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An Operator’s View: Tekapo Star Gazing’s Anton Wilke

23 Mar 2018  By Contributor

Tekapo Star Gazing with telescopes. Image: Supplied

After celebrating its first year, Tekapo Star Gazing’s general manager Anton Wilke tells us about the opportunities to grow the guided hot pools and star gazing experience despite the challenges of operating in a small town.  

Anton Wilke

Now that Tekapo Star Gazing has been operating for a year, and autumn’s well underway, it’s the perfect time to reflect on the past year and all the work that’s gone into creating this unique product.
Karl Burtscher, the owner of Tekapo Springs, had been interested in developing a star gazing product for many years. When the entire Mackenzie Region was designated an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2012, Karl knew that a unique star gazing experience was perfect for the little town of Tekapo that sat in the heart of a “park in the sky”. The tour he developed is a combination of hot pools and star gazing with a creative blend of storytelling, astronomy, and Maori mythology and legends.
Living in a town that has, according to the International Dark-Sky Association, the clearest, darkest and most spectacular night sky in New Zealand, is just incredible. When you’re next in Tekapo, check out the night lighting of the town. It’s unusual in that all the lights are dim and facing downwards – this was designed to minimise light pollution and protect the integrity of the night skies. We had some very forward-thinking members of the community in the earlier days of Tekapo as these lighting ordinances were put in place in 1981!
We’re excited about the year ahead especially with the addition of a second star deck and extra telescopes which has doubled our capacity. Currently we have a star gazing team of 12 with 3 Chinese speakers and staff will increase as the tours continue to grow. We’re working on fine-tuning our indoor presentation as it’s imperative that we continue to offer a high-quality option in case of poor weather. Of course, you get to go in the hot pools regardless of weather – and there’s something about being in the pools by night; it’s the great leveller meaning customers are very relaxed, and they feel comfortable asking our star gazing guides questions about life, the universe and everything!
Other opportunities include increasing accessibility for our tours; we’re expanding into other languages using translation systems for tour leaders to use with their groups. Currently, the nightly tours are run in English and Chinese. Astro photography has become huge in the last few years and is something people are keen to try so we’re going to offer them that chance on our tours later this year.
There have definitely been some challenges along the way in developing this product, especially regarding staffing. For one, Tekapo is home to just under 400 permanent residents so there’s a lack of long-term local staff. We do have Mackenzie locals who travel from Twizel and Fairlie but otherwise we rely heavily on younger staff, both international and domestic, who are looking for a great experience during their travels. Staff housing is a challenge for us as visitor numbers have nearly doubled in the last five years and accommodation is at a premium with many homes in Tekapo leased as short-term rentals in the holiday home market.
Another factor is adjusting to small town life – I grew up on a farm in North Canterbury so I’m used to it but for our staff who have come from a big city, it can take them by surprise, especially the lack of simple things like a pharmacy or movie theatre or hairdresser. We work hard to create an attractive work environment for our staff by paying above the minimum wage, and providing a season pass to the local ski-field, amongst other benefits. I feel lucky to have such an awesome team at Tekapo Springs by day, complemented by our star gazing crew at night – sometimes referred to as the “night owls”! There’s a wide range of people, from different countries and backgrounds, and it makes for an interesting, dynamic mix.
There are a few upcoming developments which will ease the accommodation pressure. The new YHA is due to open in December this year with 120 beds. Two other 4-star plus hotels are on the cards which will add another 300 beds but we probably won’t see anything until late 2019. Other new attractions and retail are slowly taking shape but I can see so much potential here – Tekapo has come a long way since those “pee, pie and pic” days, and will definitely be a different place again in another 5 years.
I think we need to be mindful of having a clear vision for the town, as well as ensuring we tell the real Tekapo story. It has such a rich and varied history, from the first Maori travelers through the region to the infamous sheep rustler James Mackenzie to the intrepid high-country farmers and all the other people who loved the place so much they decided to make their life here. It’s imperative that we honour and maintain our unique kiwi identity, because this is why our visitors come back again and again.

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