For those of us used to city life, the night skies seen on cloudless tramps are always impressive. The reason is simply explained by the light pollution map. However we rarely have someone on a trip who can explain what we are seeing at night, so hence the idea for this trip to learn more about the night skies.
The trip was to attend the Startdate 2018 annual event at Stonehenge Aotearoa near Carterton over the Wellington Anniversary weekend, organised by the Phoenix Astronomical Society. It was a weekend camping in a paddock next to the Stones, with lectures, excursions, music and of course night sky viewing. The option of no tramping attracted a relaxed crowd of 9 members. We kept the organisation simple, with people self registering, travelling in their own cars, bringing all the comfortable camping gear they could fit in the boot, with chilly bins to keep the drinks cool as the Chief Guide had relaxed the no-alcohol rule. 🙂
Everyone arrived independently at the site late Friday afternoon/early evening and after setting up tents in the field, donned our registration badges to attend presentations on: the 12 brightest stars, upcoming lunar eclipses, establishing a Mars colony and the summer night sky. We then stood outside with necks craned as Ian Cooper demonstrated his encyclopaedic knowledge of stars and constellations navigating us around the sky with a laser pointer. I can now find the Pleiades! Very effective.
No sleeping in on Saturday morning as the rising sun uncomfortably warmed the tents. After a leisurely breakfast sat around in camp chairs, we took the morning programme option of a wine tasting at Gladstone Vineyard. Car sharing to minimise drivers, we arrived early at the wrong vineyard next door, but it gave us the chance of a pre-wine coffee at Gladstone Tavern. Wine tasting was accompanied with a cheese and salami platter, so that was also lunch for some.
With the Wairarapa temperatures rising above 30C, in the afternoon we headed to Waiohine Gorge for a welcome swim. Last year’s slip near the road end was cleared before Christmas, so the campsite was busy, but plenty of room down in the cool, but not too cold river. With time in the river and with shopping in Carterton on the way back for the evening BBQ, we missed the afternoon presentation on plate tectonics, but made it for the event photo at the Stones. The evening programme include the rise and fall of the Mayan civilisation and live music to take us into the dark hours. Some early cloud quickly disappeared and provided another excellent night of star viewing into the early hours with the enthusiasts sharing viewing through their large telescopes.
Another early heat driven rise on Sunday got us to the Wild Oats in Carterton for a cooked breakfast. There was a morning event option of a Pinnacles trip, but most of us had been before and it was eventually cancelled due to numbers. From 11am we did the routine daily 2 hour Stonehenge tour, learning how the Stones are not a replica of the UK Stonehenge, but are built on the same principles for the New Zealand skies. We take it for granted these days how accurate clocks and calendars govern our lives, but the movements of the sun, moon and stars were as important to our ancestors. Our time measurements are an approximation to solar times, requiring regular (leap) adjustments to keep the seasons in step with the calendar. For example the length of a solar day is only 24 hours long on four occasions during the year and varies by up to plus or minus 20 minutes in between.
With another very hot day, there was no group dissent to another river swimming trip, this time to the Tauherenikau at Bucks Road Campsite. Easy access with big deep pools. Another shopping stop at Greytown on the way back replenished food for another evening BBQ. Some managed to catch the last afternoon presentation on time travel. With cloud coming in on Sunday evening, it was not going to be a viewing night, so after a late evening fun quiz to close the weekend event, we relaxed in camp chairs with a drink around a non-existent camp fire.
Rain replaced the heat for a dawn awakening on Monday, so unfortunately we had to pack up wet tents for our journeys home. In summary, it was a different club trip, but having a base camp with interesting stuff to do and the flexibility to wander seemed to be enjoyed by all.