We hadn’t really done much that Friday. The program-wide group trip didn’t even start until 2:15pm because people had class in the morning. And then we just sat on a bus for four hours as we drove north to the Bay of Islands. By the time we got to the coastal town of Paihia, it was dinnertime so the 30+ group splintered in the search for food. Funnily enough, we mostly ended up at the same restaurant (a Thai and Indian place).
Afterwards, we ferried across the bay to Russell on our way to the cabins we were staying at. During the walk through the darkened, off-season streets of the tiny town, we were drawn to the sky.
Peppered across the black were more stars than I’ve ever seen, and as we moved farther away from the lights of the town center, the more appeared. We gaped. We ooed. We awed. And in amongst the twinkling canopy was what looked like a glowing grey cloud. Most dismissed it as such, but the Assistant Director of the program told us we were wrong.
“Oh no,” he said offhandedly. “That’s the Milky Way.”
What?! I couldn’t believe it. The Milky Way, that starry stretch of legend, was visible, right above my head. There are very few places in America where one can see our home galaxy and I’ve never had the chance to make it out to these remote areas, nor had anyone in our group. The closest most of us got got was the sprinkle of stars that littered the sky in the cities. And then here was: the Milky Way.
“If you go atop of that hill where that flagstaff was chopped down,” the Assistant Director pointed, “and get away from the streetlights, you’ll see it better.”
I knew instantly I had to do this. We dropped off our luggage and my friend, Yvonne and my roommate, Kirsten agreed to come with me. It took us a moment to look up directions, having to google the name of the hill which appropriately turned out to be Flagstaff Hill. Once we found a route, we set off into the night.
Walking in the middle of the street with only a phone flashlight to illuminate our way through the pitch black, we slowly made our way up. I had to reassure Kirsten that there were no carnivorous animals that could attack us here (though we did find a sign telling us that kiwis were present). Still, we linked arms and trudged on as Yvonne led the way with her phone.
We eventually made it to the top, and in the car park we laid down and let out a gasp of amazement. It certainly was clearer up here. We got lost in the cosmic beauty above our heads. I wished I knew the constellations in the Southern Hemisphere so I could see the ancient patterns above my head, but in reality it was simply enough to let immensity of the Milky Way wash over me.
We were silent until a couple shooting stars zoomed overhead, and we gasped and yelled as we pointed them out to each other. Shortly afterwards the clouds started to roll in, and we decided that we’d rather not get caught in the rain. And so we walked once again into the dark, the stars fading as we moved back into civilization.