Dark Sky outing to Kopbeenskloof during December 2014

Dark Sky at Kopbeenskloof (33° 35’ 52”S, 19° 57’ 26”E & 1248 m) in December 2014

I previously reported on the venue so please go here for those details. On this occasion we left later than planned on Thursday morning because of complications caused by having the Blaauwklippen event back to back with the deep sky outing. Iain Finlay was on the road at more or less the same time and he waited for us at the Shell service station in Worcester so we could travel together for the last part of the journey. We stopped off at the Veldskoen Padstal just past De Doorns for coffee and something to eat. The Veldskoen does a very good toasted cheese sandwich and a superb cheese cake. The other items on their menu are also excellent so next time you pass there pop in and treat yourself.

The Veldskoen Padstal is a very nice stop before the long haul north if one is headed for Sutherland, for instance. We were not going that far but stopped of in any case.
The Veldskoen Padstal is a very nice stop before the long haul north if one is headed for Sutherland, for instance. We were not going that far but stopped of in any case.

Next stop was Kopbeenskloof where we were welcomed by the owner, Wouter Stemmet. If you want to know more about what Wouter and Elsabé do at Kopbeenskloof please visit their website here. There were all sorts of communication problems in the week leading up to this visit. As a result Wouter was not quite prepared for us but he quickly rectified that and we could start unloading and settle in. Despite beautiful clear skies during the day the evening turned cloudy and then went completely overcast with clouds coming in from the south east driven by a very chilly wind. Lynnette and I were short on sleep after our Blaauwklippen escapades of the previous night so we did not really complain about getting to bed early. I got up somewhere around 03:00 to check the weather but we still had clouds from horizon to horizon.

Lynnette and Iain chat on the stoep of the guest house while Snorre and I go for a walk. Note the colour of the sky
Lynnette and Iain chat on the stoep of the guest house while Snorre and I go for a walk. Note the colour of the sky
The guest house from a distance and the sky is clearly not going to allow us to do astronomy
The guest house from a distance and the sky is clearly not going to allow us to do astronomy
Nice sunset and this is also the area where the sky glow from Worcester and De Doorns is most prominent
Nice sunset and this is also the area where the sky glow from Worcester and De Doorns is most prominent

Friday morning was still cloudy but by mid-morning we had bright blue skies all around. Eddy and Jannie Nijeboer arrived later that afternoon after having struggled with the last section of our route instructions. These will be updated and made more user-friendly. By late afternoon Thursday’s weather pattern repeated itself and by 19:30 it was almost completely overcast and quite chilly. We were also concerned about Auke as we could not contact him and neither could he reach us. If Eddy and Jannie had struggled with the directions Auke could be well on his way to the Anysberg by now. It later materialized that domestic problems had prevented him from attending. So we again opted for a relatively early night. The 03:00 inspection was negative again but we got up at 06:00 and went for a walk with Snorre.

The Earth's shadow making a distinctive blue band in the west as sunrise approached
The Earth’s shadow making a distinctive blue band in the west as sunrise approached
Matroosberg at sunrise as not many have been privileged to see it
Matroosberg at sunrise as not many have been privileged to see it
Lynnette's mid-morning siesta.  Note the jacket and cap - it was not warm.
Lynnette’s mid-morning siesta. Note the jacket and cap – it was not warm.
Snorre and I on a section of his walk
Snorre and I on a section of his walk

Saturday was a beautiful, cloudless day and we went down to the farm where Wouter showed us around the other amenities he and Elsabé had to offer. The five of us spent some time looking around. The guest house, situated about a kilometre away from the farmhouse, which will sleep 10 at a push but eight is a more realistic number and six, as far as I am concerned, is just right. At the main house there are chalets and other facilities to cater for large groups and functions. The enclosed entertainment area, inside braai and large kitchen and the chalets definitely have possibilities. However, sleeping 12 people per chalet will not work for astronomers and Wouter says he would be quite happy to put up two people per chalet, which would mean lots of storage space on the empty beds.  The ablution facilities are quite adequate for the number of chalets. There is a large grassed area, which Wouter intends expanding, which would work well for a telescope area but has also been used in the past for camping and caravans. Power can be laid on by long leads from the kitchen area for the astrophotographers and they can actually be grouped separately from the telescopes which addresses the light pollution problem too. There is a very rustic cottage, the K’roo Huise situated some way away from the main house for those who would really like to rough it as it has no electricity and water is heated for showers by means of an old fashioned “donkey”.

From left to right, Jannie, Wouter, Eddy and Iain in the enclosed entertainment area.  This would also make a nice sheltered viewing area for the astrophotographers
From left to right, Jannie, Wouter, Eddy and Iain in the enclosed entertainment area. This would also make a nice sheltered viewing area for the astrophotographers
In the spacious inside braai area adjacent to the large kitchen
In the spacious inside braai area adjacent to the large kitchen
The chalets from the outside
The chalets from the outside
Inside a chalet
Inside a chalet
A view of the second group of chalets
A view of the second group of chalets
This grassy area next to the one group of chalets can be used for a telescope area but has also served as a camping area
This grassy area next to the one group of chalets can be used for a telescope area but has also served as a camping area
View from the parking area of the K'roo Huisie
View from the parking area of the K’roo Huise.  The one on the right.
Eddy on the stoep of the K'roo Huisie
Eddy on the stoep of the K’roo Huise
Panoramic view from in front of the K'roo Huis
Panoramic view from in front of the K’roo Huis
There is a large parking area but it is dusty which means that after rain it will be muddy and there is no shade for the vehicles. The large building in the background is the ablution block
There is a large parking area but it is dusty which means that after rain it will be muddy and there is no shade for the vehicles. The large building in the background is the ablution block

After the inspection we went back to the guest house and prepared for an evening’s star gazing. There were one or two small clouds lurking around but in general the evening was quite productive for stargazing with Kitchi Koo and the 12” Dobby. It was as definitely dark with dark sky readings of, 21,50 MSAS (average of ten readings, std. dev. of 0,024518) and 21,52 MSAS (average of ten readings, std. dev. of 0,024518) (MSAS = Magnitudes per Square Arcsecond). All clouds were definitely black, and the only light pollution is to the south west where Worcester and De Doorns throw up a considerable sky glow, especially if there is low cloud in that area. The seeing was not all that good because of the instability in the upper atmosphere but on an absolutely clear night the seeing should be excellent considering that the altitude there is only about 200m lower than Sutherland. By around 02:00 the dew made it impossible to continue without heaters on our telescopes. In any case the temperature had dropped to an unexpectedly low 09°C by then, so bed was a very attractive proposition.

Sunsets tend to be quite spectacular from the guest house
Sunsets tend to be quite spectacular from the guest house
Sunset through the trees on the western side of the guest house
Sunset through the trees on the western side of the guest house
Sunset framed by the ruins of an old barn
Sunset framed by the ruins of an old barn

The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast and proceeded to pack up. By about 12:00 we said our goodbyes and left, followed closely by Iain.  Jannie and Eddy were a bit slower off the mark, but probably left shortly after us. We did not go straight home but headed for Montagu where we wanted to take a look at a potential venue recommended by Christine.

The all important notice board we left out of the instructions on how to get to Kopbeenskloof.  This is the turnoff from the R318 and makes no mention of Kopbeenskloof but one has to turn left her. Kopbeenskloof is signposted 6 km further down the road after you turn left here
The all important notice board we left out of the instructions on how to get to Kopbeenskloof. This is the turnoff from the R318 and makes no mention of Kopbeenskloof but one has to turn left here. Kopbeenskloof is signposted 6 km further down the road after you turn left here

Deepsky Event 27 December 2013 to 05 January 2014

Deepsky Event 27 December 2013 to 05 January 2014

 Thursday 26 December 2013

We intended packing on Wednesday evening and then leaving at 06:00, or by the latest at 08:00 on Thursday.  The best laid plans of mice and the Fosters often don’t materialize and we eventually pulled away at about 11:00.  Going to bed at 05:00 was not a good idea!  We stopped briefly at the Pitkos Farmstall to buy the second half of Auke’s Solstice present and also at the Affieplaas Farmstall where Lynnette bought a really delicious old style Melktert.  No, this was not a Milk Tart, it was a proper old fashioned South African Melktert.  We arrived at Bergwater and after finding Christine’s well hidden house keys and assuring Lynnette that the mouse in Christine’s bath would not object to her using the toilet, we fed the dogs and the cats, collected the keys to the Lodge and then drove to the Lodge.  Next followed the unavoidable and seemingly interminable schlep of unloading the Vito and packing everything away, but eventually that was done and we could sit back, enjoy the view and relax.

After supper we just sat outside and enjoyed the gradual transition from daylight to the Karoo night with the breathtaking horizon-to-horizon display of stars.  We spent the evening outside with our star charts and binoculars refreshing our memories about the constellations, watching satellites and enjoying the majestic passage of the galaxy as the Earth turned us through the night on our way to the next sunrise.

Before going to bed I took a set if photos of NovaCen, but forgot to take the dark sky readings.

A prime example of how not to mount outside lighting.
Thorn trees in flower reflected in the dam
Enchanting sunset

Friday 27 December 2013

Today Auke and Iain are supposed to arrive.  I walked down to Christine’s house, using a short cut through the olive orchard, where I came across a nice big puffadder.  The obligatory hasty detour around the snake was too stressful for my aging sandals, resulting in two broken straps (much to Lynnette’s delight).  After that reptilian episode I fed the cats and dogs and gave them fresh drinking water.  I also caught the mouse and threw it out the back door.  The cats were puzzled by the fact that it appeared to be raining mice but, while they gathered their wits, Bella, the Dachshund, pounced and claimed it.  Still no sign of either Auke or Iain and, because there is no cell phone contact, the only line of communication is Christine’s land-line, but she was away for a few days so nobody could contact us or leave a message.

Friday night was another excellent night for stargazing and, before going to bed I remembered to take a set of dark sky readings and also another set of photos of NovaCen.

 Saturday 28 December 2013

There was still no sign of Auke or Iain.  Lynnette and I drove down to Christine’s house and, while I fed the cats and dogs, she phoned Auke from Christine’s land-line.  It turned out that a close family member had been taken ill, making it impossible for him to leave home.  Saturday evening was cloudy and not suitable for stargazing.  In the early hours of the morning I did, however, manage to get some nice pictures of the crescent Moon and Saturn in the pre-dawn sky.

Sunday 29 December 2013

Power outage for about one and a half hours from 08:00.  Leslie arrived on schedule later in the afternoon and set up his equipment.  The evening was nice and clear for stargazing and astrophotography and before going to bed I took another comprehensive set of dark sky readings.  Leslie’s efforts for the night produced a good shot of the Horse Head specially for Lynnette and a stunning image of NGC 1232 in Eridanus. I managed to get to bed by 04:30.

Saturn accompanying the waning Moon in the pre-dawn skies

 Monday 30 December 2013

Ludwig and Sandy arrived.  Ludwig was still recovering from a very nasty bout of summer flu, as a result of which his voice still faded from time to time and in general he still looked much the worse for wear.  Christine returned from her holiday tanned to crisp and as garrulous as ever. After the late afternoon braai an initially promising evening for stargazing slowly changed for the worse as the clouds moved in.  By midnight it was clear that stargazing was not on and we packed everything away. By the time Leslie had packed everything away he decided that there was no point in going to bed for a few hours so he got in the car and left for home. However, before leaving, he presented Lynnette with a beautiful black and white picture which he had taken of the Horse Head, one of her favorite images in the night sky.

Tuesday 31 December 2013

Lynnette and Christine went off to Montagu which took several hours.  While there Lynnette phoned Iain and discovered that he was in hospital but that he was being released that day and, when he heard Alan and Rose were coming he said he would also come out on the 2nd of January.  Lynnette also bought four watermelons for R10 each from a neighbouring farmer and replenished our bread, Bitter Lemon, Jeripigo and braaiwors supplies. Ludwig looks marginally better this morning, but I think he should stay out of the night air so stargazing is probably not advisable for him.  We invited Christine around for a New Year’s Eve glass of Bubbly and hopefully Ludwig and Sandy will join us.

Christine did not turn up for the braai or the bubbly.  The rest of us had supper inside to keep Ludwig out of the evening chill and shared a bottle of red wine.  Actually I drank some, as did Lynnette but Ludwig abstained as he was on antibiotics and Sandy doesn’t drink.  After super wrapped up warmly and we sat around talking under the stars, touching on astronomy and a host of other topics.  I took a set of photographs of NovaCen around 01:00 after Ludwig and Sandy had gone to bed and then set up the camera to do a 3 hour exposure so I could get some good star trails.  I forgot to take the dark sky readings.

We subsequently heard that Sandy went down with the flu after they got home and Ludwig had to be hospitalized with pneumonia and a collapsed lung.  Hope they recover soon and fully.

View of the Lodge from the Northwest
Weird and wonderful folds in the mountains on the far side of the dam.

Wednesday 01 January 2014

Ludwig and Sandy left after 11:00 and Lynnette and I have the Lodge to ourselves until Alan and Rose, and hopefully Iain too, arrive tomorrow.  Today is really hot and I measured 41°C at 12:00 but the wind has shifted to the West and I am holding thumbs that it won’t bring clouds this evening. Damnation by 14:00 it was almost completely clouded over.  Christine’s son-in-law, Raul, came round to fetch the portable braai and brought me a bottle of his home brewed and distilled Peach Brandy.  Christine pitched shortly afterwards and then the whole clan had a braai down at the pool.  Raul has bought himself a smallish Rubber Duck with which he intends going fishing at Witsand so he and a friend spent some time on the dam trying it out..

In the meantime the wind freshened considerably and turned back to the Southeast.  By 19:25 most of the clouds had departed leaving only a layer along the Langeberg Mountains and scattered remnants low down to the South and North.  Lynnette and I parked ourselves outside and spent time doing some more brushing up on our constellations.  I had the camera set op to do a long exposure hoping to get a good star trail photograph. The clouds reappeared and showed up as gaps in my star trail photograph.  The exposure for the star trail photograph was a bit short at 5800s and all the star trails were virtually straight lines.  After taking SQM-readings we went to bed at around 03:00.

Thursday 02 January 2014

Christine turned up with more watermelons and examples of two varieties of sweet melon for us to try out.  Alan and Rose pitched at around 14:00 with the news that Iain would not be coming as he was not feeling up to it after his stay in hospital.  No sign of Christo and Monique and eventually they did not pitch at all.  This Dark Sky event will go down on record as the non-arrival Dark Sky.  We opened a bottle of bubbly to celebrate the arrival of 2014 with Alan and Rose.  Viewing started off well with a beautiful clear sky.  Later on a few high level clouds moved in and by 02:30 we all decided to pack it in.  Although the cloud cover wasn’t extensive it was sufficient to make one keep on having to change targets, which was a nuisance.  No dark sky readings were taken due to the clouds.

A time-lapse of the observing area before we packed up

Friday 03 January 2014

When we woke up at around 10:30 the inside temperature of our room was already a warmish 38 degrees Celsius and it did not get any better towards midday.  Two sets of guests moved in and despite our reservations they were very well behaved as far as the use of lights was concerned.  Once again we had good viewing conditions and everybody kept busy doing some serious observations.  Lynnette decided to hunt for the 3 galaxies in Fornax and found two of them, sketched them and will discuss them with Auke once we are home again.  We did some stargazing with the guests when they got back from their braai with Christine’s brother.  We were rather chuffed to see that they had actually prepared red torches so as not to destroy our dark adaptation.   By 00:30 a thin mist like haze had crept up slowly all round and appeared to be intent on covering the entire sky so, after taken a series of shots of NovaCen and two 30sec exposures of the SMC/LMC area, we packed up and went to bed with the temperature in our room still a very warm 31 degrees.  No dark sky readings were taken due to the clouds which, by now, had left only a few stars around Crux as a consolation prize.  Between 02:00 and 05:00 we had several light showers of rain which helped to cool things down a bit.

Spectacular sunset
The crescent of the waxing moon setting

Saturday 04 January 2014

We woke up to cloudy skies and considerably cooler weather.  By 11:00 the clouds had started to break up and we had patches of blue sky which would hopefully get larger as the day wore on.  Initial hopes of clear skies were dashed later in the afternoon when more clouds moved in from the West.  The clouds provided a spectacular sunset but stargazing was out of the question. Everybody decided to have an early night and get some extra sleep.

Sunsets are spectacular but the clouds were not welcome

Sunday 05 January 2014

It rained lightly during the night and cooled the area down quite a bit.  It was partially cloudy throughout the morning and most of the afternoon as well as the early evening. We decided to take a walk and visit Christine, and after a nice cup of coffee we set off to the local cell phone hot spot the see if there was any cell phone reception.  Alan and Rose packed up during the morning and by lunchtime they were ready to leave. Lynnette decided to take an afternoon nap and I ventured off to the dam to take some photos of the local birds. Definitely no stargazing tonight due to heavy rain clouds and after having a light supper we stayed in our room and entertained Snorre, much to his delight!  Christine came to visit around 20:30 and we discussed our plans for Monday. By 10:30, as the Moon was setting, we went outside and found that the sky was clearing and would probably clear enough to do some astronomy by midnight.  The expectations about the sky clearing were far too optimistic, in fact it simply clouded over more and more.

Lynnette trying out the technology at the cell-phone hot spot

Monday 06 January 2014

Nice cool morning but an overcast day.  Christine came around at about 10:30 with the news that it was expected to start raining at 16:00 and keep on raining right through Tuesday with flood warnings for Wednesday.  Lynnette and I discussed this and decided that even if we really rushed it would take about 90 minutes to pack everything and load up the Vito so we probably would not be able to leave before 18:00.  If it started raining we would be driving home in the rain and gathering darkness which neither of us liked the thought of.  Nevertheless we decided it would be a good thing if we loaded the telescopes and related equipment before it started raining, if it started raining.  Yours truly, who was keeping an eye on the weather decided it did not look all that much like rain, so loading the telescopes could wait until a little later.  In the meantime I got stuck into processing some photos and totally ignored the weather but, at 15:50 on the dot, it started raining.  One can never seem to trust these weather people to be accurate; I mean 15:50 is not 16:00, is it now?

Initially it was quit gusty and stormy, but then it settled down and rained softly but steadily for the rest of the afternoon and through most of the night.  Shortly after the rain started a number of the local ant colonies decided to undertake their nuptial flights and all the birds in the vicinity took the opportunity to boost their protein intake.  By 22:30 we began to wonder about the two low-water bridges we’d have to cross to get back to the tarred road and head home.

Tuesday 07 January 2014

It rained steadily all night and quite heavily at times, but by 08:00 it had started to abate.  As expected, both bridges on the road out were under water and with more rain still falling in the catchment areas, it seemed unlikely that we would get out any time soon.  To make the final loading as speedy as possible, we took advantage of a break in the weather to load the telescopes and as much of the other stuff that was not likely be required into the Vito.  Lynnette went with Christine to her house to use the land-line and let all and sundry know we would not be home today as planned and possibly not tomorrow either.  News arrived of a dam broken in Robertson and a bridge washed away there too, with potential road closures in Bonnievale due to flooding.

It was wet and getting wetter all the time
A waterfall in one of the side-kloofs feeding into the dam
The main stream feeding into the dam was in full spate
A waterfall high in the catchment area tells of more water yet to come

During the afternoon I walked down to the dam wall to photograph the overflow, which had also decreased somewhat during the day as the flooding in the rivers subsided.  The doomsayers, however, predict that the rain which had fallen during the day would be augmented by heavy rain during the night and this would cause the depth of the water over the bridges to rise again by the morning.  I think we will just have to wait and see and try and get reliable reports as early as possible in the morning so that we can finish loading the Vito quickly and get out of the valley while the going is good.

The dam overflowing
Water flow below the dam. This would contribute one half of the low at the second crossing to get back to Montagu
The arrow indicates the high water mark during the infamous 1981 floods, so we still have a long way to go this time around

Although it rained very little at the Lodge during the day, it appeared still to be raining lightly in the mountains to the North, Northeast and East, which is where the rivers currently flooding the bridges get their water from, so it looks as if we are in for a day or two longer here.  Later in the afternoon news arrived that the water levels had dropped sufficiently to allow vehicles, with very high ground clearances, to cross the flooded bridges, but it was still unsafe for vehicles with low ground clearances, like the Vito.  The Vito would most likely float and we could end up cruising down the river, and it wasn’t even Sunday afternoon anymore.

The birds did not seem to mind the rain at all
The weaver birds are a very colourful and vociferous group
For the geese it was an opportunity to practice landing in formation

Wednesday 08 January 2014

Somewhere around 01:00 the thunderstorms let fly with a vengeance and continued all the way through to around 04:30 or thereabouts.  Blinding lightning flashes, rumbling thunder and for the closer lightning strikes there were rafter shaking thunderclaps and all of this to the incessant drumbeats of very large raindrops on the Lodges galvanized iron roof.  All in all, quite an impressive performance, reminiscent of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries or perhaps, more appropriately of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain.  Poor Lynnette slept very little.  She’d hardly doze off after one peal of thunder when the next one would jerk her rudely from her slumbers.  Snorre decided that the safest place in the midst of all this din, was as close as possible to me on the bed.

When the day dawned it revealed a very wet Bergwater Lodge and Pietersfontein Valley.  Judging by the inflow into the dam we assumed correctly that the road out was impassible and this was confirmed during a visit to Christine later in the morning.  It also transpired that the road out of Montagu through Cogman’s Kloof was in danger of being closed, which would mean that, even if we could leave Bergwater Lodge we would very likely have to go out via the Koo, the N1 and De Doorns, unless we were prepared to drive back to Cape Town via Barrydale, Tradouw;s Pass, Swellendam and the N2.  Around lunch time Christine took as down to the first flooded bridge and it was immediately obvious that the Vito would not make it across.  The flooding at the second crossing was more extensive so we really only had one option – stay put.  In the late afternoon a vehicle actually got through but was unable to get back again because the flow in the second river had increased.

The first of the rivers to cross on the way to Montagu still had a lot of water
There was no way we were going to take the Vito through this lot

The weather forecast predicted heavy rain for the late afternoon and during the night.  By late afternoon the buildup of very dark threatening rain clouds was quite impressive and we began to worry that the storms during the night might bring not only heavy rain, but also hail.  In a bout with large hailstones the unprotected Vito would come a very poor second indeed.  Christine came around in the evening to report that the latest weather forecast on the TV predicted widespread heavy rains with extensive flooding during the next 24 hours.  Hello Friday – maybe – and hold thumbs that there is no hail!

I popped out at 22:30 to find it was clearing slightly and managed to get some decent shots of the slightly older than first quarter Moon.  Perhaps we can head home tomorrow!

Thursday 09 January 2014

We had some rain during the night and the weather was still partially cloudy by 08:00 but gradually cleared until we were left with just a few scattered clouds by late afternoon, most of them to the Northeast, East and Southeast.  The wind was refreshingly cool and quite gusty at times from a Northerly to Northwesterly direction.  Early reports were that the rivers were down enough to allow vehicles with a fairly high ground clearance through and the general opinion was that, if no more rain fell in the catchment areas the Vito should make it by tomorrow if the the water levels drop a little further.  While Lynnette was preparing supper I caught the kitchen’s resident Bibron’s gecko so Lynnette could have a closer look at it.  After supper we walked down to Christine’s house and had tea with her.  She drove us back at about 22:30, but it really was a lovely evening with very few clouds about, Pity the telescopes have been loaded as tonight might have been a good night to brush up on our moon knowledge.

Friday 10 January 2014

Lynnette woke me at about 01:30 to listen to the sound of potential disaster – rain!  It rained very lightly until about 05:00 and then started to clear slowly.  After surveying the surrounding hills with the binoculars I decided that the rain had been too light to increase the runoff enough and raise the water levels in the rivers appreciably so we decided to pack up and go.

Snorre perched on an observing chair absolutely transfixed by his first view of a horse
The horse that fascinated Snorre

Christine arrived with her staff to start cleaning the Lodge while we were loading the Vito  and confirmed that the rivers had not risen.  While changing the linen in one of the unoccupied rooms she called us over to show us how the mice had chewed up the pillows and bedspread, also urinating on them and leaving yellow stains and a very unpleasant smell.

We left at around 11:00 making our first stop at Kotie Kriel’s place to pick up a crate of freshly picked peaches.  Next stop was to pick up the watermelons and sweet melons at another farm and then it we had to tackle the two flooded bridges.  These turned out to be far less of an obstacle than we had expected and we were well and truly on our way home.

Acting on Christine’s recommendation we stopped off at Pinto’s Butchery in Robertson, where Lynnette bought a variety of sausages as well as biltong and dried wors.  Maybe dried sausage is eaten elsewhere in the world but here in South Africa it is dried wors.  I can, by the way, really recommend Pinto’s Strandlopers!

Next stop was the Pitkos Farm Stall where we had coffee and roosterkoek with biltong and melted cheese while Snorre sat in a tree pretending he was a leopard.  His tree sitting only laste until the local red ants evicted him.  After that we headed home to the dreary task of unpacking and putting everything back where it belongs.

The Vito with Snorre up a tree where he was shortly to be evicted by the resident colony of red ants
Lynnette pouiring the coffee before we get stuck into Francis’s roosterkoek with thinly sliced biltong and loads of melted cheese

I will be posting more photos of the wildlife in a separate post and, as soon as I have processed them I will also be posting the astrophotos that I took.  I am preparing a post about the SQM-readings we have taken in the past as well as those taken at Bergwater on this trip.

Deep Sky Weekend at Night Sky Caravan Park, Oudekraal, Bonnievale: 08th to 11th of August 2013

Deep Sky Weekend at Night Sky Caravan Park, Oudekraal, Bonnievale:  08th to 11th of August 2013

Lynnette and I left home with Snorre, our cat, in the Vito on the 7th hoping to get in a day’s rest at NightSky after the hectic 9-day marathon of National Science Week that ended on the 4th of August. It was cold and rainy all the way and we were both holding thumbs that the weather people were right and that it would clear up by the Friday.  We stopped off at the Pitkos Padstal on the R60 where Francis had delicious freshly brewed coffee and hot roosterkoek with melted cheese and biltong.  Snorre gave his purring stamp of approval to the food and we bought several bottles of the Nuy Red Muscadel to ward of the cold we knew would be waiting at NightSky.


NightSky Caravan Park is a scenic venue even if it is cloudy or if it rains and it has this stunningly photogenic willow tree.
Fairly heavy snow on the higher peaks of the Riviersonderend Mountains
Snow on the distant peaks of the Langeberg Mountains reflecting the afternoon sunlight

At NightSky everything was very thoroughly wet and we wondered if there was anywhere dry enough for Iain to pitch a tent.  I was still wearing the brace after my lumber fusion in May, so unloading was slower than usual, but as soon as it was done we got the fireplace going and before long the house had warmed up nicely. Then Alan and Rose arrived and eventually found a spot to park their caravan.  There were intermittent showers all afternoon and well into the night, but by morning only the clouds along the Riviersonderend and Langeberg mountains remained.  As they cleared away we could see that the higher peaks were all covered in snow, which explained the sharp nip in the air.

The important thing though was that we had almost clear skies and it looked as if they would clear completely by evening.  During the course of the day Auke, Wim, Malcolm & Elize, John, Brett, Leslie and Kechil and her group trickled in, as well as Ludwig Churr and Sandy Struckmeyer.  Wim as well as Malcolm & Elize unpacked and then headed off to McGregor to see if they could get any closer to the snow, but to no avail.  Anyway, by sunset everyone was back and set up to start observing.  Alan was determined to push up his tally of Deep Sky objects, Leslie and Brett had all their astrophotography paraphernalia set up and the rest of us each had our own little niche from which we could contemplate the near perfect dark skies above us.  In between we wondered around exchanging views and opinions with whoever you stumbled across in the dark.  The only people that were not difficult to find were Brett and Leslie, because their outfits were lit up like Christmas trees.

Brett in the centre of the photo and Leslie on the right were easy to find in the dark. Alan’s telescope on the far left, and his caravan are reflecting the light form the other two
Leslie headed East leaving a fiery trail

Saturday was a beautiful day and Wim went off in his pickup to explore farther afield.  Leslie and Brett went to Bonnievale to find hot water bottles which they intended using to ward of the cold during their nocturnal activities.  They both claimed that this worked well except for the slight scorching they experienced after filling them with boiling water as the bottles had no covers.  Saturday night was not quite as clear as Friday night and on both nights dew was a problem, especially in the areas closer to the dam.  Alan, I know, had two very successful nights of observing and has increased his tally of Deep Sky objects considerably.  I spent quite a lot of time getting used to my new Nikon D5100 and got some fairly good shots of the area around Crux and the Scorpio/Sagittarius section of the Milky Way while Lynnette spent time hunting globulars.  In general we all had two quite cold, definitely sleepless, but astronomically speaking quite productive nights.

Auke explaining to Lynnette and pointing out things with a laser. All the action is reflected on the back of the Vito on the left of the photograph


On Sunday everyone packed up, goodbyes were said and another successful DarkSky gathering came to an end.  As we were packing up I noticed that Snorre was limping and inspection of the left front leg turned up a puncture mark high on the leg.  I thought this was a bite from one of the feral cats that prowled the area and we decided to head for Bergwater and spend the night with Christine so that we could take him to Marina, the vet in Montagu, early on Monday morning.  From past experience I knew just how septic these bites could become and I did not want that to happen to Snorre.

Snorre the MCWC (Main Cat What Counts)

At Bergwater Christine was her normal cheerful self and the three of us, plus a rather subdued Snorre, spent the evening around a large fire talking and enjoying Lynnette’s excellent curry and rice until the wood ran out.  On Monday morning Marina confirmed that Snorre was running a fever and prescribed antibiotics.  On the way back to Brackenfell we stopped off at Pitkos for more of the usual before tackling the last lap.  The stops at Pitkos on both legs of the journey were actually not just for the coffee and roosterkoek, although that would have been a sufficient reason, but also because my back could not yet handle long periods of sitting in the vehicle.  Suitably fortified we set off home and, instead of using the Huguenot Tunnel, we went over Du Toitskloof Pass, but the normally fantastic view from the summit was unfortunately spoiled by low clouds.  Once home there was all the usual unpacking before we could settle in and get a good night’s rest.

Deep-Sky April 2013 at Bergwater Lodge

Lynnette and I had planned to leave early on the Wednesday, but the best laid plans of mice, men and the Fosters often go astray and this was to be no exception.  While taking our new kitten, Snorre, out to the Vito Jaco’s cat, Muggie, came strolling over quite innocently. Snorre took one look at her and threw a fit. He turned into a biting, clawing, screaming, woolly demon with his teeth clamped very firmly onto the end of my right index finger.  Muggie very sensibly disappeared under the Vito and I headed back into the house where I managed to calm Snorre, retrieve my finger and take stock of the damage.  Four neat puncture marks, all bleeding quite profusely, one through the centre of the nail, one through the side of the nail and two in the fleshy underside of the fingertip. Lots of water, some disinfectant and a Band-Aid later and we ventured out to attempt a second departure, this time making sure that neither Muggie or any of the other neighbourhood cats were around.

Snorre, not attached to my finger any more

The journey to Bergwater Lodge was uneventful, except for the quick stop at the Vet’s in Montagu to get Snorre his first round of inoculations and a deworming treatment. At Bergwater we unpacked and settled in.  Auke arrived on Thursday and the rest of the pack trickled in during the course of Friday, except for Iain who only arrived on Saturday morning. On Friday Auke dished out the set of special ConCards he had prepared for the weekend.



The Old Man of the mountain in morning light
The Old Man of the mountain in evening light
It appears the Old Man of the mountain is part of an Easter Island head’s outline







The weather on Friday night at Bergwater was perfect for observing and our first task was to try and see the illusive Sirius B as soon as Sirius appeared after sunset, but none of us had any luck.  Auke had also, as a homework assignment earlier in the week, asked us to determine the field of view for our binoculars and eyepieces as well as our eyepiece-Barlow combinations.  Because of the overcast conditions in Cape Town, this had not been done so, after Sirius, we all got stuck in using the special charts Auke had prepared.  At first we concentrated on Orion and, when Orion set, those of us who were still trying to complete the homework, switched to Crux. The more industrious members of the group got stuck into finding and sketching our Deep-Sky objects.

The crescent moon in an ESCOM frame

On Saturday morning we had the opportunity to check the fields of view we had determined the previous evening and all the odd looking values were marked for checking that night.  While the members who had brought their families along set of for Montagu and a day at the mineral baths, the rest of us spent the day either discussing astronomical and astrophotographic matters or finishing of the rough sketches we had made the previous evening.

On Saturday evening we had another go at spotting Sirius-B, but without any luck. Then it was an all-out search for the many illusive Deep-Sky objects on the list.  Round about midnight Auke started a round of interrogation. He’d point his laser at a spot in the sky and want to know things like what object was there, what was noteworthy about the object and which constellation was it in.  Or he would point out a spot and announce that there was a galaxy there and which one was it.  This exercise very quickly sorted those that knew from those that didn’t. Eventually we did get some sleep although I am told some diehards actually sat it out until 06:00 and consumed large amounts of coffee in the process.

The Chelyabinsk asteroid or the Pietersfontein dragon warming up?

Sunday morning was packing up and saying goodbye time for everyone except Auke, Lynnette, Snorre and myself.  Christine had asked us to conduct a stargazing session for a group of locals on the Sunday evening.  As the afternoon progressed the clouds rolled in and it looked less and less likely that we would be able to see any stars.  The aspiring local stargazers must have come to the same conclusion as none of them turned up, but by 20:00 it was cloudless and once the crescent moon had set, it was actually a very good observing night.  Did the three of us observe?  No, we spent the evening discussing future plans for the SSP, other Deep-Sky outings, outreach projects and the future of amateur astronomy in South Africa – serious stuff man, serious stuff!

We were up bright and early to have breakfast and see Auke off at about 08:00 on Monday and we eventually left shortly after 11:00.  Did we have a leisurely drive home?  No we did not, thank you!  About seven km from the farm and three km from the R318 there was a loud snap from the driver’s door of the Vito followed by a thump and a sudden rush of fresh air.  The cable of the window mechanism had snapped, dropping the glass pane down into the depths of the door where it could not be reached.  So we drove all the way back to Brackenfell with an open window fully exposed to the noise of passing vehicles as well as the continuous blast of air.

Fixing this lot cost R3500-00 because you cannot just replace the snapped cable or the faulty piece of plastic that caused it to snap.  No, you have to replace the whole shebang, metal framework, cable, sundry bits of plastic, miscellaneous wheels and cogs and an electric motor.

Variations in Jupiter’s brightness at 1 minute intervals over a 10 minute period.

During the deep-sky event of 13 to 18 December, I set up the camera on Sunday evening to try and record one of the moons slipping in behind Jupiter.  The camera was set to take 10 shots at 1-minute intervals so once started there was no intervention, i.e. changes in the settings of any sort.  When I looked at the photos I found the results rather surprising because Jupiter undergoes quite large changes in brightness over the 10 minute period.

My only (tentative) explanation is that there must have been very high thin clouds drifting across the camera’s field of view.  There was definitely no dew on the camera or the telescope so I have ruled that out and neither was there any wind.

What also puzzles me is that the stars do not show the same variation but I suppose could be due to the fact that Jupiter is so much brighter than any of the other objects in the sky resulting in more reflection of high-level moisture or even ice crystals.  I was not watching Jupiter during the period that I was taking the photographs so I do not know if these variations were visible to the naked eye.



Deep-sky 13 to 18 Dec 2012

Presented, organized and catered for by ELF Astronomy

Disaster loomed large on the horizon when, on the preceding weekend, the Norwegian weather site, www.yr.no, predicted a very high probability of rain over the deep-sky weekend and, in fact, quite a lot of it too. Lynnette and I, very despondently, decided to phone and e-mail everybody on the 9th December and give them the option of pulling out or coming along and sitting around all weekend talking, eating, drinking and watching the rain.  Unfortunately deposits had already been paid to Bergwater so, when Ian, Brett and Leslie decided to pull out they also lost some cash.  The rest of us decided to carry on regardless but then, as often happens in cases like this, the weather forecast began to change, looking more and more promising as we crawled closer to the weekend.

Eventually we did lose the Friday night due to clouds and on Saturday night, which started out well, it clouded over around midnight so we packed up and went to bed.  Then, as often happens, it cleared shortly after we left the field of battle, but nobody had the energy to trundle out the telescopes and set up again.  Sunday night was good although there was some very high level moisture and the odd patch of thin clouds. Monday night was the best one but, unfortunately only Johan, Marietta, Lynnette and I were there to enjoy the good viewing conditions.  Nobody reported any problems with dew on any of the four nights and there was no wind to bother us.  I did observe some odd variations in Jupiter’s brightness during a short photo-session on Sunday evening but I have reported on that elsewhere.

So, all in all, those of us who decided to brave the rain that had initially been predicted, got a much better deal than they had bargained for.  Leslie and Brett actually considered coming through when the weather forecast improved on the Saturday, but then decided not to, for fear of gate crashing the party.  Perish the thought; we would have loved to have been gate crashed.

As part of plan B, in anticipation of being cooped up inside all weekend, I took along all my outreach posters and dollied up the dining area and I also brought along a batch of TED lectures to entertain the troops while they watched the rain we had all expected. For background music we had, amongst others, the Allegro Galactico with its amazing combination of Mozart, Astronomy and the adventures of Don Quijote de la Mancha and his long suffering servant Sancho Panza.  This is a delightful musical combination masterminded by the Spanish astrophysicist, Dr. Juan Ramón Pardo-Carrión. He is not only an internationally renowned scientist, but also an accomplished musician in his own right. In addition he but holds the office of vice-mayor of his home town, Fuentealbilla, where he is in charge of education and culture.

At stargazing events there is always something interesting in the way of either telescopes or gadgets and this weekend was no exception. Johan Swanepoel brought along that amazing 20 inch monster of his and I never cease to marvel at the way the whole thing folds up into a fairly large wheelbarrow which is then wheeled up the ramps into that tiny pickup of his. Marietta is a very able assistant and has quite clearly learnt a lot over the years, not only about the big telescope and where all its bits and pieces go, but also about astronomy in general.  Perhaps she should bring along one of their other telescopes and do some astronomy herself, although that might force them to buy a larger pickup!  I could not help noticing that Alan Cassels, like Johan an engineer, watched very attentively and asked lots of questions during the assembly process.  I am afraid Rose is going to have to keep a close eye on Alan and check up on what exactly he is doing when he disappears into their garage for extended periods.

While on the subject of gadgets, I must say that I was impressed with the very nifty and sturdy binocular mounts that Alan made for himself and Rose.  Even more impressive, however, was the very innovative, backlit drawing table mounted on a tripod which Alan has put together.  Maybe we should, in future, have a “Best Astronomy Related Thingy” competition? The first prize will be the privilege of making each one of us one of the winning Thingies as a gesture of appreciation for the fact that we voted for it.

The daytime temperatures were up in the high 30’s and the fans were all going flat out all weekend. The thought crossed my mind that with all that sunlight we should try and entice some of the solar viewing enthusiasts to come along next time.  The more energetic members of the group had ample opportunity to sunbathe, walk and also to swim in the dam – the swimming pool was unfortunately undergoing treatment for a serious case of algal bloom.  Evan, so it seems, has definite aquatic talents as he reputedly swam across the dam at least twice during the course of the weekend.  Perhaps Evan could popularize an astronomy triathlon with hiking and swimming as the first two items and finding 70 or 80 of the 100 Messier objects in one night as the third.  I am visualizing competitions at section level followed by an inter-section national championship meeting perhaps coinciding with SCOPEX and then an official South African (ASSA accredited of course) team competing internationally.  Imagine the excitement of going to the Stellafane Convention or the Texas Star Party to compete.  Sorry guys I forgot to take my frog pills this morning, but I am better now.

One unusual perk we had during the weekend was that the lady who runs the show on the farm, Christine, gave us free access to her small, but heavily laden nectarine orchard and also to the large apricot orchard. That was an unexpected but very nice addition to a pleasant weekend of astronomy and other activities.  Christine’s only restriction was that we were not allowed to take more than a pickup load of fruit away with us!

Bergwater Lodge has a number of advantages over Night Sky when it comes to hosting a deep-sky event or any other event.  The accommodation is good, the rooms are large with one double and two single beds, the bathrooms are more than adequate and all bed linen, towels and toilet paper are supplied.  ELF Astronomy does the catering for all meals and also supplies the all night coffee/rusks and soup/bread in the winter, so attendees only have to pack their clothes, toothbrushes and telescopes.  The only disadvantage of Bergwater compared to Night Sky, especially as far as the Southern Star party is concerned, is that the number of people that can be accommodated is limited.  Night Sky can easily handle 70 and possibly even 100 people but Bergwater can only take a maximum of 36 people if attendees are prepared to share rooms but, if people do not share, that figure could drop down as low as 12.  The unfortunate implication of this limitation is that attendance for all future events at Bergwater will be capped.