On the road: Australia eclipse trip, days 6-8

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Sunday, November 25, 2012

Our hike into the canyon at Kata Tjuta revealed an impressive landscape with mammoth formations. // all photos by Michael and Holley Bakich
Now that I'm back from Australia and stuffed with turkey, I can share the details of the end of my trip. On the day after the total solar eclipse, the Astronomical Tours group was on cruise control. We'd seen the eclipse, so it was time to visit Australia's interior. That morning, we all boarded two flights (only 30 minutes apart) headed to Uluru, the country's colossal natural wonder formerly known as Ayers Rock. After an easy 2.5-hour flight, we arrived at a small airport with a long runway.

Our bus shuttled us to our resort, where we checked in, ate lunch, and relaxed for a few hours. With a temperature of 104° Fahrenheit (40° Celsius), high winds, and a dust storm active, our guide felt it would be too taxing on us to head out before 3:30 p.m. When we did embark, we headed to Kata Tjuta, a formation similar to Uluru, though less well-known. We trekked a couple of miles into a canyon along some of the most impressive scenery I've encountered. We couldn't go too far or deviate from our route because the land belongs to the indigenous Aborigines, and they consider it sacred.

At one point during our evening 'sunset colors' trip to Uluru, the entire rock disappeared because of a sandstorm. Our guide said he'd never before seen it vanish in the seven years he's been taking people there.
After a couple of hours, we headed to a well-used spot where people watch for sunset colors on Uluru. Astronomical Tours had arranged a wine-and-cheese reception for us, and our group tore into it like a swarm of locusts. I have seldom seen such quantities of veggies, chips, hummus, crackers, dips, salmon, wine, juice, and soda disappear so quickly ... or so thoroughly. And that with our scheduled dinner only an hour away.

Because of the dust storm, which at one point totally obscured Uluru, our viewing was less than fulfilling. Well, the touristy thing to do is to not give up, but to try to see the rock at sunrise. So we did that the following morning. We assembled on the eastern side, between the Sun and Uluru. It was nice to see the rock a little closer, but the clouds covered the Sun too much to give us that famous red glow.

After going back to the hotel for breakfast, we boarded our bus and headed in close to Uluru. With our guide, Tony, in the lead, we walked into another gorge area. Up close, the rock is incredibly textured, giving it an almost fabric-like appearance. All of the divots, chunks, cracks, and ridges are really beautiful. We also got to see some Aboriginal rock art. This area has been used for centuries, so this rock had many images layered over who knows how many others.

Holley Bakich was one of 22 members of the Astronomical Tours group who arose in the early morning hours to explore King's Canyon. Because a small amount of rain had fallen only a week earlier, the plants appeared surprisingly lush. We even found a meters-deep water hole filled nearly to the brim.
The rest of the  Australian people don't really know what any of it means, and the Aboriginal people aren't telling. There was also a large water hole — the most reliable around Uluru. Pretty much all of the water accumulates and runs there. The creation story of Uluru has to do with a great fight between two mythic snakes, and visitors can see both "imprinted" on the rock.

Next, our group traveled by bus to Kings Canyon, another natural wonder to hike before visiting Alice Springs.

Most of the Astronomical Tours group staying at the King's Canyon Resort gathered after supper beneath a clear, dark Southern Hemisphere sky. The two-day-old Moon hung low in the west among the stars of the constellation Sagittarius the Archer, and set shortly after we set up. About the same time, Jupiter rose in the east. It lay in a rich star field in Taurus the Bull. We used a couple of the resort's bath towels to cover really bright walkway lights.

Now, no offense if one of those patterns is your favorite constellation, but we can see them from northern locations. Instead, the assembled observers turned their collective gaze southward. The most prominent star, already risen in the southeast, was Canopus, the lucida of Carina the Keel and the night sky's second-brightest star. At our location 25° south of the equator, it rose well before Sirius, the sun ranked number one in brightness.

The Australian Red Gum tree has another name: the widow maker. Natives labeled it such because at times, without warning, large branches have broken off and killed those standing under it.
But there was more. Above and to the right of Canopus, the two Magellanic Clouds hung above the South Celestial Pole. Named for the first western observer to record them — Ferdinand Magellan — these celestial wonders are satellite galaxies of our Milky Way. And half of our group had never seen them.

Every person there had binoculars, and two brought telescopes. Jen Winter had a 5-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope (SCT), and John Volk brought a 4-inch refractor.

Jen pointed the SCT at the Large Magellanic Cloud and sought out the famous Tarantula Nebula. John targeted the Small Magellanic Cloud and its nearby neighbor, 47 Tucanae (NGC 104), the sky's second-brightest globular cluster. We were on our way. I pointed out obscure constellations, suggested deep-sky targets, and answered questions as we moved from one object to the next.

We closed up shop some three hours later because some of us intended to go on a three-hour ridge line hike overlooking King's Canyon that started at 5:30 the following morning. And although we had to cut it a bit short, for me, it was another memorable session under the southern sky.

To so all the pictures from my trip, visit the Trips & Tours area at www.Astronomy.com/readergallery.

Related blogs:
On the road: Australia eclipse trip, eclipse day
On the road: Australia eclipse trip, days 3 and 4
On the road: Australia eclipse trip, day 1

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