Stars, thunderstorms and craters
As part of our outreach programme we've been visiting schools in the Gascoyne/Murchison region of Western Australia, both in towns and in remote communities. Last week saw another of these road trips, this time visiting three schools in the east of the region. It was my fifth visit to the outback and by far the furthest I've ever driven in my life. The plan was to drive out to Geraldton on Monday with John Goldsmith, meeting up with Rob Hollow from the ATNF, before heading out to the community of Yulga Jinna on the Tuesday, Meekatharra on the Wednesday, and Cue on Thursday, heading back to Geraldton on Friday and arriving back in Perth on Saturday. The plan was to run viewing nights in each of the schools along the way. Unfortunately for us, however, the weather wasn't optimal.
I left Perth late on Monday morning with John and a four-wheel drive packed with telescopes. The weather forecast for the region was not looking spectacular, but it wasn't too bad on the way up to Geraldton so we were optimistic. We picked up Rob and left town at 9am the next day, heading straight for our first destination: the community of Yulga Jinna, some 100km north of the town of Meekathara. With a quick stop for lunch at the roadhouse in Mount Magnet, we arrived in Yulga Jinna seven hours later to thick cloud. Most of the drive had been under clear skies, but leaving Meekatharra after refueling we had been driving straight for the thickest cloud bank in the sky. This didn't worry us too much as there was always the possibility that it might clear, and it wasn't actually dumping rain (which is always a good thing when you're traveling on dirt roads). Arriving at Yulga Jinna, we met the principle and weighed up the weather. It didn't look like it was going to shift, so reluctantly we had to cancel the viewing night. Even so, some of the kids came back to the school as it was going dark anyway. We couldn't show them anything in the sky, so I tried teaching them to juggle instead. I ended up having a game of catch with about ten kids - my juggling balls will never be the same again! Frustratingly, the skies did eventually clear, but not until all the kids had long gone.
We slept in a classroom with the fans going and all the windows open. The weather had been warm during the day and it was slow to cool off. Since leaving Perth I hadn't worn a watch - time seems pretty relaxed out there. You wake up at dawn, eat when you're hungry and sleep when you're tired. I was wide awake fairly early and outside to watch sunrise. The colours of the outback are fantastic during the day, and just stunning when the Sun is low at either end of the day. Since we hadn't had much luck the previous night, and we were in no rush to get to the next location on our trip as it was less than two hours drive away, we spent an hour or so talking to the older kids in the school. We gave them planispheres and showed them how to use them, and showed them Stellarium which they all thought was really cool. They already had a collection of inflatable planets hanging from the classroom ceiling, and Rob gave them a load of resources on a memory stick, including a copy of Stellarium for their classroom computers.
Meekatharra around lunchtime. The town has a lookout perched on a spoil heap overlooking the town - it's an area with a long history of gold prospecting so there are mines of all shapes and sizes from small one-man operations to massive commercial pits, the heap on which the lookout is built is from one such pit. After calling in at the district high school to check the plan for the evening's viewing night, we explored the area. To the West of town is the airport, a Royal Flying Doctor base and weather station, and to the East is an area known as the Granites: a collection of boulder heaps scattered about the mulga bushes. It's pretty spectacular, and a popular spot for picnics in the past. Following the return of the local troops from the Second World War, a large picnic was held there and the area became known as Peace Gorge.
We got in to town mid-morning and went straight to the school. By now the sky was once again covered in thick cloud which looked far more threatening than it had the rest of the week. We met the teachers, extracted all the bits of their telescope from their resource room, cleaned all the optics and watched the weather. It was looking worse every time we checked, and the locals all thought it was set in for the day. In the end we made the call to cancel the viewing night and head back to Geraldton instead, on the grounds that we wouldn't see anything anyway. We did show all the teachers how to put together and use their telescope and Sun Spotter since a lot of the staff were new since Rob's last visit - the staff turnover can be very high at schools in the region.
We left Cue at lunchtime the same day and headed for Geraldton. Instead of going back down the sealed road through Mount Magnet, we cut the corner by taking the dirt road to Yalgoo. Along the way we stopped briefly at Walga Rock, apparently the second largest rock monolith in Australia. It is home to a large collection of aboriginal paintings, but we didn't have time to stay and explore as there was a meteorite crater down the road!
When you're used to driving in the UK, 2300km is a rather long way, but when you've got such an impressive landscape around you, an mp3 player, good company and a ready supply of jelly snakes, it positively flies past. Talking to the kids out there is always fun, and watching them get their first look at Jupiter or Saturn through a telescope is just fantastic. I'm becoming more and more aware of the realities of life out there, but may be, just may be, all this will have a positive effect on some of those kids.