A shower of a different kind

A shower of a different kind post thumbnail image

The Gemenid meteor shower peaks annually on December 15 in South Africa and other parts of the world. The thought of being able to witness a spectacle like this was extremely exciting, especially as it coincided with the New Moon in 2020.

We (myself and Duncan, the love of my life) decided to give stargazing a try to see the meteor shower. We planned to break away from the city to have a better chance to see the stars. We were excited by the idea but on a budget, so opted for a quick camping adventure for the night. I was in charge of finding the best location for our stargazing adventure. After searching for a place that didn’t require much of a drive, but still met the criteria of a darker night sky, I opted for the Marakele National Park. This is the closest South African National Park to Johannesburg, ideal for stargazing. We also considered the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, but the weather in this part of South Africa can be quite unpredictable.

I remembered from my days as a SANParks Times journalist that the SANParks Honorary Rangers, a group of volunteers that helped raise funds for fundraising projects in the park, often arranged stargazing events in Marakele. I also wanted to take my other half to every place I visited soon after I started the journey home. This helped me to decide on the location. The Bontle camping area in Marakele National Park is popular with campers as wildlife would often venture through the site.

The trip was short notice. We decided on Friday night that we wanted to see the shower on Sunday night. We packed, picked up a tent and basic camping equipment from my parents, and hit the road. The closer to our destination we got, the more we questioned whether we would be able to see the shower. Were we going to get lucky? Dark clouds loomed across the sky, yet we were still hopeful. Even if we were unable to see the spectacle, the time out in nature would be good. It would be our first getaway since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A yellow-billed hornbill in the Marakele National Park
One of the yellow-billed ground hornbill parents visited our campsite.

We identified a problem shortly after pitching our tent at the Bontle campsite. The cover sheet was not included in the tent bag. This was great for stargazing, but if it were to rain, we would get completely soaked.

We drove to the Lenong Viewpoint and marvelled at the scenery. We could not stay too long as it was getting late. Because of the time of the day, we did not spot any of the vultures the park is famous for. After this, we returned to the Bontle camping area, lit a fire and sat down for a relaxing evening.

Fast forward to a few hours later, thunder started growling in the distance with dark clouds moving in around us. I was still optimistic – the same conditions would sometimes happen and then not even rain, I thought. By then the idea of seeing stars was not a major focus anymore. We knew our chances of seeing the meteor shower were very slim.

At 11:40, just before the peak for the meteor shower at midnight, an area of sky opened up above us. We could see Orion’s belt very clearly, and numerous stars in the vicinity. This was very short-lived, and the end of our stargazing journey. We ended up going to bed, with the sounds of thunder growing ever closer, from multiple directions. That is never a good sign…

Just before 02:00 that morning, we woke up with water droplets falling on our faces. When we pitched the tent, we made sure we did it under the broadest leaf tree we could find. This way, it would have to rain real hard before we would get wet. It stopped raining not long after this, but much later the storm continued. Duncan swapped the tent for the car. I was enjoying my sleep, so I pulled the comforter over my head and continued sleeping.

Besides, if I did not feel the rain, it could not bother me. I remembered a plastic bag in the boot of my car that remained after a trip to the nursery. I used it to cover part of the openings. While there was still a tiny gap, at least this stopped the majority of the drops.

We might not have seen the meteor shower, but there were a few things that made the trip worthwhile. We had a male and female yellow-billed hornbill feeding chicks in a hollowed-out tree trunk right where we camped. This is not something you see every day. The birds also used the ablution facility to their advantage. The outside light attracted bugs at night and caused the insects to fall into the empty basin.

Mom and baby rhino in the Marakele National Park
Mom and baby rhino in the Marakele National Park.

Now and again the parents would be lazy and collect insects from the basin. We also went for a drive before we left and saw a female rhino with her baby. In South Africa, seeing rhinos is a privilege as poaching is decimating rhino populations. Poachers kill these majestic animals for their horn, which consists of nothing more than the keratin.

We did not see any elephants but spotted some smaller antelope species and zebra. Despite having visited the park numerous times before, we managed to travel down a road I had never on before. The views were spectacular! Marakele is a gem of a park with plenty to see and do. Read this article for more things to do in Marakele National Park.

Despite our stargazing experience in the Marakele National Park, this park is a good spot for stargazing. One just needs to ensure the weather plays along. It is probably easier to stick to the hobby during the dry season.  Check out this cool guide by EarthSky with info on all 2021 meteor shower events. Note that this might not apply to only the Northern or Southern Hemisphere.

The Geminid meteor shower will again take place on December 15. Diarise the date and remember to go somewhere dark to witness this spectacular later this year. 

Have you had any mishaps when camping or stargazing trips that did not work out as planned? We would love to hear about your experiences in the comments!

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