The Sky Is The Limit
'No sight is more provocative of awe than is the night sky' – Llewelyn Powys
story Meghan Spilsbury, photos S.Potter/Saao and Hotel de Larache in Atacama
There are a few things in life that capture one's attention so fully that it takes a sharp snapping of a friend's fingers to bring you back to earth. Among them, the dancing flames of a crackling fire, a natural disaster or an unexplainable miracle. And then, of course, there is the natural wonder that is the universe, made up of galaxies, planets, stars, energies and intergalactic wonders. It's the perfect place to get lost for hours – your eyes and mind held captive in a state of sheer awe and fascination... welcome to out-of-space!
Our fascination with stars and the night sky normally starts at a young age. It could be because we as humans are on a constant quest to discover, explain and learn, or it could quite simply be because the words 'twinkle, twinkle, little star' have been resonating in our minds since it was sung to us at the tender age of one!
The exciting thing about the night sky is that it is always changing, offering you hours upon hours of peaceful and serene entertainment. But then again, it all depends on what you are looking for – it could be that you’ve put observing the Northern Lights at the top of your bucket list, or that you simply enjoy throwing down a blanket and scanning the skies for those racy satellites… regardless of your mission, the sky is the limit for your enjoyment. So, no matter if you're an avid astronomer or amateur stargazer there are a few basic tips you should follow to ensure you get the most out of your night-time experience.
Pick a clear but moonless night. If you had to put all the stars in the sky in a boxing ring against the moon then the stars wouldn't stand a chance – the moon is simply far too bright. You will see the most stars on a night when the moon is new and there is not a cloud in sight. A common phenomenon occurs if the clouds do happen to roll on over – it's been deemed ‘a common eclipse of everything!’
According to Rebecca Rulz, author of World's Best Places to see the Stars, most people believe that they've already seen the ultimate sparkling spectacle that is the night sky. In truth, genuine dark skies as originally intended by Mother Nature are, in fact, very rare. City slickers can usually only see up to 500 stars… while in the more undisturbed, rural areas some 15000 stars make their shining debut in the trailing Milky Way. If you're dedicated enough to venture out into the wilderness, you may be lucky enough to see up to 30 or more meteors per hour!
'You can no longer just take a short drive from the city and look at the Milky Way or the Northern Lights,' says Chad Moore, a board director for the International Dark Sky Association. 'Now it's quite an endeavour to find those dark places.'
Take a perch!
Stargazing isn't a five-minute process, so make sure you're comfortable and relaxed. If you're roving far from home, make sure you have some reclining chairs or a cosy blanket – something that will allow you to stare upwards for a couple of hours without getting a stiff neck!
Apart from just having your blanket to keep you warm and comfy, we recommend that you take a few other items along on your stargazing experience, as they are sure to aid and entertain you!
Binoculars A pair of binos will enable you to see things in the sky that much clearer, making constellations easier to identify and satellites easier to track!
Star Identifying Phone Apps Android offers a free application called Sky Map, while iPhone sports Star Walk and Sky Map. To use these genius inventions, all you have to do is simply hold your phone to the night sky and they will identify the celestial objects for you. Almost like a Q Code scanning app!
An ocean open to discovery, the night sky is there for all to enjoy, but where exactly are the best places to admire her beauty? We researched some of the world's most fantastic locations for stargazing, but we should warn you, though, some of these destinations may require a complex travelling blueprint!
According to Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2009, the McDonald Observatory in Texas offers a night-time like none other. Head 2 040 metres above sea-level to the top of Mount Locke, where you'll find the McDonald Observatory, one of the only places on earth to experience such dark skies. You're guaranteed to have an awe-inspiring view of the cosmos in all its celestial splendour. If you are looking to meet some like-minded people who also have stars in their eyes, the observatory holds regular star parties, enabling you to look through the massive telescopes that send astronomers' enthusiasm levels sky-rocketing into outer space!
It is hard to compete with our next destination as not many places can offer a combination of warm air that brushes over a tropical island carrying with it the intoxicating scents of jasmine and salt water, and a blanket of glittering jewels dancing in the skies overhead. Indeed, the Caribbean islands are a paradise found. Find a quiet spot on the beach and enjoy a bottle of rum while you fix your eyes on the sky and listen to the waves lapping at your feet!
Over and over we are told that history is our best teacher and, in the case of the stars, the Incas were the master historians. For them, gazing up into the sky was about so much more than just admiration and horoscopes… it was a celestial roadmap, a pathway to be followed. Priests and pilgrims used the ribbon of sprinkled light as a route map for parallel earthbound pilgrimages. Now not only a site perfect for stargazing, Peru offers visitors a chance to connect with the great night-sky interpreters, stepping where they stood and gazing where they gazed!
Taking the striking initiative to protect the earth from light pollution, Slovenia is one step closer to becoming a stargazing paradise since it passed its first light-pollution law. It has been estimated by the International Dark Sky Association that Slovenia will save up to €10-million a year on power as well as help fight the earth's battle against dangerous greenhouse-gas emissions: a perfectly literal example of Oscar Wilde's words: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’
Sometimes when you are searching for something, your quest will lead you right back to the very place you started. Home to some of the world's best-known astronomical observatories, our beloved South Africa offers some of the best night-sky viewing experiences. Take a trip to the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest telescope in Africa. Situated on a hill near Sutherland in the Cape, SALT attracts astronauts, astronomers, engineers, students and anyone who shares a passion for the skies –and it's a mere four-hour drive from the bright lights of Cape Town. Passing through the Cederberg, both are brilliant places to observe the skies and look up into the darkness as the stars smile down upon you.
And now for the grandaddy of stargazing destinations, one that will leave your jaw on the ground and your feet longing to break free of gravity. The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the driest and highest deserts on earth, making the sky as dark as a black velvet cushion. Its southern hemisphere location comes with the added bonus of giving visitors access to sights unavailable to northern hemisphere observers. Be sure to do your research before you head off, though, as the Atacama is barren and sparsely populated – we wouldn’t want anyone to be forced to attempt a Bear Grylls mission!
WALK INTO THE LIGHT
They may be the main players on the night-time field, but glittering, shining stars are by no means the crescendo to nature's nocturnal musical. Compared to the majestic streaks of colour that dance across the sky in a silent ballet of beauty dubbed the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis, twinkling stars stand as mere spectators, witnessing natural wizardry at its very best!
Not the type of light that can be controlled by a domestic dimmer switch, Aurora Borealis refers to a natural phenomenon that occurs in the northern hemisphere, as far as 300 kilometres above the earth. Air molecules collide with electrically charged solar winds blowing across the planet’s magnetic field. The collision causes the air to light up – much the same as in the case of fluorescent tubes and neon lights.
The colour variation depends on the gases in the air, explains author of Astronomy Gastronomy.
To avoid trekking to the other side of the world only to be greeted by disappointment, make sure you plan your Northern Lights adventure during the right time, in the right place and with the right people. The best time to witness these leaping ribbons of colour is in autumn through to spring, when the nights are black, the perfect backdrop to bright lights in an array of different colours. Cloudy conditions as well as a full moon are a ‘no-no’, as too much light is absorbed into the atmosphere, thereby preventing the sky's true colour from showing. Be sure to venture out late into the night or first thing in the morning when the air is crisp and clear, giving you the same sensation as when you take a deep breath in after a minty-fresh chewing gum! Avoid freezing your toes off by double-checking the lights forecast – it is advised that you check local weather and lunar calendars before heading out into the sub-zero temperatures. A perfect example of how important it is to check forecasts and of how temperamental these shy lights can be, Bill Bryson famously ventured off to view the Aurora Borealis in Norway. He ended up staying a month waiting for the clouds to clear.
The most common answer as to where the best viewing spots for the Northern Lights are is quite simple: north! Head as far north as possible. The Arctic Circle has been labelled the best place on earth to see the Northern Lights. This vast circle encompasses the harsh wilderness of Siberia in Russia, the Yukon Territory and the North West Territories in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and the northernmost reaches of Norway, Swedish Lapland and Finland. Yes, we know what you're thinking – most of these destinations are very inconvenient to travel to and can be very expensive, so if you're looking for the cheapest option possible, your best bet is to plan a trip to Scotland and, in particular, the chilly Northern Highlands and the Isle of Skye.
To justify exploring the other Northern Light territories, you may find it more feasible to plan an adventurous vacation that includes activities such as sledding, snow safaris and cruising… that way the Northern Lights will be the cherry on top of the cake rather than the sponge that holds the whole thing together.
If you decide to plan a cruise with viewing the Northern Lights as your primary objective, be sure to research the cruises that are properly designed and strategically plotted to avoid the disappointment of not seeing the lights on the voyage.
No matter where in the world you are, if you have a curiosity for the unknown, take some time out of your busy schedule and share a moment with the sky. Home to wishes, dreams and a trillion asterisks but no explanations, the night sky is
destined to keep you spellbound and interested for hours. It’s nature's way of keeping the earth entertained!