Star Signs

On a blanket in the cooling sand
you and your friend agreed that
the stars were so many there
they seemed to overlap…
– 10,000 Maniacs, The Painted Desert

No-one looks up. Earthbound, moving in this frenetic world which demands our complete attention, we seldom turn our eyes to the heavens. The sky is there but not there; part of our peripheral vision, seen but not seen. This is especially true at night, when the stars are faded into luminous oblivion by the orange glow of sodium lights, the searing gleam of stadium spotlights, the afterglow of headlights and the warm, comforting radiance of the television set.
But if, on a clear night, you do look up, you can see forever. Away from the light pollution of our cities, beyond the hazy interference of bush fires and factory emissions, the entire infinite spectacle of the night sky suddenly comes into sharp focus. Up high, where the air is still and cold and as clear as liquid crystal, you can see stars so distant that their light has been travelling across the universe since before humans emerged on Earth

The Mt. John Observatory sits on the summit of a rounded hill high above the Mackenzie Country village of Lake Tekapo. Established in 1960, the observatory is a joint scientific venture between New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, the University of Pennsylvania and Japan’s Nagoya University. The mountain also housed a USAF satellite tracking station from 1969 until 1983. These days, Tekapo-based company Earth and Sky provide escorted day and night tours to Mt. John. On a clear autumn night I joined a group of people gazing at the stars through the telescopes of the observatory.

Driving up the serpentine road to the observatory we were ascending into darkness, suspended on the edge of the night. Far below, Lake Tekapo and its lesser-known sister, Lake Alexandrina, glowed softly like pools of quicksilver. The lights of Tekapo Village shimmered on the lake.

The domes of the observatory stood awash in moon-glow on the summit of the hill: half-visible shapes like something you would see on a Pink Floyd album cover. An astronomer introduced us to the various parts of the observatory and, with a small torch which lofted a tiny beam of light towards the stars, pointed out the stellar objects – Jupiter, Saturn, the Eta Carinae Nebula – we would see. A small telescope set up outside gave us a glimpse of the Moon’s crater-pocked surface then it was time to enter the first dome and come face to face with Jupiter.

King of the Gods, ruler of Olympus and the patron of the Roman state, Jupiter is the fourth brightest object in the night sky and more massive than all the other eight planets put together. As I peered through the eyepiece of the 61cm reflecting telescope I saw a bright disc, striped with bands of grey and flanked by four moons. Jupiter’s distinctive bands are storms which rage across the surface of the planet, driven by the hellish forces of heat generated within it’s atmosphere. Staring at the planet on its velvet background of space I tried to imagine a storm on Earth big enough to be seen from half a billion kilometres away.

From the 61cm telescope’s dome we walked over to the Astrograph Building where another telescope pointed into the Milky Way at a star cluster nine thousand light years away. Through the open slot in the Astrograph’s dome I could only see a few stars but when I looked throught the telesope the sky was suddenly full. Against the background of the universe, the stars were so numerous they seemed to overlap.

For thousands of years people have stared at the stars, aligned them into constellations – Orion, Scorpio, Taurus – of recognizable shapes, navigated by them, composed poetry and songs about them and simply gazed in wonder at their endless splendour. And still it is so today. Though the sciences of astronomy, astrophysics, and planetary exploration have pushed back the frontiers of our knowledge, the universe remains a source of inspiration and fascination. And to me, even the words astronomers use – declination, right ascension, parsecs, absolute luminosity, sidereal time – have an arcane magic to them which seems to whisper the secrets of deep space.

We’d saved the best for last. Star of the show, for me at least, was Saturn: the bringer of old age. High in the dome of the one metre telescope, the red numerals of computer displays registered astronomical co-ordinates, Universal Time, latitude and longitude. Through the heavy steel eyepiece of the telescope we peeped out through 1.4 billion kilometres of space at the ringed planet which appeared like a slightly flatted squash ball, encircled by elliptical rings of bright sliver.

Saturn’s rings are extraordinarily thin: though they’re 250,000 km or more in diameter they are less than one kilometre thick. And, despite their impressive appearance, there is very little material in the rings. If the rings were compressed into a single body it would be no more than 100 km across. It is incredible to think that these insubstantial discs of dust, gas, ice and interstellar debris can be seen from so far away.

We spent nearly two hours at the observatory. By the time we emerged from the last dome the stars had shifted around the Pole, Scorpio had risen and a cold wind was blowing out of the night. The moon laid herself on the sillhouette of the horizon, swaddled in in pale yellow haze and encircled by her corona of light which astronomers, eternally prosiac, call the 45° Ring.

As we drove back down the mountain, heading for warm red wine and cups of hot chocolate at a Tekapo café, I imagined the light from my car’s headlights beginning its journey out into space. Perhaps one day, in a galaxy far away, some watcher on a hilltop would see that light and wonder what life was like, way out where the stars overlap.

Ghosts of Cooper Creek

I live and breathe the silences
and dust where no man reigns…
– Cold Chisel, Wild Colonial Boy

Dawn at CooDawn at Minkie Waterholeper Creek. Day begins early out here in the far north-east corner of South Australia. Long before first light seeps into the sky, the birds are awake: screeching and wailing and squabbling in the river red gums along the banks of the Minkie Waterhole. Sprawled on my camp stretcher, beneath the diaphanous folds of a mosquito net, I watch the stars fade. The Southern Cross, whose four points have shone brightly through the trees all night, lingers longest. The waterhole lies mirror-calm in its frame of trees, reflecting their gnarled branches and bushy crowns in perfect symmetry.

It is pointless trying to sleep with the avian racket going on overhead so I rise and boil water for tea: black of course, this is the Outback and milk is a luxury. I sit on a spit of white sand down by the creek watching the sunrise. Fish jump and plop out on the water. A pelican cranks itself aloft like a Catalina flying boat. I can already feel the heat seeping inexorably into the air even though the sun has yet to clear the horizon.

Cooper Creek is the third longest river in Central Australia. It rises on the inland slopes of the Great Dividing Range near Charters Towers, a thousand kilometres to the north-east. But unlike our steep New Zealand rivers, the Cooper is a sluggish creature. Its waters seep slowly westwards through thousands of channels and billabongs. Eventually it loses itself in the salty expanse of Lake Eyre, dying without fulfilling the dream of every river: to fall gently into the sea. It leaves no trace of its passing. It is a ghost river in a land full of ghosts.

In 1861, the explorers Robert O’Hara Burke and William Wills met their deaths on the banks of Cooper Creek not far from my camp. Burke was the leader of the grandly-named Great Inland Exploring Expedition which had set out from Melbourne in 1860 with the intention of being the first expedition to cross Australia from south to north.
Having established a base camp beside Cooper Creek, near present-day Innaminka, Burke and Wills, along with two others, set off north towards the Gulf of Carpentaria, two thousand kilometres away. It took them four months to reach the north coast of the continent and return. Through mismanagement and bad luck, by the time they arrived back at Cooper Creek one of their number, Charles Grey, was already dead. Burke, Wills and John King, the third remaining member of the party, were in advanced stages of malnourishment. The rest of the expedition had given them up for dead and returned to civilization. The three men began starving to death in a land of plenty.

The local Aboriginal people had lived happily on the banks of the Cooper for millennia. To them the waterholes, forest and scrub-lands were a well-stocked larder with everything needed to sustain them. But to the pompous Burke, the local people were not to be trusted and the party made little effort to learn from them. Consequently, first Burke then Wills expired: skeletons dressed in rags under the trees. Only King, who understood the locals’ abilities better, survived. He was rescued after four months.

With my breakfast of black tea finished, I break camp and set off in my 4WD. As I drive up the rutted track leading away from the creek I wave to Jim and Dave, a pair of retired teachers from Adelaide who are spending a week camping and fishing at the Minkie Waterhole. A dingo idles across the track in front of me; emus peer at me with wide, glossy eyes. I reach the road, which is really no more than a slightly wider dirt track than the one I have followed up from the edge of Cooper Creek, and turn east into the sunrise towards Innaminka. On the radio, through the static of the AM band, I hear the forecast temperature for the day: forty-three degrees.

Innaminka is a town that died and was reborn. Crouched on the edge of a howling, red-dirt wilderness, the few scattered buildings have been revitalized by both tourism and the discovery of natural gas reserves further west. The town originally comprised a pub and a police outpost servicing the lonely cattle stations along the Cooper. In 1910, the Australian Inland Mission established a hospital at Innaminka and for sixty years it provided medical care for the outback families and stockmen whose lives depended on the “mantle of safety” provided by the AIM hospitals across the Outback.

But eventually, Innaminka fell into disrepair. The pub burned down, the police post – described as “the loneliest posting in Australia” by officers unlucky enough to be sent there – closed and the AIM hospital fell into disrepair. Innaminka became a ghost town.

In the 1950’s a few audacious tourists began passing through the Cooper Creek area. A new pub was built and Innaminka began it’s long, slow come-back. In the 1990s the vandalized ruins of the AIM hospital were completely re-built and now house the headquarters of the Innaminka National Park. And, best of all for a road-weary and dusty travel writer, the Outaminka Bar at the Innaminka Pub serves the best coffee west of the Blue Mountains.

I spend three days camped at various spots beside Cooper Creek. Each day I rise with the birds and set off to explore before the day becomes too hot. I visit the Dig Tree, an ancient coolabah tree where supplies were left for Burke and Wills by the expedition before they retreated back to Melbourne. The tree still bears Burke’s carved initials and the Roman numerals LXV denoting it as the expedition’s Camp 65. In 1899, a local man carved a likeness of Burke in the bark of a nearby tree. The solemn-eyed, ghostly carving still gazes sightlessly out across Cooper Creek.
Cooper Waterhole
I visit the spots where first Burke, then Wills died. They are lonely, isolated places where the incandescent sun beats down with an almost tactile force. Hot winds shake the desiccated leaves of the gum trees with a sound like crumbling bones. In this land of vanishing rivers, beneath the vast cobalt dome of the sky, I often feel very small and alone. I can sense the endlessness of time out here. The implacable waters of the Cooper lie motionless between banks of sand, never giving up any secrets. Only the gurgling crows seem to recount the memories of ghosts.

By mid-afternoon each day the temperature reaches the forties and I retire to the cool sanctuary of the Innaminka Pub to drink cold liquids of various kinds and chat to the locals. The shop next door keeps me in supplies and I can update my Facebook page via satellite from there for a dollar a minute.

On the third morning, however, the weather is different. I awake to the low grumble of thunder off to the west. An ominous bank of cloud, as black as charcoal, hangs over the landscape and bolts of silver lightning jump across the sky. I break camp and drive into Innaminka. The dirt compound out in front of the pub is full of four wheel drives. Campers from all over the area have made for the safety of “town” before the roads become impassable.

The air is heavy with the sweet smell of rain: an aroma only the desert can produce. I sit on the verandah of the old AIM hospital and listen to the first heavy spots as they hit the corrugated iron roof. Thunder splits the sky and shafts of lightening crackle and fizz in the air. The rain increases in ferocity until it sounds like ball bearings hitting the roof. It seems as though all the energy amassed by the heat of the previous few days is suddenly being unleashed.
Storm Clouds
And then, just as suddenly as it arrived, the storm has passed. The sun sparkles on beads of rain hanging from the fences around the AIM. Wreaths of steam rise from the road. The wet red dirt sticks to my boots as I walk across to the store where the assembled 4WD enthusiasts are discussing the weather. The forecast is for more rain in the days ahead. The last thing I want is to be trapped out here by a flood.
I decide to let discretion be the better part of valour and leave while I still can. I re-fuel my vehicle, send an e-mail home saying “I’m OK…see you soon”, then watch Innaminka fade in the rear-view mirror.

I reflect on the fact that Outback travel isn’t for everyone. The mind-bending distances, the punishing heat and the vast, silent, red-dirt spaces make visiting the Outback a very different prospect to the Australian coastal holiday experience. A digital display on the dashboard tells me it is forty-two degrees outside. I turn up the air conditioning and the stereo. Off to my left, Cooper Creek shimmers in a quicksilver mirage, then vanishes into the sunlight like a ghost.