By Daniel Chu Owen – Creative Director, Travelling Telescope
Astro-tourism, or “dark night-sky tourism”, is a new travel trend that has gained popularity in recent years. It involves traveling to different destinations around the world to explore the wonders of the night sky, primarily for stargazing, observing celestial events, learning about astronomy, science, technology and space exploration. It can be a real surprise to the uninitiated just how much the sky varies from place to place.
The beauty of Astro-tourism is that it offers a unique experience that is both educational and entertaining. Unlike traditional tourism, Astro-tourism is not just about visiting popular attractions and landmarks but rather about discovering the mysteries of the Universe and our place within it.
More than half of our planet’s population live in cities, where we banish darkness and light up not only our streets but also our night sky. As we do this, we are losing our direct connection with the wider Universe above us. Ironically, at the same time, our technology has revolutionised our understanding of those little lights in the sky, meaning today’s astronomers have tools that even a century ago would have seemed like magic. To observe some of these fascinating sights which we now understand so well, we must escape the light pollution we have created, and venture into the wild sky.
We live on the surface of a spinning ball, and here in Kenya we are at the centre of that ball’s rotation – straddling as it does both sides of the equator. This means that as we travel into Kenya’s dark and wild areas, almost every observable star in the entire sky is visible to us in both the northern and southern hemispheres of the celestial sphere. That sphere is bisected by an invisible line projecting outward from the equator directly above us. It is not only the sun which travels overhead here, but the Moon, planets and constellations of the Zodiac. As objects pass directly above us, we are looking through the least amount of atmospheric gas, minimizing atmospheric distortion (twinkling) and resulting in the best possible views of all the objects in our solar system. Saturn and its rings for example simply cannot be viewed any better than here at the Equator, making Kenya a favorable Astro-tourism site, and the gasps we regularly hear as we center our large telescope on it are always a joy.
Having traveled extensively around Kenya and a little into Tanzania, we have had the privilege of observing the night sky at its absolute stunning best. Electrification has been slower in Africa generally than elsewhere, which is of course a negative in terms of development and power equity, while it does have the unintended effect of having some of the least light polluted
regions anywhere on Earth. There are areas in Kenya where you can be hundreds of miles away from a street light, meaning that these places are not just wild in terms of the animals there, but also in terms of how the sky appears to be for us all on Earth before the invention of the light bulb – a mere 150 years ago. This combined with the dry climate, arguably make for some of the finest views of the sky anywhere on Earth.
My personal favorite place for Astro-tourism in Kenya is the Laikipia Region, just to the north and west of Mount Kenya. There is just something about the atmospheric conditions combined with low light pollution, dry climate and altitude, that make for stunning views of the heavens. Other great Astro-tourism regions include; the Samburu land, Turkana, Tsavo and Maasai Mara parks, and even the coast can give wonderful views of the stars above the Indian Ocean in regions away from the towns and cities where light pollution is prominent.
In some of these areas during the Northern Hemisphere summer (Southern Hemisphere winter) our galaxy the Milky Way appears to cast shadows so bright as its lane of intense concentrations of stars arc overhead, guarded by the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpius. Six months later you can then observe the best views of our nearest star-forming region, a vast, turbulent, dust cloud called the Orion Nebula, as it too passes overhead for us at the Equator. Astro-tourism truly is an awesome experience here, and it is a privilege for us to be able to share it with our guests.
In conclusion, Astro-tourism is an exciting and rapidly growing travel trend that offers a unique and unforgettable experience. It allows visitors to explore the mysteries of the universe and learn about the history of space exploration, the galaxies, the stars and constellations. Whether you are an astronomy enthusiast or simply looking for a new and exciting travel experience, Astro-tourism is a fascinating addition to the modern safari into the wild.