Stargazing at Lake Tekapo: How to Do it for Free (+ Options)

Lake Tekapo is at the center of the largest Dark Sky Reserve in the Southern Hemisphere – the Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park.

There is minimal light pollution there so it’s one of the best places to go stargazing in the entire world!

There are many options to go about it. Organized stargazing is one of the region’s main tourist attractions. From expensive luxurious experiences to humble short tours and the ever-present free option, here is how to go stargazing at Lake Tekapo!

Lake Tekapo Stargazing Options at a Glance

Type of experience/tourPriceRating
Your eyes, smartphone, DSLR cameraFree**
Billy the BardDonations***
Shared Tour (from Tekapo)99 NZD****
Hot Springs + Stargazing119 NZD****
Dark Sky Project Summit Experience (from Mount Jonh)185 NZD*****

How to Go Stargazing at Lake Tekapo for Free

The sky is in the public domain. You don’t need permission to look up and gaze at the stars.

Don’t let the fact that you don’t have a massive observatory or a fancy telescope dissuade you. Lake Tekapo is just 2 on the Bortle Scale, which means it has one of the darkest skies in the world, and plenty of the stars in the night sky are discernible with the naked eye.

When is the best time to stargaze?

You can do it year-round, however, the chance for clear skies increases in the winter months (June to August in New Zealand).

The night sky is darker during the New Moon, i.e. when there’s no Moon. Check the Moon phases here.

And lastly, the later in the night you go stargazing, the darker the sky. The rule of thumb for the earliest hour you can start is 2 hours after sunset. Check sunset times here.

Where to stargaze for free?


What you’d want to do is go a bit out of town (Tekapo is pretty small, 25 minutes on foot from 1 end to the other) and find a place with fewer trees and no street lights.

But the absolute best place to do it is to climb Mount John and stargaze there. While the Observatory is only for paying customers of the Dark Sky Project, anyone can go to one of the nearby peaks and stargaze for free.

Night sky over the Church of the Good Shepherd.
Or go near the Church of the Good Shepherd to stargaze. Picture by VinceTraveller [CC BY 2.0]

Can you take pictures of the night sky with just a smartphone?

Yes, you can but they won’t be too good even with the best smartphones out there.

Still, here are a few tips on how to take a somewhat nice picture:

  • Get a tripod or a phone stand;
  • Go to the PRO (or extra functions) settings of your smartphone camera;
  • Adjust the ISO sensitivity to light to at least 800;
  • Adjust the shutter speed to the maximum, usually 10 seconds. That’s how long the picture will take;
  • Immobilize the phone for the duration of the shot (in this case 10 seconds).
  • Repeat until satisfied.
Night sky through a smartphone camera
Not impressive but it’s quite a bad smartphone camera

Taking a picture with your DSLR camera follows similar procedures and will of course produce much better effects.

A Stargazing App

If you’re on a budget, there’s no need to pay for a guide to tell you which stars are which. The internet already has all of this information and with smartphones in each and every one of our hands, it’s never been easier to stargaze.

The best free app for beginner stargazing is Star Chart if you have an iPhone and Star Walk 2 if you have an Android phone.

Billy the Bard

Billy the Bard. Credit: His Facebook Page

Billy is a local Staryteller in Lake Tekapo.

Get it? Because he both entertains with story, poetry, and songs AND tells you about the stars you can see above you.

He will meet you at the Tekapo Solar Circle every night after sundown (weather permitting) with fire, blankets, and a jolly inn-like atmosphere (even though it’s outside).

His laser is strong enough to point at constellations and he explains their significance to the Maoris and European settlers alike with great enthusiasm and a pinch of mysticism.

Check his Facebook page for more info.

Payment is by donation or koha (the Maori gift-giving custom).

A Shared Stargazing Tour

The Bronze statue of a sheepdog in Lake Tekapo against the night sky
The bronze statue of a sheepdog is another famous landmark in Lake Tekapo

Three companies offer shared stargazing tours in Lake Tekapo. They differ in few ways and offer a similar experience.

My advice is to visit each of their pages and decide which one appeals to you the most.

All these tours are conducted in Tekapo, close to the lake.

Be careful what type of tour you book! If it’s a non-refundable one and the sky is cloudy, you will receive a lousy VR experience indoors which is totally not worth the money.

If you’re in Lake Tekapo only for a few hours during the way, then this educational indoor multimedia stargazing experience is for you.

Dark Sky Project at Mount John Observatory

Mount John Observatory during the day
Mount John Observatory during the day…

This is the real deal when it comes to stargazing in Lake Tekapo.

Not only is it conducted at New Zealand’s only professional research observatory but it’s also on top of Mount John, the hill overlooking Lake Tekapo.

The tour delivers fascinating insights into the world of Māori astronomy (tātai aroraki) complete with both immersive visuals and the night sky through the recently restored Brashear telescope

And if the weather isn’t nice, they will reschedule or allow you to join just the virtual experience.

It’s worth the higher price tag. Find out all about it and book through the Dark Sky Project’s official website.

Mount John Observatory at night time
…and at nighttime. Picture by Zeiss Batis [CC BY-NC-SA 4.0]

What to look for while stargazing in the Southern Hemisphere

Since most of the world’s population lives north of the Equator, chances are that you too come from such a place and are used to the night sky there.

The night sky is different in New Zealand.

For starters, it’s upside down (easy to notice if you look at the Moon), it’s brighter and you can see different constellations (32 of the 88 in total, although you’re free to create your own, the Ancient Greeks do not have monopoly over that).

Your guide will point and show you most of these objects. Alternatively, you can use a stargazing app and do it yourself.

Some of the objects to look out for are:

  • Alpha Centauri: the closest star to the Sun;
  • Southern Cross: what Captain Cook used as navigation and what you can find on New Zealand’s flag;
  • Jewel Box Cluster;
  • Southern Pleiades;
  • Jupiter;

Parting Words

Stargazing at Lake Tekapo is a fascinating activity that brings you closer to the explorers of the past who used the stars to travel the world.

Whether you choose to do it yourself on a budget, lie down in a hot pool enjoying stories as you marvel at the stars, or climb to the observatory at Mount John, you will certainly have a memorable experience from your travels.

Just like Captain Cook and the Maoris before him.

One Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks. Super informative. All the facts I needed to know!

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