Pamela Wade has a close encounter with the solar system
"I've waited 70 years to see this!" said the old man ahead of me, peering into the viewfinder. His voice was so quavery that it didn't feel right to rush him, though I was eager for my turn.
We were at the Charleville Cosmos Centre in Queensland, and the telescope was trained on Saturn, clear in the dark Outback sky.
Charleville is a town of fewer than 4000 people and produces very little light pollution, so when the observatory roof rolled back and exposed the vast black sky and the great swathe of the Milky Way, there was a collective gasp, despite a spoilsport full moon lurking on the horizon. Our three guides each took charge of one of the 30cm remote-controlled barrel telescopes and introduced us to some of the glories above our heads: the Jewel Box cluster; Southern Cross pointer Alpha Centauri; and Saturn, its rings edge-on to us and wonderfully sharp in the viewfinder. Then the moon took centre stage, too beautiful to call acne-scarred, though all its craters were crisply delineated.
Fabulous - but not unusual. Next day, though, we returned for something very special: to look at the surface of the sun through the telescope. A filter provides complete safety on days when the temperature is less than 26 degrees.
I looked with some trepidation, and saw what looked like part of the Outback itself: orange-red, glowing, curiously rough.
Charleville has another connection with the sky: in 1902, in desperate drought, meteorologist Clement L Wragge convinced the townspeople to support his rain-making experiment with six Vortex guns. The barrels were aimed at a cloud and fired, with disappointing results. A second try resulted in two of the guns blowing up. Wragge departed in ignominy.
He travelled eventually to Auckland where he set up an observatory, and died in 1922. His legacy - the custom of naming cyclones and two cannons still on display in Charleville.
Getting there: Charleville is 760km west of Brisbane and can be reached twice-weekly on the Westlander train.
What to do: The Cosmos Centre has an excellent collection of meteorites.
See here for other places of interest.
Further information: For more on visiting Queensland click on the link.
Pamela Wade visited Charleville as a guest of Tourism Queensland.By Pamela Wade