03 December 2011 by Julienne du Toit

Star Safari

I first went on a star safari when I still lived in a big city and thought there were only 5 stars in the sky.

That changed after a visit to a place called Malapo Country Lodge in Mpumalanga, where the owners invited me, at dusk, to their much beloved telescope in an ‘astro boma’. Already I could see 100 million times more stars than you see in Joburg. The telescope was unveiled in readiness.

Finally the sky was dark and the Milky Way stretched across the night like a distant spray of milk, a cirrus cloud behind the stars, the backbone of the night sky.

The Southern Cross appeared above our heads, a link-the-stars kite. Within it, invisible to our naked eyes, are the two most striking opposites of the of the Milky Way: the pitch black Coal Sack, darkest patch in the visible universe, and the Jewel Box with its multi-hued bright star clusters.

The telescope was programmed to the Jewel Box, 7 600 light years away. It whirred and hunted, nose to the heavens like a celestial bloodhound, then stood immobile and pointing at the Southern Cross (known to astronomists as Crux).

It was a wonder to see the Jewel Box, the bright globules of light in the shades of fancy diamonds - blue white, pinkish, yellowish. This is a star nursery.

The Crux is a source of even more: we looked at Alpha Crux, which is a binary star, blinking rhythmically, and the bright Rigel Centaurus, also called Alpha Centauri, one of the bright pointers to the Cross.

The planets were thrilling. We saw bright Saturn with its ring, perfect. Jupiter and four of its 16 moons drifting across its vast reddish bulk, Ganymede, Io, Callisto, Europa.

As the telescope was packed away, we felt we had been far away, on a star quest. Looking up, the stars are comforting, beautiful familiar. But the telescope is like a magic lens. Invisible things are made visible. Infinity is brought nearer.

After that, I was hooked. And now that I live in the Karoo, which has some of the clearest skies in South Africa (Sutherland, with its huge star observatories, is in the Karoo), I’m spoilt. Every dinner party in my hometown of Cradock ends with farewells that include heads tipped back to admire the sparkling night sky.

Category: Wildlife

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