This Unihedron Sky Quality Meter (Ser. No. 5739 / Mod. 2.17) has been used over a six-year period at various venues in South Africa. I noted that the first four to six readings in every series of measurements we took drifted lower before stabilizing. My revised operating procedure discards the first four reading in every series and this has virtually eliminated the initial drift of earlier measuring sessions. My results showed and still show inexplicable outliers which have a negative impact on the error profile of the results produced. By mounting the unit on a tripod and making sure it is level and exactly vertical instead of operating it while hand-held, I have reduced the number of outliers but not eliminated them.
The results of the first experiment were obtained at Bergwater Lodge (-33°39’47.06″, 20°00’44.13″, 501m) near Montagu. The objective was to see if the readings taken with the Sky Quality Meter at the zenith (0°) and at 30° and 60° down from 0°, toward each cardinal direction varied and, if they varied, by how much. In experiment 1 the meter was hand-held.
Results for Experiment 1.
Discussion of Experiment 1.
The results in Figures 1 to 6 show that the values given by the Sky Quality Meter do differ at the different cardinal points and also at 30° and 60 ° down from the zenith (0°). At both 30° and 60°, the readings were darker toward the west and east than at 0° and less dark toward the north and south.
In order to illustrate the differences more clearly, the Sky Quality Readings were calculated as a percentage of the value obtained for the zenith (0°) and these results are depicted in Figure 7 (above). Here it is clear that W30°, E30°, W60° & N60° readings were consistently darker than the readings at 0° (average -0.4222) while those for N30°, S30°, N60° & S60° were lighter by a larger margin (average 0.8175).
One set of results is not enough to draw any general conclusions from and I suspect the results will vary from site to site. In all probability, they will also vary from season to season for the same site as the position of objects in the sky changes seasonally. I will select a suitable site and repeat the test at three monthly intervals over the course of one year.
The values in the second experiment were obtained at the SAAO Hostel near Sutherland (-32°22’35.29″, 20°48’18.56″, 1703m). I wanted to verify that my Unihedron Sky Quality Meter’s readings were consistent at 0° when the instrument was rotated 90° between consecutive readings around the vertical axis. In experiment 2 the meter was tripod-mounted and the tripod was set to level and vertical using a spirit level.
Results for Experiment 2.
Discussion of Experiment 2.
From these results, it appears that the Unihedron Sky Quality Meter I use does, in fact, give different readings in the two 90° orientations around the vertical axis that were tested. Even if one takes into consideration the three outlier values the S/N values are consistently darker than the W/E values. It seems possible to produce quite different sets of values, and therefore draw different conclusions depending on how the instrument is orientated around the vertical axis.
I will repeat the test using all four possible 90° orientations around the vertical axis. On that occasion, it will hopefully have the time to take two or three sets of readings on the same evening and also to repeat all of them on two or more consecutive evenings.
The first Southern Star party held at Leeuwenboschfontein was a success. So, any suspicions about unlucky 13 were neatly sidestepped or perhaps the jinx only applies to people who suffer from triskaidekaphobia.
Lynnette, Snorre and I arrived on Wednesday the 22nd, downloaded our stuff at Dalzicht and set about getting the shed converted into a lecture area with a display section. Fortunately, their spacious kitchen made organising the coffee area very easy.
Jim Adams (speaker), Jonathan Balladon, Deon Begeman, Ronelle Begeman, Steyn Botha, Samuel Botha, Dominique Brink, Johan Brink, Nellie Brink, Anja Bruton, Alan Cassells, Rose Cassells, Pamela Cooper, Chris de Coning, Micah de Villiers, Pierre de Villiers, Barry Dumas, Miemie Dumas, Clair Engelbrecht, Dwayne Engelbrecht, Arné Esterhuizen, Iain Finlay, Edward Foster, Lynnette Foster, Louis Fourie, Maureen Helman, Cheyenne Kersting, Christine Kersting, Harald Kersting, Jamie Kersting, Evan Knox-Davies, Dianne Nxumalo-Kohler, Robin Kohler, Bennie Kotze, Paul Kruger, Lia Labuschagne, Eddy Nijeboer, Jannie Nijeboer, Lorenzo Raynard (speaker), Kim Reitz, Marius Reitz, John Richards, Rogan Roth, Johan Roux (Jnr), (Johan Jnr’s wife), (Johan Jnr’s eldest son), (Johan Jnr’s 2nd son), Alecia Roux, Henda Scott, Barry Shipman, Auke Slotegraaf, Corne van Dyk, and Chris Vermeulen, Alex Wright.
Some of the keen people pitched on Thursday and among them were Deon and Ronelle Begeman. Deon had, as promised at the previous SSP in Bonnievale, constructed two magnificent binocular viewing tripods for Auke and myself. This is really quite an ingenious device with many improvements over what is currently on the market and it is very reasonably priced too when compared to its competitors. I will do a separate post with pictures about it at a later stage.
On Thursday evening Paul and I went up Swartberg in his 4×4. It was a whole lot easier than walking up but also considerably more taxing on one’s nerves and I am not implying that Paul drove recklessly; quite the contrary. It is just that the vehicle adopts a wide variety of very unusual angles during both the ascent and descent and one has to trust the driver a whole lot more than when driving down a normal road.
TOP LEFT: We had some magnificent thunderclouds on Thursday. TOP RIGHT: Paul snapped his first lightning bolt from the top of Swartberg. BOTTOM LEFT: Paul’s night shot of the Leeuwenbosch complex from the top of Swartberg. BOTTOM RIGHT: Paul’s early morning shot of the hut and his pickup.
Arne and Alex had their vehicle expire on the R318 while on the way to the SSP, but they were picked up by Evan and brought to Leeuwenboschfontein. The two seemed pretty laid back about leaving the car at the side of the road until Monday when they would set about sorting it out from Cape Town.
The beginner’s session at the telescopes was quite successful on Friday as was the beginners talk on Saturday morning.
Jonathan had to leave suddenly on Saturday morning as he was needed to fly a plane somewhere. He promised he would flash his landing lights if his route took him over Leeuwenboschfontein which it apparently didn’t.
During my beginners’ session on Saturday morning, Jim Adams, retired Deputy Chief Technologist at NASA and Anja Bruton Science Engagement Coordinator at the SKA arrived. The problem was that Lorenzo Raynard Communications Manager at the SKA, who was due to give the first talk had not pitched and all efforts to contact him were unsuccessful. Jim, hearing of our predicament, very kindly agreed to give the talk he was scheduled to give that afternoon in Lorenzo’s slot. So we started off with “Spinoff: How investing in astronomy and space science changes life on Earth”. Jim proved to be every bit as good a speaker as Anja had said he was; relaxed, knowledgeable and very good at fielding questions too.
In the meantime, Lynnette and Anja were frantically trying to trace Lorenzo.
Martin Lyons and his wife Pat flew in (literally) especially for the social braai in the lapa at the campsite during lunchtime on Saturday. They stayed until after lunch and then flew home again. According to Paul and Louis, the takeoff was actually quite tense but Martin, during subsequent discussions, downplayed any suggestion of problems.
Just before the braai the Vito was attacked by a vicious tree and lost its back window.
By now Lorenzo had been traced and was on his way but would not make it in time for his time slot. We, or at least Anja, talked Jim into giving a second talk in Lorenzo’s slot. This talk “Robots in Space and Space Exploration; Past, Present and Future” went down very well with the audience. Lorenzo finally pitched later on Saturday afternoon. As his talk would cut into observing time we decided to rather have him give his talk on Sunday morning.
After Jim’s talk and the lively question session we took the usual group photograph and, as is usual, some people did not pitch up. People who were absent were Jonathan Balladon, Steyn & Samuel Botha, Dominique & Nellie Brink and Lorenzo Raynard.
The group photograph was followed by the Pub Quiz which, this year, was orchestrated the usual degree of malevolence and cunning by Auke. After several gruelling rounds the overall winner, by a very large margin was Alex. Well done Alex, you left several past winners staggering around in your slipstream’s dust.
The number of beginners at the telescopes on Saturday evening was disappointing but I am hoping it was the sudden drop in temperature that convinced them to stay indoors.
Lorenzo’s talk on Sunday morning. “The public face of SKA in South Africa” was reasonably well attended and, after some discussion, the great dispersal began and the site emptied fairly rapidly. This year, though, more people stayed on to observe the partial solar eclipse on Sunday afternoon.
Dwayne and Claire, who got engaged during the 11th SSP at Night Sky Caravan Farm, missed the 12th SSP because they were getting married. Now, while attending the 13th SSP, Mr and Mrs Engelbrecht announced they were expecting their first child. I suppose it will be too much to expect them to call the baby SSP, but it would be nice if they would.
On Monday morning we packed up and after Calla had very professionally helped close of and dust proof the gaping hole where the Vito’s rear window had been, Lynnette, Snorre and I also left for home.
Anton, Camilla and Viljé stayed on until early February after the rest of the group left on the 15th of January. They moved from Kolping guest house to our place in Brackenfell. Initially, we were a bit concerned because Camilla has a rather serious cat allergy. This was a serious for us too because it is, after all, is said and done, also Snorre’s home. Fortunately, Lynnette’s thorough cleaning coupled with a few restrictions on Snorre’s movements resulted in Camilla never experiencing any discomfort.
During the extended stay we visited several more wineries but, for Lynnette and I, the highlight of the visit was being able to take them to Leeuwenboschfontein ) for two days. Lynnette and I stayed in Bergzicht and Anton, Camilla, Birk and Viljé stayed next door in Dalzicht. Viljé absolutely loved the large lawn, the trampoline and the selection of climbing frames.
At Leeuwenboschfontein the highlight for me was walking up Swartberg to the hut and back with Anton, Camilla and Viljé. We started early at around 07:00 and the climb along the 4×4 track took just over two hours. The distance to walk is a little over 5.5 km during which one gains 300 metres in altitude. The road is very steep in sections and on the way down one has to take extra care not to slip and fall. A crucial point to remember is that there is no water en route and none at the top either.
On the way back we met Johan Roux, the owner of Leeuwenboschfontein, in his pickup taking guests up to the hut. He seemed as surprised to encounter us as I was to find him there on a weekday. He is, after all, based in Ceres and has a business to run. On the other hand if you are the boss you can pretty much do as you please I suppose.
During the climb up Swartberg Lynnette stayed at the guest house looking after Birk and Snorre. We stayed in contact with each other using our two-way radios just in case the climbing group had some sort of accident or she needed us back in hurry. The use of the radios was essential because mobile reception is very erratic at Leeuwenboschfontein and we were uncertain if there would be any reception at all while on the mountain.
When the climbing party got back to the guest house at around lunch time, Lynnette and Birk were relaxing on a blanket under one of the trees on the spacious lawn.
A slightly negative note in connection with Leeuwenboschfontein was the fact that Joan made us pay full price for Viljé. We subsequently discovered that children under the age of six, which Viljé was at the time, actually stay for free.
Without any further ado here are the pictures to tell the story of a memorable and very pleasant stay.
The day after Christmas we (Lynnette, Snorre and I) arrived at Leeuwenboschfontein just before lunch. We were followed later in the week by Iain Finlay – Willem stayed at home keeping their cats, Tiger and Aimé, company. Rob Bark with his wife Michelle and daughter Victoria were next in, followed, eventually, by Paul Kruger, with his famous breakfast. Dave, Spiro and Sharon were due to fly in from up north but eventually drove down due to thundery weather over the central parts of the country. Martin Lyons had plans to fly in as well but gave up on that idea as the altitude, heat and short runway made it unsafe for the plane he was going to use. Auke could not make it either because of last minute complications.
Monday evening was fine, Tuesday evening was completely clouded over and Wednesday evening was very windy in the early evening with a fair amount of cloud that cleared after midnight. Thursday night was a repeat of Wednesday and Friday was more of the same. Saturday was a near-perfect night to round off the weekend.
One thing that is a problem at Leeuwenbosch is the lighting along the entrance road and in the garden between the guest houses. They are all these horrible round white things that distribute light in all directions. Some sort of a cover that prevents light from escaping upward and horizontally, would solve the problem and the use of cooler bulbs would also help. I temporarily solved the problem by taking the bulbs out as soon as it looked as if all the folks in the houses had gone to bed and then replaced them when I was done observing. Johan Roux, however, has shown me where the light switches for these lights are and it is now a case of flicking two switches and seeing conditions around the guest houses and new chalets will improve by at least 200%.
The camp, however, was a bigger problem this time around. Because it was the holiday season and specifically the New Year’s weekend, the camp was full of revellers who switched on all possible lights including that infernal spotlight on the mast in the middle of the camp. Why get tipsy in the dark, after all? The light spill from this lot even affected the seeing down in the telescope area next to the runway, almost a kilometre away.
At least these light pollution problems will not be a problem during the SSP because we have Johan’s permission to switch everything off for that weekend.
On the subject of light pollution, I recorded a set of dark sky readings for those of the readers who might be interested.
I also recorded some weather data, using Hans van der Merwe’s clever data logger. Here are some results that might interest amateur astronomers.
We left in good time on Friday morning and our first stop was at the Veldskoen Padstal a few kilometers north of De Doorns for breakfast en grapes. Go here to read more about this excellent venue or click her to visit their FaceBook page. The Veldskoen has never disappointed us and their breakfast was, as always, first class. After breakfast and loading our grapes we set off on the second leg of the journey to Leeuwenboschfontein. Visit Leeuwenboschfontein’s website by clicking here to find out more about this lovely venue. We arrived there to find Iain and Willem already on site as well as a crowd of trainee drone pilots and their trainers.
Iain who was manning the admin-desk for Joan informed us that we would not be able to use the astro-enclosure that weekend because the drone trainees were doing the night-flying part of the course. So it was not just a case of not being able to drive on the runway while they were training, which I fully understood, we would also not be allowed in the astro enclosure. Apparently our presence there was disallowed by a regulation which specified that people were not allowed to be within a certain distance of an area in which drones were operating. I felt that the farm workers cottages were closer to the flying area than the astro-enclosure but my objections were met with a repetition of the statement that we would not be allowed to use the astro-enclosure as long as drone training was in progress.
This is a matter which will have to be discussed with Johan because the drone training is normally conducted during the working week so we don’t clash, but the night flying training was taking place over a weekend and a new moon weekend too. If the night flying training has to take place over a weekend than we can surely come to an agreement where they us one of the 40 weekends that are not on or close to one of the 12 new moon weekends, which is when we would like to have access to the astro-enclosure.
Anyway, there did not seem to be any wiggle room so we had to set up in the camp where there were only two other sets of non-stargazing campers and one set up on the hill at the camping site adjacent to the original fountain in the name Leeuwenboschfontein. There was still a bush up there but (un)fortunately no lion anymore.
Lynnette and I set up on the embankment next to the caravan where. Later in the evening we switched of the external lights at the ablution blocks but there was nothing we could do about the lights on the entrance road to the reception office and the guest houses. To top it all, the conventional incandescent globes had been replaced with new energy saving globes which were unfortunately much brighter than their incandescent predecessors.
The seeing was good and Lynnette and I spent most of the early part of the evening brushing up on our constellations and later switched to hunting for some deep-sky objects. Later on I decided to look for and photograph Comet 252P/Linear. Easier said than done because I had left my nice finder chart at home in Brackenfell. Lynnette, wanted to know where it was and I pointed in a general easterly direction and said, “Somewhere over there”. Her comment was, “Well why don’t you look over there then?” So I looked “over there” and, much to my surprise a very faint, vaguely greenish patch appeared in the finder scope. A quick look in the 25mm eyepiece to confirm and then switched to a 10mm eyepiece and, yes there it was. I let Lynnette look to confirm and then set up the camera on its tripod and took some photos. Mission accomplished and off to bed we went.
Somewhere in the course of the night we also had a visit from one of the drone trainees. It turned out that they had to do this course to qualify as drone pilots because they were going to use their drones for commercial gain. He personally had several drones, one of which set him back R80 000. The course set him back R40 000, but all this expenditure was worth it in view of the amount of money a qualified drone pilot could make.
Saturday was beautiful day despite some high level clouds that could not make up their minds if they were coming or going. We paid Iain, Willem and their two cats, Tiger and Aimee a visit. The cats had come along for the first time instead of going to the kennels. We did not take Snorre with us and it was just as well because poor Tiger was so nervous he hid under blankets and cushions. We had the opportunity to get a closer look at some of the drones. After the visit I set off down to the astro-enclosure by a very roundabout route so as not to be seen by either the drone trainees or their trainers. On the way there I came across a solitary male baboon, which is something we will have to reckon with if we leave equipment down there during the daytime. After taking my photos I sneaked back to the camp unobserved.
Late on Saturday afternoon Robert Bark with his wife, daughter and 8” Dobby moved into the caravan next to ours and shortly after that Louis Fourie arrived. Louis was not particularly pleased with the prospect of not being able to set up in the astro-enclosure, but decided to make the best of it and setup on the very last site at the western end of the campsite. Lynnette and I set up at the same spot as the previous evening and Robert set himself up right in the middle of the campsite, as we had once again switched off all the outside lights at the ablution blocks. Thanks to Lynnette I was able to take some good shots of the 3-day old moon setting behind the lapa on top of one of the peaks of the Nougat hills.
The seeing was not as good as the previous evening but improved steadily during the course of the night and by 03:00 it was very good again. Our drone trainee came back again and brought one of his fellow trainees along as well. They spent quite a while with us before heading off to bed as they had to do the final part of their flying test before six the next morning. After they departed Lynnette and I did some more constellation work and a little bit of observing before packing up and going to bed.
The next day, Sunday, we packed up at a leisurely pace and eventually left for home well after lunchtime and enjoyed an uneventful trip home.
I am always sorry to leave Leeuwenboschfontein but then there is also the pleasure of knowing that we will be back there at the next new moon.
On Wednesday the 09th we set off for Leeuwenboschfontein (visit their website to by clicking here) within minutes of our scheduled departure time. We were quite chuffed, as we do not often manage to meet our departure deadlines for trips like this. We stopped off at Die Veldskoen Padstal (visit their Facebook page by clicking here) about 4 km north of De Doorns for a light lunch, buying a few bottles of wine and a bag of fresh cherries. For good, friendly service and quality food, I can really recommend this place. We have been stopping off there since 2008 and not been disappointed once. At Leeuwenboschfontein we found that the permanent caravans had been nicely enclosed to afford privacy and protection against the wind which often becomes quite chilly in the evenings.
Willem and Iain were already camped on site, Alan and Rose arrived on Thursday and moved into the second permanent caravan, followed by Barry and Miemie who occupied Dalzicht guest house. Johan, Nellie, and Dominique moved into the third caravan on Friday and Auke, Chris, Lenelle and Susan, all camping, also arrived during the course of Friday. Joan, who runs the reception at Leeuwenboschfontein, was kind enough to lend us a deep freeze for the campers to use over the weekend, which was very useful.
Thursday evening everyone socialized at our caravan but the evening was also very good from an astronomy point of view with excellent seeing conditions. Rose and Lynnette went to bed shortly after midnight but Alan persevered until around 02:00. Barry also put in some time with the telescope and camera and, amongst other things produced a beautiful shot of the Tarantula Nebula (NGC 2070 or 30 Doradus). I was up until just before 06:00.
Friday evening saw more socializing in the late afternoon and early evening with the telescope work taking place later on and after midnight. The seeing was very good. Early on Auke and Barry remarked that one could walk away from the group around the fires and, without too much effort and hardly any dark adaptation, see 47 Tucanae (NGC 104), Omega Centauri (NGC 5139), the Jewel Box (NGC 4755), Eta Carinae, the Southern Pleiades (IC 2602) and the Andromeda Galaxy (M31/NGC 224).
Readings were taken with the Unihedron Sky Quality Meter (visit their website by clicking here to find out more) on the 09th, 10th & 11th and the average of 20 readings on each night was 21.70, 21.69 & 21.58 (Magnitudes per Square Arc-Second or MSAS) respectively. This converts NELM (Naked Eye Limiting Magnitude) values of 6.4816, 6.4772 & 6.4168. Using the Loss of the Night application and viewing 30 stars, at the same time as taking the Sky Quality readings, gave a limiting magnitude of >5 ± 0.1 on all three occasions.
On Saturday the weather closed in and light rain fell so observing was out as was the customary braai under the stars. Fortunately, Leeuwenboschfontein has a very nice enclosed central lapa for just such occasions. We spent a pleasant evening there, out of the wind and rain and warmed by the braai fires. Alan opened a bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate he and Rose’s wedding anniversary, which was the following day, so it really was a festive occasion. Later in the evening Snorre managed to attract a lot of attention by climbing a tree that proved difficult to get out of but, once everybody had stopped making a fuss, he did what cats normally do; climbed down on his own.
Sunday was overcast too, but most people had planned to leave on Sunday in any case. Chris left early, followed by Johan, Nellie and Dominique and then Lenelle and Susan. Alan and Rosemary left just after lunch and Auke, who had intended staying until Tuesday, also decided to leave because the weather forecast did not look promising, from an astronomical point of view, for the next two evenings. In any case, he had a pile of calendars to pack. Before Auke left we looked over the facilities being prepared in the large shed adjacent to De Oude Opstal guest house and they look very promising indeed. With only Willem, Iain, Lynnette, Snorre and I in the camp and Barry and Miemie in Dalzicht Leeuwenbosch was suddenly very quiet. On Monday Barry, Miemie and the Fosters packed up said goodbye to Joan and to Leeuwenboschfontein and left the camp to Iain and Willem.
We arrived home safely and started the dreaded unpacking and packing away to wrap up our final visit to Leeuwenboschfontein for 2015, but we will be back in 2016. We did not make use of the stargazing enclosure next to the runway this time because there were very few other people in the camp so we could control the lights. A problem with the water supply has also resulted in the grass dying inside the enclosure so it would have been very sandy and dusty in there. Johan snr has promised the grass will be back in 2016 and so will we, hopefully on a regular basis.
Most non-4×4 enthusiasts will probably be left wandering what they would do there. There is of course, fishing, hiking, cycling or just plain relaxing, reading a book or chatting around the braai fire and to that you can add taking a snooze in the shade of the magnificent willow trees in the camp site. If you stay in the guest house there is the pool and another one is under construction next to the camp site. Sports enthusiasts will undoubtedly enjoy the big screen in the converted barn, so there is something for everyone.
However, I thought it would be good thing to highlight some of the things that do not show up on either the website or the Facebook page, in brief photo-essay. You can also read about our recent trip to Leeuwenboschfontein if you go here. It is important not to go to Leeuwenboschfontein without you camera or your binoculars; you will be regret it if you do. So just browse through the photos that follow and read the captions as I have tried to put more information in there.
I trust you enjoyed this brief photographic visit to Leeuwenboschfontein and hope to see you there at some time and to have the opportunity to introduce you to the wonders of the night sky.
Leeuwenboschfontein visit: 09 October to 14 October 2015.
The main objective of the weekend was to try out the enclosure the owner of Leeuwenbosch, Johan Roux, had built for the use of astronomers visiting the farm. Barry Dumas had been there during the Solar eclipse in September and found it to be very satisfactory. We had invited the members of the Cape Centre as well as Auke, Martin, Leslie, Iain, Willem and Wendy along but only Leslie, Willem, Iain, Jennifer and Wendy could eventually make it.
Our trip got off to a good start in the sense that we did not spend the entire night packing, as we often do. We were also finished and ready to go about 20 minutes before our planned departure time of 10:00 on Friday. Then disaster struck because Snorre was nowhere to be found. So we waited and notified Joan at Leeuwenboschfontein and all other parties that we were delayed. We looked everywhere, then we looked everywhere for a second, third and eventually umpteenth time, but Snorre was missing and the clock was ticking. Should we leave without Snorre and let Lynnette’s sister, Petro, feed him until we returned after the weekend? Should we cancel the trip unload everything and continue searching for him? Should we unload all the perishables, put them back in the fridge and freezer and just wait until Snorre pitched up? We decided on the last course of action. So 12:00 came and went, followed by 13:00, 14:00 and 15:00 and with each passing hour the tension mounted. Finally at about 15:30 His Nibs, Woolly Britches appeared from heaven knows where, stretching and yawning as if nothing was wrong!
Action stations! Snorre was shoved, rather unceremoniously, into his carry cage to prevent him doing another duck and Lynnette and I got everything we had unloaded back into the Vito, phoned everyone to notify them that Snorre had been found and hit the road at 16:30; a mere six and a half hours late. By the time we exited the Huguenot tunnel Leslie was already at the first stop-and-go of the road works in the Hex River-valley. The rest of our trip went very smoothly and we arrived at Leeuwenboschfontein around 18:50 to find Leslie already set up. Jennifer, who had taken the scenic route via Robertson, Ashton, Montagu, the Keisie and the Koo to Leeuwenboschfontein, had also arrived and settled in. Iain and Willem were expected the following day on their way back from Victoria West and Wendy was only due to arrive on the Sunday.
We unpacked, had supper and set up as fast as we could. It was dark but lights from the two ablution blocks were a problem especially for Leslie’s astrophotography. As fast as Leslie switched them off somebody would switch them on again! We did not see our way open to driving down to the enclosed astronomy area about a kilometre away in the dark and, as there was no power down there, the move would have been entirely counterproductive for Leslie. One camping family came along to see what we were up to so I did a basic what’s up tonight with them. They were, however, such nice people that I really did not mind spending the time doing that. It was dark, very, very much darker than at any site in or near Cape Town, but the seeing was not very good because of the windy conditions and corresponding turbulence in the atmosphere.
By midnight I was having problems with dew despite the fact that the wind had freshened quite considerably so Lynnette and I decided to call it a night and go to bed, leaving Leslie to brave the elements. Before going to bed I took a set of dark sky readings and also used the new Loss of the Night application on my cell phone as a comparison.
On Saturday we had a cold, blustery wind that had developed during the early hours of the morning, and a sky full of large fluffy clouds. Poor Leslie had spent a miserably cold night on his stretcher and his set-up and camp had been so vandalized by the wind that he decided to pack it in and head back to Cape Town. No amount of persuasion, offers of more and warmer bedding or the lure of better conditions later in the weekend, could change his mind. He did agree to let me show him the astronomy enclosure but he wasn’t all that impressed because there was no power, so his equipment would not be able to function. Iain and Willem arrived later in the day and by then the wind had abated considerably and the clouds had become a lot smaller with much, much larger gaps between them too. By Saturday evening the wind had all but died down, but the wandering clouds made constructive observing very difficult even though we had eventually convinced the remaining campers that the lights in the ablution blocks did not have to be on continuously.
On Sunday the weather was much better and by the time Wendy arrived it was looking very promising for the evening’s observing. We decided to try out the observing enclosure and found, to our satisfaction, that the Guest Farm’s lights were only visible if one stood right up against the eastern wall and looked west. The 1,8 m vibracrete walls also provided ample protection from the wind. The headlights of cars passing on the road, about one km away did catch the top slabs of the western wall. Although night traffic is infrequent this problem will be discussed with the Johan Roux’s (snr. & jnr.). Despite the very dark skies the seeing was at best fair to good but not excellent or exceptional, probably due to instability in the upper atmosphere caused by the approaching front. Wendy, Iain and Willem left at about 23:00 and Lynnette and I packed up just after midnight, when the dew got the better of us. We left our telescope, well wrapped, to keep Wendy’s company for the rest of the night. Being able to leave ones equipment in safety is another advantage of having the enclosure.
Wendy headed home on Monday and as the camp was now empty, other than for Lynnette, myself, Ian and Willem we decided to observe from the camp as it would be possible to switch off all lights. When Lynnette and I went to fetch our telescope we found that the staff was applying liberal amounts of very smelly chicken manure to the grass in the enclosure in order to speed up its growth. Observing there would have been a very smelly activity. That evening Johan Roux (snr.) joined us for some star gazing. I was astounded when he admitted that he had never spent time outside at night to specifically look at the stars. He, on the other hand, was very surprised to see what a negative effect the exposed outside lights around the homestead and guest house had on ones night vision. We will in future be allowed to switch them off when doing stargazing at Leeuwenboschfontein. Shortly after Johan left us to go to bed a sheet of thin, high cloud rolled in and put an end to our stargazing. I got up after 01:00 to answer a call of nature and found that the clouds had departed, but I was too bloody lazy to get dressed and set up the telescope again.
On Tuesday the weather was beautiful but in the afternoon the clouds came in again and stayed. Lynnette and I decided to stick it out until Wednesday, hoping the weather would clear but it actually got worse and by 21:00 on Wednesday night it was raining steadily with some distant thunder as appropriate background music. We both had our doubts about getting the Vito through the few sticky patches on the gravel road between Leeuwenboschfontein and the R318 but it did not rain enough to adversely affect the road and by Thursday morning it was clearing nicely.
As a precautionary measure Mr Wanderlust was put into his harness and his leash tied to a pole where one of us could always keep an eye on him. While I went of to wash the breakfast dishes Snorre attempted to pull off one of his Houdini-style escapes from the harness but Lynnette was too quick for him, I then shoved him into his carry cage. Needless to say, Snorre was not a happy cat having his freedom of movement curtailed like that.
So, what are the prospects for Leeuwenboschfontein as a stargazing venue? I think it has definite potential and here is my list of positives, in no particular order.
The owners are very positive about hosting astronomers.
The average annual rainfall is much lower than that in and around Cape Town.
It is within easy driving distance of Cape Town.
There is fairly priced accommodation available for all tastes.
The availability of an astro-enclosure means that astronomy enthusiasts do not have to fight with campers about the lights in the camp or their smoky braai fires.
Astronomers will not be pestered by campers wanting to look through their telescopes or discuss astronomy down at the astro-enclosure. If anyone feels the need to do outreach they just have stay in the camp and they will be inundated.
We have the concession that the outside lights of the homestead and guest house can be switched off to further reduce any influence they might have on viewing from the enclosure.
Negative aspects are possibly the following:
The horizons are not ideally low in all directions but from the astro-enclosure they are more than acceptable.
For the astrophotographers the non-availability of power at the enclosure is a problem but, at least for the present, a large battery and an inverter will provide a solution.
Please go here to visit Leeuwenboschfontein’s website or you may view their Facebook page here.
In my opinion there is no other site that is safe, offers the same amenities and has the same astronomy potential within easy driving distance of Cape Town. Some amateur astronomers might have private access to comparable sites but, for the average amateur in Cape Town, I think Leeuwenboschfontein offers a viable solution to a long standing problem.
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 Padstaljust 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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
We left Brackenfell on Sunday morning of the 25th of May, under threatening clouds and elected to take the longer route over Du Toitskloof Pass instead of using the Huguenot Tunnel. Lynnette was driving. I was checking out the scenery and Snorre was spread out on my lap. We negotiated the N1 and the multiple traffic lights at Worcester successfully and stopped for coffee at the Veldskoen Padstal north of De Doorns. We were very glad to find that the service there was as friendly and efficient as we remembered it from past visits. Back on the N1 we drove past the R318 turnoff so that I could take photos of the new 50 Mw solar installation nearing completion east of the N1 a few kilometres past the abandoned 1948 tunnel attempt. I only hope the designers have done their homework, otherwise northbound motorists are going to see a very sharp reflection in the late afternoon at certain times of the year.
After taking the photos, we turned back to the R318 and continued on that until we reached the turnoff for the Nougaskloof road. The gravel road was not as good as we’ve seen it in the past, but neither was it bad, considering the fairly heavy rain in that area in the recent past. At Kopbeenskloof, our first surprise was the flock of Emus grazing in a field. The owner, Wouter Stemmet met us at the house and then accompanied us to the guest house, a kilometre or so further on. We quickly settled in at the refurbished farmhouse which has all the necessary amenities and nice clean linen. The house can sleep up to 10 people and has three bathrooms but I think eight would be a more comfortable number. There is a small sunroom with a Queen Anne stove that would make nice focal point in chilly weather and the large indoor braai area with its huge fireplace has a great deal of potential.
After settling in, we set up the telescope and got ready for an evening’s viewing. The area around the house is clear, but the lines of pine trees on two sides of the house are a problem. From the front of the house one has a clear view all the way from the west to the southeast but, to work the sky from the southeast to the southwest one would have to set up in the road beyond the trees; a distance of about 25 metres from the house. What really surprised us was the amount of sky glow in the clouds to the southwest. This light pollution problem probably has its origins in Worcester but is no doubt helped by the lights of De Doorns and the new sodium lights along the Hex Pass. The more distant lights of Paarl and Cape Town also make a contribution. The seeing was quite good, but the general conditions did not favour observing. It was never entirely overcast, but there were always stray clouds moving across the sky which made observation for any length of time in any part of the sky impossible. Monday night was a repeat of Sunday night as far as the clouds were concerned.
On Monday evening Snorre disappeared into the surrounding veld and failed to reappear. I eventually set off with a headlamp in search of him and finally found him about 40 metres away from the house eating a mouse. My attempts to take him home before he had finished his meal were met with growls and flattened ears, so I just hung around until he sat back and very smugly started washing his face.
On Tuesday morning 27 May, we drove a few kilometres down the Nougaskloof road in the direction of Touws River to Leeuwenboschfontein. The place was under new management and we wanted to see what had been changed and discuss various possibilities with the new owner’s son, Johan Roux. The changes are all very positive and Johan is also open to discussions about concessions should we wish to use the place for stargazing in the future. We had the pleasure of bumping into Iain Finlay and Willem van Zyl while at Leeuwenboschfontein, where they had taken up residence in Willow Cottage for the week. After the discussions with Johan and coffee and snacks with Iain and Willem, we drove back to Kopbeenskloof to make lunch.
On Tuesday afternoon Wouter and Elsabé Stemmet showed us around the chalets and their other facilities. The indoor facilities are clearly intended for handling large groups and a visit to their website gives one a good idea of what they can do by way of arranging functions. The facilities would certainly be more than adequate for talks and presentations at a Star Party. The 20 chalets are very basic and can sleep up to 12 people per chalet on bunk beds. One does not have to put 12 people into each chalet, as they charge per person and do not prescribe a minimum number of occupants per chalet. There are sufficient toilets and showers and the communal indoor cooking facilities are quite adequate. In clear weather the outside braai area would be nice, but there is also an indoor facility should the weather turn nasty. Wouter and Elsabé regularly handle large groups of learners from youth organizations and do not seem daunted at the prospect of serving three meals a day to 200 odd hungry children.
That evening the clouds once again put paid to any ideas we might have had of doing any observing, but this time it was seriously overcast. Not wishing to load the Vito in the rain, Lynnette and I got as much as possible loaded before we settled down in front of a nice fire. The toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches grilled over the coals were excellent. It started raining later that night and on Wednesday morning 28 May we left in light rain; the gravel road to the R318 was already quite muddy in places. At the R318 we turned left and headed for Montagu.
Down through the Koo and the Keisie and then through Montagu to Kati’s Wine Farm
It really is a delightful drive down Rooihoogte into the Koo and then down Burgers Pass into the Keisie. The scenery is magnificent and varies continuously as one drops from more than 1200 metres at the top of Rooihoogte to just over 500 metres at the lower end of Burgers Pass in the Keisie. In Montagu we stopped off to buy some of the famous Montagu Muscadel and then took Snorre to Dr Marina le Roux, the vet, for his check-up and inoculations. After that we had coffee and lunch and a long chat with Christine, who is no longer at Bergwater after the recent ownership changes there. Then we were off to meet Katica Palic at Kati’s Wine Farm between Robertson and Bonnievale. To be more exact, the place is almost on the dot six kilometres down the R317 after one exits the big traffic circle on your way out of Robertson on the way to Bonnievale. After being shown to our room and making sure Snorre was out of reach of the local canine, Biscuit, we went looking for Kati. Biscuit, by the way, is encouraged to see cats off the premises in the interest of the safety of Kati’s Amazon Green Parrot who is free on the back stoep.
Kati is Croatian but speaks fluent German and her English has a strong German flavour. Her son and daughter are in a local school and speak fluent Afrikaans and English and Kati speaks to them in German. Kati is a very energetic person and during the whirlwind tour of her premises, it soon became clear that she has lots of ideas for the place and the energy to make them work too. What surprised us most, was that she had identified a potential stargazing area. I say surprised, because when we checked it out later that evening and took a set of sky brightness readings, it turned out to have a lot of potential.
We had supper with the family and went to bed fairly early after taking the sky brightness readings. The next morning 29 May, after a delightful breakfast next to a blazing fire to keep the early morning chill at bay, we went off to Bonnievale to say hi to Inus and Elsophie van Staden who were day visitors at the previous Southern Star Party. Their son, also Inus, has resurrected an old telescope and is very keen that we should come back and show him the ropes. After coffee we went off to Parmalat’s cheese shop in Bonnievale and then headed back to Kati’s place where she had organized that I would give a talk on astronomy and, weather permitting, also do some stargazing with the 12-inch Dobby in her stargazing area. The show also inaugurated her very innovative sleeping dormitory in the old 18th century wine cellar. In attendance were the Tourism people from Robertson as well as the local press, her staff and other guests from as far afield as Montagu. The talk went well and the weather cleared sufficiently to give us time to do a quite a good astronomy show-and-tell-session.
The next morning 30 May we departed for the Night-Sky Caravan Farm. Lynnette pointed out earlier to me that I have been calling it a Caravan Park when it is actually a Caravan Farm. I shall mend my errant ways.
Night-Sky Caravan Farm
The Weather at Night-Sky was not good during our stay. By day we had such strong winds that it was quite unpleasant to be outside, but every evening the wind died down and by 19:00 it was almost completely wind free. The clouds were a different matter and I do not think we had more than two hours cloud free at stretch on any given night. In fact, two hours might be stretching it quite a bit.
On Saturday evening Wilhelm de Wet and his son Christian paid us a visit. Christian’s mother, Helena, phoned me after the previous Southern Star Party in March, expressing interest in Astronomy and asking that we get in touch when we were in the Bonnievale area again. We did that and the outcome was this visit. Christian is a very talkative and knowledgeable lad and we spent some time discussing what we could see and pointing out interesting features between the clouds before doing some telescope viewing of Saturn, the Jewel Box and various other well known objects, as allowed by the clouds.
Sunday, Monday and Tuesday were pretty much repeats of the other days, but each evening the clouds were a little more persistent and the wind a bit stronger during the day. Snorre decided that sleeping on a chair in front of the fire covered with his blanket in the evenings was the only place he wanted to be. Finally, on Wednesday, down came the rain, lots of it, and even though it looked as if it was clearing late in the afternoon, the showers persisted, interspersed with short periods of being able to see a few stars. Lynnette and I once again loaded as much of our gear as possible on Wednesday afternoon during a break in the weather so as to make life easier the next morning.
On Thursday morning 5 June, there were still intermittent showers of rain as we had expected but we managed to finish the loading in good time. We said our goodbyes to Gesina and then left for Montagu where we stopped off for a bottle of Red Jeripigo, before proceeding along the R318 via the Keisie and the Koo to the N1.
We were hoping there would be snow on the road between the Koo and the N1. Half way up Rooihoogte we pulled off because we thought Snorre needed a toilet stop. After walking round the Vito twice and inspecting the area in general he decided it was far too wet and way too cold, so we got back into the vehicle and set off again. At the top of Rooihoogte (1234 metres) the temperature had dropped to 2.5° Celsius but the only snow was far way on the high mountains to the west and south. There was even a light dusting of snow on the mountain behind Kopbeenskloof and also on the mountain to the west of Leeuwenboschfontein, but nothing closer. There were little bits in amongst the Renosterbos next to the road, but certainly nothing to get excited about. From the N1 we headed home down the N1, once again taking the scenic route over Du Toitskloof Pass instead of through the tunnel. Back home in Brackenfell we discovered that the hail that had fallen there earlier in the day and on the previous day, had knocked several holes in the roof of our car port and back stoep. The unloading was delayed several times by showers of rain, but eventually it was all done and Lynnette and I went off to the Old Oak Diner for a well-earned plate of fries and a vegetarian pizza. Back home we did some serious catching up on e-mails before bedtime.