Matchball on top of Brukkaros - News - Gondwana Collection


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Matchball on top of Brukkaros

Avatar of inke inke - 25. September 2015 - Discover Namibia

The Brukkaros.

This is where solitude lives. Patches of grass sway in the wind, a forlorn quiver tree stands on the plain, a relentless sun scorches plants and rocks. After several hours of driving to the foot of the volcano-shaped mountain and another two hours of climbing we have reached our destination: the south-western crater rim of Brukkaros, north of Keetmanshoop. We are 600 metres above the rest of the world, surrounded by total wilderness. But what on earth is this? Two steel tubes, set in a concrete base, protrude waist high from the ground. They are about nine metres apart. The rectangular surface between them extends equally to both sides and is remarkably even and devoid of larger stones. No doubt, this is a tennis court. But who, may I ask, plays tennis on the crater rim of Brukkaros?

The tennis players were from the United States. Tennis was only a pastime, however. Their real interest was the sun: astrophysicist William Hoover and his assistant Frederick Greeley ran a solar observatory on the top of Brukkaros for the Smithsonian Institution and the American National Geographic Society. It was in operation from October 1926 until December 1931. Readings were taken daily to collect data on the fluctuations of sun energy.

According to a theory by Samuel Langley, the founder of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, weather patterns on earth were influenced by variations in solar radiation. He maintained that daily values of the solar constant would help to forecast weather more accurately. In order to obtain good radiation readings the site had to be on a fairly high mountain (less loss of radiation in the atmosphere), not too far from the equator (relatively high solar altitude also in winter), with as many cloudless days as possible. There already was a solar observatory on Mount Montezuma in Chile and another on Table Mountain in California. The Brukkaros observatory was intended to provide data from Africa for comparison with the data from America. 

Scientific success was rather limited, however. The values obtained on top of Brukkaros were not accurate, apparently because the instruments had suffered during transport. Therefore the data was provisionally adjusted by a certain factor and only registered half in comparison to the results of the other two observatories. Furthermore there were many days when high gusty winds made it impossible to use the delicate instruments. As instruments and methods of measuring improved all over the world it turned out that variations in radiation were very small. Increasingly it was doubted that there was any effect on the weather at all.  

Nevertheless, Hoover’s and Greeley’s efforts were not in vain. Apart from sun energy data they also collected weather data and passed them on to the weather service in Windhoek – by telephone! The South African administration had a telephone line installed to the observatory, and a gravel road had been built to the foot of the mountain so that the instruments could be delivered by truck. The observatory was set up on the south-western slope in the crater, just below the rim, at an altitude of some 600 metres above the surroundings and 1600 metres above sea level. 

Life at the rim of the crater was no walk in the park: water had to be fetched from a pool in the gorge below the incision in the south-eastern rim of the ring mountain. Two metal casks were filled at a time and hauled up by donkey. A young Nama servant, who also helped in the house, was responsible for procuring the daily water supply. Nevertheless, water had to be used sparingly. Laundry was sent to a Nama woman in Berseba, 15 km away. 

Hoover had not come on his own but brought his family along. His wife insisted that their 18-month-old daughter had to have fresh milk every day. Thus a cow was brought onto the mountain. The first one was bitten by a snake and died, the second one had to be shot after breaking a leg, and at times fodder had to be bought for the third one because there was hardly any grazing. Food was kept fresh in a fly-screen cooler in the shade of the stoep (porch), until an electric fridge was acquired – still a technical novelty in those days.  

The tennis court was a little bit of luxury that the Hoover couple and Greeley, the assistant, indulged in. They even planned to surface the court with concrete. This, however, never happened because the little bit of rain that fell was not enough to mix the cement. Apparently tennis was a widely played sport at that time: in Keetmanshoop alone, small as it was then, there were no less than four tennis clubs. 

The contract of Hoover and Greeley ended in September 1929 and they returned to the US. A new team operated the observatory for another two years until it was closed down in December 1931. The instruments were dismantled and shipped back to the US. All that is left today are the ruins of the buildings.

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