A night under the stars

(A more accurate heading might be: “A night under the few stars we could glimpse a-twinkling through the dense clouds”. But that is too long for a heading….)

In theory, this was a really excellent idea, though!

Thanks to a link in an email sent to me by my friend Erica, who has been the very capable and efficient organiser of the Observatory Holistic Lifestyle Fair for more years than I can count, I visited a really amazing blog about life in the City of Cape Town (affectionately called ‘the Mother City’ by most Seffricans).

I fortuitously double-clicked my way to this page in which Pia (of Mother City Living) describes a night-time visit to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens to see the stars! The last of these “star-walks” was scheduled for Friday, the 29th of February, a mere two days later. (By the way, I gather that they have been extended into March, because the weather has not always played along, so if you are interested – just go!!!)

As my significant other is part of the team designing the South African trial-version of the biggest radio astronomy telescope in the whole wide world, I thought that he might just be keen to traipse partway up the mountain in the dark with me. He is working on the Karoo Array Telescope project, which is supposed to persuade the international scientific community that SA has the infrastructure, the technical know-how, the political backing (kickbacks?) and requisite moolah to host the massive international Square Kilometre Array. (We are holding thumbs that we WILL have the ability before time runs out and Australia, our remaining competitor, is chosen instead….)

So, full of enthusiastic anticipation, off we set at 7pm tonight.

The skies over Pinelands were clear and cloudfree, but a heavy grey tablecloth was hanging over the mountains at the back of Newlands and Kirstenbosch, slowly stretching eastwards to spread a warm cottonwoolly blanket over the southern suburbs. Weather that is probably more suited to snuggling with one’s beloved in front of a crackling fireplace with a bottle of luxurious red wine and confessing deep secrets to each other…

Nonetheless, when we arrived at the Visitors’ Centre at Kirstenbosch, the foyer was filled with a surprising number of people. I would guess at about 40-50. All ages were represented, from a handful of very young school-children who hoppity-skipped laughing around the courtyard, to the grey hair and walking stick brigade in their sensible shoes, seeking out a sheltered place to perch. I heard a couple of foreign accents – Dutch, French, I think someone American, but the rest seemed to be curious locals.

A very friendly lady who was obviously in charge of organising the evening, explained to us that she was waiting for the astronomers higher up the mountain-slopes to give her a call and confirm that the sky was clear enough to see at least some of the more interesting planets and stars. Finally, the confirmation came, and we all bought our tickets (R30 each).

And then we waited… and waited….

A woman in a big woolly jersey sat down next to us. She was tugging at the front of the jersey, complaining that it was too tight around the neck. She asked whether we perhaps had a pen-knife on us so that she could undo some of the stitches where it had been gathered, but unfortunately we couldn’t even offer her a tea-spoon.

Anyhow, we got chatting, as one invariably does in these kind of situations. She told us that she had travelled through New Zealand a few years back, and that it was a beautiful place to visit. And then she mentioned that, also a couple of years ago, she and her parents had hired a car and driven through Ireland for about 10 days, staying in a farmhouse for a few days at a time. My jaw dropped. I mean, what are the chances of meeting a total stranger who has been to the very place I most want to go?! I confess that I inundated her with questions…

Perhaps it was fortunate, for her, that our guide appeared shortly after to escort us up the hill. It was dark by now, and only two or three people had brought along torches (Hot tip: next time, bring a torch!). Our cheerful guide tried to set the scene – telling us that we should imagine what it was like when the KhoiSan were living here, how dark it was at night, and that they had to navigate by the light of the moon and the stars, and that there were wild animals hiding in the shrubs, and there were nuts and fruit and berries growing on the trees.

And then he strode off into the darkness, the beam of his torch flicking across trees, bushes and lawns. We all rushed after him, desperate not to lose our only beacon of light in the darkness. After a very brisk 10-15 min walk, up, and up, and up, passing The Dell with Colonel Bird’s Bath, we reached an expanse of lawn, on a slope tilting down towards the north-east. Once our eyes had adjusted to the darkness, we realised that three telescopes had been set up here, with astronomers clustered around them, lit up by eerie red lights. We spread ourselves out across the lawn and settled down.

Thanks to Richard’s foresight, our rucksack was filled with a thermosflask of tea, four buttered hot cross buns (Easter, it is a-coming!) and an extra jersey, and we were wrapped up warmly in our winter jackets. It was soooo cosy! The mood was absolutely magical. It was like being at a camp with a whole bunch of friendly strangers. I half expected someone to light a fire and to burst into song…

Suddenly a woman started talking loudly. We couldn’t see more than her outline against the night sky, so I probably won’t recognise her again. She was standing next to one of the telescope lower down the slope. She introduced the concept of the star walks, thanked everyone for coming, and then spoke at length about light pollution and how bad light was for astronomers. She started rambling, and her audience became a bit fidgetty. I think she was filling in the time, while we waited for the stars to come out and to reveal themselves in the gaps between the clouds.

An excited cry from the astronomer directly behind us – “Saturn has become visible!!” The people nearby leapt to their feet and clustered around, waiting patiently for their turn, before another thick cloud swept its mantle across the planet once more. Eventually, my turn came. It was an extraordinary experience to see this planet with its strange ring – it looked like a zero with a line going through it at an angle. I was really excited because it was the first time I had looked through a telescope, so I bounded and bounced down to where Richard was guarding (i.e. sipping and munching) the tea and the buns, and said breathlessly, “Wow!! You gotta see that! It’s so biiiig!”

When Richard finally got his turn at the telescope – about an hour later because of the clouds – he was really disappointed: “It’s tiny! It’s smaller than my smallest fingernail!” Sigh…. I guess men do have an obsession with size. Or perhaps women just have lower expectations.

By about 21h30, the cloud cover was intermittently breaking up, so we could catch brief glimpses of flickering stars and steadily glowing planets (ah! I learned something new there!) through the haze. We went to stand next to the astronomer at the back, who was balancing a laptop on a camping chair. The software he was running was similar to Stellarium, and it tells you the names of the different constellations and stars and planets and nebulas and all that celestial stuff. You can also set the time to go forward or backward, and to change the perspective and the viewing angle. I got him to align the laptop so that it was facing the same way as us, and then he pointed out a couple of the glittering jewels both in the real night sky and on the computer screen.

It was actually pretty darn amazing. And so we headed home, happy and contented.

Kirstenbosch Starwalk

2 thoughts on “A night under the stars

    • Thanks, Slamdunk, it was indeed. When they ran another series of night-time star-walks this year (I think), we unfortunately missed it, but I would really like to go again if we have a chance. Maybe Kirstenbosch will do another series in summer, which is coming up! 🙂

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