Chasing stars in Broome
Billions of stars punctuate the clear night skies above Broome, one of the world’s stellar stargazing locations. Take a trip into the universe with local Greg Quicke – otherwise known as ‘Space Gandalf’ – and the way you look at stars will change forever.
If Greg Quicke had his way, everyone would spend 10 minutes stargazing at the unpolluted night skies of Broome. The astronomy expert – who shot to internet fame via the hashtag #SpaceGandalf (more on that in a moment) – says the town’s dark skies are ideal for stargazing, thanks to its 300-plus cloudless nights and “perfect” location. “Broome is located perfectly on our planet to see the best of both the Southern Hemisphere and the Northern Hemisphere, so it’s a pretty special place,” he explains.
Quicke would know. With his trademark silver beard and hat, and a practical manual on the universe to his name (titled Earth Turning Consciousness: An Exercise in Planetary Awareness), the resident of Broome became something of an astronomy legend after appearing on the BBC/ABC program Stargazing Live. While chatting to rock star scientist Brian Cox, the internet branded him ‘Space Gandalf’, a hashtag that went viral – and a nickname that has stuck ever since.
But the astronomy expert’s knowledge runs far deeper than a trending topic. For the past 24 years, Quicke has led a wildly popular discovery tour of Broome’s night skies, which he estimates has been embarked upon by more than 100,000 people.
It’s easy to understand why, once you’ve experienced it for yourself. Over the course of two hours, Quicke turns the mysteries of the cosmos into an accessible exploration of space, where you’ll hang out in the dazzling, star-studded galaxies with two feet firmly on the ground.
A Curious Childhood
Quicke grew up in the deep forests of south-west Western Australia and was inquisitive about everything. “I wondered about all things and would ask lots of questions, which must have driven people mad at times,” he says.
After being inspired by a program about the Great Barrier Reef he studied marine biology, but soon tired of laboratory work and took off on his own adventure. A stint as a pearl diver in Broome sparked his interest in the tides and the moon, which prompted him to find out more about Earth’s interactions with other heavenly bodies. Later, while working around different inland cattle stations in the Kimberley as a mechanic, he would often sleep in a swag under the stars, staring up at the extraordinary night skies.
“Falling stars were always intriguing and I wouldn’t go to sleep until I had seen one. It wasn’t usually a long wait – just 10 minutes or so,” he says.
But the more he looked up at the sky, the more he realised how little he knew. So he bought a telescope – and suddenly the world of astronomy became very real.
Quicke discovered that people were interested when he spoke about his nightly experiences under the stars. “People really don’t spend much time looking up, and that’s what I wanted to encourage them to do and realise there’s a big, wide world out there,” he says. Having moved to Broome 37 years ago, he says there’s no other stargazing spot quite like it.
“It’s got massive tides, the Staircase to the Moon, the 22-kilometre Cable Beach and beautiful Roebuck Bay with the red cliffs and blue waters… but best of all are those night skies.” With a decade under his belt as a local, and a passion for the night skies that just wouldn’t quit, he decided to turn his passion into a business.
Just like the night skies, Quicke’s Astro Tours, which attract locals and visitors alike, are slightly different every time. Starting between 6pm and 8pm, guests sit in a semi-circle at a moonlit location in the Kimberley scrub, about 20 minutes out of town. Some 17 telescopes, both large and small, sit nearby, pointed towards the skies in wait. But before guests can discover what lies beyond, Quicke talks about his celestial world.
Armed with a bright laser, he traces the movement of familiar and unusual sounding stars and planets. The light first is flashed on the brightest star, Sirius and then the brightest planet, Venus. Ever heard of Zubenelgenubi, otherwise known as Alpha Librae – a double star just 77 light years away?
“My aim is to create interest and share my knowledge with everyone – kids and adults,” Quicke says. At some point in the evening you’ll learn the difference between a shooting star and a comet (after all those nights spent staring at stars from his swag, he’s an expert), and then you’ll step up to the telescopes. Some are so large they have a ladder leading up to them; the most powerful of them revealing the finer details of the moon’s surface and Saturn’s concentric rings.
Quicke describes question time at the end of his tour as the best part of the night, and says some of the curliest questions come from children.
‘Is there life out there?’ is a common query, and Quicke has but one answer: “I would be surprised if there’s not.”
After a farewell cup of hot chocolate, guests leave with a greater understanding of astronomy and a little more in awe of all those celestial wonders in Broome’s night skies.