Travelogues, Part 3: To the Karoo

Welcome to my series of posts about my research trip to South Africa in June/July! See also parts one and two

(As usual, all writing on this blog is solely my opinion and does not reflect the attitudes of any of my projects, institutions, colleagues, etc…)

June 23: Wait… wait… wait… GO!

Today, we wake, knowing this is the day we set forth. Well, hoping that this is the day we set forth since we’ve already been delayed by a customs snafu. Supposedly, our telescope parts were en route from Johannesburg to Cape Town the night before, though FedEx’s online page still says they are in Germany. After many calls back and forth, we find that, indeed two big wooden crates have arrived in Cape Town, but only four boxes, when we were expecting five. Okaaaay…

As we wait for a truck to deliver our goodies to the SKA office, I lie in the back of our empty trailer, staring at the sky which is, for the first time this trip, starting to clear. I admire the first quarter moon in the sky…. wait, what? It’s late morning, why the hell am I seeing the first qua…. oooooOOOOOoooooo. Right, Southern Hemisphere! It’s a nearly 3rd quarter moon, but to me, having lived my whole life in the Northern Hemisphere, it seems “backwards!” Finally, I get my first taste of visual astronomy below the equator. I can only hope that the Karoo is not as cloudy as Cape Town has been so that I can see the night sky.

"Every planet has a north..."

So, finally, this little truck arrives, way too little to have all of our stuff. It has one crate in it, and no jack or lift or anything. Oh, and we have to follow him to the airport to confirm and pick up the rest. What can we do put cross our fingers and hop in the truck, and follow him to the FedEx building at the airport! There were indeed two crates after all, and Pat confirmed that they were ours. The driver of the small truck turned out to be rather skillful in using a crate jack to maneuver our two crates into the tow trailer attached to our bakkie (aka, pickup truck) so that they just fit! Then we went around to the other side of the airport for the boxes, and discovered that two had been grouped into a bag so that it seemed like just four. FINALLY, we could breathe a sigh of relief! All our parts are here. We can build a 64-element array! And so, we head east with our prize.

The landscape slowly changed from lush and green, to sort of green-ish, to desert brown as we drove into the Northern Cape and into the Karoo. We ate at a fast food chain called Wimpy’s, which we later decided would never go over in the US on account of the name. As the day gives way to night, my face is literally pressed up on the glass of the truck as I marvel at the stars. Well, for a few seconds before my breath fogs up the glass. For the first time in several years, I am completely LOST among alien constellations! But you have to get out of the car to see the Milky Way is all of its dust-lane-ridden, bulgy, beautiful splendor. I finally get that chance when we reach the field station just a little ways from the telescope site for a quick visit with the site manager. What can I say? I was stunned…

(Since you couldn’t be there, enjoy this lovely time lapse video of the sky from Australia by Alex Cherney, which I saw on Bad Astronomy.)
[vimeo 24253126 w=500 h=281]

Ocean Sky from Alex Cherney on Vimeo.

Finally, we make it to site, and damn, it is cold! I move into my little third of a trailer with my space heater and electric blanket, and settle in for the night before I finally get to see the southern twin of the array that I’ve been using in Green Bank for years.

Stay tuned for more of the story interspersed with what I hope to be a regular blogging schedule on my usual favorite topics!

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