It has been my dream forever to be one with the stars! The celestial bodied ones, not the shiny clothed (or barely clothed) ones. I was a step closer to this dream on 18th November 2017.
The Fates had finally conspired to ensure I get a first hand expereince of knowing what lies out there. Through this group called Amateur Astronomy Club (AAC) . You can visit their website here: http://amateurastroclub.in/
This is a group made of like-minded people who love the skies. More importantly, they want to spread this love and awareness (about astronomy) to society at large. The members are dedicated and enthusiastic, knowledgeable and cheerful and interacting with them made my experience truly memorable.
I have never attended such a workshop before. I had asked Uncle Rao as well if he’d like to join me. To which, he said yes. He is quite open to gaining new experiences and understanding more about various topics. One of his current passions is painting. And he is getting rather good at it!
The designated spot for star gazing was Naneghat. It is a pass in the Western Ghats range near Junnar in Pune district of Maharashtra, India. During the reign of the Satavahana, the pass was extensively used as a trade route between Kalyan and Junnar. Nane means Coin and Ghat means pass. (source-Wikipedia)
Coins were collected to allow the traders to pass. Just like our current scenario of Toll Collections! Which is a system that is being followed from a time older than Time itself – well, around first century BCE is really a very, very, very long time ago.
We started off from our homes to head to the pick up spot – which was roughly 40 kms. The destination was about 180 kms away. The journey was estimated to be about 5 to 6 hours long. I will let you know why I am emphasizing on these points. Because we travelled in a bus with NO air-conditioning!! It is a BIG DEAL because you tell me the last time you travelled by road to the interiors of Maharashtra without A/C. I was just thankful it wasn’t the middle of summer. You would have identified me by a puddle covered in purple scarf!
AAC had planned out the travel and other details meticulously. No unnecessary pit stops. Measured breaks. Enough warnings about the lack of public toilets along the way. Potato chips to keep us distracted from the terrible, bumpy, post-monsoon roads.
We went up and down TWO ghats (of the Western Ghats). And they were as curvy and as life-threatening as expected. Curvy, because that’s how roads are paved. Life-threatening, because of the our experienced yet enthusiastic bus driver. He did pull the brakes in perfect timing, so what if it was a little jerky and sudden? As long as we made it to our destinations safely, that was what was important. I usually did what I do when I board a moving vehicle. Sleep through the journey. At least, if I had a tombstone, it would be written “She passed away peacefully in her sleep.”
The view along the view (for the parts that I was awake) was beautiful. When you travel to great heights, you start appreciating the little things you leave behind. I know, this is deep on so many levels.
We reached our camping spot as predicted by 1500 hours. If you had to ask me to find this place on my own, I’d probably just walk around in circles. With a snake or two on my trail. It is literally in the middle of no-where. Which is the idea. Because you want zero light pollution to star gaze. This is possible only when the human inhabitants are very few. The other inhabitants don’t require electricity or cell phones to move about. They do just fine by being stealthy in the dark.
The small and quaint dwelling was let out by the locals for this purpose mostly – star gazing and other wilderness related activities. Our package included food and stay.Thankfully, it was time for the FOOD part of our package. Traveling so far gets my appetite working. The thought of the home cooked meal of rice bhakris, potato bhaji, dal, moong curry, salad, rice, fried goodies, pickle and chutney still gets my mouth salivating. Mmmmmmmmmmm!
I had to loosen my waistband setting of my jeans to accommodate my expanding stomach. I wanted to just pass out on the ground after I finished wiping my plate clean. I can totally relate to the boas of the area who eat their unsuspecting meals and just lie there.
Soon after, we were instructed to catch a few zzzzzzzzz’s as we were expected to stay the night up. Because you can star gaze only at night. Duh! Our group was an interesting mix of individuals – some who were veterans of this event, some who were newbies, children, young adults, older adults, retired, working, studying, male, female…. What was also interesting how amicably everyone got along with each other. All adjusted to each other and existed in relative peace. This is important to mention because co-existing is something we should all strive for. So I’ve taken upon myself to reiterate the message of World Peace.
We woke up from our snooze and Umesh suggested we check out the famous Naneghat caves and pass before it gets dark. Our group quickly marched to the caves nearby and began the rocky descent. To view the pass and to imagine how the traders and travellers made it across from one place to another, puts history into perspective. It is mildy steep and the rocks are broken over the passage of time. We made our way to the edge – where you can view the ghats. And viewed the caves as well. It was too dark to make out anything. But we saw some writings on the wall belonging to the era gone by with the help of our phone torches. There were also some writings of this era which memorialized undying love through symbolography – A.J + R.P 4eVa , K.W <3 S.M
We made our way back to the camp site for some hot tea and idlis (courtesy mom. Becauses moms are the best). The session was to begin shortly. Just as soon as it becomes too dark to see beyond our noses. Warnings were handed out – no bumbling away from the camp site on your own. Because you will become Leopard/ Hyena/ Fox/ Snake fodder. In case you do have the urge to go wandering, please contact the Program Manager – who can then get a release form signed before you obliviate.
I am kidding about the last bit. But the instructions were clear that this is a dangerous place. We are in the heart of the mountains with forest and wildlife around. Respect nature.
There was a bit of a damper in the air. The unpredictable cloud cover. Though Google and other weather predicting devices had promised clear skies, you can never be sure unless the last minute. ACC started off with the introductory session of the skies and beyond.Of reflector telescopes and refractory ones. Of stories and myths. Of constellations and clusters. They were quite apt with sharing the information, getting everyone involved and making everyone look forward for more. Although, I have a sneaky feeling that they are big fans of Bollywood movies. Which is totally cool. So am I.
We took a dinner break. We had a choice between pigging out on vegetarian fare or the non-vegetarian one. I chose meat. Because, yum. In the duration between the group finished eating, I found myself lying on the plastic sheets and watching the stars. The group had grown considerably. Not because of eating. Because few other people had driven up to the camp site and joined the group.
We then had another session of identifying the constellation with the naked eye and then viewing more through the telescope. There was a presentation about something – I was dozing off by then. I entrusted my subconscious mind to soak up all the information, process it and hand it to me when I need it. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one feeling sleepy. Few others from the group had curled up into balls – maybe to keep warm.
What got my adrenaline pumping is when Umesh said he’d help me check and set up my telescope. This isn’t a pun for anything. I actually own a telescope. For a very long time, I thought it was unwell. Malfunctioning. I wanted to take it to a Telescope Doctor to take a look at it and give it a health certificate. And I am happy to announce that my telescope is perfectly healthy! In fact, another ACC member – Amol, has the same type like mine and he was very pleased with the health of my telescope. Amol helped me with instructions on how to use the telescope and other titbits for a complete sky gazing experience.
I was totally awake by then. And excited. The sky had miraculously cleared up and the clouds were long gone. We saw few open clusters, twin galaxies, stars that were far away (alphabet M something – cannot recall right now 🙁 ), few constellations – Orion the Hunter, his belt, his dogs, Sirius (the brightest star), Canopus (the second brightest star) Bellatrix, Andromeda, Perseus, Pegasus – more or less, everything about Greek Mythology. Some were seen through the naked eye, many through the telescopes.
My subconscious mind is slowly unbelieving information that I gathered on that lovely starry night – about how brightness is measured, what is the unit called (magnitude), terms for distance (light years, astronomical unit), Pole Star and the future Pole Star, zodiacs, nakashatras and even an astronomical event of an exploding star!
We even glimpsed part of the meteor shower Leonid. Yeah baby, shooting stars! After a while, everything fell quiet. People started retiring to their make-shift beds. I stayed out under the stars, giving Aarthi some company. Since it was only the two of us under the night sky at 0430 hours, I was imagining how we’d fend off leopard attacks with kicks and kung fu. Also, how badly would a bite hurt. Although I shared my vivid imagination with Aarthi, we had no problem falling off to sleep. I was supposed to stand guard – but, whatever. We woke up with a start when the pet dogs of the resort started barking. I quickly looked around for yellow with spots. But in that light, everything appeared grey. We decided not to unnecessarily endanger the wildlife out there and we sleep-walked to the dormitory, curled up in a corner and woke up when it was almost time to leave. At 0700 hours.
We left soon after – after a yummy breakfast and a few photographs. The ride back was a complete blur. Because we all slept through it. I was smart this time around – sat towards the window instead of the aisle – so I am not thrown out of seat on a fast bend.
If you go star gazing or attempt it on your own, remember:
- It is all out there – be patient and allow yourself to see. Sometimes, multiple attempts are required. I was expecting to see planets and rings. But unfortunately, this time – all the planets were orbiting along the sun – which made it impossible for planet sighting.
- The atmosphere and weather conditions plays a big role. There is nothing you can do if neither of them cooperate to form a perfect setting. You just have to try another time.
- Find a really dark place – away from city/ village lights on a moonless night. Even a light across the deep chasm, on the other side of the mountain makes a difference. So does the glow of light emitted that indicates a settlement nearby.
- Be ready to face the elements – the wind, maybe mosquitoes, the cold. Unless it is summer. Then the heat.
- Get comfortable for a long night. Different aspects of the skies are seen at different times. There is a rising and setting time for the celestial bodies.
- It may not be like the pictures you see in the textbooks/ google images/ someone’s instagram post. It maybe just black and white. But keep looking. You will be amazed.
- Keep gazing and keep practising
Do check out ACC’s page. They really are doing some great work and organize educational workshops!
Some other gems are down here!
I’m calling it a night now. Sweet dreams!