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Back to the Murchison

Last year Steven and I, along with two colleagues from CSIRO, visited the remote community at Pia Wadjarri in the Murchison as part of an outreach project called Wildflowers in the Sky. Last week, we headed back up there for a different project. This time, it was an IYA project, part of the Indiginous Astronomy package. The grand plan is to create an exhibition of aboriginal artwork inspired by astronomy that will be displayed in Geraldton, Perth and hopefully around other cities in Australia, and the purpose of this trip was a cultural exchange between the artists from Marra Aboriginal Corporation and astronomers.

We took up some telescopes, binoculars and various other bits and pieces so we could show them some of the telescopic sights in the southern sky. I'd been really looking forward to the trip, not just for the dark skies, but I was hoping to learn some of the stories they have about the sky. I knew a couple of aboriginal stories from reading books when I was in Alice Springs a couple of years ago, but each group has it's own stories and they are all different. We left Perth on Tuesday afternoon and headed to Geraldton with a very full four wheel drive. We arrived in Geraldton five hours later and had dinner with a colleague there. The sky is not bad in Geraldton, it's a lot better than the sky in Perth, although as a port town with a population of over 25,000 people, it's still quite light polluted. On Wednesday after a morning of meetings in Geraldton, we had lunch in town and then headed off to Mullewa after stocking up with some supplies.

Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Mullewa
Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Mullewa CREDIT: Megan
Mullewa is a small town in the wheat growing region of WA, but it has some interesting buildings. The star party on the oval was fun, although it was a manic evening. Before we started we had a minor mishap with the 5-inch - the end of the power cable was missing, so we had no way to power it. The trouble is, without power, it's not much use at all, so we went through the large collection of power cables we had with us but all but one of the adapters had different connectors. The one that fitted was from Jeff's laptop power supply, which he let us butcher in the name of outreach. It ran at too high a voltage though, so I did a quick bit of emergency field surgery and spliced the power cables together. It looked a bit dodgy, but it did the job! The kids were brilliant. This was my second experience of aboriginal kids, and they are great fun. They did get a bit over-enthusiastic though, and I spent an hour or so cleaning all the finger prints off the optics when we got to Boolardy the next day. The three of us were kept busy with the telescopes and questions all evening, it was brilliant, but it was a nice relief when we got packed up and got back to the hotel (just in time to get in a round before the bar closed). I tried my new camera out on the sky for the first time while we were packing up and was suprised by the results. It's not bad at all given that it's not an SLR and it wasn't actually that expensive. It does exposures up to 8 seconds, and a single frame shows a lot of stars. I'm impressed.

Thursday was a really long day. We left Mullewa after breakfast and got to Boolardy before lunchtime (no breakdowns this time!). From Pindar, you drive two hours or so on a dirt road going north. Most of the land is really flat and covered by low scrub, so any small rises let you see for miles. Last time I was there it was the end of the wildflower season and the wreath flowers were dying off, this time there were no flowers of any description. After lunch, and the film crew interviewing Steven, we all headed off in convoy to the MRO. We all climbed up the breakaway and looked out at the landscape. One of the artists was born at Boolardy so this was his country, and several of the others were from the general area. Then we headed over to the MWA to have a look at one of the tiles and talk to the crew who were hard at work on the beamformers.

The view from the breakawaySteven Tingay explains the MWA to the artists from Marra
Left: Looking at the view from the breakaway. Right: Steven Tingay explains the MWA to the artists from Marra with the Message Stick film crew looking on CREDIT: Megan

We headed back to Boolardy station later in the afternoon. The artists started work on some sketches before dinner (which was superb, Carolyn is a great cook). The sketches were really good and it was really interesting watching the artists work, the exhibition should be brilliant. It was a busy night up at the station as there was the bus full of artists, the three of us astronomers, the three film crew, plus an MWA expedition there at the same time, so quite a few of us ended up sleeping out in swags or sleeping bags as there aren't nearly enough beds for everyone at the homestead! After dinner and some observing through the scopes, we sat round a fire and looked at the sky. The artists told us some of their stories, and Steven told them some of the Greek legends. It was really special, and even better once the film crew turned off their lights! The artists showed us the emu in the Milky Way and it was so obvious once you knew where to look. Amazing.

Sunset at BoolardyStory telling around the camp fire
Left: Sunset at Boolardy. Right: Story telling around the camp fire. CREDIT: Megan

After the artists went to bed, a few of us stayed up for a while. I took heaps of photos with both the digital camera and my Granddad's old film SLR, and we had a play with the 8-inch Dob (although tiredness + beer don't make for very good alignment skills). Predictably, I was the last one up. I stayed by the fire (it kept away the mozzies) and carried on taking photos for quite a while just enjoying the peace and quiet. Eventually I packed up the cameras, threw sand on the remains of the fire, and chucked my sleeping bag out on the bit of grass by the cottage. I found it hard to sleep though, as the view was still stunning. As the night wore on and the easterly winds picked up, the quality of the sky got worse. The easterlies come off the desert and bring lots of dust with them, making the horizon fuzzy. Still, lying on the grass looking south I had a great view and didn't want to go to sleep!

I did eventually drop off, and woke as it was getting light. The sky was very light, but I could still see the Southern Cross and the pointers on the opposite side of the sky to when it had gone dark. Back home I'd never sleep out without some sort of shelter as I'd be convinced it would rain! It was really nice to not have that worry. I didn't get up straight away, just watched as the stars winked out. Then other people started to stir, so I got up. We packed up fairly quickly and were on the road back to Pindar by 8am. It was a bit wierd coming back to Perth again. It was a great trip and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to be part of it.

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 01st Apr 2009 (11:24 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink


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