Winter Stargazing in a Volcanic Landscape

We all know winter is the best time to stargaze, and yet taking the opportunity to get out there to enjoy the thrill is often the hardest part. So, I was quietly chuffed to be sitting on the shores of lake Tarawera with friends, enjoying the sunset with not a cloud to be seen. It was looking like we were going to enjoy a perfect night for checking out the night sky. Just as well after inadvertently creating a bit of expectation amongst our small group. 

This is low light-pollution country. It was also cold and very still.  Mount Tarawera was almost perfectly reflected on the lake as the volcanic cone turned pink in the setting sun. Next to us and about a stone’s throw from where we sat, steam ghosted up from the thermal stream that gives this beach its name. Apart from the odd bird call and the sound of small ripples rustling up the sandy beach, it was also quiet. 

A thin sliver of moon sat above the ridge which invited the question “is there a dark side to the moon or did Pink Floyd lie to us,” (for the record – there isn’t and yes, they lied). A welcome distraction from the cold. Meanwhile the bush and trees around us began to lose their colour and shape, blending into the ridges and hills as it got darker. Eventually the sickle moon followed the sun behind the hills, leaving us with a clear steel-blue sky and pinpricks of silver as the stars began to appear. 

The first satellite was spotted cruising across the sky. Within a few minutes spotting satellites was not even worth mentioning as increasingly more of them appeared. Conversation moved on from trying to identify stars to reflecting on “big-daddy” and firing rubbish into the ether. It turned out the chat was another welcome diversion as suddenly the full Milky Way was sparkling in full grandeur above us, and the sky seemed full of stars.

Discussion moved onto alien life forms, infinity, and all those other absurd and philosophical questions that pop into our minds as we try to take in the vastness above us, and the insignificance of our own tiny little oval rock. 

Alas, although we had rugged up in thermals, beanies, jackets and gloves the cold was getting the better of us and we drifted off to our tents.

Our trip was well worth the effort of a moderate 4 to 6-hour trek loaded down with enough gear and water for a mid-winter overnighter. We had allowed enough time for a relaxing stop at the hot pools along the route, to set up camp and enjoy dinner before the sun set. Another memorable experience shared in good company.

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