I was always dreaming about dark skies because I live in a suburban area with relatively strong light pollution. Two friends returned from Gavdos where they spent their summer vacation and told me that they had never seen so many stars in the sky – at that moment I was tempted. One year later I decided to combine our summer vacation (mid-September) with chasing the dark skies. Swimming, snorkeling, hiking during the day, and photographing, observing during the night.
We have been to Greece already, so we knew what to expect – beautiful beaches, people with great hospitality, and tourists everywhere. But Gavdos is something different. It is a small island south of Crete. The island is the southernmost point of the entire European continent, which is optimal for astrophotography, because the deep space objects, which are near to the horizon in Switzerland, are 12° upper in the sky. Only a few people live on Gavdos, which means there is no light pollution compared to other Greek islands. There are neither big hotels, discotheques nor organized beaches. On the other hand, there are places where you can sleep and there are many taverns where you can get something delicious. Moreover in all taverns is Wi-Fi. Electricity is mostly produced by solar panels and stored in batteries and some taverns use generators, so there is electricity available the whole night. This means you don’t have to carry heavy batteries to power the mount or camera cooling with you.
It’s not so straightforward to get there. We flew to Heraklion (Crete capital), hired a car, and drove to Paleiochora. Crete is quite a big island and it took us 3-4 hours to drive from Heraklion to Paleiochora. From there we took a 6-hour ferry to Gavdos. The ferry arrives at Karaves – a small harbor, where there is a tavern and mini-market. Some info about the accommodation on Gavdos can be found here. We stayed at Metochi – a small house with a restaurant. The owner Maria was an excellent host and she was always smiling and charged with positive energy. Every evening, when we were returning from the restaurant back to our house, we saw millions of stars. The Milky Way was so bright! I have never seen so many stars in my life. It was something spectacular.
I was thinking a lot about what equipment I take with me to Gavdos. The telescope must be portable and has to fit in my backpack, so the Newtonian is not a good option. Refractors with slightly bigger aperture are long, therefore also not so suitable. I did the research and found an interesting small reflector – 6″ (150 mm) Ritchey-Chrétien. It’s small and when I removed the focuser, it fit in my Lowepro Pro Trekker 450 AW bag even with the camera, finder, autoguider, and with all the cables. It has only one disadvantage – it’s quite slow with a focal ratio of f9. This can be improved with the focal reducer Astro Physics CCDT67. The focal ratio drops from f9 to acceptable f6. It’s still not as fast as my Newtonians, but the main thing is that it’s portable and inexpensive. Some reviews of this telescope can be found here or here.
The second part is the camera. My Moravian G2-8300 is an excellent camera, but together with the filter wheel, it has 2.5 kg, thus not optimal for traveling. I was searching for something lighter, with the same size of the chip and, of course, with the cooling. I found the ZWO Color CMOS Camera ASI 1600MC-Cool. This camera has approximately the same quantum efficiency, but it has only 400 grams!
The last part of the gear is the mount. Here it was quite simple to decide and I purchased iOptron CEM25P lightweight equatorial mount with low periodic error and suitable payload capacity.
So, I had in my hand luggage 13 kg (fortunately they never checked the weight of the hand luggage) and my suitcase had 31 kg and I managed to pass all security checks.
Back to Gavdos, I placed my portable astrophotographical equipment behind the house and took some pictures. Unfortunately, the weather was not so optimal. The skies were clear every night, but most of the time was very windy and I mean really very windy. I was able to photograph only 3 nights. This was quite disappointing, but I managed to capture Helix and Trifid Nebula.
Since we had a car, it was easy to travel around and every day we visited new beaches. Some of them are not accessible by car, so you have to hike for an hour or two. But it’s worth it. For instance, beach Potamos is one of the nicest beaches I have visited in my life and we were nearly alone there.
Beach Lakoudi is also nice and there we were completely alone.
Beach Tripiti is the southernmost place in Europe
The beaches are beautiful, but they were not the main reason why we traveled to Gavdos. To be under such clear skies and not to take a picture of the Milky Way would be a shame. At the highest point of the island, there is a lighthouse – Faros. The lighthouse is not functioning anymore, but there is a museum and tavern. So, one can with a glass of wine or beer enjoy a beautiful sunset.
If you stay a bit longer, the Milky Way shows its beauty. The conditions are excellent for such wide-angle photography because 200 km south there is nothing but the sea.
The picture was taken by Olympus PEN-F, lens Olympus ED 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO @ 12 mm, f/2.8, ISO 1600, exposure 20s. The crop factor is 2, which means that the equivalent focal length for the full-frame sensor is 24 mm. This focal length is not so great for the Milky Way, but the optical quality is remarkable. Comatic aberration is gently visible in the upper left corner and there is no chromatic aberration. Well done Olympus! One of the main advantages of this camera is the weight. The camera with the lens has only 0.8 kg, which is exactly half of the weight compared to my previous setup Canon EOS 40D with Tokina 11-20 F/2.8.
Just to conclude the post, we really loved Gavdos and we would definitely come back. The island has its own magic. It was pure relaxation there and I miss it. I can only recommend to everyone to go to Gavdos, not just due to the clear and not polluted skies, but also due to the specific atmosphere of unspoiled nature.
On our way back we stayed a couple of nights on Crete. The Moon started to shine, so I decided to take a picture of this white monster with my portable setup. Ritchey-Chrétien telescopes are not so great for the Moon or planets, due to a big central obstruction caused by the secondary mirror. Some say these telescopes are not suitable at all for this purpose. However, the picture is very sharp. I must say that it’s much better compared to pictures I made in Switzerland with significantly bigger telescopes and smaller central obstruction. This is caused by the seeing – in Greece, the atmosphere is more steady compared to Swiss skies. Conclusions – it always doesn’t depend on your equipment, nature has to cooperate as well.