The Blaauwberg Meridian Expedition: 05 December 2015.

In support of the efforts currently underway to document the history of the Royal Observatory a lot of historic material has been made available in digitized form by Auke Slotegraaf. While attempting to work my way through this formidable volume of information I came across the following in Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, 1875 (iii).

“The “meridian mark” referred to in Table III, is on an undulation immediately to the east of the mountain called Blaauw Berg, and is situated some 13 miles north of the Observatory. It is a pillar built up to serve as a permanent meridian mark for the 10 feet Dolland’s Transit. The transit instrument is about 512 feet west of the meridian of the Transit-circle.  The azimuth of the mark from the meridian of the Transit-circle, assumed in the determination of the azimuthal errors given in Table III, has been 2’ 40” west. It would appear that the assumed azimuth is too great by about 1”.3, and that the true azimuth of the mark is nearly 2’ 38”.7 west. The azimuthal errors derived from the position of the mark have not been used in the reductions, except for the approximate determinations of the clock error for time-ball purposes. The mark can only be well seen near noon on rather cloudy days; on bright, clear days it can only be observed soon after sunrise and near the time of sunset. The value of the mark as an indication of changes in the position of the Transit-circle, is not so great as it would be were observations possible at any hour of the day.”

So where was this meridian marker? After several e-mails between Auke Slotegraaf, Dr Ian Glass and I, it soon became clear that this specific object had not been seen by any members of the astronomical fraternity for many, many years. Ian produced correspondence dating back to 2012, in which a Mr. Seymour Currie, verified that that the object was in fact on his farm. The correspondence was conducted via the staff of Cape Nature at the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy, and no mention was made of the farm’s name. Not knowing the farm’s name becomes a crucial point as the story develops.

I sent an e-mail to Mr. Currie who promptly phoned back. He had no objections to us coming to view, measure and photograph the meridian mark and he agreed to phone back again with instructions on how to get to his farm and an evaluation of how difficult it would be for us to get right up to the meridian mark. By Saturday morning, the 05th of December I had heard nothing from Mr. Currie and all telephone calls were answered by the dreaded voice message, “The subscriber you have dialled is not available ……”.

On the 05th a party consisting of Auke Slotegraaf, Chris Vermeulen, Dr. Ian Glass, Chris de Coning, Johan Brink, Kechil Kirkham, Dirk Rossouw and I, assembled at the Observatory. We were confident that, thanks to previous efforts by Ian and the help of Google Earth, we had the position pinned down and it looked as if there were useable access roads, but we were all anxious to hear from Mr. Currie.

TOP: Chris Vermeulen enjoying the view from the Observatory’s roof while Ian and Auke plan the activities for the rest of the day. BOTTOM LEFT: Johan, Kechil and Dirk are all concentration on the stoep of the Auditorium. BOTTOM RIGHT: Auke, Chris Vermeulen, Ian and Chris de Coning look equally engrossed in the proceedings.
TOP: Chris Vermeulen enjoying the view from the Observatory’s roof while Ian and Auke plan the activities for the rest of the day. BOTTOM LEFT: Johan, Kechil and Dirk are all concentration on the stoep of the Auditorium. BOTTOM RIGHT: Auke, Chris Vermeulen, Ian and Chris de Coning look equally engrossed in the proceedings.

The first task though, was to get up onto the roof of the Observatory building and try and see the meridian mark from there. Unfortunately the Eucalyptus trees that had been planted over the years successfully cut of, not only any possible view of the marker, but of the entire Blaauwberg. I had still not been unable to raise Mr. Curry on the phone so we decided to go with Google Earth and Google Maps and the coordinates of the marker. The route seemed pretty straight forward but Dirk several times expressed concern that we were venturing well of the beaten track and he had prior experience of the fact that Google did not take cognisance of fences and assorted farm gates in out of the way areas like this. In the absence of any communication from Mr. Currie we had little choice but to set off, guided by Google.

TOP: Dirk, on the correct side of the gate at the intersection of Zonnekus and Frankdale roads, giving Chris V and Ian, on the wrong side, instructions on how to get to rectify the problem BOTTOM: Chris dC looking quite cheerful about being in the wrong place at the right time.
TOP: Dirk, on the correct side of the gate at the intersection of Zonnekus and Frankdale roads, giving Chris V and Ian, on the wrong side, instructions on how to get to rectify the problem BOTTOM: Chris dC looking quite cheerful about being in the wrong place at the right time.

One section of the party, Auke, Kechil and Johan would stay behind and find a spot near the bird hide, at the northern extremity of the Observatory property, from which they hoped to observe the other section’s arrival at the marker. Chris dC had to first make a delivery and would join us later guided by Google. Chris V and Ian took the lead followed by myself and behind me Dirk. Somewhere on the N1 I lost sight of Dirk behind me but it turned out he had made a detour into Century City to refuel. I also lost sight of Chris V and Ian ahead of me but I had the Google turnoff from the N7, Frankdale Road, memorized so I was confident I would not get lost. I found the turnoff and after 1.3 km the tarred surface gave way to a track which became progressively worse, slowing me down to walking pace for long stretches. About 4.2 km from the N7, Zonnekus Road links up with Frankdale Road at a T-junction. There is a large, imposing, locked gate and, much to my surprise, parked on the other side of the gate were Chris V and Ian. While I was explaining to them how to get to where I was, Dirk pitched up, on my side of the gate. Chris V and Ian headed back to the N7 and Dirk and I waited. While we were waiting Chris dC arrived, also on the wrong side of the gate! More explanations and he also retraced his steps. After Chris V, Ian and Chris dC joined us Dirk once more voiced his concern that, although we were headed in the right direction, we might run into the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy fences before reaching our target. Our cell phone signal had faded on us shortly after leaving the N7, so we were unable to update Google maps or try Mr. Curry again.

TOP: Ian taking a long and sandy walk to find a higher vantage point from which to search for the illusive meridian mark. BOTTOM LEFT: Chris dC Dirk and Ian in front of the Blaauwbwerg Nature Conservancy’s Gate. In the background is the Blaauwberg and the meridian mark is somewhere to the right near the top of the photo but out of the image. BOTTOM RIGHT: Ian and Chris dC consoling themselves by taking a photograph of the view toward Table Mountain and the Observatory.
TOP: Ian taking a long and sandy walk to find a higher vantage point from which to search for the illusive meridian mark. BOTTOM LEFT: Chris dC Dirk and Ian in front of the Blaauwbwerg Nature Conservancy’s Gate. In the background is the Blaauwberg and the meridian mark is somewhere to the right near the top of the photo but out of the image. BOTTOM RIGHT: Ian and Chris dC consoling themselves by taking a photograph of the view toward Table Mountain and the Observatory.
In the grey square is the Meridian Mark, or what we assumed to be the Mark, as seen from the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy's fence.
In the grey square is the Meridian Mark, or what we assumed to be the Mark, as seen from the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy’s fence.

Off we went once again with Chris V and Ian in the lead, followed by Chris dC, then myself with Dirk bringing up the rear. Just over three km after leaving the gate, we encountered the gate and game fence of the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy, as predicted by Dirk. Ian and I walked along the fence for quite a way trying to find higher ground on order to get a better view of the area where we thought the marker was and eventually we thought we had it. Unfortunately it was a case of so near and yet so far. After some debate we decided to call it a day and head home. I had to refuel as I did not have enough to get me home to Brackenfell and Chris dC very kindly offered to follow me to the filling station in Killarney in case I ran out of fuel completely. So we said our goodbyes and off we went.

TOP: The conditions were very hazy as this photograph, taken from behind the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy’s fence in the general direction of the Observatory, shows. BOTTOM: The view from the position of the meridian mark was not really any better.
TOP: The conditions were very hazy as this photograph, taken from behind the Blaauwberg Nature Conservancy’s fence in the general direction of the Observatory, shows. BOTTOM: The view from the position of the meridian mark was not really any better.

After filling up in Killarney I parked the car and had a sandwich while going over the day’s events and checking that Mr. Currie had not tried to contact me. The more I thought about the day’s events the more I felt that Dirk had been right after all and we should have tackled this expedition from a farm called Blaauwberg on the northern slopes of the mountain. By now everyone else was well on their way back home or back to the Observatory, so I set of on my own.  On the farm Blaauwberg I found that the owner was none other than Mr. Curry! It turned out that he and Willem Steenkamp had been very busy out in the veldt that morning planning the Battle of Blaauwberg Commemoration scheduled for the 09th January 2016.

After coffee we set off to the marker. Mr Curry and his wife took a quad-bike and I followed in their 4×4 all the way up to the marker, accompanied by their two magnificent Ridgebacks, racing along with the vehicles. The first kilometre after one leaves the farmyard is fine and can be attempted in any vehicle but the next just over one kilometre is uphill, sandy and riddled with mole tunnels. I would not venture up there in anything but a 4×4 vehicle.

TOP: The inscription on the north face of the meridian mark. Ian decoded it as BL:RG NMM 2 which he translated as “BLaauwbeRG North Meridian Mark. The 2 has him stumped. BOTTOM LEFT: The North Meridian Mark viewed from a south-easterly direction. The bushes surrounding it are prickly, very prickly. BOTTOM RIGHT: This piece came off the top of the structure and we think it was added at a later stage an probably held on of this black contraptions with the four vanes, used by surveyors, in place.
TOP: The inscription on the north face of the meridian mark. Ian decoded it as BL:RG NMM 2 which he translated as “BLaauwbeRG North Meridian Mark. The 2 has him stumped. BOTTOM LEFT: The North Meridian Mark viewed from a south-easterly direction. The bushes surrounding it are prickly, very prickly. BOTTOM RIGHT: This piece came off the top of the structure and we think it was added at a later stage an probably held on of this black contraptions with the four vanes, used by surveyors, in place.

Anyway, there the marker was and, after my hosts departed, I set about measuring and photographing. Both tasks were complicated by the fact that three sides of the marker were overgrown with very thorny bushes reaching almost to chest height. A section, which I think was added at a much later date than the original construction, has come off the top of the marker. The reason I think it is a later addition is that the cement looks quite different from that used in the construction of the marker and also, the removal does not seem in any way to have damaged the top of the marker. The marker is not, as stated in the reference at the end of this post, 14 feet (that’s over four m) high.

Mr Curry reports that up to about 10 years ago the military actually come round once a year and cleared away the brush around the marker but that no longer happens, as I can testify. It was not only the surrounding bush that made photography difficult but also the fact that the sun was fairly low in the west, which caused all sorts of complications with shadows. After finishing up I drove back to the homestead, reluctantly handed back the 4×4, said my goodbyes and headed home.

The Curries say that during military exercises with helicopters, it appears as if they fly to a point directly over the marker and then change course. Perhaps somebody could investigate this because it would be interesting to know if the marker is in fact used as a beacon, why and since when.

Mr Seymour Currie’s residence on the farm Blaauwberg.
Mr Seymour Currie’s residence on the farm Blaauwberg.

Dr Glass has also tracked down two more references to the meridian marker which seem to pinpoint its construction to August 1841. The references are to be found in Verification and Extension of La Caille’s Arc of Meridian at the Cape Of Good Hope by Sir Thomas Maclear. Vol 1, Published by order of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, 1866.

Page 403: “Having obtained permission on the 10th of August, 1841, from the trustees of Dirk Gysbert Kotze, to erect a pillar on the Blaauwberg estate, on a hill south-west of his dwelling house, in the meridian of the transit room of the Royal Observatory, a party was told off for this service shortly after the return from the measurement of the Base. The pillar is a truncated pyramid 14 feet high, constructed of stone and lime masonry, cased with Roman cement.

By observation of the consecutive transits of circumpolar stars in the winter season made with the 10-feet transit instrument, the azimuth of the centre of the pillar is 179° 59’.57”, reckoning from the south round by the west; and by triangulation its distance is 68415 feet, or nearly 13 miles north of the transit instrument.”

Page 444: “The position of the pillar is on the undulation, immediately to the east of the mountain named Blaauw Berg, distant nearly 13 miles north from the Royal Observatory. The pillar was built to serve as a permanent meridian mark for the 10-feet transit instrument; also for obtaining the azimuths, by direct angular measurement of the trigonometric points, that are visible from the Observatory.”

International Observe the Moon Night (InOMN) in Gordon’s Bay

InOMN: Saturday the 19th of September 2015

I wish I could say we had a blast, but actually we were blasted out of business by the infamous Gordon’s Bay wind. The outing started off quite pleasantly with Auke, Lynnette, Richard, Wendy and I having a late lunch at Zest in Beach Road, Gordon’s Bay with a gentle breeze hardly ruffling the waters of False Bay.

We started setting up on the strip of grass next to the parking area just west of the Sunset Spur on the Gordon’s Bay beachfront at about 16:15. By then the breeze had gone from “gentle” to “stiff” and showed signs of converting from “breeze” to “wind” judging by the wisps of cloud just beginning to peep over the mountains.

Top left: Richard and his 12"ready for action Top centre: Wendy and her 8" wait for the first viewers Top right: This young viewer had her priorities right - "" first the lollipop and then I'll look Bottom left: These two want to look at the mountain too, so Wendy obliged Bottom centre: Lynnette holding onto certificates and attendance registers Bottom right: One of the handful of visitors that braved the wind and ignored the Rugby

Top left: Richard and his 12″ready for action
Top centre: Wendy and her 8″ wait for the first viewers
Top right: This young viewer had her priorities right – “first the lollipop and then I’ll look at the Moon”
Bottom left: These two wanted to look at the mountain too, so Wendy obliged
Bottom centre: Lynnette holding onto certificates and attendance registers in the wind
Bottom right: One of the handful of visitors that braved the wind and ignored the rugby

We started setting up on the strip of grass next to the parking area just west of the Sunset Spur on the Gordon’s Bay beachfront at about 16:15. By then the breeze had gone from “gentle” to “stiff” and showed signs of converting from “breeze” to “wind” judging by the wisps of cloud just beginning to peep over the mountains.

In the meantime we had also figured out that the absence of people, on the normally busy beach front, was not due to the weather at all. The Rugby World Cup was on in England and South Africa’s Pride & Joy were due to take on the underdogs, Japan, later in the afternoon.  People were probably all gathered indoors getting into the spirit of things for what most people, so I am led to believe, considered a walk in the park for our Men in Green. It seems, however, that the Cherry Blossoms had other ideas and eventually served our lads up as Sprinkbok sushi.

As they say in Dutch, “Hoe zijn de helden niet gevallen!”.

I did not watch the game, but it almost sounds as if the chaps from the Land of The Rising Sun fulfilled Sir Sagramore’s boast to Guenevere “I’ll serve him to your highness en brochette!”.

Top left: Richard and two visitors who braved the wind to look at the moon Top centre: Wendy on the left all wrapped up by this stage Top right: Poor Lynnette wrapped herself in a blanket to combat the wind and the cold Bottom left: Even the birds were leaving for some place downwind Bottom centre: The wind literally blew the telescopes of target unless you held onto them Bottom right: We did actually see the moon as this cellphone photograph shows
Top left: Richard and two visitors who braved the wind to look at the moon
Top centre: Wendy on the left all wrapped up by this stage
Top right: Poor Lynnette wrapped herself in a blanket to combat the wind and the cold
Bottom left: Even the birds were leaving for some place downwind
Bottom centre: The wind literally blew the telescopes off target
Bottom right: We did actually see the moon as this cellphone photograph shows

In the meantime we saw the Moon and the Sun and a beautiful sunset and, to use an Afrikaans expression, “ons het ons gat gesien”. The wind went from a stiff breeze to strong wind to a gale as the afternoon wore on into the early evening.  It blew over tables and chairs, overturned plastic crates and scattered their contents and even rocked the poor telescopes. Lynnette had her work cut out trying to keep the certificates and attendance registers from leaving us and going flyabout over False Bay. As is to be expected, once the sun set it also became colder and the wind’s chill factor maliciously dropped the temperature even further, sending us all scurrying for anoraks, windbreakers and coats.

A collection of photographs to try and show the spectacular sunset. Somehow my photographs just never seem to capture how amazing this sort of scene really was. Sigh!
A collection of photographs to try and show the spectacular sunset. Somehow my photographs just never seem to capture how amazing this sort of scene really was. Sigh!

By about 19:30 we decided that, despite the beautiful sunset, enough was enough so we packed up and headed for the Indigo Spur in Somerset West’s Waterstone Village Centre. Why not the Spur right next to where we were? Because we wanted to get as far away from the infernal wind as possible.

Of course when we arrived at the Waterstone Village Center, it was a lovely balmy, windless evening!

Not Devil's Peak and Table Mountain but the sleeping Olympian giant Adamastor. Look closely and you will see hus forehead shoulde of Devil's Peak, His nose is the peak itself, his torso is Table Mountain itself and his toes are down near Constantia Neck.
Not Devil’s Peak and Table Mountain, but the sleeping Olympian giant Adamastor.
Look closely and you will see his forehead is the shoulder of Devil’s Peak, his nose is the peak itself, his torso is Table Mountain and his toes are down near Constantia Neck.

Despite the very windy conditions we were treated to a splendid sunset and a spectacular view of the sleeping mythological figure Adamastor. Camões describes this terrifying figure in the verse below.

“Even as I spoke, an immense shape
Materialised in the night air,
Grotesque and enormous stature
With heavy jowls, and an unkempt beard
Scowling from shrunken, hollow eyes
Its complexion earthy and pale,
Its hair grizzled and matted with clay,
Its mouth coal black, teeth yellow with decay.”
—Camões, The Lusiads Canto V.

The artist, Cyril Coetzee, tells us that he used to be one of the giants of Olympus. He fell in love with a beautiful, seductive sea nymph called Thetis, but she was repulsed by his extreme size and hideous looks. Thetis’s mother, Doris, promised to arrange a tryst for him with her daughter. One, night, as Doris had sworn, Thetis appeared. The passionate giant ran towards her and took her in his arms, only to find himself embracing a rock. He was transformed into the mountains of the Cape Peninsula, where he still sleeps.  (Cyril Coetzee: Myth of Adamastor Revisited)

One day, legend has it, Adamastor will rise up, rally his fellow giants and they will shake the Earth once more, filling the air with smoke, fire and a great cacophony that will be heard by all mankind and fill them with fear and wonder.

A contemporary rendition of the Adamastor myth well worth reading, is Andre P. Brink’s short novel The First Life of Adamastor (Random House/Struik, 2000).

Colloquium, SAAO Auditorium: “Teaching History of Astronomy to the Public: The ABC Experience”

Dr Julio César Saucedo Morales: 19th of June 2014.

Lynnette and I attended a colloquium in the SAAO Auditorium titled “Teaching History of Astronomy to the Public: The ABC Experience”.  The speaker was Dr. Julio Saucedo Morales from the University of Sonora. Dr Morales is based at the Department of Research in Physics at the University of Sonora, remedy which is situated in Hermosillo, the capital city of the state of Sonora in Mexico.

The ABC referred to in the title is the Astronomy Basic Course, which the University of Sonora has been offering for this course to general public for the past 25 years. The course is presented as direct contact sessions and through the internet. The course takes three months to complete and consists of 12 three hour theoretical sessions on Saturday mornings with eight observing sessions held on Saturday evenings.

The ABC experience consists of 12 modules and starts with a session on the Philosophy of Science before moving on to the second session, the History of Astronomy. It is this this particular aspect which the speaker presented at the colloquium and which he is especially passionate about. Other than agriculture, astronomy is arguably the oldest scientific activity practiced by humans.

Julio makes the point that Astronomy has been a key element in the development of human civilization but, because the public in general knows very little about astronomy and, in particular, the history of astronomy, the public does not appreciate its importance. However, people from all backgrounds find astronomy interesting and this creates an opportunity to address the lack of knowledge by means of specific educational courses and outreach activities.

He gave a quick overview of the contents of the course on the History of Astronomy and then went on to discuss the results of a survey they had conducted to assess the impact of their course on the knowledge levels of the attendees as compared to non-attendees, as well as Physics, Civil Engineering and Mathematics students at the University.  This results show that the course attendees have a definite edge over even the students after attending the course as far as their knowledge of astronomy is concerned.  All course materials (PowerPoint presentations and videos) can be downloaded here.

Dr Julio César Saucedo Morales and a group of learners during an event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Guillermo Haro Astrophysical Observatory, INAOE, Cananea, Sonora
Dr Julio César Saucedo Morales (far right) and a group of learners during an event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Guillermo Haro Astrophysical Observatory, INAOE, Cananea, Sonora

The University of Sonora has an astronomy page, called the Área de Astronomíade la Universidad de Sonora.  The first time I visited the page was not available and the following message in Spanish was displayed: “No podemos encontrar la página que querías. Tal vez se cayó en un agujero negro!” In English that says “We cannot find the page you wanted. Maybe it fell into a black hole!”, which I thought was rather appropriate for an astronomy page.

The University also has a Solar Observatory, the Carl Sagan Solar Observatory which participates in a wide variety of outreach activities.  An example of the other outreach activities that the University participates in is the “Noche de Las Estrellas” or “Night of the Stars” or “Starry Night”. They are also very active in the “From the Classroom to the Universe” program which has the objective of providing telescopes and training for Astronomy Clubs in schools throughout Mexico.

Lynnette and I enjoyed the talk and both liked the fact that the speakers enthusiasm for taking astronomy to the public was very noticeable throughout his presentation.  It is actually a great pity that the talk was so poorly attended.  We had the privilege of being able to spend about 15 minutes in discussion with him after the talk and during that time one really got a feel for the passion he brings to his outreach and the immense satisfaction he obtains from doing it.  It would be a great privilege to be able to work with him and collaborate on a project.

Venus Transit 6/6/12 Carl Sagan Solar Observatory: Image  taken by Magdalena Riestra Caraveo
Venus Transit 6/6/12 Carl Sagan Solar Observatory: Image taken by Magdalena Riestra Caraveo.