Planetarium and Stargazing in Aoraki Mt Cook

It is expected to happen. Out of the four days we are spending in Aoraki Mt Cook, day 2 is the day the weather turns to sh*t. The snowy peaks of all the surrounding mountains are completely covered in cloud. Frequently changing weather is something they are used to here in the sub-alpine village of Aoraki Mt Cook. Despite its size, there just happens to be the perfect rainy day activity for those wanting to learn more about this land.

We get ourselves a free shuttle from the Mt Cook Lodge up to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre. The Alpine Centre is named after a New Zealand national icon who was the first to summit Mt Everest, as well as leading an expedition of tractors across the Antarctic to the South Pole. You can find his face on your NZ$5 note.

Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre

Nestled at the end of the gift shop in the Hermitage Hotel, we find the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre. After paying the fee, we enter through the glass doors to the sight of a ski plane hanging from the ceiling. Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is one of the very few places in the world which offers commercial ski plane trips (something we are going to experience for ourselves in the next day or two, although we hope it is a little more high-tech than this one).

The museum is split into four small sections, the highlight of which is the planetarium and cinema. 2D, 3D and digital dome planetarium shows run throughout the day and you can watch as many of the seven different shows lasting 20 minutes to 1 hour 15 minutes.

Would you land on a glacier in this? Would you land on a glacier in this?
Machines used to cross Antarctica Machines used to cross Antarctica
Old cars in the Sir Edmund Hillary Centre Old cars in the Sir Edmund Hillary Centre
Watching a documentary in the Hillary Gallery Watching a documentary in the Hillary Gallery

Mt cook magic

We make it just in-time at the Alpine Centre to watch Mount Cook Magic, a 3D show about the Maori legend surrounding the peaks of the Southern Alps, as well as a compilation of epic scenic shots of New Zealand’s highest mountain and all the alpine activities people do around it. It’s earth porn at its finest.

You could really make the most of your $20 admission fee just watching shows all day, which is tempting but we decide to have a quick look around the museum displays before getting on with some work.

Hillary memorabilia

The museum displays themselves are concise. The Edmund Hillary Gallery has replicas of the tractors taken over Antarctica complete with caterpillar tracks and baskets on the side filled with vintage skis and boots. There are a few famous photos of Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the Nepalese Sherpa who was also the first to climb Everest, as well as a photo to see how tall you are in comparison to Edmund Hillary… Ok, then?

Other small display cases give information of Aoraki Mt Cook’s first ascents and early settlers around Aoraki Mt Cook Village. Two vintage cars are on display, one of which was used to transport tourists to the village. Finally, we have the history of the Hermitage Hotel.

Stargazing before we even go stargazing

Big Sky Stargazing

It’s clear that the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre’s strengths are in the planetarium and cinema. As the clouds steadily start to thin towards the evening, we decide to take our chances on the Big Sky Stargazing tour, which starts with in the planetarium!

Planetarium show

We load into the cinema and look up at the huge dome over our heads. Before the show begins, Rodney, one of the guides, tells us the situation of the sky for stargazing is “not flash” however, we can also get a partial refund if we decide we don’t want to go stargazing, or, if the guides think it is worth it, we can go down with them to their stargazing site. We can make a final decision after the planetarium show with more updates.

The lights go dim and the dome lights up with stars. A spectacular British voice starts telling us about where we are in the universe. It’s an orientation of the night’s sky that we are hopefully going to be seeing tonight!

Getting ready for the planetarium show Getting ready for the planetarium show
Our ride to the stargazing site Our ride to the stargazing site
Robin looks at where he came from through the telescope Robin looks at where he came from through the telescope

Stargazing in an International Dark Sky Reserve

After the show, we are invited to look at the cloud cover to decide whether we want to go down to the stargazing site. The clouds do look like they are starting to break up. It’s a coin toss, but we decide to take our chances! Let’s go stargazing!

Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is part of one of very few International Dark Sky Reserves, meaning it is one of the best places in the world to go stargazing.

Southern stars and telescopes

We are taken by bus away from the light pollution of the village and down to the Mt Cook Airport. Three telescopes are currently being aligned as our guide, Lee, points to the sky with his laser pen at the few stars that are shining between the clouds.

The later into the night we go, the more stars start popping up all over the sky. Despite having huge cloudy patches, we can clearly see why this is place has been given Dark Sky Reserve status. The density of the stars is like nothing we have seen before – something we can appreciate further through the eye-piece of the telescope.

The oldest things…

“This is the oldest thing you have ever seen,” Lee remarks as we look at thousands of stars huddled together in a galaxy.

Our stargazing takes us until 11.30 where we are dropped off a few hundred metres away from our accommodation. The last part of stargazing is the walk between the bus and the Mt Cook Lodge.

If the weather keeps clearing up like this, then we might just get the chance to take a ski plane onto the Tasman Glacier tomorrow! Join us then!

Laura and Robin

Not a bad sky for a cloudy night!
Not a bad sky for a cloudy night! Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Want more?

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See you tomorrow!

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