Queenstown, New Zealand, world capital of adventure sports.
Yesterday we spent the night in a coastal village of the southern island of New Zealand. There’s nothing special there in spite of being the only place in the world where you can always spot whales, or so they say. As for the sea being full of whales… Well, we didn’t see a single one, though the sky’s certainly full of stars. We’re in the southern hemisphere and here’s a big chunk of space that us northerners never get to see at home, and never will. Just as we look for the North Star to pinpoint the north, here they look for the Crux. It is so famous it even appears on their flag. Four stars arranged like cross, easy to locate thanks to the twin Pointer Stars. If you trace an imaginary line between them, this straight line takes you to the Crux, and because it creates a right angle with the longest crosspiece, reveals where south is in the sky.
It may be complicated for us but it was easy for the ancients who travelled this way for thousands of years. They had to be careful, though, because near the real Crux are two other very similar formations. That’s why they sought help from Alpha Centauri, one of the brightest stars in the sky and the closest to our sun. Near this star, one can see with the naked eye the most famous galaxy in the southern skies, the Magellanic Clouds. The distance between them and our solar system, 160,000 light years, is trivial in our universe. But when compared to the distance to the moon, a ridiculous light second, or the sun, 6 light minutes, it’s tremendous. Under those clouds, one can see a little nebula where new stars are being born. Also, in that part of the sky one can also see our galaxy, the Milky Way, with more stars visible than when viewed from the Northern Hemisphere, since from here we’re directly facing its heart.
If we turn around and look north, we see the constellation Orion, the hunter, with his two dogs and arc going after the bull. The only difference being when you see it from down here, the hunter is upside down. Above his belt – three very evident stars that always appear together in a line – another nebula is visible with a couple of recently born new stars. Also nearby are the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, a group of stars in the shape of a kite, with hundreds more inside. To the Maori, the Pleiades indicate the arrival of their new year, when they reappear every June after disappearing from the firmament for a couple of months. They say these are the remains of a bigger star that never existed and whose neighbors, fed up of hearing her brag about her beauty, plotted to destroy her. Following the ecliptic, the imaginary line where the planets move almost level to the horizon, one can also locate the twelve constellations of the Zodiac. Below the Pleiades is Taurus. To the left, Pisces, made up of two fish united by their tails. To the west, Aries, and to the east, Gemini with its twin stars. Near them, Sirius, the brightest star in the firmament. You could spend endless nights just watching…
The Maori say that in the past, the sky was black and that the goddess Tana collected Earth’s stars, put them in her canoe and sailed to the heavens to arrange them in a way that would help men navigate and set the calendar. She threw the remaining stars overboard, thus creating the Milky Way, which the Romans thought was the gods’ promenade. The truth is when you look up, you can’t help thinking that you’re so small something bigger must be out there.