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  • Writer's pictureDamian Robb

Stray Thoughts 01 | Introductionary Magic

Hello and welcome! As this is my first Stray Thoughts post let me try and tell you what I'm hoping Stray Thoughts will be. My plan, and as the name suggests, is that it’ll be a place for me to write down some stray thoughts, with the goal to piece them together into a series of messy but meaningful essays, full of stories and ruminations and reflections. It'll also be a podcast, where each episode will be an audio version of the posts read by me with some lovely musical backing. Unsurprisingly, it'll also be called Stray Thoughts, and you can find it on any podcasting app or listen to it below.

Alright! Introduction over. Let’s share some Stray Thoughts, and for this first one, I want to share a story.


Just over three months ago, I witnessed magic. I was standing on a balcony. The night air hung heavy with salt. Beside me, my two friends gave soft exclamations of excitement. I could feel that same excited disbelief bubbling inside of me. It is a moment I have thought about on and off ever since.

Let’s back up a bit. Context is everything.

Just off the southern coast of Australia lies Phillip Island. It’s a well travelled tourist spot. The local population leans toward boomers or older, but it’s filled every holidays with herds of families, and at the end of every school year with a plague of drunk teenagers there for schoolies (an event not too dissimilar from spring break for any non-Australian listeners). The island is ringed by beaches, has plenty of wildlife in the forms of the penguin parade, the koala reserve, and the wildlife park, as well as a Grand Prix circuit and chocolate factory for those who like their activities to be less green.

It is also the location three friends regularly go to to record some podcasts. These events are better known as the Scaredy Boys Retreat.

Last November, we had such a retreat. The aforementioned friends, consisting of myself, Tom Reed, and Sean Carney, prefer to go in the off peak if possible. We like our island quiet and deserted. All the better to watch horror movies in, which is primarily what we do while we’re there. That, and talk about them, which we do into microphones, with the audio then getting parcelled up and sent all around the world (hell, into space and back technically) in the form of our podcast, Scaredy Boys. But that, while it is its own special kind of magic, is not the magic I’m talking about.

These Scaredy Boy Retreats are heavy in work and heavy in play, with the two often getting intertwined, and are also some of my favourite times of the year. Not only because I get to hang with my buds but also because I get to do so while digging deep into all the things we collectively enjoy. Movies, TV, Books, Comics, Food, Drink. These are the tentpoles of any Scaredy Boys Retreat, as is the occasional spike of anger-inducing gut-piercing fear whenever we remember a horror movie we’ve lined up to watch that we genuinely believe will haunt us. Also whisky.

This combination of fear, friendship, and frivolity while magical is also not the magic I’m talking about. No, the magic I’m talking about occurred during a very specific moment in time, one that all started with Sean’s dad, John Carney.

The house we stay in whenever we’re away on a retreat, is the Carney holiday house. To me it is the perfect amount of ramshackle. Mismatched couches, the occasional odd or creepy knick knack, and a fireplace that I’m probably a little too obsessed with. It also overlooks a bay, which means if you stand on the second story balcony you can see red rocks, sea brush, and the ocean stretching out to the horizon, a big open sky above it. That sky is where the magic happened. We were downstairs watching a movie when it began.

What the movie was, I can’t remember. We watch a lot of movies while we’re on the island. Arguably too many, especially since they’re all horror and our cowardice is pretty well documented at this point. As such, if there is an opportunity to take a break from the horror, well, we’re going to take it. The opportunity for a break came in the form of a text message from John Carney. He’s pretty thoughtful whenever it comes to the three of us staying at his house on the island, often bringing us firewood for the fireplace, recommending places to go, or notifying us about some pertinent island news. It was the latter that came though in that text message, because John had heard that there was a high level of aurora activity forecasted off the coast of Phillip Island that night.

Aurora Australis, also known as the Southern Lights, feels like the little brother to the better known Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis. Both are the result of solar winds causing disturbances in the trajectory of charged particles in the magnetospheric plasma resulting in ionisation and excitation of atmospheric constituents. Or, in other words, space winds mess up space dust resulting in an epic and incredible light show full of curtains and bands of greens, and violets, and reds.

We got John’s message and headed upstairs. We went through the rec room, opened the sliding door that led out to the balcony, crossed the threshold, looked up and saw … nothing. A regular night sky, not a drop of green or violet or red in it. If we could see anything it was perhaps a slight whitening just over the horizon, and even that I wasn’t sure I wasn’t just imagining. Disheartening, to be sure, but it was nice to have a break from the movies and take in the night sky.

Now, I would consider myself an amateur photographer. I would also consider myself an amateur lots of things, because I like learning and I like hobbies and I like creating, a fact I am proud of, but photography is one I’ve been chipping away at for the past decade or so. I don’t have all the gear, or even a DSLR at all, hence the amateur, but what I do have is a google pixel phone and a tripod, and luckily that will get you pretty far. Especially if you want to take night photos.

The pixel phones, like many today, have a night sight setting, which is their own version of long exposure photography, which allows more light into the lens than just taking your standard photo. Obviously, this is good for night time photography as, and you may have noticed this yourself, there’s not a lot of light at night. The standard night sight setting on pixel phones only lasts a few seconds and requires that you hold the phone as still as possible, which you can gauge thanks to the two concentric circles that show up on the screen during these seconds, with the idea to keep the solid centre circle as still as possible inside the hollow outer one. Pixel phones also have an astronomy setting as well, for longer long exposure, which only gets switched on when the phone is on night sight and when the phone senses perfect stillness, as the astronomy setting can take in exposure for up to four minutes but requires you not to move at all during that time, less you get blurry light trails instead of crisp clear stars.

So, back to the balcony. Three slightly disheartened boys who were otherwise enjoying a break from their horror movie were looking up at a perfectly average night sky. One of the boys, me, considers themself an amateur photographer, and decides to take a photo of the sky regardless. He chooses the standard night sight setting on his phone, clicks the button, waits, tries to keep the circles as still as possible, and then, done. Photo taken.

And there was the magic. Because on my phone, hanging just above the horizon, was an aurora.

I looked up to see nothing again, the same sky I had looked at before, still with that slight whitish tinge, then back to my phone where green and violet lit up my screen. I quickly called out to Sean and Tom, unable to take my eyes from the image, feeling that bubbling excited disbelief fizzing away inside of me. I showed them, and the excited fizzing proved to be contagious as these three nerds couldn’t believe the magic they were witnessing. Unfortunately, I’d left my tripod at home, but thanks to some ingenuity with a whisky glass and the railing of the balcony, I was able to balance my phone and use the astronomy setting to get a longer exposure. As I waited in impatient agony for those four minutes to tick by, my two friends were figuring out how to do the same thing on their iphones. They did, and soon we were all trying our best to capture the magic. We were giddy and silly and putting our arms around each other's shoulders, already understanding that we were experiencing something unique and special.

Back in 2016, I’d stood beside a fjord in Norway as the northern lights danced above me. That experience had been planned months in advance. A tour company had been booked, the occasion pencilled into the calendar. We’d climbed into the tour company van, picked up a few extra people and driven out to the fjord, all in order to see the lights. That experience was also one I will never forget, and was also magic, but it had been expected, planned for. This magic was happening on an average night on a scaredy boy's retreat from the comfort of the upstairs balcony of my friend's holiday house. This magic came out of nowhere, all the more impressive for being paired with the mundane.

Four minutes passed and then I had a photo on my phone I will cherish for the rest of my days. The greens and violets of the aurora were brighter, creating the perfect backdrop to the field of stars. A small light trail of a satellite could be seen in the shot, and I had managed to capture the lit up beacon of a neighbours house, giving the whole photo some perspective.

I showed the boys, they gave the appropriate cries of astoundment and then we all set up our phones again to take another photo; a sequence of events which would repeat for at least the next hour or so.

I think it’s important to point out that we never once saw the colours with our own eyes. There was just that slight whitishness to indicate the aurora’s presence, but thanks to this blending of both natural and technological marvels we were able to see the unseen. To observe and capture something astounding. To share in an experience that left us flushed and full of wonder.

To witness magic.

What’s even more insane is that during that retreat, on that same balcony, we would twice more experience two other different environmental phenomena that left us with that same feeling of shock and awe.

But I’ll have to tell you about those another time, as those are all the Stray Thoughts I have for today.

Until next time, look up, try and see the unseen, and, failing that, just plan a retreat with some friends. Who knows, maybe you’ll find some magic.

xoxo Damo


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