Go on a star safari and discover that the more you look, the more you see.
By: Dianne Tipping-Woods
Lying on Tulela’s star deck in the wilds of the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, I followed the arc of guide Ben Coley’s powerful laser as he swept it across the Milky Way. It was passing almost directly overhead in a dark winter’s sky.
“There are so many wonderful stories just about the Milky Way. There is a San legend that it’s made from the embers of a fire. In Zulu culture, it was created by the hooves of the great herds of cattle that belonged to the gods. As they marched to and from their feeding grounds, they slowly wore through the boundary between the perpetually lit celestial realm and the Earth below,” he explained to our rapt group of stargazers. Close by, a leopard sawed.
“Astronomy and tracking are the oldest sciences. Every ancient people had its cosmology or concept of the order of the world,” Ben reminded us, as we arrived at Tulela’s elevated wooden platform. It hugs a sprawling knobthorn but is entirely open to the surrounding bushveld. A crested francolin was alarming as I took my small overnight bag up the stairs.
It was stuffed with warm clothes and expectation because we were swapping the lodge’s luxurious riverside rooms for a night under the stars: sundowners and a picnic dinner, followed by a star safari with Ben, the man responsible for a brand-new astronomy qualification for field guides and founder of Astro-Tourism company, Celestial Events SA.
“Find a spot where you can look up without too many branches in your way, and get comfy,” he advised, as the first stars appeared. While Kruger isn’t known specifically as a dark sky reserve, Tulela – which means place of peace – is far enough from the park’s western boundary to escape much of the ever-increasing light pollution that rims the park and its associated private nature reserves.
In cities like Johannesburg or even further afield, we’ve forgotten what the night sky looks like, suggests Ben, who launched Celestial Events SA in 2018, which offers night sky safaris around South and southern Africa. He had been anxious about the cloud cover, as there had been some unseasonal rain the day before, but the few wisps weren’t interfering with his presentation. Ben reminded us how, as humans, we had to understand the stars before we could understand ourselves.
“Since the dawn of humans, we’ve hung our stories, myths, and legends on the stars. The celestial realm has been the storyboard upon which we’ve logged our thoughts, beliefs and experiences,” he explained, dipping in and out of ancient Egypt, Greece and Scandinavia, then going even further back to the first fires where early humans gathered and gazed at the stars.
“Our ancestors quickly began to notice the cyclical nature of the heavens, and that brought the concept of seasons, and helped us anticipate rainfall, animal movements, and when trees and plants would fruit. These early observations paved the way for modern society. We tend to forget weekdays are named after planets and that our 12-month calendar is based on the moon’s phases,” he explained.
Mid-presentation, we stopped for coffee and meringues, donning beanies and gloves as the temperature dropped. The leopard rasped again, further away. A quick shine of the spotlight didn’t pick the big cat up, but it was thrilling to know he was out here in the darkness, and so were we. Perhaps we’d find him on the morning drive. The Klaserie Private Nature Reserve’s low tourism density lends itself to private and personalised experiences.
As an exclusive-use property, Tulela’s guests have the freedom to set their own pace and agenda. If you want to track a leopard, you can. It’s a place where you can explore your interests, enjoy a top-class culinary experience by the lodge’s private chef, and stay at the lodge, or sleep out on the star deck.
Since opening in April 2021, they have hosted photo-safari experiences and welcomed families with kids who just want to hang at the lodge’s pool and go on game drives. The smattering of chatter stilled as we settled again and Ben directed us to the Southern Cross, possibly the best known of the 88 constellations we can see.
“With the naked eye, you should see a small star near Mimosa – the bright star that forms the left-hand point of Crux. But through binoculars, you’ll see the star is actually a bright open cluster of sparkling blue and red stars called the Jewel Box. The cluster is about 14 million years old, and 6 000 light-years away,” said Ben, guiding our eyes with his laser. With stargazing, as with so many experiences in nature, it’s a case of the more you look, the more you see.
Ben’s knowledge and passion, and a handy smartphone app called Stellarium, took us to places that exist on a scale the human mind can barely comprehend. As we lay absorbing the stories, the science, and the sheer spectacle of the glorious night sky and all its celestial phenomena, I thought how small the world felt as the pandemic confines us to our homes, but how big it really is.
We hadn’t even gazed through Ben’s 10-inch Meade GPS telescope yet, because the clouds had come in, but when it was time to crawl into our beds, cocooned in mosquito nets, we were star drunk, star-filled, made of stardust. The leopard called out a final time and I felt how wonderous it was to connect with something extraordinary, ancient, and infinite under a dome of stars.
SAA flies daily between Cape Town and Johannesburg. From there, take a short connecting flight to Hoedspruit Airport. Visit flysaa.com