It’s a cloudless evening when we climb the steps to the island’s observatory, a wooden tower in the middle of the jungle, extending above the rich canopy of trees and into the darkened sky. It’s home to a state-of-the-art telescope that allows us to gaze into the unpolluted sky that hangs above us over the Indian ocean.
The remoteness of Kunfunadhoo, the island that is home to Soneva Fushi, means there is no light pollution and the stars gleam against the dark curtain of night. In the early evening, Venus, the Evening Star, sparkles as the sun sets, and as darkness descends the stars begin to blaze boldly, coming out one after one to light up like eyes of the evening.
We’ve come to meet one of the island’s resident astronomers, Nash, who is going to teach us how to read the sky, its stars, planets and constellations. As a lover of literature, I enjoy the way that the stars are surrounded by mythology and folklore, but until now I have been lacking in any further understanding of their significance, location and sway. The roof of the observatory is partly open, and it spins electronically with the telescope to expose new parts of the sky above. We begin outside, on the deck that curves around the top of the observatory. Nash takes out a small pointer that flashes a beam of light into the sky, like a long, thin lightsabre, she uses it to point out each constellation.
She first draws our attention to Sirius, the Dog Star, which is the brightest star in the sky and the leading star of the constellation Canis Major (the Great Dog). Sirius is twice as large as the sun and twenty-three times as luminous, it lies 8.6 light-years away from the solar system. We observe how the Great Dog stands on its hind legs, spotting each of the stars that weave its story before Nash points us towards the next constellation: Orion’s belt, part of the larger constellation of Orion the warrior. The belt is one of the most recognisable and easily spotted constellations, and is a good landmark for other stars, including Canis Major.
Next to the belt, Nash points out something I’d never noticed before, a nebula officially known as M42, but more fondly known as the ‘Sword of Orion.’ It’s a star nursery, where new stars are formed from the clouds of gas that make up the nebula. It’s believed that more than 2,000 stars are growing here, 1,350 light years from the earth. I catch my breath thinking about these fledgling stars, growing so many millions of miles away and yet still so visible and breathtaking. We head inside to peer through the telescope to get a closer look at the clouds of the gas, and the explosion of light they produce is almost colourful.
Nash turns the telescope – and the ceiling – to face the moon. It’s full and bright tonight, slightly obscuring the scorching brightness of that swell around it. We gaze into the telescope and gasp. Each crater is clearly visible, not only a darker shadow but an obvious dent in the moon’s surface, and the moon’s own mountains and valleys are ridged and real. It’s 385,000 kilometres away, but I can see its imperfect contours and I feel close enough to touch it.
We spend the rest of the evening awe-struck, each new encounter with the solar system a numinous wonder. As I cycle back to my home through the jungle, I gaze up through the branches of the trees and marvel at the glistening light of the stars above me with a whole new perspective on the world.