If you start a road trip from Christchurch and decide to head South, you’ll have two options: take the highway following the coast until Dunedin and the beautiful Catlins, or head towards the mountains via the Starlight Highway. If that’s the way you’re choosing get ready to explore one of the most beautiful places of New Zealand, with turquoise lakes, stunning mountains and as the name suggests, fantastic night skies… Let’s go!
Since the end of 2016, Mount Cook Road and the State Highway number 8 connecting Fairlie to Twizel have been officially renamed “Starlight Highway” in order to make the region an internationally go-to place for stargazing. In 2012, a 4300sq km area around Twizel, Tekapo and Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park was also classified as a “Dark Sky Reserve”, with the intent of controlling light pollution and restricting the use of artificial light. It’s the biggest of its kind in the world, and the only one in the Southern Hemisphere. See more pictures of this so special night sky further on this article…
When I first saw Lake Tekapo, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The colour of the water in front of me wasn’t blue: it was pure turquoise. It was my very first day exploring New Zealand and after 6 weeks in this country I still haven’t found many places that could compare to the stunning beauty of Lake Tekapo. A few pictures will be better than any words…
Lake Pukaki is the twin brother of Lake Tekapo: the same extraordinary colour, surrounded by the same beautiful mountains. There are two things that might make this one even better though: on a clear day, you can see the silhouette of Mount Cook (or its Maori name Aoraki), the highest mountain of New Zealand (3724m) on the other side, and the fact that you can camp for free directly next to the lake. Not a five star campsite if you’re considering the facilities (only basic dry toilets), but a million star place when night comes (see below).
A road follows the bank of Lake Pukaki to the village of Mount Cook. On the way, don’t miss Peter’s lookout, where you would be able to take a perfect postcard picture of the road, the lake and the majestic mountain in the background.
Another quick stop on the way would be the Alpine Lavender farm. It’s a free entrance, allowing you to walk between the rows of lavender, breathe the lovely smell and observe the bees flying from one flower to another. There’s also a tiny shop providing many lavender related products.
Mount Cook village is the starting point of many different hikes, and a place where you could easily spend a couple of days. The most popular is called Hooker Valley track and will lead you to Hooker Lake, directly below Mount Cook. It’s an easy walk (10kms – 3 hours return) but offering some amazing views so definitely a great option if you don’t feel like going on a long difficult hike.
Another popular walk, but way more challenging: the climb to Muellers Hut. The first half of the track consists ofseveral stairs totalling almost 2,000 steps, followed by a steep path until the summit and finally the hut itself a bit further. You’ll be happy when you’ll finally get there! The view over the valley and Mount Cook in front of you is absolutely tremendous.
You can spend the night in the hut (there are 28 beds and good facilities) and walk down the next morning, but don’t forget to book way in advance as it gets quickly full during the high season.
Before leaving the Mount Cook area, take a little detour to Tasman Lake and do the short walk to a nice lookout over Tasman Glacier across the valley. Sadly it’s also a first-hand experience with the effect of global warming: just a few years ago, the glacier used to be so much bigger and it keeps shrinking again and again…
As you’ve probably realised so far, the whole region between Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook is gorgeous during the day; but wait until night comes… This place is supposed to be one of the best, if not the best of all New Zealand for stargazing. On a clear night with no clouds and no moon, the sight above your head will be unforgettable: millions of stars and the whole Milky Way over the silhouettes of the mountains! Take a look by yourselves… The pictures below have been taken from the free campsite next to Lake Pukaki and from the DOC campsite (13$/night) at Mount Cook village.
The road trip I did on the Starlight Highway is definitely one of my best memories of New Zealand and I would have loved to spend more time enjoying this beautiful region. I hope you’ll like it as much as I did!