Painting above "The Fall of Phaeton" by Sir Peter Paul Rubens
Those who come to see these wild and beautiful desert landscapes come for many reasons - the uncluttered expanse of a true desert, for time to still the mind, and for their eyes to rest on what is natural, unblemished, unaltered. The one thing they are often not prepared for is the awe-inspiring night skies - and this is the lasting impression many take away as a powerful memory of a this place of extremes.
Devoid of light pollution, the millions of stars that make up the Milky Way arches overhead in such splendid magnificence, few remain untouched by such remarkable radiance. A massive spinning collection of stars, cosmic dust and gasses held together by gravity making up this spiral galaxy is but one of many, we are told… The sun, which is part of the Milky Way apparently takes some 200 million years to orbit this astronomic galaxy.
The curious yet compelling Greek legend of the Milky Way being the scar of Phaethon’s uncontrolled stampede across the sky in his fathers chariot carrying the sun
Phaethon, meaning ‘the Shining One’, was the son of the sun god Helios and the water nymph Clymene. Legend goes that the sun was put in a chariot and every day the god Helios drove it across the sky from sunrise to sunset. Painting above by Benjamin Green
Phaethon asked to be allowed to drive the chariot of the sun through the heavens for a single day. Helios, bound by a prior oath, had to let him make the attempt, dangerous as it was. Phaethon set off but was entirely unable to control the horses of the sun chariot, which came too near to the earth and so scorched the firmament. The Milky Way is said to be the remains of Phaethon’s fiery passage across the firmament, burning holes in it as he went.
Of course Phaethon came to a sticky end - it is generally not a good idea to tempt the gods and Poseidon took umbrage to the seas heating up and stuck Phaeton down. The parable has a moral warning - of course it does - of the consequences of pride and a lack of moderation.
We are grateful for Phaethon’s passage, it remains an opulent jewelled path across the night skies of the southern hemisphere for us to lie in bed at night in wonder and awe.