While the gaze of many revellers will turn skywards on New Year's Eve for the much anticipated pyrotechnics display over Civic, at least one Canberran will be looking in the opposite direction for a mesmerising light show of a more natural kind.
Meet Ian "Willo" Williams, of Calwell, who as the last rays of sunshine set for 2016, will be heading south into the hills of Tharwa and beyond.
Williams is an astrophotographer with an obsessive passion for capturing images of our night sky, especially the spectacular aurora australis, better known as the southern lights.
Although more common at latitudes closer to the south magnetic pole, if conditions are right the aurora australis in which the collision of charged particles collide along geomagnetic field lines creates dazzling curtains of red and green can occasionally be seen with the naked eye near Canberra. However, according to Williams, "a camera lens captures the aurora better because it is able to collect far more light than the human eye," adding "it's a bit like a telescope."
Over the past 12 months the intrepid Williams has ventured into the mountains of Namadgi, away from city lights and captured some dramatic images of the aurora. Keen to try and witness, or at least photograph an aurora for myself, earlier this week I joined Williams on one of his frequent nightly forays into the bush.
I meet the devoted aurora chaser at one of his more accessible vantage spots; it's just off the Boboyan Road and commands an extensive view of the southern horizon. The foreground is punctuated by two gnarly old gum trees, which on arrival are bathed in that characteristic post dusk golden glow of a summer sunset.
"Welcome to my mobile office," says Williams as he unfolds a trestle table, onto which he subsequently places and powers up his laptop.
Next he sets up not one but two digital SLR cameras, both on tripods and both pointing expectantly due south. "One is for time lapse, and the other for stills," he explains.
According to Williams, "the sky doesn't get properly dark until the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon, which is about one hour after sunset," however, it's clear his love of the outdoors means he doesn't mind arriving early.
"It's great to watch the birds fly to their roosts and the wombats emerge from their hollows," remarks Williams, adding "we're only 10 minutes from Tuggeranong but out here it feels a million miles [or should that be light years!], away."
With all his equipment at the ready, the waiting game begins.
"Where are the donuts," I joke as Williams pours me a cuppa from his trusty thermos.
Well, it is a stake-out of sorts, isn't it, and given Williams sometimes stays out until 3am, we could be in for a long night.
"You're just lucky it's not mid-winter," points out Williams, warning, "some nights out here the ice settles on my head and you need hand warmers for the camera lens to prevent condensation building up."
Sitting in shorts and t-shirts and squatting the odd mosquito, while it's clear that I've definitely picked the right night weather-wise for my inaugural aurora chase, it appears as if lady luck has failed to deliver on high solar winds, one of the most critical celestial conditions required to create an aurora.
"It's not looking good," says Williams analysing real-time data downloading on his laptop which is used to predict the extent of a possible aurora.
"The speed, density and direction of the solar wind with respect to the Earth's magnetic field all influence the likelihood of an aurora," explains Williams, exclaiming, "you should have come last week when there was a solar winds got up to 600 km/second — that's from here to Brisbane in two seconds flat!"
Concerned I might be disappointed, Williams explains, "auroras aren't the only lights that can be seen in Canberra's night sky, you can also spot two dwarf galaxies, namely the large and small magellanic clouds as well as several nebulae," adding, "Oh, and I'm still trying to get a decent shot of a big shooting star."
But I'm far from downcast, in fact, I'm just chuffed to be soaking up a balmy summer evening in the great outdoors.
Between listening to an owl fidgeting in its roost in the closest gum and the call of distant fox, Williams reveals that his fascination for the night sky began when at the age of 14 he built a "15cm reflective telescope".
After following a career in the legal profession for the best part of three decades, earlier this year Williams finally quit his day job as a principal lawyer in a government agency to pursue his love of astrophotography.
"I'm now studying a master of teaching and hope to help others appreciate the art of astrophotography," he explains.
With the thermos now empty, and the readings on the laptop confirming I'll remain an aurora australis virgin at least another night, Williams announces, "it's time to pull stumps".
Crunching through the fallen gum leaves I wander over to the camera for one last check through the lens. The screen is filled with a yellow glow.
My heart skips a beat. "It can't be, can it?"
"Oh, that's a common mistake," explains Williams. "It's not an aurora, but is air glow, the emission of light by atoms and molecules excited through chemical processes in the upper atmosphere."
Wow! Well, if that's just air glow, I'm hooked. Imagine the beauty of an aurora.
Sure, watching the fireworks light up Sydney Harbour or over Civic is colourful, but for me, nothing beats a night out in the bush under the spell of our night sky.
Tips to photographing an aurora
Did Santa bring you a new digital SLR camera for Christmas? Here are some tips from Ian Williams to photographing an aurora.
- Before setting out on a field trip, check websites such as spaceweatherlive.com/ and various Facebook pages such as 'Aurora Australis NSW/ ACT /SA' on the likelihood of an aurora.
- Always use a tripod and preferably a wide angle lens such as 24mm to 35mm.
- Set the camera to manual so you choose the exposure length and aperture. Start with a 20-25 second exposure (if there is no moon) with your camera to the widest (fastest) lens opening eg: f2.8 or f3.5.
- Auto focus and image stabilisers should be switched off and the lens focused manually, it is best to get the focus as sharp as possible by either taking some test shots of stars or by using live focus on a bright star if you have it.
- Take photos as you wish or set the camera to take multiple exposures or a time-lapse.
Williams is happy to provide advice to anyone wanting to photograph an aurora. He can be contacted on: email@example.com
While champagne corks aplenty will be popping all over Canberra this New Year's Eve, spare a thought for the dedicated folk at the Jervis Bay Maritime Museum who will mark the passing of another year, remaining intrigued as to the origins of a 1936 'Canberra' branded champagne cork.
According to Graham Hinton, curator at the Huskisson-based museum, "at the launch of the MV Dolphin into Currambene Creek in 1936 a bottle of champagne with a 'Canberra' cork was used to christen the vessel."
The Shoalhaven News and South Coast Districts Advertiser provides further insight into the launching of the vessel, which at the time "was the second largest wooden craft built in Australia since the Great War". The paper's August 8, 1936, edition (p3) reports that Miss N. Mottram, of Numba, christened the vessel MV Dolphin [renamed Duranbah shortly afterwards], "by breaking a bottle of champagne on the bow as she slipped from the stays into deep water, the whole of the surrounding scene being lit up by flare lights."
Although the cork, it's metal seal clearly embossed with 'CANBERRA' has been part of the maritime museum's collection "for many years", its origins have remained unknown.
"So far we have been unable to discover any vineyards in the Canberra region that would have produced sparkling wines at that time," explains Hinton.
In an attempt to solve the maritime mystery, earlier this week this column tracked down Canberra wine luminary Ken Helm. But even he is stumped. "The Canberra Cork Plantation started in 1914 and could have been producing some cork bark by 1936," reports Helm. "I do not have any records of the bark being used for wine corks let alone champagne corks."
Further, according to Helm, "in 1936 the main Australian champagne producers were Seppelts Great Western, Minchinbury, Penfolds and Lindemans… so perhaps [it]could have come from one of them?" he ponders.
At the time of writing, none of these champagne producers have been able to shed any light to the origins of the cork.
Surely someone must know.
Note: If you are headed to the coast for some salt water therapy this holiday season, you can check out the remains of the champagne bottle, including the cork, for yourself at the Jervis Bay Maritime Museum, arguably one of the best of its kind in regional Australia. On the waterfront, Woollamia Road, Huskisson. Ph: 4441 5675 or web: jervisbaymaritimemuseum.asn.au/
PHOTO OF THE YEAR
At this time each year, this column announces its much anticipated 'photograph of the year'. There are only two criteria. Firstly the photograph must have appeared on these pages during the past 12 months and secondly it must shine the spotlight on the natural or social heritage of our region.
Although published on January 23, 2016, this year's winning photograph was taken almost 12 months ago to the day, when Peter Blunt, of Theodore, celebrated the start of 2016 by clambering up a peak in the Brindabellas.
As Blunt and his wife and daughter approached the summit of Mt Gingera just after sunset, he "heard what sounded like a semi-trailer working its way up a long hill - a low thrum".
Once atop the lofty peak, the origins of the curious sound were revealed. "The summit was a swarming frenzy of bogong moths," reports Blunt. "They seemed to be buzzing around the area generally, not flying off in a group to some other destination, they were all around and often bumped into us."
Blunt managed to video the scene and when he snapped some photos with his digital camera. "The flash went off automatically and captured the moths in flight against the darkening light in amongst the rocks and bushes."
Adding to the light show were "the orange street lights of the city which seemed to flicker through the haze," which according to Blunt, "looked like the embers of a distant bushfire, a reversal of the same scene we had seen in 2003 when we had looked from Tuggeranong towards Namadgi on the evening of the fires."
If Blunt returns to Gingera this New Year's Eve, he'll be hard pressed to beat his photographic record from last year. Stunning.
WHERE ON THE SOUTH COAST?
Cryptic Clue: Fill 'er up.
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Stephen Roxburgh, of Weston, who was first to correctly identify last week's photo as the Troll Bridge on Tuross Head Street at Potato Point. Roxburgh just beat Anthony Munn, who suggests that "if you cross the bridge it leads to a secret spot", to the last prize for 2016.
Bonus points to Russell Korsch who happened to be right at the bridge while reading this column and who managed to snap a photo of an emu and four chicks lurking in grass behind the Troll sign.
Thanks to everyone who participated, many enthusiastically (note: one entry per week is usually sufficient!) in my photo quiz throughout 2016 and Happy New Year to all.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday December 31, 2016 with the correct answer wins a double pass to Dendy cinemas.