top – but it is located in one of the least light-polluted places in New Zealand. The lack of other ambient light sources means that it is easier to see the stars.

They took us to the top of the mountain in vans, handing out loaner parkas. Because it is bloody damned cold up there, and the wind is always intense. One of the guides said that the location held the record for highest wind speed in NZ – some 250 km/h (150 mph), and that sent the domes of the observatory tumbling.

We spent several hours with the different guides, all grad students and staff of the observatory, looking through 16″ and 9″ telescopes and with the naked eye. Unfortunately, there was a quarter-moon up, so it was harder to see the Milky Way, but it was still some of the best sky viewing I’ve had anywhere in my life, and of the Southern Hemisphere. Wonderful!

It was getting on to midnight when they bundled us back in the vans and down to our rooms.

Jim Downey


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