Spotlight on the Blue Mountains Night Sky

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Image: Jaydid Photo

By Ellen Hill

When the brilliant golden orb of day slides below the horizon, the vast Blue Mountains wilderness is plunged into the blackness of night.

The ragged clifflines, deep valleys and fuzzy tree canopies melt into darkness . . . and the sky above awakens to reveal a glinting map into a heavenly realm.

Far from the intrusive lights of the city, the diamonds of the night sky twinkle above the world-famous Three Sisters rock formation - as Dyindinggang to the Gundungurra people and as Dyinbarri to the Dharug people - which represents a constellation of stars and a creation story.

The planetary lives, loves and loss play out, as they have done for millennia, above the yawning dark of the Grose Valley, the Megalong and Jamison. The thundering Wentworth Falls is a miniature trickle beneath the gargantuan barrel spirals of the Milky Way galaxy.

Such awesome magnitude drives most indoors and under bedcovers.

But a few, like Blue Mountains Stargazing astrophysicist Dr Dimitri Douchin and Jaydid Photo nightscape photographer Jay Evans, forgo sleep to bathe in the silky glow of the moon in pursuit of elusive nuances of the night.

The Blue Mountains has long been a haven for those with an eye on distant worlds, who seek to witness the birth and death of stars and track the astronomical streak of comets.

Wealthy businessman and amateur astronomer Alfred Fairfax hosted a gathering at Woodford House (now Woodford Academy) in the central Mountains to observe the 1874 Transit of Venus.

One of the most remarkable telescope makers in Australia, Ken Beames, built Linden Observatory in 1949.

Today, Douchin shares his astronomical knowledge and passion for the night sky and its heavenly bodies through stargazing tours he runs with partner Caroline at locations throughout the region and online through virtual tours and courses.

The Adjunct Fellow at Western Sydney University also works in the new science of cultural astronomy.

Using astronomy, archaeology and anthropology, cultural astronomy seeks to understand how cultures observed, understood and used astronomy, and how they now interconnect around the common heritage to every human on Earth: the night sky.

Douchin works with  Indigenous communities to learn ancient Aboriginal songlines (navigational songs that describe the landscape across Country between one destination and another) and apply it to the night sky.

"It's fascinating, very exciting and meaningful research,’’ he says.

"When I did my PhD, I realised that I had lost a little bit of the magic of astronomy.

"Connecting now to cultural astronomy and learning from different cultures around the world, I’ve touched that magic again.’’

The night sky has fascinated Douchin since age six. At eight, he told a teacher he would be an astrophysicist. After studying fundamental physics in Paris, he moved to Australia and completed a PhD in astronomy in 2014.

AF_BMS_photo.pngPhoto: Scott Chapman Photography

Meanwhile Sony digital imaging advocate Evans, who’s ``had a camera in my hand since an early age’’, studied architecture and detoured into IT before making his passion for photography a profession.

As well as image sales, he conducts photography tours and workshops. One of his genres of specialty is nightscape photography.

"Astrophysicists and astronomers look at deep sky objects like nebulas and do astrophotography, but what I do is more about composing a landscape with a shot of the Milky Way or the stars,’’ he says.

Always enamoured with the stars, Evans started capturing their movements in time lapse before realising he could capture the Milky Way too.

"I was immediately attracted to being able to put a landscape in front of something that was in the night sky.`I really enjoy making sure you can capture that in a single shot rather than having to do a lot of Photoshopping of images. Part of the excitement is the planning, finding the right location, the right conditions, orientating yourself in the right direction and being there at the right time.

"You can use websites and weather apps to judge when you're going to have a clear sky, but sometimes you just have to keep getting up and checking. It might be two, three o'clock in the morning but that’s the time to go out.’’

Evans, who conducts photography tours along the east coast, Tasmania and Uluru, enjoys being in the Blue Mountains in Autumn, the ``sweet spot’’ when the Milky Way rises over the east at locations such as Govetts Leap Lookout at Blackheath.

"In Winter and Spring, we're looking at the western fall of the Milky Way out west across the Megalong, Kanimbla and beyond, and from Mt Victoria you've got the Coxs River and that whole system down to the Six Foot Track, Jenolan and Oberon.’’

 

Look to the night sky in Spring and here’s what you will see:

  • Early Spring: the lighthouse constellation (Scorpion) directly above at sunset
  • Jupiter and Saturn rising in the east
  • Venus setting in the west
  • Sagittarius (the teapot) rising below Scorpio
  • September 21: Spring equinox when the sun sets due West and rises due east
  • Milky Way setting in the west in September/October

 

While "any lookout or open space is good’’ for stargazing in the Blue Mountains, here are some great Blue Mountains locations for stargazing and nightscape photography:

  • Wentworth Falls Picnic Area (accessible to all)
  • Lincoln’s Rock, Wentworth Falls: 360-degree view of the night sky
  • Cahill’s Lookout, Katoomba: sunset over Megalong Valley
  • Hargraves Lookout, Blackheath: 360-degree clear sky views
  • Mt Blackheath Lookout overlooking the Megalong and Kanimbla valleys
  • Capertee Valley: surrounded by canyon walls to hide light pollution from Sydney

 

BONUS ACTIVITY

Discover the dark side of the Blue Mountains on the new Katoomba Falls Night-lit Walk.

The 1.3km walk gives access to a unique, night-time viewing experience of outstanding natural features such as Orphan Rock, Witches Leap, Katoomba Falls and Katoomba Cascades.  At certain vantage points you can also see the Three Sisters lit up.

The experience connects other previously lit areas and has new lighting from the top of the Katoomba Falls Kiosk carpark, around Reid’s Plateau and down to the Duke and Duchess Lookout.

All the lights turn on at dusk and flood lights are turned off at 10.30pm and path lights at 11pm.

Blue Mountains Stargazing – online tours (NEW)

E: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

T: Caroline 0449 829 003

W: www.bluemountainsstargazing.com.au

Explore virtually the heavens in real time, travel through time and space to visit planets, learn about the heavenly bodies and the ancient Earthly cultural stories that describe their origin and character.

Learn about the celestial dance of planets, satellites, navigation, the universe, our home galaxy and beyond. Tours include hacks on how to identify stars and constellations with the naked eye.

Educational astronomy tours for children to launch soon.

Jaydid Photo – online workshops (NEW)

T: (02) 4786 0476

E: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

W: https://bluemountains.photography

Learn how to capture stunning nightscape images like professional photographer Jay Evans.

Prepare for an upcoming visit to the magnificent Blue Mountains by learning photography techniques so you can freeze frame your memories of the natural beauty of the landscape. 

Evans plans to put together a 12-month subscription series including weekly YouTube tutorials and monthly online Zoom catch-ups in preparation for travel freedom.

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