Starwalk TicketsIt’s always fun to do something you’ve never done before, and on Friday I did just that: I walked into the Kirstenbosch Gardens after dark, and got to see some of the brighter constellations in the sky through a set of rather impressive-looking telescopes.

During February, Kirstenbosch is running a series of what they call “Star Walks” – essentially a dummy’s guide to Cape Town’s night skies, all set up on the grounds of the gardens:

“Have you ever wondered what it must be like to walk though Kirstenbosch at night? Well, now is your chance. You will be walked slowly up the garden by a Kirstenbosch guide, to a special open spot towards the top, where Astronomers with their powerful telescopes will be waiting to show you some of the spectacular sights in the heavens.” (more)

On our way up to the viewing spot (a stretch of open lawn with a good view of the skies), we heard and then saw the silhouettes of several spotted eagle owls in the trees above and wondered if we’d encounter the other nocturnal animal life upon which our enthusiastic guide expounded.

We didn’t, as it turned out, but as they include porcupines and snakes a lack of close encounters is probably a good idea. The gardens are delicious at night… warm breezes, coming down the mountain, bringing with them intoxicating wafts of exotic scents… I almost didn’t make it to the viewing, I was so distracted.

Anyway, to the point: as the sun finally set behind the mountain, the astronomers pointed out the various stars and planets with their light-sabre pointing devices (possibly the coolest gadgets I have ever seen – the light beams look as though they reach all the way out to the stars!), identifying constellations and planets, explaining the difference between red and blue stars, and all things astronomical.

Herschel’s Jewel Box - No, my camera isn't quite that good... someone else, with somewhat enhanced telescopic capabilities took this photoThen, we got to see some of them close up, taking turns at looking at the various highlights through the large telescopes set up on the lawn. My favourites were the cloudy Orion nebula, and Herschel’s Jewel Box.

The astronomers were more than happy to answer the many questions that came their way, and seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to wax lyrical about the heavens.

Sadly, with Newlands Stadium lit up like a bionic Christmas tree, the visibility was a bit disappointing (unlike the previous Friday, when almost the whole of Cape Town went lights-out), but it was definitely worth the walk, and the money.

In fact, I might just go again before the month is done and dusted (okay, okay, I suspect it’s the distracting scents I’m after, and not the stars after all).

The Kirstenbosch “Star Walks” will be held every Friday (8, 15, 22 and 29) during February 2008. Time and venue: 19h30 at Visitors’ Centre at Kirstenbosch. Fee: R30 for adults, R10 for children under 18. Check the weather on the Starline: 088 131 1001.

(Image source for Herschel’s Jewel Box: Jodrell Bank Observatory)

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