Comet Neowise 2020

The year 2020 has been one for the history books for so many reasons. Few of them on the positive side. One literal and figurative highlight has been the comet Neowise. It was one of the brightest comets in recent times and could be seen with the naked eye, although a good pair of binoculars certainly helped.

The weekend of July 18-19 was perfect for viewing it as it was new moon and Neowise was still reasonably close. Unfortunately, due to work constraints, I was not able to go to my usual dark sky area in the northern Death Valley. Still, I did not want to pass up this once in a lifetime opportunity to see it. Besides, I had just bought a new camera and lens (Canon EOS R and RF 15-35 mm f/2.8L IS USM) and was itching to go try them out. The next best area is about 1.5 hrs from home in a little valley above Ojai, CA. It is not perfectly dark, but the valley shields a lot of the light pollution from LA and the central valley. A set of camping chairs and an excellent bottle of wine (Bedford Cabernet Franc) completed my photography setup. We set out to get there before sunset to set up and enjoy the views. And the views did not disappoint. It was one of those breathtaking moments to see Neowise slowly appear above as the sun sets. It was bright enough see both the blueish ionization trail and the white dust trail. Of course, being in a dark area with the milky way up, I could not resist to take another panorama.

My work obligations were finally resolved a week later and so we set out to go to a true dark sky area to see if we could still enjoy Neowise. The Jeep was quickly packed with the camping gear and we set out to the Sequoia National Forrest near Kernville, CA. While the area around the river Kern is absolutely overcrowded, the high meadows above are practically deserted. Perfect to avoid COVID and have no disturbing lights.

Some friends joined us to enjoy the sights. It was a bit sad to have to set up camp 20 meters apart keep our masks on in the wilderness. But it was well worth it in the interest of keeping safe while enjoying the sights. We had to hike up a bit to see Neowise and so we set up on a rock outcropping nearby. Nature opened up the night’s entertainment with a gorgeous sunset over the horizon. The second and main act, Neowise, was soon to follow. Much smaller than even one week before, it was still visible to the naked eye. Except, this time we had the magnificent landscape to accompany it. And if that was not enough, a long, bright shooting star came along (second photo below). The moon was up in the sky until about 11 pm. Normally I would avoid going out for night photography with the moon up, but it turned out to be a blessing after all. The moon was bright enough to light up the foreground, while still sufficiently dark to not wash out the stars. The closing act was of course another view of the milky way spanning the horizon behind us.

This trip was all about the night sky and it sure did not disappoint. With all that night beauty it is easy to forget that the Sierras offers plenty of beauty during the daytime as well. A couple short hikes and some exploration of the various dirt spurs revealed plenty of critters and views.

Neowise will only be back in about 6700 years and no other bright comet is predicted for the next couple years. It was once more an amazing experience to see the beauty of nature.

Driving through Namibia 2019

The Trip

Namibia map

It is said that once the Africa bug bites one has to keep coming back. That is certainly true for me. Ever since my first trip to Botswana in 2013, I have been returning to Africa every couple years. There is something amazing and mesmerizing about seeing animals in their natural habitat, rather than in a zoo. Just as in the past, this was another camping trip to be closer to nature.

This trip included most of the normal tourist destinations in Namibia like Etosha National Park, Sossusvlei and Swakopmund. But Namibia has a lot more to offer and so we went off the beaten path all the way to the Caprivi strip and only recently opened areas of Etosha. Overall the trip took a bit over three weeks, of which 20 were actually enjoying this beautiful country. The rest was the very long and tiring flight. Getting from southern California to Windhoeck required stops in London and Johannesburg and took a total of about 36 hrs each way. It was well worth it. We drove 4830 km (3019 mi) and came back with over 90 GB worth of photos and videos.

The car

Unlike my previous excursions to Africa, this trip was a self-drive trip in a slightly modified Toyota Hilux from Bushlore. It had two fold out tents on top which were surprisingly roomy, stable and, most importantly, comfortable. The back had a large drawer with all the kitchen tools, pots and pants as well as a fridge/freezer. The latter did indeed freeze quite well as we discovered the painful way after my beer became frozen solid. A few adjustments resulted in a better experience. The car itself is a solid 4×4 performer with a locking rear differential. Both are essential to successfully navigate the more remote areas.

Namibia in general is ideally set up to drive by yourself. It has a very good network of gas stations throughout, most of which accept credit cards. The road system is for the most part well maintained, although that varies with the commercial importance of the region. However, even the worst gravel road is signposted. It is almost impossible to get lost as long as you have a decent map.

Days 1 – 4: Windhoeck to Rundu

The adventure started right away after the long hours en-route to Windhoeck. The car company picked us up from the airport and proceeded to provide an hour long introduction into the various aspects of the Hilux we had rented. I do quite a bit of off-roading in the Mojave desert near where I live so this part was fairly easy. Driving this truck on the left hand side through rush hour Windhoeck on the other hand was less so. Especially considering that I do not have any muscle memory for the manual transmission in my left hand. In the end we made it to our first base, the Trans Kalahri Inn (A), and were able to enjoy and nice cold beer and the first of many unbelievable sunsets in Namibia.

The next day started off with acquiring provisions and Money. The Superspar near the Maerua mall is convenient as the mall next door also offers an easy point to exchange money. Few banks will exchange money in Africa, something I suffered from on other trips. With the car fully loaded up, the trip started in earnest going to the Okonjima Nature Reserve (B) which was to become home for the next two days and nights. The latter should not be overlooked. With almost no light pollution, the night sky is breathtaking.

Okonjima is home of The AfriCat Foundation. This foundation rescues and rehabilitates carnivores throughout Namibia. The Okonjima location houses leopards and cheetahs, some of which we would get to see during our stay. The reserve itself offers a couple nice hikes as well as the opportunity to visit the AfriCat Foundation. All of the hikes are inside a large fenced in area and thus safe from predators. It is a great introduction into the local flora and very much worth it. The reserve also does the obligatory game drives and the more interesting leopard tracking. Personally, I found the tour of the AfriCat Foundation and vet clinic the most rewarding of all options. If offers a great insight into the dangers these large cats face in today’s Namibia. Of course the visit ends with a tour of the resident leopard and cheetahs. Even though they are in a fenced in enclosure, it does appear zoo like.

The first part of the trip concluded with the longest drive of the trip going up to Rundu at the Angolan border. Fortunately, the B1 is tarred and in excellent condition. Unfortunately, the fridge in our truck decided to give up. The prospect of warm beer did not sit very well with me. Being the engineer I am, I started to disassemble the battery wiring of the car. Here is a little bit of background on cars that are upgraded for these types of trips: They have two batteries. One for the engine and a second one for the fridge and auxiliary lights. The two of them were connected through a rather ingenious piece of electronics, the Electronic Battery Isolator. This thing is supposed to connect the two batteries while the motor is running and disconnect them when still to prevent the main battery from being discharged by the fridge. In between is a large 100 A fuse that protects this gizmo. It was broken and thus the second battery did not charge. That fuse is not easy to get to and has no window to show its status like normal car fuses have. Long story short, I removed all the wires, checked them with a 12 V light I had and was able to patch it. In the end all was good. The fridge worked again, the car still worked, I had no parts left over and none missing, and most importantly, had cold beer again.

Rundu, at long last, is a rather drab city. It is the main gateway to the Caprivi strip that runs between Botswana and Angola.  As such there is a lot of truck and passenger activity going to all the neighboring countries. It is the last opportunity to load up on groceries before heading east. While Rundu has a few decent lodges and places to stay overnight, it is hardly a destination in itself. I chose the Camp Hogo Kavango (C), located right on the Kavango river, to rest for the night. The bar is located right on the river with some of the most beautiful sunsets anywhere.

Days 5 – 9: The Caprivi Strip

The Caprivi strip, as Wikipedia informs named after German Chancellor Leo von Caprivi, is a long thin land strip running between Botswana and Angola, almost reaching Zimbabwe. I have been to the Botswana side many years ago and was amazed by the animals drawn to the water here. The rivers flow year round and the landscape is unusually green and lush compared to the rest of Namibia. Especially this year since the last rainy season essentially did not happen. However, even here the lack of rain has left its mark with many normally full channels being completely dry. It was a theme we would see many more times this trip.

The trip along the strip was divided into two locations, the Popa Falls and Bwabwata National Park on the western end and Nkasa Rupara National Park on the eastern end. Popa Falls are the shallow waterfalls the Kavango river goes over before flowing into Botswana to become the famous Okavango delta. There are two accessible areas of the Bwabwata National Park that lines the Kavango river. On the western bank lies the Mahango Core Area and the eastern bank houses the Buffalo Core Area. The rest of the park is not accessible other than driving along the B8 autoroute that runs the entire length of the Caprivi Strip.

The morning of day 5 was spend shopping in Rundu to load up on supplies for the coming days. So we arrived late at the Popa Falls Resort (D) run by Namibia Wildlife Resorts, the state owned company managing accommodations in the national parks. The resort is located right by the falls and has a nice deck from which to enjoy the sunset overlooking the falls. While it is certainly very relaxing to enjoy a cold beer there, the falls are really more of a set of slow rapids. Anyone expecting something along the scale of the Victoria Falls will be very disappointed.

The wildlife on the other hand is everything but disappointing. Both the Mahango and Buffalo core ares are easily accessible by car and very much worth it. A 4×4 does help as there are a couple sandy stretches. Otherwise, the resort, like all others, offers a 3 hrs game viewing drive. 3 Hrs on each side is plenty to see everything there is to see as the road only runs a couple kilometers to the Botswana border. The Caprivi strip is about the only area in Namibia were one can see hippos. There is just not enough water elsewhere in the country. Besides the hippos, all the park has an abundance of all the other animals one expects to see in Africa, Elephants, Giraffes, Zebras and of course as the name would suggest, Buffalos. For those interested in history, there are old military installations from times past.

When planning this trip, I was somewhat exited at the possibility of driving the B8 through the park and seeing all the animals. This road did not deliver on that hope, though. It did however offer a good insight in how the locals live in this part of the country. For that it was interesting to drive along here. And since I am at the topic of the local population, there is stark difference between this part of Namibia and the usual tourist paths between Swakopmund and Etosha. There are comparably few tourists in this area and as such the people do not pay a lot of attention to the random white guy showing up. Whereas elsewhere I was immediately swarmed by people trying to sell stuff and asking for money.

For anyone looking to have a national park to oneself, Nkasa Rupara is a dream come true. This park is essentially a flood plane of the Linyanti and Kwando rivers that border it. It is criss-crossed by channels and mud and sand planes. Quite a few of the roads running through the park require some more advanced 4×4 skills to use. And that is if the road can even be found. On many occasions we had to double back because a road simply did not exist anymore as a new channel had formed where the road used to be. However, that also led us to discover a lot more of the park than we would have otherwise seen. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. There are 3 camps in the park, two tented lodges and one small campground, the Nkasa Rupara Restcamp (E), in which we stayed. It is fairly small with only 7 spots and rudimentary facilities. It also came with one crazy Hornbill that clearly had lost a couple marbles along the way.

Nkasa Rupara NP

After two days in this beautiful part, it was time to move on by retreating all the way back to Rundu with another stop at the Popa Falls Resort. The goal was the famous Etosha National Park some 900 km (560 mi) away. However, before we got there I had to learn the hard way why all the cars come with two spare tires. On our way out of the park I drove over a dead acacia twig. Anyone who has seen these things before will know what came next. A 5 cm (2 in) long thorn bored into the front tire. Fortunately there are no lions in this park as I had to spend some quality time in the dirt to change and fix the tire.

Days 10 – 15: Etosha National Park

When most people think of a safari in Namibia, it will invariably be Etosha National Park. The Park is centered around the large Etosha salt pan which in the past used to be the only accessible part of the Park. Pretty much everything in this National Park is enormous. The park itself, the size of the animal herds and the size of the human herds which are being brought in literally by the busloads. It was a stark difference from Nkasa Rupara with its almost lush greens and utmost lack of humans. Etosha is dry, very dry. Especially due to the lack of rains in the past years. While there are a couple natural waterholes, most are artificial with a bore and solar pump. They were made not only for the sake of the humans visiting, but also to draw large animals away from the surrounding farmlands.

Etosha has three main lodging locations. From east to west these are Namutoni with its fort, Halali at the center and Okaukuejo at the west. Until a couple years ago the western half of the park with its mountainous terrain was closed to tourists. It is now open and has one more campground, Olifantsrus. The line separating the main, eastern part of the park from the newly opened western part also separates the park into mass tourism in the east from the calm in the west. Unlike the camp in Nkasa Rupara, all the campsites are surrounded by an electric fence with the main gates closing at sunset and reopening at sunrise. This is to protect the humans from predators, but adds a distinct zoo-like feel to it. All camps also have an illuminated waterhole with stadium seating to safely see the animals at night.

We drove the entire length, or rather width, of the park staying at all four campsites. We spend one night each at Namutoni (F), Halali (G) and Okaukuejo (H), and two nights at Olifantsrus (I) using the day to drive every available road from one camp to another. There are not a lot of roads available and off-roading is strictly prohibited. That results in a constant, insane traffic on all roads which distracts quite a bit from the overall experience. Another quirk of the mass-tourism at Etosha manifests itself every morning at about 6 am. All guides state that the best times to see animals is early morning and late afternoon when the temperatures are more agreeable. And so, every morning, dozens of diesel powered buses and trucks take off in search of whatever walks and crawls. Not only is it impossible to sleep in a bit, but the whole camp sounds and feels worse than a highway during rush-hour.

The first day we drove around Namutoni in search of lions of which there are supposed to be around 200 in the park. The search for lions became a constant and futile endeavor for a while. What we lacked in lions we saw in all other animals. In that regard Etosha does not disappoint. My personal favorite was a little elephant having fun and blowing bubbles in a waterhole. Overall, the region around Namutoni is marked mostly by the salt pan with a rather featureless landscape. Namutoni camp itself is rather large and features the old fort prominently. The campsite is also home to a large group of Banded mongoose which are a lot fun as long as they do not steal ones breakfast.

Halali camp is a bit further remote from the pan in a forested region of the park. Although with the lack of rains, the forrest is suffering and not a lot trees have any leafs left. There are supposed to be a couple rhinos in this area, but we did not encounter any. With this area also being far from any water sources we did not see many animals in general until we got closer to Okaukuejo. Okaukuejo at the western end of the salt pan is the largest of the camps and the main entrance for most visitors. It had the largest waterhole of the three camps and offered a beautiful sunset with various animals.

The next day we departed for the newly opened western half of the park. As soon as we left behind the main road out of the park Etosha returned to wild and empty. The single road from Okaukuejo to Olifantsrus is a steady slow climb away from the salt pan to the more mountainous region of the park. And here we were finally lucky and saw our first lions. It was already noon by the time we encountered them and thus they were more interested in what little shade there was to be found to what cats to best: sleep.

The next 80 km (50 mi) of road were almost desert with only the occasional little remnant trees. I fear that if Namibia does not get significant rains in the coming years, most of the park will become like this. Global warming is having catastrophic effects and this region bears the brunt of it. These days the only water in the vast region of Etosha is found at the artificial waterholes. They all consist of a solar powered pump feeding a swallow concrete pool. The overflow then feeds a natural dirt pool below. While animals keep their distance from one another in the natural pools further east, they all cluster in huge impressive herds around here.

Olifantsrus camp is the newest and smallest of the camps and features only 10 sites for single cars. Like the other sites, it has an artificial waterhole with viewing platform. However, here they build a small house next to the waterhole outside the fence and connected it to camp by an elevated walkway. This allows for much closer view of the animals which is very impressive. Especially when herds of elephants come by to drink and get a mud-bath.

We stayed at this camp for two nights to be able to drive the last of the roads further west of the camp. Here the park transforms into a mountainous terrain with tall acacia trees. It is quite different from the lower elevations and we got the see the first of the red sand which is so prominently featured further south. After another gorgeous sunset and star studded night, it was time leave the park and make our way to the Skeleton coast. But before we finally left, we were rewarded by another group of lions with the most impressive male so far.

Days 16 – 17: Skeleton Coast

There are two ways to get from the Dalton Gate at the west end of Etosha to Swakopmund. The first first goes by Palmwag and includes almost the whole drivable length of the Skeleton Coast. The second runs through the interior to the old mining town of Uis and then turns toward the ocean. We first planed to take the former, but then in the last minute decided to drive by Twyfelfontein to see a bit more variety. I was hoping to have enough time to maybe see the petroglyphs at Twyfelfontein.

That was not to happen. Turns out that our map had the road marked as asphalt, but in reality it was all gravel and sand. Worse yet, most of it was in terribly washboarded condition. Travel was slow and painful, both mentally and physically. The landscape was beautiful, though. First passing through the Grootberg pass and then through the desert valley dotted with oasis in which Twyfelfontein is located. If we had one more day, stopping in Twyfelfontein would have made all the difference. But hindsight is 20/20 and we had to be in Swakopmund the next day. I also wanted to drive at least a little bit of the Skeleton Coast to view the seal colony there.

Uis is a small town next to a now defunct tin mine. Closing the mine dealt a devastating blow to the community. Today the town is little more than a refueling stop between Swakopmund and Etosha and the north. The old leisure facility with a huge pool has been converted into the Brandberg Rest Camp (J) in which we stayed. The hot shower and ice cold draft beer helped undo the damage from the road. A ginormous burger from the restaurant helped a well for sure. Unfortunately, the washboard also did a number on one of our tents as one of the main brackets broke.

The next morning we drove to the coast and were amazed at the difference 100 km (60 mi) makes to the temperatures. It was freezing cold wind coming in from the ocean while we had endured 40 ºC (104 ºF) just before. The roads at least did change for the better with the old gravel washboard giving way to a nice salt road. They use salt brine to bind the dirt and it makes a rock hard surface almost like concrete. We made good use of that road looking for two things the Skeleton Coast is famous for: Ship wrecks and seals.

Turns out there are not a lot of wrecks still visible, safe for a recent Angolan fish trawler that is now a bird heaven. The seals on the other hand were abundant at the Cape Cross seal reserve. There were thousands of them all over the place. Many had pubs and were still nursing. The sounds and smells were overwhelming, but seeing them up close is amazing. The seals are so accustomed to humans that many will let you touch them. I can now understand why people used to like fur coats. They are very soft and cuddly.

As the day was drawing to a close we arrived in our first hotel in over 2 weeks. After eating pasta for most of the trip, the prospect of a real meal, a real bed and a real shower was awesome. We decided to stay right in the middle of the old city at the Secret Garden Guesthouse (K), which I can highly recommend. Swakopmund is nice, but an odd city overall. It is a German city transplanted into the desert and just does not really seem to fit in. It is also a huge tourist hub with buses upon buses of tourists descending on every available restaurant. Strolling around town and watching the sunset over the pier was a nice break from the arid climate elsewhere.

Days 18 – 20: Sossusvlei

After a bountiful breakfast we returned inland on our way to the last stop of this trip. The red dunes and dead trees of Sossusvlei are maybe the most famous and visited destination in Namibia. I have seen pictures of Dead Vlei and had wanted to visit for a long time. All I can say in short is that this place is mesmerizing. We stayed at the NWR campground at Sesriem (L) at the end of the regular road and entrance to the park. The camp itself is nice and conveniently located, but that is also its biggest drawback. Just like in Etosha all the guides state that sunrise is the time to be in the park and so, at 5 am, the diesel caravan takes off with all the noise and commotion that comes along with it. We did not experience a sunrise, but I can confidently say that sunset is marvelous and you have the park to yourself.

Sossusvlei itself is another 60 km down the only road after which the nice asphalt turns into deep, soft sand. There are two options. Park your car the end of the road and have the park shuttle take you in to see the main attraction or put the car into 4×4 and master the sand yourself. The latter is not very difficult, but definitely requires true 4-wheel drive and high clearance. This part absolutely not doable in a normal car.

Sossusvlei has four major stops along the way. First one is the aptly named “Dune 45”, located 45 km (28 mi) along the road. This is one big dune and everyone crawls up along the spine. The second stop, Hidden Vlei, is at the end of the asphalt road by the parking lot. It is called that because in order to see it one has to hike 2.5 km (1.6 mi) over soft dunes to get there. Take enough water and start at the wooden sign. The path is not well marked, though. Once you cross the little forest, look slightly to the left and there will be rods in the ground. Follow them and you will be rewarded with an empty desert and have Hidden Vlei all to yourself. It is worth it! The next stop is about 4 km (2.5 mi) along that soft sand road. Sossusvlei, all the way at the end, has a couple nice shaded picnic benches. Otherwise, sadly, I did not quite see the appeal of the namesake of this park.

For me Dead Vlei, shortly before Sossusvlei, is the true marvel of the whole park. The photos with the dead trees in front of red dunes are all from Dead Vlei. It is just a short, easy hike of about 1.1 km (0.7 mi) away. For a desert-lover like me, this place is breathtakingly beautiful, almost spiritual. Make sure to get there about 1.5 – 2 hrs before sunset and you will be rewarded with shaded red dunes and the long shadows that amplify the otherworldly experience. And as all the tour buses have left to drop their human load off at Dune 45, you will again have this all to yourself. Although in my case I had a small hawk or falcon to accompany me. If you really feel adventurous, you can climb up Big Daddy, a huge dune at the far end of the vlei. I did not, but I am sure the views must be gorgeous.

Remarkably, even in this most arid of all regions, there is an abundance of animals. We have seen lots of Oryx and antelopes all over and even the occasional jackal. After a couple hours of taking it all in, it was time to return to camp.

Next morning we went to the Sesriem canyon after which the area and camp are named. It is nice little slot canyon with a water hole at the end. One hour is about all it takes to see it. Just avoid the early afternoon as that is when all the buses arrive.

Finally, the last day had come around and we made our way back to Windhoeck. We had to return the car and exchange the hiking clothes of the past 3 weeks for a more civilized attire. That last day was bittersweet. A cold beer, nice steak and comfortable bed awaited at the end of the long road back. However, it also meant that I had to trade the beauty of Namibia in for the sights and comfort of 36 hrs in airports and airplanes.

Final Words

We spend 20 days in this beautiful country full of amazing signs and experiences. The people are genuinely friendly, helpful and proud to show off their country. Namibia is very safe. Even the folks trying to sell trinkets or asking for money were not very pushy. Other countries are far worse in that regard. At no time did I ever feel threatened or uncomfortable.

Self driving is very easy and allowed us to do things at our own pace. The fully equipped rental car is not cheap and a no-frills bus tour might come in lower. But then you do not have the peace we had. Namibia is also quite popular. We tried to do this trip a year before but did not allow enough time to book everything. In the end we booked all the major stops in December for a September trip.

If you are ever thinking about visiting Africa, Namibia is an easy introduction. Go ahead, but be warned. If the Africa bug bites, you might just have to come back for more.

P.S. Since I talked a lot about a cold beer, I recommend the Windhoek Draught beer.

Day and Night in Death Valley 2017

This was one amazing trip with a couple twists and turns, both literal and figurative. It started with me wanting to do some night photography in Death Valley again. A couple years ago I went to Eureka Dunes in June and it was an awe-inspiring moment to sit under the Milky Way. This time around two good friends signed on to enjoy the sights and also do the hike to Telescope Peak with me, something I wanted to do for a long time.

The start of the trip was under less fortunate stars, though. After driving for 3 hours, I stopped for gas and the Jeep would not go into gear anymore. Fearing that I had somehow broken the transmission, I called AAA. After an hour in Trona, CA, a sad little place, the tow truck driver suggested I check the coupling between the transmission and the cable that goes to the shifter inside. Lo and behold, the bushing had busted. It is a little rubber piece they put in there in lieu of real hardware. For the rest of the trip, anytime I had to shift gears, I had to put on the parking brake and crawl under the Jeep to manually shift it. It is a bit annoying, but a fairly common issue with Jeeps and not all that bad with an automatic. Now knowing what was wrong, I felt comfortable with going on.

It was a good call. The night sky was amazing. Not only was it new moon and we were in a dark sky area, but there were also a couple meteor showers. The Perseids have already started, although still at low intensity. Less famous, but more active now, are the Aquariids. Of course, the Milky Way was the main attraction. This time of the year, the entire arm and the center is visible. I just cannot get enough of it.

The hike up to Telescope Peak was scheduled for the next day. It is a 12.8 mile hike with 3600 feet elevation gain. The first 2 miles is a steady climb along the side of Rogers Peak. It did not seem all that bad on the way up, but coming down a couple hours later was grueling. After about 1 mile, the trees gave way to a beautiful view of Badwater down below in Death Valley. The second stage of the trail is about 2 miles of mostly flat terrain around Bennett Peak. Both Panamint Valley and Death Valley stretch along below as the trail meanders along the saddle. The final stretch is a steep uphill climb following a series of switchbacks, which my calves were not at all happy about. However, once on top of Telescope Peak, all was forgiven. The views are magnificent. As the saying goes, what goes up must come down. And so we went. Of course by now the sun had switched sides and so the same side of me that got sun on the way up, was getting more of it on the way down. Suffice it to say that I have a very uneven burn now. That night we were treated to more of the gorgeous night sky while my legs were slowly recovering.

It was a great trip with great friends that I will remember for a long time.

Telescope Peak

Perseids 2016

According to all the news media, August 11th was supposed to be a major outburst of the Perseids meteor shower. Something not to be seen again for quite a few years. After my rather disappointing experience with the Camelopardalis, I was somewhat reluctant to go out again. However, since we had a day off on Friday, I decided to take my chances and drove out to the Ojai mountains and gave it a shot.

The moon was still out when I got there and so I had some time to find a comfortable spot and set up my camera. Since trying to hit the trigger when a meteorite comes down never works, I set the camera pointing to the constellation Perseus, where the shower centered. The rest is then fully automated with an intervalometer. I set it to take a 25 second exposure every 30 seconds, to give the sensor a chance to cool down a bit to reduce artifacts in the photos. As the moon started to set around 1 am I hit start, put on my trusty boat coat (who says diving gear is not useful on a mountain?) and reclined into my camping chair.

I forgot the popcorn, but the show was still specular. On average there was a meteorite every couple minutes with a couple of them lasting a good amount of time. About 2 hours later I decided that it was getting too cold for comfort and packed everything up for the drive home.

Some of the best results of the night are in the gallery below. The first photo is a composite of all the meteorites I was able to photograph. I overlaid all the photos and aligned the stars so that the positions and directions are right. Then I erased all the areas without a meteorite, except for the last image, which also serves as background. The panorama was the last thing I did, just because everything was set up. It is made of 9 individual images. I have to spend a bit more time to get the colors right.

And finally a time lapse video of all the images. There are a couple of airplanes on the lower end going left to right, but everything else is a meteorite.

Jordan 2016

The Trip

The trip

I wanted to see the ruins of Petra for a long time. But I wanted to make it a larger trip through the sites of the Middle East. The conflict in Syria prevented me to do this trip. After Palmyra was lost, I decided not to wait any longer. Jordan has been a very stable and progressive country under King Abdullah II, but the future is uncertain. Limiting the trip to Jordan made it a bit shorter, but also easier to fit into a normal vacation.

After having made this journey, I can clearly say that Jordan is a very liberal and progressive country. It is also perfectly safe, except for crossing the streets. We have met some very friendly locals and have always been treated with respect and a smile. Everyone asks where we came from, but only to reply “welcome, welcome”.

Day 1: Lax – Amman

The trip started with a very long travel day with a stop in London. We finally arrived rather late at our Amman base, the Hawa Guest House in downtown Amman. We booked the premium room with ensuite bathroom, but ended up with the even larger family room. It is a very lovely bed & breakfast with very friendly and helpful owners and lots of cats for entertainment.

Day 2: Downtown Amman

After a way too short a night we set off to explore downtown Amman on foot. Amman is built on a bunch of hills, which is represented in the names of the various neighborhoods. We were in Jabal Weibdeh. Jabal meaning mountain in Arab. First down tons of stairs to climb them back up on the other side to the Citadel. From there you have great views of downtown Amman. The citadel is a mix of buildings from Roman times forward. It has been constantly rebuild throughout the history of Amman. A small archeology museum completes the site.

From there we went down all the stairs to the Roman Theater. It is still in very good shape, but somewhat isolated as nothing else from that time has survived nearby. Somewhat tired we tried to get back home, but as we tried to cross the road, I inadvertently hailed down a cab. Since it was there, we decided to take it to the just recently opened Jordan Museum. It was well worth it. The museum seems to not be quiet completed just yet, but is very interesting even now. They even have pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls. That was a very nice and unexpected bonus. Now knowing how to hail a cab in Amman, I got us another one for the way back home.

Day 3: Northern Jordan

Traffic in Amman is a bit on the crazy side and I did not really want to navigate it. So we hired a very friendly driver called Osama. This day we went to the northwest of Jordan. First stop after a 2 hr ride was Umm Qays, a quaint little Roman settlement with attached Ottoman village. There are nice views of the Golan heights and the Sea of Galilee.

Next we continued on to Ajloun castle, a still very impressive castle on top of the city of the same name. It was built during the crusades to fend off the crusaders. It is in remarkable condition and offers gorgeous views of the surrounding lands. Final stop was the huge Romand city of Jerash. It is now completely surrounded by the city, which detracts a bit from the ambiance. The Main Street, starting at the Oval Plaza, is still fairly intact and an awe inspiring sight. Unfortunately, the city is littered with sellers. That was a sign of things to come at the main tourist spots. Unlike many other places, the sellers are not overly pushy, though. The night was then closed with a take-out pizza before we crashed early.

Day 4: Desert Castles

After visiting the northwest, today was a trip to the east to view some of the desert castles. Unlike the lush hilly and forested western part of Jordan, the region east of Amman is really a desert. First stop was Qasr Karanah, a nice, almost fully intact structure in the middle of the desert. It is not quite known what this was built for. It is certainly not a castle in the strategic sense. It is more likely that this was a meeting point in times past.

The second stop was Qasr Azraq in the town of Azraq. This castle is pretty run down and its fame to claim is that it was the headquarters for Lawrence of Arabia. This at least was a real castle. The last stop was Qasr Amra, which is not a castle at all, but a small bath house. It is in very good condition and a great museum piece. Everything from the water well, water pump (rather elevation system) and heating system is still there. It also houses beautiful frescoes which earned it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The frescoes feature a sky chart with all the constellations and pictures of gods and even some more naughty images.

Day 5: Amman – Dead Sea

Having spend some time in Amman, today we started going south. After receiving our car at the guest house, I somehow managed to leave Amman without causing an accident. Driving in Amman is rather challenging and not relaxing at all. Our little rental car bears the marks. It had more dings than straight sections. It was a beater for sure, but it was cheap and was delivered to the front door.

Only one stop was planned for today, Madaba. That city is famous for its ancient mosaics. And they are truly impressive. We lucked out in that is was really slow and one of the museum employees spend some time showing us the various mosaics and even letting us in the closed off sections for a close look.

After that quick cultural experience, we continued on to the Dead Sea and a bit of a luxury retreat. Floating on the Dead Sea is quite interesting. With a density of 1.24, one does not really float in it, but rather bobs on the surface. The water is very salty and rather bitter (yeah, I had to try) from all the dissolved minerals. Also, thanks to rather rapid evaporation, the Dead Sea is disappearing and so the beaches are all about 10 ft above the water line. In order to get to the water one has to walk over some sharp rocks. My feet still bear the marks of that experience.

Day 6: Dead Sea – Petra

Now to the longest drive of trip. After winding the hillside back up to Madaba, we followed the Kings Highway to Wadi Musa. One stop a long the way was Al Karak Castle. It was a castle used by the crusaders and is still very impressive. We involuntarily got a guide, who we just could not get rid of. At least he did know what he was talking about and it helped making sense of the various rooms. After that visit we continued on some very long hours on the road. While the Kings Highway has some nice stretches, for the most part it is just a crazy drive through congested little cities. I would not recommend it, but in retrospect it is still nicer than the desert highway.

Day 7: Petra

Today was the first of two days of hiking in Petra. The day started with rain and very low clouds. It did not look very promising, but we ventured out anyway. The way into Petra is through the Siq, a narrow and deep slot canyon. Eventually it opens up and one stands in front of the Treasury, a gorgeous structure hewn into the face of the mountain. All structures are that way in Petra. Nothing is build by adding material, it is always by chiseling out stone from the mountain. The Nabateans were amazing at that.

We started the real hike up 100+ meters to get to the high place of sacrifice. Along the way I had to pay a sacrifice of my own when my camera clip let loose and my camera took a hard hit on the stone steps. Fortunately, only the door to the battery compartment broke and a little bit of tape fixed that. The gods seemed to like my sacrifice and the sun came out once we got to the top. From up there one has a phenomenal view of Petra. What is most amazing are the two obelisks. Normally, they are blocks of stone stacked on top of each other. Well, not here. Here they removed the whole mountain top to leave the two obelisks behind.

We made our way down along then back route. All of a sudden there was nobody there and we had that entire valley for ourselves. Except for a very friendly and hungry little cat, that is. We passed the lions sculpture, which was a water fountain and ended up in a valley with stunning colors of sand stone and a couple tombs. We ended the hike with a quick stint up to the urn tomb and then out the main way stopping at the theater.

Later that night, I went back into the Siq for an event called “Petra at night”. There they light up the Siq with lanterns. At the treasury a musician plays some traditional instruments. I decided to hang back and had the Siq all to myself, an awe inspiring sensation. The sky completely cleared up and I listened to the music under a star filled sky. My legs and bum are sore, though.

Day 8: Petra

Second day in Petra. Today the goal was the Monastery on the far side of the park. After a slow hike through the Roman city center, we arrived at the museum, which was closed unfortunately. At this point it went up again. Since it was still early in the day, I had the 200 m elevation and 800 steps all for myself. Except for stands selling stuff all along the way. I must have surprised the sellers, because they were all still eating breakfast and so insisted that I had tea with them. I think these were honest invitations rather than a ploy to sell, because they really did not push any sales. Instead we had a couple minutes to chat about life and the lack of tourists this year before I thanked them and moved on. The tea was very good, though.

Once on top there were only about 5 other tourists and I could take all the pictures I wanted. It is quite impressive to see these huge facades hewn out of the face of the mountain. And then there is only a single small room inside.

After hiking back down, I slowly returned via the Byzantine church with beautiful mosaics to the royal tombs. There we then spend a bit of time climbing all over the place. I am surprised they let you do that, but it is fun. Some of the steps have seen better days and are a bit on the hairy side, but well worth it.

Day 9: Wadi Rum

After all the hiking, my legs were quite happy to know that today was a car day. After an early morning departure, we arrived in Wadi Rum in time for a day of exploring this gorgeous desert landscape in a Jeep. We arranged for a tour with Bedouin Directions, whom I can highly recommend. The trip starts with meeting with the owner at his house to securely park the car and move our luggage to the 4×4 they provide. All the driving is done by a guide, so we could enjoy the sights.

Wadi Rum Tour

There were quite a few stops along the way and most offered an opportunity to go out and hike a bit. First stop was Lawrence Spring, although there is a bit of an ambiguity about it. There are two springs, Abu Aineh and Ain Shalaaleh, the second being the actual Lawrence Spring. I am not sure which one we went to, but it was a nice scramble up the boulder field and a beautiful view. Along the way we stopped at a couple sand dunes, ancient petroglyphs and funny shaped rocks. Of mention is Um Frouth Arch, a small arch with a very steep side that can be hiked up. Although I am not sure if hiking is the right term here. It is more of a scramble on all four type thing, but great fun.

Sometime around noon we stopped for lunch and Mohammed, our guide, cooked a stew on a wood fire on the spot. It was delicious and authentic. After a few more stops, we ended up at the Chicken Rock to enjoy the beautiful (but cold) sunset. Finally, we ended in the camp. It is set in a small hidden niche in the desert and comprised of a couple tents that serve as bedrooms, a main tent which is the reception/dining area and a shower/restroom building. The main tent had a fireplace which was very welcome as it had gotten rather cold by now. Dinner was a traditional Bedouin BBQ, which is cooked underground and was very good. All is served with the ubiquitous sweet tea.

At that point I had to hike out a couple minutes to get cell phone reception so that I could check if our hot air balloon ride was going to happen the next day. Unfortunately, it was not due to wind. However, I found a nice place in the desert to take night photos and it so happened to be perfectly oriented with regards to the Milky Way that night. So around 2:30 am I was up again to take some photos of the night sky. I would highly recommend to take a star chart app with you to explore and enjoy the stars.

Day 10: Wadi Rum – Aqaba – Amman

Since the hot air ballon did not happen, we decided to go to Aqaba to take a quick look at the Red Sea. A quick look is really that is needed of Aqaba. There is simply not very much to see in this city. We went to the old fort and strolled along the seaside a bit. That about concluded the sightseeing in Aqaba. The last part of the trip was a very long  5hr drive along the Desert Highway back to the airport. Turns out the highway had more potholes than the dirt roads in Wadi Rum, so it is a bit slow going.

Off-Roading and Milky Way – June 2014

The stars finally aligned. Literally. They do so every summer, actually. Since I discovered night photography as a hobby earlier this year, I was waiting for the southern part of the Milky Way to show on our night skies. This happens during the summer months. Next, I needed the new moon so that the moonlight doesn’t wash out all the starts. During June, July and August that happens 3-4 times. This last weekend was the first time this year. So I got the Jeep ready and took off for a long weekend in Death Valley’s Eureka Dunes. And since I was already in that corner of the country, I decided to spend a night with the ancient bristlecone pines. The latter part didn’t quite work out, but more later.

The first night after 6.5 hrs of driving was in Eureka Dunes. This time of the year there is barely anyone in Death Valley and so I had the dunes all for myself. Almost, that is. A bat showed up around sunset and really liked the dead bugs on the Jeep. He kept sweeping over all night long and picking the bugs off the hood. So, I named him Robin and enjoyed his company. At 10 pm the sun was finally gone and I hiked up the dunes to take the shot of the Milky Way with the dunes in the foreground. It is an amazing sight to actually see the Milky Way with your bare eyes stretch almost perfectly from south to north. Even without the moon the stars give off enough light that I didn’t need a flashlight to walk around. The quietness (with the exception of Robin flapping around) was remarkable. After taking all the photos I had planned, I laid down on the camping table, had a glass of wine and just enjoyed the absolutely unbelievable sights.

The next day, I spend off-roading around Eureka Valley. Nothing special about it, just good plain fun. After a couple hours I ended up 11,000 ft high in the Patriarch groove of ancient bristlecone pines. It is quite a drive up the White Mountains, but very much worth it. That part is doable with any regular car, btw. The sights of the valley and the old trees are stunning. Originally, I had planned to stay up there for the night and take some more photos of the Milky Way with the pines in the foreground. Unfortunately, there is no camping allowed. Add to that that I was soaked in gasoline thanks to a bit of a mishap with the jerry can on my Jeep and I decided to sleep someplace where I can take the stinking clothes off (sorry for the visual). So I drove down the mountain to the Grandview campground. No bristlecones there, just plain old conifers. Matters not, the view is still spectacular. The bristlecones survived a couple thousand years, so I will get the shot some other time. The campground is very popular with hobby astronomers and prides itself in dark skies. All I had to do is to walk 100 yards to the cliff, set up and shoot. The gasoline must have had some effect though as I did not manage to focus the lens right. I won’t show on the small photos here, but big prints are out. Well, next time. This place is well worth a second and third visit.

Camelopardalids Non-event

The Camelopardalids meteor shower was just like any other shower in California this year, a draught. Nonetheless, I got to spend a night out with good friends and learned about a cool spot to do stargazing nearby. By about 1am the clouds had taken over and so I decided to pack in and go home.

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The failed attempt to photograph the Camelopardalids at least yielded another nice star trail photo and a nice time lapse video of about 1 hr worth of stars and clouds.

Night Photography over Santa Barbara – 01/25/2014

Finally had a somewhat clear sky without moon again. So I went out to Santa Barabara at night. In the late afternoon to get to Gaviota State Park. Which didn’t really work out, so I ended up the biggest adrenaline rush ever and figured out how the inside of my Jeep is bigger than the outside.

First, why there? So, that’s where it gets nerdy. I have been playing with Google Earth and Stellarium (planetarium software) to map out a couple photos I wanted to take. Take Google Earth to see the view and calculate field of view of the lenses I want to take and directions of pointing the camera etc. Then use Stellarium to find the right time so that the Milky Way is pointing in the right direction, the moon is gone etc. Add to that a site that takes the raw weather model run by the Canadian Meteorological Center and predicts the cloud coverage, air transparency and steadiness so that I can see if there is a good chance to get good star photos. Put all that together and I wanted a photo of the pier at Gaviota to make an interesting foreground with the Milky Way straight up behind. It’s dark there and the weather frogs predicted good conditions. So off I went.

Well, turns out the campground was closed, so I pulled off and took a small road further down the coast towards a cattle ranch. After a little while I found a suitable spot, set the alarm to the right time and made myself comfortable in the Jeep. Fast forward 3 hrs of napping, the stars were out right where they should, i.e. the software works. I decided to set up the tripod next to the car for a couple test shots before I hiked down to the edge of the cliff to take the photo that was close enough to the one I had planned. After 30 mins of tinkering and adjusting, I heard a couple coyotes down the road. That is pretty normal and coyotes are not really known to attack humans. Back to taking photos until those coyotes started howling closer and another one responded 50 yards behind me. I’ve never packed a camera and jumped in a car faster than that night. Along the way I figured out how to stick a 6 ft tripod camera rig into a 5.5′ Jeep…

I then decided that this is not conducive to my heart and moved back to my second planned spot. The top of La Cumbre peak in Santa Barbara. The idea was to shot a panorama with the Milky way. Now, I have been up there many times at night back when I was living in Santa Barbara, so I knew it’s ok. With the adrenaline levels still on high, I took only the camera and not the panorama head I really needed on the short hike from the car to the lookout point. It still worked out ok. Have to do this again on a really crisp clear night. There was too much mist in the air, but I think it is promising.

Off-Roading in Red Rock SP

Happy New Year everyone! After having been bit by the night photography bug, I decided to head back to my favorite desert playground in the Mojave: Red Rock State Park.

I always map out a track I want to do on Google Earth and then download the waypoints and trail to my GPS. I usually works out really well, except that the height information on Google earth is somewhat sketchy. This particular track was pretty good in the beginning but then ended up on a hillside at 40º on soft dirt. All I can say is “Hail to the Jeep”. After some good adrenaline intake we made it to the peak with a phenomenal view of Mojave. The rest of the trail was reasonably easy and we made it back to the camp without any further nail biting.

The other reason I went back to Red Rock so soon is that the morning of 1/3/14 was the best time to see the Quadrantid meteor shower. So I started the night out with some photos of the milky way to warm up. This is warming up the camera mind you. I didn’t get anywhere near warm at 30ºF. Then at 5 am the alarm got me out of my comfy sleeping bag again. The reward was a great show of about 50 meteors per hour until the sun came up.