Exploring the Astronomy Potential at Kopbeenskloof
This report is a bit late. I thought I had written it and obviously I hadn’t so now I have to write it and look as sheepish as possible about the fact that it’s so late.
In May Lynnette and I went of to investigate a place we’d had our eye ever since we’d visited Leeuwenboschfontein a few kilometres further down the road in 2012. Other than the ominous sounding name it has the added attraction of being situated at over 1200 m above sea level and that, makes it one of the highest farms in the Western Cape Province. For the astronomers who also hike or walk during daytime, there are lots of trails and hikes and the farm is also ecologically interesting as it straddles the transition from typical Renosterveld to the Cape Mountain Fynbos.
The farm is run by Wouter and Elsabé Stemmet and regularly hosts groups of up to 200 from various youth organizations such as the Voortrekkers and Land Care & Land Services. These groups make use of a number of very basic wooden chalets containing only bunk beds. For the chalets there are adequate ablution facilities and a large, well equipped kitchen as well as an outside braai area. Wouter and Elsabé also cater for large functions and large groups, if asked to do so.
A separate camping area for tents and caravans that has its own ablution facilities is also available.
There is a rustic cottage for four that has no electricity and one heats the shower water by making a fire, situated about 200 m from the main house and the chalets.
The guest house, that could sleep nine in three en-suite bedrooms with double beds and three single beds in open areas, is situated about two km away from the main house and the chalets. The house has a kitchen with a stove, microwave and fridge and also has a large inside fireplace suitable for having a braai, should the weather turn nasty. All bedding and towels are supplied and further details can be found on their website if you go here. One last thing is that mobile phone reception is limited to one spot in the garden of the main house and I do not know if one can get a signal for all three service providers there.
To get there one takes the R318 from the N1 and, after 26 km you turn left onto the Nougaspoort gravel road. After six km the turnoff to Kopbeenskloof is on your right and then you just follow the road to the main farm house, the chalets and the rustic cottage, or go past the house, keeping to the left and after two gates, you will be at the guest house.
The reason we went there was to try and evaluate Kopbeenskloof for future astronomy outings. It might work for a Star Party but the chalets are very basic and the area around the chalets does not really lend itself to placing telescopes and I can also see the astrophotography people experiencing problems with power. I think the chalets and the camping are too far apart to allow the groups to interact easily. I would, however, not rule the site out for Star Parties, as one could possibly overcome some of the perceived difficulties by negotiating with Wouter and Elsabé.
The rustic cottage could work for a small group with Dobbies, or even equipment that will run off batteries, which I am sure the owners would be more than happy to allow one to re-charge the next day.
The guest house is a suitable site for doing astronomy and astrophotography but obviously only for small groups. There are some limitations as the house has tall pine trees on both the western and southern sides. The trees are about 25 m from the house but the area other side the trees is open so one can put a telescope there. The areas north and east of the house are open but the house then creates a high horizon to either the south or the west. The site is dark but unfortunately when we were there the weather was not good and we had partially cloudy weather on the first two nights and complete overcast on the third night. One aspect of the site that needs mentioning is the very noticeable sky glow from Worcester if there is even the slightest hint of cloud along the western horizon.
Here are my Sky Quality Meter readings taken at the guest house on Kopbeenskloof.
On Friday the 12th of September, Lynnette, Auke, Johan and I set out for an evening of stargazing with a select group of pupils from Elkanah House and three of their educators. The venue was a chicken farm called Dassenberg Broilers, out near Atlantis. Auke and Johan were in one vehicle coming from Somerset West and Lynnette and I with Snorre in the Vito coming from Brackenfell. I managed to fit in an impromptu tour of Atlantis before finding the venue and now owe Auke a Lindt Chocolate because they beat us to the venue.
The venue had a good, low horizon and a nice open grassy area to set up the telescopes, but unfortunately plenty of unshielded, improperly shielded or unnecessary outside lights .If we could have turned them of the venue would instantly have gone from almost reasonable to quite good from a star gazing point of view. I should add that if the lingering smell of chicken manure is fairly low down on your list of preferred aromas, this venue might not suite you.
Auke had worked out a comprehensive programme for the evening which was to have started with an explanation of how a telescope works and demonstration of various aspects of the telescope using terrestrial objects. However, to do this we needed daylight. Thereafter we had intended to watch the sunset and discuss the Earth’s rotation. At the same time we would dark acclimatize and point out the brightest stars as they appeared, also drawing attention to the satellites that were scheduled to pass over. As Robert Burns wrote way back in 1785,
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Our “schemes” went “agley” because the guests were delayed and only arrived well after the Sun had gone, so we had to start quite a way into the planned programme. Auke welcomed the group and their three educators, Colleen Ridden, Rob Lucas and Joel Dickson and introduced Lynnette Johan and myself. We could then get on with the Astronomy and I kicked off with alpha-Crucis as an example of a double star before moving on to gamma-Crucis and Antares as examples of red stars to contrast with the clearly white alpha-Crucis. At the same time I explained about the age of stars and the colour change associated with their life-cycle. Next up was the Jewel Box (NGC 4755), as an example of an open cluster accompanied by an explanation of star formation and the origin of open clusters. Then it was Omega-Centauri’s (NGC 5139) turn and that was linked with M4 (NGC6121) to contrast the size and difference in appearance of globular clusters while explaining the nature of these enigmatic objects. I then moved Mars and pointed out that a planet reflected light and, because it was so much closer, one could distinguish the disc shape. From Mars we moved to Saturn and, as always, the rings had definite “wow-value”. While viewing the planets there was time to discuss the differences in composition between Mars and Saturn as well as other differences such as rotation speed and orbital period. Eventually the heavy dew put us out of business, but that point also coincided fortuitously with our guests predetermined departure time.
As on our outing with this group in 2013, at the West Coast Ostrich Farm, the cold night air quickly dampened their enthusiasm. The number of persons, huddled under blankets to escape the cold at times far outnumbered the number at the telescopes. It was noticeable that members of the group who were dressed warmly to start with, were able to maintain their interest in the proceedings for far longer than those who had come less well prepared. Those who did spend more time at the telescopes not only showed more interest in the proceedings by their presence, but also by the quality and number of questions that they asked .Perhaps the 2015-outing should be planned for February or March when the weather is usually a lot warmer and it definitely has to start earlier.
After our guests had departed we packed up and headed home .On the way home Lynnette and I were treated to a magnificent moonrise. I did not stop to photograph it as there were quite a number of pedestrians along the R304, who’s erratic and unsteady progress hinted at a high degree of inebriation. I decided to not take the photograph, rather than to attempt to take it and possibly becoming involved in an altercation with Friday night revellers.
This stargazing evening ended a very busy period for Lynnette and I; a one-week recce-trip to the Karoo, a two-day trip to the West Coast in preparation for National Science Week, the actual eight-day NSW event, then another eight-day recce-trip to the Karoo, finalizing the 220-page NSW-report for SAASTA and finally this last stargazing evening. I think we are justifiably a bit worn out.
What’s next? World Space Week from the 04th of October which will include the Bonnievale Bonanza and following hard on its heels is the eighth SSP. In between now and then Lynnette and I have three sites left to evaluate for their potential as either SSP or Dark Sky venues and I almost forgot to mention that we also want to organize one Dark Sky outing as well.
Kati had invited a small group of people form the general public to attend an Astronomy talk and afterwards Lynnette and I would do a do some stargazing with them. We thought this would be an ideal opportunity to get some members of the usual Southern Star party attendees to come along and evaluate Kati’s Wine farm as a potential venue for a future Star Party.
Kati’s event unfortunately coincided with a festival at Macgregor and most of her guests withdrew at the last minute. However, on Friday evening Ashwin, Ronnie and their group of keen amateur astronomers from Mitchell’s Plain did drive through, just for the evening. That’s a real show of enthusiasm when you drive 140 km to attend an astronomy event and then drive home on the same evening because you’re working on the Saturday. Alan and Rose Cassells, and Paul Kruger from the SSP group also pitched up on Friday and then Auke Slotegraaf, Brett du Preez and Leslie Rose arrived on the Saturday.
I gave the talk “A Lightning Journey from The Sun to the edge of the Milky Way” on Saturday evening to the small group that did attend and Auke was kind enough to do his usual very thorough Sky Safari with them.
Biscuit the dog is a cat chaser in order to protect Josephine. He is also a bee catcher, which he just does for the sting of it
The 18th century wine cellar turned backpackers accommodation
The general impression I got was that the site could be used for a summer Star Party but that it was not suitable for a Dark Sky meeting. This was in line with Lynnette and my evaluation a few months earlier.
The next step is that Lynnette and I will sit down with Kati and discuss some of the matters we feel need attention and negotiate a fee structure. In the meantime here are some pictures of the event.
Lynnette and I went off on another New Moon recce, looking for suitable venues at which to present either Southern Star Parties or Dark Sky events. Our first port of call was a farm in the Touw’s River area which belongs to an acquaintance of ours. The owner is not amenable to the idea of allowing people onto the farm for astronomy or any other activity, for that matter. We would like, nevertheless, to share our astronomy experiences there. The sky brightness reading was 21,53 MSAS.
Our next stop was Marion Maclean’s place in the Montagu area. She is situated in the same area as Bergwater Lodge but closer to the R318 and a bit further North at just over 400 m above sea level.. Marion has a spare room with a separate entrance that will sleep three and, at a push, four. You share her bathroom and kitchen but bear in mind she does not have a freezer, electric kettle or microwave and all cooking is on gas. Marion has expressed interest in having one or two people at a time there for Astronomy and also anyone interested in hiking, walking, birds, plants, insects, reptiles and small mammals – Evan take note. The average sky brightness reading there was 21,52 MSAS.
Marion’s place is certainly dark enough for Astronomy and, I think in particular for astrophotography. There might be a problem with the horizon, as that is quite high to the West and North. Astrophotographers can set up on the stoep right outside their room from where they have an excellent view from East, through South and round to South-West all the way up to the zenith. I do, however, doubt if more than two people could setup in the space available there. You could certainly set up a telescope on a tripod in front of and away from the house, but the surface is not level and setting up a Dobby there would present one with major problems.
We still have to negotiate the terms on which Marion is prepared to make her place available and, when that’s done, we will let everyone know. In the meantime, just take note that the place has potential for very small groups of astronomers.
The two other venues that we have already visited that might be suitable are Leeuwenboschfontein (average sky brightness reading 21,29 MSAS) and Kopbeenskloof (average sky brightness reading 21,29 MSAS) , both situated over 900 m above sea level. We intend organizing a visit to both these venues for interested parties at a date in the not too far distant future so I won’t say much more about them now.
For purposes of comparison the sky brightness reading at Kati’s Wine farm was 21,20 MSAS. My value for Night Sky is 21,58 MSAS and 21,54 MSAS for Bergwater.
On Thursday the 29th of August, pharmacy Lynnette and I visited the Boesmansrivier Primary School on behalf of Star People. The Principle, diagnosis Mrs. Madondo, had invited us back after our previous visit so we took her up on that. Thanks also to Laurette for helping to arrange this visit. We had planned to set up a telescope and do some solar viewing but the weather was not having any of that so we had to settle for a talk to the learners of Grades 4, 5 and 6 and a short chat to their educators, Mr Mentoor and Mr. Sauls.
Our photographic record is, unfortunately, not good as the camera had a focusing malfunction. As is usual one only becomes aware of the problem at the last minute and then one can usually not find the cause of the problem either; at least I seldom can. When examined afterwards the camera worked perfectly so it must have been a specific Boesmansrivier gremlin that got into the system!
My short talk emphasized the fact that knowledge was not only the key to personal development and improvement but also the best protection against being swept up and carried away by misrepresentations. Knowledge provides one with the ability to present counter arguments to many of the widespread fallacies about science in general and about Astronomy in particular.
Afterwards Mr Mentoor and Mr Sauls undertook to put on their thinking caps about how we could assist them in the future and what type of presentation and material would fit in best with the curriculum and be most beneficial for the learners. Mrs Madondo was very appreciative of the posters and hand-outs we had brought for the school and invited us to return to the school whenever we were in the area again.
None of the school’s learners are available at night for stargazing, so we want to time our next visit to coincide with the first quarter moon. Then both the Moon and the Sun will be visible in daylight for viewing in a telescope.
National Science Week in 2014 took place from the 02nd to the 08th of August. Before that event could take place there was a lot to do. Lots of planning and discussions, lots of paperwork to be sorted, equipment to be hired, telephone calls to be made, e-mails to be sent and frayed nerves soothed because the money from SAASTA was not forthcoming. But eventually, all the loose ends came together and we could go and get the job done.
Sunday the 03rd of August
On Sunday the 03rd of August Lynnette, Petro, Snorre and I drove to Somerset West in the hired Quantum with a large trailer. National Science Week, 2014 had kicked of for us. Petro was going to house-sit Auke’s Aunt, will the rest of us did our National Science Week thing on the West Coast. After unloading Petro and her belongings we loaded Auke and his paraphernalia, said our goodbyes, and hit the road. We did not take the N7, as we wanted to avoid the road works between Citrusdal and Clanwilliam. We could have avoided them by taking the road along the northern bank of the Olifant’s River, but that road is unsurfaced and apparently quite bad in places, so we opted for the slightly longer West Coast route. This took us past Malmesbury, Hopefield, Langebaanweg, Saldanha, Velddrif, Laaiplek, Dwarskersbos, Elandsbaai, Leipoldtville and Graafwater. We reached our destination, Clanwilliam and the Long House Guest House, our base for the next six days.
Monday the 04th of August
On Monday the 04th of August it was cloudy and rainy but luckily we could set up in the hall of the Clanwilliam Senior Secondary School, courtesy of the principal, Mr Munnik. The program for the day was very well coordinated by one of the teachers, Mrs, Cornel de Waal. We had loads of learners from the host school and from the Sederberg Primary School right next door, where Mr Barends is the principal. Mr Nel, the principal at the Augsberg Agricultural Gymnasium, also arranged to have a large number of learners from his school visit us. Several of the educators from the various schools accompanied their learners. Snorre’s contribution was to undertake several parades around the school hall and spend time on the table amongst the hand-outs, having his head scratched by all and sundry. However, for most of the day he was quite happy snoozing in his carry-cage.
After the end of the normal school day we had a steady stream of learners who lived close to the school or in the school hostel, as well as members of the public visit us. Although we were on site until well after sunset, the weather never cleared up sufficiently to justify setting up a telescope. It actually started drizzling right on cue as we started loading our stuff back in the vehicle.
The team will always have fond memories of the Clanwilliam Senior Secondary’s hospitality. The lunch and other refreshments provided were life savers for the presenters.
Tuesday the 05th of August
On Tuesday the 05th of August we had an early breakfast and then set of in the rain and predawn darkness northward on the N7 to Klawer. This section of the N7 is also under reconstruction, or as SANRAL calls it, rehabilitation. We arrived at Klawer Primary School and the principal, Mr Esterhuise, showed us to the class where we could set up for the day. It rained on and off while we were unloading making it very difficult to keep things dry and not to tread mud into the classroom. The school kept a steady stream of learners coming all day and in most cases they were accompanied by their educators too. During the afternoon and early evening we had more learners, their parents and also other members of the public visit us. Snorre again made one or two appearances as “The Cat on the Table”. He also took a walk around the school grounds on his leash with Lynnette but spent most of the day in his carry-cage, which he seems to prefer when there is a lot of activity around him.
We set up a telescope late in the afternoon, when the weather looked as if it might clear, and actually managed to project the Moon for short periods before the rain sent us scurrying indoors and convinced us we should pack up and call it a day.
Negotiating the N7, which, as already mentioned, was in rehab, in the dark was not fun but we eventually made it back to Clanwilliam and the Long House where we unhitched the trailer and then had a well-earned supper before going to bed.
Wednesday the 06th of August
Wednesday the 06th of August started with a repeat performance of the previous day, as we again headed north up the N7, but this time past Klawer and on to Vredendal and the Vredendal Primary School. The only difference was that we started out so early that we had to skip breakfast, which was a major inconvenience. At the school the principal, Mr Moon, had arranged for us to use the school hall and also had extra hands lined up to help us unload. We had a very busy day with a constant stream of learners and educators from our host school as well as leaners from Vredendal High School, courtesy of the principal Mr Swanepoel, and also from Vredendal Senior Secondary School thanks to the principal, Mrs Henderson’s efforts. We also had a visit from the SAASTA representative, Me Lithakazi Lande, who had driven up from Cape Town the previous day. Unbeknown to either party she had spent the night at the Yellow Aloe Guest House which is right next door to the Long House. A major difference was that she started later than we did so she could have breakfast before tackling the N7. She, however, also complained about having had to negotiate the road works on the N7 between Citrusdal and Clanwilliam the previous day, justifying our use of the West Coast route. Lithakazi left before lunch as she had a long drive down to Vredenburg ahead of her and I gave her a detailed description of our route so that she could avoid the dreaded N7 between Clanwilliam and Citrusdal. . Unfortunately the partially overcast weather and especially the high level cirrus clouds made the projection of the Sun impractical. Snorre only made one or two forays out of his cage to eat, drink water and use his sandbox but, other than that, seemed disinclined to spend time outside the cage. Fortunately he was not registered with SAASTA as a presenter otherwise we would have had to deduct form his pay for non-performance.
During the afternoon we had a few visitors but we also had to share the hall with a dance group practicing their moves – very loudly!
That evening we had a good attendance of parents and other members of the public and we were also able to project the Moon as well as show a variety of other objects through the second telescope. After closing up we again had to run the gauntlet of the N7, its rehabilitation, the darkness and the seemingly never ending stream of heavy vehicles, before we could get to Clanwilliam, supper, a cold beer and a welcoming bed.
Thursday the 07th of August
Thursday the 07th of August was a much easier and shorter drive after breakfast to Graafwater, where we were to set up at Graafwater Primary School. Mr Pieters, the principal, was on hand to welcome us and organize the willing hands that helped us unload. That morning we saw many learners and educators from the host school as well as learners and educators from Graafwater High School, organized my Mr Koertse, the principal there. During the afternoon we were visited by numerous children from the nearby residential areas. Late in the afternoon we unfortunately had to call in the help of the principal as the children became difficult to control. There was an altercation involving sticks, stones, lots of shouting, climbing on the roof, running around and at least one knife. The problem was caused by two groups of older youths that arrived at the school and appeared to be competing for control of the younger children. Snorre seemed more amenable to sitting on the table in Graafwater, but quickly took refuge in his cage when the attention becomes too demanding.
Later in the afternoon Mr Pieters brought along his telescope, which was malfunctioning, and, much to his delight, we quickly set that right for him. It was more an operator malfunction than a telescope malfunction as he was using a 4mm eyepiece with a 3xBarlow and was totally mystified by the fact that he could not get anything into focus. After the telescope “repairs” we got busy with the evening’s proceedings. We projected the moon and could show a variety of other objects to a large group of people through the second telescope while Auke took people on visual expeditions through the night sky. After packing up, it was an easy drive back to Clanwilliam for all the usual rewards after a rather stressful day.
Friday the 08th August
Friday the 08th August saw us setting up on the premises of the Sandveld Winkel in Leipoldtville, courtesy of Mr Dirk Eygelaar and Mrs Marie Eygelaar. The site was a stone’s throw away from the Leipoldtville Primary School and the principal, Ms Hammers, had everything organized so that the educators could bring the learners to us in groups during the course of the day. We broke for a light lunch with the Eygelaars and during the afternoon many children from the nearby residential areas visited us. During the evening we had a good attendance by members of the public, who came to look at our moon projection and view other objects through the other telescope while Auke did his thing with the sky tours. Snorre had the day off, because he was able to spend the entire day stretched out on an easy chair in the Eygelaar’s home, far away from the attention of those eager little hands.
Unfortunately the clouds moved in early and put an end to our show. After supper with Mr and Mrs Eygelaar we set of to Clanwilliam and a very welcome night’s rest.
Saturday the 09th of August
On Saturday the 09th of August we set up in front of the Clanwilliam Tourism Office. This was going to be a long day of real sidewalk astronomy with lots of feet passing from the residential areas to the town’s shopping area and back again. Unfortunately a technical hitch prevented us from projecting the Sun but we were able to project the Moon, from shortly after moonrise in the late afternoon. A great deal of interest was shown in actually viewing the objects through the other telescope.
Sometimes things happen during outreach events that make one wonder about people’s motivations and the following is one such incident. One lady left in a huff after spending quite some time in the queue waiting for her turn to look through the telescope. When she got to the telescope, and before looking through the eyepiece, she asked where the food was. On being informed there was no food, she turned on her heel and marched off, announcing that if there was no food she also did not want to look through the telescope. Apparently some people do not see well on an empty stomach, so next year we will have to budget for soup and sandwiches – SAASTA please take note. Snorre again spent the whole day with us, but in a non-participative capacity snoozing in his cage under the table most of the time. He asked to be let out on one or two occasions for food water and also to use his sandbox, but showed no interest whatsoever in sitting on the table. I think the noise from the passing traffic was not to his liking.
A special word of thanks goes to Esther Steens and her staff at the Tourism Office. They stayed on several hours beyond their normal closing time, so that we could have electricity for the projection and to make their toilet facilities available.
Sunday the 10th August
On Sunday the 10th August we had a leisurely breakfast, said goodbye to René and her staff in the kitchen at the Long House, who had so willingly supplied the early eggs and bacon and especially the coffee every morning. After breakfast we packed up and headed down the West Coast back to Cape Town. Unfortunately the crayfish for lunch did not materialize but maybe next year we can fit that in. After exchanging Auke for Petro in Somerset West we drove back to Brackenfell, where Lynnette and I set about the onerous task of unpacking, putting everything away and returning the Quantum and trailer to the hiring company. Snorre was very glad to be back home and free of his leash and harness.
On Monday the 11th of August we started the huge administrative task of preparing the final report and the financial report. One of the difficult and often delicate tasks is to get the schools to complete and send us the final documentation required by SAASTA. Some just don’t send, others send but don’t complete, while others supply information that does not match what we already have about the visit and poor Lynnette has volunteered for the task of sorting all this out.
Will we do it again next year? Maybe but only time will tell.