Of Stars and Snakes

November 11th November, late
The night has fallen with the rapid onset of darkness and sudden, unnerving burst of cicada activity we have noted before. We eat to the accompaniment of Sarah Vaughan (via the iPhone) and the cicada aubade.
It is very clear outside. We decide to go down to the lakeside and take a look at the stars. We get out at the lakeside car park in pitch darkness. There is a wonderful display of stars. The trees around are a bit high for a perfect view but this is the best sight we’ve had so far of the southern sky. There is a cloudy patch of light low in the west which is the star clouds in Sagittarius. The teapot shape is diving, spout first, towards the western horizon. I find other familiar stars. Altair then Deneb, the inverted Pegasus and Andromeda and the Pleiades very low in the north east.
Our eyes are now accustomed to the dark. It is still very warm. This tropical night seems to induce synaesthesia. I feel the sky as dark velvet. The stars are like tiny, brilliant drops of some exotic pine resin. I can smell them. OK, maybe its the surrounding trees, eucalyptus and the like. But this is really exciting. This is my first good view of the southern constellations.
Fomalhaut is close to the zenith and I clearly see the shape of the southern fish. Below it is another definite shape, Grus really does look like an aboriginal stylised crane. Achernar I had picked out even in the glare above Brisbane and it is high to my left.
I’m using the iPad app SkySafari (set to show the sky at Cairns since I don’t have internet connectivity for the ‘Current Location’ setting) and, as a self luminous star map, it really is good for navigation.
I locate alpha Pavonis. The remarkable app informs me that it was named ‘Peacock’ by HM Nautical Almanac Office in the 1930s. From Peacock I can identify stars in Indus and Tucana. Between Pavo and Sagittarius is the exquisite circlet of Corona Australis looking unreal as it is so precisely drawn. From Achernar I can trace the river Eridanus. I always thought it a bit of a cheat to have a river as a constellation, after all, any group of stars can take the shape of a river. But the stars of Eridanus seen from this latitude link together beautifully like a pearl necklace, reinforcing the velvet feel of the sky.
Above Achernar the Phoenix is another moderately convincing bird shape. Below Achernar alpha and beta Hydri are easy to spot. And just above beta the faint patch of light that is the Smaller Magellanic Cloud. That’s definitely 25 points on my ‘I Spy’ score. My app tells me that the larger cloud has risen but the trees around the lake are too high and dense to make a sighting. A treat for another night, but not I think, tomorrow when we’ll be in Port Douglas and back in the bright lights. We call it a night, and a very satisfying one too.
On the way back as we make our way down the dark track to our cabin Alison cries ‘Stop!’ I peer at what I take at first to be a large root across the path. It is not. It is a large snake motionless in the headlights. It must be close to eight feet in length. We wait for it to move. It doesn’t. I get the impression it is basking in the warmth of the path rather than crossing it. Eventually I get out of the car, approach it gingerly on the assumption that any snake that size is going to be a constrictor rather than a venomous one. I poke it very gently with a stick. I must admit I checked the stick carefully before picking it up. The snake turns and moves back towards the side then stops again. Another gentle nudge. The huge beast slides gracefully and unhurriedly back into the undergrowth. We drive on.
This is not the sort of incident you associate with an evening’s star watching, not in Northamptonshire, anyway.