BSC newsletter #4

Dear Big Skies Collaborators, Partners, Supporters, and Friends.

This is Merrill updating you on our BSC projects for 2019 and 2020  – and I have lots to report! Including multiple launches of our first anthology, Dark Sky Dreamings (IP, Nov. 2019), the Dark Skies Experience Masterplan, progress on our Inland Astro-Trail, an invitation to the New Powerhouse Museum, and the IAT Discussion Paper.


… this celestial compendium connects us to something numinous, inviting us to see the universe anew

Tamryn Bennett, Artistic Director, Red Room Poetry

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Skywriters at the Tamworth launch: from left, Steve Turner (Coonabarabran), Marion Wighton-Packham (Condobolin), Brydie O’Shea (Ashford), David Reiter (Brisbane), Robyn Warwick (Narrabri), Sophie Masson AM (Armidale), and Gary Dean (Foster). Photo by Merrill Findlay.

Dark Sky Dreamings: an Inland Skywriters Anthology, an outcome of our Skywriters Project, was published in November 2019 by Interactive Press. It is now available in hardcopy and several e-formats from selected bookshops and online. You can buy it directly from the publisher here, or preview it on Google books here, then order it from your favourite bookseller.

We launched the anthology on 31 October at a small outdoor event in Tamworth co-hosted with the Tamworth Regional Astronomy Club – in the expectation that we’d be able to view some of the celestial bodies our authors have written about. But alas! No stars were visible in the sky that night — because of smoke from a nearby bushfire, one of the first in what would soon become Australia’s Summer From Hell.

On the ground, however, nine stars of a different kind read from their skystories. Most of these authors had travelled hundreds of kilometres to attend this launch. My thanks to all of them and to TRAC’s Vice-President, Garry Copper, and his fellow astronomers who provided the marquee, PA system and (unused!) telescope.

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Co-host Garry Copper, Vice-President of Tamworth Regional Astronomy Club, speaking at the launch with the anthology’s publisher, David Reiter. Photo by MF.

Our Tamworth launch coincided with Regional Arts NSW’s ArtState 2019 festival, which included a panel discussion about our Big Skies Collaboration projects. Our panel members, Tracey Callinan, Executive Director of Arts OutWest, skywriter Marion Wighton-Packham,  the Wiradjuri Wellbeing teacher from Condobolin, and me, talked about our Collaboration’s efforts to catalyze new opportunities in inland communities through our projects, and what this means for locals. We received an overwhelmingly supportive response. Very encouraging. I now look forward to more panel discussions and presentations about our BSC initiatives.

Since the Tamworth celebration of Dark Sky Dreamings we have launched the anthology in Grenfell, Condobolin, Coonabarabran and Forbes with the support of the local press and libraries. In Moree, Wise Words Bookshop hosted a book group gathering with two of our northern NSW Dark Sky Dreamings authors, Michael Andersen (Moree) and Max Pringle (Narrabri). More soon on these and other launches, including photos, on our website here >>


The next launches of Dark Sky Dreamings will be at Bathurst Regional Library,  6 pm, on 27 February (bookings on Eventbright here >>) and Dubbo at Macquarie Regional Library on 28 March. More celebrations of the anthology and its authors are planned for other towns later in the year.


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Detail of a mural in the corridor of Weddin Shire Council’s Community Hub, in Grenfell, New South Wales, featuring a quotation from the first stanza of Henry Lawson‘s 1888 ballad, ‘A May Night On The Mountains’. Photo by Merrill Findlay.

For nearly two years, Big Skies Collaborator David Clarkson and I have been meeting with staff at Destination Network Country and Outback (DNCO) to discuss the economic, educational, cultural and other opportunities astro-tourism could offer communities along our multi-stranded Inland Astro-Trail. These conversations are now bearing fruit! Because, inspired by our meetings, DNCO hired consultants Simon and Jane McArthur, of SMA Tourism, to develop a comprehensive gap analysis and masterplan “to guide the re-invigoration of existing or development of new Night Skies experiences” .

Jane and Simon delivered their Night Time Experience Gap Analysis Report in September 2019 and followed this up with their Masterplan in December. DNCO released the Gap Analysis almost immediately and work-shopped it with stakeholders, but we’re still waiting on the Masterplan. DNCO’s General Manager, Lucy White, advises that the document is now with the graphic designers and will be released very soon. If you’re on DNCO’s mailing list, you’ll receive a link to download it and to participate in the workshops.

A lot of community capacity-building and other support will be required to develop this new sector of the tourism industry in Inland NSW, however, and we don’t yet know whether the State government has allocated sufficient resources to do this. You might like to mention this concern to your local politicians.

We remain quietly confident, however, that the Inland Astro-Trail concept and several other Big Skies Collaboration initiatives, including the Dome Project and the Big Skies immersive 3D experience (see below), will be strongly recommended to fill some of the many gaps in this still-emerging market. More on this when the Masterplan is released



The Inland Astro-Trail is about much more than astro-tourism, notwithstanding the forthcoming Masterplan! It’s a visionary strategy to catalyze new economic, cultural, social, educational and spiritual opportunities for communities in south-eastern Australia’s fire and drought-ravaged Inland.

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Another dust storm over a drought-stricken farm near the small Inland town of Forbes where I live. Photo: MF, December 2019.

One of our key priorities is STEAM+ Outreach (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics, Plus …) to offer Inlanders — especially young people in rural and remote communities — more of the cultural and educational opportunities that city folk take for granted.

We Inlanders cannot do this alone, however. We need big city-based institutions, including universities and museums, to develop innovative live outreach programs and face-to-face delivery systems for Inland communities. Institutions such as Sydney’s Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) aka the Powerhouse Museum, for example.

So, in December 2019, I met with senior Powerhouse staff and invited them to develop a STEAM+ Outreach program for communities on our side of the Great Dividing Range. The timing was perfect, because MAAS is being ‘re-invented’ ahead of its move from Sydney’s CBD to its a new home in Parramatta. Exhibition staff seemed to be very enthusiastic in their acceptance of my invitation to extend the Museum’s reach along the Inland Astro-Trail into regional, rural and remote Inland communities.

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The historic Sydney Observatory at The Rocks, Sydney, a possible starting point for our Inland Astro-Trail. Photo: MF 2016.

MAAS holds a significant collection of artifacts that are directly related to IAT sites, of course. Indeed, two of its current exhibitions, Apollo II and the David Malin Astro-photography Award images, are associated with the Parkes ‘Dish’ and Central West Astronomical Society. MAAS also manages the Sydney Observatory at The Rocks, which, as I suggested at the meeting, could be one of the IAT’s starting points. From this historic Observatory, metropolitan and international visitors could be directed across the Great Divide to experience the unpolluted glory of our Inland nights, either with their naked eyes or from the many IAT observatories.

I’ll be developing these and other ideas, as described in our Founding Vision, in the IAT Discussion Paper I’m now preparing in consultation with some of our supporters. I’ll present a draft version of this document for comments at the National Convention of Amateur Astronomers (NACAA) in Parkes in April, and possibly at other events, and will make the final draft available from our Big Skies Collaboration website. We’ll then be able to use the document to stimulate fresh conversations about the potential of the Inland Astro-Trail and to inspire and guide its development.


The Big Skies 3D Immersive at the UTS Data Arena, Sydney, 10 December 2019, snapped by Merrill Findlay.

Imagine a bespoke geodesic dome fitted out with the latest 3D projection gear to create a 360 degree interactive playspace where locals and visitors can experience a magical mystery tour of the universe and its stories – almost as if you’re really soaring through outer space!

In this virtual cosmos you’ll be able to toss asteroids around, smooch up to Venus, and make stars dance and galaxies swirl!  You’ll also be able to explore the Inland Astro-Trail’s 60,000+ years of astronomical heritage in 3D from different cultural perspectives and from different astronomical observatories.

And when enough minds have been blown in your patch, a team of techies, riggers and roadies will pack this cosmic dome into a seatainer, and truck it off to somewhere else on the Inland AstroTrail!

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The Big Skies Immersive 3D Dome Experience featuring native Australian animals and their environments. Photo by Box of Birds.

The images, technology and coding for this Big Skies 3D ‘without the goggles’ immersive experience are being developed by the Box of Birds team, led by Big Skies Collaborator David Clarkson, and new media interaction artists Dr Andrew Bluff (aka Rollerchimp), and Dr Andrew Johnston at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS)’s Creativity and Cognition Studios.

The Big Skies 3D Immersive is new, it’s sophisticated, it’s very high-tech, it’s absolutely world-class — and, if the necessary funds can be raised, it will be yet another reason for coastal visitors to cross the Great Dividing Range to experience something that is not available anywhere else in the world!  Which is what we need to attract more Metropolitans and overseas visitors into the Inland!
David and the Andrews have been showcasing the Big Skies 3D Immersive to representatives of funding bodies, the corporate sector and local government, and to politicians, at the UTS Data Arena at Ultimo. And, as I witnessed myself in December, everyone leaves this space Amazed! Including Nicola Chandler, who’s shown here in her 3D glasses.

Nicola Chandler experiencing Big Skies 3D Immersive at the UTS Data Arena, December 2019. By MF.

At the time, Nicola was Destination Network Country and Outback’s Business Development Manager but she has since accepted a position with Dubbo Regional Council, a central hub on our Inland Astro-Trail.

Thank you for all your support at DNCO, Nicola. We look forward to collaborating with you and your Dubbo team to develop the IAT concept to its full potential. For more information on The Dome Project and/or the Big Skies 3D Immersive, please visit Box of Birds or contact the team here.


The second Condo SkyFest at the Wiradjuri Study Centre was opened on 19 October 2019 by Lachlan Shire Council‘s General Manager, Greg Tory.

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Lachlan Shire Council’s General Manager Greg Tory opening SkyFest 2019, with Wesley Williams-Boney, a Television Production student at Charles Sturt University, Wagga campus, behind the camera. Photo by MF.

In his short speech, Greg Tory confirmed Council’s commitment to work with the Study Centre to grow SkyFest into a major celebration of Wiradjuri culture and the Shire’s unpolluted night sky.

Highlights of the 2019 SkyFest included dancing by Galari Bila Waga Dhaanys, stargazing and storytelling with Donna the Astronomer (Donna Burton) from Milroy Observatory and Wiradjuri storyteller Steve Taylor; and two exhibitions, Weaving The Night Sky by master weaver Bev Coe and the women of the Condo SistaShed, and Strong Aboriginal Man by photographer Marion Wighton-Packham.

“Skyfest provides an opportunity for all of us to come together and share our skystories and maintain links with culture,” Marion Wighton-Packham said. “It showcases local art and talented people within remote communities [and] also keeps us connected to Country and our ancestors.”

Condo Artist Bev Coe with her Seven Sisters Dreaming painting exhibited at SkyFest 2019. Photo by MF.

Although the 2019 event was small and focused on the local Aboriginal community, it allowed Tennille Dunn, the Study Centre’s Tourism Officer and SkyFest coordinator, to test some new and exciting ideas for a bigger and better SkyFest in 2020.

The 2020 event is scheduled for 4-5 September. The proposed program includes a sit-down dinner with indigenous food, talks by high profile Wiradjuri speakers, exhibitions, music, dance performances, interactive projections and stargazing with indigenous and non-indigenous astronomers. Tennille will announce the full program when funding and sponsorships are confirmed.

“For us 2020 is a Make-or-Break year!” Tennille admitted. “We need SkyFest to be a very special experience for everyone involved so that it becomes a major annual event on the Inland Astro-Trail.”


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The drought-stricken site of Tamworth Regional Astronomy Club’s new complex adjacent to the Tamworth Botanical Gardens. Photo: MF, 2019.

Inland communities, local government authorities and private operators have embraced the Inland Astro-Trail concept and our very dark night skies to develop their own ‘products’ for the emerging astro-tourism market. IAT attractions include (so far):

~ Tamworth Regional Astronomy Club‘s  Astronomy and Science Education Centre, Planetarium Theatre and Roll-off Roof Observatory soon to be built with the help of a $1.8 million grant through the NSW Government Regional Growth – Environment and Tourism Fund
~ the 29th NACAA, (National Australian Convention of  Amateur Astronomers) in Parkes over the Easter long weekend, 10-13 April
~ Coonabarabran’s Dark Sky Awakens Festival for May 8-10, the closest weekend to May 4th. As the festival’s website boasts, “May the fourth be with you as you visit our beautiful town and our dark skies for the biggest Star Wars party you will ever see!”
~ Central West Astronomical Society‘s AstroFest in July
~ Wiradjuri Study Centre’s Condo SkyFest on 4-5 September
~ Siding Spring Observatory‘s StarFest over the October long weekend
~ OzSky‘s international Star Safaries for northern hemisphere amateur astronomers who want to see our Southern Sky in March/April and September/October
~the IAT’s private observatory operators, including Donna The Astronomer at Milroy Observatory, Peter Starr at Dubbo Observatory, John Vetter at the Mudgee Observatory, Outback Astronomy near Broken Hill, and Ray Pickard at Bathurst Observatory Research Facility who offer tours of the night sky and new day-time and cloudy night astro-experiences
~ Marnie Ogg’s year-round luxury class group tours to IAT observatories through her company Dark Sky Traveller
~  and what else?
Please let me know if you’re developing new astro-experiences in your shire or town so I can mention them in the Discussion Paper and promote them in my next newsletter.


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Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, a UNESCO World Heritage site, snapped  during my visit to Beijing in June 2019.

My next job, once I’ve finished the IAT Discussion Paper, is to get back into my own Big Skies Collaboration project, a non-fiction book tentatively called SkyCountry, a cosmography. It’s about how we humans experience the universe from southeastern Australia’s rural Inland — and a few other places, including China, with its 5,000 years of documented astro-heritage, and the Aegean Sea, that ancient maritime cross-roads linking Asia, Africa and Europe where my own syncretic ‘Western’ astro-heritage emerged.

I’ll be drawing on notes, photos and memories from my overseas travels, including my two recent field trips to China, and, of course, my many tours of our Inland Astro-Trail. And I’ll be doing a lot more reading!

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Fengari, the Mountain of the Moon, rising over the stubble fields on the island of Samothraki in the North Aegean Sea, as viewed from my rented cottage in 2010.

I’ll also be seeking interviews with astronomers and astrophysicists who’ve explored the universe with CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array and the Parkes Observatory, the Sydney University Stellar Interferometer (SUSI), the many telescopes at ANU’s Siding Spring Observatory, the Molongolo Observatory Synthesis Telescope (UTMOST), NASA’s Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, and  Mount Stromlo Observatory. But probably not this year!

I’d like to interview some of our amateur astronomers too, including those who operate their own observatories along the IAT, plus members of inland astronomical groups, astro-photographers, cultural astronomers, retired ‘trackers’ from the early Tracking Station days, and random other skywatchers. Perhaps, dare I say it, even an astrologer or two!

I’m really looking forward to these conversations – but my main priority for 2020 is to finish a couple of astro-heritage chapters and send them off to agents/publishers. Then the anxious wait to learn whether or not they deem my book worthy of publication! (You can read an abridged version of one of my heritage chapters, as published in our Dark Sky Dreamings, here >>.)


This has been a rather long newsletter – and my thanks to you if you’re still reading! I’d love to hear from those of you who are developing or have developed new astro-tourism  ‘products’  for the IAT, or from Creatives in any field who’d like to develop their own Big Skies Collaboration project.

Meanwhile – I hope it rains a lot over the next couple of months in the Inland! Because, right now, we need  weeks of good steady rain much more than we need to see the stars!

Forbes, 2 February 2020.

This newsletter has been curated, written, designed and edited by me, Dr Merrill Findlay, in Forbes, NSW, for Big Skies Collaboration. All typos and other errors are my own! You can contact me at

Thank you for your time.

Newletter sent to people on our mailing list on 2 Feb 2020. This page created 3 Feb. 2020. Last updated 1 March 2020 when ‘Dark Skies Experience Masterplan’ was changed to ‘Dark Skies Experience Concept Plan’ to reflect the name of the document when it was launched in February 2020.