Mackenzie’s Heavenly Features

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. Two Thumb Range was caked in a deep and creamy paintjob, while Mount John was fashionably 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 snow 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 in the Southern Hemisphere’s largest dark sky reserve, Tekapo Springs’ guided tours are a celestial delight. 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 and its galactic core that kept mesmerising me deep into the night.



Tekapo Star Gazing is now entering its fourth year, introducing guests to the wonder of the dazzling Southern night skies. The tour is a unique blend of astronomy and storytelling, transporting guests to the limits of outer space followed by an exclusive hot pool experience – a soak in the stars! The clarity is sensational, especially in July which sees the gas giants of Jupiter and Saturn come out to play earlier in the evening. It’s the razor-sharp clarity of Tekapo’s skies that underscores its universal astro-tourism appeal. Soak it up.



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 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 unrivalled 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.



From Twizel, I then ventured north, turning off the main highway, bound for Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, as snow-draped landscapes and the theatrical vertical grandeur shuffled closer into view. This gilded landscape of awe and saga, the shifting light, the ruffled immensity, the loneliness, constantly impelled me to regularly pull over to take another photo. Arriving at Mt. Cook village, a world of wondrous walking opportunities await. The most surprising aspect to Aoraki/Mt. Cook’s surrounding terrain is just how easily accessible it is.



You don’t need to be a woolly mountaineer or mountain-goat fit to undertake intimate wilderness walks that get you blissfully up-close with our highest peaks and glaciers. Routinely decorated as New Zealand’s greatest day walk, the Hooker Valley Track is a gentle 3 hour jaunt.  Leading up the valley with unbelievably good viewpoints like Alpine Memorial, you’ll traverse golden tussocks, swing bridges, get up close with the Mueller and Hooker Glacier, and be rewarded with celestial views of Mt. Cook and the Southern Alps. If you’re planning a trip later in the year, the added spectacle of summer wildflowers like the famed Mount Cook buttercup, heighten the spectacle, and the tawny snow tussocks blaze with white and yellow flowers.



I also adore the Kea Point Track, which starts from The Hermitage, and can be easily nailed within 2 hours. It’s also a relatively flat walk, emblazoned in golden tussock and subalpine grasslands, leading you to the Mueller Glacier moraine wall. The walk culminates with sumptuous close-up views of Mt. Sefton, The Footstool, Aoraki and the Mueller Glacier lake. As I experienced, the monastic silence is only pierced by the thunderous booms of calving ice, breaking away from the glacier at its terminal. My third must-do walk is in the Tasman Valley, a quick 8km drive from the Hermitage. The short 40 minute return walk to Tasman Glacier Lake slinks past the Blue Lakes to a viewpoint on the moraine walls, lording over Tasman Glacier’s terminal face.



The walk has a gradual incline, but keep it leisurely paced and you’ll be fine. The glacier terminal lake is frequently speckled with icebergs, adding to the unplugged drama of this stunningly primal walk. There were numerous ice floats on my visit in June. Winter can also see the lake freeze over. The southward views across Tasman Valley are sigh-inducing. The lake is a recent chapter in history formed only in 1974, as New Zealand’s longest glacier retreated. Once 100km long, it now stretches for 27km.



Part of the track actually leads through the glacier’s old terminal moraines (rock and stone debris left when a glacier retreats), marking the foot of the glacier and its subsequent retreat, vividly illustrating nature is ever-changing. It’s impossible not to be uplifted by this superlative domain of the Canterbury high country.



Celebrate the elements of the winter wonderland. For more tips and insider recommendations on exploring Christchurch and Canterbury this winter, check out the official website, chock-full with trip inspiration.


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