Sand and Stars

Two Mighty Rivers


26 Jan 2017

The Orange River, the river of the desert, is without a doubt my favourite of all rivers. With its lush green riverbanks it is staggeringly beautiful and life-giving as it flows through the stark, dry Kalahari desert. And best of all, with its star-laden desert skies, it’s an ideal spot for camping with one’s dog and telescope while on a ramble around the Kalahari looking at the stars.

The Orange River is the longest river in South Africa – it rises in the Lesotho Drakensberg Mountains at an altitude of 3,000 metres, a mere 195 kilometres from the Indian Ocean. Yet it flows in completely the opposite direction – coursing westward through desert and semi-desert for over 2,250 kilometres to empty into the Atlantic Ocean at Alexander Bay. 

A wide meandering river, its nature changes completely downstream from the town of Upington, where it stops its meandering and thunders over magnificent waterfalls and rapids, and through spectacular gorges it has carved out of the harshest rock-landscape on its journey to the sea.

The spectacular Augrabies Falls

One would be forgiven for thinking its name came from the colour of the water which, during floods, turns gloriously orange from its banks’ iron-oxide. But the river was named in honour of the Prince of Orange in 1779 by a Scots officer in the service of the Dutch East India Company.

The Orange River is also known as the “River of Diamonds”. In 1867, the first diamond discovered in South Africa, the Eureka Diamond, was found near Hopetown on the Orange River. Two years later, a much larger diamond known as the Star of South Africa was found in the same area, and by 1870 more than 10,000 diggers of all races, creeds and nationalities were searching for the precious little stones.

But the wealth in the river was as nothing compared to the treasure underground, and the river’s diamond rush was soon eclipsed by the diamond rush to mine diamonds directly from kimberlite at Kimberley in 1871. However, the final reaches of the Orange River and the beaches around its mouth are rich with alluvial diamonds which are still mined there today.

But above all, the Orange River is the most wonderful river for swimming – no crocodiles, no hippos, no bilharzia… just the vast river flowing to the sea.

What could be more blissful…

By day, floating down the river of diamonds…

By night, floating down another river of diamonds…

… the mighty Eridanus, that flows from the foot of Orion to that most beautifully named star – Achernar – the star at the end of the river.

Like the Orange River, Eridanus is also a long, meandering, diamond-studded river with spectacular riverbanks full of a multitude of galaxies, beautiful stars and mist-shrouded mysteries.

Observing this spectacular river

16″ f/5 Dobs at magnifications of  90x, 150x, 228x and 333x 

IC 2118 (The Witch’s Head) – Reflection Nebula

RA 05 06 54.0   Dec -7 13 00”  Size 180” x 60”

Image credit Hubble/NASA
The Witch’s Head Nebula. Image credit Hubble/NASA

What a lovely start to my journey along this mighty river – a shoreline clouded in a misty haze, albeit a very faint mist, barely perceptible. Not an easy task, but in this pristine dark sky… there it was, a very faint north-south ribbon of light. No sign of the famed witch’s head, just the faint glow of misty light washing the banks of this beautiful river. 

40 Eridani (Omicron2) – Triple Star

RA 04 15.2   Dec -7 39

40 Eridani. DSS2 image

Here’s a cool fact… Mr Spock hailed from the planet Vulcan which orbits 40 Eridani. Mr Spock’s sun aside, this is surely one of the most fascinating systems. A true rarity: a gravity bound triple star – and all three stars are different dwarf stars: the primary is one of the very few class K dwarfs visible to the naked eye; “B” is a 9th magnitude white dwarf; and “C” is an 11th magnitude red dwarf , as well as having another characteristic that sets it apart from most stars in the sky – it’s a flare star. Could there be anything more fascinating to look at in this gorgeous celestial river?

In the telescope, the primary is a beautiful warm yellow. The tiny white dwarf is a greyish-white and the red dwarf is a tiny little drop of orangey-grey starlight. (Interestingly, Hartung described the primary as orange-yellow and the other two as indigo-blue.) It is endlessly fascinating to peer through one’s telescope at these three stars and think about what’s going on up there with each of the stars – what has gone before and what’s going to happen in the far distant future. (Plus imagining the sight of the Vulcan sky with its white dwarf and the red dwarf suns!) Who can’t love astronomy?

NGC 1535 – Planetary Nebula

RA 04 14 15.8   Dec -12 44 21   Mag 9.6   Size 51”

Image credit Hubble
NGC 1535. Image credit Hubble

What a beauty! A small bright round little PN – a very blue little disc with a gorgeous cloudy edge. It has uneven layers of nebulosity. The northern half appearing more defined, while the southern half seems a lot more fuzzy and undefined. The 12.1 mag central star was clearly visible… what a treat! It responded well to the OIII filter. A remarkable little PN, and a joy to observe.

NGC 1421 – Galaxy 

RA 03 42 29.3   Dec -13 29 25   Mag 11.4   Size 3.5” x 0.9”

DSS image
NGC 1421. DSS image

A lovely edge-on galaxy, elongated north-south. Its nucleus is long and thin and brightens to a very slightly oval stellar bead of light in the centre. Averted vision revealed some very subtle mottling in the halo.

NGC 1232 – Galaxy 

RA 03 09 45.1   Dec -20 34 47   Mag 9.9   Size 7.4” x 6.5”

Image credit ESO
NGC 1232. Image credit ESO

A large round faint glow of misty light with a fainter hazy outer halo. A small stellar nucleus that appears to be slightly oval in shape. The galaxy has pretty low surface brightness but averted vision displayed a misty edge, and a few flecks of brightness across the surface of the galaxy, which gave it a very faintly knotty appearance.

NGC 1300 – Galaxy 

RA 03 19 41.3   Dec -19 24 36   Mag 10.4   Size 6.2” x 4.1”

Image credit Hubble
NGC 1300. Image credit Hubble

Gorgeous! A beautiful example of a barred spiral, elongated in an east -west direction. Its nucleus bar extends almost the entire length of the major axis and it brightens to a very small but bright oval glow in the centre. No sign of its stunning spiral arms, but a lovely sight regardless.

NGC 1332 – Galaxy 

03h26m17.0s -21°20’06”   Mag 10.3   Diam 4.5” x 1.4”

DSS image
NGC 1332. DSS image

This galaxy appeared as a faint thin oval glow elongated east- west. It has a very bright stellar nucleus. A very pretty little galaxy.

NGC 1532 – Galaxy 

04h12m02.5s  -32°53’01”   Mag 9.8   Diam 12.6” x 3.0”

NGC 1531 – Galaxy 

04h11m59.0s  -35°51’04”   Mag 12.5   Diam 1.3” x 0.7”

DSS image
NGC 1532 & NGC 1531. DSS image

A really nice pair of galaxies. NGC 1532 is the bigger and brighter of the two, highly elongated northeast-southwest with a bulging little core and pointy ends. A bright stellar nucleus. Really gorgeous! Lying on the western edge of NGC 1532, NGC 1531 is a very faint, very small, very diffuse galaxy – a faint oval-shaped glow. It doesn’t display any nucleus, just a uniform faint glow of light.


NGC 1291 – Galaxy 

03h17m18.7s  -41°06’00”   Mag 8.5   Diam 11.0” x 9.5”

NGC 1291 NASA - Copy
NGC 1291. Image credit Hubble/NASA

This galaxy shows as a bright medium-sized oval glow that brightens to a beautiful stellar nucleus. The galaxy is elongated in a north-south direction and averted vision displays diffuse edges that dissolve into a very faint soft halo. Gorgeous!

Waldo heading in for a swim - attached to his leash because of the strong current

And finally…

… the star of my Kalahari wanderings, little Waldo, heading in for a swim in the Orange River – attached to his leash because of the strong current.

Copyright © Susan Young 2017