Leeuwenboschfontein visit: 09 October to 14 October 2015.
The main objective of the weekend was to try out the enclosure the owner of Leeuwenbosch, Johan Roux, had built for the use of astronomers visiting the farm. Barry Dumas had been there during the Solar eclipse in September and found it to be very satisfactory. We had invited the members of the Cape Centre as well as Auke, Martin, Leslie, Iain, Willem and Wendy along but only Leslie, Willem, Iain, Jennifer and Wendy could eventually make it.
Our trip got off to a good start in the sense that we did not spend the entire night packing, as we often do. We were also finished and ready to go about 20 minutes before our planned departure time of 10:00 on Friday. Then disaster struck because Snorre was nowhere to be found. So we waited and notified Joan at Leeuwenboschfontein and all other parties that we were delayed. We looked everywhere, then we looked everywhere for a second, third and eventually umpteenth time, but Snorre was missing and the clock was ticking. Should we leave without Snorre and let Lynnette’s sister, Petro, feed him until we returned after the weekend? Should we cancel the trip unload everything and continue searching for him? Should we unload all the perishables, put them back in the fridge and freezer and just wait until Snorre pitched up? We decided on the last course of action. So 12:00 came and went, followed by 13:00, 14:00 and 15:00 and with each passing hour the tension mounted. Finally at about 15:30 His Nibs, Woolly Britches appeared from heaven knows where, stretching and yawning as if nothing was wrong!
Action stations! Snorre was shoved, rather unceremoniously, into his carry cage to prevent him doing another duck and Lynnette and I got everything we had unloaded back into the Vito, phoned everyone to notify them that Snorre had been found and hit the road at 16:30; a mere six and a half hours late. By the time we exited the Huguenot tunnel Leslie was already at the first stop-and-go of the road works in the Hex River-valley. The rest of our trip went very smoothly and we arrived at Leeuwenboschfontein around 18:50 to find Leslie already set up. Jennifer, who had taken the scenic route via Robertson, Ashton, Montagu, the Keisie and the Koo to Leeuwenboschfontein, had also arrived and settled in. Iain and Willem were expected the following day on their way back from Victoria West and Wendy was only due to arrive on the Sunday.
We unpacked, had supper and set up as fast as we could. It was dark but lights from the two ablution blocks were a problem especially for Leslie’s astrophotography. As fast as Leslie switched them off somebody would switch them on again! We did not see our way open to driving down to the enclosed astronomy area about a kilometre away in the dark and, as there was no power down there, the move would have been entirely counterproductive for Leslie. One camping family came along to see what we were up to so I did a basic what’s up tonight with them. They were, however, such nice people that I really did not mind spending the time doing that. It was dark, very, very much darker than at any site in or near Cape Town, but the seeing was not very good because of the windy conditions and corresponding turbulence in the atmosphere.
By midnight I was having problems with dew despite the fact that the wind had freshened quite considerably so Lynnette and I decided to call it a night and go to bed, leaving Leslie to brave the elements. Before going to bed I took a set of dark sky readings and also used the new Loss of the Night application on my cell phone as a comparison.
On Saturday we had a cold, blustery wind that had developed during the early hours of the morning, and a sky full of large fluffy clouds. Poor Leslie had spent a miserably cold night on his stretcher and his set-up and camp had been so vandalized by the wind that he decided to pack it in and head back to Cape Town. No amount of persuasion, offers of more and warmer bedding or the lure of better conditions later in the weekend, could change his mind. He did agree to let me show him the astronomy enclosure but he wasn’t all that impressed because there was no power, so his equipment would not be able to function. Iain and Willem arrived later in the day and by then the wind had abated considerably and the clouds had become a lot smaller with much, much larger gaps between them too. By Saturday evening the wind had all but died down, but the wandering clouds made constructive observing very difficult even though we had eventually convinced the remaining campers that the lights in the ablution blocks did not have to be on continuously.
On Sunday the weather was much better and by the time Wendy arrived it was looking very promising for the evening’s observing. We decided to try out the observing enclosure and found, to our satisfaction, that the Guest Farm’s lights were only visible if one stood right up against the eastern wall and looked west. The 1,8 m vibracrete walls also provided ample protection from the wind. The headlights of cars passing on the road, about one km away did catch the top slabs of the western wall. Although night traffic is infrequent this problem will be discussed with the Johan Roux’s (snr. & jnr.). Despite the very dark skies the seeing was at best fair to good but not excellent or exceptional, probably due to instability in the upper atmosphere caused by the approaching front. Wendy, Iain and Willem left at about 23:00 and Lynnette and I packed up just after midnight, when the dew got the better of us. We left our telescope, well wrapped, to keep Wendy’s company for the rest of the night. Being able to leave ones equipment in safety is another advantage of having the enclosure.
Wendy headed home on Monday and as the camp was now empty, other than for Lynnette, myself, Ian and Willem we decided to observe from the camp as it would be possible to switch off all lights. When Lynnette and I went to fetch our telescope we found that the staff was applying liberal amounts of very smelly chicken manure to the grass in the enclosure in order to speed up its growth. Observing there would have been a very smelly activity. That evening Johan Roux (snr.) joined us for some star gazing. I was astounded when he admitted that he had never spent time outside at night to specifically look at the stars. He, on the other hand, was very surprised to see what a negative effect the exposed outside lights around the homestead and guest house had on ones night vision. We will in future be allowed to switch them off when doing stargazing at Leeuwenboschfontein. Shortly after Johan left us to go to bed a sheet of thin, high cloud rolled in and put an end to our stargazing. I got up after 01:00 to answer a call of nature and found that the clouds had departed, but I was too bloody lazy to get dressed and set up the telescope again.
On Tuesday the weather was beautiful but in the afternoon the clouds came in again and stayed. Lynnette and I decided to stick it out until Wednesday, hoping the weather would clear but it actually got worse and by 21:00 on Wednesday night it was raining steadily with some distant thunder as appropriate background music. We both had our doubts about getting the Vito through the few sticky patches on the gravel road between Leeuwenboschfontein and the R318 but it did not rain enough to adversely affect the road and by Thursday morning it was clearing nicely.
As a precautionary measure Mr Wanderlust was put into his harness and his leash tied to a pole where one of us could always keep an eye on him. While I went of to wash the breakfast dishes Snorre attempted to pull off one of his Houdini-style escapes from the harness but Lynnette was too quick for him, I then shoved him into his carry cage. Needless to say, Snorre was not a happy cat having his freedom of movement curtailed like that.
So, what are the prospects for Leeuwenboschfontein as a stargazing venue? I think it has definite potential and here is my list of positives, in no particular order.
The owners are very positive about hosting astronomers.
The average annual rainfall is much lower than that in and around Cape Town.
It is within easy driving distance of Cape Town.
There is fairly priced accommodation available for all tastes.
The availability of an astro-enclosure means that astronomy enthusiasts do not have to fight with campers about the lights in the camp or their smoky braai fires.
Astronomers will not be pestered by campers wanting to look through their telescopes or discuss astronomy down at the astro-enclosure. If anyone feels the need to do outreach they just have stay in the camp and they will be inundated.
We have the concession that the outside lights of the homestead and guest house can be switched off to further reduce any influence they might have on viewing from the enclosure.
Negative aspects are possibly the following:
The horizons are not ideally low in all directions but from the astro-enclosure they are more than acceptable.
For the astrophotographers the non-availability of power at the enclosure is a problem but, at least for the present, a large battery and an inverter will provide a solution.
Please go here to visit Leeuwenboschfontein’s website or you may view their Facebook page here.
In my opinion there is no other site that is safe, offers the same amenities and has the same astronomy potential within easy driving distance of Cape Town. Some amateur astronomers might have private access to comparable sites but, for the average amateur in Cape Town, I think Leeuwenboschfontein offers a viable solution to a long standing problem.
Dark Sky at Kopbeenskloof (33° 35’ 52”S, 19° 57’ 26”E & 1248 m) in December 2014
I previously reported on the venue so please go here for those details. On this occasion we left later than planned on Thursday morning because of complications caused by having the Blaauwklippen event back to back with the deep sky outing. Iain Finlay was on the road at more or less the same time and he waited for us at the Shell service station in Worcester so we could travel together for the last part of the journey. We stopped off at the Veldskoen Padstaljust past De Doorns for coffee and something to eat. The Veldskoen does a very good toasted cheese sandwich and a superb cheese cake. The other items on their menu are also excellent so next time you pass there pop in and treat yourself.
Next stop was Kopbeenskloof where we were welcomed by the owner, Wouter Stemmet. If you want to know more about what Wouter and Elsabé do at Kopbeenskloof please visit their website here. There were all sorts of communication problems in the week leading up to this visit. As a result Wouter was not quite prepared for us but he quickly rectified that and we could start unloading and settle in. Despite beautiful clear skies during the day the evening turned cloudy and then went completely overcast with clouds coming in from the south east driven by a very chilly wind. Lynnette and I were short on sleep after our Blaauwklippen escapades of the previous night so we did not really complain about getting to bed early. I got up somewhere around 03:00 to check the weather but we still had clouds from horizon to horizon.
Friday morning was still cloudy but by mid-morning we had bright blue skies all around. Eddy and Jannie Nijeboer arrived later that afternoon after having struggled with the last section of our route instructions. These will be updated and made more user-friendly. By late afternoon Thursday’s weather pattern repeated itself and by 19:30 it was almost completely overcast and quite chilly. We were also concerned about Auke as we could not contact him and neither could he reach us. If Eddy and Jannie had struggled with the directions Auke could be well on his way to the Anysberg by now. It later materialized that domestic problems had prevented him from attending. So we again opted for a relatively early night. The 03:00 inspection was negative again but we got up at 06:00 and went for a walk with Snorre.
Saturday was a beautiful, cloudless day and we went down to the farm where Wouter showed us around the other amenities he and Elsabé had to offer. The five of us spent some time looking around. The guest house, situated about a kilometre away from the farmhouse, which will sleep 10 at a push but eight is a more realistic number and six, as far as I am concerned, is just right. At the main house there are chalets and other facilities to cater for large groups and functions. The enclosed entertainment area, inside braai and large kitchen and the chalets definitely have possibilities. However, sleeping 12 people per chalet will not work for astronomers and Wouter says he would be quite happy to put up two people per chalet, which would mean lots of storage space on the empty beds. The ablution facilities are quite adequate for the number of chalets. There is a large grassed area, which Wouter intends expanding, which would work well for a telescope area but has also been used in the past for camping and caravans. Power can be laid on by long leads from the kitchen area for the astrophotographers and they can actually be grouped separately from the telescopes which addresses the light pollution problem too. There is a very rustic cottage, the K’roo Huise situated some way away from the main house for those who would really like to rough it as it has no electricity and water is heated for showers by means of an old fashioned “donkey”.
After the inspection we went back to the guest house and prepared for an evening’s star gazing. There were one or two small clouds lurking around but in general the evening was quite productive for stargazing with Kitchi Koo and the 12” Dobby. It was as definitely dark with dark sky readings of, 21,50 MSAS (average of ten readings, std. dev. of 0,024518) and 21,52 MSAS (average of ten readings, std. dev. of 0,024518) (MSAS = Magnitudes per Square Arcsecond). All clouds were definitely black, and the only light pollution is to the south west where Worcester and De Doorns throw up a considerable sky glow, especially if there is low cloud in that area. The seeing was not all that good because of the instability in the upper atmosphere but on an absolutely clear night the seeing should be excellent considering that the altitude there is only about 200m lower than Sutherland. By around 02:00 the dew made it impossible to continue without heaters on our telescopes. In any case the temperature had dropped to an unexpectedly low 09°C by then, so bed was a very attractive proposition.
The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast and proceeded to pack up. By about 12:00 we said our goodbyes and left, followed closely by Iain. Jannie and Eddy were a bit slower off the mark, but probably left shortly after us. We did not go straight home but headed for Montagu where we wanted to take a look at a potential venue recommended by Christine.
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.
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.
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.
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 “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.
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.
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))
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Here are my Sky Quality Meter readings taken at the guest house on 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.
After taking the photos, we turned back to the R318 and continued on that until we reached the turnoff for the Nougaskloof road. The gravel road was not as good as we’ve seen it in the past, but neither was it bad, considering the fairly heavy rain in that area in the recent past. At Kopbeenskloof, our first surprise was the flock of Emus grazing in a field. The owner, Wouter Stemmet met us at the house and then accompanied us to the guest house, a kilometre or so further on. We quickly settled in at the refurbished farmhouse which has all the necessary amenities and nice clean linen. The house can sleep up to 10 people and has three bathrooms but I think eight would be a more comfortable number. There is a small sunroom with a Queen Anne stove that would make nice focal point in chilly weather and the large indoor braai area with its huge fireplace has a great deal of potential.
After settling in, we set up the telescope and got ready for an evening’s viewing. The area around the house is clear, but the lines of pine trees on two sides of the house are a problem. From the front of the house one has a clear view all the way from the west to the southeast but, to work the sky from the southeast to the southwest one would have to set up in the road beyond the trees; a distance of about 25 metres from the house. What really surprised us was the amount of sky glow in the clouds to the southwest. This light pollution problem probably has its origins in Worcester but is no doubt helped by the lights of De Doorns and the new sodium lights along the Hex Pass. The more distant lights of Paarl and Cape Town also make a contribution. The seeing was quite good, but the general conditions did not favour observing. It was never entirely overcast, but there were always stray clouds moving across the sky which made observation for any length of time in any part of the sky impossible. Monday night was a repeat of Sunday night as far as the clouds were concerned.
On Monday evening Snorre disappeared into the surrounding veld and failed to reappear. I eventually set off with a headlamp in search of him and finally found him about 40 metres away from the house eating a mouse. My attempts to take him home before he had finished his meal were met with growls and flattened ears, so I just hung around until he sat back and very smugly started washing his face.
On Tuesday morning 27 May, we drove a few kilometres down the Nougaskloof road in the direction of Touws River to Leeuwenboschfontein. The place was under new management and we wanted to see what had been changed and discuss various possibilities with the new owner’s son, Johan Roux. The changes are all very positive and Johan is also open to discussions about concessions should we wish to use the place for stargazing in the future. We had the pleasure of bumping into Iain Finlay and Willem van Zyl while at Leeuwenboschfontein, where they had taken up residence in Willow Cottage for the week. After the discussions with Johan and coffee and snacks with Iain and Willem, we drove back to Kopbeenskloof to make lunch.
On Tuesday afternoon Wouter and Elsabé Stemmet showed us around the chalets and their other facilities. The indoor facilities are clearly intended for handling large groups and a visit to their website gives one a good idea of what they can do by way of arranging functions. The facilities would certainly be more than adequate for talks and presentations at a Star Party. The 20 chalets are very basic and can sleep up to 12 people per chalet on bunk beds. One does not have to put 12 people into each chalet, as they charge per person and do not prescribe a minimum number of occupants per chalet. There are sufficient toilets and showers and the communal indoor cooking facilities are quite adequate. In clear weather the outside braai area would be nice, but there is also an indoor facility should the weather turn nasty. Wouter and Elsabé regularly handle large groups of learners from youth organizations and do not seem daunted at the prospect of serving three meals a day to 200 odd hungry children.
That evening the clouds once again put paid to any ideas we might have had of doing any observing, but this time it was seriously overcast. Not wishing to load the Vito in the rain, Lynnette and I got as much as possible loaded before we settled down in front of a nice fire. The toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches grilled over the coals were excellent. It started raining later that night and on Wednesday morning 28 May we left in light rain; the gravel road to the R318 was already quite muddy in places. At the R318 we turned left and headed for Montagu.
Down through the Koo and the Keisie and then through Montagu to Kati’s Wine Farm
It really is a delightful drive down Rooihoogte into the Koo and then down Burgers Pass into the Keisie. The scenery is magnificent and varies continuously as one drops from more than 1200 metres at the top of Rooihoogte to just over 500 metres at the lower end of Burgers Pass in the Keisie. In Montagu we stopped off to buy some of the famous Montagu Muscadel and then took Snorre to Dr Marina le Roux, the vet, for his check-up and inoculations. After that we had coffee and lunch and a long chat with Christine, who is no longer at Bergwater after the recent ownership changes there. Then we were off to meet Katica Palic at Kati’s Wine Farm between Robertson and Bonnievale. To be more exact, the place is almost on the dot six kilometres down the R317 after one exits the big traffic circle on your way out of Robertson on the way to Bonnievale. After being shown to our room and making sure Snorre was out of reach of the local canine, Biscuit, we went looking for Kati. Biscuit, by the way, is encouraged to see cats off the premises in the interest of the safety of Kati’s Amazon Green Parrot who is free on the back stoep.
Kati is Croatian but speaks fluent German and her English has a strong German flavour. Her son and daughter are in a local school and speak fluent Afrikaans and English and Kati speaks to them in German. Kati is a very energetic person and during the whirlwind tour of her premises, it soon became clear that she has lots of ideas for the place and the energy to make them work too. What surprised us most, was that she had identified a potential stargazing area. I say surprised, because when we checked it out later that evening and took a set of sky brightness readings, it turned out to have a lot of potential.
We had supper with the family and went to bed fairly early after taking the sky brightness readings. The next morning 29 May, after a delightful breakfast next to a blazing fire to keep the early morning chill at bay, we went off to Bonnievale to say hi to Inus and Elsophie van Staden who were day visitors at the previous Southern Star Party. Their son, also Inus, has resurrected an old telescope and is very keen that we should come back and show him the ropes. After coffee we went off to Parmalat’s cheese shop in Bonnievale and then headed back to Kati’s place where she had organized that I would give a talk on astronomy and, weather permitting, also do some stargazing with the 12-inch Dobby in her stargazing area. The show also inaugurated her very innovative sleeping dormitory in the old 18th century wine cellar. In attendance were the Tourism people from Robertson as well as the local press, her staff and other guests from as far afield as Montagu. The talk went well and the weather cleared sufficiently to give us time to do a quite a good astronomy show-and-tell-session.
The next morning 30 May we departed for the Night-Sky Caravan Farm. Lynnette pointed out earlier to me that I have been calling it a Caravan Park when it is actually a Caravan Farm. I shall mend my errant ways.
Night-Sky Caravan Farm
The Weather at Night-Sky was not good during our stay. By day we had such strong winds that it was quite unpleasant to be outside, but every evening the wind died down and by 19:00 it was almost completely wind free. The clouds were a different matter and I do not think we had more than two hours cloud free at stretch on any given night. In fact, two hours might be stretching it quite a bit.
On Saturday evening Wilhelm de Wet and his son Christian paid us a visit. Christian’s mother, Helena, phoned me after the previous Southern Star Party in March, expressing interest in Astronomy and asking that we get in touch when we were in the Bonnievale area again. We did that and the outcome was this visit. Christian is a very talkative and knowledgeable lad and we spent some time discussing what we could see and pointing out interesting features between the clouds before doing some telescope viewing of Saturn, the Jewel Box and various other well known objects, as allowed by the clouds.
Sunday, Monday and Tuesday were pretty much repeats of the other days, but each evening the clouds were a little more persistent and the wind a bit stronger during the day. Snorre decided that sleeping on a chair in front of the fire covered with his blanket in the evenings was the only place he wanted to be. Finally, on Wednesday, down came the rain, lots of it, and even though it looked as if it was clearing late in the afternoon, the showers persisted, interspersed with short periods of being able to see a few stars. Lynnette and I once again loaded as much of our gear as possible on Wednesday afternoon during a break in the weather so as to make life easier the next morning.
On Thursday morning 5 June, there were still intermittent showers of rain as we had expected but we managed to finish the loading in good time. We said our goodbyes to Gesina and then left for Montagu where we stopped off for a bottle of Red Jeripigo, before proceeding along the R318 via the Keisie and the Koo to the N1.
We were hoping there would be snow on the road between the Koo and the N1. Half way up Rooihoogte we pulled off because we thought Snorre needed a toilet stop. After walking round the Vito twice and inspecting the area in general he decided it was far too wet and way too cold, so we got back into the vehicle and set off again. At the top of Rooihoogte (1234 metres) the temperature had dropped to 2.5° Celsius but the only snow was far way on the high mountains to the west and south. There was even a light dusting of snow on the mountain behind Kopbeenskloof and also on the mountain to the west of Leeuwenboschfontein, but nothing closer. There were little bits in amongst the Renosterbos next to the road, but certainly nothing to get excited about. From the N1 we headed home down the N1, once again taking the scenic route over Du Toitskloof Pass instead of through the tunnel. Back home in Brackenfell we discovered that the hail that had fallen there earlier in the day and on the previous day, had knocked several holes in the roof of our car port and back stoep. The unloading was delayed several times by showers of rain, but eventually it was all done and Lynnette and I went off to the Old Oak Diner for a well-earned plate of fries and a vegetarian pizza. Back home we did some serious catching up on e-mails before bedtime.
Visit to the Durr Family in Malmesbury,10 May 2014
In Die Burger of 21 April 2014 an article by Blanche de Vries titled “Seun met swak sig maak deurbraak” (Eng. Boy with poor sight makes a breakthrough) caught Lynnette’s eye and she filed it with the intention that we would try and include Pieter-Jans Durr in our outreach plans for 2014. Lady Luck was on our side because in the meantime, Dr Wanda Diaz-Merced, the blind astrophysicist from Puerto Rico, paid South Africa a visit, and was based at the International Astronomical Union’s Office for Development on the premises of the Southern African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Observatory, Cape Town.
We mentioned Pieter-Jans to Wanda on Friday during discussions following her farewell lunch at the SAAO, and she expressed interest in meeting Pieter-Jans. So when we arrived home, Lynnette set about contacting the Durr Family. There were five numbers listed for the surname Durr, but the very first number she tried turned out to be the jackpot: it was Pieter-Jans’s grandmother. Wanda was due to address a combined parents and teachers meeting on Saturday morning at the Athlone School for the Blind in Bellville South but she would be finished by 10:30 or shortly afterward. We picked her up shortly after 11:00 and headed for Malmesbury. It rained intermittently on the way to Malmesbury, but we arrived on time at the Durr residence where we were warmly welcomed by Mrs Marie Durr, Pieter-Jans’s mother.
While we waited for Pieter-Jans, Marie filled us in on the family background. Pieter-Jans is the youngest of four children and he and his two older sisters all suffer from retinitis pigmentosa, generally abbreviated to RP. His eldest sister attended the Pioneer School in Worcester before transferring back to a mainstream school in Malmesbury to complete her high schooling. She then went on to complete a BA (Law) degree at the University of Stellenbosch. The second daughter matriculated at the Pioneer School in Worcester earning a place amongst the top ten in the Western Province. She is currently working on a master’s degree in Psychology at the University of Stellenbosch. Pieter-Jans’s brother has no visual impediment. He is a very capable Rugby player and is currently completing a degree in Physiotherapy at the University of Stellenbosch. Pieter-Jans himself was until recently a pupil at the Pioneer School in Worcester, but in 2014 he had expressed the wish transfer to the Swartland High School in his hometown, Malmesbury. By the time Wanda had related her background to Marie and we had finished the coffee and melktert, Pieter-Jans arrived.
Pieter-Jans admitted to knowing very little about astronomy, an omission which Wanda soon set about correcting with the aid of the posters from the “Touch the Invisible Sky” and “From the Earth to the Sky” series. She also presented him with the material she had brought along specifically to give to him. Wanda soon had Pieter-Jans completely at his ease, and before long they were engaged in a lively discussion about the posters which Pieter-Jans eagerly examined. Marie showed a keen interest in the posters and the discussion too, especially when Wanda pointed out the fact that only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum was visible to sighted people. By far the greater part had to be interpreted using instruments in any case, which is why she promotes converting signals to sound as a means for visually impaired people to participate in astronomy, because of their more acute hearing.
By the time Pieter-Jans’s father, John, arrived we were ready for the second round of coffee, melktert and rusks. John slipped effortlessly into the discussions and in-between talking, and sipping his coffee also took time to look at the posters. After coffee, John excused himself as he had promised to attend a rugby match in which his other son was playing. Before he left though we did take a photograph of the family.
Lynnette and I would like to thank Marie and John for welcoming us, total strangers, into their home and on such short notice too. We intend going back as soon as possible to visit Pieter-Jans and to expand his astronomy knowledge. On subsequent visits, we also hope to discuss astronomy with his classmates and his science teacher.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.