IYA 2009 – Brian Sheen Reports on “Canoe Africa”


Back in September of last year, UT reported on one of our intrepid readers who was about to embark on a most ambitious journey to promote the International Year of Astronomy in “Canoe Africa“. For those of you who follow BBC SW Spotlight or Radio Cornwall, you might already know about Brian Sheen’s African astronomy education adventures – but he’s taken this special opportunity to share his story with Universe Today. Grab a paddle and let’s ride…

Brian Sheen
Brian Sheen
“The expedition to the River Niger was part of Roseland Observatory’s contribution to IYA. The plan was to canoe the river taking the story of astronomy to some of the remotest countries in Africa with me. We flew into Sierra Leone (10 degrees north and 10 degrees west) in the beginning of November as soon as possible. We drew breath when we looked into the night sky. We knew, of course, that the lack of light pollution would give us a great view denied to us in Europe and also much of America. Also many of the constellations familiar us in the north would be below the horizon – Polaris was lost in the murk and Ursa Major invisible. However, the compensation was many more constellations in the south never seen at home in Cornwall, UK.

09africa4Lecturing opportunities at the local colleges and universities were organised by our hosts the Scouts of Sierra Leone. We were able to use the solar scope PST to good effect and the meteorite samples – thanks Tammy – were studied with enthusiasm. During the evening sessions the Sky Scout was extremely useful giving those who had looked up and wondered the answer to at least some of their questions. Away from the kit I was asked some very searching questions – many philosophical. One of the centres we worked with was developing a UV water treatment that was actually free to use. Well or river water was placed in plastic soft drink bottles (label removed) and then laid down in the Sun and let the UV emissions do the rest. The organisers we interested to learn that at sunspot minimum solar UV levels were about 50% of a few years before.

09africa5After our shakedown period we crossed the border into Guinea and on to the headwaters of the Niger at Faranah. We were hosted by the local Scouts, who had arranged for a boat builder to build a plank canoe (a modern version of the dugout) to our specification. This is a type of canoe used throughout Guinea by local fishermen. The canoe was built in only four days and we were off into the remotest part of the journey an almost uninhabited region which would take 10 days to paddle with no opportunity to buy food or other supplies. Some nights camping out we could see meteors reasonably often – too many to be sporadics and wrong time for a major shower. Checking with David Levy’s book “Guide to Observing Meteor Showers” it seems likely that I was seeing the minor shower – Nu Orionids peaking Nov 28th.

09africa2The biggest threat, apart from the mosquitoes, came from the big beast of the jungle the hippo. We saw one in the river and tiptoed past him and camped a few miles down stream. It was one those places where it was possible to sleep with out a mosquito net or tent. Looking south we were able to see Orion rise on his back stand up and lie down in the west. As it was dark I had a go at counting the stars inside the square of Orion I reached 30 excluding the Belt and Sword. This gives visible stars down to magnitude 6. Beats counting sheep! Then we heard the unmistakeable sound of a hippo grunting in the river just 20 metres away! We were possibly camping on his get out point! A couple more logs on the fire kept him at bay and eventually he moved back up stream.

sheen_hippo_416In the morning we set off again and the river was pretty easy to paddle until the canoe came to an abrupt halt. Geoff at the stern of the craft flew into the air Mike at the bow shouted hippo and we all ended up in the river. A 3 ton Bull Hippo had hit us like a submarine launched missile. As we are all lifeguards we swam the canoe to side and emptied out. It was too badly damaged to go on so we were forced to walk out of the jungle through razor edged elephant grass considered impenetrable by many. After five days we reached a small village and safety. At many times I felt that we were caught in a 19th century “ripping yarn for boys”. The jungle was very uneven with deep run off channels hidden by the grass. We all fell more than once, however we never even opened a Band Aid in the whole time we were in West Africa.


We actually missed one event I had been looking forward to, the occultation of Venus by the Moon, however we felt that saving our lives was even more important! Meanwhile back at the Observatory Paul Hughes took an excellent set of images. The Americans will have to wait until 22nd April for their opportunity to witness this for themselves. (While looking into Elephant Grass I found that it could be used as a bio-fuel so perhaps it has uses after all.) The movements of Jupiter, Venus and the Moon provided good teaching material. As the days went by Jupiter moved further and further towards the west at a given time. It was also moving from west to east against the background stars. Venus on the other hand was climbing in the night sky. Eventually it was over taken by the Moon, the occultation, proving that the Moon too moves from west to east but at a faster rate than the planets. Perhaps the most spectacular view was of the Orion complex containing Betelgeuse, Rigel, Aldabran, Capella, Castor, Pollux, Procyon, Sirius, Canopus and Achernar. Most we can see from the UK but in Africa these stars were much higher and appear much brighter in dark skies.

09africa3Although the European population in Sierra Leone and Guinea is tiny we were given a tremendous welcome from the local people and Scouts everywhere we went. There is a real hunger for knowledge, at the moment they “look up perfect silence at the stars” to quote Walt Whitman and wonder. Astronomers with a good knowledge of Africa could find an open-ended opportunity. In the future, we have a promise made to Bamako University in Mali to meet, and the river between there and Timbuktu runs through the very interesting inland delta also the Dogon people claim special insights into astronomy. Would I go back to the incident site? A filmed reconstruction would be good – any offers? For more information and images check out Roseland Observatory and follow the links.” — Reporting for Universe Today, Brian Sheen, Roseland Observatory, RAS Education Focus Group.

iya_logo_smallBrian is back home safe again in Cornwall, perhaps no worse for the wear, but definately more full of IYA 2009 adventure and spirit than most of us will ever hope to achieve this year. (For a charming insight on their hippo adventure, be sure to listen to the BBC Audio Interview). The team hopes to revisit the area again next year and we wish them the best. For now, hats off to Brian Sheen and his excellent astronomy outreach work!

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