2014 saw its final supermoon of the year. A “supermoon” of course, is when a full moon, or new moon, happens at the same time the moon is closest to earth during its orbit, appearing so large it can seem as though it sits on the horizon. It’s simply mesmerizing when you have a clear view.
Pretoria affords that view consistently. Before moving here I never saw so much of the night sky. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is not far behind the infamous Seattle, Washington in number of overcast days per year. My home there is beautiful with its changing seasons and green on green rolling hills, but skygazers like me had to hold our breath for a chance at a clear sky. We learned to find our passion in enjoying the way all those clouds cast an eerie glow on the night of a harvest supermoon.And on those rare nights where the sky was clear and the moon is full, we look for our “Man in the Moon.” When you have stared at the moon in the northern hemisphere long enough, you see him. In the dark basaltic shapes of the moon’s surface you learn to find the eyes, nose and mouth, and he becomes a lifetime of familiarity.
And if you really take on night skies as a hobby, you enjoy identifying what you see on images of the moon. There are seas and an ocean, mountains and craters. Each have a Latin name and a more familiar, translated name, like the Sea of Tranquility, the Sea of Clouds, of Vapors and of Cold. I always know the crater Tycho: a bright, white spot visible at the bottom of the northern moon, whose impact rays seem to stretch halfway round.
In the southern hemisphere, the “Man in the Moon” disappears. When we first moved here, I kept looking at the moon, trying to figure out what was “wrong.” It didn’t look normal. When the supermoon rose shortly after we arrived, I learned what was strange was that we were seeing it upside down.
I continually need to adjust my compass to living in South Africa. When I first arrived here I scanned the skies every night for familiar constellations. I couldn’t find the Big Dipper or Orion for a month. How would I know my bearing without the North Star? How would I know it without the Big Dipper, or my favorite childhood constellation, Orion? He was one of the brightest and most steady constellations I would watch in Pennsylvania.
It was around 4a.m. on a crisp winter morning of the August we moved here that I finally found Orion, low-slung on the broad horizon. I was stumbling from our camping spot to the restrooms in Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp in Kruger. I had been awakened by a hyena calling its whoopooo whoopooo somewhere in the distance beyond the fence. There were no other sounds and at first I was fearful of tackling the trek to the bathroom in the dark. My flashlight bounced against everything in my path, my panic swinging it wildly to enlighten against some imagined predator. It was a bounce toward the trees that made me come to a full-stop and forget my pressing bladder.
There were the stars, bright and unbroken by even a single cloud. Every distant speck shone strong and proud and there, telling me I was still home even in such a faraway place, was Orion, the Hunter, the protector.
I began scanning the stars to see if I recognized others, but after a long stretch and a sore neck, I realized there were more unfamiliar than familiar, and I wanted to know each and every one of them.
On our next night game drive I asked a guide about the constellations. He pointed out the most famous constellation in the Southern Hemisphere, Crux: The Southern Cross. Not everyone could see what he was describing, so he altered his description: “look for the kite.” I was surprised at how many of us more quickly recognized the shape of the kite more easily, before then being able to see the same stars as the shape of a cross.
Over the past year I studied the sky more closely. There are constellations here I was never able to see in Pennsylvania, some of them symbols of the Zodiac. I’ve never been into Astrology, or taking any meaning from Zodiac signs other than to find charm in matching a person’s birthday with stars in the sky. And that, for me, is meaning enough.
From here I can see Libra, light but visible. I can only find it when I can find Virgo and Scorpio, since Libra lies between them. Virgo is a constellation on the Equator, so it’s visible from both the northern and southern hemisphere.
Scorpio (Scorpius) is only visible from the southern hemisphere. It is found when looking toward the famous Milky Way Galaxy, and is a great guide for finding other constellations. Off from Scorpius is Sagittarius, another Zodiac only available to viewers in the Southern Hemisphere. Capricorn (Capricornus) is the final southern Zodiac constellation, easily visible here now, in September.
It’s easy to think of the things I miss when living far from America. I miss trying to find the Northern Zodiacs of Taurus and Pisces, and the bear constellations of Ursa Major and Minor. I miss seeing the Big Dipper high in the sky and using it as my steady guide. Here I only see it on the horizon for half the year. And of course, I miss seeing that familiar “Man in the Moon.”
But the tradeoff is discovery. The moon, in the northern hemisphere, sees the crater Tycho on the bottom of the moon, the bright white splatter stretching upward. Here in the southern hemisphere, Tycho is seen at the top of the moon, and I like to think of it as the top of an orange, the crater where the stem has been removed, those impact rays like stretchmarks on rind.
When I see Libra, my own birth Zodiac, I try to memorize the dim stars, knowing I will not see it again when I return to the states. In Scorpio I see the Zodiac of my two siblings. Capricorn is the Zodiac of my late mother, and there is comfort in seeing her constellation for the first time.
Yes, I believe I can live without the “Man in the Moon” for a while, and trade it for the joy of seeing the sky new again; for night after night of “firsts” that change with the seasons. Now when we camp in The Kruger, I make it a point to wake in the pre-dawn hours to go out into the crisp, clear night. I find my new bearing in the Southern Cross, and from there I make my way.
An American Expat in South Africa, Marla is a freelance writer and global explorer. She creates travel adventures for herself following in the footsteps of her favorite authors. An American expat, she currently lives in Pretoria, South Africa, where she blogs her adventures on travelingmarla.com and is revising her first manuscript.