The Dish

You know that whole 17-day, 3000km road trip was organised around this, right? The CSIRO radio telescope at Parkes. Very first time I sat down to consider possibilities, I looked it up and it turned out, they were having a rare open weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. They would do tours! Well, there was no way I was missing out on that.

We got there 45 minutes early, I was so scared of missing out – and given that we had a 1.5hr drive to get there, that’s really saying something in our slow-starting household. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited. Quite possibly, never.

I will not pretend the kids gave a damn. The boys stayed on the ground while CraftyFish came on the tour, pulled along somewhat bemusedly by my excitement. And I was completely, ridiculously, viscerally, excited. Nearly a month later and I still thrill to think of it, to see these pictures. It is like an A-list celebrity encounter, multiplied a couple of orders of magnitude. I would’ve gone on the tour three or four times, if they’d let me, except I did also want to share it. With EVERYBODY.

It is not just that I think it is stunningly beautiful. The epic parabolas, the lacework against the sky. It is not just that it’s a hub of brilliant minds from around the world. They had an “Ask the Experts Marquee”, where I would’ve quite happily stayed all day talking to people about gravitational waves and pulsars and the temperatures of merging galaxies and the Square Kilometre Array, except that I was actually a bit too excited to stand there and talk to any one person for more than about ten minutes.

It is not just the stonking engineering: the 1000-ton dish, unattached to its base, still in its sixth decade at the forefront of the science, leading a global network ever forward technologically. It is not just the way this magnet for the curious rises out of the surrounding kilometres of flat red dirt like a massive sunflower, always turning, always searching. Listening.

It is not even the mind-emptying scope of what they do there, probing the farthest reaches of our universe for the birth of the cosmos. It is all of this, all at once, that fires my rockets. It’s like every crevice of my entire brain is being thoroughly, running-round-in-circles gasping-for-breath tickled. Think about all those big ideas for a moment. The hugeness of them. The implications. The burning questions still to come. Can you feel it? Even an inkling? Yeah? Welcome to inside my head.

Ready, set…

Map of New South Wales with sticker-dots marking trip destinations

30 days to go and we have a plan! (I love having a plan.) I had a plan two weeks ago, in fact, and everything was booked.

Then I found out that one of the places I’d considered and abandoned does get snow after all, and the Skeptic had booked two extra days’ leave, so … the obvious thing was to insert another leg right into the middle of the plan. Miraculously, all four of the hosts booked for after that leg agreed to move our reservations back two days, so I pulled it off. (I think. Ink’s not dry yet.)

The trip is built around CSIRO’s radio telescope at Parkes, which is having an open day to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. On the way we will visit the Artesian springs at Moree, visit Dubbo zoo and stargaze under Coonabarabran’s Dark Sky. On the way home, we’ll see the Jenolan Caves and the Australian Army’s Infantry Museum, go to a koala hospital, try our hand gold-panning, stay on a hobby farm, and stand on Australia’s most easterly point at Byron Bay. There are open-cut gold mines and fossil huts, plains, mountains, volcanic rainforest and beaches. And of course, the hope of snow, which the kids have never seen. I’m so excited!

Except right now I’m the early stress stage. Experience teaches that none of us likes sleeping all together, so the biggest part of a trip like this is finding accommodation. All eight venues must be spacious, aesthetically appealing (I know, but it’s essential for us), and budget-friendly; needless to say this part has been quite hard work. When not glued to the computer I’ve been buying cold-weather clothes, making lists, more lists, and sub-lists, racking my brains for what we will listen to on the road, trying to get the house and yard to a state acceptable for a house-sitter to live in without breaking a leg tripping on The Stuff.

Of course, CraftyFish will start having meltdowns in a couple of weeks’ time, as departure looms and she starts facing all the unknowns. She will cry her little heart out and beg to not go. Mr Pixel, meanwhile, remains unimpressed by my enthusiasm; he doesn’t want to learn to crack a whip or do the lamp-work bead-making class I found. He will complain about the caves (cold) and the museum (boring) and the Minecraft-deprivation (life-threatening, apparently). Everyone is wondering what we’ll listen to on the road. (Suggestions welcome.)

Harsh words will be uttered, more than once, probably, as keeping three introverts and one flaming extrovert, all over-endowed with opinions and determination, in each other’s close company for two weeks is plenty challenge, never mind introducing those same twitchy people to new beds every second night. They’ll all carry on like they’re being asked to sleep with tigers.

In a way, though, that – far more than the activities themselves – is where the learning is. We’ll be hundreds of kilometres outside our bubble, and that’s a good thing. Despite the anxiety, we all crave novelty, nature and beauty, which the second half of the trip at least offers in abundance. Everyone will be stretched in multiple ways; the experiences will resonate for years.

It’s going to be awesome.