This story was first published in the July 2015 issue of SA COUNTRY LIFE.
🕒 10-minute read
Star-struck in the Overberg
So you want to see the Big Five of the African sky? Visionary locals are making the seaside town of Hermanus a star-studded centre for amateur astronomy, says Judy Bryant.
Locals and tourists keen to see the Big Five of Africa might no longer head to their nearest game park, but instead, drive to the one-time fishing village of Hermanus that has become the Overberg’s main resort area.
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A sky full of stars
Here, a local society run by passionate volunteers will help you spot the five most spectacular deep-sky treasures of the Southern Hemisphere: the exotically named Eta Carinae bright nebula, the Southern Pleiades open star cluster, the Coal Sack dark nebula, the Omega Centauri globular star cluster and the Milky Way galaxy.
‘Prepare to be overwhelmed’, warned an email from the Hermanus Astronomy Centre chairman, Dr Pierre de Villiers, when I made plans to attend a monthly meeting of this volunteer-run club to find out more.
I certainly didn’t expect my trip to include a visit to the ultimate man cave (a bespoke home observatory) or to meet people with sufficient chutzpah to persuade America’s Minor Planet Center to rename an asteroid after their town. Members’ ambitious plans even include building a scale model of the sun and the planets along the coastline, an amphitheatre for stargazing and an observatory.
The story of Hermanus and science goes way back to the early 1940s, when an electric railway line came to Cape Town. This disturbed the readings of its magnetic observatory and the facility was relocated to what was once the sleepy village called Hermanuspietersfontein.
A meeting of minds
That night’s topic was astrophotography and giving the lecture was the former chief of the navy, the tall and dry-humoured Johan Retief. Advising “patience, lots of endurance and a good repertoire of swear words,” Johan showed us how to piggyback a camera on top of a telescope, which was wrapped in a black T-shirt so that reflections from its optical tube didn’t mar the spectacular images.
My mind reeled as I digested instructions such as “to achieve good tracking, ensure that the polar axis is in the meridian” and I was intrigued to find out more about these star-struck enthusiasts who enjoy Eskom blackouts and download Android apps called Heavens-Above.
Member and clinical psychologist Toekie Oberholzer certainly wasn’t kidding when she said, “This is the smartest group of people I’ve ever encountered in one room.” Their professions included a variety of sciences – from veterinary to nuclear physics – as well as electronic engineering, aviation, business and academia. “Members have ranged from a child of six to pensioners, with the membership totalling 115 at its peak.”
Laura Norris, for example, puts her knowledge of accounting to good use as the centre’s treasurer. She’s known to nip outside her retirement complex in Sandbaai, binoculars in hand, to scan the night sky. Vice-chairperson Jenny Morris, a former physiotherapy lecturer, edits the club newsletter and is running a series on female astronomers. “You are effectively writing a social history.”
Former airline pilot Peter Harvey, the centre’s secretary, read a few books on astronomy as a schoolboy and would spot constellations with his own young family. Now he’s responsible for posting monthly sky maps on the website. “I am also researching star lore among first-nation peoples.”
For the love of stars
There are fans of the centre throughout the Overstrand, from Rooi Els to Gansbaai, although anybody is welcome to join in. The menu includes monthly lectures, stargazing events in the town and visits to areas like Sutherland and the Cederberg. There are educational programmes for local schools, home-schooled children and their parents, and Boy Cubs and camping groups.
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The society has even shown learners how to log on to and control a telescope at the McDonald Observatory near Austin, Texas. This was done via the internet from the Hermanus High School’s computer room – under the guidance of Dr Rick Hessman, the director of the Institute for Astrophysics in Gottingen, Germany, through a Skype link to his home.
Next morning my mind was still spinning like the moons of Jupiter when I was collected for a tour by Pierre. His interest in astronomy was piqued when his wife presented him with a telescope for his 60th birthday.
“One of the ways the centre is helping to support and showcase astronomy is by erecting a number of unusual sundials in the town,” said Pierre. “These are created by members, using local materials and different designs, to illustrate the scientific point that even unfamiliar designs and orientations give the same end result.”
Our first stop was Swallow Park, where the centre has installed two back-to-back sundials as part of this park’s upgrading. Pierre peered at a complex array of hour lines, shadows and planes. “The northern, south-facing sundial is a polar design, while the southern, north-facing sundial is an even rarer declining design.”
Then on to Gearing’s Point, a lookout place where people waited for fishermen to come back to the Old Harbour. Here there’s another complex sundial – an armillary sundial – which the youngsters from the Hermanus Youth Astronomy and Space Club at Lukhanyo Primary School helped finesse.
The indefatigable members next intend creating a model of a solar system. “It’ll stretch over 3.85km from Gearing’s Point to the Kwaaiwater parking terrain – with the sun at Gearing’s Point and the furthest planet, Neptune, at Kwaaiwater,” explained Pierre. “The sun and the planets will be on the correct scale: the sun will have a 1.2m diameter, and the Earth will have a 10.3mm diameter.”
The tourist attraction will include a model of Asteroid Hermanus, so named when the centre contacted Prof David Trilling, a professional astronomer at the Northern Arizona University in Flagstone, Arizona. David was willing to have Asteroid 260824, which he’d discovered in 2005, renamed Asteroid Hermanus.
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Another ambitious project is planned for the top of Rotary Way, a spectacular scenic drive that ends in a panoramic view of Walker Bay and the surrounding Overberg coastal region and Fernkloof Nature Reserve. “Here, we plan to erect an observatory and amphitheatre geared to educational outreach on fynbos and astronomy,” said Pierre. The funding will come from the National Lotteries Board. An environmentally aware architect will keep the building’s footprint as small and sustainable as possible, and it will comprise a 6m x 15m observatory with two roll-off roofs. It’ll be built from reinforced concrete – rather like a walk-in safe, clad in indigenous plants.
The interior will have two compartments, each housing a telescope pier and seating for 12 people. “The telescopes will include a venerable old Celestron 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain model donated by the University of Cape Town’s astronomy department after being in use for more than 30 years.” There will also be a sunrise observation wall and, naturally, many sundials in different designs.
Complementing all this volunteer activity is the South African National Space Agency (Sansa), which incorporates the former Hermanus Magnetic Observatory. As the only space-weather regional warning centre in Africa and one of only 17 in the world, it plays an important role in protecting technology on Earth and in space from the effects of space weather.
It also has a number of outreach activities, such as a school holiday programme. “You’re not going crazy if you see a mobile space lab driving around Hermanus – it’s just the staff demonstrating maths, science and engineering to local students,” said the programme’s communication a practitioner, Catherine Webster.
But possibly one of the most interesting invitations was to view Johan Retief’s observatory at his Fisherhaven home near the Bot River Lagoon. He’s collaborated with the local Wendy Hut manufacturer to create an observatory giving new meaning to the word shipshape. “My motto is ‘Te meet is om te weet’ (to measure is to understand),” he tells me.
In the middle is a sturdy wooden pole supporting his large 2.7m Maksutov computer-driven telescope or a smaller 900mm version. “The roof can be moved horizontally using a motorised 4×4 vehicle winch,” he explained. There’s a large battery driving the motor and telescope, a radio for music, and a neat blackout curtain sewn by his wife. Even Johan’s spectacles have small LED lights on the sidebars. With his faithful Labrador Kasper keeping watch outside, Johan then works through his monthly programme of astrophotography.
My final foray into this alternative universe was accepting a Friday night invitation to meet the centre members at Gearing’s Point, where they set up their telescopes for anyone wanting to check out the night sky.
I finally tracked them down in the darkness, clad in thick anoraks and with infrared lights strapped to their foreheads. Hand-held laser pointers raked the night sky as they picked out their targets. I just had time to glimpse a close-up of the Milky Way, when an icy gale blasted straight from the Antarctic, and I scuttled home to bed.
028 313 0109 [email protected]
Words Judy Bryant
Photography Judy Bryant; James Brink; Johan Brink; Supplied