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First National star party in South Africa.

What started out as a casual idea by Pretoria Centre members, Johan Smit and Dame Barnardo to invite some friends along to share a wonderful experience under the dark Karoo skies, ended up as South Africa's first National Star Party. It was attended by 38 people representing a slice of the stargazing community of South Africa. The gathering was held during the long weekend 25 to 27 April 2009 at the Kambro guest farm, 20 km north of Britstown. The town is centrally located, 250 km south of Kimberley on the N12, on route between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Dame regularly sleeps over at Kambro and on returning to Pretoria is always haunted by the memory of the pristine skies of Britstown. The idea of a bigger event grew after he and Johan subsequently decided to spend a weekend there doing telescope viewing and enjoying Karoo lamb.

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Abie Bouwer from Johannesburg, who brought the largest telescope to the parry, a home-made 20-inch Dobsonian, offered an alternative motive for attending: "In olden days pioneers left their place of living for a place of hope. There are many examples of these exoduses. Often direction was provided by some symbol of hope--and all too often this symbol was a beacon of light In April we trekked south like pioneers, our direction also provided by a symbol of hope. Unlike the pioneers we followed the great column of darkness." And it was dark indeed! Sarel Wagner from the West Rand Astronomy Club brought along a fancy gadget that actually measures the darkness. It is called a SQM-L or a "Sky Quality Meter" which can quantitatively determine the brightness of the night sky in magnitudes per square arcsecond. He measured 21.4, 21.1 and 21.7 mags/[Arcsec.sup.2] for the three nights respectively--this translates to a naked-eye limiting magnitude of between magnitude 6.1 and 6.5.

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With the Monday being a public holiday, for those who could make it there by Friday evening, meant three nights of possible viewing. Serena Ingamells from Somerset West, representing OOG (the Orion Observation Group) was early and witnessed the first arrivals: "On Friday afternoon cars packed to the gunnels and bakkies with trailers started making their appearance and soon an impressive selection of telescopes popped up like mushrooms among the prickly pears. Many people had travelled through heavy thunderstorms and the conversation during the evening meal invariably turned to the weather prospects and our ability to do some serious viewing". Dame Barnardo was one of those who hit a thunderstorm on the way which left him quite downhearted. But conditions soon changed: "lust after sunset the skies cleared miraculously, revealing a perfect sky" Dame exclaimed. "The Milky way calved a wide swath across the sky, in all its splendour. The Magellanic clouds in the south, the Southern Cross with the Coalsack clearly distinguishable and the magnificent starfields of the Crux region; even Omega Centauri and 47 Tucanae were all easily visible without the intervention of a pair of binoculars. That evening the viewing was probably the best of the whole weekend and those who arrived a day early were really fortunate. I think the rain of the previous day scrubbed all dust from the atmosphere."

Serena reiterated Danie's experience: "The sweeping Karoo plain, fringed with rolling hills provided open horizons and spectacular vistas. The Milky Way was draped over the sky like threads of silk, studded with diamonds. Even experienced stargazers who had seen it all before were heard to exclaim in wonder. The extent of the Coalsack drew many comments as the vastness of the nebula was revealed in all its glory. In binoculars a wealth of objects were easily accessible. Eyes invariably tuned to an old favourite, NGC 3372 and its adjacent companion, the aptly named 'Wishing Well' (NGC 3532). Clutching a list of the Top 100 Deep-sky Objects we set about hunting down as marry as we were able."

Clint Mathews from the West Rand Astronomy Club in Krugerdorp shared Serena's views: "We were over helmed by the sheer abundance of stars in the sky, the Magellanic Clouds were easily visible to the naked eye. The Coalsack looked like a black stain in the sky--a WOW moment indeed."

With such perfect skies on offer, Serena, joined by Daphne Schlebusch from Pretoria, soon gravitated towards Abie's 20-inch for a peep. Serena writes: "Able Bouwer's telescope provided some of the most spectacular sights of the weekend. We were able to see five of Saturn's moons and ten Virgo galaxies in a single 2-inch eyepiece field. He was most obliging and would swing his burly telescope in any direction to satisfy the many requests for obscure or long sought-after nightly gems. This was heart stopping stuff but eventually dew and sleep overtook even the hardiest star hunters."

A cold front swept in from the west and most of Saturday remained cloudy and wet. Some visitors used the day to explore the surrounding countryside. Vosburg, 60 km on the road to Carnavon (the proposed site of the SKA), proved an enjoyable destination with good coffee, but be warned, petrol is not always available in these parts. Serena and Daphne spent an anxious trip back to Britstown quite literally running on the smell of an oil rag.

With the common denominator being astronomy, stargazers started mixing more freely and new acquaintances and friendships were made. It turned out that some people concentrated so seriously on ensuring that they packed telescopes and every conceivable piece of equipment imaginable, but forgot some basics--like food! But thanks to the well stocked Kambro shop their problems were soon solved. Dame also enjoyed the facilities: "Kambro is a very nice venue. The accommodation is superb and the meal that we enjoyed on the Friday evening at Wilma's restaurant ('Die Voelnes') was superb. Everybody wanted to get hold of her bean soup recipe. The site is nice and level, well suited to setting up telescopes. The only slight problem was the lights of the approaching cars and trucks on the N12". Serena equally enjoyed the venue: "Kambro was a perfect location for the star party and the gathering of like minded souls. The accommodation was very comfortable and the food at the restaurant just wonderful. Owners Gerhard & Wilma Strauss were most helpful and generous. True to Karoo hospitality, we received freshly baked bread on our doorstep every night."

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Abie could not help comparing the seeing conditions to that of Johannesburg: "Everything indicated that the seeing would not be at its best--the wind was blowing, a massive front was following due south-west and generally bad weather raged throughout the day. Still it was as good as, or even better, than anything on the Rand. How come we can't have such good seeing with bad weather at home? Saturn would be at sharp focus and dead still even at 340x magnification. Close doubles could be split without effort".

Unfortunately the sky only cleared after midnight on Saturday and just a small group of diehards from Pretoria stayed up to enjoy magnificent viewing until sunrise on Sunday morning. "We had magnificent views of Scorpios, Sagittarius, Jupiter, Venus and Mars in the early hours", said Danie.

However what was lost the previous night was more than compensated for on Sunday night "It was a fitting finale to a memorable weekend", Serena wrote. "Incredible seeing provided easy binocular access to deep sky delights and thanks to the generosity of others, we were taken on a star hopping experience of a lifetime. Star maps are fine but there is nothing quite like seeing fuzzies through the eyes of an old hand. Never again will I look at M46, M47 and the spectacular delights of Scorpius without remembering the kindness of Michael Poll, in line as the next ASSA president. His battle scarred telescope and well used reference book clearly indicated his lifetime among the stars."

Abie Bouwer agreed: "On Sunday night the seeing was even better than Friday and there were more people--now it was a real star parry. Naturally the surprisingly good seeing was a bonus, but we all came for something far more elusive. Dark skies. And we got plenty! Challenging objects on the Rand were easy at Britstown. My favourite tester such as the Shapely 1 planetary in Norma was easy. But it was the galaxies that came to justice. The Sombrero filled my eyepiece with excellent contrast and detail. Centauros A was for once a hamburger (if you were hungry you could even imagine some lettuce and perhaps a gherkin ...) and the Black Eye galaxy turned out to be a black eyelid partially covering a rather bright eye. For me galaxies are usually a bit arbitrary--save the few "special" ones, the rest are all blotches, wisps or faint lines in the sky. Not at Britstown! The faint lines became dust lanes, the blotches gained texture and the wisps were whiny spirals."

Late Sunday evening a group of students who were camping at a nearby farm visited. They were treated to a tour of the wonders of the night sky and left suitably impressed! All and all, attendees were from Pretoria, Johannesburg, the West Rand, Uitenhage and Somerset West. "We even had Clive Callaway from the United States and Manual and his friends from Spain, making it not only a national, but an international event', added Danie.

Regarding the telescopes; Dobsonians topped the list with five--mostly homemade. There was also a 12.5-inch truss tube f/5 Discovery Dobsonian, a 12-inch Sky-watcher Explorer 300P NEQ6 Pro, a 10-inch Schmidt Cassegrain, two 8-inch Ritchey-Chretien's and an assortment of four others, mainly refractors on equatorial mounts, geared for astrophotography. A total of 13 scopes. Johan Smit's nifty binocular mount drew many admirers and was tried out with different binoculars. This easily adjustable contraption works on the principle of levers and counterweights and can be assembled in a matter of minutes.

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There was also humor. Johan told about Willie Odendaal, the youngest and therefore the "appy" of their group who ensured that their coffee cups were kept topped up. "He is the only person I know who can fall over a Karoo bush without spilling a drop", Johan writes. "And he had lots of practice. He must have stumbled over the same bush at least a dozen times but, as a good appy should, still did not use his torch and kill the old folks' dark adaption. We could easily follow his progress in the dark by the crackling of the bushes and the tinkling of cups which always arrived full."

It was an extremely relaxing weekend under the stars--perhaps too relaxing. Unfortunately the whole group never got together once, not even for a group photograph or for an opportunity where they could all meet each other. As one of the instigators of the event, Johan Smit, admits: "We did not have any pre-arranged program. Our purpose was to have a relaxing weekend where people who are serious about stargazing could view the sky at their own pace and could meet likeminded folks. We were actually so over helmed by the night sky that we jumped from one favourite to the next as the mood took us and as we managed to find an object And in between we talked and laughed. At times I just sat back, trying to soaked it all in with the naked-eye. It was really good for the soul to be able to enjoy a sky like this. We are not professional organisers and perhaps did not arrange the weekend perfectly but it turned out well in the end."

Unfortunately all good things must come to and end. "Time to pack up arrived all too soon" Abie concluded. "We left Britstown on Monday. The journey was almost symbolic. Our drive started at 10h00 through the sun-drenched pristine Karoo and ended at 18h00 in Johannesburg, smog-drenched and grim. Strange is the joy that lights eventually brought to the world ...", he mused.

One can only hope that this may become an annual event. Instead of just sliding by the seat of one's pants, with a bit more structure, perhaps more opportunities for folks to mingle and meet and a possible plan B for in case of really fowl weather, this gathering has the potential to become South Africa's Stellafane. Johan Smit already promised: "We are thinking about making this a regular event. Next time the arrangements will be more elegant and the marketing better." Imagine Britstown one day getting listed amongst the 40 odd worldwide starparties on http: //en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_parry!
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Title Annotation:observers page
Publication:Monthly Notes of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jun 1, 2009
Words:2118
Previous Article:IYA2009--The 100 hours of astronomy event.
Next Article:Astronomy Clubs in Southern Africa.
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