Wandering across the golf course at midnight in Lake Tekapo gives you a unique opportunity to time travel. Because, effectively, that’s what star-gazing is – and star-gazing is what Lake Tekapo does best.
Since 2012, what was once a brief stop-off on State Highway 8 for the Tekapo Tavern and photo ops at The Church of the Good Shepherd and a nearby bronze memorial to sheepdogs, has nestled at the heart of the 43,000 square kilometre Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve – the southern hemisphere’s first dark sky reserve and the sort of accolade that is both scientifically outstanding and touristically alluring.
But while we were stood on the ninth fairway, awaiting our turn at the telescope to peer at Herschel’s Jewel Box (a star cluster just the 6400 light years away) or the mind-blowing Large Magellanic Cloud, which sits outside our own Milky Way galaxy and can be seen thanks to starlight created 160,000 years ago (hence the time-travel), we also learnt that Lake Tekapo’s success as a star-gazer’s paradise was also becoming its potential handicap.
Because hand-in-hand with such an attraction, has come major investment and something of a building boom. The Mackenzie District Council expects the area’s population and housing to nearly double in the next 30 years, and they’re planning for peak-day visitor numbers to soar from just less than 17,400 in 2020 to more than 61,000 by 2050.
And although there are plenty of bylaws and regulations governing how all these people are expected to build and behave in a Dark Sky Reserve, our guide was already talking about how the encroaching subdivisions meant that they were going to have to move their operation off the golf course and further away from the inevitable light pollution.
There are 18 International Dark Sky Reserves certified by the International Dark-Sky Association and “specifically protected for [their] scientific, natural, education, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment”.
And that’s where the issue lies – finding how to strike a balance between preservation and development; how to measure the values of both “scientific… and/or public enjoyment”; how to “grow” a new enterprise while also maintaining the core values that led to its inception in the first place.
That, too, is at the heart of our own battle on Waiheke between the developers and some boaties who want the marina at Kennedy Point, and those who would rather put the welfare of the Hauraki Gulf’s flora and fauna ahead of any potential financial or human benefits.
That the whole argument seems to have boiled down this past week to the existence of kororā/little blue penguins at the site, however, seems incredible. In print, on radio and across the ether, Aucklanders have heard how there’s now a “rush” to save these stunning little critters.
And yet as long ago as July 2017, Gulf News was reporting “Little penguins stand in way of marina”, when, during the Environment Court appeal against that May’s council consent of the marina, experts including both Auckland Council’s senior regional advisor on fauna Tim Lovegrove and Forest & Bird’s northern regional manager Nick Beveridge agreed any plan to relocate kororā was destined to fail.
Mr Lovegrove, especially, was unequivocal: “I don’t know of anywhere that translocation has been done successfully. You can’t move penguins – they will come straight back.”
Those with longer memories on Waiheke might remember a similar story playing out at Matiatia 29 years ago when the building of the new wharf disturbed nesting kororā and, once work had been delayed, the council stepped in to “rescue” the birds and take them to Tiritiri Matangi. On that occasion, despite Gulf News’ report that “it is hoped they will settle down happily” in their new sanctuary, they simply returned to their destroyed homes. (You can read more of that story in Jude Pemberton’s wonderful letter on page 15).
The long and short of it is that this is the same argument that has played out on Waiheke for decades – development versus conservation, and wildlife caught in the middle.
Four years ago at a fiery February local board meeting about the marina, this was nicely summed up by the comments from Waiheke resident Flynn Washington, who urged “We need to improve our environment and our sense of community. What we don’t need is a marina”, and Palm Beach holiday home-owner Hamish Boyd who was frustrated at planning restrictions because “it’s incredibly hard to do anything on Waiheke and I don’t think it’s making the place any better”.
At that meeting, local board chair John Meeuwsen was confident the majority of Waiheke residents were “overwhelmingly clearly not wanting a marina” and there’s no evidence that has changed today.
And so if the science hasn’t changed, the story hasn’t changed and the “overwhelming” opposition hasn’t changed – the question remains, why are we still getting a bloody marina at all? It seems it would take more than time travel to work that one out. • James Belfield