Posted in Travel

Cook Islands Essentials

We had a great Christmas week in the Cook Islands – and hopefully one day you will too! This post is a collection of some of the things to know before you go there: from the car hire experience to the food to the local flora and fauna. (You can read more about our holiday in my first post, second post and third post.)

Eating out in Raratonga

While we were planning this holiday, we weren’t sure what the food situation was going to be over Christmas so we booked the various lunches and dinners in advance. We had Christmas Eve dinner at Crown’s (see post) and Christmas Day lunch at Nautilus (see post). We had booked Boxing Day brunch back at Crown’s Ocean’s Restaurant and it turned out to be basically just the hotel breakfast, with eggs and bacon, cereal, cake, tea and coffee. It hit the spot however, and we also scored a couple of individual packets of Vegemite for later use!

DSC_0104

Because we were staying self-catering with a kitchen, we only ended up having two other dinners out. We chose a couple of restaurants that had free transfers from our accommodation. For dinner on the day of our epic cross island hike, we decided to go to Vaima Polynesian Bar and Restaurant. We started with cocktails and a local fish starter called Ika Mata (per the menu: A traditional Island delicacy… a delicious tropical combination of Fresh Tuna Fish marinated in reme (lemon) & creamy akari (coconut) served with tomatoes, red onions, cucumber, shallots and coriander) then fish and chips for me and fish curry (house special) for Jonathon. The food was excellent and even though we were completely full, we had key lime pie and pavlova for dessert. Our table was under palm trees in the sand with the waterline a stone’s throw away: very convenient for photographing the sunset.

DSC_0106
Ika Mata
DSC_0108
Fish Curry
DSC_0109
Fish ‘n’ Chips
DSC_0110
Pavlova
DSC_0122
Sunset from Vaima restaurant (300mm lens)

On our second last evening we went to dinner at “On the Beach” which was a restaurant not quite, but nearly, on the beach, part of the Manuia Beach Resort. I started with grilled and chilled ratatouille, which was possibly a mistake because it came in aspic and was just ok. Jonathon started with scallop and leek tart (spelled “leak” on the menu). For the main course we both had ocean fish: swordfish and somewhat rare yellowfin tuna. It was delicious. From our table we saw a beautiful sunset, which included another green flash.

DSC_0178

DSC_0180
Sunset from On The Beach

Birds and animals in the Cook Islands

Stray dogs are a big feature of the island although it’s possible some of these dogs aren’t stray, just roaming free. During lunch on the deck one day, two local dogs came racing along the beach and threw themselves in the water, doing their best impression of gazelles. They appeared to be hunting the small fish that go around in schools in the shallows, and while they didn’t seem to catch any, they seemed to be having a good time. We saw the same thing – different dogs – on another day.

IMG_20171228_123031

DSC_0156

DSC_0141
This fella was waiting for me as I was walking on the beach then followed me most of the way home

There are also quite a few hens, chicks and roosters around. In fact, if you are unlucky you will be woken up by rooster. It was fun to see chicks following their mother hen around, and the roosters were quite pretty.

DSC_0086
Chicks!
DSC_0039
Rooster: half way up the hill on the cross island hike

Drive around the island of Raratonga

One thing to know about Raratonga is that it’s small. While it has an international airport it has just one road circling the island (and an inland road which is not continuous) which is 32 km (20 miles) long. One afternoon we decided to take an hour and drive the whole way around. The speed limit is 50 km/h (30 mph) and the road, while sealed, is pretty appalling most of the way. It probably took us 30 minutes to get up to the main town, Avarua, where we stopped at the (only?) post office to get stamps, and the handy shop next door for postcards. We found that the rest of the island was just as beautiful as the area we were staying: more of the same coconut palms, scattered houses, dogs, occasional food places, and glimpses of the magnificent lagoon.

IMG_20171228_131745

DSC_0151
A sign greets you at each of the quadrants of the island
DSC_0146
Typical house and yard
DSC_0147
Bananas!
DSC_0148
Looking towards the center of the island
DSC_0144
Frangipani

DSC_0150

Car hire in the Cook Islands

While we are talking about driving, as mentioned in my first post, our experience of car hire was less than brilliant. We made allowances because we were picking up our car on Christmas Eve but we got the last car on the island and its warrant of fitness was going to expire during our rental.

DSC_0136

So, on Boxing Day, after breakfast we decided to solve this problem. We had spotted that the Island Car and Bike Hire branch near to Crown was open, so we parked up, and went inside. We explained that we’d been rented a car with a warrant that was expiring and could they sort it out please, and within 10 minutes we were driving away in a different car. It was the same model and color as the first, and had twice as many scrapes and dents, and what looked like at least one bald tire, but otherwise seemed in better working order.

DSC_0138
A fine model – Toyata Vitz

We used Island Car and Bike because they have a relationship with Sea Change Villas but I’m not sure we’d go with them again!

Supermarkets on Raratonga

As I mentioned in my first post, on Christmas Eve Wigmore’s supermarket was packed with people and there wasn’t much on the shelves to choose from. On Boxing Day, however, it was a different story: it a lot less busy with a lot more fresh items available.

DSC_0146-1

DSC_0143-1
Inside Wigmore’s
DSC_0144-1
Inside Wigmore’s
DSC_0145
‘ei katu (head garland) for sale at Wigmore’s

On our around-the-island drive we also stopped at the main “big” supermarket – CITC supermarket – in Avarua. This had a lot more on offer than Wigmore’s, but the prices were the same (i.e. expensive). We stocked up on essentials like coke and chocolate and somehow our total was ~$40 NZD.

IMG_20171228_134309
Inside CITC supermarket

IMG_20180128_202715

Raratonga Lagoon activities

The lagoon is the main feature of the island of Raratonga. We were fortunate enough to be able to get into the water straight from our deck and Sea Change Villas had reef shoes, snorkels and masks, canoes and SUPs for use by the guests. The lagoon is not very deep and I was nearly always able to put my feet down. We spent a glorious amount of time in the water and got to recognize the different kinds of fish: the biggest one we saw was the size of a watermelon and there also were also a scattering of big blue starfish, and “giant” clams with blue mouths.

DSC_0176
The lagoon – the surf line indicates the reef barrier

A couple of times we went quite far out towards the reef barrier where there was much more coral – once in a canoe and once swimming. We had seen people go right up to the breaking waves in canoes, but we weren’t that brave/stupid.

We waited until the high tide each time we went out so we had some clearance.  We borrowed canoes and paddled quite far out but noticed we really couldn’t see fish from that vantage point high above the water. The coral was still worth it, as was just being out on the water.

The time we swam out as far as we could I found it quite hard work – perhaps we were going against the current or the tide. When we finally got to the dense coral we found it was all reef and no sandy spots to stop and rest! Still, we saw a lot of different fish as well as a more of the giant blue starfish and clams.

DSC_0161
Our look, multiple times a day

Our last day

Our flight back to LA left at nearly midnight and we were given use of the villa until our departure. The (mostly outdoor) airport was pretty chaotic but because everyone had been relaxing all week, so no-one was stressed out about anything.

DSC_0191
Last sunset of the holiday

Summary

The Cook Islands is truly a spectacular holiday destination. Everyone was extremely friendly in that antipodean, “she’ll be right”, “island time” kind of way. It seems like an ultra-laid-back version of New Zealand, if such a thing were possible.

Our accommodation at Sea Change Villas was all around excellent, having great lagoon access, high quality furnishings, a well-equipped kitchen and lots of peace and quiet. The car rental situation was fairly dodgy but also fairly cheap, much safer than riding a bicycle or a scooter, and more convenient than trying to catch the bus. Food was expensive, but when one remembers that in restaurants you don’t have to tip, it’s actually not bad – the restaurants we went to had NZD $30-$35 mains.

There are plenty of outdoor activities, and equally all the time in the world to just sit and look at the view. I realize we got lucky with the weather – normally at this time of year it rains more. Being pretty well cut off from mobile and internet access was a real plus.

I would highly recommend the Cook Islands as a place to visit, but at the same time, I don’t want any more tourists to come and spoil it!

DSC_0174
Sea Change Villas from the lagoon

Things to know about the Cook Islands

  1. The time zone in Cook Islands at Christmas is just -2hrs from LA (12pm LA time = 10am Cook Islands time)
  2. The power and sockets are Australia/NZ.
  3. The currency is the NZ dollar, although you can pick up some Cook Islands coins.
  4. Cook Islanders drive on the left and the max speed is 50 km/h (30 mph)
  5. On AT&T it costs $3/min to call and 50c per text. There is no cellular data. Google Fi has no reception.
  6. The water is apparently safe to drink, though we only drank to bottled water.
  7. Christmas time is the rainy season.
  8. When arriving at Raratonga from LAX, sit on the left side of the plane to catch the sunrise, or on the right side of the plane for a view of the island on landing. On departure to LAX, it’s night time so you can’t see anything from either side!

Check out my previous posts:

Cook Islands – first impressions

Cook Islands – Christmas Day

Jungle and Lagoon: Raratonga, Cook Islands

====

Have you been to the Cook Islands? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Advertisements
Posted in Travel

Jungle and lagoon: Raratonga, Cook Islands

There are two main landscapes on Raratonga: thick, sweaty jungle and clear warm lagoon. To take advantage of both, we arranged to do two tours on our trip: a night stand up paddleboard lagoon tour and Pa’s Cross Island Trek. Here’s how they went.

This is the third in a series of posts about the Cook Islands: read the first post here, the second post here, and the fourth post here.

Night Paddle (SUP) Lagoon Tour

Run by Ariki Adventures out of Muri, the Night Paddle (SUP) Lagoon Tour started just before sunset at 7pm. We arrived at the appointed beach and while we were waiting we noticed that all the stray dogs on the beach were barking like crazy and all racing up to one end of the beach. Someone pointed out the drone they were chasing, and we all had to scramble out of the way as the whole pack suddenly turned and raced back along the beach in pursuit.

Back at the SUP, our three guides gave us a brief lesson on how to paddle, then we were straight out into the water. Neither Jonathon or I had done this before, and it quickly became apparent that I was the slowest person in the group. This was somewhat disconcerting, especially there were people slighter than me, and someone who fell in twice in the first 5 minutes.

DSC_0148
Paddleboards of doom at Muri

Each paddleboard had a light underneath, so from my vantage point way at the back, our group was a set of silhouettes against the sky, standing on multi-colored glowing patches of lagoon. We paddled over to one island for a group photo, then paddled over coral to the back of another island where we all rafted together and listened to various improbable tales like how one guide was the coconut tree climbing champion of the South Pacific, and that if you want to visit the abandoned Sheraton hotel, just tell the people there that say “Aunty said it was ok.”  We got a limited amount of information about the sea life, such as how to cook a sea cucumber, but that was all.

Given it was cloudy there wasn’t any stars to be seen and I didn’t see any fish: but I did see a turtle shape go by once. The tour was two hours long. It was a great experience to be on the water at night, and, even though we didn’t learn much, I enjoyed it. I didn’t bring a camera because I was expecting to get wet, but check their link for some photos of what it’s like.

Pa’s Cross Island Trek

The next morning, just before 9am we packed our water, sunscreen, mozzie spray and cameras and sat in the rather oppressive heat outside reception, waiting for our ride. One of the owners of our accommodation, Sea Change Villas, Beverly, came over and chatted for a while, then before long a battered silver van pulled up.

We got in to find a septuagenarian dreadlocked man with no shirt on, who introduced himself as “Pa”. Famed on the island as a healer, he also was the owner of Pa’s Treks, one of which we would be doing today. There were three others on board the van already.

We drove clockwise from Sea Change, looking for the rest of the group. After pulling into various hotels and resorts and not finding the right people, Pa gave up and we headed to the meeting point. Along the way he gave a running commentary on the various ills of modern medicine (e.g. people with blood group “O” should not use statins because it would kill them), and waved to everyone. He pointed out one guy on a bike and said he was the richest man on the island (“oil money”). As we passed him Pa honked and yelled, to which the guy replied good-naturedly, “F**K!”.

We passed the airport then pulled up at a shop to pick up our guide, a local guy with a big tattoo on his shoulder and a machete in his backpack. Turns out his real job is an importer of confectionery, but he does these walks as a favor to Pa. His name might have been Justin.

Pa dropped us off at the trailhead and went away. Justin said that Pa only stopped guiding the walks three years ago, after doing more than 4000 of them.

DSC_0005
How hard can it be – at the beginning of the hike

It was hot and sweaty as we made our way past a few houses with pigs and cows in pens, then Justin motioned us over to a shady patch of grass and pointed at a tall monolith in the distance – the Needle. That’s where we’re going – half way across the island – then back down the other side. It would be three miles, three hours, and 400 meters of vertical climb.

DSC_0009
Our goal – the Needle

We soon reached a more shaded area, and that’s when the “cardio” section began. We climbed, up and up, grabbing onto tree roots for stability. About half way up, when we were all sweating profusely, we paused at a clearing where some roosters were pecking around, and Justin handed out big chunks of watermelon. At this point he told us that the record for the race across the island – coast to coast – was 45 minutes. He said his best time was 1 hour 6 minutes. It had just taken us 30 minutes to get from the parking lot to this point.

DSC_0014
Our guide – this was an unusual downhill bit in the first part of the hike

Then it was time to tackle the second half of the climb, which was somehow even harder than the first. Pausing occasionally for a sip of water or to take a picture, the view through the trees became more enticing as we gained elevation.

DSC_0022

DSC_0029

DSC_0033

Suddenly we saw the Needle right there in front of us, and Justin pointed out the face that was formed out of the rock. He said the Needle had four faces – corresponding to the cardinal points and to different gods – ocean, land etc – and that in ancient times sacrifices, sometimes human, would be made here.

DSC_0035

A little more of a climb was needed to get to the base of the Needle, and from this point we could see the ocean on both sides.

DSC_0045

The braver of the group tackled the last little climb around the base of the Needle, but we decided to play it safe and stay put. One of our group had a little drone which he flew up and around (it was same drone guy with from Muri beach yesterday).

DSC_0047
View looking towards where we came from
DSC_0049
View looking towards where we were going
DSC_0052
It was quite crowded at the top

Then it was time to head down the other side. Justin said this was the “yoga” part of the hike, the balance part. The climb down was even more treacherous, as the clay underfoot seemed slipperier. Lots more scrambling was required, and hanging onto tree roots was essential.

At one point we came across a white pipe – Justin said contained power cables, direct from the power station to the abandoned Sheraton. It was never used.

DSC_0066
The lagoon becoming visible again

DSC_0070

DSC_0074
Trail markers were few and far between

We finally slid our way nearly to the bottom of the valley, and we were told that we just had to cross the river 8 times and we’d basically be at the Wigmore waterfall, our destination. At this point it became clear that sneakers were perhaps not the right footwear. It was mossy and slippery underfoot and the rocks randomly scattered in the rivers weren’t exactly positioned for ease of use. Each part of the river was about 2 meters wide. Happily, none of us fell in, but both Jonathon and I got our feet wet.

DSC_0080
This was an easy one

After that it was just “10 more minutes” to the waterfall. As we approached, on mercifully flat-ish ground, except for the last bit where we had to use a rope to climb down backwards, it started to rain.

DSC_0082
Loading up on mozzie spray

The waterfall had a lovely pool below it – deep enough for people to jump off the rocks into it. I went in up to my knees and it was very refreshing. However, this had the side effect of washing the Deet off my legs so all the mozzies in the world found me and I had to run for the van.

DSC_0091
Wigmore Waterfall

It really started lashing with rain as we were driven the few minutes back to Sea Change. Justin passed out magnificent sandwiches in the van, along with tasty pawpaw.

Pa’s island walk was an excellent day out and we would highly recommend it. Although I don’t mention it above, our guide did give us information about the plants and animals on the island. You need to be in reasonable shape to complete the hike because it’s pretty strenuous. It is possible to do this as a self-guided walk but the signs are infrequent. Bring plenty of water and insect repellent and be prepared to get muddy and wet!

====

Click here to see a short video from the Fun Travel TV company which shows an overview the walk.

====

Read more about our Cook Islands trip in Cook Islands – first impressions and Cook Islands – Christmas Day and Cook Islands Essentials.

====

Have you been to the Cook Islands? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

 

Posted in astronomy, Life, Travel

Total Solar Eclipse 2017

I use the word “2017” in the title of this post, because I have a feeling we’ll be seeing another total solar eclipse one day. We had such a fantastic experience with this one, on August 21, 2017, that I think we may have become official eclipse-chasers.

totality montage-1
My totality montage

Planning for this trip started earlier in the year with the thought that, of all the states on the path of the eclipse, Idaho was most likely to have clear weather. I spent a decent amount of time looking for accommodation in the path of the totality but found only a Super 8 for some many hundreds of dollars. Eventually I found a double suite at the Riverside Hotel in Boise, ID, which was about an hour’s drive from the center line of totality.

Thinking we were super clever, we found $50 flights to Salt Lake City, and figured we’d drive the 4 hours up to Boise and save ourselves $200 per head each way. Having booked that, time passed, and slowly the hysteria about the traffic started to build and we were panicked about whether we were going to be able to make that drive due to all the traffic. So we changed our flights to come in the day before and booked an airport hotel in Salt Lake City.

Meanwhile, I signed up for the Eclipse Megamovie project, and committed to taking photos of totality. I got myself a 70-300mm lens for my Nikon D3300 camera, and a paper solar filter, and started practicing.  The hardest part turned out to be focusing on the sun, because you can’t look through the viewfinder (eclipse safety) and it’s really hard to see the screen on the back of the camera in daylight. The key turned out to be zooming in on the “live view” screen to see the edge of the sun. Later on, closer to the eclipse, some sunspots showed up, and focusing on them was a lot easier. If it hadn’t been for the Megamovie forums I’m not sure I would have figured this part out.

On the appointed Saturday, August 19th, we flew in the morning from Burbank to Salt Lake City, picked up a rental car and checked into the Courtyard Marriott at the airport. We had an early night, having decided that we needed to get up before sunset to beat the traffic.

On Sunday we had a 4:15am alarm, and drove to our traveling companions’ hotel at just after 5am to pick them up. Yes, our friends Vikram and Emma were crazy enough to join us on this eclipse adventure. We drove through the darkness, and just before sunrise saw the thin crescent moon rise – we knew the next morning the new moon would mean the eclipse!

roadtrip1
Road trip: Salt Lake City, UT to Boise, ID

We changed drivers at some random gas station, and for the rest of the drive Vikram decided to regale us with “interesting” “facts” about Idaho he had just found out from The Internet. “Did you know,” he would say, “that Idaho has the third largest seated statue of Lincoln?” (probably true), and, “Did you know that the Fosbury Flop (high jump technique) was invented in Idaho?” (not entirely accurate), and later, “Did you know that Idaho only has three dry-cleaners” (not true). Arguing about these nuggets certainly passed the miles.

We arrived in Boise early – around 10am – and of course, were too early to check in, so a quick google search revealed a “good” place for breakfast, walking distance from the hotel. We passed gas stations, empty lots and rental car lots, when we finally found the Capri Restaurant attached to a motel. We were not inspired by its looks but when we saw the line outside, we knew we’d come to the right place. It was absolutely packed but we got a seat in about 10 minutes, and had drinks and breakfast in front of us within 15 minutes. It was absolutely delicious, and just what we needed.

Then we decided to walk into town to see what was what. We found our way to the State Capitol Building and went inside to find marble as far as the eye could see. We explored the empty senate chamber and the house chamber and admired the stars in the ceiling of the dome.

Suitably cultured we started back towards the hotel, stopping at a brewery tap room that had opened its doors for the first time just days before, and had some beer. Then it was back to the hotel to check in. I spent the rest of the afternoon checking camera settings, filling the car with fuel and generally running around.

After dinner we discussed our plan of action for the next day. We were going to head to the town of Weiser, ID, on the Oregon border which was completely prepared for an influx of eclipse viewers. As we talked I got worried about parking and emailed everyone on the helpful website parking list to see whether they had space. Two people replied 10 minutes after we went to bed.

The next morning, Monday, eclipse morning, our upstairs neighbor’s alarm went off at 4am. My husband was awake and so we woke Vikram and Emma. I paid someone in Weiser $50 by Paypal to secure our parking place, and we got on the road by 4:45am, panicked by the thoughts of traffic. We even forewent our planned McDonald’s breakfast stop.

eclipse-morning-start
Very early start

It turned out we need not have panicked – the road was clear and we were parked by 6am. It also turned out there was acres of street parking and we didn’t need to pay. However, our parking host gave us some excellent local knowledge – firstly about a open coffee shop, and secondly about a great viewing spot. It turned out the local knowledge was worth the money on its own.

weiser-welcome
Weiser, ID welcomes us!

Once we parked, we found coffee and checked out Memorial Park which was full of vendors setting up booths. We partook of their $5 eclipse breakfast while the local news filmed, then wandered over to our chosen spot on the edge of town – the Park Intermediate School, arriving just in time to see the sun rise at 7am and hear a cockerel crow. We decided this was our spot, so returned to the car to collect my excessive amount of camera gear and supplies, and walked it all over (because it was $25 to park at the school).

I spent the next couple of hours taking practice shots of the sun, trying to perfect the focus point on the camera. A few more people joined us on the playing field, but it wasn’t very crowded. Then at 10:10am, the eclipse started. I had all the timings to hand thanks to my a handy app (Solar Eclipse Timer App). I started taking photos, and as the sun got further eclipsed we noticed some phenomena in the environment.

DSC_0021
Soon after first contact (Note: hover mouse over images, or click, to see them in true contrast)

With 30 minutes to go, the app told us to pay attention to the temperature – it had indeed dropped – the sun didn’t feel scorching on our skin. Then we started to notice the shadows becoming sharper and the light becoming just plain weird. Vikram discovered he could see individual hairs in his shadow, prompting him to exclaim that he had “eclipse hair”. We made many pinholes to view the eclipse, and I kept taking photos.

At around 11:20am, with a few minutes to go we noticed it getting considerably darker and cooler. The light was so strange that I started to feel a bit disoriented. Then my 5 minute alarm went off and I set up my little camera to record video. Then my two minute alarm went off and it was getting noticeably dark. A cockerel crowed nearby. In due course, Vikram spotted the shadow on the western horizon and the sun was just a sliver of gold on the back of the camera.

DSC_0039

Then, at 11:25:19am, we reached totality.

DSC_0041
Diamond ring, moments before totality: 1/2000 sec; f/8; ISO 800

Nothing could prepare me for the sight of the black hole in the sky where the sun used to be. People were yelling and pointing. The corona round the sun became visible, and was actually very bright. We noticed the horizon was a sunrise/sunset all around and the sky was definitely not black. The corona revealed itself to be at least two solar radii, with distinct features. I made sure to take all of this in before turning my attention to the camera.

totality-viewing
Husband’s photo of me, pointing, during totality

With the solar filter off, I started on my prepared plan but I soon I realized I needed to  work faster – stop the camera down more rapidly to get to the slower shutter speeds that would capture all the features of the corona, while remembering to pause to let the camera vibrations die down. I got about 3/4 through my range of shutter speeds before my app announced there were seconds to go before the end.

DSC_0043
1/2000 sec; f/8; ISO 800
DSC_0049
1/200 sec; f/8; ISO 800
DSC_0052
1/200 sec; f/8; ISO 800

And then the light started to come back, people were yelling again, I kept clicking the shutter then we had to put the filters back on – the camera and our eyes! The light seemed to get brighter faster than it went dark, though of course it wasn’t, and my husband heard the confused cockerel crow again. After a few minutes people began to come over to each other to talk about their experience. One person wanted confirmation it was only 30 seconds long. It was 2 minutes 6 seconds.

Soon after, people began to disperse. I wanted to capture the whole eclipse so I put in a fresh memory card and kept taking semi-regular photos while trying to get content and photos to my work to post on our social media channels. At this point we noticed that things on our picnic blanket were damp with dew.

By 12:48pm the whole show was over. It was really hot again and so we packed up and lugged all the gear back across town, still high on the experience of totality.

Getting home was another challenge in itself, but that evening we celebrated a successful total solar eclipse and started thinking about the next one in Chile in 2019.

post-eclipse-wine

Posted in astronomy, Los Angeles

Astronomy from the inside

About a year and a half ago my husband and I were lucky enough to accompany an astronomer to Palomar Observatory as he set about installing a new instrument on the 200-inch Hale telescope.

The astronomer who invited us, Gregg, is a professor with the energy of three people, and the talking speed to match. Gregg and his colleague, Leon, along with a few other astronomers and engineers were at Palomar to install an instrument designed to search for low mass planetary bodies in the outer solar system.

Although I’ve since been lucky enough to visit Magellan, Gemini, and Cerro Tololo in Chile, and I’m working on the project to build the next great telescope, at the time this was my first visit to a working optical observatory. My husband is a radio astronomer, so he was equally at sea.

dscn3344
200-inch Hale telescope dome at Palomar Observatory

We arrived from Pasadena late on Friday night, driving up Palomar mountain in complete darkness, and met Gregg outside the dome of the 200-inch. Our eyes had adjusted for only a few seconds when we saw the spectacular sky. Gregg however, was not happy. They had just spent the day installing the instrument, but now they couldn’t start observing because of the humidity.

This was lucky for us however, because we got a quick tour of the inside of the telescope dome – the adaptive optics lab, the control room, and after checking behind approximately ten identical doors, the pool table. Gregg then took us up several flights of stairs, along corridors, past the giant telescope, through a heavy door and outside onto the catwalk. Once we became accustomed to standing on a see-through gantry, we looked at the horizon and saw the marine layer of clouds sitting over San Diego. This is what was causing the humidity problem. But not one to stand still for a second, Gregg got out his camera and tripod and took a bunch of photos of us with the Milky Way in the background.

dscn3366
The 200-inch up close.

Then, all of a sudden, the catwalk started moving – the dome was rotating! We headed inside to discover that the humidity had dropped below the required amount, and now they were turning the dome to various angles to the wind to dry it off in the gentle breeze.  It would be unfortunate, after all, for a big drip of moisture to land on the 5-meter wide mirror.

An hour later, the telescope operator pronounced the dome to be sufficiently dry and started the procedure to open it. At once the control room was a flurry of activity. Four astronomers huddled around the control system, changing settings, asking the support astronomer to move to different stars as they tried to adjust focus. Once everyone was happy, they asked for the telescope to be moved to M22 – a globular cluster. The stars filled the field and the focus was adjusted some more. The “seeing” was sub-arcsecond, which is remarkable but also not surprising: there is a good reason the Palomar Observatory is located where it is. The image on the screen was very clear but things were not working to the astronomers’ satisfaction.

dscn3396
Inside the control room

By 3am, with the instrument still not working, my husband and I were finding it hard to stifle yawns. The rest of the team were already tuned into the night cycle, so Gregg took pity on us and drove us down to the Monastery. We stupidly crept about trying not to make any noise before realizing it didn’t matter because everyone was at the telescope. We slept behind blackout curtains in a comfortable bed surrounded outside by a very peaceful forest while the astronomers worked until dawn to debug their problem.

dscn3339
The Monastery
dscn3332
Spartan but comfortable

We were up around noon, and after having a very quiet breakfast in the communal dining room we went for a walk on the site. We saw inside the 200-inch dome from the ‘tourist’ side and checked out the small but impressively informative visitor center.

dscn3349
George Ellery Hale
dscn3342
Concrete blank of the 5 meter mirror

Later in the afternoon we headed down to the dining room and met up with everyone again for coffee. The discussion was of continued issues with the instrument – they had not been able to solve the problem last night. We were treated to the story of how the original version of the instrument was designed and built in only a few months, and how for some parts it was simpler to use a Canon camera lens and an amateur telescope, and how 24 hours before the instrument was due at Palomar it was sitting in 100 pieces on the floor of the lab in Pasadena.

To pass the time before dinner, Gregg took us up on the catwalk of the 200-inch again to see the view in daylight. Tourists below us asked “how do we get up there?” “Sorry,” we called down smugly, “you can’t”.  Then as dinner time approached Gregg gave us a tour of the other telescopes on site, trying to remember what key opened what telescope dome and giving us a rapid history lesson at each one.

Discussion at dinner was of giant telescopes, and what they would mean for the future of astronomy.

Once it was dark, we all headed back to the 200-inch. I brought my film camera and tripod ready for a night of long exposures and star trails. But, all was not well in the control room. Something still wasn’t working, and as the evening began, the astronomers continued to debug their system – one person on Skype in Pasadena, another at the prime focus right at the top of the telescope, the third in the control room.

At this point Gregg suggested that my husband and I should take this opportunity for a visit to the prime focus. For an astronomer geek this is just about as exciting as it gets.

We went up from the internal catwalk in the world’s slowest “elevator” until we were 17 meters above the priceless mirror (luckily with its cover on). Leon and his colleague switched out cameras and used an alarming number of cable ties to secure everything into position. Aluminum foil – light-tight and excellent for keeping things dark – was used in abundance.

dscn3380
Working on the instrument at the prime focus

Back down in the control room, we sat around for a while, then decided to make the most of the ‘free’ time while debugging continued to go outside take some star-trail photos. We set up and were out for what seemed like an age (probably a couple of hours), looking at the stars, and spotting the occasional meteor or fireball.

Cold and with sore necks from looking up, we headed back into the telescope, having luckily remembered where the door was, which while it never moves, is also is never in the same place relative to the opening of the dome. The mood in the control room was jubilant – the problem had been fixed and they were taking real data. Soon, the music was cranked up, and celebratory refreshments were passed around.

dscn3397

That evening I reflected how lucky we were to have such an opportunity to visit what was once the world’s largest telescope, to have an instrument builder take his time to show us everything and involve us in his work. As is required now and again, when the day to day of work seems so far removed from what we are ultimately trying to achieve, this visit rekindled my passion for astronomy and reminded me why we strive to build giant telescopes: to enable astronomers to do their magic and push the frontiers of human knowledge.


Thank you Gregg for an amazing weekend!

Save

Save

Save

Save

Posted in Travel

What to do near New Orleans

Continued from previous post: What to do in New Orleans

After a few days in the city, we picked up a car and headed out of New Orleans. The first thing I insisted we do is drive across the longest bridge over water in the world: the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway – at 24 miles long. Once on the bridge, it wasn’t long before we could see only road and water. The geek in me thought this was great.

DSCN3513

After crossing we were then on the wrong side of the lake, so we drove north, west then south and ended up all the way back around at Peavine Road. We had lunch at Frenier Landing. The deserted restaurant was decorated with creepy looking stuffed animals and had boat propellers for ceiling fans. A quick bowl of gumbo later we drove to our next stop.

DSCN3519

We crossed the river at the impressive Veterans Memorial Bridge and went into the Whitney Plantation for the late afternoon tour.

At the Whitney Plantation we were greeted by our guide, Ali. Ali gave a passionate and fascinating history of the slavery in the US and the work that went on at this plantation. He showed us the plantation church, the cabins, the jail, the kitchen and the ‘big house’.  The big house was large, functional, and painted to resemble marble, as was apparently high fashion at the time. The double row of trees leading from the river to the front of the house acted as an air conditioner for the house, and the floor of the ground level was tiled, to better allow floodwaters to escape. In stark contrast, the slave cabins were small, hot and sparse.

The tour was a sobering experience, and at the end, when describing how slavery was ended through the efforts of those who had nothing, Ali told us what he tells school kids that visit: “not attempting to achieve your dreams is just laziness.”

That evening we stayed at the excellent Holiday Inn Express at LaPlace, and went to the Crab Trap Restaurant for dinner where we had the obligatory boiled crawfish. We ordered about twice as much as should have, and we needed a lesson from the waitress on how to, er, deal with the crawfish. Quite a long time later, and in need of several bandages from the sharp bits of shell, we were finished. It was delicious.

The next morning, we drove the few minutes up the road to Cajun Pride Swamp Tours. We boarded the boat, and for the next two hours our guide did not draw breath as we motored through the beautiful swamp. His monologue was uninterrupted as he threw marshmallows to the crocodiles in the water and to the raccoon family on the land. The turtles were not interested in marshmallows and remained perched on their fallen logs. At one point the guide pulled out a baby crocodile from a tank hidden at the back of the boat, taped its jaw shut (“regulations”) and passed it around the 40 people on board. I got the impression it was less than impressed with the experience, but everyone on board, including us, was.

Then we disembarked, and that was the end of our trip to Louisiana. We had a fantastic time in and around New Orleans. I highly recommend you visit too!

Check out: New Orleans: food city