Located in the south center of the South Island of New Zealand, in between the plains of Canterbury and the mountains of the Southern Alps, is the scenic area of the Mackenzie Basin. When planning our trip to New Zealand, I compared itineraries that I had seen online and I was shocked that some didn’t include this area. In my opinion, DON’T leave this area out!
So what’s in this area that’s so fascinating? Just the brightest blue lakes, the darkest skies with the brightest stars that your naked eye will ever see, and picture perfect landscapes of snowcapped mountains with glacial lakes and icebergs!
Lake Tekapo is one of 7 lakes in the Mackenzie Basin. It can be a beautiful shade of powder blue in the sunlight. This is because the silt or “flour” fed into the lake by the glacial rivers from the mountains. The most famous spot to visit is the Church of the Good Shepherd.
This church, on the southern edge of Lake Tekapo, has beautiful views of the lake. Inside there is an altar and pews. It is still in use with regularly scheduled services being held throughout the year. When there is no service entrance is permitted but with reverence. Pictures can be taken of the outside, but the church keepers, if present, will kindly ask that no one take pictures inside the church.
The attraction for us to this area was that it is part of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. There are only 11 Dark Sky Reserves in the world, and this is world renowned for being one of the best. This means that this area has a lighting ordinance to strictly protect the night sky for research and public stargazing. You can just step outside and look at the stars or go up to Mt. John Observatory for a night time tour.
We stayed at The Godley Hotel. It was affordable, clean, spacious, and right next to the lake.
Just a 40 minute drive west of Tekapo is Lake Pukaki. As you drive to Mt. Cook National Park and glance over to your right, you’ll want to pull over and stop. The water at this lake is a bright neon blue. And yes, it’s natural.
In this area is a campground. We pulled over here to check the place out. Its a great area for people to picnic, swim (brrrr), and just enjoy the view.
The best place to stop is Peter’s Lookout on the western side of the lake. You’ll get a fantastic view of the blue water in front of the Southern Alps. On a perfect day without any clouds, like we had, you’ll see New Zealand’s tallest mountain Mt. Cook right in the middle!
Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park
First, here’s our vlog on this area!
After your stop at Lake Pukaki continue on to Mt. Cook Village. It’s the only area for lodging at the park. There are chalets, a hotel, motels and backpacker accommodations with shared or private rooms. We stayed at Mt. Cook Lodge in a 4 bed dorm room. The Hermitage Hotel is basically at the center of it all. They have a small grocery section for food items, a gift shop, and they control the fuel pump. Also at the hotel is The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center where there is a 3D and 2D theater, a planetarium and information on stargazing. After checking in at your accommodation I would suggest going to the information center at the foot of the hotel. Here you will get your information on all the trails that are accessible, your permits for staying in one of the huts, and purchase tickets for excursions like the Glacier Explorer Boat Ride.
In this area, there is no grocery store and there is one fuel pump. Make sure you load up on what you need before coming to this area, otherwise you will pay A LOT MORE for it at the Hermitage. Most of the accommodations here have kitchens so you can prepare your own food if you are on a budget. Otherwise, there are food choices at the Hermitage, Mt. Cook Lodge and one right next to the information center.
There are many tracks to hike on. We chose the Tasman Glacier Track (30 min.) and the Hooker Valley Track (4 hrs).
On the way to the Tasman Glacier track car park we stopped to take some pictures because everywhere you turn is a photo opp.
After getting some drone footage and taking a some pictures we finally made it to the car park.
It’s only a short 30 minute walk to the top of a hill to see the Tasman Glacier and the lake.
After this hike we then drove to Hooker Valley Track. Since it was a longer one we made sure we had what we needed in our packs: sweaters, water, snacks, and flashlights just in case we ended up staying out after the sun went down.
The Hooker Valley Track is a must do. Even if you don’t go all the way to the glacier lake, even just half way will give you so many excellent views. You’ll pass through 3 swing bridges an out house and finally reach the Hooker Glacier and lake at the foot of Mt Cook.
Yes those are icebergs floating in the lake that broke off the glacier!
The next day we were off to Queenstown, but first we had to put a little bit of fuel in our car. We only put in $20, but we had to pay $5 to have some guy that works at the Hermitage come down to pump the gas. It was a bit of a hassle, but we got we what we needed to get to the next fuel pump.
The last stop in the Mackenzie Basin area for us was Twizel. This little town is a good stop along the way to Queenstown. Driving along you’ll see golden fields. These were used in the Lord of The Rings movie for the Battle of Pelennor Fields. If you’re a fisherman, there a great areas to fish for salmon. If you’re not, then just stop at High Country Salmon Farm. Here you can feed the salmon for free, buy salmon, and try many dishes made with salmon. Everything was delicious!