Public Nights

Puanga 2011

It was 4 AM on Saturday 25 June. I lay in bed thinking in half an hour I’ll get up, shower, have a cuppa and make some breakfast for my teenage, and very hungry, nephew. Then we can be off by 5.10 ... and be at the ..observatory at ...5.30 to ...set .... up ..........seats .................................... Then my wife woke me at 5 AM! Panic! No shower, but we were only 5 minutes late! If it hadn’t been for my wife I wouldn’t have been there at all! Other Society members started to turn up as I unlocked the observatory door for the Hawera Astronomical Society’s 2011 Puanga presentation. The observatory is set in Hawera’s King Edward Park. The grass was wet from passing showers but the sky, incredibly, was clearing.

By 6 AM everyone was there and just after six the main speaker, John Hooker of Nga Ruahine, presented the practical side of the Maori New year. John explained that Puanga indicated the need to prepare for the coming harvest by weaving new kete and preparing the ground for planting. He also described the cultural side which included remembering those who died in the last year and certain ceremonies such as the New Year hangi and what it represented.

His brother and astronomer Anaru Hooker then took over. Anaru talked of the stars and Maori constellations and why it is that Matariki (the Pleiades) and Puanga (Rigel) disappear from the night sky for a while before returning in the early morning, just before sunrise, close to the winter solstice. It is the first sighting of the chosen star or star cluster followed by the first new moon that generally determines the Maori New Year. Those names, Puanga and Matariki have also come to mean the Maori New Year. For Taranaki and Whanganui iwi New Year it is Puanga while other iwi take Matariki as their New Year name.

Daniel Hovell, President of the Hawera Astronomical Society, displayed star maps and talked about the earth’s travel around the sun and how seasons occur. He also addressed the question of why various constellations, unlike Matariki and Puanga, are seen all year round but only in their respective hemisphere. The Southern Cross is visible all year but viewers further up in the northern hemisphere never see it, nor do we, in New Zealand, ever see Polaris, the North Star.

At 6.45, with the first light just starting to brighten the morning sky, the attendees headed to either of the two telescopes available or to the kitchen where Society member Margaret was supplying free bacon butties and hot drinks! The sky had cleared significantly after a night of showers and the 5½ inch Cooke in the dome and the 11 inch computer controlled Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain on the lawn were put to good use. As well as seeing both Puanga and Matariki we also were able to study Mars, Jupiter and the Moon. Society members, Dean, Pat, Daniel and Brian aided the public at the telescopes. This was a really successful and worthy team effort. Thanks guys and girls. A video of the Maori New Year was also played in the observatory’s meeting room under the dome, and a leaflet, explaining Puanga both as a Maori New Year and as a blue supergiant star, was given to each attendee.

In review it was felt that we had created a full, fun, and interesting Puanga presentation package that could be used again. For next year we need better and wider publicity and a bigger lead in time to attract more attendees. The event could even be held in the TSB Hub instead of at the Observatory but that needs discussion. We do plan to hold at least one evening session for schools, and possibly another for the public as well as the continuing with the early morning session. After all, the bacon butties make Puanga something very special even for the Pakeha Society members!

Richard Oliver
Puanga 2011 Organiser