New Zealand, South Pacific

South Pacific Part 7: Stargazing at Lake Tekapo and 3 Hours Hike Mount Cook

With less than 4 hours of sleep to catch our early morning flight at 7:10 AM to Queenstown arrived at 9:00 AM, we were tired but once we stepped out the airport, the fresh mountain air woke us up! We gave Apex Car Rental a call and they sent their shuttle over to pick us up to the office. First thing I asked was, can I use my credit card because I forgot to bring my husband’s credit card? The guy in the office said no problem and in the contract there’s a designated area for the credit card holder’s signature, phew! I did purchased full insurance since it wasn’t that much of a difference and the United credit card (that offers primary rental insurance) does not cover New Zealand. So with just little extra money for a peace of mind! The 9 days rental was very reasonable at $48 NZD per day and the zero excess full cover insurance at $14 NZD per day totaling $558 NZD for 9 days. The paperwork process was quite fast, we were given a Driving in New Zealand guide and initiated that we read that and understand the rule etc. However, it did took them a long time to find us the car! The car on the contract somehow was not available for whatever reason so they found us another one which is like a 15+ years old Toyota yikes! Since we waited for so long and wanted to get on the road right away, we didn’t ask for a better car (I regretted that we didn’t because it turned out that the car doesn’t even have cruise control)! It was the second time I failed to check that the car has cruise control before we leave the rental office (first time was in Iceland)… poor Jason has to drive hundreds of miles without cruise control! Please make sure your rental car has cruise control, it really helps since most of the roads are nearly empty and you don’t want to be over the speed limit!

Queenstown is one of the easiest airports to find our way out and head to the right direction! Our first destination in the South Island is Lake Tekapo…a 3 hours drive away. Another hint of driving in New Zealand, do not create your itinerary based on the driving time from Google Maps, in many cases, it took longer especially with beautiful landscapes in New Zealand that you’ll for sure make few stops along the way so remember to factored that in!

Weather wasn’t perfect, it was cloudy but the views on the way were very dramatic like you would only found in National Geographic!

I got my camera out and put it on my lap, I didn’t even turn it off so I can always be ready to take a snap shot!

Midway, we stopped at a small parking lot where it is the start of some trail to take a break and take photos:

Continued on our way, perhaps after 2 hours of drive, I noticed on both side of the roads were filled with purplish plants….some of them are lupines!!!! That really got me excited because I have seen absolutely goregous photos on the internet of Lake Tekapo and the blooming field of lupines! If you followed my blog, back in May, my coworker and I took a weekend trip up to New Hampshire for the lupine festival in hope to photograph a field of lupine but it turned out we were there too early; not in full bloom yet! I was thinking maybe I have luck here! I read that the blooming time in Lake Tekapo is around end of Nov into early/mid December……and we were there early January so I didn’t really think we could make it….but this gave me a little hope:

In Iceland, you’ll see more sheep than people, similarly in the South Island, you’ll see more cows and sheep than people! I was really shocked by those large endless green carpet like grass field with huge metal structured water spraying system all for food for cows and sheep!

Then within an hour reaching our destination, we could see from far away, the snow-capped mountain oh wow!!!

Even though it was cloudy, as we were approaching Lake Pukaki, its bright eye-blinding turquoise colored lake totally blew off my expectation! And with that snow-capped mountain on the background, it looked so surreal! We parked at the visitor center there to take photos and use the restrooms!

Inside the visitor center, they are selling Mount Cook Alpine salmon! I heard it’s a must try so we bought a box for $30 NZD (I think it was 500 gram?). I wasn’t too thrilled that they charged extras for chopsticks, wasabi, and soy sauce for like 50 cents each and were very tiny packet too…..grrrrr!!!!

We pulled into another small parking area for more photos around that lake!

And also while driving, it was incredible!

We finally reached Lake Tekapo at 1:30 pm and before we check into our place, I suggested that we go for lunch first, who knows when will restaurants be closing? As soon as we arrived Lake Tekapo village, it was quite small with few restaurants, a gas station, a tour office, some souvenir shops, and a little supermarket. Parking was hard to find there! I read good reviews on Kohan Japanese Restaurant so we went there, the place was packed with tourists but since we arrived late for lunch, we were seated without the wait.

As appetizer, Jason ordered salmon sashimi, this few pieces cost $15 NZD!!! The box we bought was at least 4x more than that amount! I am not a raw seafood person but wanted to try it out to see the difference than the ones at home. It was so different and so delicious…yea I can’t believe I used the word delicious on raw seafood! Salmon at home I felt like it tasted fatty and very soft in texture that after two pieces, I felt I am done. The Mount Cook salmon on the other hand does’t taste fatty at all and more rigid in texture so it doesn’t feel slimy which is one of the reasons I don’t like raw seafood!

My husband and I ordered the teriyaki chicken lunch set and I was totally disappointed by the quality of it! It was the second worst teriyaki chicken I ever had in my entire life (the worst was in the tourist trap restaurant near the Leaning Tower of Pisa), it tasted like the chicken was precooked and when order, they just pour some sauce on it and reheat it! It was like mass production for tourists, I was shocked on how it got such great reviews on Trip Advisor!

My brother ordered the chicken katsu don (omelettes) on rice and it tasted a little bit better but still can tasted that the chicken was pre-made!

Our cafeteria style lunch cost a restaurant price at $72 NZD, one of our most expensive lunch! We walked to the supermarket to buy some breakfast items and snacks. I got eggs, manuka honey smoked ham, sodas, breads, a tube of wasabi, and a bottle of soy sauce (for our salmon)!

Afterward, we drove to Lake Tekapo Holiday Homes to check in and get the keys to our holiday home. I booked via when I saw the house with good views of the lake! The house was up on the hill with a very steep gravel driveway…we had to drive very slowly to get up and down. Then first thing I saw after I open the glass door was the laundry room. It has a washer (another reason I booked a house so we can wash our clothes in order to pack light) but no dryer!!!

The house has 3 bedrooms so can easily fit 8 people! The first bedrooom has 3 single beds:

Extremely spacious and comfortable living room and look the painting hang on the’s Santorini!!!

The open kitchen and dining table (my work table):

My master bedroom with my own bathroom, yay no need to fight with my brother! We can see Lake Tekapo from our bed!

Brother’s room all for himself!

The bathroom on the back of the kitchen, modern and clean! The lights on the top served as heater, the heat blasted off from there made me super comfortable after shower; no more stepping out of the shower and be cold!

Better than home!

The deck with a grill, if we have more people on the trip, we’ll definitely have a BBQ party there!

This was the view from the dining table….I sat on the dining table to finish some work (yea I brought my work laptop with me on the trip) and every time I looked up, I had this view!

The grass was very comfortable that I walked out bare foot!

The view from our holiday home! I was so glad that I booked early (April 2015 for stay on Jan 2016) to secure the wonderful house, I kept looking afterwards for better and less expensive place but couldn’t find any. Actually, when I checked a month before our trip, it was almost completely booked in Lake Tekapo! It’s a very popular South Island destination! It cost $407 USD for two nights; it’s a bit more expensive than others I booked in the trip in New Zealand but total worth for the view and extra space!

Jason and my brother took a little nap; after all we only got 4 hours of sleep last night before heading out to dinner. For dinner, we checked Mackenzie’s Stone Grill but it was completely booked! I made a reservation for the next day dinner. So then we walked to Jade Palace, their prices were quite expensive! But at least the food quality wasn’t tourist trap like Kohan’s! We ordered the spicy soup beef (known as water boiled beef) an authentic Sichuan dish.

The seafood stir fried with green beans, didn’t I tell you that we love New Zealand scallops?

The fried tofu, that was quite yummy, and they were so smart to fried an egg on the sizzling hot plate so the tofu doesn’t stick on the plate!

It was definitely more filling and satisfied at $92.70 NZD!

After dinner, the sky was very gloomy and the wind started to blow like crazy so we went back to house and stayed warm. The sunset was stormy like this:

It was very cloudy that I know we had no hope to photograph the Milky Way tonight! For those of you who doesn’t know, Lake Tekapo received a gold star from some association of dark skies, only 4 places in the world has that designation for being the darkest and clearest sky place on earth for stargazing! This is also where the University of Canterbury Mt John Observatory located. I really don’t have much luck when it comes to best places to see this and that sigh!

All forgot to say how happy we were with finally free unlimited high speed internet access!!!! We catch up with some dramas while having delicious salmon as “midnight snacks” and waiting for our clothes to wash. There was no dryer but has a drying rack outside the house, however, the sky looked like it could rain anytime so we didn’t take chances. Instead, we hang our clothes on jacket rack and chairs to dry overnight. I packed a ziplock bag with fabric softener (didn’t get to use them as there was no dryer) and four Tide Pods (those are very convenient for travel by the way) for our laundry.

I did occasionally looked out for “miracle” but it didn’t happened 🙁 Good night Lake Tekapo, hopefully for better luck tomorrow!

The next morning, I was up before the crack of dawn to work while hoping to watch the sunrise in front of me….it was still cloudy….I made ham and egg sandwich for breakfast but forgot to buy oil so had a hard time cleaning the pan. Oh yea the kitchen has everything we need to cook a meal except for oil! After breakfast, we started our day trip to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park! It was an hour drive away from Lake Tekapo and on the way, the sky became clearer and clearer yay!

We passed by Lake Pukaki again and look at that color!!!

We couldn’t resist but to drive into a little road that led to a campground for photos!

Snow-capped mountain became my favorite in the New Zealand trip! The lake got its blue color from the particles from the glacier so beautiful!

Alright alright let’s go we need to get there early for the 3 hours round trip hike before tour groups arrived! Look at the difference of the lake the weather make!

We were driving around the circumference of the lake to reach Mount Cook National Park, can’t get enough of Lake Pukaki!

The drive is very scenic and the one hour ride seemed so quick! I kept telling hubby don’t stop we’ll be back after the hike….and finally we still stopped for photos!

Back on track again….

And were getting nearer and nearer, I just couldn’t believe the view in front of my eyes!

We reached the visitor’s center in Mount Cook Village – the interior design is so unique with those semi-circle metal plates and when reflected by light, it created an optical illusion of a spiral lamp.

The view out of its window was as pretty as any painting!

There are restrooms inside the visitor’s center so we used that before our 3 hours hike! But first, a quick pull over for photos, Mount Cook I am coming!

This is what a perfect road trip looked like in my mind, what’s your ideal road trip looked like?

The start of the Hooker Valley trail is actually a few minutes drive from the visitor’s center but it was very easy to find (follow Hooker Valley Road) and it has a big parking lot/camping ground!

Treated portable water so fill up your bottles at the start of the trail and you’ll need it!

Our 3 hours hike start now across this mini bridge to Hooker Valley!

Not much shades along the way beside this and I left my hat in the car! On the other hand, it was quite windy so my hat wouldn’t be too convenient!

We walked pass by Alpine Memorial:

Watch out for those needles sticking out those plants, they are as sharp as cactus needles!

Viewing the Mueller Lake, the water is milky white instead of what I expected to be glacier water – alpine blue!

I am afraid of height but the awesome scenery totally draw me away!

Mueller Lake and the first swing bridge:

Every angle was postcard perfect!

Let’s march on…

I told you that I am afraid of height right? I am the extreme kind, anything over two stories tall would make my feet freeze! I kept my head up and did not dare to look down on the bridge! And it was windy that the bridge move ahhhhhhh!

But the bridge has the best angle of the lake and river so I stopped and took photos…I concentrated on the camera’s viewfinder! Magnificent landscape!

Us on the first swing bridge 🙂

And don’t forget to look back for its scenery! If you forgot that’s fine because it’s the same way return so you have a second chance if you missed some photo ops!

The water flow was very very strong and I bet freezing dangerously cold!

There were people on the track and even some coming back already but never felt packed! Also, it’s mostly flat like this and doesn’t require steep climb so even though it was 3 hours round trip (the longest hike I ever taken so far), it was very easy and enjoyable with nonstop “wow” views!

Every photo can be Facebook profile photo!

It got chiller and windier the further we go along the trail so don’t forget to bring a jacket!

We at Mount Cook National Park!

We reached the 2nd swing bridge, this one is longer and windier and my crazy brother was running on it to shake it which freaked me out!

I might looked calm but was nervous crossing…the swing bridges also limited to 20 people max per time!!!

We were 2/3 way there!

We spotted a picnic table and decided to take a mini break, we brought crackers with us and glad we did as it was almost 11 am already so a pre-lunch!


Time to walk that 1/3 way!

It got a little cloudy but not a bad thing so it cover the dangerous New Zealand sun here and there.

I wondered how it looked like back in the days when still covered with glacier….at Mount Cook National Park, I suddenly felt the effect of global warming! Once those glacier melted, they are forever gone 🙁

Between the 2nd and 3rd swing bridge, there’s a shelter there with restrooms but I didn’t use it so couldn’t tell you the condition of it!

A little bridge…not the 3rd swing bridge!

It was still a long way to go but I love this path and the grassy landscape!

“Oh yes, we are getting closer!”

At some points, it got so windy that I literally felt my feet were not touching the ground!

Mount Cook National Park is my favorite place in South Island despite the 3 hours hike!

Finally, the 3rd swing bridge!!

Oh boy this one was even more windy….but my brother totally had some fun!


Me crossing the bridge!

No one was waiting for us to cross the bridge so we took all the time we need to take photos! Of course I got to the other side of the bridge already and let hubby do the hard work!


I walked up to an open area to photograph this and all suddenly a strong wind blow by, I screamed and immediately kneel down afraid that I’ll be blown away, it was that gusty!

This part to the Hooker Lake was the most windy of all and when the wind blow up the little  rocks on the road, it really hurt! I used my hands and covered my face when it happens ahhhhh!

But still totally worth it for the views!

A huge rock looked like a bed!

We finally reached Hooker Lake!!!

It was that windy…”I believe I can fly!!!”

We stayed a few minutes there, finished our packet of crackers, drink water, rest, and started to walk back.

The wind was blowing like crazy on back of me and made my hairs hitting my face ouch…..I had to hide all my hairs inside my hoodie, at least it worked 😀

The walk back was quicker as we didn’t made as much stops as we did on the way to the lake but still took plenty of photos as we walk!

Back to the swing bridge:

Are those sand made the white milky color of the water?

I confirmed, there were some lupines still in bloom!

The last swing bridge:

It did took us 3 hours round trip and we were super hungry…I doubt we could made it back to Lake Tekapo for lunch so we had lunch at the cafe near the visitor’s center: Old Mountaineers. Brother and I shared a pizza:

While Jason ordered fried fritters. It was okay and not outrageously expensive as other food facilities inside a national park, total was $35.90 NZD. We got a table with good views!

The road back to Lake Tekapo, we made some stops of Lake Pukaki, that glacier blue color I’ll never forget!

There are a few viewing points on the way so it was nicely built for visitors to safely stop for photos.

It was so hard to find words to describe the beauty of the lake and the snow-capped mountain as the backdrop!

The clouds and clear sky was perfect!

We made it back to Lake Tekapo and planned to drive up to Mt John where the observatory is located for a panoramic view of Lake Tekapo and its surrounding mountains but the road was closed!!! What???? We had no choice but to turn back and went to Lake Tekapo to its most photographed church: Church of the Good Shepherd. It was a bit cloudy so it didn’t bring out the blue color of Lake Tekapo.

A lot of tourists were there so we walked to the back and took photos from there!

Finally we waited till people are gone to take a photo from the front of the church:

Then, we drove back to our home where we saw two wild rabbits!!! They were all over the place and usually ran away pretty fast as I tried to approach them.

We took a little rest before heading out for dinner which I made reservation the night before at Mackenzie’s stone grill. We had stone grill before at Cusco, Peru but it was brother’s first time and he really enjoyed the experience! I ordered the trio combo…2 beef steak and 1 lamb….yummy New Zealand beef and lamb! No need to add any sauce or flavoring, its own natural taste is the freshest and best!

Jason ordered a bigger portion of steak since they ran out of the shrimp while my brother ordered beef, vension, and chicken. We enjoyed our meal and it was not expensive at all at $87.50 NZD cheaper than our last night’s dinner at Jade Palace. After dinner, we took a stroll down to the lake to check it out to see if there’s any lupines left…NONE…except a few like this:

 We saw this group of ducks swimming down the river, cute cute cute!

We got back and it was almost sunset…look the sky got cleared again!

We waited till it gets dark…sunset was at 8:44 pm but it was not completely dark. We watch dramas and I was constantly checking out for….the Milky Way! I kept looking at the direction of the lake and just saw some stars…but no sign of the Milky Way hum….I checked the star apps on my phone but they were completely lost that I am in New Zealand! I downloaded another app called SkyView Free and it worked perfectly! Silly me, I was looking at the wrong direction!!! According to the app, the Milky Way is way behind on the back of our house! I stepped outside of our house and looked and immediately I saw the Milky Way! OMG it was unbelievable bright and clear that I don’t need to wait for my eyes to adjust to the darkness to see it, it was that bright and clear! I was so excited and ran back into the house and told Jason and my brother!!! They walked out to the door and saw it too!!! We went back into our room and dressed in as much layers as we could, grab the tripod, car key, and drove down to the church! The whole area was very dark, no street lights, and even the pathway/yard lights are all pointed down to reduce light pollution. I applaud the locals in Lake Tekapo to maintain its darkness to enjoy the magical sky!

We got to the parking lot of the church and turned on the little LED light on our cellphone to light the way down to the church. We didn’t flash our light here and there as I know many photographers might be there photographing the Milky Way and I was surprised to see so many photographers were there at 12:30 am!!! The stairs down from the back of the church was filled with photographers wow! We finally got to the back of the church and found an empty spot, set up the tripod, camera setting and shoot! I shoot the Milky Way before in Cinque Terre and in Rarotonga so I was familiar with the settings to get a good starting point. The hardest was to focus it since it was dark but someone was pointing their flashlight on the church so I quickly focused on the church and switched to the manual focus button on the lends. Focus locked and shoot!

We have never seen so much stars before with our naked eyes! As the camera was doing its 20 seconds exposure, our eyes were starring at the countless numbers of twinkling stars above our heads, it was truly a magical experience! Note that when we were there early in January, it was not the prime time for photographing Milky Way as the Galactic Center (the brightest and the center part of the Milky Way) constellation aligned with the sun during end of the year so what we saw was only a tail end of the Milky Way and already so spectacular!  I took a few shots and changed lens to a wider angle lens. We didn’t even noticed until we got home and saw the photos….that was the Southern Lights!!!!!!

Milky Way, Southern Lights, and the two Magellanic Clouds (only visible in the southern hemisphere)!!! WOW how lucky we were! Near the end of the exposure, some one (must be a newbie photographer)  trying to find his/her way and pointing the flashlight everywhere especially at the church! Thankfully, it was near the end of the exposure so it didn’t ruined my photo but instead helped to “light painted” the church 🙂

After few shots, we moved to another position for different angles of the Milky Way.

While we were there, a group of people on the back of us was chatting and once again turned on their flash lights to….guess what they did……trying to read the camera’s user’s manual to see what settings they need to photograph the stars OMG!!! Are you serious? You traveled half the world to this prestige stargazing place and you didn’t come prepared? Reading the manual on the spot and praying that it spells out the settings ? What were people thinking??? People please help yourself and other photographers to come prepared!!!

We got back to our house…urg no idea of time but it was late or well I shall say early in the morning and went straight to bed. Lake Tekapo, you did not disappoint as one of the world’s best places for stargazing. You have to be there to see it yourself to believe it, our world is such a magical place!!! Please plan at least 2 nights stay in Lake Tekapo in case of cloudy day like we had on the first day that you’ll have a second chance to witness this phenomenon!  For others it may not be such a big deal but for us who lives in a big city, we had no chance of seeing something like this. Big cities drives for taller buildings and use fancy LED lighting to display million shades of the color spectrum to put on a light show and didn’t realized, the biggest light show of all is our own universe!

I have uploaded some of the photos to my newly created Flickr account here:

Stay tuned for my next trip report to Dunedin, New Zealand by subscribing to my blog for the latest trip report 🙂

33 thoughts on “South Pacific Part 7: Stargazing at Lake Tekapo and 3 Hours Hike Mount Cook

  1. lol … I hope you realise the lupins are an imported invasive species !!! Never mind though, I agree they make a wonderful show. We were in NZ around Christmas and the sweep of blooms down the watercourses was wonderful.

    I’m enjoying your travels very much, thanks.

    (btw, your bridges were suspension bridges, not swing)

    1. Yep, I read about the lupines being an imported invasive species but they are so pretty to see and added colors to the green land 🙂 I was going to put suspension bridges but when I looked at the map on the guide on Mount Cook National Park website, they called them the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd swing bridges LOL! Glad to hear that you enjoyed my travels!

      1. Thanks for that – just shows you can learn something new every day. I checked Wikipedia and you’re right, in NZ this type of bridge is called a swing bridge – in other parts of the world it would be called a simple suspension bridge. I’m used to thinking of a swing bridge like the one in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in UK.

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