Twinkle, Twinkle Little… Black Hole: Stargazing in Queenstown

Jupiter, Orion’s Belt, the Southern Cross all littered the night’s sky as we watched from a little platform in Queenstown, dressed in big snuggly coats and eager to see as much as we could. We were on a stargazing trip with Skyline Queenstown and were enjoying every minute of it.

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This morning I was tired. Very tired. Waking up every couple of hours to the almost orchestral sound of alternate snoring and coughing courtesy of our room mates had meant that for the second night in a row, I’d barely slept at all. Grrrrr. Now on a normal day, perhaps I would have been a little annoyed but on a day like today, there couldn’t have been a worse thing to happen. At least it seemed that way anyway! You see, we’d booked a stargazing trip at 10pm which meant we wouldn’t get to bed until after midnight and I really didn’t fancy trying to spot planets and things through blurry eyes. Anyway, there wasn’t much I could really so after grabbing another 15 minutes or so of sleep, we got up and dressed and then went off in search of the free breakfast.

2.1426092141.2-franz-josefAfter a tasty bowl of sugar coated cornflakes, we went to get the phone so we could ring home again quickly before we left for Queenstown in a few hours. When we went to the reception however the phone wasn’t there, it was outside with a guy who said we could have it after him. Perfect. About 10 minutes later we got it and I spoke to my dad for a while whilst standing looking at the glacier which had finally popped out of the cloud and mist of the day before. It was really nice, marred only slightly by the receptionist who kept saying I’d been on the phone too long and there was a queue of people. Hmmmm. I knew I hadn’t been on long at all and glancing through the double doors I saw the red coat of the girl who had glared at me when I used it yesterday. Oh dear. Finishing my call, somewhat annoyed, I passed the phone to Codie so he’d be able to have a go before we had it taken off us but after about 2 minutes he was told that we had to give the phone back. It turns out that the girl had been telling people that we’d been using it selfishly for hours purely because she was annoyed she hadn’t got to it first. Grrrrrr. We ended up having to hand it over and wait for a while so we could get it back for Codie to finish talking to his mum. Very annoying when you’ve done nothing wrong but what can you do really? At least we were getting to go off somewhere new and nobody was going to spoilt that.

Finishing the phone call, we decided it was time to pay another visit to the West Coast Wildlife Sanctuary to catch a few more glimpses of the little kiwis before we left. They’re such intriguing birds and it would have been an absolute shame if we’d have not seen them at least one more time before leaving New Zealand. Just like yesterday they were bobbing about, rooting through the soil and leaves on the search for some tasty food, completely oblivious to the dozens of people watching them over the barriers. This time, myself and Codie were even lucky enough to be able to watch one eating it’s yummy ox heart and cat food meal off a dish and after looking rather satisfied, it wandered off to find it’s friend. Very cute. We were also able to kneel down by the window and watch one peck at the glass, getting a really good, close up view of it’s straight little body and beak. They are amazing animals and I hope that all the hard work that the centre is doing to save the species pays off because they area, without a doubt, worth the effort. I really would love to help out in some way myself but as I think I mentioned yesterday, not much is being done to help the kiwi back in the UK so it might be quite difficult. You never know though, I might be able to come up with something and I’ll definitely have a long, hard think about it!2.1426092141.helicopter

Now filled with happy kiwi memories, we decided it was time for lunch and after a quick stop in the shop, we wandered over to the helicopter public viewing point to sit down and enjoy the views. With the weather being so clear and the glacier in full view, there was a constant flow of them taking off and landing, transporting people over to see it closer and possibly even walk along it. I imagine that would have been absolutely amazing to do and see and I have to say, I did feel quite jealous. I was so tempted to fork out the $200 to have a short trip up there but apart from needing to keep an eye on things and try to maintain some sort of sensible level, all the trip were fully booked so there’d have been no chance anyway. Ah well. I’d loved my time in the tiny town anyway and as nice as it would have been it would have been an added bonus rather than shaping the whole stay. We were quite lucky in that we had a spectacular view of it from below and so we weren’t missing out on seeing it at all. That was definitely the main thing as it would have been absolutely devastating to have had to have left without seeing it properly.

2.1426092141.ari-at-knights-point-lookoutAfter we’d wandered back to the hostel and collected our bags, we made our way to the little bus stop to wait for our bus to Queenstown. The two people we’d spoke to at the stop in Nelson were also catching the bus so we chatted to them for a bit whilst we waited which was nice and passed the time quite quickly until the finest bus ever turned it. It was tidgy! Initially I was a bit concerned that we’d be really uncomfortable for the entire 6 hours but it actually turned out to be much better. Not only did it feel more personal and friendly, it also meant that we were able to take the more scenic view over the mountains between Wanaka and Queenstown so got to see even more incredible views. It was a long 6 hours but with the scenery, it was all worth it.

As we arrived in Queenstown, it was really obvious to me as to why so many people fall in love with the little town. Lined with The Remarkables mountain range and centred around the glittering Lake Wakatipu, it looked like a nice, homely place with things going on but it also gave off a calm relaxing and natural feel and that was a lovely combination. It was as if people could spend the day busy shopping or taking part in some of the2.1426092141.3-misty-mountains numerous activities on offer and then spend their evening surround by nature. I loved it from the moment we stepped onto the pavement. What made it even better was the fact that we were staying in a great hostel called Haka Lodge, not too far away from the town centre. Rather than the usual squeaky, metal bunk beds, theirs were made of wood and even had little curtains to pull across and that meant that we were able to avoid the usual fun of hanging sheets around. Yay! I knew it would be comfy and snug and so we went off to make our noodle tea, safe in the knowledge we’d sleep well tonight.

By about 9:00pm we were getting a bit restless and decided to just leave for our stargazing trip. Well, nobody ever really gets in trouble for being early do they and it would give us a chance to have another little look around on the way. There was a bit of a chill in the air as we wandered along and it made me pretty glad that we’d invested in our hats and gloves. I’d missed this nippy feeling and had feared that I missed out on it after being away for the British weather and so I was really rather pleased than it was cold then. That probably sounds quite weird and definitely very strange but after spending months in high temperatures with high 2.1426092141.me-waitinghumidity, it was nice to feel that nippy, sharp cold biting at my face. When we reached the gondola station, we were told we could go up straight away rather than wait around at the bottom and within about 5 minutes we found ourselves wobbling around going up the side of the hill. It was a lot steeper than I’d thought it was, even after watching it from the hostel. Very cool though and it didn’t take long until we were sat down by a fire in the comfort of the building. It felt very Austrian and I imagine even more so in winter when it would be snowy.

About 15 minutes later, we were all called over to get into our lovely Canada Goose jackets ready for the short walk up to the viewing platform. There were about 30 people, a lot more than I thought there’d be as I’d read that there only 15 per group. It was a little bit worrying as I thought that perhaps there wouldn’t be enough time for everyone to have a proper look at the telescopes but you know, there wasn’t anything we could do and we had paid significantly less than everyone else through bookme.com so never mind. I was sure it would still be an amazing experience anyway. Once everybody was dressed and snuggled up the huge coats, we set off on a little walk up to a viewing platform. As we walked along, the guide shone his torch ahead which lit up a herd of 2.1426092141.ari-in-her-jacketgoats happily grazing on the graze either side of the path. It was nice to see them just wandering about and it gave it a very alpine feel though when the torch light caught their eyes, they were absolutely terrifying! Eventually, we made it to the top overlooking the luge track, all of us eager to learn about the sparkling nights sky above us. It really was very beautiful. We’d managed to see the International Space Station passing over overhead as we were walking which was very cool as the guide said they hadn’t seen it for 3 months. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come….

With everybody now on the special stargazing ledge, we were all ready to see what wonders the sky had to offer. The view from the top of Bob’s Peak was absolutely amazing and even though it was quite dark, the lake and the mountains looked very mystical especially when lit up by the moon who kept poking out of the clouds. Even though I am well aware that the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit are fictional, it gave me the shivers to think about having to wander around rocky, dragon inhabited mountains in conditions like that. I don’t know whether than means I have a good imagination or that I’m just a bit weird but either way, I was glad I got to wander back to the comfort of a cosy bed later on! The first thing we were shown was the Southern Cross or Crux, a very famous star constellation in the Southern hemisphere which appears on a number of flags including New Zealand’s. Much like Polaris is used in the northern hemisphere, Crux is frequently used for navigational purposes and we were shown how to do that using the two ‘Pointer’ stars just across from it, Alpha Beta and Alpha Centauri. Basically you follow the two pointer stars up to the southern cross and then go right all the way across the sky to another very bright star and then follow that down the the horizon. If it’s cloudy and the bright star was covered then you simply use the pointer stars, find the southern cross and then move four and a half times across on the right then go down to the horizon. As you can probably guess, it confused my tired brain a little bit and I decided that I would try to avoid any situation that required me to remember what to do. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that what I’ve written is right so before you go off in search of the South Pole, perhaps look it up properly first. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone found drifting about lost in the Atlantic Ocean!

2.1426092141.1-starsAfter we’d all had a go at finding South, we all turned around to have a look at the constellations of Orion and his dog Sirius. It was really weird to see them upside down and even stranger to hear that here in the southern hemisphere, Orion is often know as the saucepan instead. I have to admit, it was much easier to see a pan than a guy with a belt holding a sword though so I completely understand that. From now on I think I’ll call it the “upside down pot”. Much easier! Whilst we were having a look at these and some of the others things we could see, like the bright light of Jupiter, the guide set up the high powered and incredibly expensive telescopes ready for our first viewing. I had a telescope when I was little and had absolutely loved being able to pick out stars and planets so I was very excited to see what I could spot through these two huge ones. Astrology has always been something I’m very interested in and so as you can imagine, having this opportunity was amazing and I made sure I soaked in as much information as possible. It was  great way to spend our first night in Queenstown.

A couple of minutes later everything was sorted and we all crowded around, eager to see what delights the eye piece held. It turned out to be a fuzzy white blob otherwise known as Alpha Centauri, one of the pointer stars and at 4.3 light years away, the closest star to our Solar System. I don’t really know what I was expecting to see but it definitely wasn’t that but I guess that’s what you get when you’re staring at a huge, hot ball of gas! It was very impressive. As I’d feared, we didn’t have much time looking but that wan’t too bad as we spent some time trying to capture some long exposure photos of the view instead. There was no point trying to cling on and annoy people when there were so many other things to see and I wanted to make sure I really enjoyed the whole thing.

The next thing we looked at was a cluster of stars first discovered by  Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in 1752 who spotted a fuzzy nebular cluster through his telescope. A few years down the line, it was renamed the ‘jewel box cluster’ by John Herchel who described it as being “…this cluster, though neither a large nor a rich one, is yet an extremely brilliant and beautiful object when viewed through an instrument of sufficient aperture to show distinctly the very different colour of its constituent stars, which give it the effect of a superb piece of fancy jewellery”. I have to say, I’d definitely agree with that as when staring at it through the telescope, I was able to see a fabulous red star which seemed to dominate it all accompanied by lots of other little bright, glowing objects. It was amazing. I was a little bit disappointed that it didn’t seem as bright as a few people were saying but I’m not sure whether that’s just because of my eyesight and it was still memorising to see either way.2.1426092141.2-stars

Over the next hour we saw a distant nebula full of millions of stars, a black hole lurking in Orion’s Belt and took a closer look at the moon who’s bright glow lit up the land like it was daylight. It was pretty cool to discover that you could actually see a black hole with the naked eye, if not very faintly, since they seem like the stuff of nightmares kept to the darkest corners of the universe. They used to terrify me as a child so I’m really glad that I didn’t know I could see one just by looking up. I think that combined with the thought that the giants from ‘The BFG’ were coming to get me would have signalled the end of any night time sleep! Our stargazing trip just seemed to have flown by and as we made our way back down the hill to give back our coats, I found myself having to force myself not to hide away to sneak another look through the telescopes. Well I say that, at one point we’d heard a possum screeching in the forest which sounded horrific so I can’t imagine being up there alone would be much fun with that about! It was absolutely terrifying! I was really glad that the clouds had held off for most of the time and whilst it stopped us seeing Jupiter up close, we’d seen so many fascinating things that it hardly mattered. Stargazing in Queenstown had been amazing and we’d learnt so much; it’s definitely somewhere I’d return for another go and I really wish we could.

Back in the hostel and it was time for bed and some tasty brie. Yum. It had been a long, long day but staying awake for that long had really been worth it. If Queenstown had already been that good, I couldn’t wait to see what the next day held and snuggled down under the covers thinking of all the fun things to come and hoping I didn’t get any cheese nightmares….

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