Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Ad fuck-off far-away Astra

I've been having some trouble with internettery lately. I blame living in Pretoria, which is why I'm not there right now. Point is, I could complain lots more, but instead here's my belated report on the USS Dauntless expedition to Sutherland. Any day now, I might even finally get around to letting you know how my Icon module and SFFSA mini-con talk went.

First, Sutherland is far to go by road. I believe that was the furthest South I've ever been down the N1. It was 6 of us in a 17-seat buslet, plus 2 charter drivers. They were disappointingly unlike the charter pilots of Cabin Pressure, but we didn't crash, which is nice. It's hard to accurately describe a drive like that without giving it its own essay, but bear in mind it took us 16 hours to get down there, then 15 hours to get back, with only 17 hours in Sutherland, and half of those Sutherland hours spent sleeping - and only about 4 hours actually touring the stuff we went there for. It was a lot of travel for such a short visit. On the other hand, Apollo 11 spent 6 days travelling for just 3 hours on the Moon, so by pure time efficiency, we beat NASA.

There were 2 reasons to go on this trip: the people and the sights. Both were worth it. Special credit has to go to acting MCPT Jay and his mom for organising the whole thing flawlessly. But all the Dauntless crew are fun, and it's just a pity more couldn't join us. On the plus side, we were joined by two Cape Town crew members, who were cool and accounted for two thirds of the Starfleet uniforms worn during this visit.

(They would have had only half the uniforms, as I took mine down too, but annoyingly forgot to pack a belt, without which those pants simply won't stay up. And without pants, the top half becomes silly. Still, I think my Dauntless cap and Skeptic's Guide tshirt made a perfectly adequate combo.)

It was great being there with people who appreciated everything about the place and who each had something to teach. We killed quite a lot of downtime with games too, which seems like a very Dauntless custom. Playing Star Fluxx in the back of the bus by torch light was the sort of fun you couldn't possibly plan. Commodore Swart's custom radio service was also pretty damn amusing, but we only got half the audio book of Physics of Star Trek, half of some stand-up, half of the Onion's audio world atlas, etc.

(Insert 'Unseen Force' joke here.)
Then there was the place. Sutherland is small. Without rising much up the surrounding slope, you can take the whole town in with one glimpse. It also felt pretty regimented yet run down at the same time. Sort of the opposite of the Shire. It felt very different to any place I'm familiar with. We didn't see much beyond the hotel (which, for any vegans wanting to travel down there, had fuck all for me to eat except baked beans on toast), and that doesn't bother me much.

What we came for was the South African Astronomical Observatory.

Up on the highest point around, there's a flat-topped hill. From below, the white bulk of SALT is obvious, and from some angles there are a couple smaller things visible next to it. But when you follow the winding road up to this little plateau, there's a whole forest of stout, white tubes and domes spread across it. It's all open and windy, with an amazing long view way off to distant smaller hills.

We got 2 tours that day, a daytime tour of the big telescopes, focusing on the technical and historical side of their construction and use, and then a night-time star gaze. The day tour was cool, as wandered among the big white lumps. We were taken inside the oldest telescope there, built in 1938 but still in great nick, and then in to the innards of SALT, largest optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. I knew its main mirror was big, but I was actually staggered when I first laid eyes on it.

However big your screen is, it's not big enough to really capture the bigness of that mirror.

The night and day tours were too different to call one better than the other, but the night tour was certainly amazing. We were kept off the top plateau, since real astronomers were working up there (it was a Saturday night, but when you have to book your slot 18 months in advance, you're probably not too picky, and it's not like there's much else to do in Sutherland). Instead, down at the adjacent visitors' center, we had a guide aiming a pair of smaller but still massive telescopes at the sky for us, on a tour that started with our neighbouring planets (first time I'd seen Saturn's rings directly, plus at least one of its moons) and moving outwards to neighbouring stars, globular clusters, nebulae and even a neighbouring galaxy, which looked way clearer and closer than I would have expected. And the whole time, there was the lovely sprawl of the Milky Way to simply stare into.

Having read for so long about all this stuff, both on the ground and in the sky, it was great to finally put my own eyeballs on them. It was all pretty rushed, but not so much that I felt cheated. It was like having just the right amount of desert, even though you can see a whole table left to gorge on.

The little visitor center there was also interesting, but we didn't have enough time to absorb it all fully. I think it would be great for (and was presumably designed for) school tours, with a wide variety of basic science displays (including assorted fossils) and a fair bit of interactive crap.

Over all, it was a great trip, with a great crowd. I was a bit subdued due to travel fatigue and lingering work stress, so I might not have seemed that excited, but it really was great.

The following week was a bit rough, and not for the reasons I expected. I expected to be tired, lacking sleep, and maybe a bit resentful of the loss of all my usual weekend activities, but none of that came up, noticeably. Instead, my car's tyre got a big blob of tar melted to it while parked at the airport over the weekend (causing the noises I described in my previous post). This weakened the tyre enough that a week later it burst, happily only while I was going really slowly; I do a lot of fast highway driving these days, so the odds of it popping at a really dangerous time were pretty high. I was also woken at 03:00 on the Monday/Tuesday night after this trip by someone trying to break into my room. No harm done, but it wrecked my nerves for a few days and probably threw my sleep pattern off worse than the whole crazy weekend stuck in a bus.