Seeing Stars in the Outback

4 Dec

The curving edges of Wilpena Pound, a gigantic geological depression.
Weather doesn’t get more biblical than droughts, floods and plagues of locusts. And that precise trifecta has hit the South Australian outback this summer.

The great salt lakes, which sit dry for decades on end as brilliant mirrors of pinkish white, oscillate between aggressive blue and muted brown. The impossibly ancient mountains have turned from the iconic outback red to green.

In fact, looking out from the ridgetops of the Flinders Ranges, it’s easy to see how the ridiculed explorer turned prescient surveyor, George Goyder, decided the mountains were ringed by an enormous inland sea.

It’s easier still to pity the poor sods who slogged in his wake through almost a thousand kilometres of spiky acacia, spiny wattle and savage spinifex, amid flies so persistent that the diagonal motion of the hand in front of the face to clear them away for a second or two is known as “the Aussie salute”, carrying (yes, carrying) a wooden boat to traverse the imaginary sea…
Cloudy view of Flinders Ranges, looking towards Lake Frome.

It’s even easy to understand how some poor souls thought this near-desert terrain would be perfect for raising cattle. Their ruined homesteads scatter the vast plains, hundreds of miles apart, or populate the nineteenth century ghost towns which begin where today’s emergent ghost towns end…

Repainted but abandoned grocers turned chapel in Beltana, South Australia.

It’s been a week of big numbers, in fact. Walking over billion-year-old rocks, one quarter as old as the Earth itself, poring over fossil worms in limestone older than the dinosaurs, in a landscape moulded by vanished seas, ancient glaciers and long-extinct volcanoes, and twisted by tectonic forces, their violence muted to the occasional twitch on the seismograph in Hawker Motors down south…

Triangular rock faces, striated to 45 degrees, rise above Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, South Australia

You can see the action of the earth writ large in the mountains. And, writ smaller, in this seam of multi-coloured ochre the indigenous people whose land this was for 40,000 years until the invaders came mined for art, ritual and decoration.

In the local Aboriginal belief, during the hallucinatory, shifting creation time known as The Dreaming, much of this landscape was shaped by giant snakes known as Akurra. And when you look at the coiling, curving shape of the hills, and the sheer scale of the land, it’s easy to see why.

But the land — their land — is green right now. The old and gnarly gum tree whose split trunk the photographer Harold Cazneaux immortalised as The Spirit of Endurance in 1937 is verdant as if it’s been mainlining Botox…
The Cazneaux Gum tree, stands tall against a backdrop of mountains, Wilpena, South Australia.

The scarlet flowers called Sturt’s desert pea wave poppy-coloured pennants on the dusty earth. And among the washed-out leaves, a faded desert grey-green-blue, there are wildflowers in gold, primrose, lilac…

Golden flower on a type of broom.

But the biggest numbers? Not the mile-long wooden jetty, which Z walked with his grandpa at Port Germein, or the half-million year old pinnacle, a conduit for lava from a long-eroded volcano, which he scaled with his big cousin. Not, even, the billion year old rocks from which issue radioactive hot springs hot enough to burn your hand (home, during the 1920s, to a very short-lived health resort).

Z and grandpa walking the long wooden jetty at Port Germein, South Australia.

But the stars we watched through a fourteen-inch telescope among the ancient hills in Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary.

We saw Pegasus, Perseus’ flying horse, the way the ancient Greeks used to see him — the right way up! — and watched Orion rising upside down, feet and sword first, from behind an almost flawless triangle of rock.

In Orion’s sword, there’s a nebula. Where new-formed stars, hundreds of them, sparkle their way out of a gas cloud, some “only” a couple of hundred million years old. Not far across the sky, but an incalculable distance away, giant old stars retire to die in a cluster amid the Tarantula Nebula. We looked at them too.

No sign of the Milky Way that night. But instead, the Magellanic Clouds, two galaxies that drape the southern skies like clouds of gauze. And, through the scope, the Silver Coin, a brilliant band of light, a third galaxy, home to incalculable billions of stars and planets, and god knows how many forms of life…

And Jupiter. A planet only one eighth too small to be a star, fringed by three of its 60-odd moons, one of them bigger than Mercury and Pluto, with the atmospheric storm they call the Great Red Spot raging below its belly, twice as wide as Earth.

And, in truth, as a place to take a closer look at the might of the universe, amid a landscape so old and so big that it alternates twixt grandeur and monotony in the same way as the Sahara and the ocean, Arkaroola… rocks.

Help Arkaroola
Marathon Resources wants to drill a uranium mine in the middle of Arkaroola. Yep, you read that right. They’d like to gut a geologically significant recovering wilderness of outstanding natural beauty to, erm, create nuclear waste.

Why haven’t they done it sooner? Well, their license was suspended for dumping waste in a protected area…

If you’re the sort of woolly liberal or raving hippie who thinks this is a bad idea, click here to make your voice heard.

Arkaroola Practicalities
Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary is 700-odd kilometres north of Adelaide, South Australia. Prices start at $15 for unpowered camping and run to suites at almost $200 per night. Astronomy sessions are $40 per head: 4WD tours and scenic flights are also available.

There is an occasional bus service by request, but you will see much more with your own 4WD. Check road reports before you set out.

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5 Responses to “Seeing Stars in the Outback”

  1. Snap December 7, 2010 at 1:43 am #

    The night skies ARE brilliant…and they’re free 😉

  2. scotttraveler December 12, 2010 at 10:55 pm #

    Very nice… on this work assignment, I’m waaaaay up high in the mountains, in the middle of nowhere and the stars are much the same; except right side up of course! I do wish I had a 14″ telescope here though…

    • MummyT December 17, 2010 at 5:37 pm #

      It’s a big ole computer-aided thing. It’s an amazing little observatory that they have… You do have to see Pegasus right way up, though. One of the most convincing constellations there is, even 2500 years after they first named it, and with all the movement there has been…

  3. Mridul December 15, 2010 at 8:50 am #

    This picture very nice.I LIKE IT.

    • MummyT December 17, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

      Thank you! The top one is actually Wilpena Pound, not Arkaroola, but also in the Flinders Ranges…

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