Sunday, December 20, 2015

A New Night Sky – Erich

My last post was made when we had internet at a hotel in Swakopmund. Swakopmund is a beach city in Namibia, and it is the popular resort town for the mid-December to mid-January holidays. (That's summer here.) Many people from Namibia and South Africa like to relax in Swakop (which is what most locals call the city.) Swakop and nearby Walvis Bay are much cooler than the rest of Namibia and have some of the few approachable beaches on them.

We did not do much in Swakopmund. In fact, we stayed an extra day there due to sickness. Syarra had a fever, so we ended up doing two nights in a guest house and barely leaving the room. But the guest house itself was lovely. And (as it was during Hanukkah) even in Namibia, Alrica made us latkes for the holiday.
Namibian Latkes (similar to, but not entirely the same as American Latkes)
From there we traveled southeast. We first drove the road between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay which is gorgeous. You have the ocean to your west and huge sand dunes to your east. Partway between the two cities, we got stopped. Throughout Namibia they have these road checkpoints where the police might pull you over. We passed through several without eliciting any reaction from the officials. But at this one, they had us pull over and asked to see our passports, Alrica's driver's license, and the registration for the car. All was in order and we were on our way.

We continued into the Namib Desert and spent the night at the Tsauchab River Camp. This has got to be one of the most interesting and unique campgrounds I have ever seen. First, every site you can pitch your tent at is private and separated from the other sites. Each has its own ablution facility. Ours was built with a wild fig tree as part of the structure. And it was producing wild figs.

Fig Tree Ablution Facility
The owners of the Tsauchab River Camp, Johan and Nicky Steyn, have really done a lot with their land. There are many hiking trails, some of them going for miles (or kilometres.) Johan is an artist who makes sculptures, large and small, out of old pieces of metal that once had another purpose in life. So the campground is replete with little people, planes, vehicles, and animals.

But for me, my favorite part of that site was after the sun went down. We were far, far away from any city, town, or source of light. It was dark. And there were so many stars!

As a young boy I remember every once in a while going out into the country in Iowa and seeing a truly black sky with lots and lots of stars. I had forgotten how impressive the sky really is. And we had done it just right, as this was the night of the new moon.

We were staggered. As an example, we saw Orion. Yes, you can see him in both the southern and northern hemisphere because he is near the ecliptic. And I see Orion back at home too. But here, you could not only see Orion but within him are thousands, maybe millions of tiny, dim stars that you just cannot see when you are near light pollution.

We saw Sirius, super bright and seeming to change colors. And Alrica, looking with her naked eyes said “I think that's really two stars.” And we looked it up and she's right! Though the source we were reading said “Sirius is a binary star, but one can't see both stars with the naked eye.” Apparently, whoever wrote that doesn't have my wife's visual acuity.

We could make out the Andromeda Galaxy, and using binoculars, you could even see it was a spiral galaxy.

But what was very exciting to me was to see so many constellations that we cannot see in the northern hemisphere. There is the Southern Cross, the False Cross, Mensa, and Centauri. We also got to see the Greater and Lesser Magellanic Clouds.

To be honest, that night, we could not see the Southern Cross as it was below the horizon. And we also could only see a few of the stars in Centauri, because many were below the horizon. But a couple days later we got up super early (you will have to read a different blog post to learn why) and we did see the the Southern Cross. Plus, we could see Alpha Centauri, the second nearest star to Earth!

That beautifully black night with its millions of stars is one of my favorite moments in Namibia. Of course, I have others, but that was a spectacle that was a true treat in today's well-lit world. You should all find a nice dark place to see the night sky. I think you will feel the same awe.

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