Situated on the western side of the Maidenwell sports field is Queensland’s largest, privately funded observatory, owned and operated by astronomer and Highlife photojournalist James Barclay.

James Barclay is a hands-on operator who designed and built his thriving astro-tourism business, and also explains to his visitors what they are looking at, each time they peer into one of the three large Meade 14 inch computer assisted telescopes. Before each observing session begins, the astronomer takes his visitors on a guided tour of the night skies, pointing out various stars, planets and constellations with a green laser pointer.

Born in Sydney in 1946 and raised on a farm in New South Wales where the nights were crisp and clear, James remembers being taken to Sydney for a visit. On his first night there, he looked up and ran back inside saying all the stars had disappeared. Rushing outside to see this ‘phenomenon’, his parents soon informed him, that is was the bright lights of the city that fade away the stars. He just wanted to go home.

By 1960, James was taking photos of the moon, planets and stars through his own homemade telescope. His photography grew into a passion and by 1964, he was taking surf photos for his mates and surf magazines. One year later, he entered into a five-year boilermaking apprenticeship. During this time and with the aid of new cameras and lenses, James helped out on weekends for local and city-based newspapers, as a relief photographer.

“It all began 10 years ago when I approached the then Nanango Shire Council for some crown land that they could lease to me, so I could fund, build and operate an astronomical observatory for tourism, similar to the Cosmos Centre at Charleville. While their reaction was somewhat daunting, one councillor actually favoured the idea, as she had heard of the popularity of the Cosmos Centre.
“In August 2003, I got a call from a lady who ran a general store in the town of Maidenwell, who said, “I think we’ve found a spot for your Observatory.” After meeting with her and a bunch of locals including that councillor, we walked across the road and onto the town’s sports field. I was in Star Heaven. Construction began in April 2004 and we opened to the public in August that year.

Now happily retired to Ellesmere near Kingaroy, his passion for astronomy and photography helped him to springboard his desire to establish the Maidenwell Astronomical Observatory in 2004.

“Because the town only had six mercury-type street lights which did pose a problem for stargazers, I applied to Council for Ergon to place a shade over the lights. After inspection, Ergon replaced every single light with modern, cost-efficient lights that shine directly onto the road and not into the night sky or surrounds,” he said.

The observatory operates on bookings for stargazing nights and on sunny days to view the sun on the big screen in the Star Theatre.

Words by Brian Johnston | Images by James Barclay