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Leo by night, Lions by day: travel to the Heart of Africa's National Parks for an observing adventure of a lifetime.

I've been fortunate to have observed from some exotic locations in a quest for astronomical Nirvana. From Kitt Peak to the mountains of Japan, I've visited some of the world's great observatories and viewing locations. So when the offer to lead an astronomy adventure came courtesy of African Environments, I simply couldn't refuse.

Our goal was to enjoy a week observing under the inky-black skies of Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area, as well as in the famous Serengeti National Park. Outside of the rainy season, Tanzania boasts clear skies for more than 85% of the year. The country is just south of the equator, which presents observers the opportunity to enjoy views of the best objects in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere skies.

The trip was dubbed "Lions by Day--Leo by Night," indicative of the wildlife we might encounter with our safari and astronomical activities. Our guests first spent a night at the Arusha Hotel on the foot of active volcano Mount Mem where we all had a chance to meet and recover from any jet lag. We then departed for three nights under the dark skies of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in northern Tanzania.

Daylight Adventures

As anyone who's done a bit of astro-tourism will tell you, daylight activities can make or break a trip almost as easily as the observing activities. This is especially true if you're traveling with family members with little interest in astronomy. So while we were all eager to get to the "Leo" part of our expedition, the "Lion" part was also crucial to the trip's success.

The Crater Highlands in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area were around 100 miles from our arrival point in Arusha, so after an early breakfast, we headed out across the landscape. Our guides had spent several years on location and were intimately familiar with the sights and creatures we encountered on our journey. With their ability to spot animals at incredible distances, their keen eyesight would put a hawk to shame.

The roads to Ngorongoro were well cared for, so we enjoyed a very smooth ride all the way from Arusha up to the entrance lo the Conservation Area. Even inside the park, the well-worn lire tracks weren't the bumpy off-road excursions I had experienced a decade earlier while visiting Kenya.

The Ngorongoro Crater is the largest drained volcanic caldera in the world. Covering over 100 square miles, it's part of the larger Conservation Area designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site that receives about a half-million visitors a year. The sprawling 14-mile-wide crater is sometimes likened to the fictional "Jurassic Park" grounds, with a rich ecosystem home to more than 25,000 animal species. These include rhino, leopards, 7 prides of lions, and several hundred bird species, combined with millions of wildebeest migrating through each year.

Our first base was on the western crater rim at Mysigio Camp (close to Mysigio Village) surrounded by lush greenery and grazing cattle. I'll never forget gazing out across the crater for the first time. The vast plain of the crater floor, with Lake Magadi in its midst, was spotted with migrating wildebeest and flamingos, while rhinos basked in the sun, and several lions looked on at the smorgasbord of prey in front of them with seeming delight.

The campsites were far from any town or city, with a limiting magnitude an astoundingly dark 6.2--perfect for observing. At an altitude of about 2,000 feet, our camp was free of mosquitos, and the skies' transparency was nearly perfect after sunset. It was clear from the first night that we were in for some spectacular observing.

On arrival we were shown to our tents, though "tent" is a loose term, as these were more akin to luxury hotel rooms. Each was the size of a spacious apartment, with solid wooden beds, washrooms, and separate showers. Apart from the tent rooms was the "break out" tent, populated with books covering not only the astronomical aspects of our trip, but also the local flora and fauna. Drinks, snacks, and solar-powered charging points for cameras and other electronics were also readily available.

Nights at Ngorongoro

Due to the remoteness and travel time across country, our observing equipment needed to be lightweight but with enough viewing capability to satisfy even seasoned observers, and it had to operate for days on battery power. Since Tanzania is just south of the equator, polar alignment on equatorial mounts would be tricky because both poles were very close to the horizon. Our emphasis was on visual observing as many objects as we could each night, so we decided to avoid the complexities of equatorial tracking and opted for what turned out to be a perfect setup for the job: a 130-mm Sky-Watcher refractor on an alt-az Go To mount. The scope provided wonderful wide-field views of many southern objects, and the mount did double-duty during the day with a Solarscope SV50 Hydrogen-alpha solar telescope. Both scopes provided satisfying views for all our guests, as well as for many of the local staff and villagers.

Most of the guests would break for a short siesta in the afternoon after coming back from the daytime adventure taking in the days' views of lions hunting gazelle or eagles soaring overhead. Then after cleanup and dinner, a few of us, along with our Maasai guards (the Maasai lease the land where the campsite is located), would head out to prepare for the night's observing activities.

Each evening, we were out ready to observe by about 7 o'clock. The Sun sets at a near-vertical angle near the equator, so the time between sunset and astronomical twilight is quite short compared to mid-northern latitudes, and we were observing within 20 minutes. Generally, we could plan on a good 8-hour stretch of observing ahead of us. After a quick two-star alignment, the Sky-Watcher Go To performed superbly, allowing us to slew to countless targets many of us had never seen before, night after night.

Jupiter dominated the skies each night, and under such dark skies, it literally cast shadows. The Messier objects, particularly those with southern declinations such as M83 and M42, elicited gasps of delight from our guests, while the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds were show-stopping targets that provoked audible squeals of joy when viewed through the eyepiece. Our 5-inch scope seemed to perform like an 8 under such dark and steady skies, enabling us to trace out structural detail in the extremities of must-see targets like 30 Doradus, the Tarantula Nebula, and NGC 3372, the Eta Carinae Nebula. The massive globular cluster Omega Centauri (NGC 5139) filled the eyepiece with millions of stars, drawing shouts from one happy guest that had us all in fits of laughter.

Knowing that Tanzania has a rich history of large impact events, I brought along a range of meteorites from my personal collection. These were especially handy when observing the planets and a few of the brighter asteroids and other rocky bodies visible at the time. I enhanced the experience for many of our guests by first showing them Mars and the thin crescent Moon, and then handing them a real piece of each to give them a tangible connection to the targets they were observing.

Serengeti Skies

After three nights at Ngorongoro, we moved on to the Serengeti National Park. Our next location in the Nabi Hills region provided an almost 360[degrees] flat panorama to enjoy, with the same level of accommodations as we had in the Crater Highlands. As soon as the camp lights were switched off, we were ready to begin another few nights of excellent observing. Once again we were blown away with the views of unfamiliar objects as diverse as the Silver Dollar Galaxy (NGC 253), all the way down to the Jewel Box Cluster. Star colors in this bright cluster took on a vivid hue under such pristine skies.

On our last night of observing, a huge fireball lit up the sky. I stood for a while wondering if the meteoroid had made it to the ground and would one day be discovered and identified. Then it struck me that with the wildlife all around us, how rich and diverse a planet we live on. I imagined what the early inhabitants must have thought of the skies. The vast Milky Way stretching overhead, bright planets lighting up the sky, occasional comets.... It must have evoked a real sense of wonder.

A Maasai chief and his son joined us for observing on more than one occasion. They were both taken aback by their first view of prominences many times larger than our planet dancing along the limb of the Sun. The chief then told me, "I never imagined it would look like this! The Sun for us, brings life to us all, not only to our crops, but to our livestock.... To see it in this way is something I will never forget." Hearing the roar of lions in the distance as I stared in quiet contemplation at the Large Magellanic Cloud that evening, I thought to myself, "Neither would I."

Nick Howes will lead an eclipse tour to Tanzania late this summer. For information, visit africanenvironments.co.tz.
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Title Annotation:Observing Adventure; Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
Author:Howes, Nick
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:6TANZ
Date:Jun 1, 2016
Words:1537
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