It’s a very clear night during my star tour, but the moon is waxing gibbous, like an inflating balloon, and my fellow astro-tourists and I cast sharply defined moon-shadows. Though the moon is barely three-quarters full, it’s bright enough to read by, and I understand why moonless nights are recommended for stargazing.
The waves on the beach below form a white-noise soundtrack as I peer through the telescope at Jupiter, a golden coin of a planet. I look at a star cluster called the Jewel Box, its central star a ruby-tinged flame, before sitting back to stare at the bright arm of the galaxy flung across the sky, like icing sugar dusting the night. It’s like looking back in time, I realise; by the time this light is reaching me, some of these stars are long dead. I’m witnessing astronomical ghosts.
Kilgallon points out the twin stars that form Gemini, then draws the crab, Cancer, and shows us our closest star, Alpha Centauri. It looks like one star, but it’s actually a binary system of two. “They’re sandwiched together like a double ice cream cone,” she says.
The island’s amateur astronomy group introduced Kilgallon to the stars. She loved learning about them so much that she became a dark-sky ambassador, and through the training, found two other women, Hilde Hoven and Orla Cumisky, who were equally enthusiastic. In 2017, they joined forces to form Good Heavens, the island’s first stargazing tour company.
Hoven is direct, yet carefully considered, and has her curly hair pulled back in a ponytail. Originally from the Netherlands, she arrived on Great Barrier in 1999, met a local and never really left, working as a translator, running a holiday home and leading star tours. For her, like the others, astronomy has opened up new worlds. “The sky had been something one-dimensional, two-dimensional, but this makes it three-dimensional,” she says.
I’m keen to put what I’ve learnt to the test. On my last night on the island, Mark Durling, the affable, laid-back proprietor of Medlands Beach Lodge, offers to set up his telescope outside for me, but I decide to take myself on a solo star tour instead, down at the beach. It’s only just become astronomical night – it takes about 90 minutes following sunset for the sun’s rays to fully disappear – but the sand still holds the heat of the day. When I lean back, the panoply of stars above is a scattered, confusing radiance, like an abstract painting of droplets. But soon, it begins to coalesce.
“Some [stars] shine like beacons, fresh and new. Others waver like firelight, in and out of being”
It’s as though I’m looking at the sketchbook of an artist who has jotted down only the tiniest gestures on the page – a curve of dots, an outline, a form. Some stars look old and faded, their polish worn. Some shine like beacons, fresh and new. Others waver like firelight, in and out of being. I can see Scorpius on the southern horizon, and the orange-red star pulsing at its heart, Antares. The bright “star” above it is actually Jupiter. I had looked at it up close through the Dobsonian the other night, and had seen the patches of its storms and three of its moons. I know which four-star kite is the Southern Cross, because I remember to look for the bright, identifying Pointers. Below the cross I see a patch of dark, blank space, and remember Kilgallon telling me that’s a dust cloud so thick that no starlight can get through.
For the first time, I have a map to the world above, not just the world below, and already I want to find out more. Hoven and Kilgallon had both warned me that this would happen. “The more you learn, the more you realise there is to learn,” said Kilgallon. “It just grows and grows and grows.”
– PHOTOGRAPHY BY TALMAN MADSEN
This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine.