Have you ever seen the Milky Way?
I grew up in an industrial town. I thought it was quite impressive to look at the sky and see there were 20 or 30 stars — and that one of them was really bright.
But when I left the UK and travelled, I realized you can be in places where the Milky Way stretches across the sky, and there are so many stars it’s impossible to count.
And that really bright one you saw back in England — well, actually that was a planet to start with — there are dozens more that are a lot brighter.
I remember learning about the constellations and the Zodiac and thinking, how can you picture them? There’s no way that the Zodiac signs are in the sky.
But of course they’re not — no when they’re viewed from an industrial town in the North of England.
Because those stars are hidden by our light pollution, and by the smog of our European cities. They are not freely on show as they are in some places around the world.
The first place I really saw the Milky Way was in Mongolia.
The blackness and stillness and silence of being in the Gobi Desert were a whole new experience for me. There was no artificial light. I couldn’t see my hand in front of me at night — but overhead was this poetic spread of innumerable lights.
I remember that from the same place, I looked one way and watched the sunset. Then I spent the night just admiring the stars. And then I looked the other way and I saw the sunrise.
And since then, I’ve always thought this is something to make part of a trip — the opportunity to go to a place where there is no light pollution, where there is silence, where you couldn’t be any further from civilization, and to spend the night beneath the stars, just looking up.
When you see a shooting star, you’re supposed to make a wish.
Well, what do you do when you see a shooting star every minute? How many wishes can you have?
Another fantastic place to stargaze is the Namib Desert — you get clear skies, nobody around, sand dunes that turn from orange to black, and an incredible nighttime experience.
Once I went there and there was no moon. It was perfect for looking at the stars.
The second time I went there, it was full moon. And the whole night, the desert was bathed in light. You could walk around on the dunes, by the light of the moon.
I didn’t see any stars, but it again felt like a great connection.
Uluru in Australia is another great stargazing destination. Uluru — it’s also known as Ayers Rock, but Uluru is the real, indigenous name — is an awe-inspiring monolith. But the experience there was not just about seeing an enormous red rock.
My favourite experience there was probably at night — having an astronomer guide teaching me about the different constellations, showing me why the sky looks like this at this time of the year and how it would be different to how I would see it at home.
He shared his knowledge, and I started to make sense of the sky and where the stars and planets were.
Patagonia is a great place to spend hours admiring the Southern constellations. I couldn’t go there yet, but it’s number one in my bucketlist.
Greenland is another place to go see the stars. It is also a place to see the northern lights. You are stargazing, but with incredible phantoms that float across the sky — blue, then green, then yellow.
Photos don’t do justice to the northern lights.
Because the northern lights are not static images — those colours, unlike the stars, are moving, swooping and shifting quite quickly across the sky.
When you look at them, you see a bit of movement. And if you turn away for a minute and look back, you find that they’re in a completely different shape.
Of course the earth is moving, so stars in the sky appear in different positions, but we can’t see that movement. Whereas with the northern lights, you can see an ephemeral, ethereal floating of colour.
And all across Scandinavia there are great places to spend the night with the northern lights. Through the winter months, if you have three or four days it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’re going to get a good nighttime show.
And obviously the further north you are, there tends to be the better opportunity, and usually the more intense colours in the sky.
Another stargazing destination is the Sir Edmund Hillary Planetarium, by Mount Cook in New Zealand. The weather is not always that great — there is a risk it will be overcast, so you won’t be able to see the stars — but if the sky is clear it’s brilliant, because the air there is perfectly clean.
And that’s what you need to see the stars — you need completely clean air, so there’s nothing between you and the rest of the universe.
In cities and towns, you look up and you see a couple of stars — and it’s not that impressive. But when you go to stargazing destinations, you feel a connection with the universe.
You look up at the sky and feel small, and ask yourself, “Who am I? Who is this tiny person, in this one place, looking up, surrounded by the universe?”
By Stephen Bailey. Edited by Beatrice Becker.