Down on Earth and up in the Sky in the Karoo

Field trip with Dr Juri van den Heever and the honours students from the Department of Botany & Zoology at the University of Stellenbosch.  17 – 22 March 2014

This is a diary of the six day event with lots of pictures to illustrate the text.  I must first give some background about the tour and its origins to put all readers in the picture.  Juri van den Heever, the architect of the tour, moved from the South African Museum to the Department of Zoology at Stellenbosch in 1987.  In 1988 he took the first of these tours as part of the Honours course and has been taking them ever since.  I had been with the Department of Biochemistry at Stellenbosch University since 1985 and, as Juri and I had been at school together, we were able to renew our friendship when he came to Stellenbosch.  This led to him asking me if I would like to participate in the tours and fill in on the Biochemistry of plants as well as some other aspects.  The tour provides the students with information on Geology, Vertebrate anatomy, Palaeontology, Plants and plant usage, Insects, Birds, Ecology of the areas visited, History, Culture, Geography, Astronomy and, last but not least, the opportunity to participate in discussions on science in general and the philosophy of science and being a scientist.

So, from around 1994 or so, we have been in this together, although I skipped one or two due to pressure of work at Biochemistry or some other immovable commitment.  Over the years we have also taken members of the public, high school learners and fellow colleagues at the University on these tours, whenever there have been seats open in the vehicles.  These “outsiders” have very often made valuable contributions to the range and depth of the topics touched on during the tour.  One interesting feature of these trips over the years has been the large number of our University colleagues who have annually committed themselves very enthusiastically to participate in the next trip only to pull out at the last minute.  This year we had 14 students from the Department of Botany and Zoology and one member of the public, Peter Müller, a retired Wood Technologist.

Monday 17th March

Just after 06:30 on Monday the 17th of March, Lynnette dropped me off at the University’s vehicle park where Juri was already inspecting the two Toyotas and completing the paperwork.  We hooked on the two trailers and shortly before 07:00 we were parked outside the Department and the students could begin to load their gear, the supplies and other equipment for the week.  Shortly after 07:00 Juri gave the first briefing and then we embarked and headed out of Stellenbosch toward the West Coast Fossil Park near Langebaanweg.  Our route took us through Malmesbury, which has a tepid, sulphur chloride spring that once attracted many ailing Capetonians to a Sanatorium that was built there.  A shopping centre now covers the site.

After turning off the N7 onto the R45, our route took us across the undulating hills of weathered Malmesbury shale that form the wheat fields of the Swartland (Black Land), These were once covered in Renosterbos (Elytropappus rhinocerotis), which is the signature plant on weathered shale and mudstone throughout our area.  Its dark colouring, when seen from a distance, was probably the origin of the name Swartland.  Once past the Moorreesburg turnoff, the countryside gradually changed to alluvial sand covered in restios interspersed with small and medium sized shrubs.  Just after the small settlement of Koperfontein we passed the brand new 66 MW Hopefield wind farm owned by Umoya Energy.  The farm became operational in February 2014 and develops sufficient energy to power 70 000 low-income homes or 29 000 medium-income homes, when the wind blows. Go here to read a short article on this wind farm.

The R45 bypasses the town of Hopefield, a fact which has turned the town into a virtual ghost town. Between Hopefield and the Air Force Base at Langebaanweg, the markers of the pipeline bringing water to the West Coast from Voëlvlei dam can be seen at intervals on one’s right and, shortly after Langebaanweg, we turned off the R45 into the Park.  The Park was originally a Chemfos phosphate mine, but after the closure of the mine in 1993, it was declared a National Monument Site in 1996.  The Park, now covering about 700ha, was officially launched in 1998. It is currently under the control of the Iziko Museums of Cape Town, and is managed by Pippa Haarhoff.  It has recently been declared a National Heritage Site.  The following site gives more information on the Park.  The fossils date back about 5.2 million years to the late Miocene/early Pliocene era.  Go here for more information on this exceptional area.  After some refreshments at the visitors centre we got back into the vehicles and followed the guide, Wendy Wentzel, down to the dig site.

Wendy briefing us on the background of the area and the dig site
The group lined up listening to Wendy. Angus is to the left out of the picture and Peter to the right also out of the picture

The dig site is in the old ‘E’ Quarry area and displays an astounding array of fossils.  Wendy ran us through an informative description of the various animals found at the site, the conditions thought to have existed when the animals died and the methods used to uncover the fossils.  The majority of the bones visible seem to be those of the short-necked giraffe or Sivathere but there is evidence of wales, seals, various elephants and different sabre toothed cats as well.  The only bear south of the Sahara was also found at the Park in the smaller dig site adjacent to the larger one visited by the general public.  Shark teeth found here are evidence for the existence of a behemoth that would have dwarfed the infamous cinematic Jaws.  After the talk we moved outside to the sorting trays where everyone had a go at finding the fossil remains of the smaller animals such as mice, frogs and moles.  Then back to the vehicles to return to the visitors centre for a quick bite to eat, something to drink and a visit to the essential amenities before departing on the next leg of our journey.

Dismay, amazement and indifference? I do not really think so but you’d best ask Claire, Benjamin and Dale yourself
5.2 million year old carnage. The bottle does not date back that far
A reconstruction of the Southern African bear. Check out the size comparison with a human
The short necked giraffe or Sivathere compared to a human. This was a big animal and, judging by the bones here quite common too
Wendy instructing the group on how to find the really small stuff

We retraced or route past Hopefield and shortly after Koperfontein we turned left to Moorreesburg.  On that stretch of road we had an excellent view of the ancient termite mounds or “heuweltjies” that give the fields such a lumpy appearance.  These mounds were already alluded to by the 18th century Astronomer and Geodesist, Nicolas-Louis De La Caille.  Go here to read the section in Dr. Ian Glass’s book on De la Caille. For a more recent and scientific coverage of the topic you can go here to read an article published by the Department of Soil Science at the University of Stellenbosch.  We passed through Moorreesburg which considers itself the “heart” of the Swartland wheat industry and actually boasts a wheat industry museum, one of only three in the world.

We then headed for the twin towns of Riebeek West and Riebeek Kasteel.  Just outside the former we passed the cement factory of PPC (Pretoria Portland Cement) where one can visit the restored house in which General Jan Christian Smuts was born.  Smuts, educated at the Victoria College, later the University of Stellenbosch, and Christ’s College at Cambridge University, went on to become State Attorney of the Transvaal Republic, a successful general in the Anglo-South African War and eventually Prime minister of South Africa.  Daniel Francois Malan, the first Prime Minister to actively apply the basic principles of institutionalized apartheid after the 1948 elections, was also born in Riebeek West. These two towns lie on the slopes of the Kasteelberg.  From these two towns one has a sweeping view of the Northward tending arm Cape Fold Mountains from the Limietberg behind Wellington through the Winterhoek west of Tulbagh and on into the Cederberg where the peak of Cederberg Sneeukop can just be made out.

We left Kasteelberg behind, crossed the Berg River and just after passing the hamlet of Hermon, we turned left on the R46.  Our route took us past the blockhouse that once guarded the railway line during the Anglo-South African war and then Voëlvlei dam, one of the major sources of water for Cape Town and the West Coast before passing into Nuwekloof through which the Little Berg River exits on its way to join the Berg River several kilometers beyond the village of Gouda.  In 1739 the head and right hand of the infamous Estiénne Barbier were placed in this area after his execution as a gruesome warning to anyone contemplating an uprising against the VOC.  In Nuwekloof one can still see the dry stone wall supporting Andrew Bain’s road which was in use for more than a hundred years until it was replaced by the present road in 1968.  The road then passes into the Land of Wavern, south of Tulbagh and heads up the valley of the Little Berg river with the Witzenberg rising on the left and, on the right, the Elandsberg which is replaced by the Watervalsberg once one has crossed the watershed at Artois. It then swings to the left, passing North of Wolesely and shortly afterward entering Michell’s Pass.

Lunch al fresco in Michell’s Pass on a section of Andrew Bain’s old road
The after lunch lecture in Michell’s Pass

In Michell’s Pass we stopped on the only section of Andrew Bain’s road that has been preserved.  Out came the tables and food and, while a light lunch was enjoyed, Juri spoke at length about Bain, the founding of the town of Ceres and the true origins of the town’s name as well as the tremendous importance of the pass at the time it was constructed.  After lunch we packed up before inspecting the impressive dry stone walls of the old road and then drove the last bit of the pass into Ceres where we filled up with fuel and everyone had an opportunity to visit a small supermarket.  Our next stop was the pharmacy to so that Benjamin could buy medication for the Otitis Media he had developed.  We finally left Ceres heading for Eselfontein, the farm of Gideon and Janine Malherbe where we would look for fossils in a quarry and spend the night in their Ecocamp.  Driving out to the farm the road ran across extensive beds of Bokkeveld sediments with the Skurweberg’s younger sandstone layers sloping down under them from our right.  In the distance on our left were the cliffs of Gydoberg and the Waboomsberg rising high above the northern edge of the Ceres valley.

The quarry on Eselfontein with typical Renosterbos veld in the background and students in the foreground
Benjamin’s Trilobite find.
The campfire at the Ecocamp on Eselfontein with the pointers to the Southern Cross prominent in the night sky in the background

We spent time in the quarry giving everyone the opportunity to experience the thrill of finding a fossil.  That special feeling when you crack open the rock and see it, knowing you are not only the first human but the only human to ever have seen the creature that has been entombed in the sediment for several hundred million years.  Many shell imprints were found from a variety of families as well as several fragments of trilobites.  The prize find of the afternoon was Benjamin’s trilobite.  Fairly late in the afternoon we packed up and drove up the fairly rigged road to the Ecocamp where we unpacked and set about preparing supper.  Benjamin and Dale did their first of several stints at the fire on the trip, grilling the chicken to perfection.  Benjamin’s approach is that he would rather cook every evening than wash dishes.  Juri, Claire and Sheree’s potato salad went down very well too.  Unforeseen problems with the water supply meant that we all had to wash in the adjacent mountain stream.  There was very little interest in astronomy as most people were pretty tired after the long day but, nevertheless, the Moon, just one day past full moon, rising behind the pine forest made quite a spectacular site.

Tuesday 18th March

At 07:00 Juri started the day by getting everybody up and moving in the direction of breakfast after which we packed up, packed everything into the vehicles and the trailers and set off on the first leg of day two.  This entailed a short drive in the direction of Lakenvlei dam, then past Matroosberg to Okkie Geldenhuys’s farm Matjiesrivier, where we collected our annual allocation of peaches.  With the sandstone of the Cape fold mountains behind us, but still standing on Bokkeveld sediments, the view to the north of the farm gave us our first view of the Witteberg sediments.

Early morning at Eselfontein with the moon peeking between the branches of a Protea bush and the morning sun touching the mountains in the background.
Juri delivers the morning talk on what the day has in store for everyone
We start moving out of the Ecocamp on Eselfontein
The historic homestead on Matjiesrivier

Shortly after leaving the farm we picked up the R46 again and headed East toward the N1 and our first fossil stop of the day near the game farm Aquila.  On the way there we passed Verkeerdevlei, the original water supply for Touws River and a forlorn looking Dakota aircraft parked amongst some scraggy looking pines in a military training area.  About 300m before reaching Aquila, we pulled over and got out to look for Zoophycos, one of the few fossils one finds readily in the Witteberg sediments.  After finding some examples and making sure everyone knew what it looked like we departed.  As we drove away, we had a good view of Aquila’s huge automated solar energy installation that produces 60 kW of electricity by means of a Concentrator Photovoltaic system.  The area around the solar panels also houses the lion rehabilitation pens as a deterrent to would be thieves.  This system forms part of an eventual 50 MW installation currently under construction.  Go here to read more about this exciting installation.

Roadside talk on the Witteberg sediments and the fossils the group might expect to find there
The panels of the Solar installation just across the road from the Game Farm, Aquila.
They are probably wondering where to start

Our next stop was Touws River for acquiring refreshments and use of the amenities and then we were off again headed for the Logan Cemetery on the N1.  Although the mountains around us were all Witteberg deposits, we were soon driving on the frist of the Ecca deposits and about 10 km north of the town the first patch of Dwyka tillite, a glacial deposit, appeared to the left of the road.  Also fairly abundant along the N1 was the yellowish Kraalbos (Galena Africana), a pioneer shrub that takes over in disturbed or overgrazed areas.  It can, however, proliferate to the point where it suppresses the regrowth of other plants.  As we progressed in the direction of Matjiesfontein, we saw more and more  Dwyka tillite on either side of the road and the Witteberg Mountains to the south also became more and more prominent.  When parked at the Logan cemetery one can see good examples of Ecca, Witteberg and Dwyka.

The group gathered around Andrew Wauchope’s gravestone. An identical one was erected at his birthplace in Scotland
Major-General Andrew Gilbert Wauchope was a much admired officer in the British Army
Jimmy and Emma Logan’s gravestones
A memorial from friends and colleagues to John Grant who was killed in an accident during construction work on the railway

At the cemetery Juri discussed the mystery surrounding the burial of Major-General Andrew Gilbert Wauchope (known as Red Mick) in this spot.  He was the commander of the 3rd (Highland) Brigade at the Battle of Magersfontein on the 11th of December 1899 in the Anglo-South-African War and was killed in the opening minutes of the battle.  His wife Jane gave instructions that he should be buried where he fell – at Magersfontein – and yet he lies here.  Also buried here is James Douglas Logan, the founder of the little town of Matjiesfontein, owner of the farm Tweedside and Member of the Cape Parliament, his wife and several family members.  A little further away is the grave of George Alfred Lohmann a phenomenal English cricketer of the late 1800’s who, despite several trips to recuperate at Matjiesfontein, eventually lost his battle against tuberculosis.  After taking a look at the obelisk commemorating Wauchope higher up on the hill and examining the Dwyka tillite on the hillside, we left for Sutherland.

Juri and the students gathered around the memorial commemorating Andrew Wauchope. Note the pointy outcrops of Dwyka tillite on the hillside
George Alfred Lohmann’s gravestone
A most appropriate symbolic indication that a great cricketer had finally been bowled out
In memory of private Doyle of the Royal Scots Greys. One wonders how many of these grave markers are scattered across the world commemorating young men who died “For King/Queen and country”

On the way to Sutherland we took note of the various sizes of the drop-stones in the cuttings through the Dwyka tillite and also pointed out the various outcrops of the Whitehill Formation, a distinctive stratigraphic unit near the base of the Ecca group and stressed its importance as a repository of Mesosaurus, fish and insect fossils from the early Permian.  As we progressed northward we crossed the Collingham Formation, a section of volcanic ash and eventually arrived amongst the Beaufort or Karoo sediments which were deposited on land by huge meandering rivers in a gigantic basin that stretched right across the present day South Africa.  At a deep cutting about one km after crossing the Tanqua River, we stopped to look at the exposed mudstone and sandstone beds so typical of the Karoo sediments and also to explain to the students how the early Karoo Basin was filled in.

In Sutherland we visited Mr Eddie Marais, who in his youth had the privilege of collecting with Dr L. D. Boonstra.  Mr Marais has a collection of artefacts that Juri used to explain to the students what they could expect in the field the following day and how to distinguish between calciferous nodules and actual bone.  He also took the opportunity to discuss the development of the Karoo fauna and explained the gradual transition of true reptiles to mammal-like reptiles and later to true mammals which could be observed in the fossil record of the Karoo sediments.  After enjoying the refreshments graciously supplied by Mrs Marais, we left to refuel the vehicles.

Everything nicely set out by Mrs Marais in her garden and all we now needed were the people to enjoy the spread
The pet graveyard in the Marais’s garden; pet rooster on the left followed by three cats

On our way to Fraserburg we passed the SAAO site where SALT and all the other South African telescopes are situated.  On arrival at Fraserburg, we unloaded and Karin showed us to our rooms and as soon as the children in the hostel had left the dining hall, we moved into the kitchen to prepare supper.  The end result of the kitchen team was a delicious pasta dish.  After supper there was some astronomy discussion with various members of the group and most of the group went to bed in preparation for a long day on Wednesday.

Pasta supper on the first evening in Huis Retief, the School hostel in Fraserburg

Wednesday 19th March

We were in the dining room shortly after eight to have breakfast and then we set off for the local museum which is housed in the old Pastorie of the Dutch Reformed Church.  The very friendly person in charge of the museum, Don Pedro Malan welcomed us at the museum and Juri set about giving a detailed explanation of the fossils on display.  His explanation also covered the development of the various groups of animals that had been present in the Karoo basin during the period when it was filling up. After his talk everyone had the opportunity to look more closely at the fossil display and look around the museum in general before we set of to Droogvoetsfontein, where we met up with Mr Pieter Conradie.  We all piled onto and into his pickup for a trip into the veld and then back to our vehicles which Juri and I then drove to the next stop while Pieter ferried the students there.  Juri and I then rejoined the crowd on the pickup for the trip to where he had found a fossil, or at least bits of a fossil.  As with many of the fossils in the Karoo lying exposed on the surface the elements take their toll and this one had not fared any better.  All that was left, were a few scraps of nondescript bone not worth collecting and the surroundings also suggested that these had probably washed in from elsewhere in any case.  Back on the pickup and back to the vehicles for a short drive before we dispersed in all directions to look for the elusive fossils.  After about two hours I had found some pieces of rib bone and others had found another badly weathered fossil on the slope of a hill.

The Old Pastorie Museum in Fraserburg
Jurie running through the fossil display in the museum and explaining the relationships between reptiles, dinosaurs and mammal-like reptiles


Benjamin and Dale discussing the day’s programme, or are they planning the evening’s braai?
Pieter Conradie (snr) and Johannes closing the gate. Juri and I still had to clamber aboard
The immensity of the Karoo dwarfs members of the group as they scour the veld for fossils
Some members of the team found something but, unfortunately, not worth collecting
Lunch is served under the trees on the farm Dagbreek

Back to the vehicles and off we went to Pieter’s farm, Dagbreek, where we prepared a light lunch in the shade of a tree.  The new-born lambs were an immediate hit with the students.  After lunch we set off again, but this time with Pieter on his motorcycle leading the way.  After an interesting drive, we arrived at the next farm, Onderplaas, disembarked and set off on foot down a riverbed with scattered pools of water and muddy patches amongst the grass to trap the unwary.  What was left of this fossil was still firmly embedded in the rock, but most of it had been worn away by the perennial flooding of the river.  Disappointed we trudged back to the farmyard, said our goodbyes and set off for our next contact, also Pieter Conradie, the son of the first Pieter Conradie.  He and his wife Marisa were waiting at the appointed place with their three lively children and our prickly pears.  Pieter excitedly led us up a hill to look at his fossil, which unfortunately turned out to be a collection of calciferous nodules; his disappointment was quite tangible.

A fossil at last on the farm Onderplaas but also to far gone to make it worth trying to take it out

Our group did a quick recce, found nothing and then set off after Pieter Jnr for refreshments at his farm Middelfontein a few kilometres down the road.  Refreshments, in addition to cool drinks, consisted of chilled prickly pears, ice cream and various delicious liqueurs to be used as toppings.  I, for one, made an absolute pig of myself with the prickly pears and ate 50 of them!  After some small talk with the Pieter and his wife and their three cats, we said goodbye and headed back to Fraserberg, anxious to get there before the shops closed as the beer supply was running low.  We rounded the day off with a congenial braai, once again executed by Dale and Benjamin in a masterly fashion.  We did some astronomy too for those who were interested and then went to bed.

Chilled prickly pears and ice cream on the farm Middelfontein courtesy of Pieter Conradie (jnr) and his wife Marisa
A braai back at the school hostel rounds of the day

Thursday 20th March

Today is the autumn equinox when the sun is exactly over the equator on its way north and the day and night should be the same length.  It also signals the start of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere and spring in the Northern Hemisphere.  These facts did not really seem to impress anyone, so I didn’t push the matter.  Anyway, we were packed up and finished with breakfast shortly after eight – at least most of us were!  Then we set out on the Williston road to the palaeosurface on the farm Gansefontein.  It is very sad to see the systematic deterioration of this site when we visit it every year.  All Coenie De Beer’s efforts since he took a month’s unpaid leave from the Geological Survey in Pretoria 25 years ago and came down here on his motorcycle to map and measure the then freshly exposed surface, have been in vein.  Well, not quite in vain, because an insurance company donated money to put a fence around the site and put up a notice board.  What is really needed is a building to cover the existing site and money to uncover more of the surface around the existing site, but as things stand now, the non-preservation of this site is actually a disgrace for South Africa.

Breakfast discussion on the last morning in Fraserburg and Juri explains how high we will have to climb
The palaeosurface on the farm Gansefontein. The white markers outline the areas one should not walk on
The Geological Society of Southern Africa’s notice explaining what may be seem on the palaeosurface
Juri interprets the bones. Sorry, that should be traces and tracks
A great, great, great, great, great, great, great – and then a lot more greats – grandchild of the animals that made some of the tracks at the palaeosurface

After the visit to the Palaeosurface we made a quick stop for biltong and dried sausage and then set off down the R356 toward the Theekloof Pass and our next destination.  Theekloof Pass is potentially one of the most spectacular passes, if not in the country, then most certainly in the Western Cape Province.  After the obligatory stop for photos half way down, we continued our descent into the lower regions of the Karoo.  The pass also affords one an unprecedented view of the layered nature of the Karoo sediments with their alternating sandstone and mudstone layers, broken by dolerite sills and dykes in many places.  Upon arrival at Rooiheuwel, the farm of Flip and Marge Vivier, we were enthusiastically welcomed by the Jack Russels and an overzealous Boxer before being taken inside for a welcome cool drink.  Once that was done, we set off to look at a fossil on a neighbouring farm, which was “just around the corner”. Those of you who do not know the Karoo, should beware as this phrase could mean anything from 15 to, as we have experienced, 40 or more kilometres.

Tafelkop and Spitzkop with the vast expanse of the Karoo spread out southward as seen from a vantage point in Theekloofpass
A view up the pass with some of the group members perched on the edge of the kloof
The house of Flip and Marge Vivier on the farm Rooiheuwel
I found a new species of goat – a Zebra Goat

When we finally stopped and disembarked, Flip indicated that the fossil was “just over there”, pointing at a fairly distant hill on the other side of a dry riverbed, so of we went,  The fossil was also a disappointment.  Almost definitely a Pareiasaurus, but apparently lying on its left side with the tail, pelvic girdle, right limbs and ribs all missing.  The head was very probably also no longer there, so we decided to leave it there to continue its losing battle with time and erosion.  Back to the vehicles and to Rooiheuwel for a quick lunch and then a short drive to a place where we could get into the veldt to look for fossils again.  Once again no luck, so we drove off to explore for likely fossil sites.  One problem on this farm is that the vegetation cover is quite dense and the potential fossil areas are well hidden until you are right on top of them and finding traces of bone would then be doubly difficult too.  We returned to the farm, said goodbye and drove to Merweville, our overnight stop.  Juri’s vehicle was running low on fuel so he drove quite slowly to conserve what he had, but eventually we got there.

Juri pronouncing judgement on the fossil remains of a Pareiasaurus.on the farm De Krans
Juri holding a single vertebra and one can clearly see how badly it has been eroded. The bone surface has been removed exposing the spongelike inner structure
Our ever hopeful band of searchers combs the hillside on the off chance they will find a skull or perhaps a tooth or two
In the far distance Tafelkop and Spitzkop which lie just below the Theekloofpass
Rule in fossil hunter’s guidebook: It always takes longer to get back to the vehicles from the site than it took to get to the site from the vehicles when you didn’t find anything
The usual lunch in the shade of a tree, but this time on the farm Rooiheuwel
Yet once again we return empty handed
Juri and our host on Rooiheuwel, Flip Vivier, in a serious discussion
Sunset from the grounds of the school hostel in Merweville
Beware! In Merweville they have thorns, lots and lots of them

At Huis Mervia, the local school hostel, we unloaded and Juri set off to find the local parson of the Dutch Reformed Church, who had promised the group could go up into the church tower and out onto the catwalk to admire the view.  He found him and off they went.  In the meantime, the braai-maestros were getting the fire ready for their next culinary tour de force.  As an entrée, we had slices of bread from two huge farm loaves baked by Mrs Blom, the hostel matron, and then it was Karoo lamb a la Dale and Benjamin, with onions and butternut wrapped in tin foil and grilled to perfection on the fire.  Some astronomy after supper and then most of us turned in for the night.

Opuntia infestation, the scourge of the Karoo, on the grounds of the hostel in Merweville
Huis Mervia, the school hostel in Merweville
The clan is gathering for the evening’s festivities in Merweville
Merweville and the two iconic symbols of all small Karoo towns, the windmills and the church tower

Friday 21st March

It was a public holiday which we assumed would not affect us, but it eventually did.  I went into town to refuel my vehicle, came back and had breakfast before we packed up and left to visit our fossil on Hendrik Botes’s farm Jakhalsfontein, which is spelt oddly as you can see.  Juri thinks the fossil might actually be on Vaalleegte and we should really resolve the discrepancy someday. En route we passed the turnoff to the tragic Englishman’s grave, but that story will have to wait.  Once on the farm, we unhooked the trailers for the long drive to our fossil dig site where we have been letting successive groups of students systematically excavate, what we hope is a fairly complete Pareiasaurus.  It is quite a long walk from where we park the vehicles, but once there, we rotated and some hacked away with hammers while others scoured the area for other fossils.  About two hours of hacking away and Juri decided to call it a day and head back to the vehicles.  Eventually everyone was back and aboard so we could turn round, drive back, hook up the trailers go to an unoccupied house further down the road and his house is definitely on Jakhalsfontein.  We had lunch on the veranda or, as it is called locally, the stoep.  During the lunch break, some quinces were picked under Juri’s expert tutelage so we could have stewed quinces and cream for dessert that evening.

And into the veld once more led, as usual, by Juri. The fossil is just over that far hill
Some hacked and some searched. Our Pareiasaurus is under that white lump of plaster of Paris in the centre of the seated group of hackers
The Karoo is vast – have I said that before? Peter Müller is just visible centre right and in the background the blue line of the Swartberg Mountains. One can just make out the gap where Seweweekspoort is and, just to the right of that Seweweekspoort Peak and, a little further to the right of that the magical  mountain,Towerkop
Home we go until we bring the next group in 2015, maybe
It might be a long way to Tipperary but I think it’s further to those vehicles
Zoomed in on Towerkop . Now see if you can find it on the previous photo
Lunch on the stoep of the old Jakhalsfontein house

After lunch we made a quick stop at the café in Prince Albert Road and an essential pit stop for some members of the group before hitting the N1 and heading south to Laingsburg.  This took us out of the Karoo sediments and onto the Ecca which were laid down just offshore in huge estuaries.  We arrived at Laingsburg to find the liquor store open, but the supermarket closed so we had beer but no cream and we also needed sour cream for the potjiekos Dale was going to prepare for supper.  We checked some of the other obvious possibilities for cream and sour cream, but none produced the goods.  So we drove to the sports fields where we were going to spend the night in the clubhouse and, after unloading, I went and investigated one more possible source for the cream and sour cream, but that also turned out to be a dead end.  Dale had found ways to improvise his way around the sour cream, but the prospects looked grim for the stewed quinces.

It is a pity the Flood Museum commemorating the disastrous flood of 1981 was closed as I would have liked the students to see it.  If you visit Laingsburg pay the museum a visit and then drive down to the railway bridge, get out of your car and stand under the bridge.  When you look up consider the fact that, on that fateful day, the water was lapping the rails on top of the bridge before the embankment at the eastern end gave way.  Just for a moment consider the entire valley filled to that depth with churning, muddy water. It is a chilling thought I can assure you.

Dale’s potjiekos and rice was excellent.  Actually it wasn’t, it was superb!  After lots of philosophical discussions, there was some down to earth stuff too, we tidied up and went to bed.  As I was having the last conversation with Juri, before we finally went to bed, he remembered that he had forgotten to cook the quinces.  I had actually wondered about this after supper, but assumed the lack of cream was to blame.

Hows that for camouflage
Relaxing outside the Clubhouse at the Laingsburg Sports-fields
The streak of light is Dale buzzing around his potjiekos in the background

Saturday 22nd March

While gathering the troops, it turned out that rather than make their own breakfast, everyone was in favour of picking up coffee and whatever from the local Wimpy and heading south as quickly as possible.  A few kilometres outside Laingsburg, we crossed into the ancient lake basin again and could clearly see the tell-tale white slopes on either side of the road.  Before long we encountered the first of the Dwyka tillite and shortly after that, the Witteberg Mountains came into sight on our left.  Just before Touws River we encountered the first of several stop-and-go sections where the National Roads Agency was undertaking extensive road works all the way down to the Hex River Pass.  Topping the rise just before the farm Kleinstraat, we had a good view of Aquila’s second solar farm with 1 500 panels, being built by the French firm, Soitec, which was nearing completion.  The installation will provide 50 MW (peak DC) power and provide a 36 MW AC output to the local grid.   This makes it one of the largest plants of its kind in the world.  Go here to read more about the installation about the installation.  You can also go to this link for more information.

Loading up to move out from Laingsburg on the last morning
The whole group with a high hill of Ecca sediments in the background.

From this point we were on the Bokkeveld shale again and, as we navigated the Hex Pass and skirted De Doorns and Orchard, we moved further and further into the sandstone layers of the earlier deposits.  By the time we exited the Hex River Valley we had left the Bokkeveld behind us and the sandstone layers towered high above our heads.  Shortly after leaving the Hex River Valley, we pulled into the De Wet Cooperative Winery where we traditionally stopped to sample their Muscadels and Ports.  Just across the road from the winery was an impressive hill of Malmesbury shale lifted upward by the rising magma millions of years ago.  As the magma cooled and formed granite, the heat baked the otherwise fairly crumbly shale into a hard metamorphic rock the geologists call Hornfels.  This is mined in a quarry on the Worcester side of the hill and produces the blue-grey chips ubiquitously used in road making.

At De Wet Cooperative wine cellar. On the immediate left is a high hill of Malmesbury shale and the mountains in the background are younger sandstones of the Table Mountain group
Sampling the fruit of the vine at De Wet Cooperative Cellar on the N1

From De Wet we took a back road via Nonna, Overhex and Aan de Doorns to Eilandia and the quarry where we hoped to find more insect fossils and perhaps a fish or too and just maybe a Mesosaurus. At the quarry Juri and I were somewhat concerned by the fact that there had been considerable excavation since our last visit, and access to the specific section that usually produced the insects, was quite precarious; in fact rather dangerous.  Apart from Juri having a rather nasty fall, it all went well.  We came away with several Notocaris imprints, a fantastic leaf imprint thanks to Robyn and section of Mesosaurus backbone courtesy of Nombuso.  A snap vote before we left decided against stopping for lunch so we would head straight back to Stellenbosch.  One got the distinct impression that the students felt it was a case of “Home James, and don’t spare the horses”.

Final briefing of the trip from Juri before we tackle the quarry in the Whitehill Formation at Eilandia
This is really a very tricky site to work in now that it has been escavated to an almost vertical slope
Take the fence post just left of centre and measure three lengths of that post down from the top edge of the slope. There is a thin grey line of bentonite there. The insects are usually found just above the bentonite
Up we go for the last dig and hack of the trip
The exceptional leaf imprint Robyn found
The section of Mesosaurus backbone found by Nombuso
The circular patches caused by the termite mounds. They change the soil’s composition and structure creating micro-habitats that are preferential growth areas for specific plants. These areas then stand out against the surrounding vegetation

I stopped to take photos of the clearly visible termite mounds on the slope of a hill that we passed. Our route took us past Brandvlei dam and then through Rawsonville and Du Toit’s Kloof Pass where Juri elected to avoid the Huguenot Tunnel and drive over the pass, which is the route to take if you want to enjoy a spectacular view.  After unloading at the Department and saying all the goodbyes I went and dropped off the trailer and then delivered the vehicle to the vehicle park, where Lynnette was already waiting.  We stowed all my gear away and then went back to the Department to pick up Lona, who also lives in Brackenfell and had asked if we could give her a lift home.

Unloading in front of the Department and 2014’s trip has come to an end
Juri ticks off the all important hammer register as everyone hands back their geological hammers

All that was left for me to do, was to work through all 500 photos that I had taken and write this report.  The report writing was seriously disrupted by the need to complete our application for a National Science Week grant from the NRF via SAASTA.

Green Lasers in the Astronomy context

Green Lasers in the Astronomy context.

The use of green lasers by amateur astronomers has become increasingly popular since their appearance in the marketplace around 2000. Even a low-powered green laser (<5 mW) is visible at night through Rayleigh scattering from air molecules, making this type of pointer a popular tool to easily point out stars and constellations at star parties and similar astronomy related events.  There is a reasonable Wikipedia article here for anyone who wants to know more about Rayleigh scattering.

The use of these devices has been brought into the public eye and placed under the scrutiny of Law Enforcement Agencies as a result of a number of incidents here and abroad.  In other countries strong action has been taken against persons who have violated the local laws governing the use of these instruments.  It is perhaps timeous to say something about green lasers in general and the issues involved in their use, and especially their abuse.

Green laser pointers come in various classes.

Class I (1) Lasers: These are low-powered and do not emit hazardous radiation under normal operating conditions because they are completely enclosed.
Class II (2) Lasers: These are lasers that emit accessible visible laser light with power levels less than 1 mW (< 1 mW) and should not constitute a hazard if viewed briefly with the unaided eye.
Class IIIa (3A) Lasers: These are systems with power levels of 1 to 5 mW (1 mW – 5 mW) that do not normally constitute a hazard if viewed for only very brief periods with the unaided eye.
Class IIIb (3B) Lasers: These are systems with power levels of 5 mW to 500 mW (5 mW – 100 mW) for continuous wave lasers or less than 10 J/cm² for a 0.25 s pulsed laser. These lasers constitute a definite eye hazard if viewed directly even for brief periods.
Class IV (4) Lasers: These are systems with power levels greater than 500 mW (> 500 mW) for continuous wave lasers or greater than 10 J/cm² for a 0.25 s pulsed laser. These lasers constitute definite eye, skin and fire hazards.


First and foremost, pointing a laser at a vehicle, plane, boat, another person, animal and otherwise dangerous actions involving a laser are illegal and punishable in most countries.  Let’s take a look at what other requirements there are in a few countries.

Victoria, New South Wales, and the Australian Capital Territory:  Any laser pointer with an accessible emission limit greater than 1 mW is classified as a prohibited weapon and any sale of such items must be recorded.  You can read the New South Wales Police regulations covering lasers here

Western Australia: Laser pointers are classified as controlled weapons and demonstration of a lawful reason for possession is required. The State Government has, as of 2000, banned the manufacture, sale and possession of laser pointers higher than Class 2.

New regulations were introduced in 2011 to control the importation and sale of laser pointers (portable, battery powered).  These regulations prohibit the sale of Class 3B (IEC) or higher power lasers to “consumers” as defined in the Canadian Consumer Protection Act.

As of 1998 it has been illegal to trade Class 2 laser pointers that are “gadgets” (e.g. ball pens, key chains, business gifts, or any devices that will end up in childrens’ hands.). Trading Class 2 (< 1 mW) laser pointers is allowed, provided they meet the requirements regarding warnings and instructions for safe use to be displayed in the manual. Trading of Class 3 and higher laser pointers is provided.

The use of pointers with a output power > 5 mW is regulated in public areas and school yards.  As of the 1st of January 2014 a special permit is required to own a laser pointer with an output of over 1 mW.

United Kingdom
The UK and Europe have now agreed on the use of Class 2 (<1 mW) laser pointers or laser pens for use in general presentations. Health and Safety regulations insist on the use of no higher than a Class 2 pointer anywhere the public can come in contact with the laser light. The Department of Trade & Industry has urged Trading Standards authorities to use their existing powers under the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 to remove lasers above Class 2 from the general market. For a general overview of the official point of view in the UK go here

Europe in general
Most countries already ban or will in the near future ban Class 3A and higher rated pointers.

South Korea
Only Class II or lower powered lasers are permitted and no lasers are allowed for children

United States
Laser pointers are defined as devices in Class II or Class IIIa producing an output beam with power less than <5 mW. U.S. Food and Drug Administration  regulations prohibit the sale or promotion of more powerful lasers, as laser pointers. All lasers in a Class higher than IIIa (> 5 mW), requires a key-switch interlock and other safety features.  Take note that the laws differ from state to state.

South Africa
Any Class 3B or Class 4 laser system must be licensed for use.

In the recent past the number of incidents involving the improper or illegal use of lasers has increased and contributed to passing of more stringent laws and regulations.  Here are some examples to illustrate the problem

In 2008 laser pointers were aimed at players’ eyes in a number of sport matches worldwide. Olympique Lyonnais was fined by UEFA because of a laser pointer beam aimed by a Lyon fan at Cristiano Ronaldo.

In a World Cup final qualifier match held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia between the home team and the South Korean team, South Korean goalkeeper Lee Woon-Jae was hit in the eye with a green laser beam.

In February 2009 South African cricketer Wayne Parnell had a laser pointer directed at his eyes when attempting to take a catch, which he dropped.

Aviation and law enforcement
In Canada, as of July 2011, three people had been charged under the federal Aeronautics Act, which carries a maximum penalty of $100,000 (that is ZAR963 000 on 14/03/2014) and five years in prison, for attempting to dazzle a pilot with a laser.

In 2014 in the UK, a man was convicted of recklessly endangering the lives of a police search helicopter crew with a laser, and awarded a five month suspended sentence.

In the US, according to an MSNBC (Microsoft and the National Broadcasting Corporation) report, there were, in 2010 alone, over 2 836 incidents logged by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA).
On April 30, 2010, an Arizona resident was found guilty on two counts of endangerment which involved shining a handheld laser pointer at an Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter. He was given a sentence of two years in prison for each count, to run concurrently.
On November 2, 2009, a Southern California resident was sentenced to 2.5 years in a federal prison after being found guilty of shining a hand-held laser light into the eyes of two pilots landing at John Wayne Airport.
In January 2005 a New Jersey man was arrested for pointing a green laser pointer at a small jet flying overhead.
If you are interested in reading a quite comprehensive summary of similar sentences in the US and elsewhere go here. 

The question in the minds of most users of these devices is why do they have to be regulated and what dangers can they possibly pose?  Let me run you through some of the problems around green lasers.

Erroneous power rating
The classification system should mean that we can go out and buy a laser and comply with legal requirements, based on the power rating given on the laser’s label, but this is not so.  The National Institute of Standards and Technology in the US conducted tests on a selection of laser pointers labelled as Class IIIa in 2013.  Around 50% of those tested emitted power at twice the Class limit, in other words, they were Class IIIb and significantly more hazardous.  The highest measured power output was 10 times the Class IIIa limit; a staggering 66.5 mW. Furthermore, green laser light is generated from an infrared laser beam, which should always be confined within the laser housing but, in more than 75% of the pointers tested, infrared light in excess of the safety limit was emitted. You can go here to read a more comprehensive report on the testing. 

Eye injury
Laser pointers are able, over a very long range, to distract or dazzle people. Green lasers are particularly effective, as the wavelength (532 nm) is near peak sensitivity of the dark-adapted eye and may appear to be 35 times brighter than a red laser of identical power output.  Go here to read a report by the Federal Aviation Authority on this particular aspect. 

Studies have found that a low-power laser beam not > 5 mW has the potential to cause permanent retinal damage if gazed at for several seconds; however, the eye’s blink reflex makes this highly unlikely. Such laser pointers have reportedly caused afterimages, flash blindness and glare, but not permanent damage, and are generally safe when used as intended.

In 2010 a high-powered green laser pointer, bought over the Internet, reportedly caused a decrease of visual acuity from 20/20 to 20/40. Two months later the acuity had recovered to 20/20, but some retinal damage remained. The US Federal Drug Administration has issued a warning after receiving two other anecdotal reports of eye injury resulting from laser pointers.  A report from Princeton University about these and other incidents can be viewed here.

Laser pointers available for purchase online often have a significantly higher power output than the pointers typically available in stores. Sometimes referred to as “Burning Lasers”, they can burn through light plastics and paper.  The problem is that they often (deliberately) look no different from their low-power counterparts and this can be disastrous.

Studies undertaken thus far indicate that the risk to the human eye from accidental exposure to light from commercially available Class IIIa laser pointers (< 5 mW) seems small; however, intentional prolonged viewing for 10 seconds or longer, will probably cause damage.

In the UK the Health Protection Agency has warned specifically against these higher-powered green laser pointers which are readily available over the Internet.  They consider these lasers to be “extremely dangerous and not suitable for sale to the public.  You can go here to read the full text of their recommendations.

Most references to potential eye damage, when using a green laser pointer, focus on the visible light produced by the device, i.e. the green beam. This is also the widely prevalent perception amongst users of laser pointers and, although the visible beam certainly poses a threat, there is another “unseen” potential danger in the form of infrared radiation and to explain that we have to branch off into the technicalities of how the laser functions.  Infrared radiation in the wavelength range between 700nm and 1400nm is known to cause both retinal and corneal damage of a permanent nature.

How do green laser pointers work?
Most laser pointers are technically referred to as DPSSFD lasers or “Diode Pumped Solid State Frequency-Doubled lasers if you want their full title. The green light for a green laser is generated in an indirect process because laser diodes are not generally available to do so in the required wavelength range. The process is started by a high-power infrared AlGaAs (Aluminium gallium arsenide) laser diode operating at 808 nm. The 808 nm light excites a crystal of neodymium-doped yttrium aluminium vanadate (other combinations of elements are also used), which producers a laser emission deeper in the infrared at 1064 nm.

The neodymium-doped crystal is coated on the diode side with a dielectric mirror that reflects at 808 nm and transmits at 1064 nm. The crystal is mounted on a copper block heat sink; its 1064 nm output is fed into a crystal of potassium titanyl phosphate (KTP), also mounted on a heat sink, in the laser cavity resonator. The orientation of these crystals must be carefully matched, as they are both anisotropic (directionally dependent) and the neodymium-doped crystal outputs polarized light.   Go here if you want to know what polarized light is.

The KTP unit acts as a frequency doubler and, in the process, halves the wavelength to the required 532 nm (green). The final element in the resonant cavity is a dielectric mirror that reflects at 1064 nm and transmits at 532 nm. An infrared (IR) filter behind the mirror removes any stray IR radiation (808 & 1064 nm) from the output beam and the assembly ends in a collimator lens (a lens that effectively causes all the light rays to exit the instrument parallel to each other – go here to read about collimation.

The use of inadequate filters or their omission, in less-expensive “pointer-style” green lasers causes the “invisible” problem, i.e. emission of IR radiation.  The problem is especially prevalent in the high powered laser pointers available over the internet, as these lasers often originate from sources that do not follow laser safety regulations for laser manufacture, packaging or labelling.  The products are often presented in housings similar to regular laser pointers but, due to the cost and additional effort required, they have IR problems. Below is a diagram of a frequency doubled laser pointer by Chris Chen that I took from a Wikipedia article.  I am hoping it might make the explanation above a little clearer.

A frequency-doubled green laser pointer, showing internal construction. Diagram credits to Chris Chen & Wikipedia

Although the infrared output in these pointers is not collimated it does actually produce a beam of IR light, predominantly at 808 nm.  This poses a relatively low risk in green laser pointers with outputs < 5mW, because its intensity is low and the brightness of the visible (green) component will normally cause the eye to blink involuntarily before any damage can be done.

However, higher-powered (> 5 mW) green laser pointers, with inadequate or totally absent IR filters, are another matter entirely because, in these higher powered units, the IR laser output can be quite significant.  Ironically this unfiltered IR output is especially hazardous when laser safety goggles are worn, because they block only the visible output of the laser (the green). The IR light will pass right through and, because the pupils are probably completely dilated, the invisible IR light becomes an even greater risk factor. Dual-frequency YAG (Yttrium aluminium garnet) laser eye-wear is significantly more expensive than single frequency laser eye-wear.  It is doubtful if this type of eye protection will be supplied with unfiltered, pointer style, green lasers which output 1064 nm as well 808 nm IR laser light.  For those readers interested in more information about potential IR damage to the eyes please go to this article from the Intersil Corporation.

Star People & ELF Astronomy policy on the use of green lasers.
After all that, what position does ELF Astronomy and Star People take on the question of lasers used at events that we organize.  Our position is that there is a law and we have, we think, given adequate reasons here why that law should be adhered to.

Policy statement
Any Class 3B or Class 4 laser system at the event must be licensed for use.  Attendees at events organized by either Star People or ELF Astronomy are encouraged to register their unregistered laser products.  It is currently free to do so.

Details on why you need to register your green laser are explained by the following two references:

  1. Green lasers – responsible use and registration is discussed in detail on Auke Slotegraaf’s excellent site and you can go here to read all about the issue
  2. The issue was also discussed in detail at a laser workshop during the 2011 ASSA Symposium and is summarised here on the website of the Pretoria Centre of ASSA.

Note that

  1. At any and all events organised by either Star People or ELF Astronomy, the organisers will be liable, in accordance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act (Act 85 of 1993), for any incident during the event.  Star People and ELF Astronomy, therefore have to define the “laser rules” for these events and act accordingly.
  2. Star People and ELF Astronomy have the right to confiscate (store in a ‘safe” position) any non-compliant laser pointer used at all events organised by us.

Additional essential information

To apply for a license download the  form here.  Once you have filled it in you should e-mail it to Johan Uys, at  Johan is employed by the Department of Health and can also be contacted at 021 957 7450 during office hours.

The Department of Health’s Directorate of Radiation Control has made available a comprehensive document entitled “Requirements for the Safe Use of Class 3B and Class 4 Lasers or Laser Systems”  can be downloaded here.

DarkSky Weekend at Bergwater Lodge, Pietersfontein, Montagu

DarkSky Weekend at Bergwater Lodge, Pietersfontein, Montagu:  26th February to 02nd March 2014

26th of February
Lynnette, Snorre the cat and I left home in the Vito on Wednesday the 26th of February hoping to get in at least one extra night’s observing at Bergwater Lodge. On the way there we stopped off at the Pitkos Farm Stall to buy ripe figs and at Pinto’s Butchery in in Paul Kruger Street in Robertson to buy cheese grillers.  In Montagu we stopped off at Marina le Roux the vet’s surgery for Snorre’s annual check-up, which he passed with flying colours and then on to Bergwater.  It was hot when we left home and even hotter when we arrived at Bergwater Lodge.  After unloading and storing everything away we relaxed and waited to see what the weather would do in the evening.  The weather turned out to be superb for stargazing, crystal clear and the upper atmosphere nice and stable.  At 02:00 the average of 20 sky brightness readings, taken with a Sky Quality meter, was 21,6395 magnitudes per square arcsecond (MPSAS) which translates to a naked eye limiting magnitude (NELM) of  6,4544 V mags. By 04:00 we were falling over our own feet so we packed it in and went to bed.

27th of February
On Thursday Jannie and Eddie Nijeboer, who are old hands at Bergwater, arrived during the course of the afternoon and settled in.  Thursday evening started out very nicely and then, shortly after 22:00 the clouds moved in.  By 01:00 it was completely overcast and we decided it was not going to clear so we all went off to bed.

28th of February
Friday dawned bright and clear but day still ended up being very hot.  The rest of the group slowly trickled in. Wendy Cooper (Secretary of the South Peninsula Astronomy Club) arrived in good time followed by a first timer at Bergwater, John Richards (a long standing member of the Cape Centre), Ralph and Sheila Baker (novice stargazers and guests of Jannie and Eddy) also arrived with daylight to spare.  The rest, Martin Coetzee (Orion Observation Group), Lia Labuschagne, (Chair of ASSA’s (Astronomical Society of Southern Africa) Cape Center), Wendy Vermeulen (Cape Center member) and Brett du Preez (astrophotographer of considerable repute –  see the cover of the 2014 SkyGuide), all arrived after dark.

Lia and Wendy, in keeping with the well-established tradition at Bergwater, went sightseeing after dark up to Doringkloof.  We did not know about their intention to recce the area so Martin kindly drove me back to the R318 to try and contact them but without any success.  We returned to Bergwater hoping they were not in trouble and were quite relieved when they arrived shortly afterwards.

Auke Slotegraaf could not make it due to family complications and was missed by all.  Henry Oliver, Jaco Wiese and Raoul Schwenke, were due to arrive on the Saturday as Henry still had teaching commitments in Wellington.

Friday night started out with some instability in the upper air but that improved as the night progressed.  By midnight conditions were really good.  At around 04:00 on Saturday morning I managed, much to Brett’s amusement, to identify the rising Venus as a plane with its landing lights on or, alternatively, as a possible Alien UFO!  At 01:00 the average of 30 sky brightness readings was 21,7023 MPSAS which translates to a NELM of  6,4851 V mags. The serious observers got to bed well after 04:00 so none of them were about much before 11:00 on Saturday.

Venus when I first spotted it and thought up all the fancifull explanations about what it was and was not
Venus a short while later after the penny had dropped

1st of March
Saturday was another scorcher but after rising fairly late many of the group members took the opportunity to cool off in the swimming pool.  Brett set up his binoculars with solar filters so that everyone could look at the sunspots during the course of the day.  With Brett’s help I also managed to take a more or less reasonable photograph of the Sun later in the afternoon.

Martin and Sheila digging into some watermelon to combat the heat
Brett, Martin & Eddy taking it easy in the shade


This is not Eddies midday snooze he is looking at the sunspots through Brett’s binoculars equipped with sunfilters


Sundry telescopes and Auke’s impressive banner depicting the Universe in six informative panels
Where have all the people gone, gone to cooler spots every one ….
Martin taking up position for a sunspot viewing session while Brett, Eddy, Jannie & Sheila look on. In the background is a glimpse of the magnificent scenery at the Bergwater Lodge
Martin heading for the shade and Brett at the binoculars. The high level clouds in the background eventually went away
My image of the Sun. Thanks Brett.

By the time it was completely dark Henry, Jaco and Raoul had not turned up and it later materialized that Jaco’s wife Jacoleen, who is pregnant, had been admitted to an ICU for observation. The rest of the night was perfect for viewing.  Brett eventually sorted out the problem with his equipment – a too long connection cable.  As he did not have a shorter cable there, he did the next best thing and switched to binocular observation, as he had done on the previous evening.  At 11:00 the average of 30 sky brightness readings was 21,5970 MPSAS which translates to a NELM of  6,4333 V mags.  Lynnette and I only got to bed well after 04:00.

Telescope activities
An animated GIF depicting some of the action around the telescopes at night

2nd of March
At around 05:00 on Sunday morning the power went off, not only at the Lodge, but in the entire valley.  Apparently ESKOM was carrying out scheduled maintenance but somehow the Lodge had not been notified.  This caused special problems at the Lodge because it put the pumps that supply the Lodge with water out of action which meant that, when the toilets had been used once, the cisterns did not refill.  The power only came back on after 17:00 that afternoon.

The power outage and associated water problem meant that nobody could prepare breakfast so most people left earlier than usual to have breakfast in Montagu or Robertson.  Lynnette and I relaxed for the rest of the day and made our preparations for the guests we expected for the stargazing event on Sunday evening.

Public Outreach at Bergwater Lodge, Pietersfontein, Montagu

Public Outreach at Bergwater Lodge, Pietersfontein, Montagu:  02nd of March 2014

Christine had asked us to stay on after the DarkSky event and present an astronomy evening to a group from the town of Montagu and farms in the immediate vicinity of the Lodge. So, after the last of the DeepSky crowd had departed on Sunday morning, we relaxed and did some planning for the evening.  We also watched the weather rather anxiously as there were clouds around and, at one point, it actually looked as if it might turn out to be Clouds 1, Astronomy Presenters 0.  As the afternoon progressed the clouds dispersed and by the time the first guests arrived things were looking very promising.  There were just enough clouds left to create a nice sunset.

Sunset from the Lodge. If you have sharp eyes you should be able to see the outlines of the faces of the two guardians of the Pietersfontein valley


A slightly enlarged view of the same sunset so you can get a better look at the two guardians
The courtyard at the Lodge where we held the event

All the guests had brought picnic suppers and while they tucked in Lynnette and I also had a quick bite to eat.  By the time we had finished it was quite dark and while the crowd of about 25 would be stargazers finished the last of their suppers, I started on a laser guided tour of the night sky. The tour had not quite finished when I noticed clouds sneaking in from the Northwest.  Lynnette and I quickly whipped the covers off the telescopes, which we had set up earlier, and set to work showing off some of the beauties of our night skies.

The courtyard after everyone had left and we were putting everything away

The clouds had other ideas and before long we had lost the Pleiades, followed quickly by the demise of the rest of Taurus and then Orion. Shortly after that the curtain came down on Jupiter and Gemini and, before long they were nibbling at Lepus as well as Canis Major and Canis Minor.  We quickly switched to the southern part of the sky and managed to squeeze in Omega-Cen, Eta-Carina, the Southern Pleiades and Jewel Box as well as one or two other objects, before the clouds caught up with us and blotted that part of the sky out too.

After conceding victory to the weather gods we stood around discussing astronomy related topics with the guests.  Leo put in a brief appearance but not for long enough to do more than point it out to the guests.  The people gradually packed up and drifted off to their cars to go home.  We were invited back by several of the attendees and have some tentative dates to work on.  Hopefully next time we will be able to outsmart the clouds.

Monday was overcast, and slightly wet but delightfully cool so we stayed put and rested.  On the way home on Tuesday we stopped at Affiplaas Farm Stall for figs and a melktert and at Pitkos Farm Stall we stopped for coffee and Francis’s delicious roosterkoek with biltong and melted cheese and also more figs.  After that it was home and the onerous task of unloading the Vito and putting things away.  Snorre, by the way, was delighted to be home and very capably supervised the unloading and putting away from a nice shady spot.