SSPM17. A Sky Somewhere

By Scott Mellish, 1999

For some time I had been meaning to take a trip to Broken Hill, not so much for observing but for a look at some of the mines and art galleries.

Kinchega National Park, also on my list, is situated outside the town of Menindee, about 190 kilometres from Broken Hill. So after a night's observing at Ilford it was off the next day to Nyngan, where a night was spent in a caravan park alongside the Macquarie River.

Next morning it was off at 8am on a very daunting trip to Broken Hill. When you look at a map of New South Wales you think to yourself - that's a long way. Though the drive is gruelling, the road is quite good and very, very straight in places. I can recall some straights over 1 hour 15 minutes long. Without a doubt the stretch from Cobar to Wilcannia would have to be the most tiresome and it does pay to make sure your tank is full (at 89 cents a litre).

Arriving at Broken Hill late in the afternoon of Monday 20th October it was straight off to Menindee to set up camp in the National Park before nightfall. The Park itself reminded me of sand dunes along one of the long coastal beaches, intermixed with flat red shrubby expanses with numerous kangaroos and emu's bounding about.

The local woolshed was the first port of call to get some advice from the local Ranger. He advised the Cowindra Lake area was a nice quiet spot as most of the other areas were closed due to extensive flooding throughout the area. After a 15min drive we finally arrived at Cawndilla Lake around 4.45pm.

Whilst putting up the tent it soon became apparent that the flies were manic, there were more flies in this park than there are stars in the galaxy. But nonetheless all was finally assembled and it was time to sit-down for a long-awaited drink. The afternoon was heavily overcast, it looked like raining, and I must say that I was ill-at-ease with all the floodwaters around. Another thing that put me off was the distance from the camping ground to the lake's edge, which looked pretty close, but actually was a 10-minute walk through thick, knee-high grass. In any case it was nice to have a rest, and the telescope did not leave the back of the car.

I awoke at about 3:30am on Tuesday morning and went out for a you know what, to be greeted by a clear sky. I must admit that I was not all that impressed as the sky did not appear any darker than Ilford. And here I was in the middle of the desert without a major town anywhere near.

After breakfast on Tuesday morning dad and I went for a walkabout and noticed a sign saying, "Aboriginal Burial Sites In Area. Please Stay On Walking Trails". So, with this in mind, and combined with rising floodwaters and a mad cow running wildly about, I decided to pack up and head into Broken Hill. Tuesday was about 17 degrees so it was rather cool and comfortable for packing up.

Next port of call after leaving Menindee lakes was the "Lakeside Caravan Park" which sounded like some seaside resort. Why they just did not call it the "Mine Side Caravan Park" I don't know, because I could not see anything other than scrub and bits of old boilers, etc. The caravan park itself was pretty neat and tidy, if a little too crowded. Having set up camp again, it was off for some sightseeing around Broken Hill.

The local museum was a treat with lots of old curios and trains, etc, lying about. One train of note was the Silver City Comet which was in service for 52 years before being retired and donated to the local museum. The art galleries are quite numerous and very interesting to look through, one of my main tasks was to purchase a painting by one of the "Brushmen of the Bush".

Pro Hart's work has always fascinated me but he was just too expensive, anything in the 500-dollar range needed a magnifying glass to see and anything large enough to do justice to a wall at home was a bank buster. However a tour through his gallery is a treat with many fine works of art gracing the walls and keeping one absorbed for hours.

Wednesday was spent touring around with a trip out to Silverton and a visit to the Daydream Mine which is quite an experience. This mine is pretty much the way it was in the 1800's having been dug out using hand tools and dynamite. I was stunned how people could toil away at this hard rock for days on end without having a bath and living in shacks that make my humpy at Ilford look like Vaucluse.

After some tea and scones at the Ramshackle Mine House it was into Silverton to visit some more galleries and have a drink at the historic pub. The so-called 'ghost town' of Silverton is about 25 kilometres North-West of Broken Hill and it formed when lead, silver and zinc was discovered in 1875-76. Prospectors gradually moved in, mainly from South Australia. Silverton was originally called Umberumberka (Native Rat Hole) having been pegged out as a claim by a bloke called John Stokie.

A settlement was established at the site of the Umberumberka Mine comprising a stall, hotel and two boarding houses to look after a population of 150. New settlers preferred an area beside the Umberumberka creek where there was some form of water supply. In 1883 the name was changed to Silverton. The population peaked between1885 and 86 at around 3,000. By this time the small pockets of high-grade ore had been exhausted and there was a mass exodus to the newly discovered lode when the famous Broken Hill Proprietary Co Ltd was formed. The population of Silverton today does not exceed 100, very few of whom do any mining at all.

It was at Silverton that I noticed an artist by the name of Rob Wellington who paints outback landscapes in a style that I liked and was not too expensive with his paintings hovering in the $400 to $1000 range. So, I kept him in mind and could always call back. The local Penrose Park Recreation area came to my attention as they had bunkhouses about the place, with one situated a fair distance from the main house. This was ideal for what I wanted so we decided to come back the next day.

When we did, unfortunately the lady who runs the show was out for the day and it was a two-hour wait before anyone arrived. Yet again the flies were atrocious but there were pens with goat's and ostriches along with cockies and galahs to keep one amused. I left a note on the door to the house and headed over to bunk house No. 3, at least I could be setting up the telescope while we were waiting. The afternoon sky was quite a deep blue so the night's observing was looking promising. Not long after, we were let into the bunkhouse which was quite spacious for $15 a night and soon we were settled in, without having to put the tent up. The outdoor shower was cold but quite refreshing and I felt really settled later when the sky was dark and all the gear was assembled ready for observing.

I got started at around 8:30pm and centred my attention on the Burbidge Chain, a group of galaxies next to NGC 247 in Cetus. This little group of galaxies has been a challenge since last year when Mick McCullagh and I observed four of the galaxies in this group at the ASV Star Party in Victoria.

Alas I could not see any more than three no matter how hard I tried. It was quite frustrating as there are five objects plotted and we had definitely seen four from Victoria. I had hoped to pull the whole five galaxies from a dark sky in the outback. Again the 'seeing' was in my opinion worse than Ilford and I really could not fathom why. On top of that the whole sky was relatively bright for such an isolated area. However beggars cannot be choosers and, all things considered, it wasn't too bad at all.

Sketch 1 shows the three objects I observed from Silverton. This is the Burbidge Chain group of galaxies near the lovely galaxy NGC 247 in Cetus. A row of some 5 pretty faint galaxies that can be a bit of a challenge if the sky is not up to the task.

As you can see in the sketch there are two galaxies of about mag 13 that are quite easy to observe in the 16" at 210x mag. In the middle of the two prominent members and at around a 2' from the galaxy at the left of the field is another much more diffuse object at around 13 1/2 to 14th mag. It is not immediately visible at first but averted vision and moments of good seeing make it evident. Whether this object is two galaxies combined I don't know but I certainly did not see more than three objects that I could be positively sure of, so I cut my losses and completed the sketch you see here. (See accompanying rough map for a location of objects.)

Sketch 2 shows a quaint little ESO galaxy I stumbled across. ESO 119 - 84 appears as a reasonably bright, round object of about mag 13 with the tiniest of core points surrounded by a compact little halo, a novel object to observe after the trying time with the Burbidge Chain.

Sketch 3 - Here we have the combination of two Abell galaxy clusters in Dorado. Abell South 585 and Abell 3389 are visible as five NGC galaxies of around 13th mag.

This grouping was a treat in the 16" at 210x magnification. A row of 4 galaxies of very similar appearance lines the 23' field with a further larger and more diffuse object some 9' to the bottom right of the field. All the objects lack any sort of core point and on their own would not be anything special, but in a cluster such as this they are quite beautiful and I found them very rewarding to observe.

So although I got only one good clear night at Silverton, my trip to the outback was an experience. I achieved all that I wanted to do in visiting Broken Hill, going down a mine and enjoying the splendid galleries and museums dotted about the place. The only thing left to do was to call in and purchase the Rob Wellington paintings that I had picked before. On Saturday morning with all the gear packed up, it was off on the long, long trip back home.

Mind you another night's observing would have been handy. It's a fair day's drive back to Nyngan which is a good stop off point on the long trip from the far west of New South Wales. After another night in a caravan park it was off to Ilford for another night's stop-over and the hope of some more observing. Alas, the cloud cover was pretty bad and it did not clear at all. There was some solace though, there was very little to pack up in the morning and the trip back to Woy Woy was easy going.