Travel

Peering up at the universe to connect with people, at the Darbys Falls Observatory in Cowra, NSW. By Alison Arnold.

Darbys Falls Observatory, Cowra

The night sky near Cowra.
Credit: Gareth Coggan

The holiday begins with a lot of driving. From Ballarat in Victoria to the wattle town of Cootamundra in New South Wales, where I stop to pick up my brother from the train. From there, we drive north-east to Cowra.

My brother’s been enlisted to help me drive home again. He’s just got back from three years in London. At the station, he says that the thing that strikes him the most is that to go anywhere here you have to get in a car. We get in the car.

He looks down.

“Oh, you drive a manual,” he says.

“Do you?” I ask.

“Um.”

My dad has lived in Cowra, population 9730,  in the Central West of New South Wales for years. He says it doesn’t have much to offer, but on our second night there he asks us if we want to go to an observatory about 20 kilometres out of town. We drive off into the falling night, the stars already getting crisper above us, imagining a domed building, stone and a genteel sort of experience. We pull into the driveway of the Darbys Falls Observatory and find a bunch of people sitting in a circle outside a corrugated iron yard. It turns out they’re together, an extended family intent on taking the piss with each other. “Your eyes are as bright as the stars,” a young guy says to his girlfriend, and everyone groans.

The observatory’s owner, Mark Monk, an amateur astronomer, hands out Aerogard as we wait for the last of the light to go over the hill.

Inside, arranged on the yard’s concrete floor are seven telescopes, ranging from eight- and 10-centimetre refractors to a giant Newtonian 50-centimetre omnidirectional ball scope on a drive platform, allowing it to track across the sky. It’s one of the largest telescopes available to the public and Mark built it himself. It takes us 8.6 light years away to see Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest in the sky. The Aerogard smell falls away and enchantment begins.

The moon sits there, as the moon does, pockmarked and white-grey and beautiful, the edge of the Copernicus lunar crater clear through the telescopes.

It is a gibbous moon: 78 per cent of it can be seen. It is not the luminous glowing orb-like silvery shimmery porcelain variety. Nor is it Ted Hughes’s full moon on “a cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket” –  a moon that “has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work/ That points at him amazed”.

The poetry is that I put my eye to the telescope and there it is, magnified seventyfold by the technologies of science and astronomy.

It’s impossible not to think about David Bowie’s death and “Space Oddity” and his other galactic dreams of protein pills, ray guns and the ethereal challenge: Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare. Or John Williamson’s “Cootamundra Wattle”, having just been through the town.

“Look,” my brother says.

A steady light is moving across the sky.

“A plane,” someone says. “A satellite?”

It’s the International Space Station passing across the sky in low Earth orbit; it can be seen by the naked eye.

At least it can here, in this place of Aerogard, black night, sweat and dust. In a world now bleeding light, we are in one of the darkest places in Australia, hemmed in by hills and well away from the sky-glow leaking from cities and shutting out the world above. In winter, the observatory is right underneath the centre of the galaxy. Mark says that visiting astronomers from the United States look at the dark lanes and dust in awe: “When you’re here and there’s no moon, the stars are that bright you can see your shadow on the ground.” He says that once three 85-year-old women told him before they left that what he’d shown them of the sky had been the highlight of their lives.

“Most people will never see a starry sky,” Ed Krupp tells me later, by email. The sky is too lit up in populous parts of the world. Australia is less light affected, though in the centre of Melbourne and Sydney only the brightest stars pierce through. Dr Krupp is the director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California. He tells me about the power outage in Northridge, California, in 1994, caused by an earthquake, and the phone calls about the “odd” sky that came in afterwards. “The staff were puzzled by these calls at first,” he wrote in the Griffith Observatory’s magazine, “but after a number of them it became apparent what people were talking about – the stars.” It happened once again, in 1999, when he was in Turkey. Another earthquake, another outage and a “stunning” Milky Way. “When people re-encounter a dark sky,” he says, “they are infatuated.”

I’m infatuated.

“Do you believe in other life?” the young guy with the bright-eyed girlfriend asks Mark Monk, who pauses with his laser pointer to give him a look.

“Anything not from Earth is alien,” he says. “But do I believe there are other humans out there? No.”

To look through one of the lenses of the Newtonian telescope, you have to climb a ladder. On his way down, my brother bumps the telescope.

“I can’t see anything,” each subsequent person says, and we are frozen trying not to laugh. Mark has told everyone all night to hang on to the ladder not the telescope.

The holiday ends the way it began. It’s 764 kilometres back down the Hume and we talk the whole way. My brother has ideas for inventions and comics. I have David Bowie songs stuck in my head and coming out my mouth, and no one in my family can sing.

A little past Gundagai, we pull into a rest stop so my brother can drive out of it.

“Do you believe in aliens?” he asks.

I don’t, but he does.

“How could there not be?” he says. “There are 200 billion galaxies – galaxies, not planets. We can’t even explore the deepest of oceans. We know nothing when it comes to the universe.”

This is the kid who wanted to be a Transformer when he grew up and cried when Mum told him it would never happen. The kid who started skinny and small and ended up a six-foot-plus, mohawked, scary-looking softie. He and his best mate like to discuss the best place to go during a zombie apocalypse – out on the water, obviously.

I missed him. Not just the three years he was away but other times before that, too.

“You check the size of some suns and you can’t comprehend it,” he says, managing not to crunch the gears.

In the car, the kilometres go fast, but weeks later I’m still thinking about the vertical ones, the 360,000 kilometres between us and the moon. Looking up wouldn’t have been the same without the driving to get there and back, and it wouldn’t have been the same without my brother. We needed all those hours of talking to open the crack in our minds that would let in the stars. And we needed to switch off the lights.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 9, 2016 as "Star trek". Subscribe here.

Alison Arnold
is a writer and book editor.

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