How Kenya's stargazing safaris offer fresh perspectives for wildlife watching

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy might be famous for its wildlife, but it is also a prime location to engage with the skies above and the wider work being carried out by one interesting stargazing initiative. 

By Chris Fitch
Published 20 Aug 2022, 06:03 BST
Catching sunrise with The Travelling Telescope. 

Catching sunrise with The Travelling Telescope. 

Photograph by Chris Fitch

Susan Murabana sweeps a green laser through the night sky, joining twinkling dots into a semi-circle.

"That's the head. Now, imagine a mane..." 

With a flick of the wrist, she begins drawing a majestic head of hair around the arch. "And he's lying down... that's the front leg there, that's a tail and that's the bum."

There’s a murmur of understanding and agreement. Kenyans are familiar with lions. The country has around 2,500 of them, a number that’s, miraculously, on the rise. Usually, these animals can be found either lying in the grass, fat and content, or out stalking the plains.

But at this moment, our attention is held by Leo, the zodiacal constellation sat between Cancer and Virgo. For Kenyans, there’s perhaps no more prominent feature of the night sky than this cluster of stars indicating a lion lying prone, relaxed. I feel like I can almost hear the deep, rhythmic chugging of his breathing rumbling out of the darkness, like a distant steam train gathering momentum. Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, one of central Kenya's wildlife reserves, may be famous for abundant wildlife. But tonight, instead of gazing down upon the savannah, our heads are tilted towards the sky. The cosmos is our safari. The planets, stars and galaxies our game.

The current telescope used by the Travelling Telescope on their tours. 

Photograph by Chris Fitch

First encounters

When Susan was 10 years old, in Kenya's capital Nairobi, she was given a homework task to find the Plough, the constellation sometimes called the Big Dipper. She failed. "That bothered me," she remembers.

After graduating from university, she joined an educational group called Cosmos Education, teaching astronomy across southern Africa and was later invited to Ghana to witness a total eclipse. The event was themed around African traditional sky knowledge, with presentations from across the continent. For Susan, who’d always understood astronomy as a foreign discipline, it was the first time she learned about Africa's own heritage of observing the night sky. She felt inspired to start a project providing hands-on astronomical education at home in Kenya.

Meanwhile, several thousand miles away in Dorset, Daniel 'Chu' Owen was first introduced to stargazing by the positioning of his childhood bed. Every night, he’d fall asleep staring out the window of his attic bedroom. A front-row seat to the wonders of the solar system.

Many years later, after a career working in film, Chu found himself back home in Dorset, sick with glandular fever. Looking for an activity to help him through his recovery, he bought a cheap telescope online. In a rural village with no interference from streetlights, he was soon captivated by the night sky, and began spending nights out in the garden, wrapped in a sleeping bag, studying moon craters and watching meteor showers.

Once back to full health, he transformed his newfound love for his telescope-based explorations into a functioning organisation. Operating out of his campervan, he travelled the UK, organising free stargazing events. The organisation’s name — Travelling Telescopecaptured the essence of what he hoped to accomplish: taking his telescope (and knowledge) to people without such access.

In late 2013, he leapt at the opportunity to witness his first total solar eclipse, in the desert of Turkana, northern Kenya. The eclipse wasn't one for the purists. Moments before the full glorious corona was due to appear, a storm flared up. Dust, clouds and rain obscured the sky.

While the spectacle may have disappointed, it was the beginning of a new chapter for Travelling Telescope. Here, under that sky, he met Susan and, combining Susan's passion for community outreach with Chu's technical experience, they relaunched the organisation in 2015. It began with a hectic tour racing along Kenya's Indian Ocean coastline, hitting 40 schools in a month, imparting their knowledge and providing an entry point to night-sky explorations. Seven years and hundreds of schools later, Susan and Chu (now a husband-and-wife team) estimate they've given more than 300,000 students the opportunity to look through a telescope.

The moon, as seen with the Travelling Telescope group in Kenya. 

Photograph by Chris Fitch

Eye on the sky

"So many places we visit don't have anything like this," says Chu, admiring the panoramic view from the centre of an open grassy space above Elewana's Kifaru House, in Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.

He tinkers with the portable telescope, a Sky-Watcher Newtonian reflector. It's a sophisticated piece of kit, with a 12-inch aperture and focal length of 1.5 metres, equipped with a special tracking mount that follows objects across the sky.

As twilight fades into dusk, distant celestial bodies began materialising all around us. Straddling the Equator, Kenya provides a vantage point for a rich tapestry of constellations. From here, everything from the Plough in the high north, down to the Southern Cross in the far south, is visible. It's also one of those rare places where light pollution, that scourge of the urban astronomer, is at a minimum (although not completely eradicated).

We start by pointing the telescope at the waning crescent moon, a thin sliver of dazzling white, slowly sliding towards the horizon. "Most people on Earth have never looked through one of these, even a small one," Chu reminds me before we begin. A recognition of our privilege in this experience.

I delicately lean into the eyepiece and the lunar surface bursts into life, immensely sharp. I fight a momentary, utterly insane conviction that I'm right there, 235,000 miles above, orbiting this natural satellite, almost within touching distance.

Chu rotates the telescope towards Orion. Rigel, the left leg of the hunter, looks, with the naked eye, to be just one star. But the telescope reveals it to be twins, Rigel A and Rigel B. The light they project has been hurtling through space for almost 800 years, since the era of Genghis Khan.

Susan takes the laser and begins pointing out other constellations, such as Canis Major, the greater dog, home to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. In her hands, disorganised pinpricks of light magically turn into recognisable shapes, a tribute to her roles as president of the African Planetarium Association, and Africa's representative board member for the International Planetarium Society.

A deep crimson-orange creeps across the sky, the awakening of our nearest and dearest star. Lewa's songbirds begin to find their voice. Eventually, our celestial voyeurism is brought to a close. Mouth Kenya is visible to the south, a rare appearance without a ring of clouds decorating her peak. Faint pink light kisses the summit as a new day sets in.

How to do it

Kifaru House starts from £960 per cottage and includes full board accommodation, all meals and drinks (excluding champagne, private cellar wines and spirits), shared and game drives on dedicated vehicles per reservation/file, guided walking safari, sundowners and transfers to and from their designated airstrips, laundry, service charge and VAT. Return flights from Nairobi to Lewa Downs are approximately £340.

The Travelling Telescope stargazing experience is £1,215 for a group of up to 20 people at any Elewana property in Kenya. This is per night, and includes a second night reserve policy if there are no stars on the first night. The experience can be booked through Elewana reservations.

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