Karoo ideal for stargazing - astronomer

Laingsburg - The Karoo provides the ideal opportunity to observe the night sky for both professionals and amateurs, an astronomer has said.

It's very dark; many places in the Karoo are dark and that's very good and that's rare," astronomer Kechil Kirkham from Over the Moon Tours told News24.

The Anysberg Nature Reserve recently began a stargazing programme for visitors and Kirkham said that the open plain of the Karoo provided an easy way to observe the stars.

"Mountains are bad for stargazing for two reasons: One is that they generate clouds and potentially rain as well. They also will restrict your view and Anysberg has this beautiful wide open plain. So you can plonk your telescope or lie down on the ground and see all around."

The 62 500ha reserve has accommodation for about 20 people in cottages although there is also a campsite and plans to build one more cottage.

Astronomy tourism

CapeNature, which owns the reserve, wants to ensure that the area remains unspoilt and as a result, there is very little development on the site.

"There is no light pollution here: It's one of the darkest spots on Earth. It's as dark as Sutherland where the Southern African Large Telescope [Salt] and the other telescopes are for the South African Astronomical Observatory," said Kirkham.

In urban areas, light pollution and atmospheric moisture make stargazing difficult, but rural areas have an advantage in that their lack of development makes it easy to see stars more clearly than urban areas.

"There's very little in the way of air pollution and perturbations in the atmosphere that you would get around centres of population or places where there're large forests," said Kirkham.

The reserve which also features several species of animals such as gemsbok, red hartebeest, the endangered Cape mountain zebra may benefit from an increasing interest in astronomy.

SA is currently bidding to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) which aims to build over 3 000 linked radio telescopes in the Northern Cape province.

"I believe that in the Western Cape, astronomy tourism is just going to increase. Even if South Africa doesn't win the Square Kilometre Array bid, there's going to be MeerKAT [Karoo Array Telescope].

"The Southern African Large Telescope is now fully operational; all kinds of interesting results are going to be generated from that place which will attract more people to wonder about astronomy - both local tourists and international tourists," Kirkham said.

Accessing the reserve is not easy as there are no tarred roads and the CapeNature website advises that high clearance vehicles are used, but small groups of visitors may find the experience quite rewarding.

"Most tourists will not have seen a very dark place like Anysberg so I believe that this place can attract all kinds of visitors, but especially those who are interested in stargazing, and those who haven't seen the Southern Hemisphere night sky, because that's different here," Kirkham added.

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