Off the beaten track 3

The little private observatory in the hills of Leeuwenboschfontein guest farm is run by an enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable group of amateur astronomers (I hope they aren’t offended by that) who collectively have an extensive array of large telescopes which they so generously make available for the interested public to view the wonders of our night sky. A small donation towards travelling costs and incidentals is a mere bagatelle when compared with the value received. The success of any stargazing event is, of course, dependent entirely on cloudless skies at night. It has become an established joke, when organising a Star Party, to call it a Cloud Party, as you should then be guaranteed no clouds. Many a Star Party has been rained out, snowed out or blown out by gales, but when the universe comes to the party, there is nothing to match the show it will give.

We eyed the weather forecast for a week before the event, with growing concern as rain seemed certain. Things shifted suddenly and the heavy rains fell on the Thursday, leaving Friday to clear with occasional showers. The large pools of water at the roadside, and farm dams that had been empty on previous trips were evidence that we had been very lucky, as were the farmers, and the veld was the greenest I have seen it. The observatory, being on top of a hill and as exposed as possible to take advantage of the widest horizon, was cold and windy, but we were prepared for that with jackets, scarves, hats and gloves. I once camped there at 2deg Celsius and lived to tell the tale. A big mug of hot Milo would be the preferred beverage of the night.

As Saturday progressed, the puffy clouds dissipated and the fresh south-east wind abated. What more could a bunch of would-be stargazers ask? That the fine clouds coming over from the north would vanish by nightfall! The sun dipped behind the mountain and the temperature dropped a few degrees, But the outlook was good. As dusk fell, we drove most of the way up the hill and parked below the observatory, where turning can be tight and tracks steep and narrow, and then walked up to join the festivities. First thing was making the Milo before the use of red light became a requirement – what they need is a microwave with a red globe inside for dark adaption – then we settled down with about 20 or so visitors to be given a short, entertaining and most informative presentation on basics of the solar system. Many surprises and much to learn.

With two telescopes operating – a 12-inch and a 16-inch – we were treated to some spectacular views of nebulae, open clusters, globular clusters and a couple of galaxies (Sombrero and Hamburger – both easily identified by the names). The wind dropped, the stars became ever brighter, the centre of our Milky Way galaxy arched fantastically bright overhead, so many stars filling in the spaces between familiar constellations that it was difficult to pick them out. Shooting stars flashed from all directions and doubtless many wishes were made. But nothing will ever compare with the sight of the rising recumbent Scorpius, reflected in absolute perfection in the still waters of the dam below us, a double image that took everyone by surprise, with no cameras ready to record this marvellous moment. You will have to just believe me.

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