Starstruck with Ben Coley

We arrived at Tomjachu Bush Retreat at dusk.  It’s a beautiful area here in the Lowveld, not too far from town. The views are breathtaking and give you that real feeling of being carefree. As the sun sets and the trees become dark silhouettes, we moved towards an open area prepared for our evening event – a night sky safari from Celestial Events.

For quite some time this has been on my bucket list.  Since the first time I saw it, my soul was completely and utterly filled with awe.

It was a chilly winter’s evening and we prepared accordingly with hot beverages, some red wine, blankets and jackets, and lastly a chair or two.

The city lights were barely visible and the stars were beginning to peek out from their hiding places.  I watched as Ben set up his telescope with total ease before the night sky safari started and I remember thinking to myself “that is one hell of a telescope”.  Ben casually asked if we wanted to see the moon through the telescope (named Skynet).  We were approximately 20 people, and it seemed like waiting in line for this lunar view would take forever, but I can promise you it did not.  The comments and sounds people were making were making me smile and as I got my chance I could understand why. 

To see the moon at that magnitude, our spectacular nighttime globe, was an experience I will not forget.  The telescope was indeed not the average enthusiast’s scope, and I could see details that photos would not do justice. 

We returned to our blankets and I remember laying there in awe at the spectacular start to the evening.  Our stellar safari guide then proceeded to show us some constellations.  He had a very useful tool that might seem insignificant to the average person, but was quite useful to connect the dots of the constellations – a bright green laser.

For the first time I could see Scorpio, Gemini and understand precisely which stars were part of each constellation.  We were treated to Roman mythology, African legends, tales of discovery and … I do not want to give away everything now do I…

We did get to view more beautiful and interesting things through that hell of a telescope.  Sparkles and shapes and stardust … things that dreams are made of. 

I had the privilege of doing an informal interview with Ben and his wife, Rika, afterwards. They do make quite the team. 

Skynet is not an ordinary telescope, it really is something to behold, can you give me the specs?

“Skynet is an amalgamation of 2 main pieces of equipment.  The telescope barrel is a Meade 10-inch LX200 SCT (Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope). An SCT telescope ‘folds’ the light within the barrel in order to achieve maximum magnification whilst keeping the size of the rig manageable.  It has a focal length of 2500mm (f10), and I have a selection of eyepieces and converters that can increase the magnification by over 500x.

The scope is mounted on a Celestron CGEM DX Equatorial Mount that is designed to accurately track the movement of the sky.  It also has a database of over 40,000 objects that it will find on command once the GPS system is aligned.  This is an advanced mount designed with astro-photography in mind due to its tracking capabilities”.

You stated that your qualification was something new to the field, can you explain this a little more?

 “I am not formally trained but have always harboured a keen interest in the stars, even back in England before coming to SA in 2007.  After 13 years working as a field guide and field guide trainer in the lodge industry it became apparent to me that guides did not have sufficient astronomy knowledge to showcase the night sky to guests.  This is such a shame, since the unpolluted skies over game reserves are some of the clearest in the country, and the ambiance associated with being deep in the wilderness is ideal to regale guests with ancient tales about the constellations and the infinite possibilities of the unknown.

I therefore approached FGASA (the Field Guide Association of Southern Africa), and offered to design a qualification for guides.  There is now a manual, workbook, theory exam and practical assessment process that, once completed, will award guides with a recognised FGASA qualification.  The syllabus contains a bit of everything but where possible, focuses on the cultural and anthropological history of astronomy.  I therefore hold an SKS Astronomy (Special Knowledge Skills) and am a recognised assessor and specialist training provider for FGASA.

I also offer training to anyone that wants to know more about the stars, not just field guides.  However, since I have good connections in the lodge industry, I spend a lot of time training guides to interpret the night sky for guests.  I have conducted training in Limpopo, MP, KZN and Gauteng at various 5* lodges over the past few years and it is great to see the industry embracing this often forgotten, and underappreciated skillset.”

What is your favourite star and constellation?

Favourite Star:  Vega. 

Vega is the brightest star in Lyra and the 5th brightest star in the sky.  Due to the Earth’s cyclical wobble, or precession, Vega used to be the north star many years ago and will be again in about 12,000 years as the Earth follows its 24,000-year cycle.  The fact that we can see a star in the southern hemisphere that was once directly above the north pole, puts the Earth’s movement into perspective!  It was also the first star after our Sun to be photographed, and have its spectrum revealed.  This gave us the first insight into what elements are found in other stars.  Finally, it features in one of my favourite sci-fi movies, ‘Contact’ 😉

Favourite Constellation:  Ophiuchus

Ophiuchus is a huge constellation found close to Scorpius, yet it is not well known.  It is considered the 13th sign of the zodiac due to its position close to the ecliptic.  It tells the story of the Greek healer, Asclepius and his discovery of the power of resurrection.  This power was deemed too important for mankind, so Zeus placed him in the stars to honour his achievement.  One of Asclepius’ descendants is said to be Hippocrates from whom we get the Hippocratic Oath.

Whether you are an enthusiast, a photographer or a family, this is a beautiful event to attend and one that makes the Lowveld proud.  I also found this to be a very good “date night” idea. 

For more information and bookings for events please view his website – https://www.celestialeventssa.com/

We love the Lowveld, even more so now.

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