A Glimpse of the Universe

If you try to gaze at what lies beyond the hazy edge of our atmosphere, you usually end up completely blinded by the light of our closest star and the sky stays desperately empty and blue. However, as the Earth continues swirling the Sun eventually disappears behind the horizon and for a brief instant, we can contemplate the universe in which we really are. Dark, cold, immensely vertiginous but teeming with stars, galaxies and other worlds to admire or dream about.

Leaving the tumultuous cloudy sky of the rainy season, the dry and cool winter of KZN usually offers a clear night sky. And as the night falls early, I like taking that moment with my guests before going back to the lodge. We find a nice open spot, I stop the car and switch off the lights. Often guests from the northern hemisphere start looking for the Plough, of Big Dipper; early winter is actually the best chance to spot it in the southern hemisphere. Of course the constellation Ursa Major is never completely visible here, but between April and June, right after the sunset, you can see the tail and legs of the bear quickly disappearing below the horizon. Bears are quite skittish, if ever seen, in Africa! Our main winter constellation is the Scorpion, with Antares as its red heart. The Milky Way is also clearly visible, high in the sky, together with its two satellite galaxies, the Magellanic (or Cape) Clouds. Planets can also be seen, according to their wandering.

But if having a glimpse of our universe is certainly a great moment to enjoy, the starry sky is also a perfect scenery to let our imagination go. Most of the constellations in the southern sky come from Greek mythology (Orion, Hydra, Centaurus…) or the observations of French astronomer Louis-Nicolas de Lacaille in Cape Town during the 18th century, who named them after modern discoveries of the Enlightenment (Antlia [the air pump], Circinus [the compass] or also Horologium [the pendulum clock]), but African tribes and people also observed those stars and created their own legends and tales. One story I particularly like comes from the Kung Bushmen and it says that stars fall to the ground each morning and exist on Earth as insects, then every evening they rise up again in the sky. For others, they are tiny porcupines, antlions, or sand of the moon… The Milky Way is a pathway taken by the ancestor spirits, or a route to return home safely at night… meteors are the trails of celestial cattle hastening to new grazing in another part of the sky…

Other cultures in the world also have interesting interpretations of the sky. The Aboriginal Australians looked at the dark patches within the Milky Way and saw them as a giant emu across the sky, the head is what we now call the “Coalsack Nebula”. I like this one, maybe we could keep it for ourselves, with an ostrich? And why not believing everything? The Universe is too big and life is too short to even try to explore and understand all of it. So if you want to stop and take a small moment to look at the bright eyes of a celestial beast staring back at you from a realm beyond earthly and human conditions, why not?

Story by Vincent Hindson

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