“Yous okay?” the voice from the first car asked. I couldn’t see who was talking or how many passengers there were in either of the two cars now parked opposite us. They’d driven by a few minutes earlier only to return and pull up in the lay-by near where John and I were standing with our son.
You read terrible things about what can happen to people out and about in the county-side after dark. So, when those cars stopped I felt a little on the vulnerable side.
But as soon as the question was posed I knew there was nothing for us to worry about.
“Yeah, we’re fine,” I said, and I explained why we were there.
They laughed. “We thought yous were in trouble, eh.”
Right then and there I was proud to be a New Zealander. That’s our country at its very best: people going out of their way to look after each other.
But why, you might wonder, were we on the side of the road, in the country-side, at night, in the first place?
It’s Matariki, here in Aotearoa, New Zealand; the time of the year when the constellation known down under as Matariki, or the Pleiades for those from the Northern Hemisphere, first rises above the horizon. You have to be an early riser yourself to catch it—the constellation appears low in the sky only an hour or two before dawn.
Nevertheless, it’s a sign that soon the days will lengthen. For many it’s a time to celebrate the turning of the seasons, traditionally a time to remember those who have died, and to consider new beginnings.
For me, usually, it’s a time to hunker down, huddle by the fire with a good book and wait out the winter; this year that meant waiting until mid-summer in Minnesota—or so I’d been thinking.
“Want to try some night photography?” asked my son who was visiting for the weekend. You could say he’s keen on photography. “Winter’s a good time for it.”
“Okay,” I said, pretending to be hardier than I am.
“Hmm,” he said. “I wonder when the galactic core rises?”
“The galactic what?” This was starting to sound dangerously like a Star Trek expedition.
“The Milky Way!”he said.
“Wow, that’ll be cool,” I said, meaning freezing. I wondered whether I’d signed up for a 5am start and a view of the Pleiades. I might not know the night sky very well (It turns out that at this time of the year Matariki appears long after the Galactic Core) but I do know the universe never sleeps. Afterall, the Galactic Core is driven by the astral clock not by my body clock.
But for me at Matariki in 2016 the stars aligned. Thanks to the help of Mr Google and a very clever app we quickly discovered that the Galactic Core rose in the south-east at an acceptable 8:00pm. The skies were clear. And most remarkable of all there was no moon. And our hunch as to the best place to go worked out pretty well. For the locals reading this: we drove north of Napier, almost to Tangoio and pulled into a lay-by overlooking the ocean.
We could hear the waves rather than see them. And when I looked up at the sky the Milky Way was there to see, with the Southern Cross almost overhead.
We did have to contend with a little light pollution from Napier City, the nearby Whirinaki paper mill and, as you may have guessed, the headlights of the occasional car. In the top photo the tips of the shrubbery are lit up by a passing car.
We were careful about the traffic, setting up our tripods well off the road.
I had no idea that my camera would cope with the demands placed on it. I did need a little, okay a lot of guidance from my son who is a mirrorless fan, himself. Luckily for me, he’s a very patient teacher. I learned all about long exposure, as well as how to use my camera in full manual mode, including adjusting the ISO and setting the focus to infinity.
The latter being a good thing because looking at the stars that evening was like looking into infinity; everyday hassles and problems took on less significance as we watched the Milky Way move across the night sky. When you’re trying to catch it in photos, with a thirty-second exposure, it’s moving pretty darn fast. Actually it moves at 15° per hour. (That little tidbit of information comes from John.)
It was cold. So cold my phone, which I’d planned to use as a torch, didn’t read my fingers. So cold that despite five layers and an alpaca hat from the Andes I was shivering.
But there are times when a little discomfort is worth it.
Moreover, I didn’t freeze to death. Although thawing out afterwards did require the help of Mr Glenfiddich.
If I’m telling the truth, because I do like to, I was the one who was slow to recognise that maybe twenty-five shots and two hours out in the cold were enough.
If I were to do it again, I’d do few things differently. I’d probably reduce the shutter speed a bit and I’d drive a little further out of town.
I’d keep the same company though.
The only thing I’d add next time would be a thermos. Of tea, of course!
And to the people in those two cars who took the time to see if we were okay, thank-you—on a cold winter’s night you warmed my heart!