Road trip on the Starlight Highway

What if it was the most beautiful place in New Zealand? In a country with no shortage of wonders, the south of the Canterbury region stands out for its beauty, just a three-hour drive from Christchurch. From Lake Tekapo to the summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook, the landscapes are extraordinary… by day and by night! Come with me for a road trip on the Starlight Highway that you won’t soon forget. I’ll also give you two great campsites suggestions to spend the night, in a tent or campervan!

Starlight Highway

New Zealand is a country where driving never gets boring. Landscapes are always stunning, and the most trivial trip can quickly take a lot longer than expected! If there is one place where this is particularly true, it’s the south of the Canterbury region. The further away you drive from Christchurch, the more spectacular the surroundings become. Little by little, the agricultural plains give way to hills and forests. The mountains approach inexorably on the horizon, a promise just waiting to become reality.

Fairlie marks the official beginning of the “Starlight Highway”. This section of State Highway 8 until Twizel as well as Mount Cook Road have been renamed in 2016. The goal: 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 already 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…


Lake Tekapo

If you start a road trip on the Starlight Highway, this will be you first stop. And what a stop! In almost seven weeks of travelling around New Zealand, not many places have amazed me as much as Lake Tekapo. The few pictures below will speak louder than words…

No, these photos are not fake! The water of Lake Tekapo really has this turquoise colour. It is due to the glaciers upstream. The friction of the thick layer of ice on the rock creates very fine particles called rock flour. When this “flour” is suspended in the water of the lake, it gives it this very unique colour.

Most tourists concentrate on the southern shore of the lake, next to Tekapo village. This is where the small Church of the Good Shepherd is located. Its ideal location makes it one of the most photographed buildings in New Zealand! To get away from the crowds, I advise you to take Godley Peaks Road on the right shortly after the village. Running along the west shore of the lake, it will allow you to reach different trails for breathtaking views.

Lake Pukaki

40km further along the Starlight Highway, it is Lake Tekapo’s big brother. It is approximately twice the size (178sq km compared to 87sq km), but it has the same glacial origin and therefore the same turquoise colour. The panorama might actually be even more beautiful. On a clear day, you can see the silhouette of Aoraki/Mount Cook in the distance, the highest summit of New Zealand!

During my trip in February 2018, it was possible to stay overnight for free on a campsite on the south shore of Lake Pukaki. It almost seemed too good to be true, especially for my very first night camping in New Zealand! However, it seems to still be accessible according to my research. It’s a very basic and windy spot, with a simple toilet building, but what a view when you wake up…

Mount Cook Road

To continue this road trip on the Starlight Highway, turn right onto Mount Cook Road, following the west shore of Lake Pukaki. About 12km after the junction, don’t miss Peter’s Lookout on the right. One of the most exceptional panoramas in New Zealand awaits you from this point.

Along the way, you can also stop at the Alpine Lavender Farm. Entrance is free – a perfect spot for those who want to take a selfie between the rows of purple flowers…

Mount Cook Village

It’s in this small tourist village that Mount Cook Road ends. From there, you are only 15 km from Mount Cook, or Aoraki to use its Maori name. The two names are generally used simultaneously, but starting with Aoraki to symbolise the importance of this place in Maori culture.

It is an ideal starting point to explore the region. And you don’t need to be an experienced hiker for that! The Hooker Valley Track is a relatively flat trail, 10 km round trip, accessible to everyone. It leads to Hooker Lake, at the foot of Aoraki/Mt Cook. During my visit, a few small icebergs dotted the surface, coming from the glacier flowing into the lake.

The hike leading to Mueller’s Hut, on the other hand, is much more challenging. To get there, you will first have to overcome more than 2000 steps, then a very steep path to the top! At an altitude of 1800m, you will be rewarded with an exceptional panorama. It is possible to sleep in the refuge (well equipped, it has 28 beds), but you will need to book in advance, especially in high season.

Before leaving Mount Cook Village, take a little detour to Tasman Lake. A short walk will lead you to a nice lookout over Tasman Glacier across the valley. Sadly, you will see the effects of global warming from very close in this place. Just a few years ago, the glacier used to be so much bigger, but it keeps shrinking again and again…

You will find several hotels and lodges in Mount Cook Village, but if you are traveling in a tent or campervan, head to White Horse Hill campground. This 60-site spot managed by the Department of Conservation of New Zealand costs between $15 and $18 per night. It can quickly feel quite jam-packed when full (bookings recommended during high season), but a big advantage is that this is where the trails to Hooker Lake and Mueller’s Hut start from.


Whether at this campsite, at the one mentioned above on the banks of Lake Pukaki, or anywhere along the Starlight Highway, get ready to observe a truly exceptional night sky. On a clear night, without clouds or Moon light, the view above your head will stay in your memory forever! There are few places in the world where I have been able to admire such a dazzling Milky Way… The Starlight Highway truly deserves its name!

This is where this road trip on the Starlight Highway ends, one of my best memories of New Zealand. Have you ever visited this region? What did you think of it? Share your experience in the comments!

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