Karachiites, we love a cloudy day. Sick of the sun constantly shining down upon us, often driving up temperatures until one is literally being baked, we celebrate cloudy days with pakoras and trips to the beach. For the past several weeks we’ve been blessed with (how we like to call it) a pleasant weather, but there was one night when I wished it would all just go away: during the Perseid meteor shower.
A favourite of stargazers around the world, the Perseid Meteor shower is an annual cosmic event that dots the sky with about 100 meteors per hour. It has some of the brightest and fastest meteors and this year there was supposed to be a greater chance of seeing even more shooting stars — this annual event is going through an ‘outburst’.
I went stargazing with the Karachi Astronomer’s Society last year to Chandragup, (in the Hingol National Park) in Balochistan and have been hooked ever since. Far, far away from any urban centre or artificial lights of any kind, once your eyes adjusted to the total darkness, the stars in the sky shone so bright that they were absolutely mesmerising. The group forbids attendees from adding any light — even if it’s from your mobile phone. You may carry torches but they need to be covered with red tape to avoid adding any light ‘pollution’ to the environment.
Mesmerised by an earlier experience of stargazing, I was determined to experience the wonders of the latest meteor spectacle. Mother Nature had other plans however ...
Using lasers and telescopes, amateur astronomers would point out constellations, show us galaxies and any planets close by. That night I saw the Milky Way as clear as it comes out in all those photos you see online, one satellite, many aeroplanes and around 15 shooting stars. You lie down in your sleeping bags under a blanket of bright, twinkling stars and find it hard to close your eyes, because what if you miss something?
This year I first contacted the astronomy club. Was there going to be a public event for this? No, I was told, not this time. One of the organisers mentioned going deep into the mountains of Balochistan with a couple of friends to find a stargazing spot. Great. “When can I join?” I asked them, getting excited. “Only if you have a 4X4,” I was told, as the terrain was mostly rocky. I didn’t. The seats in theirs were booked, which meant I couldn’t go with them. But I was determined to head out of the city and not miss this once-in-a-however-long experience.
A Whatsapp group was instantly created to find out who wanted to go; a friend from Jamshoro was immediately contacted to help us find a spot in Sindh with clear skies; and off we went. Shooting stars and stargazing in Sindh. Everything felt like it was coming together, even if at the last minute.
How wrong I was. Quite inexplicably ‘they’ are building the new Karachi-Lahore motorway on the Super Highway instead of mapping out an independent route for it, like the Islamabad-Lahore motorway. That has resulted in numerous disruptions and detours, all of which turned a simply two-hour journey into a torturous four-hour one. We left Karachi at 8pm and arrived at midnight. Which meant we only had around four and a half hours of darkness left in which to view the greatest meteor shower of the year.
Just to ensure one couldn’t rule out Jamshoro as a possible viewing point, we went to the roof and looked at the sky. It was clear. Then, suddenly out of the blue, there was a massive ‘fireball’ — shooting star so big it left a visible trail of dust behind it. The Perseid meteor shower was going to be great and we were going to have quite a night watching it unfold.
Mother Nature, however, had different plans. Just as we were getting comfortable, clouds covered the sky. Weather forecasts online predicted a partially cloudy night and this would not do. So off we went deeper into Sindh looking for a place with a great view of the greatness above.
We drove for hours but the clouds were relentless. At around 4am, we decided to stop and make the most of what we had. “Where are we?” I asked my friend. “Less than an hour from the Pakistan-India border.” Clearly a cloudy sky this close to the Pak-India border on one of the biggest meteor showers ever was a RAW conspiracy.
We managed to see one shooting star and one … something that flashed behind a cloud, which we are assuming was another shooting star. Not a full-on shower, but maybe a little trickle.
Standing on the side of the road, looking upward and trying to let our eyes adjust to the darkness after every truck that passed us, my friend turned to me and asked, “What if the police stop and ask what we’re doing?”
“This close to the border? They’d think we’re either spies or totally nuts.”
We spent a total of 16 hours driving on our trip — enough to take us to Lahore. My friends were happy they got to see a couple of shooting stars, but I had that stargazing night in Hingol to compare with and I knew we were cheated out of a potentially incredible experience.
Turns out that those who headed to Balochistan had better luck than us. All in all, they saw a whopping 54 shooting stars, including fireballs. But I will be redeemed, and get my big meteor shower magical experience yet. The next big one will be in October — the Orionid meteor shower — and it’s one of the two created by the debris of (the famous) Halley’s comet. The sky is expected to be clear and the astronomers will be there to guide us.
The writer is a Dawn staffer
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 28th, 2016