I’m here on the top of Mt John, in the Tekapo Valley. The observatory here has scientist accommodation if you’re connected with Canterbury University; the décor is a bit Research Station Cinderblock (a Star Wars poster and a collection of interesting pine cones) but, hey, there’s wireless.
Mount John is rather grandly named; it’s more of a a solitary hill rising out of the Mackenzie Basin. You’re ringed by the Southern Alps, and look down on the amazing turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo. The lake and valley are both products of twenty or so glaciations, which scoured out the basin and left Mt John sitting like an increasingly battle-scarred veteran each time they retreated. The surrounding mountains do keep the clouds at bay, and make a good spot for an observatory (which, to my disappointment, consists mostly of people looking at monitors; computers are doing all the stargazing).
But walking round Mt John by day, when the astronomers are asleep, is an experience.
Skylarks (Alauda arvenis) are all around, trilling as they ascend from sullen earth to sing hymns at Heaven’s gate, or at least they try when the wind is not howling too forcefully. It’s a bit blowy today, and I watched a surprised lark fly backwards. Supposedly there are chukor (Alectoris chukor) in the tussock, but I had to descend to the larch forest on the southern slope to see any other birds; various finches and grey warblers (Gerygone igata).
The vegetation has been sadly rather munted by rabbits and sheep, though pockets of subalpine native plants persist. In the rockfalls are various spiky and twiggy divaricating shrubs, the occasional nibbled-on native broom (Carmichaelia), and golden spaniard (Aciphylla)—even ferns (Blechnum penna-marina), perhaps the last things you’d expect to see on a wind-blasted, sunbaked mountain. I do love spaniard, with its ferocious spines and crazy yellow thatched flower spikes, just daring you to touch it. The spines don’t seem to work too well against mammals, but they almost certainly evolved as a defense against moa browsing, a poke in the eye for Megalapteryx.
This landscape used to be full of totara forest, but now the blasted emptiness of the tussock-clad basin is sublime. You could paint it with a very minimal watercolour kit; the tricky part would be getting the opaque blue of the lake. It’s almost like the blue of the sky at the horizon, perhaps because the fragments of quartz in the water scatter the light the way dust does in the atmosphere.
And you’ll see the mirror image of this if you ever have a chance to visit Mt John overnight: the lights of the lakeside town twinkle for the same reason stars do. As above, so below.