Dec 29

Star gazing

by in Drawing & Writing

The bus had been idling for five minutes; it was now five minutes late. In each of the bus driver’s three apologies, his frustration increased. He was a short, tough, bowling ball of a man, and when at last he saw his prey, he swung the door open and barked, “Get your butt on the bus. I told you two minutes, and now you’ve held up the entire bus.”

Through a mouthful of hot pizza a skater guy mumbled, “Sorry.”

“Don’t say sorry,” the bus driver said. “It isn’t accepted.”

The skater’s friend slinked in behind. When they’d seated themselves, the driver grabbed the microphone. “One of the things about this service is it is very, very tight. We cannot make time up. So now we are six minutes behind schedule, and we cannot make that up.” He scowled at them through his sunglasses in the rearview mirror… and then scowled at them some more. After a quick feint down he flicked his head up once more for the culminating scowl. “If this were the Queenstown service, those two gentlemen before would have been walking.”

Two minutes later he’d forgotten the episode for the scores of red deer that lived on regional farms. He’d driven the route so often that he knew which deer had younglings out in the fields, and where to look to find them. As the trees passed by he named them one-by-one, and, off-hand, digressed into photosynthesis. He pointed to some hay rounds. “They’re gonna start making those squares instead of circles in the coming years,” he told the passengers. “That way the cows can get a good, square meal.” A few passengers groaned–which, by the look on his face, was exactly what he’d wanted. A golf course passed by, and he explained that one should never wear socks while golfing. “You might,” he looked in the mirror, “get a hole in one.” More groans, a few laughs. The ladies behind him were Maori, and he rattled off a Maori poem into the microphone. “If anyone can tell me what that means,” he said, “please do.” When the snow-covered alps swung into view, he said, “You can see some cumulous clouds just over the peaks there, and above them, quite a bit of stratus. Stratus means we’ll be having some wind this evening. We’ve got something called a tropical depression headed our way.”

All of this was terrible news. Our entire day was predicated on an absence of clouds, and the stratus looked impenetrable.

“If you’re wondering why I know these things,” he said, “it’s because I got my pilot’s license 12 years ago. Don’t fly anymore, but I did back then. Part of the training is to know how to read the clouds, and that’s a valuable thing. I was also in the police force for 22 years, in case you’re wondering, and worked as a medic for 6.”

By the end of the trip our driver had endeared himself so much to the passengers (save the two skaters) that a couple asked him for personal photographs, standing next to his bus.

The pictures never stopped. Lake Tekapo is a bright blue divot in the middle of the alps. Throw in the natural bouquets of Lupin flowers lining the streets and popping up in the grasses, and it’s photogenic to the point that you wonder if Walt Disney actually had a hand in it. Or I should say, the NATURAL beauty feels Disney-esque. The suburbs are thoughtless, and the business center is more of a bus stop going through puberty.

To the west, cumulous clouds continued to glide our way, far below the stratus. I said to Antje, “I don’t think you should go up Mt. John tonight,” and she agreed.

Flowers and lake aside, people stay at Lake Tekapo (TE-ka-po) for the tours run by a company called Earth and Sky. They take tourists up the side of Mt. John, which is really a large hill amongst the mountains, to what are effectively the three southernmost, accessible observatories in the world. To someone from the northern hemisphere, that’s a big deal. At 44 degrees south there are stars, many in the top ten in terms of luminosity, that are never visible in the northern hemisphere. Like all observatories, these three had been placed on Mt. John due to the lack of light pollution and propensity for clear skies. Today was a different story.

Still, I’d been booked for months, and at 10:30PM, the tour-bus made for the mountain.

Near the top the driver turned the headlights off. From there it’d be red light, or no light at all. Some of the passengers were visibly uncomfortable at riding up a windy mountain road in a bus with no lights on, and fortunately he warned them about a loud, clanging cattle-guard a few seconds before it happened. Whenever he forgot, he said, passengers screamed.

When we exited, the the wind picked up at a cool 20MPH (28km). An oval-shaped patch had opened up in the sky, but, with his trusty laser-pointer, our tour-guide pointed at four clouds. “Three of those,” he said, “aren’t clouds.”

I’d already picked out the milky way, but the other two really looked like two clouds… that just happen to be static. Both are in fact distant galaxies. “They’re called the Large and Small Magellanic clouds,” our guide explained. “As you might have guessed, they were discovered by Ferdinand Magellan, who, being the humble man that he was, named them after himself.”

Inside one of the observatories, a 24-inch telescope was aimed toward the Large cloud, specifically at the Tarantula Nebulae. “That’s 160,000 light-years away,” said the guide. “So they’re looking at light that left the earth 160,000 years ago, during the last ice age. A lot older than I am, anyway.” He was in college.

Outside, a 9.5-inch telescope was aimed at the “Jewel Box”, a star cluster that looks to be a single star in the southern cross constellation.

Hot chocolate was passed around–it was cold up there–and some “ooohs” and “aaahs” were donated to the wind as the guides pointed out a slow-moving satellite.

Now, satellites are boring. They really are. If you stare at the night sky for fifteen minutes you’ll probably see one. So the fact that they elicited such reactions meant, I knew, that a shooting star would blow this group away.

And the amazing thing is, TWO shooting stars flared up near the horizon…

…and no one saw them.

Now, it’s possible I hallucinated both. People see “crazy things” in the sky. As a casual stargazer, though, I’ve seen my share of real and fake shooting stars, the most common fake being the underbelly of a fast-flying bird catching a streetlamp. At least one of these was the real deal. These were shooting stars.

And no one saw them.


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3 Responses to “Star gazing”

  1. From Roxy:

    Gorgeous drawing, Antje.

    Posted on December 30, 2011 at 00:03 #
  2. From Esther:

    what did you wish for?

    Posted on December 30, 2011 at 06:05 #
  3. From Aunt Lori:

    Lake Tekapo took my breath away way back when and sounds like it did the same to you two. Come to the farm and you can see shooting stars too. :)

    Posted on January 5, 2012 at 18:50 #