New Zealand or Aotearoa, as it’s known in Maori, is a country of stunning beauty, spectacular wildlife, pristine coastline and friendly people. Split into two main islands, North and South, it will keep you busy exploring all of the fascinating extremes it has to offer. According to Maori legend, Maui, a demi god and his brothers went out fishing in their waka, or canoe, and dropped a magic fish hook and pulled up a giant fish, known today as the North Island; the South Island is believed to be canoe. Even though Maoris are a minority, they are the largest one and so play a strong role in New Zealand life. Their woodcarving skills and work with jade is unique and an opportunity of seeing one of the Maori cultural performances is not to be missed. The South Island is home to some of the country's tourism highlights, including helicopter flights over the glaciers, whale watching in Kaikoura and seeing tiny blue penguins in Oamaru, to name but a few. The fact that the country sits on a fault line draws a lot of visitors to tours of geothermal areas and visits to the hot pools in Rotorua in the North Island, are highly recommended. The location comes with a price, however; the city of Christchurch was damaged badly during its last earthquake. It is slowly but surely recovering, however, and is once again becoming a popular destination with visitors from the world over. ~ Martina McAuley
If you’re looking for a stargazing experience that you’ll never forget, then take the Earth & Sky Night Tour at Mt. John Observatory, Lake Tekapo, New Zealand. It will leave an imprint on your memory like an etching that you can’t erase. The region is renowned for the clarity of its sky and freedom from light pollution. On top of that, Mt. John Observatory, which is the most southerly optical observatory in the world, boasts New Zealand’s largest telescope. So if you’re lucky enough to take a tour on a clear night, the sky will take off its cloak and present itself to you in all its glory.
The night tour starts at the Earth & Sky office in Tekapo, where you board buses that take you to the summit of Mt. John, a journey that takes about 30 minutes. There you’ll meet well informed astronomy guides who will help you navigate the southern sky outdoors using green laser pointers. The Milky Way, the Southern Cross, aurorae, meteor shows, constellations, supernovas and star clusters are just a few of the marvels you'll see as you peer through the 9.25-, 11- and 16-inch telescopes they provide.
I was particularly interested, when I took the tour, in a star cluster called 'the Jewel Box'. It’s a small cluster of stars near one of the pointers of the Southern Cross that can’t be seen with the naked eye. I asked the astronomers in charge of the 16 inch telescope if I could look at this cluster, and he very kindly obliged. Through this telescope, I could see the three stars in the centre of the cluster: one was red like a ruby, one was blue like a sapphire and one was white like a diamond, hence the name “the Jewel Box”. They sparkled like crown jewels in the night sky. If you’re interested in night sky photography and have a good camera with you, they have an astrophotographer there to help you take that magical photo. You can also enjoy a complimentary hot drink at the candlelit Astro Café.