Star night, star bright

Thailand June 25, 2014 00:00

By Phoowadon Duangmee
The Nation

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With majestic views of the Southern Alps and the clearest sky in the Southern Hemisphere, Lake Tekapo is the perfect place to chill

The subject of conversation over the dinner table turns surprisingly from the wine to demographics. 
Hanmer Springs, the latest stopover on our road trip through New Zealaand’s Southern Island has 700 residents spread over the isolated alpine valley. Seven hundred people, to those of us who share Bangkok with 12 million people, is about the average number of commuters struggling to get out of a single gridlock in the morning traffic.
 “Trust me – when you learn the population of Lake Tekapo town, you’ll be even more amazed,” says our dining companion, Claire Hector-Taylor, a nice lady from Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism. Raising her glass in a salute. “It’s 300!”
That’s less than half of the residents in my apartment block in Bangkok’s eastern suburbs. 
“Most of the people you’ve met and will meet around Lake Tekapo are people like you,” she adds. 
By “people like us”, Hector-Taylor means tourists. When people in Lake Tekapo township say “tourists”, they are referring to a few more SUV vehicles than usual at the gas stations, camper vans in the camping area and the occasional micro bus loaded with Asian tourists at the landmarks. But even with these tourists, there’s more than enough space to stretch your legs. Drive out of town for two minutes and you’ll see no one. You’ll be alone with the breathtaking views of snow-capped mountain ranges and endless sheep pastures.
Tucked away in the centre of South Island, Lake Tekapo is part of New Zealand’s largest pasture. A Scottish shepherd turned sheep stealer by the name of James Mackenzie was the first European to set foot on this land. Captured in 1850 while herding some sheep that didn’t belong to him, he left nothing behind in this lonely spot but his name – Mackenzie. 
Seven years later, John and Barbara Hay established the first sheep farm in Mackenzie on the shores of Lake Tekapo. It took almost eight decades for the house of God to arrive at this remote pasture, with the landmark Church of the Good Shepherd established in 1935. The township grew, albeit slowly, until it reached its zenith of 300, where it remains today.
That number tends to rise at weekends when Mackenzie Basin draws visitors from Christchurch and further afield for golf, horse trekking and alpine walking as well as its hot springs and spa retreat. Asian tourists, mainly Singaporean, Chinese and Thai, tend to come for the scenic Lake Tekapo and the fresh air. 
Surrounded by the Southern Alps and far from the city, the deep blue waters of Lake Tekapo make this an ideal place to relax. The second-largest of three roughly parallel lakes running north–south along the northern edge of the Mackenzie Basin, it cover an area of 83 square kilometres and can be seen from anywhere in town. Several resorts – including Peppers Bluewater Resort where we stay – have sprung up at the southern end and offer spectacular views of the lake. 
The historic Church of the Good Shepherd, which was built of stone and oak, is popular with Asian tourists but we avoid the crowds by visiting it in the very early morning. The small church sits on the southern shore and we sit quietly in the front row greedily drinking in the view of the lake and the mountains through the altar window. A short walk takes us to the Dog Statue, a bronze likeness of a sheepdog that pays tribute to the hard-working collies of Mackenzie’s endless sheep pastures. 
For me, the main attraction is the environment. The cold climate, towering snow-capped peaks, golden waving tussocks, clean air and alpine river combine to form a veritable Eden for those of us who live in a hot, hectic and polluted city like the Thai capital.
Late one afternoon, we leave the highway and drive through the empty pastures. Without any particular destination in mind, we follow the road as it climbs and eventually reach the top of Mt John, which is home to an observatory looking down over the lake.
The view is magnificent and we look in awe at the beauty of Tekapo Lake and the Mackenzie Basin. A small coffee shop offers java juice, sandwiches and light meals and is surely the best place in the world to take a break. The best time to visit Mt John is late afternoon, when the last tourist buses are leaving the lookout and you have the view to yourself. As darkness falls, Mt John morphs into a heaven for stargazers. Thanks to a cloud-free sky and a town policy that has the lights shining towards the ground, it’s the best place in the Southern Hemisphere to see night sky. 
But Lake Tekapo and Mackenzie are not only for the astronomers. This area is equally popular with foodies too.
Like many parts of New Zealand that contribute to the “global kitchen” with premium food and drink, Mackenzie Basin is noted for its alpine salmon. The fish is farmed in a snow-fed alpine canal, and recognised by top chefs around the world for its rich orange-red flesh. The best place to sample salmon cutlets with lime and coriander butter or rolls of sushi is Mt Cook Salmon Farm – 15km west of Lake Tekapo along SH8 highway. 
The gourmet vegetarian is not forgotten either. Fairlie, 30 kilometres east of Lake Tekapo and which boasts a massive population of 717 and a statue of James Mackenzie and his dog, is home to Eat Deli & Bar. My girlfriend is impressed by the choice of vegetarian dishes paired with the local Sauvignon Blanc. And, for once, she has my full backing. If fact, were we to linger here longer, I’d probably become a vegetarian myself.
If you go
_ The best way to explore South Island is a self-drive road trip. We start our 10-day road trip at Nelson at the northern tip of South Island, and arrive at Lake Tekapo after five days on the road. Our next destination is Mt Cook Township – where mountaineer Edmund Hillary trained for Mount Everest.