I wake up shortly after 5AM and decide to get up, since the skies are clear and still dark, and the Milky Way looks spectacular curving over the Dragoon Mountains in the east to the south, with Venus, Saturn and Jupiter in a broad alignment in the same region. I use my new Sony a7 III camera and the Sony Tessar 24-70mm zoom operating at 24mm for the first few photos, and then switch to my Canon 8-15mm fisheye zoom and Sigma MC-11 converter to gain some wider perspective of the Milky Way all the way from the south to the north. Focusing manually using the Sony a7 III is dead easy, since when I touch the focus ring on the lens, the camera displays a magnified image of the star I’m using for focus.
My photos of the Milky Way turn out well, however I’m in for another treat an hour later after I spot the old but very thin Crescent Moon hanging over the Dragoon Mountains. I get my Sony 70-300mm zoom and take several photos with my Sony a7 III on Aperture priority and a -3 EV setting that seems to work very well. I have used my travel tripod up to now, but can handhold the lens for the final few shots as the Sun rises.
Garry takes us on a hike into Council Rocks, so I take my Mavic Pro drone along. I fly the drone at the two rest stops we make, and capture some wonderful video and photos, despite me losing sight of the drone several times in the bright sunshine.
There are clouds building in the sky this afternoon as I prepare dinner for the group. I make a double batch of ground turkey pasta, made with egg noodles and Classico pasta sauce, and served with vegetables. As expected, there is no observing or photographing the night sky tonight due to cloud cover. I show the video and photos from my Mavic Pro drone taken earlier today on our hike into Council Rocks. Everyone is blown away by the high quality and smooth motion.
I get up around 7AM and make some coffee, and others soon join me. This is a day with nothing planned, so we can recover from our travel. After everyone is up and have breakfast, some of us walk around the ranch fence line. It is quite pleasant since the weather is cool, clear, and sunny. I fly my DJI Mavic Pro drone this morning, capturing some nice still photos, panoramas and video of my friend’s property.
Some of the group have afternoon naps, but I stay up familiarizing myself with my new Sony a7 III mirrorless camera, in order to get ready for imaging in the dark this evening. I also get my list of targets for the big imaging telescope ready, since the skies are clearing this evening. When it starts to get dark, we go out to the observatory to start an imaging run using a 20″ Newtonian astrograph telescope, and the visual observers setup with their own equipment and also use a 25″ Newtonian telescope.
The procedure for imaging in the observatory uses a script to conduct the imaging runs automatically. After troubleshooting this system for the next hour or so, we successfully get our imaging runs working, which run all night automatically until dawn while we sleep. My target for this evening is the Jellyfish Nebula – a galactic supernova remnant in the constellation Gemini. My observing report
My friend and I take a taxi to Victoria airport several hours before our 6:30AM flight leaves – WestJet flight from Victoria to Vancouver on a Bombardier Q400 regional jet. The pre-dawn light on the scenery out the window is nothing short of spectacular over Georgia Strait, so I take lots of photos of the islands before landing. (see banner image above)
After we arrive at Vancouver airport, we have two hours between flights, and it takes most of that time to walk kilometres to the US-bound gates (E-series), and to pre-clear US Customs & Immigration. I have to remove my drone and my notebook computer when clearing airport security at both Victoria and Vancouver. I still haven’t had a coffee by the time we board our flight to Phoenix!
We are number five for takeoff at 9:38am from Vancouver. The WestJet captain announces that we will be flying at 33,000’ with a 2:39 flight time on the Boeing 737-800. The flight is not full, and the legroom where I’m sitting in Economy is amazing! I have my usual hummus and crackers when food service is offered aboard the flight, and have some Coca Cola as well.
It is a spectacular sunny day as we climb out of Vancouver bound for Phoenix, so I take photos with both my iPhone XS and my Sony a7 III. I don’t bother with the in-flight Internet at $10.99 for 90 minutes, since the duration of the flight is only 2.5 hours. I read some workshop material on my iPad since there are no views today as we fly over the Grand Canyon enroute to Phoenix..
After landing, we retrieve our bags and since we pre-cleared US Customs and Immigration, we are free to be on our way. I make contact with the Turo rental guy for the Tesla Model 3 I’ve rented, and he meets us curb-side in the airport arrivals area. My friends and I manage to squeeze all our bags, gear and ourselves in to the Model 3, which is a bit smaller than the Model S I rented last year. Getting out of the Phoenix airport proves to be a bit of a challenge, even with the in-vehicle navigation, however eventually we are on I-10 heading south to Tucson and onward to Dragoon Ranch.
I decide to stop at the Florence Tesla Supercharger midway between Phoenix and Tucson, not because the vehicle needs a charge, but because I want to have a few minutes to have a look at the Model 3’s controls and find out how it charges, since this is my first time driving this vehicle. Since I haven’t had a coffee all day, it would also be nice to have a cappuccino or even a regular coffee, but the food places near the Supercharger don’t serve coffee! I pull out of there once the car has 50 miles of extra charge and drive about a half hour further down I-10 until I see an interchange with a McDonald’s sign. We pull into the parking area and have a proper rest stop, where I finally have my first cappuccino of the day! My friends and I also have some lunch and take advantage of the restrooms before we continue down I-10 through Tucson.
My last stop for about a half hour is at the Tucson Tesla Supercharger at Rita Road east of the city, since I want a decent level of charge by the time I get to our friend’s place on Dragoon Mountain Ranch, so we don’t have to rely on slow charging when we drive out of the ranch to see the sights. We also stop at the Safeway in Benson to stock up on food and beverages before completing the drive, arriving after sunset. Two more in our group arrived earlier today, so they have dinner ready for us. I’m very tired after the flying and driving, and starting the day at 4AM this morning, but I have a good sleep tonight.
After another scrumptious breakfast at Peachcliff B&B, I fly my Mavic Pro drone above the B&B, taking high definition video and photos of Peachcliff, the Okanagan Valley, Skaha Lake, Okanagan Falls, and I also capture the cyclists riding in the Prospera Granfondo Axel Merckx event this morning, which my friend and his son are riding in.
I leave at 10:30AM after most of the serious riders are clear of the route, however it is slow going as I head north out of Okanagan Falls to the turnoff onto Highway 3A to head south to Keremeos. Once I’m on 3A it is an easy drive. I recharge my Tesla at the Keremeos Fast DC charger for about a half hour (see banner image above) before continuing to Highway 3 through Princeton and Manning Park. I recharge at the Tesla Supercharger at Hope and indulge in another small Blizzard frozen dessert from Dairy Queen, which is right next door!
The drive from Hope to Burnaby on the Trans-Canada Highway is very stressful, since the traffic around Abbotsford and Langley in the Fraser Valley is quite heavy despite it being a Sunday afternoon. Once I cross the Port Mann bridge into Coquitlam and Burnaby, traffic improves. I find my way through Burnaby to my Best Western Plus hotel on Kingsway and check in by 6PM. I’m very tired as I settle into my room, and then meet a friend for dinner at Minoa’s Greek Taverna (review) down Kingsway a few blocks. It’s great to reconnect with my friend again – we both attended BCIT together (Photogrammetry & Surveying) way back in the 1970s! The food and service at this Greek restaurant is excellent as usual.
I take my time leaving Hotel Alma this morning. Traffic is light as I drive west from Calgary through the Foothills and the Kananaskis area to Canmore, where I stop to recharge my Tesla at the Supercharger. I grab a cappuccino from Beamers Coffee, which is about a 7-minute walk south of the Supercharger. Back at the Supercharger, while enjoying my coffee I take a photo of the old Moon over the south end of Mt. Rundle before resuming my drive.
The very popular Castle Junction rest stop offers the classic view of Castle Mountain, the Sawback Range and the Bow River. I use three different focal lengths of lenses with my dSLR to capture the scene (see banner image above for cropped fisheye view). I discover later that my telephoto shot of Castle Mountain also captured a raptor in flight near the mountain – bonus! I pull into the rest stop at Eldon in Banff National Park for a rest and to have some lunch. Before resuming my drive, I take a panoramic photo of Castle Mountain from this viewpoint – there is spectacular scenery everywhere you look in the Canadian Rockies!
I recharge at the Golden Supercharger for a half hour before driving Rogers Pass to Revelstoke. Tackling the highway construction westbound doesn’t seem as bad as the eastbound experience. This is the second-longest driving segment for my road trip, so I’m tired by the time I arrive in Revelstoke later in the afternoon.
I’m staying at the Swiss Chalet Motel in Revelstoke on the main drag: Victoria Ave. The Village Idiot Bistro is recommended by the desk clerk, so I go there for dinner. It’s a very casual place with a patio going full bore since it is about 27°C downtown. I sit inside out of the sun and have a High Country Kolsch draught (Mt. Begbie Brewery). It is kind of sweet, but it’s a good summer beer that goes well with my grilled halibut which is excellent, and is served with grilled tomatoes, green beans, onions, and goat cheese – a very heart-healthy choice.
I have a Standard Queen Room in the motel, which is small, but nicely updated with a Queen bed, fast Internet, full bathroom, and air-conditioning. Each unit has a parking spot right outside the door, and the office doubles as the breakfast room. The motel is centrally located – it’s an easy five minute walk to the railway museum, and a 15-minute walk to the shops downtown. There is free parking downtown if you drive.
After having an early breakfast in my hotel room for the second day in a row, our tour bus leaves early bound for the Canadian Rockies. This all-day tour is hosted by three geologists (and RASC members) who share their knowledge about the landforms found in the Canadian Rockies, and how this geomorphology can be used as an analogue to the surface conditions found on Mars. We are all given handouts authored by our hosts, with scientific references, diagrams, and notes. We also have Dr. Tania Harrison along on this tour, our banquet speaker who talked about finding water on Mars.
After making a quick shopping stop in Cochrane, we drive through Canmore and through the Canadian Rockies north to Banff. Along the way, our guides point out alluvial fans, erosion, rocky glaciers, snow fields, and other analogues of features found on Mars. There is snow falling as we drive over the Glacier Parkway summit. We have a rest stop at Saskatchewan Crossing on our way to the Columbia Icefield, part of the Athabaska Glacier. I visited here in 1968 and remember the tongue of the glacier being much closer to the road. There are markers showing how the glacier has retreated over the years, as we walk up to the tongue of the glacier.
We return to our hotel quite late, so I drive a few who were also on the tour and myself to Nick’s Steakhouse and Pizza, where we have a nice dinner along with excellent service.
After eating the very modest continental breakfast the motel offers, I drive across the street to charge at the Tesla Supercharger in Golden. I pickup an acceptable cappuccino from the nearby MacDonald’s drive-thru before starting my journey. This is one of the shorter road trip segments today, which I planned to allow me to enjoy the scenery along the way through Yoho and Banff National Parks and the Kananaskis area on my way to Calgary. The Canadian Rocky Mountains are awe-inspiring on this beautiful sunny day as I take my time along the route.
Flying drones in national parks is prohibited in Canada, so I wait until I’m out of Banff National Park near Canmore before launching my drone, and capturing some beautiful panoramic photos and video of Mount Rundle and the Bow River. I stop to recharge my Model S at the Canmore Supercharger, and have a quick bowl of soup at Craig’s Waystation restaurant before continuing down the valley and emerging from the Foothills and onto the flat prairie farmlands east of Calgary.
I am staying at the Hotel Alma on the campus of the University of Calgary, which is easy to access from the Trans-Canada Highway. As I park in front of the hotel, I meet several astronomy buddies even before I check-in. The hotel arranges for me to charge my vehicle at the Level-2 chargers available on the campus in Lot 22, which I take advantage of a couple of times during my week-long stay.
The RASC General Assembly registration desk is setup in the hotel lobby, so after I get settled in my room, I go downstairs to pick up my delegate’s package. I connect with a few people I know in the lobby while we wait for buses to take us to the Members’ Welcome BBQ dinner and First Nations performances at the Rothney Observatory, in the country south of Calgary. We also get to tour the observatories operating from this site.
I’m up just after 7AM, get cleaned up and go downstairs for breakfast. Afterwards, I try to fly my drone from the parking lot, but the whole of Merritt is a no-fly-zone since the airport is nearby. I spend about a half hour across the highway at the Tesla Superchargers at the Best Western Plus hotel before starting my drive north on Highway 5. This is my longest road trip today, driving a total of 446 kms over 6 hours elapsed time.
First stop is Kamloops Visitor Centre, where I charge the car at one of the four Tesla Superchargers. This takes about 20 minutes, so I have time to get a cappuccino at a Blenz in the Aberdeen Mall across the street, I leave Kamloops eastbound on the Trans-Canada Highway 1, heading to Salmon Arm, where I have a quick lunch at a Tim Hortons before proceeding to the Revelstoke Supercharger. I get my fastest charge rate so far at that location, but have time to walk to a Starbucks for a cappuccino.
After leaving Revelstoke, I drive over the Rogers Pass to Golden, where I am staying overnight. Highway 1 through Rogers Pass is dotted with construction zones where they are repaving. I wait about 20 minutes at one location. The snow shed lighting is also being worked on, so it is slow going. Despite all the construction and delays, Rogers Pass is always spectacular, and today is a lovely sunny day, so the mountains and valleys live up to all my expectations.
After driving all day, I am exhausted by the time I get to Golden. Since it is 6PM, I go to a nearby Boston Pizza and have a beer and some lasagna for dinner, and then check into my motel. I am staying at the Ponderosa Motor Inn, which is a very modest motel. It is clean, but they obviously cater to work crews and truck drivers, since it is located on a highway access road, instead of being downtown. I wouldn’t stay here again, but there’s really nothing wrong with the room: it’s clean, quiet, and everything works.
I’m up at 3AM this morning and leave the Volendam for the last time to take the prearranged 4AM shuttle to the airport. The bus takes Holland America’s passengers to Terminal 1 at Changi Airport, where I check in with Cathay Pacific for my 8:05AM flight to Hong Kong and onward to Vancouver. I will get to live today almost twice over, since we cross the International Date Line mid-flight as we fly eastward across the Pacific Ocean.
After clearing customs and immigration, I find my gate and hit Starbucks for a cappuccino. I have several hours to kill, but Changi airport has free wifi, so the time goes by. By 6AM the airport comes alive with more people, so people watching keeps me entertained. The 3.5 hour Cathay Pacific flight from Singapore to Hong Kong goes well. They serve us breakfast, which I certainly appreciate!
When departing the aircraft in Hong Kong airport, I remember it is important to stay in the “Transfer” stream when you already have a boarding pass issued for the next flight segment. You still have to go through security, but then you can go directly to the Departures level and roam around. Otherwise you will find yourself on the Arrivals level, and have to take a lot more time to find your way back to the Departure level.
Cathay Pacific doesn’t load the flight to Vancouver by row. Everyone simply lines up at the gate and we are let on the aircraft after our boarding pass is scanned and our passport is verified.
This flight is excruciatingly long, however service by the cabin crew is very good. The first time I check my watch is an hour or so after they serve us dinner at the beginning of the flight. At that point we are five hours into the flight. Not even being half way is pretty depressing! The next time I check the time, we are about five hours out of Vancouver…still a very long time to sit. By then I’ve listened to all the music I can handle; I’ve read all the magazines on my iPad I can stand; so I haul down my MacBook Air from the overhead bin and write my journal and process photos for awhile. It would be great if I could sleep aboard aircraft, but that doesn’t happen no matter how tired I am. The sunrise is beautiful as we fly south of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
Our approach to Vancouver is over Northern Vancouver Island and the coast range of mountains of British Columbia. The pilot refers to it as “the Whistler approach” to Vancouver airport, taking us over the famed ski resort. We fly east of the city and then turn west on final approach over Surrey, Richmond, and New Westminster, giving us great views of the city against the North Shore mountains. I think we land on Vancouver runway 26R. I take some nice photos of the scenery out the window.
This time I’m prepared for the long stretches of walking required in Vancouver airport to get from the arrival gate to the Immigration kiosks, and then onward to the baggage carousels, and finally a long way to the end of the departure concourse to check in at the Westjet kiosks. I don’t have a through ticket, so can’t use Westjet’s transfer check-in (much closer to the carousels). After clearing security again, I find the domestic departure area and the gates for the local Westjet flights. It is only a 20 minute flight to Victoria, and I am soon home…greeted at the door by Rolly and Tanner, our Jack Russell Terriers, and the rest of the family. It’s time to go to bed for a well-deserved sleep after enduring some 27 hours elapsed time from when I left my cabin aboard the Volendam in Singapore earlier today.
February 21, 2015 – Saturday – Jebel Shams to Muscat
After driving down the steep roads from Jebel Shams, we visit the beehive tombs at Al Ayn.These tombs are about 5,000 years old, although not much is known about them. This means the necropolises were built in the same era as the Egyptian pyramids. The tombs are fascinating and quite photogenic, however as we descend from the ridge to return to our 4x4s, the wind picks up and a sand storm blasts everyone as we hurry to get back inside our vehicles.
Next stop is Jabrin Castle, which was built by the Yaruba dynasty Imam Bil’arab bin Sultan, who ruled from 1679 to 1692. This is without a doubt the most impressive castle or fortification we have visited in Oman. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is beautifully restored, and is surrounded by groves of palm trees in a lush valley. The castle has impressive wooden painted ceilings in some rooms.
After driving back along the highway to Muscat, we say goodbye to our driver Ali, who drops us off at the City Seasons Hotel. He has been an excellent driver; taking us over sand dunes at Sharqiya Sands, along back roads to Bedouin camps, and zooming up and down both expressways and mountain roads. It has been a wonderful driving adventure in our 4x4s over the last five days. Tomorrow, we return to Dubai by bus for our final day in Arabia before returning home.