Monday, February 13, 2012

stargazing by the Gamsberg

When I woke up on Saturday morning, there was a Woerman Brock shopping cart on my lawn. My phone was lying in a pool of something mysteriously wet and sticky. There were bite marks in my cheese. My glasses were nowhere in sight. I found myself blindly trying to put together pieces from the previous night, much like the movie The Hangover. This was the morning after my "kitchen party", my Namibian bachelorette.

But if you think that this blog entry is about that, you must remember: what happens in Klein Windhoek stays in Klein Windhoek (not that anything as crazy as The Hangover happened...I think). Instead, let's talk about my camping trip over the weekend.

In retrospect, I'm not sure why I thought it was a good idea to go on a long road trip the morning after my big party. The car ride was not pleasant, not for me anyway. The road to Gamsberg Mountain was all unpaved dirt road with many potholes, so the car would often lurch and swerve and slow down and speed up at precisely the right rhythm that my stomach did not want it to go. Sometimes cattle would randomly stand in the road and we'd have to crawl to a stop, engaging in an intense staring contest with the cow until it decided to move. Not to mention that Julia had forgotten to fill up on gas before we left, and the thing with Namibia is that there are many long long stretches of road without gas stations.

Eventually we arrived at our destination, and I was glad to get out of the car, my head and stomach still spinning. We weren't going to climb Gamsberg Mountain that weekend, which has been described as Namibia's Table Mountain and has been described by Wikipedia as a mountain that a bunch of people unsuccessfully tried to climb a bunch of times until the 1970s when some hardcore folks finally did it. That seemed a little ambitious the morning after a bachelorette party. Instead, we set up our tents in Hakos, a privately owned farm several kilometres away. Mark was very very excited about this place because it was advertised as an astrofarm. "It is an ASTROfarm, folks. They farm STARS."

tent city

we did not get to swim in this pool

After setting up our tents, some of us decided to go for a short hike while the others stayed behind to "keep an eye on our campsite" (read: start drinking). Feeling like I was never going to drink alcohol again, I went with the hikers. It was a lovely hike. The scenery was gorgeous: we were surrounded by the rolling mountains that Namibia is famous for, those short trees that are pretty to look at and thorny to touch, sand paths that remind you that you are so close to the Namib desert, and a general sense of beautiful emptyness, like you just might be the only living soul for miles around, which leaves you with a strange sense of infinity, an appreciation for just how small you are in the context of the universe. Which is what Namibia is great for.

By the time we headed back to camp, the others were still drinking, despite their promises that they would have dinner ready. So we set up a fire and began cooking up some boerewors sausages. The Americans began a debate with Namibians about whether braais were better than barbecues. If you ask me, of course, Korean bbq surpasses all forms of meat grilling.

i set up my tent to have a perfect view of the sunset

We watched the sun go down as we ate dinner, and then the group split into two again, with the drinkers staying behind to mind the fire while the hikers heading to the farm house to go stargazing.

Hakos is located so far in the middle of nowhere that it offers one of the best locations around to observe the night sky. It's got two observatories, but even just standing in the field with our naked eye, we could see so much more of the night sky than one could back in Windhoek. I was particularly eager to go stargazing here because the southern sky is different from what you can see in the northern hemisphere. I've spent a lot of time looking at stars in the country back in Canada, falling in love with the Big Dipper and Alpha Ursae Minoris (the North Star). Now that I was in the southern hemisphere for the first time in my life, I wanted to see all those stars that you couldn't see at home.

It was a perfect cloudless night, it being several days after the last full moon, which is apparently when the ideal stargazing period starts. The Milky Way was a bright streak across the whole sky, something which we don't get to see very often.

The most important constellation to see for me, of course, was the Southern Cross, which points to the spot of the sky that is directly over the south pole. Our guide had a nifty green laser pointer that was strong enough to point towards stars (he admitted that the laser may or may not be illegal in certain parts of the world). Using his pointer, he also showed us Sirius, one of the brightest stars in the sky (and also a Harry Potter character), Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to ours, and a number of other stars, some of which we could only spot through his telescope. We saw Jupiter, which was reflected much brigther than I'd ever expect a planet to be reflected. I saw the Pleiades, one of the few constellations that I can recognize on my own, which was a bit of a comfort since I've spent a lot of time looking at it back home too.

Also impressively, I saw the full Orion constellation, which lies close to the equator and so can also be seen from both the North and South hemispheres. Usually I can only recognize his belt, but the sky was so cloudless and free of urban light pollution that I could see his full body, and for the first time, understand how the constellation was supposed to be a man posing with his weapons. Usually someone will point to a bunch of stars and tell me "that's a bull/fish/woman", and I just think, "Right, sure it is...if you're on drugs." But Orion, for once, made sense. He was standing on his head though.

What was the coolest, though, were the two Magellanic Clouds. At first I just through they were two clouds in the sky, that is, our sky. Instead, I found out that they were Megallanic clouds, dwarf galaxies near the Milky Way which can only be seen from the southern hemisphere. But seen by the naked eye. I don't know why, but I was really impressed by the fact that I could see these dwarf galaxies without a telescope, just standing in this field looking up. It all went very well with Andrew's nalgene bottle of red wine.

gamsberg mountain