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Comet McNaught

24th January 2007


The Moon and Venus just before Venus was eclipsed.

Tswana folklore has it that this is a healthy moon because the evil spirits are not tipped out of it. During the winter when the angle is greater it cannot hold teh spitits in and people become ill.

When we went to the far north of the country to watch the total eclipse in 2004 I had some idea that we were in for something special because everyone had told us. But on this occasion I was not expecting very much when we set out for the top of the Kupferberg pass 20 kilometres or so out of Windhoek. I had after all been arrested watching the last comet from a hill outside Dar and I had found it very difficult convincing the policeman that my binoculars had been trained on a minute bit of cotton wool in the sky and not on the military base below.

The night sky in Namibia, however, is something rather special. You can see to walk in the bush when there is no moon, just by the light or the stars. And you can usually see the whole of the moon, even when, as last night, only a tiny sliver of new moon was lit up by the setting sun. The rest of the moon was greyed out, illuminated by reflected light from the earth.

The new moon was one of the things we had set out to see and we chose the Kupferberg to be high up but away from the Windhoek lights. When we got there, however, we found that a lot of others had had similar ideas. Word had got around that interesting things were to happen.

The moon was new, a fine perfect cup-shape. The evil spirits were trapped inside it explaining why January, in contrast to June, is a healthy time of the year. Just above the grey outline moon was Venus which while we watched, was eclipsed. The moon passed in front of Venus and we did not see her again. She would emerge only after both had set.

A little bit to the south after the sun had set but while it was still daylight, the point of Comet McNaught emerged in the darkening sky and by 8 o clock was bright with a long curved tail. This small comet had put on a good show in the north last week before passing around the sun and it was now emerging, its tail much longer and brighter from the experience and curved across the whole of the south western sky in an arc showing its earlier path.


The whole show seemed to be quite popular. We came up the pass to get away from thelights or Windhoek and get a good clear view south east. But others had the same idea.

The Germans were their in their combis setting up their telescopes and cameras, nuclear families, father mother son daughter alsatian and telescope - blonde long-legged teenagers determined to overtly play no part in the proceedings other than exhibit ostentatious boredom. They parked at appropriate and polite intervals along the roadside.

The Afrikaners in their bakkies, on the other hand, obeying some deep instinct, had already pulled off in a circle, hadarranged an inner circle of chairs around the cool boxes, and the fire was already well started. For them the passage of a comet was an excuse for a serious braai. I’m not sure that the astronomical proceedings were much noticed. (Every event is an excuse for a braai; at the Last Judgement, the Afrikaners will be easy to spot).

Our group rather let the side down, two Germans one Afrikaner, one Brit and a couple of French Poodles in season. The two able to do so climbed onto the top of a Datsun Safari taking all the wine with them. I set up the camera in the middle of the road and waited.

  And waited  

It gradually came into view in the still-bright south west, a slight blurr above the moon. As the sun and then the moon settled below the horizon and the sky darkened the comet brightened. eventually realised that its tail filled the whole sky; not something you could possibly see anywhere except in the dark dry clear Namibian sky.

This is just the head of the comet taken through a telephoto lens. What this does not show is how the tail spreads out sideways to cover teh whole sky above us