Kitt Peak

Feb 22, 2017 Tuesday – Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona, USA

We leave this morning around 10AM for the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Reg is driving us from Garry Sedun’s place to the observatories, with Matt, Diane and myself as passengers. We take the 4 metre Mayall optical telescope tour at 1:30PM, which takes a couple of hours, and involves climbing the hill to the high point-of-land. It is exciting to hear from our guide that this venerable optical telescope has found new life and a new funding source, which will allow it to contribute to finding answers about dark energy in the Universe. The facility closes at 4PM, so we don’t have time to explore further, so we head back down the mountain road.

It takes about 30-45 minutes to drive SW to Kitt Peak from Tucson on the West Tucson Ajo Highway, and then up the access road. It takes us over two hours each way from where we are staying east of Benson. We passed the Border Patrol security check point on the way to Kitt Peak, and on the way back everyone is stopped for a dog inspection of the vehicle, and a personal ID check. When traveling in this region so close to the Mexican border, be prepared for security check points by carrying your ID with you. Non-US citizens should carry their passports.

We stop in Benson on the way back to stock up on a few food and drink items. John and Garry did not join us today, so they are ready with dinner upon our arrival. Everyone enjoys our meal and we are eager to get outside to do more observing. Unfortunately, the weather isn’t ideal this evening with cloud cover dampening our enthusiasm, so we have to entertain ourselves playing a new board game for many of us: Mexican Trains (a domino game).


Hilo & Mauna Kea, Hawaii

February 23, 2014 – Sunday – Hilo and Mauna Kea, the Big Island of Hawai’i

The ms Statendam arrives early and docks at the pier in the harbour. I have some breakfast, and gather up my cold weather gear for my big trip up to the summit of Mauna Kea. I disembark, find the shuttle to Harper’s Car & Truck Rental, and I’m off in my 4×4 Ford Ranger truck, taking the Puainko Street Extension out of town, which becomes the H200/H2000 Saddle Road. I stop to pick up some refreshments from a corner store, since I will skip lunch. I’m glad I brought along my vehicle GPS from home, which guides me through several complicated twists and turns until I get out of the city of Hilo. The drive along the Saddle Road Highway is easy, since it is a paved 3-lane road all the way to the Mauna Kea Access Road turn, although I am climbing in elevation as I go.

The drive to the Visitors Information Station (VIS) is also uneventful, with a good 2 lane paved road all the way through ranch country. I stay at the VIS for 45 minutes in order to acclimatize myself to the elevation change, and then put the vehicle into 4-wheel drive and start up the gravel road to the summit. The road surface is washboard, so having 4WD is great to keep traction and stability. A few miles before the summit, the road returns to a paved surface, since dust control is a big factor with these expensive observatories.

There is snow on top, and the air is clear and cold. I pull on my winter coat, which I have been dragging around with me on this trip just for today’s adventure. It is wonderful to finally see all these observatories in person, especially the ones Canada is involved with. The Canada-France-Hawaii (CFHT) observatory has a prime location on the end of the north ridge, and is a beautiful, brilliant white structure. The Gemini North observatory is next to CFHT, and is a silver structure with bulging air vents all around the lower part of the dome…again, a very beautiful design.

I drive around to see all the observatories up close, but unfortunately I can’t stay for the VIS’ tours inside some of the facilities. The sky is a deep blue and crystal clear, and the observatories are stark white or silver, so I use the High Dynamic Range feature of my Canon 6D dSLR. This allows me to capture the scenes much more successfully. I shoot lots of photos, since I probably won’t return to Mauna Kea again. I can see the summit of the mountain and the trail leading to it from Gemini North, but I have to be careful to not exert myself too much while at 4,205 metres (13,792′) elevation, since the amount of oxygen available up here is less than half that is at sea level.

Reluctantly, I have to return to my cruise ship, so I start the drive down the mountain, with my vehicle in low range 4WD and in 2nd gear as well. I barely touch the brakes for the whole way down the mountain until I shift out of 4WD at the VIS before returning to paved roads. The return trip to Hilo and sea level goes without a hitch. I return the vehicle to the rental company, and I’m back on board a couple of hours before departure time.


Grahamstown & Port Elizabeth

November 4, 2008 – Tuesday – East London to Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Before we leave East London this morning, we see a whale with its tail sticking vertically out of the ocean. As we drive through town, Craig points out the Mercedes assembly plant where most right hand drive vehicles are made for export to the rest of the world. We make a coffee stop in a quaint town called Bathurst, where we are served some lovely scones and coffee in a garden cafe.

JoeTourist: Eastern Cape Province &emdash; The Observatory Museum in Grahamstown

The Observatory Museum in Grahamstown

Next stop is Grahamstown, where many of us tour of the Observatory Museum. There is a reflecting telescope and a working camera obscura in a tower on top of the museum. Both were acquired and built by an early English settler to this area called H.C. Galpin. He made a living as a watch and clock maker.

Craig tells us Grahamstown is safe to wander around in, so our group spreads out to take advantage of the shopping and banking. I try to use my Canadian bank card in one bank, but the machine rejects it. I walk down the street to another bank where the bank machine works fine for me. Lunch is on our own account today, so I stop by a bakery and pick up a very nice deli sandwich for 9.50 Rand (US$1.15). On our way out of Grahamstown, we stop to see the 1820 Settlers National Monument, which offers a good view of Grahamstown from high on a hill, but it really doesn’t have much else to offer.

JoeTourist: Eastern Cape Province &emdash; The salt flats north of the city

The salt flats north of Port Elizabeth

We have a fairly long drive to Port Elizabeth, with the salt ponds and new harbour appearing just north of the city as we approach it. Port Elizabeth is a busy city, and it’s residents are quite affluent. We are officially now on the Garden Coast. The vegetation is much greener than before, and the rivers are no longer dry. Huge farms that appear to be very productive are visible along the expressway, and there are some spectacular sandy beaches as well. We are staying at the Paxton Hotel in Port Elizabeth – a modern hotel located next to the rail yard and main road. After check-in I order a Beck’s beer from the bar, which costs 16 Rand (US$2.25).

We leave for dinner as a group this evening and drive to 34° South – a restaurant Craig recommends, which is located in a casino complex. The dinner service takes over two hours for some of our group, however I am served right away, and since the couple I’m seated with this evening don’t speak very good English, I finish quickly and have well over an hour to kill after the meal. I always find people watching to be a fascinating pastime when I travel, and this evening is no exception. I sit at the bar so I have a good vantage point and order a cappuccino. The barman sings to himself as he works, and is quite cute as well, which keeps me entertained until we board the bus to return to the hotel.

The Paxton Hotel has wireless Internet access available in each room, so I take advantage of this to catch up with my email and JoeTourist travel blog.