12 December – seeing stars

Seeing stars

12 Dec Mount John Observatory visitYesterday our hearts sank as the cloud thickened. Minute by minute the radar watchers at the observatory told different stories. It’ll be clearer tonight. No, tomorrow will be good. No, tonight will be better, tomorrow will be worse.

We looked up. Thickening cloud, a lonely point of light. This did not look promising. We’d wait for the midnight visit. We went down to the office, and said we’d leave it until tomorrow. Another “can’t control the weather” gamble. So back home to our cocoa!

Today, things started off cloudy, but the snowy peaks came through. We distracted ourselves with a horse trek, and couldn’t believe it as the evening sky cleared, until at 10.00 it looked as though we should see plenty of stars.

We checked in, accepted the offer of a thick coat, though we looked as though we were expecting to find ourselves in the English winter.

We squashed into two coaches, plumped by our jackets. The driver gave us a quick talk, then switched on a tape, with a soothing woman’s voice and some music. We stayed awake. The road to the observatory is closed at night, apart from the official buses. Even they have to switch off headlights as they climb up, and proceed on the glow-worm power of side-lights.We pile out of the buses, and divide into an English-speaking group, and a Chinese-speaking group. We make our way carefully out of the car-park, using our solar-powered key ring torches. Our guide points out some of the constellations using a laser pointer. This makes life easy for people like me!

The Southern Cross and the “pointer” stars alpha and beta-Centauri. I could find those myself, thanks to tuition from Harry. The Magellanic Clouds were as clear as I have seen them in my short experience as a stargazer. The Milky Way was glorious.

Then some of the constellations we see in the north – Orion, Canis Major rolling on his back for a tummy tickle, Taurus and Aries. The Pleiades. The planet Jupiter was clear and bright.

They had telescopes set up, so that we could view the Jewel Box cluster, one called the Wishing Well, like spread coins, and through a large telescope the Tarantula Nebula, and later Jupiter.

It was a brilliant end to our stay at Lake Tekapo.