Stargazing in the rain

  • March 16, 2009

by Kate Thompson

The rain drew a gauzy curtain across the view of the hills. Beyond the glistening deck, there was a grey haze where the Magaliesberg range should have been, fading to blue in the distance.

Inside, in a comfy chair, I sipped hot chocolate, while Vincent Nettmann, Maropeng’s resident astronomer, set up the projector. Other guests mingled, enjoying the complimentary welcome drinks, under the watchful eye of Sylvia Makgetla, Maropeng’s sales and marketing assistant and our host for the evening. The question on everyone’s mind was “How do we stargaze when it’s pouring down outside?”

Almost 30 people had gathered in the foyer of the Maropeng Hotel for the monthly stargazing event on a chilly, autumnal evening in the Cradle of Humankind. Vincent called for our attention, saying pragmatically, “I’ve got all the telescopes in my car, but I don’t think this weather is going to clear up. What I can offer you is two talks tonight instead of one, for those of you who can stay. But first; dinner!”

We filed into the restaurant where the staff were waiting to take our orders. On the menu was a buffet-style starter of breads and mezze options, followed by flambé beef fillet in red wine and cranberry sauce, or chicken supreme with risotto. My boyfriend, Jonathan, and I both chose the beef, which was cooked to medium-rare perfection and served with mashed potatoes and root vegetables. This was followed up with a delicate crème brûlée, and, lastly, coffee and cheese platters – a decadent feast that warmed us up for an evening of surprises and laughs.

We were called back into the lobby, where we settled ourselves in for a discussion about Saturn. Vincent is an astronomer who works with Wits University and the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA). He has a disarming, humorous manner – striking the right note with the crowd from the beginning.

The group was a mixture of young professionals and empty-nesters looking for a different Saturday evening, and with the sumptuous fare settling in our stomachs and the dark rolling in, the room felt shrouded and secluded – a perfect venue for arm-chair space travel.

We also time-travelled with the early astronomers who studied Saturn, her rings and moons, gazed at astounding images from the recent NASA probe that explored the mysterious planet, and “oohed” and “aahed” as Vincent brought home astounding numbers using everyday comparisons. For example, despite being the second biggest planet (after Jupiter) Saturn is less dense than water – so if you could find a glass big enough, it could float on water.

After a short coffee break, Vincent launched into his second talk of the evening, entitled Living Amongst The Stars – a lecture that was recently voted “Best Talk” at the ScienceUnlimited event held in Pretoria last month. Focusing on the life cycle of stars, this talk had some of the most amazing images sourced from years of space exploration and telescopes.

The group broke into spontaneous applause as he concluded. Blinking as the lights came back on, I couldn’t believe how much time had passed. The evening had flown by, at the speed of light, and no-one was complaining about the rain anymore.

Maropeng hosts regular stargazing evenings. Join Vincent in a quest for celestial knowledge. Guests will be welcomed with a drink at 6pm. After a delectable dinner, Vincent will give an engaging presentation and guests will be able to search the skies using one of Vincent’s telescopes.

Click here to make a booking online.

Participants can also take advantage of an accommodation special, staying at the Maropeng Hotel after the stargazing for R675 per person sharing, including breakfast (single supplement R400).

The dates of the stargazing events for the rest of the year are as follows:

April 18 – Our deep southern skies (Sterkfontein Caves)
May 23 – You are here: A brief journey through the time and space of our universe (Maropeng Hotel)
June 13 – Our winter skies (Tumulus Restaurant)
July 4 – Journey to the moon (Maropeng Hotel)
August 22 – Explore the Milky Way (Tumulus Restaurant)
September 19 – Jupiter and Galileo (Maropeng Hotel)
October 17 – Living amongst the stars (Tumulus Restaurant)
November 14 – An introduction to our summer skies (Maropeng Hotel)

A range of large-aperture telescopes will be available to guests. Make sure you dress warmly as these evenings can get very cold.

Read about these events and more on our calendar.

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