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An unfortunate field night


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About this observation
Peter Anderson
Time of observation
07/01/2019 - 14:00
Astronomical field night in 1969
Observing location
Brisbane, Australia
Standard 35mm SLR camera with flash
Not relevant

Because my recounting of my Noosa Heads photography was apparently received well, I thought I would provide a more spectacular, but also totally true tale.

Firstly, my image of a field night 50 years ago in 1969, is not specifically relevant to the tale set out below, but it is a somewhat suitable illustration, so probably to the chagrin of the webmaster I am using it as my 'Trojan Horse' to tell my story. There was an illustration from when the article appeared in a slightly edited form in 'Sky & Telescope' focal point section in May 2005, but it was an artist's illustration, undoubtedly subject to copyright so can't be used.  The story was later reprinted in 'Australian Sky & Telescope'.

Several years ago, (actually 21st September 2001),the Northern Territory Tourist Commission held a dinner for fifty travel agents at the St. Lucia Golf Club in suburban Brisbane.  The evening was meant to replicate the ‘Sounds of Silence’ dinner which is held in the desert near the Ayer’s Rock Resort.  Guests arrived dressed formally in dinner suits etc. and tables were set out on the lawn in front of the clubhouse.   For atmosphere there was the spectacle of the floodlit Olgas in the form of a enormous canvas painting attached by scaffolding to a tree.  On arrival guests were serenaded by a lone didgeridoo player and asked to visualise themselves, silent, in central Australia, partaking of this dinner on the sands as they would near the Ayer’s Rock Resort.  Dinner was to be followed by observing the stars.  The compere read out a poem entitled ‘Sounds of Silence’, the moment being spoiled only by the continual wailing of a nearby car alarm, much to the amusement of diners.

We had been invited to present the astronomical segment, first by giving a short after- dinner speech, to be followed by a demonstration of celestial objects at the telescope.  I must add that we did not participate in the dinner, but were asked to dress formally and set up at 5.30pm. to speak at 9 p.m.  We were incredibly restricted in observing because the golf course is 5km from the centre of Brisbane and the moon was nearly full.  We were also worried about the forecasted showers, but the clouds miraculously cleared at dusk.  It transpired that it was not water from above that should have concerned us.

During the early part of the evening I had been concerned about the sprinklers which had played strongly on the lower part of the golf course and swept over the “Olgas” and their illuminated floodlights which steamed fiercely.  This happened twice, with an interval of about half an hour between to allow soaking in.  I enquired, but was told that the sprinklers were on a program and could not be shut off.  I had set the telescopes up on a tee about 20 metres from the outdoor diners on the grass.  After I gave my talk, we adjourned to the telescopes to see the moon, Alpha Centauri, and Jupiter.  I was a little concerned how moist the ground was, and how they watered it, but gave it no further thought being caught up in the proceedings.  

Suddenly from the grass all round, the nearest not more that two metres distant, rose these snub nosed black periscopes which proceeded to direct strong jets of water in slow deliberate arcs over the entire area. While most of the guests were still having their dessert, these jets commenced their unthinking mayhem.  Some sprinklers had appeared, strategically-placed around the dining area, and even from under some tables and chairs, and commenced to soak the tables and guests alike with their torrents of water each spraying probably 15 metres.   Squealing guests ran everywhere like a disturbed ant’s nest.  If only I had a video camera running, I would have had an entry for “Funniest Home Videos”. 

I could see that “my” sprinkler was arcing around to my telescope so I stood on it and forced it back into the ground. This was the defining instant - you are standing on the land mine, knowing that if you release it, it will go off. I was looking apprehensively at my C8, battery, inverter, and accessories, and the 10cm Maksutov my wife Evon had a little further over. Anyway after standing there for some seconds a lady offered to take over whilst I moved my telescope.

When I removed my foot, the nozzle had rotated some 120 degrees and the full force blasted the poor woman directly on the shin, with appropriate splatter, before she stomped it down, muttering something about her good leather shoes. I managed to quickly disconnect the electrics which I had fortunately stored together with spare eyepieces in a small suitcase and made a hasty trip to a  safe dry spot. I then came back for the C8, followed by the Maksutov which then was coming under threat. The guest who had been gallantly standing on the nozzle close to Evon’s telescope, had thought better of it and retreated to safety. I took the Maksutov out of range just as the geyser swung around to where it had stood.

The guests generally beat a hasty retreat to the safety of the clubhouse verandah. After what seemed an eternity, but was perhaps only 10 minutes, the geysers stopped and withdrew into the ground, and observing commenced from the new ‘safe’ quite parched site, tucked away to one side. I decided to stay there, out of range, just in case the sprinklers returned as they had to the Olgas. Nevertheless the moment was lost and only a few rather wet and bedraggled guests were keen enough to leave the dry club house verandah and negotiate the sodden grass to return to the telescopes.

A valuable lesson was learned...check the watering system out first!!!

POSTSCRIPT: I later learned that despite the compensation claims for ruined shoes, dry cleaning etc. the Northern Territory Tourist Commission was very pleased with the outcome because it was so memorable and not to be soon forgotten. (I certainly haven't.)

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