Strung across the vast reaches of the Mackenzie Basin, connecting Fairlie to Tekapo, Twizel and Aoraki/Mount Cook, State Highways 8 and 80 have been evocatively renamed the Starlight Highway. It’s an alluring name, lustily highlighting Mackenzie’s global brag-power as the largest gold-standard International Dark Sky Reserve on the planet. A brief sojourn in Fairlie entailed popping into the feverishly popular Fairlie Bakehouse to devour one of Franz Lieber’s meaty parcels in pastry – a Pork Belly & Apple Sauce pie.
Purring through lonely Burkes Pass, past the retro Americana novelties, antiques and giftware delights of Three Creeks, the jagged snow-draped fangs of the mighty Southern Alps suddenly revealed their full glory at Dog Kennel Corner, commandeering the high country horizon.
My first overnight stop was in Lake Tekapo, where its obligatory to pay homage to the Sheep Dog statue and the sigh-inducing sweetness of the Church of the Good Shepherd. In conversation with some fellow free-spirited Kiwi travellers, we all remarked on the novelty of savouring these time-honoured landmarks sans the crowds. The global forest of selfie sticks was conspicuously absent. It felt like tripping through the Mackenzie circa 1985.
Tekapo was still sporting the aftermath of the previous weekend’s snow dump, caking Two Thumb Range in a deep and creamy paintjob, while Mount John was fashionable flecked in a lighter snow coat. As the mercury plunged as fast as the dipping winter sun, I ventured across the road from my Tekapo abode, Peppers Bluewater Resort, to surrender to the unrivalled alpine bathing glory of Tekapo Springs. Mercifully, the changing rooms are as toasty as a Finnish sauna, before succumbing to a few seconds of icy air, as you stroll, admittedly at a brisk pace, to the three hot pools gracing the outdoor facility, exquisitely bracketed in billowing tussocks and local vegetation.
A fleeting twilight soon yielded to the canopy of inky-darkness, as the glacial lake shimmered like an apparition under bright moonlight. You’ve got three hot pools at your disposal, Oahu, Pukaki and Tekapo, ranging from 36 to 39C. Tekapo is a particularly soothing adults-only space to commune with the wraparound alpine splendour. If you’re up for a spot of star-gazing, Tekapo Springs’ guided tours have swung back into action, unlike the bigger boys in town, the Dark Sky Project, which hastily hit the hibernation button, laying 90 people off.
Chatting to Jack Randall, Tekapo Springs’ Star Gazing manager, they’ve been enjoying great numbers on the weekend night tours and will look to extend tour options, across the week. It’s one thing to gaze up at the glittering chandelier of constellations spangling the night sky, but I’ve always found it all the more wondrous and enriching to be suitably navigated. Dan was my last ebullient sky guide at Tekapo Springs, sweeping us up in starry-eyed wonder. Through the telescopes set out on the deck of the Tahr Bar, we drooled in wonder over an array of celestial bodies, from the rings of Saturn to the intensity of star-birthing nebulae, revolving serenely above.
Dan’s commanding breadth of knowledge and his engaging story-telling made for a compelling night. It’s one thing to have an insane amount of astronomic knowledge, but being able to impart it in such a way that mere mortals can easily digest, takes real flair. You can blend the sky and pools together at Tekapo Springs, “floating” among the stars, sound-tracked by astro-music and more celestial story-telling. It’s the Milky Way’s powdered depth and texture that kept mesmerising me deep into the night. It’s the razor-sharp clarity of Tekapo’s skies that underscores its universal astro-tourism appeal. Soak it up. www.tekaposprings.co.nz
After a restful night at beautiful Peppers Bluewater Resort, the day dawned crisp, clear and calm as I feasted on the vista, overlooking millpond-smooth Lake Tekapo. The elemental architecture and natural palette decor of Peppers artfully celebrates the sense of place. Warm earthy tones of blue, brown, cream and beige bring the outside in. Stylish, contemporary accommodations are complemented with private balconies and fully-equipped with home comforts. You are so close to the mountains, you can smell the snow. It’s a magnificent retreat with a dress-circle view on Tekapo. Grab a suite or villa to suit. www.peppers.co.nz/bluewater/
The rugby field next to the resort would have to be a top contender as being one of New Zealand’s most photogenic sports grounds. Filling my lungs with pristine and freshly-chilled alpine air, the sun poked its head over Two Thumb Range, intensifying the brilliance of the lake’s blue hue. I pointed the car west on the Starlight Highway, passing the incomparable radiance of Lake Pukaki for a tootle around Twizel.
This plucky town of hydro dam creation, is laced by canals on its outer limits, that deftly serve as a super-sized mirrors on Ben Ohau Range. Cruise along the side of those glossy canals for Insta-perfection – my prime spot is Glen Lyon Road Bridge.
I love how Twizel’s hospo venues lustily celebrate the town’s roots. As the name would suggest, Hydro Café is a playfully retro affair with works project fittings and homely 1970s décor. Similarly, MOW Bar & Eatery is an evocative, celebratory salute to the guts and glory of the mammoth Ministry of Works project.
Synonymous with the Mackenzie, get your fill of fresh alpine salmon. Just south of Twizel, High Country Salmon offers you the chance to feed the fish, grab a coffee from the floating café and buy some fresh salmon from the working salmon farm. Another popular option is at the base of Lake Pukaki, where Mt Cook Alpine Salmon has set up a shop, stocking oh-so fresh fish, which are hand-fed and raised in the swift currents of the glacial waters of the Southern Alps.
It’s impossible not to be uplifted and seduced by this superlative pocket of the Canterbury high country. For more touring tips and trip inspiration on exploring the legendary Mackenzie, head to www.mackenzienz.com