We set up just outside the entrance to the Brackenfell Public Library. The forecast said it would be a sunny day so we also put up our gazebo and decorated that with some of our banners. The banners look nice, provide added wind protection, make the gazebo sturdier and also help prevent uncontrolled access. Sunelle, Lötter and her staff used the material we gave them, predominantly from our own stocks, to put up displays in the entrance foyer and several other parts of the library
As we have experienced in the past it takes a lot of effort to get the public to come and take a look, despite the fact that the telescope was very visible, as were our A-frames and pull-up banners. One has to resort to accosting people, as they approach the entrance and begging them to come and take a peek at the Sun and its lonely sunspot.
This all changed dramatically during the afternoon when the schools closed; we were almost inundated! The Library serves as a focal point for learners whose parents are at work as they also use the library hall to do their homework. The youngsters from the apartments across the road from the library simply use the library and environs as an entertainment area. For the latter group, our presence was a welcome added attraction to their normal routine.
Thanks to the sunny weather and the eager learners it was eventually quite a pleasant and productive outing.
Mad Dogs and Amateur Astronomers go out in the midday sun (apologies to Noël Coward)
Astronomy outreach during the daytime and in summer is not for the fainthearted or those who forget to apply their sunblock as Star People, being Auke, Lynnette and myself were about to discover at the Root44 Market, on the Audacia Wine Estate on Saturday the 17th, Sunday the 18th and Saturday the 24th of January. On the first Saturday we were very ably supported by Wendy Vermeulen and Brett du Preez who’s innovative solar telescope was also pressed into service. Permission to be there was negotiated by Auke with Surea and Megan and on the individual days JJ and Jason were available for all manner of practical assistance. The wine estate is situated on the R44 between Stellenbsch and Somerset West right next to the equally well known Mooiberge farm stall and strawberry farm with its huge collection of imaginative scarecrows.
The Root44 Market is the venue for the Root44 parkrun every Saturday morning when hundreds of serious and also not so serious runners and walkers descend on the venue to participate in the weekly, timed excursion through the vineyards. Some progress at the highest speed they can manage while others are merely intent on finishing the 5 km and soaking up the beauty of their surroundings. However, it is also the venue of choice for hundreds of folk who want to spend a Saturday or Sunday with good food and wine, relaxing music and the convivial company of good friends in the sort of tranquil surroundings which only the Winelands of the Western Cape can offer.
We were there to generate an interest in Astronomy and especially in space related activities and research. To do this we employed a wide selection of informative posters, and Lorenzo, the 10-inch Dobsonian, equipped with the appropriate Solar filter to show guests the Sun and the rather meager harvest of sunspots. On the second Saturday we even managed to show people the rather pale pre-first quarter moon. We talked to lots of interesting people and also met many astronomically enthusiastic persons as well.
One gentleman turned out to be the estate manager for the Earl of Rosse’s estate in Ireland where Birr castle is situated and where William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, built his gigantic Newtonian telescope between 1842 and 1845. Called the Leviathan of Parsonstown it had a 1,8 m speculum mirror with a focal length of 16 m. In 1994 a retired structural engineer and amateur astronomer Michael Tubridy was asked to resurrect the Leviathan of Parsonstown. The original plans had disappeared so intense detective work was called for to achieve his goal. Reconstruction lasted from early 1996 to early 1997 and a new aluminium mirror was installed in 1999.
Our poster display was quite impressive and most visitors found it very informative as well. In fact many of the interesting discussions originated around one or more of these posters. Some visitors started a discussion at one poster and then continued on to a second and third poster, eventually departing after more than an hour of questions and answers; heavy stuff!
However, the Sun took its toll and by closing time on the second Saturday we were done, well done. It did not take a long discussion to decide that we were just not up to another day in the Sun. Auke made the appropriate apologies to Surea and Megan and we spent the Sunday recuperating. All things being equal it is much easier to battle the mozzies and their biting cronies at night than to take on the Sun for seven hours or more.
Yes, I know that is not exactly what the Seven Dwarfs sang in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and neither did we really sing either, but that is more or less what it amounted to as Auke, Lynnette and I set off for the Helderberg Nature Reserve in Somerset West. Auke had arranged with Claudia Shuster and Andreas Groenewald that the three of us would come along and give the Eco Rangers and their parents an opportunity to look at the Moon through a telescope. We brought our two Dobbies, Lorenzo and Maphefo and the Eco Rangers would supply a third Dobby. This whole outing was to have been part of the National Space Week project which SAASTA seems to have allowed to fizzle out.
Claudia was at the gate of the Reserve to meet us and, after parking the Vito, Andreas and others were on hand to help us get the telescopes to the viewing site. The chosen site was a bit unusual as it was situated on the boardwalk at the Northern edge of the dam adjacent to the restaurant in the Reserve. There might be some discussion as to whether this is the “greenest” site we’ve ever observed from but it was definitely the wobbliest. Anyone not treading very lightly on the boardwalk, promptly set the moon yo-yo-ing wildly in and out of the field of view.
After setting up the telescopes we went back to the Vito for the picnic supper Lynnette had packed for us and Andreas explained that he would first take the Eco Rangers on a short moonlight walk through the reserve after which they would arrive at the telescopes in small groups. The three of us finished supper and made our way back to the telescopes in the gathering dusk to await the rising of the moon over the Hottentots Holland Mountains and the Eco Rangers. In the meantime we were entertained by an at times cacophonous chorus of frog and bird calls. Go’here to listen to a recording I made on the cell phone
When the Eco Rangers and the accompanying adults pitched up it was not in the planned small groups at all. Instead, we were inundated by waves of eager moon-gazers from both directions on the boardwalk. Most moved quite sedately but, as is usual with children, there were groups that insisted on running resulting in an extreme case of telescope shakes. At one stage the 1957 Elvis Presler hit “I’m All Shook Up” on Capitol Records did cross my mind as an accurate title for this outing. Eventually the flood dwindled to a stream and finally to a trickle and when the last few drips and drabs had passed we started to pack up.
I carried Lorenzo back to the Vito and installed him firmly in place and then went back for the rocker box only to discover that I had lost the keys to the Vito.
First I double checked all my pockets then checked the Vito, which I had fortunately not locked, but they were gone. Everyone pitched in combing the boardwalk and the vegetation on either side with torches. Eventually we realized that it was very unlikely that we were going to find them so Lynnette phoned her sister Petro who got the spare keys from our house and she and her fiancé drove through to Auke’s place with them. Claudia went home to get some well-earned rest and Andreas took Auke home so that he could bring us the keys when they arrived, courtesy of Petro. In the meantime Lynnette and I spent some quiet time in the moonlight under the watchful eye of the Mother Goose weather vane.
When Auke arrived we could eventually start the long overdue journey home. The next day Auke kindly agreed to accompany us back to the Reserve to search for the keys in broad daylight. The search was, however, fruitless.
Lynnette, treatment Snorre and I got off to a later than planned start and only arrived at Auke’s place at 07:30. We were on the R44 heading for Stellenbosch by just after 08:00 and made good time on the N1, cialis through the Huguenot Tunnel and past Worcester before stopping off at the Veldskoen Farm Stall for a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich and coffee and some last minute planning.
In Touws River we reported to Adelaide at the reception desk of the Loganda Karoo Lodge and after being assigned our rooms and unloading gear we would not need we headed for the sports grounds where the Makadas Country Festival was to take place. Once there we quickly located Karin one of the three kingpins around whom most of the organization for the Festival had revolved; the other two being Deon Steyl and Willie Marais. She pointed out the site we had been allocated and we started to set up the gazebo, banners and telescopes.
Here is some background to this Country Festival’s rather unusual name for the unenlightened reader. The railway line from Cape Town to Johannesburg traverses relatively flat terrain as far as Worcester and then begins to gain altitude. Initially relatively slowly until it passes De Doorns and then there is a long climb up through the tunnels to the top of the Hex Pass. In the days when trains were pulled by steam engines a long climb like that required lots of steam and to produce that used a lot of water. Touws River originally came into being as a station where the steam locomotives could replenish their water supply before the long haul through the Karoo to Beaufort-West. So the town was in every sense a railway town and even administered by the South African Railways up to a point in the 1950’s. The electrification of the railways and the introduction of diesel-electric locomotives brought the steam era to a close and also reduced the importance of Touws River for the South African Railways and they began a process of staff reduction.
Apart from the main line a rural line also operated from Touws River to Ladismith. This line was opened in 1925 and was, in many ways a life line for the farming communities along the route; it delivered and collected letters and packages; took cans of milk to the dairy in Ladismith and returned the empty cans; conveyed farm produce and farming equipment and, of course, transported people. There are many tales of the train stopping, on request, in the middle of nowhere to drop of a passenger or goods of some sort and also of people flagging down the train because they had to go to either Ladismith or Touws River. These slow trains were also known in Afrikaans as “Melktreine” or “Milk Trains” because they quite literally stopped everywhere along the route to pick up cans of milk.
This train became known locally as the Makadas. Obviously this was not a line that was ever going to be electrified and neither was it a line generating a large profit for the Railways so eventual closure was probably unavoidable. Then Mother Nature provided the Railways with a perfectly watertight reason for closing the line; the great flood of January 1981. This flood decimated Laingsburg, Montagu and large sections of the Karoo on either side of the Buffels, Touws and Groot Rivers washing away farms, entire orchards and also about 50 km of the approximately 144 km railway line between Touws River and Ladismith. Despite protestations and numerous appeals by many people and organizations the Makadas line went to a watery grave never to be resurrected. There are several versions about the origin of the name and none of them are really verifiable so I will give them all here.
The locomotives that exclusively worked the line from 1925 to 1968 were Class 7 locomotives and they had a very distinctive sound which was totally different from their successors, the Class 24’s that made their appearance in 1968 and eventually took over completely in 1972. Makadas is, according to one source an onomatopoeic word representing the Class 7’s distinctive sound.
The second explanation of the name is linked to the fact that the train regularly carried loads of dry manure which was smelly and gave of a very fine dust. In the early years of its operation the train crews were all English speaking and they apparently referred to it as the “Muck and dust” train because of this specific freight. Afrikaans speaking people are known for their tendency to mangle words from other languages until they sound vaguely Afrikaans so it would not have been difficult to convert “muck and dust” to Makadas.
The conductor of the Makadas used to walk up and down the platform urging slow moving passengers along by shouting “Make a dash” and this too would have been easy for the Afrikaans ear to convert to Makadas. The “Make a dash” is also attributed to the fact that passengers waiting for the train would sit under trees, often situated some distance from where the train would stop and, when the approaching train was heard or seen they would “Make a dash” for the siding, halt or station.
We put Lorenzo up and fitted its solar filter and we were soon in business showing interested parties the Sun and the sunspots. Later in the afternoon we also had the moon to show people and, as the Sun set we set Maphefo up too. Maphefo had not been set up for Solar viewing because I had forgotten the solar filter. By the time it should have been dark we realized that there was no way it was ever going to really be dark because of the floodlights around the sports grounds and the extra lighting that had been erected for the Festival. So we had the Moon, Saturn situated about 10 degrees away from a particularly bright spotlight, the Pointers, Mars, Antares, three of the stars in Crux and a few other objects. By 21:30 the stream of viewers had dwindled to a drop or two here and there so we packed up. Security at the site was excellent so we left all our banners, tables and chairs on site and headed for the Loganda to get some well-earned rest.
On Saturday morning we started the day by setting up Hans van der Merwe’s water rocket and what a hit that was. Everybody wanted to help refuel, fetch the rocket pull the “firing-string” and in general, get involved. Lorenzo did duty as a solar scope all day and by the time sunset approached all three of us were quite fed-up with showing the Sun. We were all three “medium-rare” after spending the whole day out in the Sun. We decided to pack away everything except the two telescopes so that we would not need to do so in the dark when it was time to go home. An important aspect of the Festival was how clean everything was. There were small teams of cleaners doing the rounds on a regular basis. They picked up every scrap of anything lying around and put it refuse bags they carried with them. The same applied to the toilets where a team come round on a regular basis and made sure nothing was blocked, thet the tanks were full and that there was enough paper. Ten out of ten for the organizers of the festival on these two counts.
After sunset we had both Lorenzo and Maphefo set up to view the Moon and the few other objects visible under the heavily light polluted conditions. By 21:00 we had run out of viewers and decided to head for the Loganda, supper and sleep. Snorre spent both days sleeping in his carry cage under the tables in the gazebo and only needed one or two excursions to the nearest sandy patch to relieve himself during the day. Our room in the Loganda had a wide windowsill and he spent two very frustrating mornings there watching the pigeons parade up and down on the outside windowsill, totally unperturbed by his whisker twitching presence on the other side of the glass.
After breakfast we returned home to the usual grind of unpacking and packing away and wondering if it was really worth all the trouble. Despite all those doubts we will do it all again.