Unihedron Sky Quality Meter, Error Identification and Elimination

Background

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.

  1. Experiment 1.

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.

  1. Results for Experiment 1.
The readings toward the east (E30°) and West (W30°) were consistently similar and both sets were slightly better (darker) than the zenith readings. The values toward the North (N30°) and south (S30°) were consistently less dark than the East & West readings with the N30° readings slightly better (darker) than the S30° ones. I have no explanation for the outlier in the S30°set.
The readings toward the east (E30°) and West (W30°) were consistently similar and both sets were slightly better (darker) than the zenith readings. The values toward the North (N30°) and south (S30°) were consistently less dark than the East & West readings with the N30° readings slightly better (darker) than the S30° ones. I have no explanation for the outlier in the S30°set.
The E30° readings were darker than either the 0° readings or the W30° ones. The W30° readings were marginally less dark than the 0° values. The values for N30° were quite close to the other values but not quite as dark and S30° was noticeably different and again the lowest (least dark) of the five sets.
The E30° readings were darker than either the 0° readings or the W30° ones. The W30° readings were marginally less dark than the 0° values. The values for N30° were quite close to the other values but not quite as dark and S30° was noticeably different and again the lowest (least dark) of the five sets.
The E60° readings were darker than either the 0° readings or the W60° ones and both sets were darker than the 0° values. The values for N60° and S60° were quite close to the other values but not quite as dark, however, all the different sets were much closer together than in Figures 1 and 2.
The E60° readings were darker than either the 0° readings or the W60° ones and both sets were darker than the 0° values. The values for N60° and S60° were quite close to the other values but not quite as dark, however, all the different sets were much closer together than in Figures 1 and 2.
The E30° readings were darker than either the 0° readings or the W30° ones. The W30° readings and the 0° values are very close to each other. The values for N30° and S30° were also quite close together but, in this case, the N30° values were marginally less dark than the S30° ones.
The E30° readings were darker than either the 0° readings or the W30° ones. The W30° readings and the 0° values are very close to each other. The values for N30° and S30° were also quite close together but, in this case, the N30° values were marginally less dark than the S30° ones.
The W60° readings were now the darkest ones followed by the E60° ones. The 0° readings and the S60° values are hardly distinguishable with the N60° values just slightly lighter.
The W60° readings were now the darkest ones followed by the E60° ones. The 0° readings and the S60° values are hardly distinguishable with the N60° values just slightly lighter.
Depiction of the % difference between zenith (0°) readings and other values.  Zenith values were taken as 100% so negative values indicate series of readings that were higher (darker) than zenith readings.
The depiction of the % difference between Zenith (0°) readings and other values. Zenith values were taken as 100% so negative values indicate series of readings that were higher (darker) than zenith readings.
  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).

  1. Future Planning.

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.

  1. Experiment 2.

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.

  1. Results for Experiment 2.
The two sets of south/north (S/N) -readings are consistently darker than the west/east (W/E) -readings. Despite the three outliers, the two sets of S/N-readings lie quite close together as do the two sets of W/E readings.
The two sets of south/north (S/N) -readings are consistently darker than the west/east (W/E) -readings. Despite the three outliers, the two sets of S/N-readings lie quite close together as do the two sets of W/E readings.
  1. 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.

  1. Future Planning.

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.

Leeuwenboschfontein, only a pleasure to visit. – 20 October 2015.

Leeuwenboschfontein, health only a pleasure to visit. – 20 October 2015.

Leeuwenboschfontein Guest Farm is situated in the far eastern section of the Little Karoo and their website, which can be visited here, gives a comprehensive overview of all the activities on offer. A visit to their Facebook page, which can be found here, gives more information and a host of informative pictures.

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.

Top Left: As kids we used to lie on our backs watching the clouds and trying to see patterns and shapes Top right: The Earth’s shadow in the east as the sun sets. At sunrise this shadow will be in the west. Bottom Left: Sunset and the shadows lengthen down the Nougaskloof valley. Bottom Right: The setting sun colours the clouds various shades of pink and orange and all of this is reflected in the dam.
Top Left: As kids we used to lie on our backs watching the clouds and trying to see patterns and shapes. Top right: The Earth’s shadow in the east as the sun sets. At sunrise this shadow will be in the west. Bottom Left: Sunset and the shadows lengthen down the Nougaskloof valley. Bottom Right: The setting sun colours the clouds various shades of pink and orange and all of this is reflected in the dam.
Top Left: This Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) shuttles between the various dams on the farm and is the Grim Reaper personified for the frogs. Here there is a preening session in progress after the flight from another dam. Top Middle: The preening stops suddenly when something draws his attention. Top right: Neck outstretched to get a closer look and just before pouncing. Bottom Left: Got it! And when the frog kept on wriggling the heron simply pounded it against the side of the bout until it succumbed. Bottom Middle: Now the patient wait for the next careless frog. Bottom Right: The same Heron the next day and I wondered how many frogs had gone down that slender neck since I last saw him.
Top Left: This Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) shuttles between the various dams on the farm and is the Grim Reaper personified for the frogs. Here there is a preening session in progress after the flight from another dam. Top Middle: The preening stops suddenly when something draws his attention. Top right: Neck outstretched to get a closer look just before pouncing. Bottom Left: Got it! And when the frog kept on wriggling the heron simply pounded it against the side of the bout until it succumbed. Bottom Middle: Now the patient wait for the next careless frog. Bottom Right: The same Heron the next day and I wondered how many frogs had gone down that slender neck since I last saw him.
Top Left: A male Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus) with a piece of bread that I thought was way too large to swallow but he managed it. Top Middle: A female Masked Weaver much less striking than the male. Top right: The male in a pose that can only be described as cocky! Middle: The weaver birds are very industrious and also quite entertaining. This male Masked Weaver and three females are polishing some crumbs we put out. Bottom Left: When viewed from a little closer the female does have some colour variation and patterning but it is the males that stand out. Bottom Middle: This Cape Bunting (Emberiza capensis) was much more sedate but did not let himself be put off in the least by the slightly larger and more numerous weavers. Bottom Right: A rear view of the bunting and he really is a very dapper little bird.
Top Left: A male Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus) with a piece of bread that I thought was way too large to swallow but he managed it. Top Middle: A female Masked Weaver much less striking than the male. Top right: The male in a pose that can only be described as cocky! Middle: The weaver birds are very industrious and also quite entertaining. This male Masked Weaver and three females are polishing some crumbs we put out. Bottom Left: When viewed from a little closer the female does have some colour variation and patterning but it is the males that stand out. Bottom Middle: This Cape Bunting (Emberiza capensis) was much more sedate but did not let himself be put off in the least by the slightly larger and more numerous weavers. Bottom Right: A rear view of the bunting and he really is a very dapper little bird.
Top Left to Top Right: A male Cape Weaver (Ploceus capensis) in various poses and he did not seem in the least put out by the presence of the masked weaver. Middle: The male Cape Weaver and three females but I cannot accurately distinguish between the females of the Cape and the masked weavers. Bottom Left and Bottom Middle: I couldn’t resist two more shots of this very confident an alert little fellow. Bottom Right: More female weavers, but once again I am at a loss to accurately distinguish between the two species.
Top Left to Top Right: A male Cape Weaver (Ploceus capensis) in various poses and he did not seem in the least put out by the presence of the masked weaver. Middle: The male Cape Weaver and three females but I cannot accurately distinguish between the females of the Cape and the masked weavers. Bottom Left and Bottom Middle: I couldn’t resist two more shots of this very confident an alert little fellow. Bottom Right: More female weavers, but once again I am at a loss to accurately distinguish between the two species.
Top Left: This chap visited us at breakfast time and is a member of the Gnaphosidae family of arachnids, commonly known as spiders. I think it belongs in the genus Zelotes and is Zelotes fuligineus. They are non-venomous ground dwelling spiders that do not spin webs as such but at best silk sack. Top Middle: This was a bit of a surprise, the track of a Cape Clawless Otter (Aonyx capensis) I found one set of tracks in soft mud and another in older hardened mud. Top Right: Although spring, the traditional flower time for the Karoo, is over and summer is advancing at a pace the fairly good late rains have extended the flowering period of many of the plants. Unlike Namaqualand and most of the Northern Cape, you have to get out and walk to appreciate the flowers. Especially the geophytes (bulbous plants) are well hidden until you almost fall over them but the effort is really well worth your while. This is Felicia filifolia commonly known as Draaibossie still making a nice show. Middle: This is the sort of tranquil setting one finds at Leeuwenbosch. This one is taken across the dam in the centre of the camp site looking westward at sunset. Bottom Left: A section of the geological map covering the Leeuwenboschfontein area. The age of the rocks spans a period of just over 100 million years and is all marine sediment laid down in a body of water known as the Agulhas Sea. There should be marine fossils if one looks carefully and possibly fish and plant remains in the higher slopes toward the tops of the peaks. Bottom Middle: The rock here is about 400 million years old but the white veins of quartz intruding into it are much younger and could be around 180 million years old or even slightly younger. Bottom Right: Young geology and one can clearly see the different composition of the semi-horizontal layers. The pebble laden sections indicate high volume flow and the sections in between slower, sediment laden flow. This material is thousands and not millions of years old.
Top Left: This chap visited us at breakfast time and is a member of the Gnaphosidae family of arachnids, commonly known as spiders. I think it belongs in the genus Zelotes and is Zelotes fuligineus. They are non-venomous ground dwelling spiders that do not spin webs as such but at best silk sack. Top Middle: This was a bit of a surprise, the track of a Cape Clawless Otter (Aonyx capensis) I found one set of tracks in soft mud and another in older hardened mud. Top Right: Although spring, the traditional flower time for the Karoo, is over and summer is advancing at a pace the fairly good late rains have extended the flowering period of many of the plants. Unlike Namaqualand and most of the Northern Cape, you have to get out and walk to appreciate the flowers. Especially the geophytes (bulbous plants) are well hidden until you almost fall over them but the effort is really well worth your while. This is Felicia filifolia commonly known as Draaibossie still making a nice show. Middle: This is the sort of tranquil setting one finds at Leeuwenbosch. This one is taken across the dam in the centre of the camp site looking westward at sunset. Bottom Left: A section of the geological map covering the Leeuwenboschfontein area. The age of the rocks spans a period of just over 100 million years and is all marine sediment laid down in a body of water known as the Agulhas Sea. There should be marine fossils if one looks carefully and possibly fish and plant remains in the higher slopes toward the tops of the peaks. Bottom Middle: The rock here is about 400 million years old but the white veins of quartz intruding into it are much younger and could be around 180 million years old or even slightly younger. Bottom Right: Young geology and one can clearly see the different composition of the semi-horizontal layers. The pebble laden sections indicate high volume flow and the sections in between slower, sediment laden flow. This material is thousands and not millions of years old.
Top: This is a photograph of the sky in the vicinity of the Large Magellanic cloud. The lighter misty patch at rust left of centre to the left is the Large Magellanic Cloud. Bottom: This is time lapse taken of the area just to the left of the South Celestial pole. The apparent tracks the stars make which seem to indicate movement are actually tracks caused by the Earth rotating and, of course, us with it.
Top: This is a photograph of the sky in the vicinity of the Large Magellanic cloud. The lighter misty patch at rust left of centre to the left is the Large Magellanic Cloud. Bottom: This is time lapse taken of the area just to the left of the South Celestial pole. The apparent tracks the stars make which seem to indicate movement are actually tracks caused by the Earth rotating and, of course, us with it.

 

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.

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.

Top Left: Brackenfell Boulevard just as the dreaded 5-O'clock traffic was starting to build up. Top Right: Finally on the N1 and headed North. Bottom Left : Today we are in a hurry so we go under the mountain and not over it. Bottom Right: The Huguenot Tunnel and just visible on the left the entrance to the spare tunnel which SANRAL claims they have, in 20 years not had the cash to develop.
Top Left: Brackenfell Boulevard just as the dreaded 5-O’clock traffic was starting to build up. Top Right: Finally on the N1 and headed North. Bottom Left: Today we are in a hurry so we go under the mountain and not over it. Bottom Right: The Huguenot Tunnel and just visible on the left the entrance to the spare tunnel which SANRAL claims they have, in 20 years not had the cash to develop.
Top Left: Not even properly summer yet and we have the first veld fire in Du Toit's Kloof. Top Right: Into the Brede River Vally with mountains behind Worcester full of shadows in the late afternoon sunlight. Bottom Left: Worcester straight ahead just below the mountains. Bottom Right: Beautiful sandstone cliffs of the Hex River Mountains west of De Doorns.
Top Left: Not even properly summer yet and we have the first veld fire in the northern section of Du Toit’s Kloof pass. Top Right: Into the Breede River Valley with the mountains behind Worcester full of shadows in the late afternoon sunlight. Bottom Left: Worcester straight ahead just below the mountains. Bottom Right: Beautiful sandstone cliffs in the Hex River Mountains west of De Doorns.
Top Left: The southern end of the Hex River Valley looking toward Orchard and Sandhills. Top Right: At last we leave the N1 and now it is another 25 km on the R318 and then about 12 km on gravel to our destination. Bottom Left: Almost at the turnoff and then it is 12 km on gravel down the Nougaskloof to Leeuwenboschfontein. Bottom Right: Nougaspoort is the narrow entrance to Nougaskloof, just in case you were wondering.
Top Left: The southern end of the Hex River Valley looking toward Orchard and Sandhills. Top Right: At last we leave the N1 and now it is another 25 km on the R318 and then about 12 km on gravel to our destination. Bottom Left: Almost at the turnoff and then it is 12 km on gravel down the Nougaskloof to Leeuwenboschfontein. Bottom Right: Nougaspoort is the narrow entrance to Nougaskloof, just in case you were wondering.

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.

The large Magellanic Cloud taken from the campsite at Leeuwenboschfontein. Camera: NIKON D5100 Lense: AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1,8G ISO 400 10s - f/1.8 Tripod mounted
The large Magellanic Cloud taken from the campsite at Leeuwenboschfontein. Camera: NIKON D5100 Lens: AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1,8G ISO 400 & 10s – f/1.8 – Tripod mounted

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.

There are lots of birds (both in numbers and species) insects, and there are still plenty of flowers in the veld due to the good rains that fell during the winter.
There are lots of birds (both in numbers and species) insects, and there are still plenty of flowers in the veld due to the good rains that fell during the winter.

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.

Top Left: Lots of interesting cloud patterns. Top Right: Beautiful Earth shadow and Girdle of Venus. Bottom Left: Nice sunset (looking east though) with my shadow in the bottom left hand corner. Bottom Right: Sunset looking across the dam and the camp site.
Top Left: Lots of interesting cloud patterns. Top Right: Beautiful Earth shadow and Girdle of Venus. Bottom Left: Nice sunset (looking east though) with my shadow in the bottom right hand corner. Bottom Right: Sunset looking across the dam and the camp site.

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.

Top Left: View from inside the astro-compound looking south. Top Right: View from inside the astro-compound looking west. The door in the corner is the entrance. Bottom Left: View from inside the astro-compound looking west. Bottom Right: View from inside the astro-compound looking east. The door in the corner is the loo and the red windsock just visible behind the door measures gives an indication of the wind speed.
Top Left: View from inside the astro-compound looking south. Top Right: View from inside the astro-compound looking west. The door in the corner is the entrance. Bottom Left: View from inside the astro-compound looking west. Bottom Right: View from inside the astro-compound looking east. The door in the corner is the loo and the red windsock just visible behind the door gives an indication of the wind direction and speed.
Top: A view of the astro-compound from the outside looking south and standing on the airstrip. Bottom: the team applying chicken manure to the grass inside and preparing the area around the compound for planting aloes and other indigenous flowering plants.
Top: A view of the astro-compound from the outside looking south while standing on the airstrip. Bottom: The work detail applying chicken manure to the grass inside and preparing the area around the compound for planting aloes and other indigenous flowering plants.

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.

No I am not going to a fancy dress party as a medieval knight. This is my latest discovery, an electric head warmer. Apparently Leslie also uses it as a Dewzapper.
No I am not going to a fancy dress party as a medieval knight. This is my latest discovery, an electric head warmer. Apparently Leslie also uses it as a Dewzapper on his telescope.

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.

Snorre, alias Mr, Walkabout and aka The Purring Houdini.
Snorre, alias Mr, Walkabout and aka The Purring Houdini.

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.

Standing in the centre of the campsite I attempted to construct a panoramic view of the site. West is almost dead centre in this view.
Standing in the centre of the campsite I attempted to construct a panoramic view of the site. West is almost dead centre in this view.

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.

  1. The owners are very positive about hosting astronomers.
  2. The average annual rainfall is much lower than that in and around Cape Town.
  3. It is within easy driving distance of Cape Town.
  4. There is fairly priced accommodation available for all tastes.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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:

  1. The horizons are not ideally low in all directions but from the astro-enclosure they are more than acceptable.
  2. 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.

Top Left: Back on the R318 heading west to the N1. Top Right: Passing what used to be Matroosberg Station. Bottom Left: The N1 and we go left. In the background some of the buildings of what used to be Bergplaas, then became Karoo 1 and now goes by the name of Karoo Hotel Village. Bottom Right: The ship and its lone sailor on the Eastern slopes of the Matroosberg that, according to some, gave the mountain its name.
Top Left: Back on the R318 heading west to the N1. Top Right: Passing what used to be Matroosberg Station. Bottom Left: The N1 and we go left. In the background some of the buildings of what used to be Bergplaas, then became Karoo 1 and now goes by the name of Karoo Hotel Village. Bottom Right: The ship and its lone sailor on the Eastern slopes of the Matroosberg that, according to some, gave the mountain its name.
Top Left: A view of the Hex River Valley from the Hex River Pass at its northern end. The arrow marks the entrance to one of the railway tunnels in the pass. Top Right: Exiting the Hex River Valley with Snorre navigating. Bottom Left: Approaching Worcester from the north-east. Bottom Right: Into Du Toit's Kloof Pass heading south.
Top Left: A view of the Hex River Valley from the Hex River Pass at its northern end. The arrow marks the entrance to one of the railway tunnels in the pass. Top Right: Exiting the Hex River Valley with Snorre navigating. Bottom Left: Approaching Worcester from the north-east. Bottom Right: Into Du Toit’s Kloof Pass heading south.
Top Left: The northern entrance of the Huguenot Tunnel and the arrow marks the spare tunnel wich was dug at the same time as the one in use now. Top Right: Out of the tunnel and heading toward the toll gates. Bottom Left: Past Paarl and Klapmuts we get our first clear view of Table Mountain. Bottom Right: About to leave the N1 and then it is just a short drive home and after coffee the dreaded unpacking and putting away.
Top Left: The northern entrance of the Huguenot Tunnel and the arrow marks the spare tunnel which was dug at the same time as the one in use now. Top Right: Out of the tunnel and heading toward the toll gates. Bottom Left: Past Paarl and Klapmuts we get our first clear view of Table Mountain.
Bottom Right: About to leave the N1 and then it is just a short drive home and after coffee, the dreaded unpacking and putting away.

 

Evaluation of a potential stargazing site near Montagu: December 2014

Bon Solitaire, a potential stargazing site near Montagu (33° 49’ 04”S 20° 12’ 44”E & 276 m)

How to get there is important so let’s start with the instructions. Once in Montagu one leaves the town on the road to Barrydale. At 0,4 km outside Montagu one crosses a bridge and 0,67 km after the bridge there is a turnoff to the left. One of the names on the various signposts at the turnoff is for Talana. Turn left here and follow the road. Stay on the tar and do not turn off. About 5 km after the turnoff it becomes a gravel road and 2 km after that there is a very short tarred section and the guest house is on your left. From Brackenfell to there is about 170 km.

The place is run by Christine’s daughter Ruzanne and her husband Raoul, but Christine does most of the day to day management. The accommodation is good and could at a push sleep six if there were children in the group but four adults would be comfortable in the two double beds. The bathroom is small but modern. There is a wide wooden deck, of which one half is roofed, and it has a convenient braai. There is also an inside braai for those chilly days and the less hardy souls. Braai wood can be purchased from the adjacent farm. The cottage has a fridge/freezer, a microwave, a two plate cooker/oven-combination and all crockery and cutlery. Bedding is supplied but no towels. The mobile reception is very unreliable. During the fruit season one can buy fruit from the surrounding farms.  Lynnette and I bought 10 kg of apricots from Flip and Christine Haasbroek of Lank-Gewag Boerdery just across the road from the cottage. Price for the cottage is available on request from Ruzanne. I almost forgot to say there is a television as well.

Vie from the deck in front of the cottage to the East
Looking east from the deck in front of the cottage.  There is a drop of about one metre to get to the ground and the Beefwood trees on the right also limit viewing from here. To get a telescope out into the open area will be quite an exercise
Looking south-southeast from the deck. The Beefwoods on the left are again a problem for viewing in that direction
Looking south-southeast from the deck. The Beefwoods on the left are again a problem for viewing in that direction
Looking almost directly west from the deck.  The open area is a good viewing area although the cottage blocks ones view to the north
Looking almost directly west from the deck. The open area is a good viewing area although the cottage blocks ones view to the north
A panoramic view from the garden to the west of the cottage.
A panoramic view from the garden to the west of the cottage.
Up the steps to the cottage. the incline is fairly steep.
Up the steps to the cottage. The incline is fairly steep. As mentioned one half of the deck is roofed and the other not. The outside braai is visible to the left of the steps.  In this view one is looking north
We bought apricots from this friendly couple just across the road from the cottage
We bought apricots from this friendly couple just across the road from the cottage
The Mountains to the east bordering the northern side of the road which leads to the Poortjieskloof Dam are quite spectacular when seen close up
The Mountains to the east bordering the northern side of the road which leads to the Poortjieskloof Dam are quite spectacular when seen close up. Can you see the mountain retreat somebody has built up there?
This is my idea of a mountain retreat.
This is my idea of a mountain retreat.
The outside braai and the coals are just right
The outside braai and the coals are just right
Braai is going and supper is almost ready!
Braai is going and supper is almost ready!

Covered parking for two vehicles is available just inside the main entrance, adjacent to the main dwelling. From there access to the cottage is via a well-kept, enclosed lawn and garden, with a salt water swimming pool. The garden and pool are for the use of the cottage occupants. Be forewarned that you have to carry everything from the car to the cottage through the garden and back again so a small trolley will be a great help.

A composite of the inside of the cottage
A composite of the inside of the cottage.  Inside bedroom double bed, Inside bedroom sleeper couch, Outside bedroom beds, Inside braai, microwave & hotplate/oven, Kitchen, Bathroom, Entrance off deck, Roofed area of the deck, Outside braai & open area of the deck

As far as astronomy is concerned Raoul, Ruzanne and Christine are very accommodating and switch off all outside lights as well as all inside lights facing the cottage. The garden between the house and the cottage is a safe area but the horizons are quite high from there. One could also put a telescope on the uncovered section of the deck which improves the south eastern to south-western horizons. One could also put a telescope in the open area on the eastern side of the house but, given the logistics of carrying the equipment there I would use the lawn. On our visit the clouds moved in after sunset and it was eventually completely overcast on Sunday evening in a repeat of the conditions at Kopbeenskloof. Monday evening was better and we set up the telescope in the driveway next to the main house and the cars. The area is not level but certainly workable as one has a paved surface underfoot. Seeing was reasonable given the presence of high level clouds that eventually took over after 23:00. The area is definitely dark except for two security lights in adjacent farms but it is possible to position the telescopes so that these are not in one’s direct line of sight. The dark sky readings 21,06 MSAS (average of ten readings, std. dev. of 0,030984) and 21,03 MSAS (average of ten readings, std. dev. of 0,026854) (MSAS = Magnitudes per Square Arcsecond). and all clouds had reassuring black undersides.

On a completely different note I noted that there is the start of a cactus infestation and this is something which is quite widespread throughout the Karoo areas of South Africa. These plants were imported and used as garden and ornamental plants but once they escape into the veld they become a problem and there is unfortunately the start of such an infestation in the kloof adjacent to the cottage. Go here to read more about cactus infestation by this specific plant.

A cactus plant in the garden and I think this is Cereus jamacaru
A cactus plant in the garden and I think this is Cereus jamacaru
Here plants in the veld in a kloof adjacent to the cottage can be seen
Here plants in the veld in a kloof adjacent to the cottage can be seen

I think the cottage is quite suitable for astronomy provided one does not want to work too close to the horizons, especially to the north and east. Astrophotographers wanting to cover selected objects in the open areas should be quite happy here. I think the cottage has a lot of potential for astronomers who want to take their partners or families along. As a general breakaway for a small group or for a family I think it is an excellent base given the close proximity of Montagu and Barrydale. Ruzanne’s telephone number is 072 177 3013 and is best used during office hours, given the unreliable nature of the mobile service in the area. Her e-mail address is ruzannebeetge@gmail.com.

Sunset over the Langeberg Mountains to the west
Sunset over the Langeberg Mountains to the west. The pool, covered parking and main house are clearly visible at the end of the garden

Spring Southern Star Party: 21st to 23rd November 2014

Spring Southern Star Party in November 2014 at Night Sky Caravan Farm

Lynnette, Snorre and I arrived on Monday the 17th after a visit to Snorre’s Vet in Montagu. We suspected that his testicles were growing back and Dr Pritchard, although skeptical, agreed to examine him and, in the unlikely event of a regrowth, he would remove them free of charge. They hadn’t, he didn’t, and we departed mildly embarrassed at our ignorance, but quite relieved to have been wrong. At Night Sky we settled in but found to our dismay that the gas water heater in our house was malfunctioning. Gesina de Wet, the owner of Night Sky Caravan Farm, was not home as she was lending a hand with an ill grandchild in Cape Town, so she had to deal with the problem by remote control through a repair man in Ashton. The mobile reception at Night Sky is notoriously unreliable, which made solving the problem even more difficult, but eventually everything was sorted out, thank you Gesina for your efforts.

Contolled chaos as we pack before the SSP
Controlled chaos as we pack for the SSP
Before we leave there is stuff everywhere and it looks as if we will never finish in time
Before we leave there is stuff everywhere and it looks as if we will never finish on time
Everything has to be supervised, and checked
Everything has to be supervised, and checked by Snorre
The main loading area and now the Vito and trailer look as if they will be too small for the mountain of stuff
The main loading area and now the Vito and trailer look as if they will be too small for the mountain of stuff

Monday night was bright and almost cloudless so we got in some astronomy and on Tuesday Anneliese from Bonnievale Verhurings arrived to put up the marquee. The apparent ease with which she and her two assistants (one male and one female) put up a 12 x 7 metre tent is a joy to behold. As soon as she left, Lynnette and I started organizing things on the inside but, at that point, Marinda and her team arrived to mow the grass. We had quite a job convincing them that they could not mow inside the tent and neither was it necessary to mow under the ropes between the tent and the tent pegs. After the cacophony of two stroke lawnmower engines had subsided and the dust had settled, Lynnette and I finished most of the work in the marquee. On Tuesday night we had rain which put paid to any astronomical aspirations we might have had. The rest of the work in the tent we finished on Wednesday morning.

Monday evening's sunset
Monday evening’s sunset
Tuesday morning sunrise with the waning crescent Moon
Tuesday morning sunrise with the waning crescent Moon

Alan and Rose arrived around mid-afternoon on Wednesday and Alan produced his innovative pegs to mark out and rope off the telescope area, thanks Alan. Alan also brought along insulation material which we wrapped around the urn and fixed in place with cable ties. I suspect this must have reduced the amount of electricity the urn uses by about 50%, thanks again Alan. Last time around Alan produced the two lights we use at the coffee table, so I wonder what sort of rabbit he is going to produce in February. There are actually a number of persons and organizations that have contributed to or assisted with the SSP in some way or other over the past three years and you can read more about them here.

Arranging the tables and chairs in the marquee
Arranging the tables and chairs in the marquee
The screen is up and we are almost ready to go
The screen is up and we are almost ready to go
The SSP banner is in place and all we need now is the people
The SSP banner is in place and the Sale Table is ready for the Sky Guides and Auke’s fantastic Astronomy Calender, so all we need now is the people
The Coffee Table with the overflow from the Sale Table and the urn sporting its insulating jacket, thanks to Alan
The Coffee Table with the overflow from the Sale Table and the urn sporting its insulating jacket, thanks to Alan

Wednesday evening was mostly cloudy so, once again, no astronomy. Iain and Willem arrived on Thursday and set up camp close to their usual spot and Thursday evening produced more scattered clouds so astronomy again took a back seat. By mid-morning on Friday the rest of the troops started to arrive with Deon and Ronelle Begemann leading the charge followed by Johan Uys.

The telescope area properly marked out, thanks to Alan and also well signposted
The telescope area properly marked out, thanks to Alan and also well signposted
The marquee seen from the telescope area displaying the SKA-banner
The marquee seen from the telescope area displaying the SKA-banner
The entrance to the marquee dispalying a welcoming sign for Kos, just in case he pitched up unexpectedly
The entrance to the marquee dispalying a welcoming sign for Kos, just in case he pitched up unexpectedly
For the hopefulls we added fine print to the sigh.  One attendee actually pointed out to us that it was illegal to advertise something you did not have!
For the hopefulls we added fine print to the sigh. One attendee actually pointed out to us that it was illegal to advertise something you did not have!
The camp slowly fills up
The camp slowly fills up

The “locals” who attended were Ross Bauer & Elmare Cross, Ray Brederode, Charl & Yolande Cater, Dwayne Engelbrecht, Jackie Halford, Eduard & Erika Hoffman, Sebastian Guile, Lia Labuschagne, Jennifer Lamberth, Paul Nicolaides & Rhiannon Thomas and Alex & Louka Nicolaides, Robin Köhler & Dianne Nxumalo-Köhler, Suann & Aidan Smith and Gerhard Vermeulen.

The SSP “regulars”, Alan & Rose Cassells, Ludwig Churr & Sandy Struckmeyer, Brett du Preez, Iain Finlay, Wim Filmalter, Evan Knox-Davies, Paul Kruger, Leslie Rose, and Willem van Zyl.

People who came from a good deal further away than usual to attend the SSP were Deon & Ronelle Begemann – Stillbaai, Kobus Hoffman from Missouri – that’s right, the one in the USA, Rudi Lombard & Miemie Kock from Klerksdorp, Bastian Paetzold & Salika Rafiq all the way from London, Johan Uys & Anita Hechter from Klein Brak, Thinus van der Merwe from Bloemfontein (Boyden).

Much to our dismay, one group brought their dog. For future reference please note that Gesina does not allow dogs at Night Sky. She is not anti-dog as she owns several, but she is definitely anti-dog-poop, which she has to pick up in the camp after the dogs and their owners have gone home. Take note that Gesina has, in the past, sent people with dogs packing and we would like to prevent this happening to SSP attendees.

Friday evening’s braai went of very well and Auke’s What’s-Up-Tonight was, as usual, informative, thorough and humorous. After Auke’s tour of the night sky Lynnette and I took the newcomers/beginners to one side and talked them through some basic astronomy and also used Lorenzo to show them some of the well-known objects in the night sky. The heavy dew put an end to many of the viewing efforts.

Ray Brederode’s SSP ended almost before it started.  He had hardly set up and introduced himself to fellow astrophotographic enthusiast, Leslie Rose, when he received an emergency call from his wife, Jo.  Their cat had suffered a serious injury and she and their two children were traumatized by the incident.  Ray immediately packed up and headed home to be with his family. We subsequently heard from Ray that they are supporting each other to handle the unfortunate episode.

Alan and Rose in the foreground, well organized as usual
Alan and Rose in the foreground, well organized as usual
Ludwig and Sandy share a quiet moment at the braai
Ludwig and Sandy share a quiet moment at the braai
the fires are going, the coals are ready and some of the braaiers are at their posts
The fires are going, the coals are ready and Thinus and Dwayne are in action
This might be Evan's version of the Haka, we will have to ask him.
This might be Evan’s version of the Haka, we will have to ask him.  Paul, Suann and Rhiannon don’t seem too impressed anyway, probably staunch Bok supporters
Edward, Auke and Evan.  Is this part of a dustbin dance?
Edward, Auke and Evan. Is this part of a dustbin dance?

Lynnette and I are both very security conscious and, when we went to bed, Auke was still out and about. We completely forgot that he was sharing the house with us and apparently locked both doors. When Auke eventually came to bed he could not get in despite what he calls concerted and forceful attempts. He eventually gave up and slept in his car. Now you are probably wondering why he did not bang on our window until we woke up and let him in?  Because he is and officer and a gentleman and considerate and self-sacrificing to boot, so he would rather inconvenience himself than wake us up; at least that is what I like to believe.

On Saturday morning we kicked off with the newcomers/beginners at the astronomically unacceptable time of 08:30. During this session we handed out Southern Star Wheels, a set of Discover star charts and a set of Auke’s ConCards and demonstrated how to use them. We also discussed light pollution, dark adaption, the use and purchase of binoculars and telescopes as well as naked eye viewing. After breaking for coffee it was time to welcome everyone formally and start the official programme.

The newcomers in the marquee on Saturday morning
The newcomers in the marquee on Saturday morning.  Is Erika throwing her hands up in despair?
Edward encouraging the newcomers to become enthusiastic amateur astronomers
Edward encouraging the newcomers to become enthusiastic amateur astronomers.  Snorre’s slightly pulled back ears denote skepticism.

Between the coffee break and the lunch time braai Thinus van der Merwe (ASSA Bloemfontein) told us all about “Amateur Astronomy at Boyden Observatory” and then Charl Cater (UCT) introduced us to “Real backyard science – amateur spectroscopy”.

After Charl’s talk it was time to braai and then we set about dealing with rest of the program and Brett du Preez a SSP regular and an astrophotographer of merit, shared his latest adventure with us “Making a solar/lunar telescope”. Edward Foster, standing in for Johan Uys who had to withdraw at short notice, explained “Why the Western Cape isn’t all nice and flat”.

Lia, who attended the handing over of the telescope by UCT to the Hermanus Centre in the morning was led astray by a malfunctioning GPS on the way to Night Sky. To prevent the programme getting completely out of line, we unfortunately had to skip her talk and ask Auke to move the Pub Quiz forward. Lia’s interesting talk, The fascinating moons of the Solar System will have to wait a while.

The Pub Quiz was in a new format with loads of interesting questions, thanks to all Aukes’s hard work. After a long and grueling contest the winner of the famous Floating Rosette was Yolande Cater who now joins the illustrious past winners of this prestigious prize, (Pierre de Villiers , Evan Knox-Davies (2x), John Richards (2x))

The group photo of the attendees at the eighth Southern Star party in November 2014 ant Night Sky Caravan Farm
The group photo of the attendees at the eighth Southern Star party in November 2014 ant Night Sky Caravan Farm

Once the excitement of the Pub Quiz had died down we could tuck into the cake Gesina had baked to mark the eighth time the SSP had been held. The cake was beautifully done in white and blue icing with blue stars and served up with a glass of the dessert wine for which the area is rightly famous.

The cake Gesina baked for the SSP's eighth birthday
The cake Gesina baked for the SSP’s eighth birthday

After supper I took any interested beginners/newcomers and ran them through the use of star charts to find objects in the sky. We used naked-eye observations, binoculars and the ever faithful Lorenzo when we wanted a closer look at specific objects. The clouds started coming over around 23:00 and eventually put a stop to everyone’s observing efforts. We went to bed but apparently some interesting discussions continued in the marquee and this time we also took great care not to lock the doors. I was not going to stretch my luck or Auke’s patience more than absolutely necessary.

On Sunday morning Wim left around 06:00 and by 09:30 many others were also ready to leave. After all the farewells had been said only Lynnette and I, Alan and Rose, Iain and Willem and Lea were left. We were all staying on in the hope of being able to do some astronomy.

On Sunday morning Alan also handed over the model of the shuttle that he built for us from a standard kit. One needs to see all the modifications and additions he made to believe it. Over and above the extremely high quality of workmanship the value added to the model by his ingenuity is quite breath-taking.

Alan and the Shuttle model - a work of art.
Alan and the Shuttle model – a work of art.
This was a standard, of the shelf model and it is now a souped up Alan Cassels special.  Thanks Alan.
This was a standard, of the shelf model and it is now a souped up Alan Cassels special. Thanks Alan.

Our hopes of being able to do some astronomy during the next couple of nights were scuttled by the weather which was cloudy on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights.

Lia left around midday on Monday as she had other appointments and on Tuesday Anneliese and her team arrived to take down the marquee. Shortly after she and her team had left we spotted water seeping from an area where we had driven in one of Alan’s pegs to mark of the telescope area. You can read more about the hunt for the illusive leak if you go here.

The rest of us packed up on Wednesday while a north-westerly breeze was slowly building up to a mini gale. The wind, in fact, almost blew Alan’s caravan apart near Worcester forcing them to continue home at a snail’s pace. He and Rose only got home around 19:00 that evening and Alan has a lot of work to do on the caravan before the next SSP.

More pictures of the SSP can be found on the SSP website at this web page.

Kopbeenskloof – May 2014

Exploring the Astronomy Potential at Kopbeenskloof

This report is a bit late.  I thought I had written it and obviously I hadn’t so now I have to write it and look as sheepish as possible about the fact that it’s so late.

In May Lynnette and I went of to investigate a place we’d had our eye ever since we’d visited Leeuwenboschfontein a few kilometres further down the road in 2012. Other than the ominous sounding name it has the added attraction of being situated at over 1200 m above sea level and that, makes it one of the highest farms in the Western Cape Province.  For the astronomers who also hike or walk during daytime, there are lots of trails and hikes and the farm is also ecologically interesting as it straddles the transition from typical Renosterveld to the Cape Mountain Fynbos.

The farm is run by Wouter and Elsabé Stemmet and regularly hosts groups of up to 200 from various youth organizations such as the Voortrekkers and Land Care & Land Services. These groups make use of a number of very basic wooden chalets containing only bunk beds. For the chalets there are adequate ablution facilities and a large, well equipped kitchen as well as an outside braai area. Wouter and Elsabé also cater for large functions and large groups, if asked to do so.

View of the one group of chalets
View of the one group of chalets
View of one of the second group of chalets
View of one of the second group of chalets
The very nice outside braai area for the chalets
The very nice outside braai area for the chalets
Part of the interesting inside braai area
Part of the interesting inside braai area

A separate camping area for tents and caravans that has its own ablution facilities is also available.

There is a rustic cottage for four that has no electricity and one heats the shower water by making a fire, situated about 200 m from the main house and the chalets.

The guest house, that could sleep nine in three en-suite bedrooms with double beds and three single beds in open areas, is situated about two km away from the main house and the chalets. The house has a kitchen with a stove, microwave and fridge and also has a large inside fireplace suitable for having a braai, should the weather turn nasty. All bedding and towels are supplied and further details can be found on their website if you go here.  One last thing is that mobile phone reception is limited to one spot in the garden of the main house and I do not know if one can get a signal for all three service providers there.

To get there one takes the R318 from the N1 and, after 26 km you turn left onto the Nougaspoort gravel road. After six km the turnoff to Kopbeenskloof is on your right and then you just follow the road to the main farm house, the chalets and the rustic cottage, or go past the house, keeping to the left and after two gates, you will be at the guest house.

The reason we went there was to try and evaluate Kopbeenskloof for future astronomy outings.  It might work for a Star Party but the chalets are very basic and the area around the chalets does not really lend itself to placing telescopes and I can also see the astrophotography people experiencing problems with power. I  think the chalets and the camping are too far apart to allow the groups to interact easily. I would, however, not rule the site out for Star Parties, as one could possibly overcome some of the perceived difficulties by negotiating with Wouter and Elsabé.

The rustic cottage could work for a small group with Dobbies, or even equipment that will run off batteries, which I am sure the owners would be more than happy to allow one to re-charge the next day.

The outside amenities at the guest house. Fortunately no longer  in use but the pines on the left lie to the south of the house and those in the background are to the west
The outside amenities at the guest house. Fortunately no longer in use but the pines on the left lie to the south of the house and those in the background are to the west
The back of the guest house as seen from the south east.  The pines to the west of the house can be seen in the background
The back of the guest house as seen from the south east. The pines to the west of the house can be seen in the background
This is Leeuwenboschfontein's "Eagles Nest"  to the North west of Kopbeenskloof. Where I intend spending a clear night with a telescope  some time in 2015.  Line of site distance from the guest house to there is about 10 km.
This is Leeuwenboschfontein’s “Eagles Nest” to the north west of Kopbeenskloof, where Lynnette and I intend spending a clear night with a telescope some time in 2015. Line of site distance from the guest house to there is about 10 km.

The guest house is a suitable site for doing astronomy and astrophotography but obviously only for small groups. There are some limitations as the house has tall pine trees on both the western and southern sides. The trees are about 25 m from the house but the area other side the trees is open so one can put a telescope there. The areas north and east of the house are open but the house then creates a high horizon to either the south or the west. The site is dark but unfortunately when we were there the weather was not good and we had partially cloudy weather on the first two nights and complete overcast on the third night. One aspect of the site that needs mentioning is the very noticeable sky glow from Worcester if there is even the slightest hint of cloud along the western horizon.

Sunset was quite spectacular and here one gets a good idea of how low the horizon on that side is
Sunset was quite spectacular and here one gets a good idea of how low the horizon on that side is
More sunset a little later on
More sunset a little later on
A single shot up at Scorpio
A single shot up at Scorpio
The sky glow from Worcester and De Doorns reflected against the low clouds
The sky glow from Worcester and De Doorns reflected against the low clouds at around 21:30
Venus and the moon in the dawn sky
Venus and the Moon in the dawn sky
Moon and Earth shine before dawn
Moon and Earth shine before dawn

Here are my Sky Quality Meter readings taken at the guest house on Kopbeenskloof.

Place: Kopbeenskloof Guesthouse
Locality & GPS: -33°35’53”, 19°57’27”, 1250m

Date: 26/05/2014
Time (SAST): 00:10
Temp (°C): 11.00
Comments: (Z)
Average (10) (MSAS): 21.21
StdDev (MSAS): 0.034705
NELM (V mags): 6.2298

Date: 26/05/2014
Time (SAST): 00:50
Temp (°C): 11.00
Comments: (Z)
Average (10) (MSAS): 21.17
StdDev (MSAS): 0.013333
NELM (V mags): 6.2102

Date: 27/05/2014
Time (SAST): 23:20
Temp (°C): 08.00
Comments: (Z)
Average (10) (MSAS): 21.37
StdDev (MSAS): 0.051034
NELM (V mags): 6.3152

Date: 27/05/2014
Time (SAST): 23:50
Temp (°C): 08.00
Comments: (Z)
Average (10) (MSAS): 21.42
StdDev (MSAS): 0.008498
NELM (V mags): 6.3408

I think one needs to get a group together, stay at the guest house, do some astronomy there and then take a decision on how suitable the site is. A summer visit might be our best bet.

A Winter Exploration

Brackenfell to Kopbeenskloof

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.

View down the valley from a vantage point in the Hex Pass
View down the valley from a vantage point in the Hex Pass
The solar farm north of De Doorns which is currently nearing completion
The solar farm north of De Doorns which is currently nearing completion
A closer look at some of the panels in the section closer to the N1.
A closer look at some of the panels in the section closer to the N1.

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.

The signboard announcing the turnoff to Kopbeenskloof
The signboard announcing the turnoff to Kopbeenskloof
A representative from Down-Under gave us a disapproving stare.
A representative from Down-Under gave us a disapproving stare.
Snorre cleaning up after the long trip
Snorre cleaning up after the long trip
The infamous "long drop" fortunately no longer in use
The infamous “long drop” fortunately no longer in use
The trusty Vito parked in front of the guest house
The trusty Vito parked in front of the guest house with Lynnette relaxing on the stoep

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.

The sunset was magnificent
The sunset was magnificent
The sunset just kept on getting better
The sunset just kept on getting better
..... and better
….. and better
The sky-glow to the southwest
The sky-glow to the southwest
I am not asleep, just resting my eyes for some serious observing later on
I am not asleep, just resting my eyes for some serious observing later on

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.

Early morning view down the Nougaskloof on the way to Leeuwenboschfontein
Early morning view down the Nougaskloof on the way to Leeuwenboschfontein
The Vito at the entrance to Leeuwenboschfontein
The Vito at the entrance to Leeuwenboschfontein
A view from above down on the Leeuwenboschfontein campsite and guesthouses
A view from above down on the Leeuwenboschfontein campsite and guesthouses
Venus and the the waning crescent moon hidden behind the clouds
Venus and the the waning crescent moon hidden behind the clouds
The moon looking decidedly jaundice as it slipped out from behind the clouds
The moon looking decidedly jaundice as it slipped out from behind the clouds
The bird in the picture is not perched on the distant mountain top
The bird in the picture, for those of you who may be wondering about it, is not perched on the distant mountain top

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.

The outside braai-area at Kopbeenskloof
The outside braai-area at Kopbeenskloof
A section of the inside braai- and entertainment-area at Kopbeenskloof
A section of the inside braai- and entertainment-area at Kopbeenskloof
Some of the chalets at Kopbeenskloof
Some of the chalets at Kopbeenskloof

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.

The entrance to Kati's place on the R317
The entrance to Kati’s place on the R317
From left to right, the Vito, Biscuit, Lynnette, Kati and the reception office
From left to right, the Vito, Biscuit, Lynnette, Kati and the reception office

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 18th century barn Kati has converted into a dormitory type sleeping area
The 18th century barn Kati has converted into a dormitory type sleeping area

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.

You put what on my catnip!
Yech! You put what on my catnip?
We did actually get the telescope out and try to do some observing
We did actually get the telescope out and try to do some observing

 

Snorre in his capacity as observing supervisor
Snorre in his capacity as observing supervisor

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.

We had beautiful sunrises over the dam
We had beautiful sunrises over the dam
The reward for getting up early
The reward for getting up early
Snorre, believed that if he waited long enough they would come back to him
Snorre, believed that if he waited long enough they would come back to him where he was crouched behind the reeds
No stars but, as I said, the sunrises were fantastic
No stars but, as I said, the sunrises were fantastic
We did manage to get a look at the new moon too
We did manage to get a look at the new moon too

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.

The road to Stormsvlei in a different light
The road to Stormsvlei in a different light
The rain just kept on falling staedily
The rain just kept on falling steadily
What cats should do when it rains - wrap up and go to sleep in front of the fire
What cats should do when it rains – wrap up and go to sleep in front of the fire

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.

How many safety and traffic infringements are being committed here?  There are two other people in that tangle of vine stumps by the way
How many safety and traffic infringements are being committed here? There are two other people in that tangle of vine stumps by the way

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.

The mountain west of Leeuwenboschfontein with a light covering of snow.
The mountain west of Leeuwenboschfontein with a light covering of snow.
Behind Kopbeenskloof the mountains also had a dusting of snow
Behind Kopbeenskloof the mountains also had a dusting of snow
Matroosberg hiding behind a veil of cloud had snow as well
Matroosberg hiding behind a veil of cloud had snow as well
The Brandwag mountains north of Worcester also had snow
The Brandwag mountains north of Worcester also had snow
Du Toitskloof was quite spectacualr even if there wasn't all that much snow on the mountains themselves
Du Toitskloof was quite spectacualr even if there wasn’t all that much snow on the mountains themselves

DarkSky Weekend at Bergwater Lodge, Pietersfontein, Montagu

DarkSky Weekend at Bergwater Lodge, Pietersfontein, Montagu:  26th February to 02nd March 2014

26th of February
Lynnette, Snorre the cat and I left home in the Vito on Wednesday the 26th of February hoping to get in at least one extra night’s observing at Bergwater Lodge. On the way there we stopped off at the Pitkos Farm Stall to buy ripe figs and at Pinto’s Butchery in in Paul Kruger Street in Robertson to buy cheese grillers.  In Montagu we stopped off at Marina le Roux the vet’s surgery for Snorre’s annual check-up, which he passed with flying colours and then on to Bergwater.  It was hot when we left home and even hotter when we arrived at Bergwater Lodge.  After unloading and storing everything away we relaxed and waited to see what the weather would do in the evening.  The weather turned out to be superb for stargazing, crystal clear and the upper atmosphere nice and stable.  At 02:00 the average of 20 sky brightness readings, taken with a Sky Quality meter, was 21,6395 magnitudes per square arcsecond (MPSAS) which translates to a naked eye limiting magnitude (NELM) of  6,4544 V mags. By 04:00 we were falling over our own feet so we packed it in and went to bed.

27th of February
On Thursday Jannie and Eddie Nijeboer, who are old hands at Bergwater, arrived during the course of the afternoon and settled in.  Thursday evening started out very nicely and then, shortly after 22:00 the clouds moved in.  By 01:00 it was completely overcast and we decided it was not going to clear so we all went off to bed.

28th of February
Friday dawned bright and clear but day still ended up being very hot.  The rest of the group slowly trickled in. Wendy Cooper (Secretary of the South Peninsula Astronomy Club) arrived in good time followed by a first timer at Bergwater, John Richards (a long standing member of the Cape Centre), Ralph and Sheila Baker (novice stargazers and guests of Jannie and Eddy) also arrived with daylight to spare.  The rest, Martin Coetzee (Orion Observation Group), Lia Labuschagne, (Chair of ASSA’s (Astronomical Society of Southern Africa) Cape Center), Wendy Vermeulen (Cape Center member) and Brett du Preez (astrophotographer of considerable repute –  see the cover of the 2014 SkyGuide), all arrived after dark.

Lia and Wendy, in keeping with the well-established tradition at Bergwater, went sightseeing after dark up to Doringkloof.  We did not know about their intention to recce the area so Martin kindly drove me back to the R318 to try and contact them but without any success.  We returned to Bergwater hoping they were not in trouble and were quite relieved when they arrived shortly afterwards.

Auke Slotegraaf could not make it due to family complications and was missed by all.  Henry Oliver, Jaco Wiese and Raoul Schwenke, were due to arrive on the Saturday as Henry still had teaching commitments in Wellington.

Friday night started out with some instability in the upper air but that improved as the night progressed.  By midnight conditions were really good.  At around 04:00 on Saturday morning I managed, much to Brett’s amusement, to identify the rising Venus as a plane with its landing lights on or, alternatively, as a possible Alien UFO!  At 01:00 the average of 30 sky brightness readings was 21,7023 MPSAS which translates to a NELM of  6,4851 V mags. The serious observers got to bed well after 04:00 so none of them were about much before 11:00 on Saturday.

DSC_5873_Bergwater_01Mrt2014_Venus
Venus when I first spotted it and thought up all the fancifull explanations about what it was and was not
DSC_5887_Bergwater_01Mrt2014_Venus
Venus a short while later after the penny had dropped

1st of March
Saturday was another scorcher but after rising fairly late many of the group members took the opportunity to cool off in the swimming pool.  Brett set up his binoculars with solar filters so that everyone could look at the sunspots during the course of the day.  With Brett’s help I also managed to take a more or less reasonable photograph of the Sun later in the afternoon.

DSC_5910_Bergwater_01Mrt2014_Dagaktiwiteite
Martin and Sheila digging into some watermelon to combat the heat
DSC_5909
Brett, Martin & Eddy taking it easy in the shade

 

DSC_5908
This is not Eddies midday snooze he is looking at the sunspots through Brett’s binoculars equipped with sunfilters

 

DSC_5905
Sundry telescopes and Auke’s impressive banner depicting the Universe in six informative panels
DSC_5904
Where have all the people gone, gone to cooler spots every one ….
DSC_5903
Martin taking up position for a sunspot viewing session while Brett, Eddy, Jannie & Sheila look on. In the background is a glimpse of the magnificent scenery at the Bergwater Lodge
DSC_5900
Martin heading for the shade and Brett at the binoculars. The high level clouds in the background eventually went away
DSC_5917_Bergwater_01Mrt2014_Son
My image of the Sun. Thanks Brett.

By the time it was completely dark Henry, Jaco and Raoul had not turned up and it later materialized that Jaco’s wife Jacoleen, who is pregnant, had been admitted to an ICU for observation. The rest of the night was perfect for viewing.  Brett eventually sorted out the problem with his equipment – a too long connection cable.  As he did not have a shorter cable there, he did the next best thing and switched to binocular observation, as he had done on the previous evening.  At 11:00 the average of 30 sky brightness readings was 21,5970 MPSAS which translates to a NELM of  6,4333 V mags.  Lynnette and I only got to bed well after 04:00.

Telescope activities
An animated GIF depicting some of the action around the telescopes at night

2nd of March
At around 05:00 on Sunday morning the power went off, not only at the Lodge, but in the entire valley.  Apparently ESKOM was carrying out scheduled maintenance but somehow the Lodge had not been notified.  This caused special problems at the Lodge because it put the pumps that supply the Lodge with water out of action which meant that, when the toilets had been used once, the cisterns did not refill.  The power only came back on after 17:00 that afternoon.

The power outage and associated water problem meant that nobody could prepare breakfast so most people left earlier than usual to have breakfast in Montagu or Robertson.  Lynnette and I relaxed for the rest of the day and made our preparations for the guests we expected for the stargazing event on Sunday evening.