Auke arranged the Stargazing for MENSA with Yvonne, the Winelands Mensan-In-Chief. He had already presented talks to them on two previous occasions but roped Lynnette and I in for this event because more people were expected and it made sense to have more telescopes available.
The show was to take place at Stellenzicht Winery and the weather did not look good as lots of clouds and even rain was forecast. When we arrived there were lots of clouds spilling over the Helderberg, Haelkop and Stellenbosch Mountain and being driven along by a fairly strong and decidedly chilly southerly wind. We had decided to opt for the two Celestron telescopes “Little Martin” and the “One armed Bandit” partially for space reasons in the cars with the Vito temporarily out of commission and partially to benefit from their automatic finding and tracking ability. I found that in the very windy conditions Lorenzo the 10” Dobsonian would have been a more stable option.
As soon as it was reasonably dark I gave a short talk and a brief what’s up before we got round to showing various objects and talking. The tall oaks to the east kept the moon out of sight till almost closing time which was a pity because the light spill from the winery lights reduced the number of objects we could realistically see quite drastically.
The evening was a reasonable success and thanks go to Yvonne for organising the evening and also for the hospitality and the red wine to keep the chill away. We did not have rain as predicted and the clouds were confined to the mountains and their immediate surroundings but we certainly had wind in abundance. Better luck next time.
Like in 2014 we were booked to do the Blaauwklippen Christmas Market again in 2015 (go here to read more about Blaauwklippen Wine Estate), but, unlike last year’s one night stand, 2015 was to be three consecutive nights. The weather forecast looked good and they proved to be correct too.
Star People spent three very pleasant and busy evenings there with solar viewing from 16:30 till sunset and from 18:00 till 22:00 the almost first quarter moon provided many people with a first time peek through a telescope. We had our Old Faithful, Lorenzo, there as usual and Auke set up Evan’s demo radio telescope as well. Jonathan brought along his refractor on the first evening. Lorenzo was operated, as usual by Lynnette, with Auke also doing several stints. Wendy and Rose each had an 8” Dobby there and Alan, not to be outgunned, set up his 12” Dobby. Dirk set up his 127 mm MAK, (F = 1500 mm) but was plagued by technical problems so he never really got into the swing of things. We had a surprise visit from Brett and Tammy too which was very nice.
This was also the maiden voyage of my Celestron 102 mm (F660 mm) refractor with the Samsung CCTV camera and the Martin Lyons modification. Although I didn’t actually project the image but only had it on the small screen attached to the telescope, it worked quite well. The system does not like wind, as the slightest breeze gave the Moon a serious case of the shivers. This is actually not the refractor’s first public outing but it is the first successful one. There was a previous outing at the Helderberg Nature Reserve, but that was a total disaster due to an electrical problem.
Anyway it was a lot of fun and we met lots of interesting people and some very nice ones too. Here are some of the images taken over the course of the three evenings.
Mad Dogs and Amateur Astronomers go out in the midday sun (apologies to Noël Coward)
Astronomy outreach during the daytime and in summer is not for the fainthearted or those who forget to apply their sunblock as Star People, being Auke, Lynnette and myself were about to discover at the Root44 Market, on the Audacia Wine Estate on Saturday the 17th, Sunday the 18th and Saturday the 24th of January. On the first Saturday we were very ably supported by Wendy Vermeulen and Brett du Preez who’s innovative solar telescope was also pressed into service. Permission to be there was negotiated by Auke with Surea and Megan and on the individual days JJ and Jason were available for all manner of practical assistance. The wine estate is situated on the R44 between Stellenbsch and Somerset West right next to the equally well known Mooiberge farm stall and strawberry farm with its huge collection of imaginative scarecrows.
The Root44 Market is the venue for the Root44 parkrun every Saturday morning when hundreds of serious and also not so serious runners and walkers descend on the venue to participate in the weekly, timed excursion through the vineyards. Some progress at the highest speed they can manage while others are merely intent on finishing the 5 km and soaking up the beauty of their surroundings. However, it is also the venue of choice for hundreds of folk who want to spend a Saturday or Sunday with good food and wine, relaxing music and the convivial company of good friends in the sort of tranquil surroundings which only the Winelands of the Western Cape can offer.
We were there to generate an interest in Astronomy and especially in space related activities and research. To do this we employed a wide selection of informative posters, and Lorenzo, the 10-inch Dobsonian, equipped with the appropriate Solar filter to show guests the Sun and the rather meager harvest of sunspots. On the second Saturday we even managed to show people the rather pale pre-first quarter moon. We talked to lots of interesting people and also met many astronomically enthusiastic persons as well.
One gentleman turned out to be the estate manager for the Earl of Rosse’s estate in Ireland where Birr castle is situated and where William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, built his gigantic Newtonian telescope between 1842 and 1845. Called the Leviathan of Parsonstown it had a 1,8 m speculum mirror with a focal length of 16 m. In 1994 a retired structural engineer and amateur astronomer Michael Tubridy was asked to resurrect the Leviathan of Parsonstown. The original plans had disappeared so intense detective work was called for to achieve his goal. Reconstruction lasted from early 1996 to early 1997 and a new aluminium mirror was installed in 1999.
Our poster display was quite impressive and most visitors found it very informative as well. In fact many of the interesting discussions originated around one or more of these posters. Some visitors started a discussion at one poster and then continued on to a second and third poster, eventually departing after more than an hour of questions and answers; heavy stuff!
However, the Sun took its toll and by closing time on the second Saturday we were done, well done. It did not take a long discussion to decide that we were just not up to another day in the Sun. Auke made the appropriate apologies to Surea and Megan and we spent the Sunday recuperating. All things being equal it is much easier to battle the mozzies and their biting cronies at night than to take on the Sun for seven hours or more.
Lynnette and I arrived at 15:30 as arranged. The scene outside the entrance was quite chaotic. There were cars everywhere with drivers vying for very limited parking space in front of the gates so they could commence unloading, officials waving their arms and gesticulating as they tried to maintain a semblance of order and control and eager assistants with trolleys darting in and out among the cars with loads of stuff which disappeared up the incline in the direction of the actual market. We found a spot to park the Vito and I ventured up the incline to see how we could get to our designated area.
Once inside one was almost overwhelmed by the colourful gazebos and variety of displayed goods, not to mention the people scurrying around as they carried, packed, fetched and arranged in preparation for the expected hordes of customers. In the meantime Auke and Wendy had arrived and managed to squeeze their vehicles into the same area where Lynette had parked the Vito and we could start transferring stuff from the vehicles to our spot. The spot was very nice and shady with lots of tables, but the shade was not going to make viewing either the Sun or the first quarter Moon easy.
After getting the banners and posters up and arranging things on the table, I set up Lorenzo, equipped with a sun filter and Wendy found a spot to set up her eight inch Dobby to view the Moon.. Auke and Lynnette began sending prospective viewers in our direction and the afternoon’s fun could get underway.
Shortly after 18:30 we had to move both telescopes as we were losing the competition with the trees. The new spot was chosen to give us a last glimpse of the Sun and continued Moon viewing as well as an uninterrupted view toward the west and south, but the clouds had other ideas. The Moon was fine for the rest of the evening but the high level clouds were just opaque enough to obscure the stars which were already having a tough time competing with the light pollution. So Wendy and I both concentrated on the Moon. She used a 25mm eyepiece on her Dobby which showed the whole Moon very nicely, and I beefed up the magnification by combining a 32mm eyepiece with a 3xBarlow. The higher magnification necessitated more pushing, pulling and shoving to keep Lorenzo on target, but the “Oohs” and “Aahs” from almost every viewer, both young and old, made the extra effort worthwhile.
Auke started packing away when he saw the other stalls begin to break down while we continued showing the Moon for a while and by the time we had stowed the telescopes Auke and Lynnette had already made major inroads into rolling up the banners and taking down the posters. By this time the stall area was all but deserted and the last of the vehicles were queuing up to load. Our nice parking spot now showed its dark side because our exit was cut off by the guys loading their stuff and we had to wait a while before we could head into Stellenbosch for a well-earned cup of coffee (or two, or three). Thanks Auke! May the fleas of a thousand camels infest the loins of the person who stole our door magnet and just for good measure also those of their present family and the next ten generations too.
What did we learn from the evening?
The venue was quite spectacular, but not really suited for deploying telescopes and the question arises should we skip venues like this or do them for the exposure we and astronomy get? The exhibition tables were fine and it is just a pity we didn’t know beforehand we were going to get tables. We made good use of them and the stand made a good showing. Because we were off to one side and the whole area was very congested, we were not really all that visible unless people specifically came down to that end to sit down and eat. This must have had a negative impact on the number of visitors we attracted.
The Sun is quite boring and less spectacular than most people expect it to be, when viewed through a telescope equipped with the appropriate filter. The pale circle just does not measure up to the spectacular satellite images that are freely available in print and on the electronic media. The relative size of the Sun compared to the Earth and the size comparison between the Earth, Jupiter and the sunspots does elicit a “Wow” from many viewers and the idea that space is only 100 km away causes some viewers to raise an eyebrow. Generally though, the Sun through a telescope does not measure up to people’s expectations.
The Moon on the other hand, always manages to steal the show. The combination of one telescope at a higher magnification than the other was quite successful. It is a pity that we were unable to show anything other than the Sun and the Moon, but that’s the way the astronomy cookie often crumbles.
The usual logistical problems popped up again. Getting everyone to sign the visitor’s book is almost impossible and some people even flatly refuse, because they suspect some dark and devious dealings. The system we used in Clanwilliam where one person simply walked down the line of waiting viewers and got them to sign before they reached the telescope worked quite well, but it ties up and additional person. The telescope operator could also have a clipboard and insist that viewers sign before they look through the telescope, but this requires enough light at the telescope so that people can see where to write.
We still do not know how to deal effectively with the genuinely interested or just plain talkative viewer at the telescope. We want people to be interested, but if you have a queue of people waiting to look through the telescope and one person totally appropriates the operator, everything comes to a standstill, people actually get fed-up and leave if they have to wait too long. Not talking to an interested person and answering their questions is bad for business, but then so is having people leave the queue if they have to wait too long. This total appropriation also happens to the presenters doing duty at the exhibition tables and it really is a difficult call to make as to when to break off a conversation in the interest of serving other members of the public.
I think the evening was a success and I think the exposure we got was reasonable. The venue was great and it is a pity we weren’t advertised more aggressively.
Field trip with Dr Juri van den Heever and the honours students from the Department of Botany & Zoology at the University of Stellenbosch. 17 – 22 March 2014
This is a diary of the six day event with lots of pictures to illustrate the text. I must first give some background about the tour and its origins to put all readers in the picture. Juri van den Heever, the architect of the tour, moved from the South African Museum to the Department of Zoology at Stellenbosch in 1987. In 1988 he took the first of these tours as part of the Honours course and has been taking them ever since. I had been with the Department of Biochemistry at Stellenbosch University since 1985 and, as Juri and I had been at school together, we were able to renew our friendship when he came to Stellenbosch. This led to him asking me if I would like to participate in the tours and fill in on the Biochemistry of plants as well as some other aspects. The tour provides the students with information on Geology, Vertebrate anatomy, Palaeontology, Plants and plant usage, Insects, Birds, Ecology of the areas visited, History, Culture, Geography, Astronomy and, last but not least, the opportunity to participate in discussions on science in general and the philosophy of science and being a scientist.
So, from around 1994 or so, we have been in this together, although I skipped one or two due to pressure of work at Biochemistry or some other immovable commitment. Over the years we have also taken members of the public, high school learners and fellow colleagues at the University on these tours, whenever there have been seats open in the vehicles. These “outsiders” have very often made valuable contributions to the range and depth of the topics touched on during the tour. One interesting feature of these trips over the years has been the large number of our University colleagues who have annually committed themselves very enthusiastically to participate in the next trip only to pull out at the last minute. This year we had 14 students from the Department of Botany and Zoology and one member of the public, Peter Müller, a retired Wood Technologist.
Monday 17th March
Just after 06:30 on Monday the 17th of March, Lynnette dropped me off at the University’s vehicle park where Juri was already inspecting the two Toyotas and completing the paperwork. We hooked on the two trailers and shortly before 07:00 we were parked outside the Department and the students could begin to load their gear, the supplies and other equipment for the week. Shortly after 07:00 Juri gave the first briefing and then we embarked and headed out of Stellenbosch toward the West Coast Fossil Park near Langebaanweg. Our route took us through Malmesbury, which has a tepid, sulphur chloride spring that once attracted many ailing Capetonians to a Sanatorium that was built there. A shopping centre now covers the site.
After turning off the N7 onto the R45, our route took us across the undulating hills of weathered Malmesbury shale that form the wheat fields of the Swartland (Black Land), These were once covered in Renosterbos (Elytropappus rhinocerotis), which is the signature plant on weathered shale and mudstone throughout our area. Its dark colouring, when seen from a distance, was probably the origin of the name Swartland. Once past the Moorreesburg turnoff, the countryside gradually changed to alluvial sand covered in restios interspersed with small and medium sized shrubs. Just after the small settlement of Koperfontein we passed the brand new 66 MW Hopefield wind farm owned by Umoya Energy. The farm became operational in February 2014 and develops sufficient energy to power 70 000 low-income homes or 29 000 medium-income homes, when the wind blows. Go here to read a short article on this wind farm.
The R45 bypasses the town of Hopefield, a fact which has turned the town into a virtual ghost town. Between Hopefield and the Air Force Base at Langebaanweg, the markers of the pipeline bringing water to the West Coast from Voëlvlei dam can be seen at intervals on one’s right and, shortly after Langebaanweg, we turned off the R45 into the Park. The Park was originally a Chemfos phosphate mine, but after the closure of the mine in 1993, it was declared a National Monument Site in 1996. The Park, now covering about 700ha, was officially launched in 1998. It is currently under the control of the Iziko Museums of Cape Town, and is managed by Pippa Haarhoff. It has recently been declared a National Heritage Site. The following site gives more information on the Park. The fossils date back about 5.2 million years to the late Miocene/early Pliocene era. Go here for more information on this exceptional area. After some refreshments at the visitors centre we got back into the vehicles and followed the guide, Wendy Wentzel, down to the dig site.
The dig site is in the old ‘E’ Quarry area and displays an astounding array of fossils. Wendy ran us through an informative description of the various animals found at the site, the conditions thought to have existed when the animals died and the methods used to uncover the fossils. The majority of the bones visible seem to be those of the short-necked giraffe or Sivathere but there is evidence of wales, seals, various elephants and different sabre toothed cats as well. The only bear south of the Sahara was also found at the Park in the smaller dig site adjacent to the larger one visited by the general public. Shark teeth found here are evidence for the existence of a behemoth that would have dwarfed the infamous cinematic Jaws. After the talk we moved outside to the sorting trays where everyone had a go at finding the fossil remains of the smaller animals such as mice, frogs and moles. Then back to the vehicles to return to the visitors centre for a quick bite to eat, something to drink and a visit to the essential amenities before departing on the next leg of our journey.
We retraced or route past Hopefield and shortly after Koperfontein we turned left to Moorreesburg. On that stretch of road we had an excellent view of the ancient termite mounds or “heuweltjies” that give the fields such a lumpy appearance. These mounds were already alluded to by the 18th century Astronomer and Geodesist, Nicolas-Louis De La Caille. Go here to read the section in Dr. Ian Glass’s book on De la Caille. For a more recent and scientific coverage of the topic you can go here to read an article published by the Department of Soil Science at the University of Stellenbosch. We passed through Moorreesburg which considers itself the “heart” of the Swartland wheat industry and actually boasts a wheat industry museum, one of only three in the world.
We then headed for the twin towns of Riebeek West and Riebeek Kasteel. Just outside the former we passed the cement factory of PPC (Pretoria Portland Cement) where one can visit the restored house in which General Jan Christian Smuts was born. Smuts, educated at the Victoria College, later the University of Stellenbosch, and Christ’s College at Cambridge University, went on to become State Attorney of the Transvaal Republic, a successful general in the Anglo-South African War and eventually Prime minister of South Africa. Daniel Francois Malan, the first Prime Minister to actively apply the basic principles of institutionalized apartheid after the 1948 elections, was also born in Riebeek West. These two towns lie on the slopes of the Kasteelberg. From these two towns one has a sweeping view of the Northward tending arm Cape Fold Mountains from the Limietberg behind Wellington through the Winterhoek west of Tulbagh and on into the Cederberg where the peak of Cederberg Sneeukop can just be made out.
We left Kasteelberg behind, crossed the Berg River and just after passing the hamlet of Hermon, we turned left on the R46. Our route took us past the blockhouse that once guarded the railway line during the Anglo-South African war and then Voëlvlei dam, one of the major sources of water for Cape Town and the West Coast before passing into Nuwekloof through which the Little Berg River exits on its way to join the Berg River several kilometers beyond the village of Gouda. In 1739 the head and right hand of the infamous Estiénne Barbier were placed in this area after his execution as a gruesome warning to anyone contemplating an uprising against the VOC. In Nuwekloof one can still see the dry stone wall supporting Andrew Bain’s road which was in use for more than a hundred years until it was replaced by the present road in 1968. The road then passes into the Land of Wavern, south of Tulbagh and heads up the valley of the Little Berg river with the Witzenberg rising on the left and, on the right, the Elandsberg which is replaced by the Watervalsberg once one has crossed the watershed at Artois. It then swings to the left, passing North of Wolesely and shortly afterward entering Michell’s Pass.
In Michell’s Pass we stopped on the only section of Andrew Bain’s road that has been preserved. Out came the tables and food and, while a light lunch was enjoyed, Juri spoke at length about Bain, the founding of the town of Ceres and the true origins of the town’s name as well as the tremendous importance of the pass at the time it was constructed. After lunch we packed up before inspecting the impressive dry stone walls of the old road and then drove the last bit of the pass into Ceres where we filled up with fuel and everyone had an opportunity to visit a small supermarket. Our next stop was the pharmacy to so that Benjamin could buy medication for the Otitis Media he had developed. We finally left Ceres heading for Eselfontein, the farm of Gideon and Janine Malherbe where we would look for fossils in a quarry and spend the night in their Ecocamp. Driving out to the farm the road ran across extensive beds of Bokkeveld sediments with the Skurweberg’s younger sandstone layers sloping down under them from our right. In the distance on our left were the cliffs of Gydoberg and the Waboomsberg rising high above the northern edge of the Ceres valley.
We spent time in the quarry giving everyone the opportunity to experience the thrill of finding a fossil. That special feeling when you crack open the rock and see it, knowing you are not only the first human but the only human to ever have seen the creature that has been entombed in the sediment for several hundred million years. Many shell imprints were found from a variety of families as well as several fragments of trilobites. The prize find of the afternoon was Benjamin’s trilobite. Fairly late in the afternoon we packed up and drove up the fairly rigged road to the Ecocamp where we unpacked and set about preparing supper. Benjamin and Dale did their first of several stints at the fire on the trip, grilling the chicken to perfection. Benjamin’s approach is that he would rather cook every evening than wash dishes. Juri, Claire and Sheree’s potato salad went down very well too. Unforeseen problems with the water supply meant that we all had to wash in the adjacent mountain stream. There was very little interest in astronomy as most people were pretty tired after the long day but, nevertheless, the Moon, just one day past full moon, rising behind the pine forest made quite a spectacular site.
Tuesday 18th March
At 07:00 Juri started the day by getting everybody up and moving in the direction of breakfast after which we packed up, packed everything into the vehicles and the trailers and set off on the first leg of day two. This entailed a short drive in the direction of Lakenvlei dam, then past Matroosberg to Okkie Geldenhuys’s farm Matjiesrivier, where we collected our annual allocation of peaches. With the sandstone of the Cape fold mountains behind us, but still standing on Bokkeveld sediments, the view to the north of the farm gave us our first view of the Witteberg sediments.
Shortly after leaving the farm we picked up the R46 again and headed East toward the N1 and our first fossil stop of the day near the game farm Aquila. On the way there we passed Verkeerdevlei, the original water supply for Touws River and a forlorn looking Dakota aircraft parked amongst some scraggy looking pines in a military training area. About 300m before reaching Aquila, we pulled over and got out to look for Zoophycos, one of the few fossils one finds readily in the Witteberg sediments. After finding some examples and making sure everyone knew what it looked like we departed. As we drove away, we had a good view of Aquila’s huge automated solar energy installation that produces 60 kW of electricity by means of a Concentrator Photovoltaic system. The area around the solar panels also houses the lion rehabilitation pens as a deterrent to would be thieves. This system forms part of an eventual 50 MW installation currently under construction. Go here to read more about this exciting installation.
Our next stop was Touws River for acquiring refreshments and use of the amenities and then we were off again headed for the Logan Cemetery on the N1. Although the mountains around us were all Witteberg deposits, we were soon driving on the frist of the Ecca deposits and about 10 km north of the town the first patch of Dwyka tillite, a glacial deposit, appeared to the left of the road. Also fairly abundant along the N1 was the yellowish Kraalbos (Galena Africana), a pioneer shrub that takes over in disturbed or overgrazed areas. It can, however, proliferate to the point where it suppresses the regrowth of other plants. As we progressed in the direction of Matjiesfontein, we saw more and more Dwyka tillite on either side of the road and the Witteberg Mountains to the south also became more and more prominent. When parked at the Logan cemetery one can see good examples of Ecca, Witteberg and Dwyka.
On the way to Sutherland we took note of the various sizes of the drop-stones in the cuttings through the Dwyka tillite and also pointed out the various outcrops of the Whitehill Formation, a distinctive stratigraphic unit near the base of the Ecca group and stressed its importance as a repository of Mesosaurus, fish and insect fossils from the early Permian. As we progressed northward we crossed the Collingham Formation, a section of volcanic ash and eventually arrived amongst the Beaufort or Karoo sediments which were deposited on land by huge meandering rivers in a gigantic basin that stretched right across the present day South Africa. At a deep cutting about one km after crossing the Tanqua River, we stopped to look at the exposed mudstone and sandstone beds so typical of the Karoo sediments and also to explain to the students how the early Karoo Basin was filled in.
In Sutherland we visited Mr Eddie Marais, who in his youth had the privilege of collecting with Dr L. D. Boonstra. Mr Marais has a collection of artefacts that Juri used to explain to the students what they could expect in the field the following day and how to distinguish between calciferous nodules and actual bone. He also took the opportunity to discuss the development of the Karoo fauna and explained the gradual transition of true reptiles to mammal-like reptiles and later to true mammals which could be observed in the fossil record of the Karoo sediments. After enjoying the refreshments graciously supplied by Mrs Marais, we left to refuel the vehicles.
On our way to Fraserburg we passed the SAAO site where SALT and all the other South African telescopes are situated. On arrival at Fraserburg, we unloaded and Karin showed us to our rooms and as soon as the children in the hostel had left the dining hall, we moved into the kitchen to prepare supper. The end result of the kitchen team was a delicious pasta dish. After supper there was some astronomy discussion with various members of the group and most of the group went to bed in preparation for a long day on Wednesday.
Wednesday 19th March
We were in the dining room shortly after eight to have breakfast and then we set off for the local museum which is housed in the old Pastorie of the Dutch Reformed Church. The very friendly person in charge of the museum, Don Pedro Malan welcomed us at the museum and Juri set about giving a detailed explanation of the fossils on display. His explanation also covered the development of the various groups of animals that had been present in the Karoo basin during the period when it was filling up. After his talk everyone had the opportunity to look more closely at the fossil display and look around the museum in general before we set of to Droogvoetsfontein, where we met up with Mr Pieter Conradie. We all piled onto and into his pickup for a trip into the veld and then back to our vehicles which Juri and I then drove to the next stop while Pieter ferried the students there. Juri and I then rejoined the crowd on the pickup for the trip to where he had found a fossil, or at least bits of a fossil. As with many of the fossils in the Karoo lying exposed on the surface the elements take their toll and this one had not fared any better. All that was left, were a few scraps of nondescript bone not worth collecting and the surroundings also suggested that these had probably washed in from elsewhere in any case. Back on the pickup and back to the vehicles for a short drive before we dispersed in all directions to look for the elusive fossils. After about two hours I had found some pieces of rib bone and others had found another badly weathered fossil on the slope of a hill.
Back to the vehicles and off we went to Pieter’s farm, Dagbreek, where we prepared a light lunch in the shade of a tree. The new-born lambs were an immediate hit with the students. After lunch we set off again, but this time with Pieter on his motorcycle leading the way. After an interesting drive, we arrived at the next farm, Onderplaas, disembarked and set off on foot down a riverbed with scattered pools of water and muddy patches amongst the grass to trap the unwary. What was left of this fossil was still firmly embedded in the rock, but most of it had been worn away by the perennial flooding of the river. Disappointed we trudged back to the farmyard, said our goodbyes and set off for our next contact, also Pieter Conradie, the son of the first Pieter Conradie. He and his wife Marisa were waiting at the appointed place with their three lively children and our prickly pears. Pieter excitedly led us up a hill to look at his fossil, which unfortunately turned out to be a collection of calciferous nodules; his disappointment was quite tangible.
Our group did a quick recce, found nothing and then set off after Pieter Jnr for refreshments at his farm Middelfontein a few kilometres down the road. Refreshments, in addition to cool drinks, consisted of chilled prickly pears, ice cream and various delicious liqueurs to be used as toppings. I, for one, made an absolute pig of myself with the prickly pears and ate 50 of them! After some small talk with the Pieter and his wife and their three cats, we said goodbye and headed back to Fraserberg, anxious to get there before the shops closed as the beer supply was running low. We rounded the day off with a congenial braai, once again executed by Dale and Benjamin in a masterly fashion. We did some astronomy too for those who were interested and then went to bed.
Thursday 20th March
Today is the autumn equinox when the sun is exactly over the equator on its way north and the day and night should be the same length. It also signals the start of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere and spring in the Northern Hemisphere. These facts did not really seem to impress anyone, so I didn’t push the matter. Anyway, we were packed up and finished with breakfast shortly after eight – at least most of us were! Then we set out on the Williston road to the palaeosurface on the farm Gansefontein. It is very sad to see the systematic deterioration of this site when we visit it every year. All Coenie De Beer’s efforts since he took a month’s unpaid leave from the Geological Survey in Pretoria 25 years ago and came down here on his motorcycle to map and measure the then freshly exposed surface, have been in vein. Well, not quite in vain, because an insurance company donated money to put a fence around the site and put up a notice board. What is really needed is a building to cover the existing site and money to uncover more of the surface around the existing site, but as things stand now, the non-preservation of this site is actually a disgrace for South Africa.
After the visit to the Palaeosurface we made a quick stop for biltong and dried sausage and then set off down the R356 toward the Theekloof Pass and our next destination. Theekloof Pass is potentially one of the most spectacular passes, if not in the country, then most certainly in the Western Cape Province. After the obligatory stop for photos half way down, we continued our descent into the lower regions of the Karoo. The pass also affords one an unprecedented view of the layered nature of the Karoo sediments with their alternating sandstone and mudstone layers, broken by dolerite sills and dykes in many places. Upon arrival at Rooiheuwel, the farm of Flip and Marge Vivier, we were enthusiastically welcomed by the Jack Russels and an overzealous Boxer before being taken inside for a welcome cool drink. Once that was done, we set off to look at a fossil on a neighbouring farm, which was “just around the corner”. Those of you who do not know the Karoo, should beware as this phrase could mean anything from 15 to, as we have experienced, 40 or more kilometres.
When we finally stopped and disembarked, Flip indicated that the fossil was “just over there”, pointing at a fairly distant hill on the other side of a dry riverbed, so of we went, The fossil was also a disappointment. Almost definitely a Pareiasaurus, but apparently lying on its left side with the tail, pelvic girdle, right limbs and ribs all missing. The head was very probably also no longer there, so we decided to leave it there to continue its losing battle with time and erosion. Back to the vehicles and to Rooiheuwel for a quick lunch and then a short drive to a place where we could get into the veldt to look for fossils again. Once again no luck, so we drove off to explore for likely fossil sites. One problem on this farm is that the vegetation cover is quite dense and the potential fossil areas are well hidden until you are right on top of them and finding traces of bone would then be doubly difficult too. We returned to the farm, said goodbye and drove to Merweville, our overnight stop. Juri’s vehicle was running low on fuel so he drove quite slowly to conserve what he had, but eventually we got there.
At Huis Mervia, the local school hostel, we unloaded and Juri set off to find the local parson of the Dutch Reformed Church, who had promised the group could go up into the church tower and out onto the catwalk to admire the view. He found him and off they went. In the meantime, the braai-maestros were getting the fire ready for their next culinary tour de force. As an entrée, we had slices of bread from two huge farm loaves baked by Mrs Blom, the hostel matron, and then it was Karoo lamb a la Dale and Benjamin, with onions and butternut wrapped in tin foil and grilled to perfection on the fire. Some astronomy after supper and then most of us turned in for the night.
Friday 21st March
It was a public holiday which we assumed would not affect us, but it eventually did. I went into town to refuel my vehicle, came back and had breakfast before we packed up and left to visit our fossil on Hendrik Botes’s farm Jakhalsfontein, which is spelt oddly as you can see. Juri thinks the fossil might actually be on Vaalleegte and we should really resolve the discrepancy someday. En route we passed the turnoff to the tragic Englishman’s grave, but that story will have to wait. Once on the farm, we unhooked the trailers for the long drive to our fossil dig site where we have been letting successive groups of students systematically excavate, what we hope is a fairly complete Pareiasaurus. It is quite a long walk from where we park the vehicles, but once there, we rotated and some hacked away with hammers while others scoured the area for other fossils. About two hours of hacking away and Juri decided to call it a day and head back to the vehicles. Eventually everyone was back and aboard so we could turn round, drive back, hook up the trailers go to an unoccupied house further down the road and his house is definitely on Jakhalsfontein. We had lunch on the veranda or, as it is called locally, the stoep. During the lunch break, some quinces were picked under Juri’s expert tutelage so we could have stewed quinces and cream for dessert that evening.
After lunch we made a quick stop at the café in Prince Albert Road and an essential pit stop for some members of the group before hitting the N1 and heading south to Laingsburg. This took us out of the Karoo sediments and onto the Ecca which were laid down just offshore in huge estuaries. We arrived at Laingsburg to find the liquor store open, but the supermarket closed so we had beer but no cream and we also needed sour cream for the potjiekos Dale was going to prepare for supper. We checked some of the other obvious possibilities for cream and sour cream, but none produced the goods. So we drove to the sports fields where we were going to spend the night in the clubhouse and, after unloading, I went and investigated one more possible source for the cream and sour cream, but that also turned out to be a dead end. Dale had found ways to improvise his way around the sour cream, but the prospects looked grim for the stewed quinces.
It is a pity the Flood Museum commemorating the disastrous flood of 1981 was closed as I would have liked the students to see it. If you visit Laingsburg pay the museum a visit and then drive down to the railway bridge, get out of your car and stand under the bridge. When you look up consider the fact that, on that fateful day, the water was lapping the rails on top of the bridge before the embankment at the eastern end gave way. Just for a moment consider the entire valley filled to that depth with churning, muddy water. It is a chilling thought I can assure you.
Dale’s potjiekos and rice was excellent. Actually it wasn’t, it was superb! After lots of philosophical discussions, there was some down to earth stuff too, we tidied up and went to bed. As I was having the last conversation with Juri, before we finally went to bed, he remembered that he had forgotten to cook the quinces. I had actually wondered about this after supper, but assumed the lack of cream was to blame.
Saturday 22nd March
While gathering the troops, it turned out that rather than make their own breakfast, everyone was in favour of picking up coffee and whatever from the local Wimpy and heading south as quickly as possible. A few kilometres outside Laingsburg, we crossed into the ancient lake basin again and could clearly see the tell-tale white slopes on either side of the road. Before long we encountered the first of the Dwyka tillite and shortly after that, the Witteberg Mountains came into sight on our left. Just before Touws River we encountered the first of several stop-and-go sections where the National Roads Agency was undertaking extensive road works all the way down to the Hex River Pass. Topping the rise just before the farm Kleinstraat, we had a good view of Aquila’s second solar farm with 1 500 panels, being built by the French firm, Soitec, which was nearing completion. The installation will provide 50 MW (peak DC) power and provide a 36 MW AC output to the local grid. This makes it one of the largest plants of its kind in the world. Go here to read more about the installation about the installation. You can also go to this link for more information.
From this point we were on the Bokkeveld shale again and, as we navigated the Hex Pass and skirted De Doorns and Orchard, we moved further and further into the sandstone layers of the earlier deposits. By the time we exited the Hex River Valley we had left the Bokkeveld behind us and the sandstone layers towered high above our heads. Shortly after leaving the Hex River Valley, we pulled into the De Wet Cooperative Winery where we traditionally stopped to sample their Muscadels and Ports. Just across the road from the winery was an impressive hill of Malmesbury shale lifted upward by the rising magma millions of years ago. As the magma cooled and formed granite, the heat baked the otherwise fairly crumbly shale into a hard metamorphic rock the geologists call Hornfels. This is mined in a quarry on the Worcester side of the hill and produces the blue-grey chips ubiquitously used in road making.
From De Wet we took a back road via Nonna, Overhex and Aan de Doorns to Eilandia and the quarry where we hoped to find more insect fossils and perhaps a fish or too and just maybe a Mesosaurus. At the quarry Juri and I were somewhat concerned by the fact that there had been considerable excavation since our last visit, and access to the specific section that usually produced the insects, was quite precarious; in fact rather dangerous. Apart from Juri having a rather nasty fall, it all went well. We came away with several Notocaris imprints, a fantastic leaf imprint thanks to Robyn and section of Mesosaurus backbone courtesy of Nombuso. A snap vote before we left decided against stopping for lunch so we would head straight back to Stellenbosch. One got the distinct impression that the students felt it was a case of “Home James, and don’t spare the horses”.
I stopped to take photos of the clearly visible termite mounds on the slope of a hill that we passed. Our route took us past Brandvlei dam and then through Rawsonville and Du Toit’s Kloof Pass where Juri elected to avoid the Huguenot Tunnel and drive over the pass, which is the route to take if you want to enjoy a spectacular view. After unloading at the Department and saying all the goodbyes I went and dropped off the trailer and then delivered the vehicle to the vehicle park, where Lynnette was already waiting. We stowed all my gear away and then went back to the Department to pick up Lona, who also lives in Brackenfell and had asked if we could give her a lift home.
All that was left for me to do, was to work through all 500 photos that I had taken and write this report. The report writing was seriously disrupted by the need to complete our application for a National Science Week grant from the NRF via SAASTA.
Pulses and Pulsars – An introduction to time domain radio astronomy
Presented by Dame (Susan) Joycelyn Bell Burnell of the University of Oxford Astrophysics and Mansfield College. The presentation took place at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study’s (STIAS) Wallenberg Centre on the 19th of February 2014
I am always slightly apprehensive about attending talks by visiting academics of the stature of Dame Joycelyn Bell Burnell. Perhaps this apprehension stems from a lack of confidence in my own understanding of the field they are going to cover in their talks. There are also other possible issues like the quality of the presentation and how clearly the person will speak and, of course, the acoustics of the venue. The STIAS venue does not have good acoustics and experience has taught me that academics of international repute do not necessarily speak clearly or have well laid out talks using clear and legible slides. I had read that Jocelyn was a good presenter but, just to be safe, Lynnette and I made sure that we got seats close to the front (third row) and more or less on the centre line of the projection screen.
Jocelyn’s talk covered quite a lot of ground. She touched briefly on her original discovery of the first three pulsars during her PhD-studies and then talked at length on the characteristics of pulsars. She started off explaining how very high mass stars had short lives and eventually ended up as pulsars. Dame Bell Burnell made mention of their enormous masses, all crammed into balls with 10 km radii resulting in incredibly high densities and really freakish gravitational and magnetic fields. Jocelyn humorously sketched the possible consequences to humans if they should visit a pulsar and concluded that such a visit could definitely be injurious to one’s health and one’s credit card. We were taken on a visit to the only known pulsar that has a planetary system associated with it and also introduced to the short lived world of the brief radio pulses that are currently puzzling radio astronomers. Most of these reports originate from an Australian radio telescope and I was wondering whether Wombats or any of the other marsupials Down-Under squeak at around 700 Hz?
Lastly she looked at the SKA-project and briefly made mention of the greatly increased sensitivity the instrument would bring to the field of radio astronomy. After her talk Jocelyn fielded a large number of questions on topics not always related to the subject of her presentation.
Jocelyn’s presentation was excellent at all levels. Her ability to relate to and communicate with people was clearly demonstrated by the throngs of questioners that she patiently handled after the talk. Her patience even extended to having her picture taken with members of the Cape Center of ASSA, including Lynnette and myself.
Olé-Marten and Liz came to South Africa on Sunday, January 27th from Oslo in Norway for a holiday that was to start in Cape Town and finish in the Kruger Park. They hired a car to explore Cape Town and environs and then planned to drive down to Port Elizabeth in one day. I recommended that they spread the drive down the Garden Route over two days with an overnight stop in Knysna. Olé-Martin followed my advice and changed their plans accordingly. They left Cape Town on Saturday, February 2nd and spent the night in Knysna before driving to Port Elizabeth on Sunday, February 3rd. From Port Elizabeth, they are scheduled to fly to the Kruger Park via Johannesburg, where they will link up with a Siyabona Africa for a four-day tour of the Park. They then fly back to Johannesburg to visit friends before flying back to Norway via Frankfurt on Friday the 8th of February.
Olé-Martin made contact and asked us to organize a day’s wine tasting in the Stellenbosch & Franschoek areas on Wednesday 30th January. He specifically requested that the tour start with a visit to “Oom Samie se Winkel” in Stellenbsoch.
We had to pick them up at 08:00 from their guest house, The Hedges in Argyle Road, Newlands. So at about 06:15, the Vito left Brackenfell with Lynnette behind the wheel. We started early in anticipation of the dreaded early morning traffic on the ingoing N1, but it was quite manageable despite the usual batch of lane-switchers, impatient light-flashers and the constant stream of minibus taxis passing in the yellow lane. Well, we weren’t late, in fact, we arrived at about 07:20 and had to wait just around the corner from the guest house so as not to seem over eager. Lynnette pulled the Vito over on a convenient grassy verge and we waited while the time sneaked up on 08:00. During the wait, the Vito, with its tinted windows, was eyed rather suspiciously, by a passing parade of early morning, joggers, dog walkers, walkers without dogs and an ADT patrolman on his bicycle.
By 07:50 Lynnette’s patience had run out and we moved off to park in front of the guest house. While she waited in the vehicle, I went in to fetch Olé-Martin and Liz. They had just finished breakfast and, while they went off to fetch their stuff I was entertained by an elderly Pug, a juvenile Boxer and tennis ball-addicted Pointer, well a dog that looked like one. The juvenile Boxer kept trying to chew the Pug’s ears off despite lots of growling and posturing by the Pug who eventually got fed up and fled into the house. The Pointer kept pointing its nose at a well chewed and very icky tennis ball in an effort to entice me into throwing it and, once the Pug had departed the Boxer turned its attention to the tennis ball as well. At least the ongoing tussle between the Boxer and the Pointer for possession of the ball let me off the hook as far as throwing it was concerned. Almost on the dot at 08:00 Olé-Martin and Liz made their appearance, all dressed up (figuratively speaking) and with lots of places to go and many wines to get to know.
Lynnette navigated us safely through the suburban traffic onto the N2 and we were off to Stellenbosch. It was a hazy sort of day because of the low overcast and patches of ground-hugging mist, but I optimistically forecast that it would all clear by late morning and, at the same time, kept my fingers crossed that the fires in the mountains around Franschoek would not flare up during the course of the day.
First stop Oom Samie and because we were nice and early there was a choice of parking spots right in front of the shop. Both our guests were intrigued by the Bokkoms and the Boerseep. About 30 minutes and several purchases later, we were off again and Lynnette took us on a brief driving tour of Stellenbosch and the University Campus before heading out over Helshoogte to our first tasting stop, Tokara. Tokara is a brand new player in the wine industry, with the first vines being planted in 1998 and the first wines went into the bottle in 2001. Actually, the first wines labeled as Tokara wines only appeared in 2005. Tokara also produces grapes on Highlands Farm (Elgin-area) and on Siberia in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley near Hermanus. Outside the entrance to the tasting area and the restaurant, one is welcomed by the “Tokara Vines” an ArgoWeld Special Project designed by the artist Marco Cianfanelli and, if you have time, read the stories told by the words on the vines. While our guests were tasting, Lynnette noticed that the giant clock in the tasting area had stopped. I inspected it and quickly found the problem. There was a spanner in the works!
From Tokara we set out for Boschendal which is considerably older, dating back to 1685 when it was owned by the French Huguenot, Jean le Long. After sorting out some initial confusion with my navigation, Olé-Martin and Liz could settle down under the Oaks for a very relaxed tasting. After the tasting, we did a tour of the beautifully restored Manor House where the huge stable doors in the house and the innovative sash windows with which one could close the gap left by the top half of the door, letting light in but keeping flies and dust out, generated quite a bit of discussion. Olé-Martin and Liz paid a visit to the shop on the way back to the Vito, commenting on the huge selection of goods on offer.
Then we were off to Allée Bleue, established in 1690 as Mere Rust, which is literally just around the corner from Boschendal. By this stage, the clouds had, as I had predicted, departed and it was quite hot. Fortunately, the Sun had already moved over far enough to the West so that the outside tasting area at Allée Bleue was already shaded by the tall Eucalyptus trees (Blue gums) that form the magnificent avenue from which the estate derives its modern name. After the tasting, we walked across the road to the bistro for a light lunch and then set off for La Motte.
Olé-Martin and Liz were very taken with La Motte, which is one of the nine original farms settled by the French Huguenots in 1672, and I must say the well organized and maintained indigenous garden really is a pleasure. After the wine tasting, our guests paid a quick visit to the shop and then we were off again. We drove through Franschhoek and up over Franschhoek Pass as far as the Jan Joubert’s Gat bridge, which was built in 1825 and is currently the oldest stone bridge in South Africa in daily use. Lynnette turned the Vito around just past the bridge and we drove back up the pass again, making several stops to take photographs. We took a different route back to Stellenbosch from Franschhoek, going through Simondium and then past Backsberg and Anura to Klapmuts. From Klapmuts we came back along the R44 and then out to Spier where Lynnette had booked a table in a tree at Moyo for Olé-Martin and Liz. Spier also has a long history dating back to 1692 with Arno Jansz producing the first wines in 1700. The name Spier possibly originates from about 1712 when Hans Heinrich Hattingh is thought to have named it after his hometown in Germany, Speyer, but there are other possibilities too. The area was, however, also occupied in the Early Stone Age (at least two million years ago ) as is shown by the many stone tools found in the area.
Lynnette and I did not join Olé-Martin and Liz up the tree at Moyo. We went into Stellenbosch and came back, about two hours later, to fetch them. Both of them were thrilled to bits by the experience and recommended that we should make sure that all our overseas visitors, especially the Norwegians, ate up the tree at Moyo. Thanks to Lynnette’s safe driving we had them back at their guest house at 21:20, which was only 20 minutes later than the scheduled time.