Ray Johnston, 85, and his wife Libby, 68, who have traveled the world in pursuit of astronomy. They currently live in Dundowran Beach
Ray Johnston, 85, and his wife Libby, 68, who have traveled the world in pursuit of astronomy. They currently live in Dundowran Beach Jessica Lamb

STORY OF: Ray Johnston, astronomer, adventurist, traveller

THE young boy's hand reached out into the black abyss of the night sky to draw patterns by joining starlight dots.

He looked sideways at his mother, lying next to him on the grass of their Melbourne home.

This is Ray Johnston's earliest memory of his fascination with the evening sky.

And though he didn't know it yet, this fascination would lead him around the world.

 

Ray Johnston lecturing about astronomy underground in Rome
Ray Johnston lecturing about astronomy underground in Rome

The 85-year-old Hervey Bay man regales his unique experiences on the porch of his Dundowran Beach home, his voice only interrupted by the slapping of a mosquito by his wife, Libby, 68, seated next to him.

Ray had been a barrister in Melbourne, working in the state's courts before he met fellow bush-walking enthusiast Libby and followed her to Queensland.

The pretty pharmacist who caught Ray's eye worked her way around Australia, landing in Yeppoon for nine months.

"She had a week off and we decided we had never been to the Whitsundays so we travelled to Airlie Beach," Ray said.

The pair didn't return for another 18 years after Libby was offered a job managing a pharmacy on Hamilton Island in 1992.

It was here Ray and Libby found a decommissioned observatory.

"I was the astronomer and Libby became my roadie, so to speak," Ray said with a laugh.

 

Ray Johnston Broadcasting on ABC
Ray Johnston broadcasting on ABC

"I did a short course in astronomy at Swinburne Tech, now Swinburne University, in Melbourne in 1950.

"What really kicked me on was when the 'Space Race' heated up and I witnessed the world's first satellite, Russia's Sputnik, pass over Melbourne in October 1957.

"Melbourne was the first major population area which was able to see it - we all went out onto a footy oval and you could see this little drop of light. We see so many of them these days but this little drop of light, wow, it was the first one to ever be put into orbit."

Keeping up his astronomical interest through his law career and marriage, Ray worked with his wife to refurbish the old observatory and set it up as a free activity for guests.

"It was full of cob webs and spiders ... we recommissioned it and got the telescopes fixed," he said.

"Over the next 18 years, we introduced in excess of 60,000 people to the night skies operating a few nights a week."

 

Preparing for evening viewing on Hamilton Island in the observatory Ray Johnston recommissioned.
Preparing for evening viewing on Hamilton Island in the observatory Ray Johnston recommissioned.

Sadly the observatory was destroyed by Cyclone Yasi after Ray and Libby left the island to venture to Hervey Bay in 2009.

Not only did the sky capture Ray's heart, he was enamoured with the land.

"I did a lot of hiking over 20 years in the Himalayas, Kashmir, Pakistan," he said.

"I have climbed to Mt Everest base camp three times.

"At 50 in 1980 I was part of the Australian expedition to climb Annapurna III in Nepal, a 26,000 footer above sea level.

"Unfortunately when we were halfway up there was an avalanche and we lost three guys. It was sad, we had to bury them on the mountain and then come home.

"That was the end of any serious climbing because I decided I was getting on a bit but we still did some small climbing."

 

Ray Johnston With Aptllo 17 astronaut Dr Harrison Schmidt
Ray Johnston with Apollo 17 astronaut Dr Harrison Schmidt on Hamilton Island.

Ray was involved in international conventions on Hamilton Island.

"There was one where we were able to take Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmidt to the island's little primary school," he said.

Through the observatory, Ray and Libby expanded their experience with astronomy organisations and made connections that lead to a job lecturing on cruise ships.

 

Ray Johnston as the sartorial lecturer on a cruise ship
Ray Johnston as a astronomical lecturer on a cruise ship.

"We have done some really fantastic trips - we went to Europe for the 400th anniversary of the telescope," Ray said.

"We went round all the old sites like Galileo's observatory.

"Another trip we went to the top of Scandinavia to see the northern lights. We went to South Africa with all the astronomical sites, including the big SALT telescope.

 

Libby and ray Johnston Rugged up in Norway
Libby and ray Johnston rugged up in Norway to visit the northern lights.

"My best memory was being left in charge of the world's largest telescopes with strict instructions 'do not touch anything."

In 2007 Ray was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, a prestigious society that has been operating since 1820.

"My main interest is ancient astronomy like the Egyptian, Greek and Roman and the astronomy of indigenous peoples such as the Aborigines, the Bushmen of South Africa the Aztecs and Incas," he said.

Now Ray is enjoying his retirement, "pottering" around his home when he isn't involved in the local Probus club.

He has two children and four grandchildren.

"I haven't been to America yet and I would love to get there soon," Ray said.

"As long as I wake up on the right side of the grass, I am very happy."