I’M on a winter search for the sun, a few weeks of warmth to help me through to spring. With my friend Roger, I set off north on a drizzly Friday afternoon. We drove to Tocumwal, on the Murray River, and camped in state forest on the Victorian side.
Roger has bad knees, so he can’t walk much. But what he lacks in mobility, he makes up for in curiosity. That’s why we bumped all the way to the end of the muddy track in the dark before deciding on a camp spot: he wanted to see what was round the next corner. I took the wheel next morning, windscreen still foggy, my attention on the conversation, and promptly got us bogged. We got bogged a second time that day, driving off-road to look at an interesting house we’d glimpsed from the freeway.
Our drive to Brisbane, on the Newell Highway – mostly – continued in this fashion: detours, pauses, slow circumnavigations of every town and back again. Ooh, look at that old building! Maps. More maps. A lazy morning spent on the sloping balcony at the Imperial Hotel in Coonabarabran. Fried food. Bains-marie. We got to Brisbane in five days.
Along the way, I finally began to learn about stars. (Here’s Leunig’s take, for the election.)
I’d never before understood the movement of the night sky. I like to look for the Southern Cross, but I’ve never been sure where it would be, or why. I remember reading a picture book called My Place in Space over and over again, and understanding the smallness of Earth had a profound effect on me. But on the whole, I didn’t pay much attention to what was overhead, besides special occasions – school camps, summer holidays at the beach, or travelling here and there.
I’m only partly to blame. Growing up in the suburbs and then living in the city, stars are the exception, not the rule. When Galileo was stargazing on a clear, moonless night, the Milky Way was bright enough to cast a shadow. It still is – but not where people are, not where lights crowd out the cosmos.
The Newell Highway is an observatory tour, of sorts. It passes the Dish, at Parkes; the big telescope near Coonabarabran and the radio telescope compact array near Narrabri.
We bypassed the Dish, but visited the second two. And in the evenings, when we stopped for camp, Roger looked up. He explained how to find south using the Southern Cross and its pointers, talked about the varying expansion rate of the universe, and sung the galaxy song from Monty Python. He also sung the praises of Carl Sagan, astronomer and writer, whose Cosmos television series he’d watched as a young man. “There have been others since with better graphics, but none with better politics,” Roger said.
At Roma, in western Queensland, Rog turned north for Carnarvon Gorge and eventually, Cairns. I hitched further west, to Charleville.
There’s a tourist site on the edge of town called the Cosmos Centre. I think it’s the best attraction I’ve visited. And there, I found the sun – but not in the way I’d bargained for.
I saw it through a telescope. I was in a group and each of us, in turn, peered, paused, and gasped. A rough looking man wearing tracksuit pants and thongs limped up and put his eye to the telescope. “I see it,” he said. “Oh, wow.”
Through the filter, the sun appeared molten red. I saw dark sunspots, only pinpricks on the lens but larger than Earth in reality; and huge solar flares on its edge, like wisps in the wind.
(The Sun: a photo on my phone through the eyepiece of the telescope – it’s nothing like what I saw, but you get the idea.)
I returned to the Cosmos Centre in the night time too, and saw Saturn and its rings through a telescope, and a globular cluster – stars as bright and close as a field of flowers – and the Swan Nebula, a great dust cloud from which stars are born. The guide pointed out a puff of white in the sky, the Small Magellenic Cloud, and suddenly I could see another galaxy 200,000 light years away with my naked eyes.
It is several days ago now, but it still feels like revelation.
The final episode in Sagan’s Cosmos was called ‘Who Speaks for Earth?’ He despaired that it might be inevitable for technological civilizations to self-destruct. For humanity, he was alarmed about nuclear war, and later, about the hole in the ozone layer and about the greenhouse effect. He died in 1996.
But he did have hope: “A new consciousness is developing which sees the Earth as a single organism and recognises that an organism at war with itself is doomed. We are one planet,” he said.
“One of the great revelations of the age of space exploration is the image of the Earth, finite and lonely, somehow vulnerable, bearing the entire human species through the oceans of space and time.”