We are gathered about a campfire on the dusty edge of the Serengeti. After a long day scanning the savannah for creatures with jaws, claws, tusks and no respect for anything that looks like lunch, the flames are comforting.
Our beers are cold, the conversation heated. Normally on a safari, this is the moment at which the day starts to wind down; when sun-struck townies brag gently about the “big five” animals they’ve captured on film before comparing tans and telephoto lenses.
But our little group is different. The banter is not of giraffe and rhino but of quarks and parsecs. It’s too late for lions, although the constellation Leo will be turning up, cloud permitting, later that night. Who among us will be awake? “I think we’ll be able to see it but not till about 3.30 in the morning,” says our guide, cheerily unfazed by the idea of staying up till dawn.
“But the really exciting news,” he adds, “is that we’ve had definite word that the International Space Station will be passing directly overhead at ten past four, so those of you who are still up are in for a real treat.”
Amateur astronomy is enjoying a surge of popularity, perhaps thanks to a series of big budget TV shows and a succession of dramatic images from NASA’s Mars rover. Record numbers of tourists are travelling north to see the aurora borealis, while remote hotels around the world are targeting enthusiasts by installing telescopes and hiring expert star guides. This weekend a group of German tourists will take off in a specially-chartered Air Berlin plane in order to observe a Pan-STARRS, a passing comet.
Nevertheless, when I first heard about the “astro-safari” – a new take on the traditional African fauna-fest that includes stargazing, I was sceptical. Yes, I could see that peering at stars through telescopes would be – as a friend put it – very good exercise for the neck muscles. But wasn’t the whole point of going to Africa to look around at the constant struggle for survival played out by hyenas and gazelles, say, rather than up at constellations that have scarcely changed since our ancestors first struggled upright and grunted?
Surely stars, unlike elephants, giraffes and elegantly beaded Maasai warriors, can be seen any winter evening from the back garden? And would I learn anything from peering through a telescope that Professor Brian Cox couldn’t tell me on the TV?
So it was with certain qualms that I found myself a few months later in northern Tanzania, on one of the first such safaris in Africa. The plan was simple. After flying in to Kilimanjaro airport, near Arusha, we would spend four days travelling through the spectacular Ngorongoro crater and the lush crater highlands, before dropping down on to the Serengeti Plain, game watching by day and stargazing by night.
We would hit the Serengeti just as 1.5m wildebeest were making their way across the billiard table surface, accompanied by zebras and gazelles. This annual migration, which naturally attracts the hungry attention of most of Africa’s predators, from lions to cheetahs, is one of east Africa’s most thrilling sights.
What was less clear was how our night-time viewing would go. Our group, assembled by Tira Shubart, an entrepreneurial writer-producer-stargazer, featured no one who could confidently tell a red giant from a white dwarf – there was a human-rights lawyer from Colorado, a cabinet-maker from Oregon – so much depended on the astronomer accompanying us.
We were in luck: Nick Howes, a science writer for the European Space Agency who helps manage two large telescopes on either side of the world, learnt to love astronomy at an early age and later as a pupil of Patrick Moore. A natural communicator, Howes promptly reassured us that degrees in astrophysics are all very well but cutting-edge astronomy relies on the work of thousands of amateurs. They are people just like us – just with better lenses and more patience.
Nik Szymanek, one of the world’s finest astro-photographers, turns out to be a London Tube driver by day. Tom Boles, who has discovered more supernovas than anyone living, is a retired telecoms engineer from Suffolk. (The asteroid 7468 Tomboles is named in his honour, which is ... nice.) The way Howes put it, you would think it just a matter of hours before we, too, were wrangling about the spelling of our names with the International Astronomical Union.
From the moment Howes set up his computer-guided 4in telescope on the edge of our camp, the Maasai warriors hired to keep predators away from our tents crept closer, curious to discover the source of our gasps, cries and occasional curse. “Only one per cent of stargazers have ever seen that ... ”, “What?” “Not that, that.”
The first evening’s big excitement – apart from a slightly intimidating Maasai cooking demo involving intestines and acacia bark – was the Carina Nebula, nothing but the faintest of glows to the naked eye but a furnace of throbbing scientific possibility when seen through Howes’ scope. What were we actually squinting at, though? This, it turned out, was a hospice for elderly stars, centred on Eta Carinae, a hyper-giant that will eventually explode into a supernova – so bright it will be visible from earth by day, should anybody be alive to admire it.
“It could blow up tonight, or in the next million years,” Howes observed, sagely. Of course, it may already have done so. What we were seeing is a form of historical record, an image that set off on its journey across space 7,500 years ago, when Stone Age tribes were scratching a basic existence on the Serengeti Plain.
Every evening, after a delicious dinner (the cauldron of guts and bark was, thankfully, just a one-off anthropological diversion), we dimmed down our campfire, and turned to the heavens. The vocabulary alone was alluringly alien: not just nebulae and supernovae, but globular clusters, tightly packed balls of ageing stars, Magellanic Clouds, and mysterious breakaway bits of Milky Way and best of all, Messier objects (which resemble comets, but aren’t).
The astral tour continued even in daylight hours. Howes had brought with him a solar scope – a cunning bit of kit that you screw into a telescope. This allows you to look directly into the sun, and see the huge “coronal mass ejections” that spurt from the surface of our very own star.
My nonchalance didn’t stand a chance against his passion and knowledge. The night sky from, say, Hammersmith, west London, is a moth-eaten faded curtain compared with the lavishly studded dome that dominates the wilds of Africa. Here the “seeing” – astronomer-speak for clarity – is among the best in the world, thanks to the total absence of light pollution. We can observe the Milky Way from the northern hemisphere but it’s best viewed from the south – because of the tilt of the planet.
Howes unfurled a list of 22 stars and constellations – among them a globular cluster called 47 Tucanae and the Tarantula Nebula – that even he knew only by hearsay. Within four days, he had nailed the lot. But it was the spectacles he’d not expected that caused the greatest delight: on our first evening of starwatching, a great fireball streaked across the sky, seeming to plunge to Earth some way to the south. What did it mean? What was it? We mobbed our guide with fretful questions, much as our ancestors must have thronged to a shaman. He shrugged and laughed. It could be a meteor. “You have to get used to not knowing. That’s the hardest part of the job,” he said.
That, perhaps, is the point of stargazing in the birthplace of mankind, rather than in front of the latest HD screen. Within 24 hours of arriving, the raw tourist finds himself asking all the big questions – the origins of the universe, why life started here of all places ... and the relative scariness of hyenas and asteroids.
Howes had no doubt. I’d imagined astronomers to be philosophical big-picture sorts but his expression when describing the speed at which we are hurtling towards the neighbouring Andromeda Galaxy was every bit as pained as that of a female wildebeest facing down a jackal who’s spotted her newborn.
The cataclysmic galactic crash is (probably) not going to happen for 4bn years but it’s yet another reminder of how insignificant and peripheral man is to the universe. Nightly, I trailed to my bed – fresh linen, hot-water bottles – drunk on awe and air, half-remembered lines from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy battling it out with the pensées of Mr Spock.
For the Maasai, of course the stars are freighted with rather less baggage than they are for a goggle-eyed child of 1970s English suburbia. Instead of being primarily the setting for Star Trek, say, the night sky holds the solution to practical problems.
One evening, I asked a Maasai chief from the village next to our camp to tell me the local views on the origins of everything. Big Bang? Dark energy? The multiverse? “In the beginning,” he said, thoughtfully, “God created the cattle and gave them to the Maasai.” And the stars and planets? Ûseful for knowing when the rains come – and which way to go home.
Jonathan Ford is the FT’s chief leader writer
Jonathan Ford was a guest of African Environments, which offers six-night astro-safaris in northern Tanzania (excluding flights) from £2,650 per person. For more information, go to www.leobynight.com or email email@example.com. He flew with KLM from London Heathrow to Kilimanjaro via Amsterdam; returns from £675
Star quality: More dark sky destinations
Old Crofftau, Brecon Beacons, Wales
The Brecon Beacons National Park last month became only the fifth place in the world to win International Dark Sky Reserve status, in recognition of its lack of light pollution, writes Clara Tait. Old Crofftau, a restored 17th-century cottage with panoramic views of the Beacons and Black Mountains, is an ideal base for astronomers who want to take advantage of the area’s dark skies. The self-catering cottage, 1,000ft above sea level, sleeps up to eight, and guests can arrange for astronomical equipment and books to be delivered for the duration of their stay. Daytime activities include mountain walks, biking, horseriding, and exploring the local villages. From £773 per week.
Elqui Domos, Elqui Valley, Chile
The Conquibo region is famed for its clear skies, and is home to major international observatories, including the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory and the European-run La Silla Observatory, as well as six tourist ones. The place to stay is Elqui Domos, where accommodation consists of seven geodesic domes with removable roofs (so guests can stargaze from their beds), and four wooden cabins with glass ceilings. The hotel has its own observatory, and organises activities including night-time horse rides and astronomy tours. Doubles from $125.
Kasbah Hotel SaharaSky, Morocco
On the edge of the Sahara, close to the small town of Tamegroute at the end of the Draa Valley, this hotel is built to resemble a traditional kasbah, so has large roof terraces ideal for stargazing. It has also installed what it claims is the first private astronomical observatory in north Africa, with Schmidt-Cassegrain and Ritchey-Chrétien telescopes on offer for guests to use. The remote location, on the traditional caravan route between Marrakech and Timbuktu, guarantees dark skies. The hotel also organises excursions further into the desert. Doubles from Dh980 (£78).
Hacienda de Abajo, La Palma, Canary Islands
A world away from the brash seafront hotels on the bigger islands, the Hacienda de Abajo is a restored 17th-century sugar estate, with rooms full of antiques. La Palma is another “dark sky” area, home to the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, whose dozen telescopes are shared between 17 countries. Tourists can visit the observatory, and the hotel can arrange night hikes with an astronomical guide and portable telescopes. Doubles from €90.