Review of a dark sky holiday - Hakos Farm, Namibia
Posted 18 August 2013 - 01:08 PM
In short, I would eagerly recommend a visit to a really good dark-(and clear)-skies location to anyone. I'd say that it's a "bucket list" item even for those not very interested in astronomy. Hakos Guest Farm in Namibia is one truly excellent option - it worked very well for me and I look forward to returning one day.
GETTING THERE AND WHAT TO BRING
I travelled from London Heathrow --> Frankfurt with British Airways, then Frankfurt --> Windhoek with Air Namibia. I'd suggest that you leave plenty of time for your flight connection - gratuitously excessive amounts of time, perhaps even take a whole 24 hours and make the most of a day's stopover in Germany. There are potentially no limits to how much either or both airlines can screw up, but a day's leeway should usually be enough to cover it.
In the days and weeks before the trip I had time to twiddle thumbs and over-think what I might like to bring along with me. The basic recipe was a 10" Sumerian Optics travel dob with a few lightweight eyepieces (+not-so-lightweight Paracorr) and Nikon Action Extreme 10x50 binocular. I was greedy, though, and naively tried to contrive ways to bring more. These ideas turned out to be hopeless: For the first time I can remember when travelling, I was more limited in luggage weight than luggage space. Perhaps it was travelling so many times before with space bring in shortest supply that made me forget all about weight. When I manage to arrange my next visit maybe I'll be lucky enough to arrange a second person to come along with me, ostensibly to enjoy the skies but also as a mule to carry more equipment! A few examples of my blunted ambitions in terms of toys I'd hoped to bring:
- another eyepiece or two? In the end my weight budget was so tight I had to pare the eyepiece selection down at the airport and stuff a couple in my coat pockets to wear on the plane. However I was well served by the eyepieces I had in the end.
- The handheld midrange Nikon AE 10x50s are good but I am lucky to have a really top-class 16x70 binocular in the Fujinon FMT-SX which I hoped I might find a place for, as it would really cut loose under the Namibian sky. I tried obtaining a monopod for it. The monopod was an interesting if niche addition to my kit but in the end it was a silly pipe-dream to think I could bring it or the 16x70s along. Just too heavy and not general-purpose enough compared to the lighter 10x50s.
- I brought the Pocket Sky Atlas, David Chandler's southern sky planisphere and a recently acquired paperback set of Burnham's Celestial Handbook. I had hoped to also take along a book or two by Craig Crossen (Sky Vistas or Binocular Astronomy) and others, but it was far too much to carry as anyone with half a brain would have predicted. In fact two of the three volumes of Burnham's were carried in my coat pockets - I wore a large anorak in anticipation of the cold Namibian winter nights, and while it wasn't so comfortable when walking around European airports in the height of summer on the way there, it really paid off in the extra pocket capacity it gave!.
When I returned from the holiday I realised I had put off buying an ebook reader for too long. If I had one, I could just carry that one lightweight item instead of all the heavy books, and bring all the reading material I wanted. (I might still want separate paper charts and planisphere of course but they don't weigh much)
It was genuinely good fun passing the security check points at each airport on the way and coming back. Each checkpoint felt it necessary to swab the mysterious wooden box that was my packed up Dob for explosives, but their caution soon dissolved into cheerful curiosity as I explained what it was. One or two onlookers, as I waited in departure lounges, asked if I were a DJ - I carried some noise-cancelling headphones around my neck to wear on the long flight (and to keep my ears warm at night once I arrived, or so I hoped) and there is a large circle on one side of the Dob's box which they must have assumed to be part of some kind of turntable!
Hakos take care of everything you might need. I don't drive, so the traditional template for a holiday that most people follow - arrive at the airport, collect a hire car, drive to your hotel, etc - doesn't work for me. For a fee, they will pick you up from the airport. It's about a three hour drive as far as I can remember. (Obviously it's helpful if you can check whether others are travelling around the same date and try to fit in with their schedule so that these lifts are as efficient as possible. They may even divide the cost of the lift from the airport between the extra passengers, but don't quote me on that.) Hakos provide plenty of food, they'll wash your clothes for a small fee, etc.
Broadly speaking I'd say that the idea behind a visit to Hakos is to really focus on astronomy while you're there. You won't find very many other distractions but if astronomy is what interests you it won't matter in the slightest. In fact you'll feel drunk on the richness of the sky.
I don't want to really overstate that though. Friedhelm did take us on a couple of trips. The area Hakos is in is called the Gamsberg Nature Reserve, after a flat-topped mountain that can be seen from a very long way away in most directions. The top of the mountain had been rudimentarily developed by the Max Planck Institute as a possible site for an observatory, but is now in the care of the "Internationale Amateur Sternwarte" (http://www.ias-observatory.org/). We drove to the top of it via a very, very knackered road and spent a couple of hours up there. The views from the edge of the mountain were amazing, though I was told it was a hazy day and can be even better (you can just make out the coast in one direction, which would have to be 170 km or more, on a clear day). They have a 28" reflector up there which Friedhelm was kind enough to show and describe to us (we visited in daylight so no looking through it!)
They also offer trips to the Namib Desert, to the nearby HESS observatory, and one or two other places I've forgotten. I only went on the Gamsberg and HESS trips as I wanted to make the most of the night sky (the Gamsberg and Namib trips each involve a fairly long day and you may find yourself too tired to do much observing the evening after).
Those who weren't so interested in astronomy as a focus tended to either be the patient relatives of the visiting astronomers, or tended to stop at Hakos for a night or two to dip their toes into astronomy with a sky tour, while crossing the country as part of a roaming holiday, going (for example) to or from the Namib desert to the richer safari country.
The roads in the capital Windhoek are OK, but the main roads outside the city are mediocre and almost every other road is varying degrees of terrible. Still, they get the job done but it made me glad I wasn't the one doing the driving - it seemed to me that it was best left to someone who knows what they're doing on tricky roads.
My room was OK. Simple but adequate. Really the focus is on using the rooms as a base which you sleep and wash in, because this holiday is all about being outside!
There are multiple observatories with installed equipment for photographers to rent and a range of equipment for visual observers too. The top of the heap was a 24 inch Dob (must have been about f/4 at a guess), but there was also a 16" Skywatcher Dob permanently outside and a bunch more besides. I had intended that my 10x50 binocular and my portable 10" Dob would serve me well enough, as a novice on his first visit, and found this worked out well. Others rented the 24" and were very happy to share the views, so I had it pretty good!
I don't think this is very important for an astronomy holiday - you're there for the skies! - but I should mention that internet connectivity is quite limited. It's available, but they prefer you not to use it a great deal as it is a bit slow and is in demand for remote observatory control etc. Electricity is in moderately plentiful supply - the wind turbines on the farm get plenty of use - but water is precious so they ask that you take only brief showers, etc.
The peak observing season, as far as I can remember, is from late May to sometime in October. The winter, in other words. Weatherwise my luck was about average for the time of year - which is a good thing. A couple of nights were particularly cold and windy, but the sky was basically always free of cloud. Some nights were less transparent than others, but we're talking varying degrees of excellence regardless.
At this time of year it is extremely dry (no danger of dewing or fogging your optics) and there are very rarely any clouds in the sky. We did once see a thin cloud, far far away on the horizon, but that's all for the entire holiday. However it's important to understand that weather is what it is and you might be unlucky. This part of Namibia gives you some of the best odds of clear skies of anywhere in the world, but not a guarantee. In the daytime, sitting outside in the sunshine, it's warm - or a bit more than warm - on most days. If it's colder outside than usual then the huge windows along one side of the dining room provide a great place to warm up instead.
It was often at least a bit windy. There are some relatively sheltered parts of the farm to set your equipment up and my Dob was never troubled regardless (its barebones, skeletal design doesn't catch the wind much). However some nights were very tranquil.
The farm is at a little over 1800m, or 6000 feet. A couple of experienced Swiss observers said to me that they'd seen slightly better skies at the top of Hawaii, but in fairness they were used to observing at high altitude (they'd often taken their large Dob up into the mountains back home). As a mere mortal of the lowlands, with the lung capacity of a typical IT worker, I'm sure high up on Hawaii I'd see less, and/or feel ill, from oxygen deprivation.
WAY OF LIFE
Before I arrived I imagined that I might become spoiled by the dark skies. Certainly I enjoyed them tremendously but I was wary of getting too used to them and think I avoided that mistake. It was the other benefit of a dark skies holiday that caught me more by surprise: the consistently clear skies! Every night I could reinforce what I had learned on the previous, instead of forgetting or blurring much of it with a two week+ wait until the next bit of acceptable weather (as regularly happens back home).
No need to get up early the following morning, no need to think about other commitments and chores - just a total focus on astronomy for several days straight. I'd get up at around 11, eat some late breakfast, then spend the rest of the day warming up under the pleasant sunshine and reading about last night's or tonight's targets for observing. It was bliss to have the freedom to really focus on astronomy to the exclusion of all else in that way.
Dinner was served (as far as I can remember) at half past 6, and through the huge windows in the dining room you could watch the sunset over the mountains as you ate. Beautiful. By the end of dinner it's dark and it's time to get to work!
Nice friendly cosy atmosphere at dinner table. Lot of meat on the menu! (Often for the main meal we'd eat Kudu, a local antelope. During the night jugs of water, coffee and cake were left out for anyone needing a break from observing. One evening I retreated indoors with two others for a break and a quiet chat. One of us speculated that tonight we'd find Kudu cakes in the tin. In our giddily exhausted state we found this completely hilarious). However vegetarians shouldn't fear starvation by any means. The meals consisted of a wide range of stuff to which you could help yourself as much or as little as you liked.
Namibia was once a German colony and it seems to remain the case that a lot of the tourists are German. This can mean that a lot of the dinner-table chatter is in German too. I found my woefully eroded memories from my secondary school German lessons meant that I often struggled to keep up. Everyone's English was excellent, however, so I usually received a helpful translation before long without having to ask. I couldn't help but feel a bit ashamed that everyone else knew so much English while I knew so little German, but this feeling was not at all imposed on me by the others as they were very patient and friendly.
Another side benefit was what I learned from the people I met. There were some very experienced guests staying which made conversation at mealtimes fascinating. Two guys who rented the 24 inch Dob were skilled observers who had an even larger scope back home and were looking for really deep, distant galaxy clusters. At one point in the daytime they even cleaned the 24 inch Dob (it had been a long time since it was last cleaned and had become pretty dusty), and seeing how to do it right, in person, will come in useful sooner or later.
The majority of the guests at the time I was there were astrophotographers, so that much of the time it was only the two Swiss visual observers, who had rented the big Dob, and myself together in the courtyard, but a block booking by an American astro society had been cancelled and I think normally the balance between visual and photographic observers would be more even.
One of the most striking memories I have of the entire holiday is the view of the Milky way with some midrange 10x50 binoculars (Nikon Action Extreme).
The views of the milky way were like a fantasy. At a distance of just over a full year since my visit I can remember better the strong impression the views made, rather than an actual mental image. But it's vivid. Almost psychedelic - bright blue clouds, dusted with stars, cut into cloud shapes by assorted blackness.
I'm aware that views and impressions can be highly personal and subjective. A sleepy photographer, passing by on his way to bed, was blighted by my insistence that he take a look through the binos and didn't seem as impressed. I don't mind waxing lyrical about the view I had, regardless. In a way it is amazing to think that we spend so much on aperture, Paracorrs, eyepieces, and on honing observing skills, to eke sometimes slim extra percentages out of our views of the most distant objects, when there is such a rich and satisfying galaxy covering so much of the sky and viewable to such excellent, spellbinding effect in relatively small binoculars.
I mostly observed the Milky Way very late in the night, when it had sunk from an overhead position to lie nearly horizontally oriented and much closer to the horizon. I've never mastered the ergonomics of handholding binoculars for long periods of time, and very especially I find I can't comfortably do it for long when looking higher up and using conventional garden chairs which don't support your elbows in a useful way. The weight of my own arms alone, positioned awkwardly when holding the binoculars to look upwards (whether lying down, sitting, or whatever) always wears me out. When looking relatively horizontally I find I am much more comfortable and can look for much longer. I can only imagine how much I would enjoy the Milky Way on my next visit if I could manage to bring my Fujinon 16x70s, and could somehow have the use of a good reclining chair and parallelogram mount.
I felt that the milky way, viewed with the naked eye in an excellent dark sky, compares in appearance to the photographs everyone has seen of the milky way in the same way that rich, thick cream compares to the appearance of skimmed milk. Which is to say that it's a lot paler, less bold, but the detail and the beauty is basically still there. It has a kind of ghostly beauty of its own, when viewed with the naked eye, while still being rich and offering so much to see in the interlocking bright and dark features. It is almost surreal to see this ghostly cloud hanging above you, dominating the sky.
Early in the morning, in mid to late July when I was there, the milky way sinks close to the horizon and hangs there oriented more or less horizontally. It rings much of the horizon. I felt surrounded! The milky way was still very beautiful and visible even at low angles. Extinction from looking through more air at low angles seemed very considerably less than I am used to in the UK.
On the way to Namibia, at Heathrow airport, one of the security staff took an interest in my scope after they were satisfied it wasn't a bomb. I think she didn't really know what to ask, so I should be glad it wasn't the usual "How much did that cost?". The question that came out was "How far can you see with it?". I didn't know the answer - this telescope hadn't really stretched it's legs yet and I'm not very experienced - but replied with a safe but plausible number of "100 million light years", hoping to find out what the real limits were once I arrived. Well, I nearly tripled that number halfway through the holiday when one of the other guys I was observing with mentioned Stephan's Quintet. I tried to find it and, after a little while, succeeded! Up until that evening I had been going mostly for relatively easy, bright objects (most of the southern sky was new to me so I had plenty to get on with). I found the hunt for something difficult and faint a lot of fun. Using a galaxy (NGC 7331 if I remember right) as a waypoint - galaxy-hopping instead of star-hopping - was a new experience for me! I couldn't help but think that there was something breathtakingly extravagant about using a whole galaxy as a mere stepping stone to something I considered more interesting at the time!
The thought that almost 300 million year old light was hitting the back of my eye was absolutely exhilarating. A major highlight of the holiday for me.
This holiday was also the first time I managed to see a couple of dust lanes in the Andromeda galaxy M31. Back at home, at best, the galaxy always seemed interesting but unvaried. Bright in the middle with a steady dimming out to nothingness some distance out. I'd never seen the lanes. Whether my skies weren't dark enough at home (quite possible) or whether the consecutive clear nights of astronomy in Namibia were measurably increasing my observing skills I couldn't really say. But it was probably due to both. I'm still quite an inexperienced observer so, for me, this was another exciting achievement. Neither Stephan's Quintet nor the Andromeda galaxy reached very high into the sky but the darkness and clarity of the skies allowed me to see them in ways I might not have managed at home.
Both of these are intended mainly as examples of how rewarding the dark skies and the constant availability of those skies was for me. I found myself enjoying aspects of observing that I had never really chased hard before - teasing out what I felt were quite difficult details or objects at the limit of visibility. I could see how amazingly true it was that you have a lifetime of objects to observe with a 10 inch scope - that under dark skies with any telescope, the skill of the observer is usually the biggest limitation.
The showpiece objects of the southern skies were fantastic to look at too. The lovely colours in the Jewel Box. The rich nebulosity of the Eta Carinae nebula - and the night after I first saw it I finally made up my mind which was the famous unstable star in the nebula and applied enough magnification to see a bit of the two "bubbles" of nebulosity either side of it. The Sombrero galaxy M104, and Centaurus A (both such iconic pictures I'd only seen in photographs before now). The Magellanic Clouds including the Tarantula nebula... in fact the magellanic clouds were fascinatingly rich with all sorts of hints of distant clusters and nebulae. The obvious charm of the two great southern globular clusters Omega Centauri and 47 Tucanae. Fascinating planetary nebulae - the Spiral Planetary was compellingly like a spiral galaxy, except that it seemed more "grainy" somehow. Coming from the UK, and with a fair bit of murk in the low southern horizon, there were a good few milky way objects that I hadn't seen before: The Swan/Omega Nebula... the Eagle Nebula... the Trifid was absolutely gorgeous... the lagoon nebula... well I'm just waffling hopelessly now. The skies were a constant joy. I saw far too many things to mention and I have to stop somewhere.
I'm sorry I'm unable to provide any photos of my trip. The luggage limits meant I couldn't bring a camera!
I am in no way financially related to the Hakos Guest Farm. I only met my hosts there for the first time when I visited last year. But I wanted to write this review in gratitude for the wonderful holiday I had and to help others become aware of Namibia as a great option for a dark skies holiday.
Posted 18 August 2013 - 02:12 PM
Posted 19 August 2013 - 11:35 AM
Another of Namibia's guest observatories is Tivoli, which is located in flat land southeast of Windhoek. While is looks like a nice place, that option has never seemed as attractive to me simply due to the bland surrounding terrain.
In 2004, I had the good fortune of being the guest astronomer for six weeks at Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, which is situated among the world's tallest dunes, another couple hours down the road from Hakos. Those astronomer spots are now pretty well booked through all of 2014. Your post offers me some encouragement to return to Namibia after all.
Posted 19 August 2013 - 01:19 PM
Posted 19 August 2013 - 04:04 PM
Namibia's astronomy climate is better than that of anywhere in Australia, but no place is as good as Chile.
Tom, by "astronomy climate" are you referring to sky quality or more generally to facilities, culture and so forth?
Posted 19 August 2013 - 04:40 PM
Posted 19 August 2013 - 05:53 PM
Tom, by "astronomy climate" are you referring to sky quality or more generally to facilities, culture and so forth?
Chile has superior sky quality, both in terms of transparency and seeing. Paranal has 280 photometric nights per year, median seeing better than 1 arcsecond, and is 8600 feet above sea level. Even though Namibia has dry conditions, it can't compete with northern Chile. Most of the large telescopes of the future are going to be sited in Chile.
When I was in Namibia for six weeks, about one-third of the nights were compromised by suspended dust (not sand) that came down from the north, where the transparency is frequently terrible. It would be clear, but the daytime sky would be a light blue/gray. A friend who traveled northward to Etosha showed photos of sunsets in which the sun nearly disappeared before reaching the horizon.
Regarding other uses of the word "climate," both places have terrific scenery and flora/fauna. It's difficult to choose between the Andes and the Namib Desert. Chile gets the nod for being better developed, with nice urban attractions in Santiago.
Posted 19 August 2013 - 07:30 PM
But I relished the fine report above and would go if I could.
Posted 20 August 2013 - 03:59 PM
Posted 20 August 2013 - 07:21 PM
Fascinating and well-written. I may try and convince the family to take an African vacation next year!