Guest blog: Leo by night, lions by day

Posted by Karri Ferron
on Thursday, March 21, 2013

Nick Howes, a freelance science writer for the European Space Agency and the pro-am program manager for the Faulkes Telescope, provides a guest blog about a recent “Astro Safari” to the pristine skies of Tanzania.

The journey started at the UK 50 Space Conference, an event I only decided to attend at the last minute, due to the fantastic speaker lineup. Television producer and writer Tira Shubart, a friend with extensive experience in Africa as a journalist, approached me with the idea of leading a group on a tour of the skies near the equator as part of a safari tour managed by experienced outfitters African Environments.

For 30 years, African Environments has provided logistics and on-safari services to companies like the BBC and National Geographic, and worked on projects involving the legendary British broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. So it was with a huge amount of confidence in their ability to deliver a quite superb experience that I accepted.

The group visited Ngorongoro Crater, the largest unfilled volcanic caldera on Earth. // all photos courtesy Nick Howes
We specified telescopes for the trip, ones that had to be portable, easy to use (as we’d also be training up the local guides in their use), and able to run for hours on battery power, due to our remote locations — at the rim of Ngorongoro Crater, the largest unfilled volcanic caldera on Earth, and at the Nabi Hills on the edge of the world-famous Serengeti National Park.

The flights via Doha, Qatar, from London were excellent, and as part of the five-star experience we were heading to, we started our trip at the Arusha Hotel, famed for being the location where Howard Hawks took John Wayne and an all-star cast for one of the most ambitious films of the 1960s, Hatari!

We met up with the rest of our party, which included two high-profile journalists from the British press, a former cabinet maker from Portland, Oregon (who'd flown in via Ankara, Turkey, where he'd spent a few days), and a human rights lawyer, who was living in the U.S. but was born and raised in the UK and who'd flown in to Africa from the U.S direct.

In our rugged 4X4 vehicles, our two quite phenomenal tour guides from African Environments (and it’s no superlative, they were quite literally the best you could wish for) took us on the several-hour drive from the hotel and the comfortable roads of Arusha through the more bumpy roads that led up to our first camp. We stopped around 400 yards from the camp site to walk up to camp with the local Masai, who owned the land on which we were based and who’s chief, who spoke next to perfect English, would later join us for our first night’s dinner.

The group witnessed many lions on safari by day and had views of the celestial Leo the Lion at night.
The location had a spectacular view of the southern skies, completely uninterrupted in fact for around 220 degrees, and, well, what skies they were. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds just leapt out at you, and as a testament to the dark skies, the zodiacal light arched up like a beacon to pair up with the Milky Way, which stretched over our heads from horizon to horizon.

We’d picked a 4-inch Skywatcher ED series go-to refracting telescope setup paired up with a Starizona power pack and a good set of eyepieces. Set up of this whole arrangement took literally minutes, and with superb pointing accuracy, finding even obscure objects was a breeze.

After dinner on our second night, joined by the British High Commissioner to Tanzania and her family, along with Richard Beatty and his wife Janie, who run African Environments, we toured the skies in all their glory.

To say it was magical really would be an understatement — fantastic views of Jupiter, which was overhead (“Wow, are those the moons and clouds belts?"), followed by a tour of around 30 Messier objects, NGC targets, the aforementioned Magellanic Clouds, and a bonus huge fireball, which lit up the skies over Ngorongoro beautifully, had “oohs” and “aahs” coming from all. “That’s just amazing” was an often-used quote coming out of many of the guests, with views of cosmic wonders like 47 Tucanae and the Tarantula Nebula being ones that particularly drew sharp intakes of breath.

The fact we were also at altitude (around 6,000 feet) only made the skies seem even better. It was refreshing for me, too, doing visual observing rather than just putting a camera on the scopes, and my appreciation of people who just do visual observing was greatly enhanced as a result.

The beauty of being just a few degrees south of the equator in one of nature’s most astounding locations, where 1.5 million wildebeest mingle with leopards, cheetahs, lions (and we saw plenty of those each day), and numerous Rhino (we came across five in one day), is that you get the best of both the southern and northern skies.

The tour group gave the local Masai their first view of the Sun through a solar telescope.
We took along a Solarscope SV-50 Hydrogen-alpha telescope for daytime observing during our siesta periods (as the days started at 6 a.m.). The views of the Sun again were mesmerizing, not only for the guests but also for the local Masai, who had shared their tales of local star lore, but I suspect were quite unprepared for what they saw when they looked up at our nearest star. I think they will never look at it in the same way again after we had our tour guides explain that the “little fires” they could see on the edge were dozens of times bigger than our planet and the “black line” on the surface was a filament that would stretch most of the way from Earth to the Moon.

After a few days at Ngorongoro, we moved over to the Nabi Hills in the Serengeti. The camps really were first-class, with superb food served every day both on safari and back at camp. This really was not like the camping you would imagine. It's not often you can take a shower open to the skies with Orion directly overhead gazing down on you.

More NGC and Messier objects on the subsequent nights came after I had given a few sort talks on the objects we’d be seeing and had provided our guests with star maps. The barrage of questions I faced showed me just how enthralled the guests were with the star-viewing aspect of the safari, and the feedback from both them and the High Commissioner was that the idea was “inspired” and “what a wonderful time they had.”

On our final night, we were treated to views of the Southern Cross rising up from the Serengeti plains, the Milky Way again looming large, and Jupiter shining so bright that you almost thought it would cast a shadow on the ground — such was the darkness we were experiencing.

An impressive thunderstorm in the distance heralded some clouds, but nobody was in the least bit disappointed, as it gave us time to gather our thoughts as to what we’d witnessed. Nature at ground level delivering its finest and the universe overhead painting a tapestry the like of which none who were on this inaugural trip will ever forget.

With an “Astro Safari,” I feel you really get a full day and night of unrivaled and unparalleled experience. Nothing quite prepares you for the sight of the “migration” where millions of animals move across the plains, but then, for the guests, nothing quite prepared them (or me for that matter) for the sheer amazement of seeing so many objects due to the incredible skies that we were able to each night.

Our “Astro Safari” was a huge success, and we’re now working on a second trip in October this year (to learn more, visit http://www.leobynight.com/). But this time I am taking some cameras with me for deep-sky imaging — it’s just too tempting not to.

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