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A sky atlas may help you identify and find objects in the night sky, such as constellations, star clusters, galaxies and nebulae.
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  Glossary
Safari glossary
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Wildlife & nature:
The sky
The African sky offers many beautiful things to see. We have experienced magically moonlit nights, halos around the scorching midday sun, the reddest sunrises and sunsets, and many starry nights. They are there for you too. Your chances of experiencing them of course depend on the weather, but you should hope for at least some clear skies during dry season safaris.

The day sky
To see a clear day sky in East Africa, mornings are often the best, before clouds have built up during the hot days. This may be good to think of if you want to take nice pictures of the big East African mountains, such as Kilimanjaro or Mount Kenya. They may look great in the clear mornings, and may then disappear completely in haze and clouds later during the day.

Halo around the midday sun.

Upwinds
The hot days also generate upwinds, which for example vultures exploit; they fly on these winds, rarely flapping their wings. You may look for these birds in the sky, as they may indicate where large carnivores have killed a prey. There is no use looking for them in the mornings, though, as the sun has not yet warmed the ground enough to cause upwinds. During the first morning hours, you'll find the vultures perched in trees.

The sun
Kenya is situated on the equator, and Tanzania just south of. This means that the sun is high. To those of us who come from latitudes far north or south, it may be facinating finding the sun almost straight up.

The sun is in absolute zenith, i.e. straight up, twice every year; around the vernal equinox in March and around the autumnal equinox in September. The specific dates when this happens depends on where you are within the region.

The midday sun is in its northmost position in June. At this time, the midday zenith point is far north of East Africa. It's well south of East Africa in its southmost position in December. This means that the shadow falls in different directions depending on the time of year.

Clouds and setting sun. Lobo, northern Serengeti, Tanzania.

Sunrise and sunset
The sunrises and sunsets are not only beautiful, but also fast. It's some 30 minutes from the first light until the sun is up.

To shoot that typical safari picture of the sun breaking the horizon in front of an acacia, you may benefit from some planning; pick a beautiful acacia in good time, and then wait. You may want to manually set the camera's focus to infinity, as it may have problems auto focusing when facing into the sun. Use manual shutter, aperture and ASA settings, if you can, for the most striking results. Placing the camera on a steady base, such as the roof of a safari vehicle, allows for longer shutter times with little blur.

The moon
The face of the full moon looks the same as at home, as the same side of it is always turned towards us. The crescent moon may be tilted a different way from where you live, though.

If your pair of binoculars is light sensitive enough (for example most full-size binoculars), you may use it for watching wildlife during moonlit nights.

Stars and planets
The night sky in the bush can be fantastic, as there is little light pollution (or other pollution). Marvellous starry skies may be seen.

If you are really interested, you may bring a sky atlas and explore the constellations, of which some may be new to us who live in the northern hemisphere.

The Southern Cross
The Southern Cross is the smallest constellation of them all, and has been observed by seafarers and other navigators from time immemorial, as it points out the south. But beware! There is also a false cross, not very far from the Southern Cross, and navigating from the false one will lead you astray.

To verify the true Southern Cross, you may look next to it, where an imagined line through the two bright stars Alpha and Beta Centauri should point towards Gamma Crusis, the head of the cross.

Alpha Centauri is not only a pointer towards the Southern Cross, but is also the star (or rather a system of three stars) that is closest to us, apart from the sun. Alpha Centauri is just more than four light-years away.

The brightest cluster
You may also follow a line from Beta Centauri through Epsilon Centauri to Omega Centauri. Omega is known not to be a star, but a globular star cluster of up to 10 million stars, 17,000 light-years away. It's the brightest globular cluster in the sky. Now, recent research has indicated that it may not be a cluster after all, but an old dwarf galaxy, with a black hole in its centre.

Galaxies
The Large Magellanic Cloud can be seen as a faint cloud in the southern night sky, close to the Dorado, or Swordfish, constellation. It's a dwarf galaxy, 160,000 light-years from our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Not very far from it is the Small Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy in the Tucana constellation. Both these galaxies may be seen by the naked eye.

Planets
To find the planets, of which some may be seen at night during your safari, you may for example bring a printout from sky atlas software. See More web sites for a link to such software online.

Use your binoculars
Many safari-goers carry a tool to see even more stars than you may see with the naked eye: a pair of binoculars. These have to be light sensitive to be of use, though; you need a full-size pair, or compact binoculars with low magnification.

More about binoculars

The full moon rising over Serengeti, Tanzania.

Stars pointing out the Southern Cross and Omega Centauri.

The moon, Venus and Jupiter by dawn.

 
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Page updated 18 February 2009