Port Douglas, North Queensland, Australia
Wednesday, 14 November 2012
Earlier this year we told our friends in Sydney that we were going to Cairns to see the Solar Eclipse. Some thought we were mad; others said we were smart.
Yesterday, looking out of our Virgin airlines plane from 38 thousand feet, we wondered if we were indeed crazy, because the Queensland coast was covered in wads of cotton-wool clouds!
But, buoyed by the good wishes of all our friends, we hoped that we’d see at least a few minutes of this very special celestial spectacle. “Well”, said Dom, trying to console me, “it’s our holiday, so let’s enjoy it whatever happens.”
The briefing on Tuesday evening
“Beware of snakes and cow dung!” Melissa said with a smile. No one from our tour group smiled back. We had come prepared for mud and mosquitoes, not snakes!
Melissa, Education Officer from Sydney Observatory, our tour guide, had done her homework and visited the location for plan B, so we took her words seriously.
Why location B? Location A, ten minutes from where we were staying at Port Douglas, was a no-no. Clouds were about, and clouds were forecast for eclipse morning. So Melissa had to make a rapid change of plans. She consulted a weather forecast company that film makers consult, and they had directed her beyond the Great Dividing Range.
Cairns and Port Douglas are on the sea-front. Their weather is at the mercy of winds blowing in from the Pacific. Fortunately for us, the Great Dividing Range is inland from Port Douglas, and the mountains form a natural barrier for clouds rolling in from the sea.
So Melissa had to choose a location just past the shoulder of the Great Dividing Range. The place had to be reasonably flat, have a clear view of the east and be as close as possible to Port Douglas. She had personally driven around before we arrived, scouting for suitable places, and finally found one. There was only one catch. It was 160 km away.
So this morning we boarded the coach at the unearthly hour of 2 AM. Orion, bold and beautiful, was straight overhead. I considered it a good omen.
While we napped, Phil our coach captain drove very carefully on the Mulligan Highway that snakes its way over the Great Dividing Range. Two hours later, we reached the location in total darkness. The skies were wondrously clear. As we got off the coach and looked up, we oohed and aahed at the Milky Way spread out like a brilliant carpet overhead. The Southern Cross and the Pointers were to the south. Then, torches on, we carefully walked around cowpats and anthills to find a spot where we could set up our cameras. We noticed other cars there—at least 20 other astronomers had arrived before us.
The land was semi-cleared. To our great relief, resident snakes had taken off into the bush on hearing the footfalls of a platoon of men and women carrying torches, cameras and telescopes.
The spot was fairly level with low hills and a few trees which would be the foreground to the action. Venus was peeking over a mountain, so we set up our cameras aimed at her for we knew the drama would take place in that region.
Melissa had warned us we’d miss the first stages of partial eclipse, but it was a small price to pay for a good view of the rest of the extravaganza.
We started setting up our equipment—telescopes, cameras—in the dark. Each group chose a different vantage a point from which to view and photograph. We chose a spot from where the landscape would lend enchantment to the view and interest to our photos.
As the sky began lightening, the stars began to fade. The brightness grew; anticipation was palpable … and soon Venus vanished.
We talked to others in our group. Many had been to other solar eclipses—some had even been to four! Many said previous eclipses had been non-events due to bad weather. We were among a few first timers. We sure hoped we’d be first time lucky!
Slowly, one spot in the sky began to grow brighter. Someone called out, “Put on your solar glasses!”
The show had begun! All attention was focussed on the rising sun.
From the top left, the moon had taken a clean bite out of the sun!
Slowly the environs became darker. A bird called out. The air turned chill.
As the moon moved more over the sun, an unnatural hush descended. The vanished Venus and a few stars reappeared. The sun and moon slipped behind a tree giving me a unique photo of sun, moon and gum leaves.
We watched the sun becoming a crescent …
… and then a slim sliver. One of the kids called out, “It’s like a smiley!”
Eventually the sun was barely a thread of orange.
Then it happened! Total eclipse! A shout went up from the crowd!
“I can’t see a thing,” cried someone.
“Take off your solar glasses!”
“Ahhhh! That’s better. Look at that!”
This was the climax of the drama. The sun and moon were in perfect alignment. What did it matter that this event can be explained mathematically in celestial geometry? It was a moment of bliss and magic—a poetic moment to remember with all its sights, sounds and feelings.
Two stages rapidly followed. First came Baily’s Beads—sunlight, like coloured beads, shining through mountain valleys on the rim of the moon—
—then total eclipse when the sun’s disk was fully obscured, but its corona was visible like a halo.
The two minutes of total eclipse felt like 40 seconds.
And then—oh wow! For a brief second the diamond ring flashed!
How we savoured the moment!
And all too quickly it was over. Slowly, the sun emerged from the shadow of the moon. The exposure of the sun began anew.
As the sun waxed, sunspots were clearly evident.
With the return of the light, we noticed how green the trees around looked.
The shadow of the moon over the sun was all but gone.
The show was over, but people were reluctant to go home!
Sydney Observatory regulars who have chased solar eclipses in Turkey, Russia and Easter Island, all agreed that today’s Solar Eclipse was the best they’ve ever seen.
We two were indeed first time lucky!