Land Of The Long White Cloud

Grand Pacific Tours escorted my partner Robin and I as their guests to both islands of New Zealand to check out possible land destinations for their up coming Astronomy Tour I'll be heading. Being winter it was expected to be cold... and it was! Temps well below zero and snow knee deep in most places of altitude- like Mt John. Our guide was Elizabeth Bezzina and boy, does she know NZ!

This coincided with New Zealand's 'Matariki Festival.' Matariki is the Maori name for the group of stars also known as the Pleiades star cluster or The Seven Sisters; and what is referred to as the traditional Maori New Year. The Maori new year is marked by the rise of Matariki and the sighting of the next new moon. The pre-dawn rise of Matariki can be seen in the last few days of May every year and the new year is marked at the sighting of the next new moon which occurs during June.

This next occurs on 5 June 2008. Matariki has two meanings, both referring to a tiny constellation of stars; Mata Riki (Tiny Eyes) and Mata Ariki (Eyes of God). Traditionally, depending on the visibility of Matariki, the coming season's crop was thought to be determined. The brighter the stars indicated the warmer the season would be and thus a more productive crop.

It was also seen as an important time for family to gather and reflect on the past and the future. Today Matariki means celebrating the unique place in which we live and giving respect to the land we live on. Matariki is celebrated with education, remembrance and the planting of new trees and crops signalling new beginnings. Matariki was the optimum time for new harvests, and ceremonial offerings to the land-based gods Rongo, Uenuku and Whiro to ensure good crops for the coming year. It was also seen as a perfect time to learn about the land we live on and to remember whakapapa (ancestry) who have passed from this world to the next and the legacy they left behind.

Our first port of call, the Canterbury Astronomical Society arranged ahead of time by president Steve Johnson.
Our first port of call, the Canterbury Astronomical Society arranged ahead of time by president Steve Johnson.

Getting there: After a short flight from our home base at Port Macquarie NSW we joined a connecting flight from Sydney to Christchurch. We were in thre air the same time of night Hyabasa was returning through the atmosphere with it's priceless cargo of asteroid samaples and I can tell you my face was glues to the plane window... just in case. Arriving after midnight on June 13, Man it was cold!!! We just left 18 -20 degrees and now it's minus two! Settling in to our spacious hotel room at the Copthorne Central we did the sightseeing bit the next day including using our complimentary tram pass to see the sights before heading off to our first port of call, the Canterbury Astronomical Society arranged ahead of time by president Steve Johnson.

Before that though we were invited to the Vice President's residence for some good old country style home cookin' NZ style. Thank you so much Ian, you and your wife made us feel so welcome and the food... delicious! We all then drove out to the observatory. This has to be one of the best private set-ups I've seen. Such a tight knit and professional group of people, the premises were spacious, the large meeting room serves as a lecture room and the various domes held some of the best grade amateur gear you'll find..including their brand new 16 incher... from a generous grant just obtained.

Each has a function and a telescope plus loads of associated equipment. The Canterbury Astronomical Society's observatory is located near West Melton, a small township west of Christchurch . This facility was established in 1963 originally as a dark sky site with a satellite tracking station; the space age had just dawned and the new moving lights in the sky were of great interest.

The observatory's existence is entirely due to the generous bequest of R. F. Joyce, a founding member and first president of the Canterbury Astronomical Society. This enabled a piece of land to be bought in rural Canterbury and the establishment of the observatory's first instrument, a modest satellite tracking scope, which saw important use in the early days of the space age. The telescopes on site include the 14.5″ Cassegrain reflector in the main dome with a 4″ refracting guide scope, a 12″ Meade GPS Schmidt Cassegrain, a 5″ Cooke Refractor on loan from Carter Observatory, a 24″ Dobsonian and others with assorted smaller apertures.

Again, this many scopes and all in use is amazingly good organisation. In November 2005 the Society was delighted to receive a grant of $50,000 from the Eureka Trust towards the cost of a new larger main instrument and related equipment. A fully automated Meade RCX400 telescope of 16″ (41cm) aperture has been installed, as well as a CCD camera, and Canon digital SLR camera specifically designed for astrophotography.

The 16″ telescope has been housed in the roll-off roof building on the eastern side of the site, which has been renovated for the purpose. The Canterbury Astronomical Society (CAS) hosts open nights, during the winter months (April to September) when daylight savings has finished.

Members of the public are invited to join us and have a look through professional quality telescopes, each manned by a member of the society, who will operate the telescope and explain what you are seeing through it. You are encouraged to ask as many questions as you like, and we will do our best to answer them all. Organised groups of 15 or more are required to book their visit to the Observatory. Booking will allow the society to prepare for a larger group and arrange for more astronomers to be present.

The observatory has since gone from strength to strength with the addition of a dome containing a 16″ Newtonian reflector which was subsequently replaced with a 14.5″ Cassegrain reflector designed for photometry. A meeting room with kitchen facilities - a place to gather for a chat and warm-up. We'll be spending the second night of the tour here with skygazing and slide talks. Steve thanks for your friendship and for organsing the meeting. Ian great to meet you and your wife and thanks for dinner and all your assistance getting us to CAS observatory.

Sightseeing in Christchurch: Up early and we were off to Mt Cook and the Hilary Centre. We arrived at the Hermitage Hotel in Christchurch and settled into one of the most amazing rooms I've been in. Thanks to the general manager Andrew Cleverly for the nice welcome note and the hospitality.

Robin, Elizabeth and I spent a lot of time examining this amazing Hilary Centre where we were introduced to Denis Callesen, one of the most likeable and generous people we met in NZ. He's the general tourism manager of the centre, officially known as Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Village.

it also has a Planetarium that has to be seen to be believed and appreciated. The Hermitage is located in Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Village in the South Island of New Zealand. A spectacular 55km drive from the Lake Pukaki / State Highway 8 turn-off between Christchurch and Queenstown, the village lies deep within the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park and World Heritage area, surrounded by the silent splendor of the Southern Alps.

The captivating Hillary Gallery depicts Sir Edmund's connection with the region and reflects upon his achievements, expeditions and life's work. Exhibits include an exact copy of one of his Ferguson tractors that Hillary took with him on his Trans-Antarctic expedition.

And don't miss the popular documentary, 'Hillary on Everest'. The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre - A tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary, humanitarian, ambassador and one of the world's greatest explorers, the centre showcases the Aoraki Mount Cook region, its people and its place in the universe.Designed to educate and entertain, the centre features a spectacular state-of-the-art 3D movie, New Zealand's first full dome digital Planetarium and Museum which documents the pioneering heart of the region and features the impressive Hillary Gallery.

Located adjacent to The Hermitage Hotel in the majestic Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre is an opportunity to explore and connect to the national identity and celebrate the cultural characteristics New Zealanders hold dear. text here...