I’m standing huddled in a ditch in the absolute black of night with a dozen people I barely know, staring up at an imposing dome on the horizon. The only light we have is from the stars themselves, which is the real reason I find myself in the coldest place in South Africa.
Sutherland is home to SALT, the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere and we have come to photograph star trails away from the light pollution of the city. It may be summer in the rest of South Africa, but I have three layers of clothing on and I’m willing the hours away as I’ve forgotten my gloves and beanie back at the guest house. But my oh my the photographs are worth the torture.
The next day our host, Jurg Wagener – a fascinating man with an infectious zest for life – tells us nonchalantly that although the temperature dropped to 7 degrees celcius the previous evening, the chill factor levelled it out to an effective zero degrees. Little wonder that at one point I was so frozen it felt like my fingers could snap off and the no white light policy around the observatory meant risking tripping over rocks and tripods and camping chairs to try and locate the bottle of red wine I had carted all the way up the hill for medicinal purposes along with the rest of my gear.
The next night we find ourselves in a field on a derelict sheep farm on the outskirts of town as the light fades slowly. A lesson well learned from the night before, I have thick socks on my hands, a beanie under my hoodie and that treasured bottle of red. Collectively we watch the sky fade from cornflower blue to violet and like kids around a Christmas tree we await the first stars before the time release capture begins.
In the distance the head and tail lights of a few passing cars add to the background ambience of the photographs.
Later in the evening as the cable released cameras click away, I stare up at a sky so dark it’s like a blackboard decorated with glitter.
The silence is punctuated only by the old windpump creaking arthritically each time the wind comes up, the bleating of two irate sheep who object to our presence throughout the night from a field behind, and a cacophony of frogs looking for love.
Footnote: Massive thanks to Peter Haarhof, photocoach extraordinaire, who helped set up the picture of SALT. The rest is my work entirely.