A date with the stars


One doesn't have to always travel outside one's city or country or spend too much money for a break or a little adventure. A couple of weeks ago, the husband and I were (again) itching to get out and do something. But couldn't afford to take time off for a break, small or big. This is when we got a little creative and started looking for things to do 'in' the city, which would not dent our pockets or our work schedule. 

We came upon many things. But most included taking a day off or spending liberally, both of which we didn’t have on our minds. A little more research led me to something that I have always been fascinated about: Star gazing. Since I was a kid, I have been fascinated about stars and constellations. I have been to a few planetariums and observatories as part of educational tours. But, never actually gone for an organised gazing session. This discovery, organised by a professional organisation, within a few hours from Mumbai city and definitely well within our budget, got me very excited. Thankfully, the husband didn’t mind trying it out too. So, we quickly registered for our exciting night out.

Khagol Mandal, one of the largest organisations of amateur astronomers in Mumbai organises sky shows from October/November to May/June, depending on the season and the sky pattern. The session happen at Neral at most times and is open to anyone who is interested, on a registration basis only. The charges are very minimal at Rs.250 per person and an extra Rs.150 for dinner. If not, you are free to carry your own dinner. Once you register, they send you a detailed set of instructions on where to meet, what to carry and what to expect out of the program. It is an all-night event, beginning around 7:00 pm and ending at 4:00 am the next morning. 

Back to our experience. The organisers suggested that you either take the train or drive to the venue. The train is definitely faster as you avoid a lot of the evening traffic. We decided to take the local train, since a. We didn’t know the route too well (yes, there are maps to help, but, we weren’t in the mood for it) and b. the husband wanted to get me to experience the local train, since I have been on it only twice before, in all the four years in Mumbai and that too for very short distances over the weekend, when the train was nearly empty. 

Saturday came (the show usually takes place only on Saturday nights) and we got ourselves all geared up for the night with packed dinner, the list of things we had to carry and our energy. We left home at 5pm, to catch the 5:50 pm ‘fast’ train to Neral. We live about 10 mins from the station, but knowing how tentatively I move in crowded stations, the husband insisted that we give it enough time. I went outside our gate and was standing around to hail an auto, when the husband dragged me to the auto stand a few meters away and hurried me into one. I was wondering why he was in such a hurry, when suddenly a boisterous aunty came and plonked herself in the same auto. I was about to tell her that we had occupied it, when the husband smiling told me that it was a ‘share auto’ and that he wanted to me get the ‘full local travel experience’ (thank you very much!).  

Once at the station, I was a little overwhelmed with the crowded trains and how I was going to get myself into one. For the people who don’t use the train often, this can be quite an experience. But I had the veteran train user with me and he guided me into one. The journey was not too bad and offered me a great opportunity to people watch, something that I enjoy doing. After about an hour, we arrived at the Neral station, followed the instructions and met the van driver who was to drive us to the gazing site, which is about a 15-20 mins drive away and is part of a resort. We were pleasantly surprised with the number of people who were there. Especially children. Probably because of the summer break. The site was decently set up, with 5 telescopes, a space for the theory sessions and a dining area. The theory area could have probably been a little better, since one has to sit or lay (preferably) down on dharis/sheets and gaze up. It had a quite a few stones and red ants in some places. But, if you choose your spot well and carry a thick mat/Dhari, you will be. And at the end, you get what you pay for!

We choose a spot and settled down for the theory session on telescopes and constellations. The theory session is also pretty interesting as they explain using the sky and not slides or charts. Once the comprehensive theory session was over, we proceeded for the first telescope viewing session of the night. We saw Jupiter, the beehive constellation, the Arundathi star and a binary star. It was really quite fascinating. We could clearly see 3 moons of Jupiter and the fourth one feebly. The other bodies were all very clear. For armatures like it was a fascinating experience. Once this was done, we proceeded for a dinner break followed by another theory session. This was then to be followed by another viewing session, where we would see the ‘champion’ of the night: Saturn and also a red star close to Saturn, which is very similar to Mars in its colour and structure. 

By now, everyone was quite enthralled and involved. While comfortable settled for the second theory session and gearing up for the Saturn viewing, we started noticing some lightning in the sky. Everybody, including the organisers hoped that this was just temporary as all predictions indicated that it was a clear night. But, as always, nature had its own plans and within a few minutes, it started to POUR. Thankfully, we had some forewarning and were all able to rush into a shed like structure for shelter. It rained for a good hour and there was no way that the session could resume after that. The last train had left by then and no taxi company was offering services in Neral. So we had to wait there till the next train at 2:50 am. Sipping on tea and chatting, we waited till we were dropped back to the Neral station. We finally reached the station at 2:52 and were running up the stairs, when we saw train pull away in front of our eyes! The resort van driver who dropped us to the station had decided to take a nice nap, resulting in this delay and our missing the train. We had two options now 1. We could wait another hour for the next train or 2. Take a taxi to the next big station (Ambernath) which was a 45 minutes’ drive away and take the train from there. We were ready for option 2, but it was not very safe for just the two of us to travel in a taxi at that time. While waiting, we met two guys from the program also trying to find a way to get to Ambernath. One was a local and one was a Spaniard. They looked like nice guys and much to the husband’s apprehension, I suggested that we share a cab with them. So we ended up doing that and safely reached Ambernath, JUST in time for the next train and finally reached home at 5:00 am. 

We were a bit disappointed that we couldn’t see all that we wanted to, especially Jupiter, but were happy to have explored this option and also that it turned out to be a little adventure of its own, although not the kind we had hoped for. But, well, that’s the whole point of adventures, right? You can plan all you want, but then what finally unfolds is not in your hands and that’s the fun of it. 

We will definitely go back for a show once it starts again (it is currently closed due to monsoon and will commence in November) and have a date with Saturn. Until then, Khagol Mandal offers sessions and discussion on basic astronomy, which we plan to participate in and also be happy that ‘by Jupiter, we saw stars’!

You can check the schedule and register on: http://khagolmandal.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=35&Itemid=39

Tip  for first timers:

  1. Take mosquito patches/Odomos
  2. Take a thick dhari and a blanket/razai or 2-3 bedsheets since the ground is hard and most of the theory sessions are spent on your back or backside
  3. Take along pillows/cushions
  4. Take ample water and snacks to satisfy hunger pangs through the night
  5. If you can, drive! It will help you get back home faster and safer in case of unforeseen weather conditions
  6. Wear loose, comfortable clothes, preferable tracks/cotton trousers and full arms to protect yourself from mosquito bites
  7. Get some sleep on Saturday morning/noon since you will have to be up the whole night