Star gazing and the southern skies

Am very excited as I’m off to the Kruger Park this coming week-end, leaving the guesthouse in the very capable hands of Zac, Catherine and Thandi. My locum Olga, who moves in with her husband Dick, takes over my daily tasks and role in the running of the guest house. I can barely wait for the early morning steaming coffee and rusks sitting at a waterhole, the silence broken only by  the bush bird calls or the snort of a nervous impala; the warm dry dusty bushveld air; the sounds of the hippos grunting at night and, if they are in the area, the deep primal roar of a lion, or that eery sound of a hyena ‘whooping’; the evenings around the fire having a braai or even better a ‘potjie’   (Andrew, my elder son, makes a mean potjie stew). And of course away from the constant reflected glow of urban electricity,  the night skies in the bushveld are just extraordinary. 
There are several aids to help a novice negotiate around the night sky. 

The Planetarium at Wits (founded in the late 1950s) has weekly shows on a Thursday at 7pm, on Friday at 8pm and Saturday afternoon at 3 pm. Also starting in September there is a course of 4 introductory lectures on reading the Southern Skies. (Cost: R160pp) Go to www.planetarium.co.za .

The resident astronomer at Maropeng (the information centre at the Cradle of Humankind) is running several stargazing evenings (info@maropeng.co.za) The dates of the Stargazing events for the rest of the year are:
August 8 – Celebration of International Year of Astronomy
August 22 – Explore the Milky Way
September 19 – Jupiter and Galileo
September 26 – You are here: a brief journey through the time and space of our universe
October 17 – Living amongst the stars
November 14 – An introduction to our summer skies

A Sol Kerzner Hotel, AloeRidge out in the Cradle combines ‘Astronomy and Gastronomy’ where you can ‘Dine with Stars’ (great lines!). According to the website, the average meal cost is R130 per person and R100 for the star show.  www.aloeridge.com

For those who have laptops there is a fabulous programme which is the night sky equivalent of Google Earth. Download it from www.stellarium.org.  You can take your laptop outside and orient the sky on your screen to your position, insert the drawn lines and then ‘read’ all the constellations. It is amazing.

And then of course if you are really serious to find your own stars with a full blown telescope, you can go for the miraculous device called a Celestron Skyscout. This is a small handheld device with GPS technology which when you, point and click at a star, identifies the star and gives audio and text information about the star/constellation, etc.   One’s own private planetarium.

Note: Rusks are chunks of dry biscuit – very South African, and tasting way better than they sound! And a potjie (meaning little pot)is another South African speciality – a stew made in a 3 legged heavy cast iron pot and cooked very slowly (like all day)  over the coals.

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