Jaillan Yehia

Things Are Looking Up: 4 Places I’ve Truly Seen The Stars

Written by Jaillan Yehia

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Aurora Borealis at Jasper Dark Sky Festival 2012 at Pyramid Island, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Aurora Borealis at Jasper Dark Sky Festival, Alberta, Canada by Yuichi Takasaka

If ever there was a time to call to mind a Hamlet soliloquy, I’d say mid-stargaze is that time.

Which of us doesn’t seek out beautiful night skies on our trips? Man by nature is in love with ‘this most excellent canopy the air…this brave over hanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire…this congregation of vapours.’

Yet ‘what a piece of work is a man’ indeed; the irony is that as light pollution prevents us from seeing the wonders of the night sky, we must go where men are not in order to truly see the stars.

Here are the four places I’ve ventured this year where man is wonderfully outnumbered by the stars in the sky…

Jasper Dark Skies Festival, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Jasper Dark Sky Festival

Seeing stars in Jasper: Pyramid Lake

Jasper National Park’s Dark Sky festival is held annually in the second-largest of Canada’s 19 Dark Sky Preserves (there are just 36 in the entire world) – these are areas which restrict light pollution and provide the perfect environment in which to see the night sky.

In typical Canadian style, and scale, the Dark Sky Preserve at Jasper is astronomical in more ways than one – it’s bigger than the rest of the world’s dark sky preserves put together, which means opportunities to peer through the eye-pieces of telescopes in a range of stunning Rocky Mountain and lakeside settings.

And there’s nothing more conducive to an atmospheric evening of stargazing than an open campfire complete with guitar-playing local singers and First Nation drummers and storytellers, enjoyed while clutching a cup of hot cider.

A combination of heavyweight astronomical folk and hobbyists descend on the town for the festival and even though everything I know about stars could be written down on the back of  a Milky Way wrapper I’ve come away with a few discoveries of my own – that the big and little dippers with which we are all familiar are known as asterisms (that means easily recognizable star patterns), that the names of the stars vary hugely from culture to culture (in Japan for example the symbol for Subaru cars is taken from their name for the star cluster we call Pleiades) and finally that up here it’s possible to see the world’s darkest skies and the Northern Lights on the same evening.

Eating Italy Food Tours’ Tuscan Cooking School at Villa Ferraia, Tuscany, Italy

Italian Wine

A selection of wine from Siena’s Enoteca Italiana

You may wonder what I was doing looking skywards during a residential cookery course in the Tuscan countryside, but on this inaugural version of Eating Italy’s new Tuscan Cooking Experience I enjoyed a particularly memorable evening of stargazing meets wine guzzling.

The clever folks at Eating Italy brought in a local astronomer to highlight the best views in the skies above rural Tuscany, and Vittorio, the even cleverer owner of the stunning Villa Ferraia, at which we learned to knock up pasta, pizza and passata by day, brought in a special selection of red, white and sparkling Italian wines which were paired with the constellations by night.

Strangely enough, the more of these award-winning Italian wines we tasted, the more fun the stargazing became. I can’t imagine why.

Mandina Lodges, Makasutu Forest, The Gambia

Sunset at Mandina Lodges

Sunset at Mandina Lodges

Light pollution is enemy number one to serious stargazers, and that’s why the view of the night sky from Mandina Lodges, a series of luxury floating bungalows which sit silently down a wooden walkway on the edge of the River Gambia, surrounded by 1000 acres of utterly peaceful African forest, is hard to beat.

Many Gambians live without electricity and running water, so while we European city-dwellers may be used to the problem of too much light, it’s quite the reverse in West Africa. One small fringe benefit of these difficult living conditions is the ability to see the night sky without impediment.

Sitting on the wrap-around balcony of my wooden water-based home contemplating the stars I came to the conclusion that if I could get across to the other bank of the river I’d be able to reach out and collect those twinkling lights in my hands, as they appeared to sweep right down to the horizon, as well as stretch as far as the eye could see along the water.

Bedouin Star Gazing Experience, Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt

Camel

On my way to the desert stargazing in Sharm el-Sheikh

My bedouin stargazing experience taught me a good few lessons. Firstly, just because something sounds really, really touristy, doesn’t mean it won’t be really, really brilliant. This was the absolute highlight of my time in Sharm.

I was taught by bedouins how to make pitta bread on an open fire, and I learned from the highly knowledgeable astronomer that the dark skies above the desert are the ideal place for stargazing.

He also imparted the following nuggets of knowledge to myself and my group – there  are three ways to identify the north star based on its position in relation to other constellations; that Jupiter was the first planet to be discovered by telescope by Galileo, so Jupiter and the other planets are also known as Galileo’s moons; and that the white we see on the moon is actually reflected sunlight – the dark areas are the deep craters where sunlight simply cannot reach.

I also learned on more thing that evening – riding camels sounds like a good idea, but actually it’s dastardly uncomfortable. If Hamlet thought man was a piece of work, he obviously hadn’t met a camel.


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