Astrotrip – Picking a destination for an astro-holiday

Introduction

Living in the Netherlands, for me it is always the biggest challenge to find dark skies for astrophotography. With a couple of friends we aim to go twice a year to relative dark skies for the weekend. Within a 4 or 5 hour drive we have two locations that are SQM 21.1 and are fairly good, although you always have to be lucky with the weather of course. So it quickly became an item on my ‘bucket list’ to go for a real holiday to really dark skies with almost guaranteed clear skies.
But what is the best place to go for astrophotography?

Best locations on earth for astrophotography

Some destinations spring right to mind when thinking of an ideal astronomy location. Chili is of course world famous with the biggest professional telescopes being located there. Hawaii is well known too. For me, being from Europe, we also know of some locations in the Alps and there is of course La Palma that also has professional scopes located on the top of the vulcano. In Africa there is some popular locations with Morocco (Sahara Sky), Namibia and South Africa. So where to go?

There are a few clear requirements for picking the best destination to go too:

  1. Real dark skies.
    I would say this means SQM 21.8+
  2. No light pollution
    Next to a dark sky (at zenith) we want darkness right down to the horizon
  3. Weather: high chance for clear nights
    We are gonna spent quite some money for a holiday like this, travel a long way and spent hours of preparation; it better be clear skies!
  4. Astronomy locations
    Of course we can travel with a travel kit, but it would be nice to be able to use a real (heavy) mount and telescopes. So our destination should have some locations that offer these facilities.
  5. Affordable
    Of course price is going to matter 🙂
  6. Ease of travel
    How easy it is to get to your location might matter more to some people than others, but I think you’ll want to always take this into account. Partly also because it will determine the price to some extend

Taking these factors into consideration Chili and Hawaii quickly fell of the list of possibilities; These locations would be simply too expensive for me at this point in time. The locations that offer telescope facilities are more expensive, as well as the tickets to get there.
So a bit closer to home, Namibia quickly came top of the list;
It is a location that has one of the highest number of clear nights per year, it has clear dry air, is located at 1500m hight and has a sky with SQM of around 22 and no light pollution. Furthermore it will show the center of the milky way right above your head during the winter months (May – October).
It also has a few nice locations that offer extensive astronomy gear for rent and the facilities are aimed at astronomers (late breakfast, early dinner etc.).
So Namibia it is!
Now to pick the location to go to in Namibia

Choosing between Tivoli, Hakos Astrofarm and Kiripotib

Tivoli is probably the best known location for astronomy in Namibia, but a quick search in Google revealed two more possible locations: Hakos Astrofarm and Kiripotib.
So how to choose between these three locations? All reviews and travel reports are positive for all of them, so no clear winner or loser from that perspective.
Wanting to rent equipment rather than bringing my own, the available gear is important for me. Hakos has the least available, in terms of scopes and also mounts/pillars. So early booking would be quite important. Also communication is quite important, so I contacted all three to see how this would go. All communication went smoothly in English, although some took quite a while to respond.

Communication and support with Hakos, Tivoli and Kiripotib

Initial communication about availability with Tivoli went quick and smooth, although replies were short and did not always cover all the questions I asked. Communication stopped all of a sudden when I started to inquire about available equipment. Two emails remained unanswered and I stopped trying to get a reply since I was also in contact with Hakos and Kiripotib.
Communication with Hakos went smoothly. Replies were helpful and were mostly within a few days. Communication about the gear for rent would be with someone external, as you need to rent this from a person that lives in Germany and has his gear permanently installed at Hakos. You can rent it whenever he is not there himself. Also this communication went smooth and was quick.
Communication with Kiripotib was really good. They were a bit slower to respond at times, but on the other hand I sometimes got a reply within minutes. What is clear is that the technical support at Kiripotib is superior. I got a separate contact for technical questions and they would always be very helpful, where as with Hakos they clearly communicated the assumption I’m an experienced astrophotographer and know all the gear first hand. On Kiripotib you will be supported by a dedicated ‘technical person’ to help you with the setup of your equipment upon arrival and to support you during your stay.

Pricing

The pricing of the three astrofarms are more or less the same. Of course they offer different equipment, but comparable equipment has comparable pricing I would say. See the table below for a comparison of pricing between Tivoli, Kiripotib and Hakos;

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 13.47.39

Accommodation and surroundings – Hakos, Tivoli and Kiripotib

Since it is a holiday, of course the accommodation and surroundings are also very important. The accommodations of Tivoli and Kiripotib are nicer than that of Hakos. On the other hand, Hakos has the advantage to be located near/in the mountains which offer nice daytime walk opportunities. Kiripotib and Tivoli are both located in the desert, which makes it less of an interesting surrounding. Disclaimer: Of course these are my opinions based on reviews, travel reports and websites of the 3 astrofarms.

Chalet on Kiripotib Astrofarm
Chalet on Kiripotib Astrofarm

Rooms on Hakos Astrofarm
Rooms on Hakos Astrofarm
Chalet on Tivoli Astrofarm
Chalet on Tivoli Astrofarm

Astronomy support

All three farms are focussed on astronomy so support in terms of facilities but also the daily schedule is good with all three. There will be late breakfast available so you can get some sleep without missing out on breakfast 😉 Furthermore there is of course early dinner so you can go and be out under the stars when it’s dark (18:30!).
Especially Tivoli and Kiripotib have nice platforms with fixed pillars and mounts, so you are able to setup once during your stay and leave everything on the pillar.
Kiripotib has a nice extra feature with their ‘astrohut’, a small building near the platforms that has a kitchen in which there is hot soup all night, a room with a bed for the astrophotographers and even a shower.

Platforms with fixed pillars and mounts on Kiripotib
Platforms with fixed pillars and mounts on Kiripotib

Conclusion: I’m going to Kiripotib!

Taking all factors in consideration, I’m quite happy with the choice to go to Kiripotib!
I’ll be staying there from July 8th till July 22 for 14 nights under the southern skies!
As equipment I plan to use my Nikon D600 on the APM triplet and the D5100 with the Nikkor 80-200mm as a duo setup on the Fornax 51 mount. Guiding will be done with my own Orion finder/guide scope with the MGEN. I’ll use the D7000 with the Samyang 14mm for some timelapses and widefield photography.
I’m very much looking forward to this trip and of course will keep you all posted with reports and images. (yes there is wifi available at Kiripotib 😉 )

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