Sunday, November 22, 2015

Visiting the Southern Hemisphere--Searching for the Southern Cross

Don’t you hang upside down in the Southern Hemisphere? 

It sounds strange to ask that, but since ancient Greece, it has been a recurring question:  how can there be life south of the Equator, if the world is spherical, won't anyone there fall off? 

When experienced, the Southern Hemisphere feels like the Northern Hemisphere.
Uluru, Australia Nobody falling off
Tourists at Uluru, Northern Territory, Australia
Nobody falling off.
But because the Southern Hemisphere IS on the other half of the earth from the Northern Hemisphere, the stars are seen from a different angle. Familiar constellations such as Orion hang upside down. But also, the reversed seasons means that Orion is a constellation of summer, when the days are long and star gazing requires staying up late, while Leo, a constellation I rarely see because it is high in the sky early in the night only during the northern summer, is easily seen in the southern winter nights.

And of course, the Polaris, the Pole Star over the North Pole, is hard to see from the Southern Hemisphere, staying low on the horizon, as does the constellation in which it sits, the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor). Conversely, the constellation over the South Pole, the Southern Cross, rises higher and is easier to see the farther south you go.

For a person traveling only a few hundred miles, stars change with the season, but they are the same stars.

In the Fellowship of the Ring, the ranger Aragorn says "I have crossed many mountains and many rivers, and trodden many plains, even into the far countries of Rhûn and Harad, where the stars are strange". (p. 261). That has resonated with me for decades. A place is really distant and different if it has unfamiiar stars.

Consequently I have tried to see the Southern Cross when I'm in the Southern Hemisphere. It is not visible to me in Colorado. When I can see it, I have gone "where the stars are strange." 

I have seen the Southern Cross.

But not to my satisfaction.

I glimpsed it low on the horizon from Costa Rica (10º N) in the 1970s.

When I went to the Southern Hemisphere for the first time in 1988, seeing the Southern Cross was one of my goals. Alas, I visited cities, where the stars were washed out by city lights. I was too busy to wake and go out at 5 am to check the sky.

In 2008 I toured Patagonia, southernmost Argentina and Chile. I loved the excursion to Cape Horn, but the weather was raw and cold: no stars.
Looking back at the ship from Cape Horn
Looking back at the ship from Cape Horn under heavy cloudcover.
Elsewhere in Patagonia, there must have been clear nights but it was summer, darkness fell late, and I didn’t get out to look at the stars.

Having failed in Argentina, seeing the Southern Cross was on my mind when I went to New Zealand in 2009. New Zealand has brightly-lit cities too, but it was a natural history tour (link, the tour continues) and we headed for more remote areas. Alas, New Zealand is a rainy place. We had rain or overcast most of the time. The mountains were beautiful but I could rarely see their peaks for the clouds. 

 mountains of New Zealand
Mountains of New Zealand
Late in the trip we headed to Stewart Island off the south coast. It was the perfect place to see both kiwis and the Southern Cross, but it was cold and rainy: no kiwi viewing or star watching.

clouds over New Zealand
Clouds over NZ
In Victoria, Australia in 2011, night after night it was cloudy. Finally, one eveing there were scattered clouds and I drew local people into the motel parking lot and asked "Please, show me the Southern Cross." They easily pointed up into the southern sky and said that was Southern Cross, so I have to say I saw it then. But the clouds were patchy and always obscured part of the constellation, so my memory is of scattered stars between the dark clouds, not of a cross.

cloudy day in Victoria, Australia
Cloudy day in Victoria, Australia

This fall, I flew to Australia. Another chance to experience a strange sky!

We started in Melbourne, flew to Canberra and Cairns...big cities with lots of tall lighted buildings. (tour link). By the next stop, Darwin, it was rainy.

"No worries," the guide said, "we're going to Alice Springs in the Red Centre. It is a desert. No cloud cover. I'll show you the Southern Cross there."

I agreed. No need to struggle to see the Southern Cross in the rainy north of Australia. Alice Springs and Yulara (also on the agenda) get fewer than 10" of rain a year, and it is not predictable when it falls. Both have small populations, Alice Springs at about 27,000 and Yulara under 900. Perfect places for dramatic star-filled desert skies.

We flew into Alice in midafternoon November 5, 2015. I listened to an excellent presentation at the Alice Springs Desert Garden on aboriginal use of plants, and the speaker said there had been a bit of rain on Monday, but before that the last rain was in June and the last good rain in January 2015. Hard to even imagine a place that dry!

Looking back at my photos it was cloudless and I could have ducked out to see the Southern Cross that first night in Alice, had I walked far enough from the hotel to evade its lights. But I didn't. No worries. I'd get out from the lights of motels tomorrow or certainly in tiny Yulara.

Alice Springs, clouds on the horizon
Alice Springs, clouds on the horizon
The next day was partly cloudy and I was busy: tomorrow in Yulara.

the road to Yulara
The road to Yulara
We drove to Yulara, 4-5 hours from Alice Springs, under a gray overcast. Excited about seeing Uluru, with the central Australian desert all around, I didn't think about the stars. Furthermore, I'm from parts of Colorado and Nebraska that get under 15" of rain a year. Consequently I "always bet against rain" (partly because we always want it badly) and I'm right most of the time. 

It was raining when we drove into Yulara!  
rain on the windshield, Yulara, the Red Centre of Australia
Rain on the windshield, Yulara, the Red Centre of Australia

I really enjoyed it as the rare event it was!

That afternoon we drove out to Uluru, the largest single rock in the world, and an amazing sight...and it continued to drizzle. Rare events in a dramatic land.

Uluru under a cloudy sky
Uluru under a cloudy sky
Thus, I went into the extremely dry Red Centre of Australia and never saw the Southern Cross. It was cloudy the night of Nov. 7, and we flew to Sydney on the 8th.

What were the odds, that there would be clouds and rain in one of the driest places in the world?

One lesson that I learned long ago but frequently forget: don't put things off. Surely in Alice Springs or Canberra I could have found a spot to star-gaze. The Southern Cross isn't tiny or obscure. Here it is on the Northern Territory flag (see photo). I knew what I was looking for. (article, photo of sky link)

flag of Northern Territory, with Southern Cross
Flag of Northern Territory, with Southern Cross
Alas, I left it until the desert and we had rain. My last three nights in the Southern Hemisphere this trip were in Sydney, a big city where the night is brightly lit.

So, I have not satisfied my wish to stand and admire the Southern Cross, reveling in a place where the stars are strange. Another time.

The above makes it sound like rain in the desert was a disappointment. Only for the star-gazer in me. The ecologist was absolutely delighted. We saw a series of small showers over about an 18-hour period. More than most visitors, I knew how very unusual it was to be rained on in a desert! If I went back to Yulara today, I'd probably wait 6 months to experience rain again. Really.


on the morning of Nov. 9 we went out to see the sunrise on Kata Tjuta, a series of rock formations just within sight of Uluru and, although not formed by a single rock like Uluru, taller.

dawn at Kata Tjuta
Dawn at Kata Tjuta
The showers continued around us and in the first light of morning: a rainbow on Kata Tjuta.

Rarer than rain...the rainbow


rainbow over Kata Tjuta
Rainbow over Kata Tjuta

Comments and corrections welcome.

Antipodes: upside-down people on the other side of the earth! link
Parks Australia; Uluru and Kata Tjula link For more information on these landmarks.
Photos from the same day by photographer and travel guide Jonathan Hodgson. Owilybug Photography Facebook page: To see Nov. 9, 2015 you'll have to scroll down to the posts of that date.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. p. 261. I'm quoting the first U.S. edition from Houghton Mifflin. When I went looking for this quote, I discovered significant variation between editions. This is in Aragorn's speech in the chapter "The Council of Elrond."
Virga, V. and the Library of Congress. Cartographica Mapping Civilizations. Little Brown and Co. 2006.
and the links within the essay.

Kathy Keeler

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