When I was in high school, my friends and I decided to sneak out of the dormitory. Just to go lie on the grass to stare at the night sky. Of course, the guard Mr. Koech, caught us on the first day. He ended up joining us in star-gazing! He would later join us for all our night sessions. Before you ask: No, we weren’t high on marijuana. Brian, Martin, Hillary, Alvin and I had discovered our mutual love for astronomy and physics. Our school was deep in the rural hinterlands of the rift valley. To save on electricity, most of the school lights went out by midnight. The universe then opened above our young, impressionable eyes. The image of the milky way is permanently burnt into my mind because of those escapades.
Astrotourism is a very simple idea: the five ‘high’ school students sneaking out of the dormitory are not special. Most human beings have a deep-seated love and curiosity for the night sky that they do not recognise. It probably harkens back to our ancestors in the African savanna.They only had these twinkling sources of light, and the moon, for guidance in the night.
Apart from the majestic big five and other wildlife, Kenya’s gameparks have fantastically dark skies. The obvious thing to do is to literally “sell the night sky” to potential tourists. Realizing this, our DARA class put in a proposal to the Office of Astronomy for Development to do a pilot project. Our proposal was accepted! We were given the funds to do a pilot project. We chose two lodges in the Maasai Mara game reserve: Ashnil, and Governor’s Camp.
We descended onto Maasai Mara game reserve. It was a long drive:7 hours! Gradually in between my car-induced reveries, I noticed the gradual reduction of “civilization”. The sky became more open; the air more fresh. It then got dusty as we neared the gamepark.
We had split ourselves into two: the Ashnil team, under Samyukta and the Governor’s team, under Dennis. I was part of the Governor’s team. We got to our camp first. The Ashnil team were able to make it after a slightly worrying car breakdown. The next day, we started work! We began by a basic introduction into astronomy, separating it from its underdeveloped cousin, astrology. We then talked a bit about preserving the dark skies of the Mara. We then introduced the notion of Atrotourism, explaining how the lodge, as a business could tap in to the natural curiosity of tourists.
The next three days were spent introducing the basics of astronomy: The moon, the sun, the stars, the solar system, and galaxies. The short course had night sessions, where we showed the staff how to find objects in the night sky. For all the nights we were out, we were joined by tourists, who mostly being from Europe and America, invariably asked to see the Southern Cross. Some even came to the morning theory classes! We hope to soon set up the telescope in these two lodges, and to get the project running sustainably. I hope the dark skies of Africa will attract more tourists to her exotic lands.
There’s a story we were told by a friend Johnson, a tour driver and guide at Governor’s Camp. An old Lady came to their camp and went on a game drive. While on the game drive, the lady started weeping. Johnson asked why. The Lady said simply: “I have never seen such beauty”. One day, the dark skies of Africa shall elicit such emotions from people.
Sayari is here to make sure it happens.
The Author thanks:
- The Office of Astronomy for Development for providing the funds for the project,
- Mama Rachel Davis, Mussa Lekwale, his cheerful son Ismail and the entire staff of Governor’s Camp for the VVIP hosting accorded to them during their stay,
- Sayari Team, for brilliance, hard work and grit in the formulation and implementation of this project,
- Development of Africa with Radio Astronomy for bringing the Sayari Team together and providing institutional support,
- Pat, Pam, Ethan and Kathy for adding to the fun!
- The Author finally thanks his employer: the Universe
Carringtone is a Master’s student in theoretical physics. He has a degree in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of Nairobi and also a member of the Theoretical Physics Research Group at the University of Nairobi. He is studying theoretical physics, specifically the possible applications of an extended General Relativity model in the problem of quantum gravity. He is also interested in the fields of philosophy and the public communication of the methods, and importance of science to the general public, with his main objective being the inculcating of critical thought in society. In philosophy, He is interested in the philosophical foundations of science and the effect of philosophy on the development of scientific thought. He subscribe to the transhumanist school of thought. He writes about interesting scientific ideas he has studied, or thought of during the week.