Packing the family for a solar eclipse in Australia

New York TimesApril 20, 2013 

  • Eyes on the heavens

    Kenya: A major total solar eclipse will cross the African continent Nov. 3, with Kenya being the optimal viewing point. It will be a rare hybrid eclipse, which means some people will see a total eclipse while others will see a partial one. Totality will be brief – only 15 seconds – but you’ll be able to fold in plenty of other adventures in Kenya. Sky & Telescope magazine ( skyandtelescope.com) is sponsoring a weeklong tour at $5,695 for a double and $6,389 for single occupancy.

    Atlantic Ocean: To see a full minute of the total eclipse in November, consider a 10-day cruise with Ring of Fire Expeditions ( eclipsetours.com), priced from $4,469 to $13,499. It starts in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, catches the eclipse in the Atlantic Ocean, then continues to Barbados.

    Desert near La Serena, Chile: This is a dark-sky site, far away from the light pollution from urban and suburban locations that can wipe out the Milky Way and make most nebula, galaxies and star clusters impossible to see. It is also home to a hotel called Elqui Domos ( elquidomos.cl) that has telescopes on hand and domed rooms with views of the night sky.

    Alaska: The state is a prime viewing location for the aurora borealis, which generates some of the most astonishing astronomical experiences imaginable. AlaskaTours.com arranges viewings of the northern lights from the Fairbanks area, including the Chena Hot Springs Resort.

A television commercial break during the Super Bowl. The world record for a woman to run a mile. The time it took to board my flight.

These are among the many things that last longer than a total solar eclipse.

So taking a 37-hour journey from my home in Pennsylvania to north Queensland, Australia, to view such a fleeting event might not seem like a natural vacation, especially not with your family in tow. But the promise of a prime viewing spot was all it took for me, an astronomy enthusiast, to book a trip last November.

I would be joining the legions of people you could call astrotourists, who, undaunted by the prospect of a cloudy day, travel extraordinary distances for the opportunity to glimpse the latest ex-orbital phenomenon. Sure, a meteor streaking across the sky is flashy, especially when it’s not expected, but to us, seeing a total solar eclipse is the holy grail, an experience so priceless you wouldn’t hesitate to subject yourself and your wife and your young daughters to the time and expense of a 12,000-mile trip to see one. (What’s 12,000 miles when you consider the 200,000-odd miles between the Earth and the moon?)

I’d dreamed of what it must be like to witness an eclipse for years. I’d marveled at images of them. And I knew, from the hours spent gazing through my telescopes at star clusters, galaxies and planets, that firsthand astronomical observations always trumped photos in books or on computer screens. It becomes an experience – eyepiece views of Saturn and Jupiter are imprinted in my memory in ways Hubble pictures are not.

Eclipses, I had heard, were in yet another league. They feel close, powerful. They turn day to night and reveal our star’s complex, gauzy atmosphere in the space of minutes.

“It really is an amazing visual experience that can become a life-changer for some people,” said Paul Maley, a retired NASA engineer who organizes eclipse trips with Ring of Fire Expeditions, one of dozens of operators that cater to astrotourists.

“People get different things out of it, and even after seeing more than 40 eclipses, I’m still surprised by how people react. One guy on a trip to Indonesia was so freaked out he hyperventilated. We had to get him a paper bag.”

Although I hoped it wouldn’t come to that for my daughters, Lucy, 11, and Alice, 8, or my wife, Kimberly, I did want us to share a life-altering experience. This particular one was visible only in far north Queensland. And if the eclipse was a bust, there was a fail-safe: We would be within easy distance of the Great Barrier Reef, the Australian Outback and lush rain forests.

Thousands of tourists

We arrived at our destination, Port Douglas, a resort town an hour north of Cairns, a few days before the eclipse. It was sunny and warm. We checked in to our boutique hotel – the Apartments at the White House – and passed time splashing in the waters of Four Mile Beach a block away, strolling a strip of upscale restaurants and stores that made up the downtown and exploring nearby Daintree Rain Forest in our rental car. In the evenings, we walked along the beach. The town, then in the off-season, buzzed as it would amid an Australian summer. Thousands of eclipse-chasers had flooded Port Douglas – among more than 50,000 that came to northern Queensland for the event. The coming eclipse dominated local chatter online, on the air and on the streets.

The day before the eclipse, however, any sense of relaxation I felt vanished when I walked out to the beach before dawn. The horizon above the Coral Sea was filled with puffy clouds. I wasn’t alone in my worry. Dozens of other chasers who had come from Asia, the Middle East, the United States, Europe and other points in Australia scanned the sky. Many had no backup plans. Because rental cars were scarce, Port Douglas was their only option. I suddenly felt extremely grateful that I had reserved a car six months in advance.

That same day, jet lag and fatigue caught up with everyone in my family at once, and we spent much of the day in irritable funks. Late afternoon brought more rain than sun, and I had to decide: Should we stick it out with most of the crowd in town and hope for a break in the clouds or shoot inland to try to find clear skies someplace where coastal weather patterns weren’t a factor? That would mean forcing my cranky crew to sleep in our rental car in the Australian Outback.

Tackling Plan B

But I sensed we had to do it, and Kimberly and the girls gamely agreed. Without a peep of protest, we packed pillows, blankets and snacks into the car and set out for Mareeba, a town about an hour west of Cairns. A local newscaster had tweeted that town as a good Plan B. It’s high in the Atherton Tablelands and famed for its nearly year-round sunshine.

We drove in darkness and rain along slow, twisting roads, arriving in Mareeba before midnight. As we prowled the countryside looking for a reasonably secure place to park, we spotted other cars and vans filled with people also camped by the side of the road. A herd of kangaroos – our first in-the-wild spotting – bounded from the woods and across our headlights.

We settled on an empty park. I thought the girls had fallen asleep until I heard a drowsy exclamation from Lucy: “Look at the sky!” We got out. It was crystal clear, and thanks to the lack of light pollution, the inky black sky was studded with thousands of bright stars. We spotted a slew of targets that you can’t see in the Northern Hemisphere: the Southern Cross, multiple spectacular star clusters, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds – two enormous galaxies that look like clouds hanging in the air. It was a stunning interlude before a few hours of rest.

At dawn, we went to a coffee plantation called Skybury, which had a virtually cloudless, blue-sky view nearly all the way to the coast. A crowd had gathered there, and the staff was brewing coffee. I set up a compact 5-inch aperture Celestron telescope and a dedicated solar scope, the latter of which is the only way to view the progression of the eclipse before the moon completely obscures the sun.

The show started around 6:30. A modest bite on the left of the sun grew, turning it into a deep crescent. As the sun was shrinking to a sliver, the air grew cooler and the terrain took on a darker hue. Shadows became strangely acute, as the dimmed overhead light focused more intensely than the dimmed angled light of sunrise or sunset. We saw hot-air balloons in the valley below us. Someone nearby pointed up and shouted “Venus!” The planet shone brightly as we rotated into the Moon’s shadow. Other stars emerged, no longer outshone by the sun.

Then, the sun swiftly became a mere pinprick before the moon completely – and perfectly – blotted it out. A bright halo, shimmering and alive, was the only indication of its existence. It grew dark, and the birds around us hushed. People gasped. I looked at Kimberly and the girls on their blanket; they sat there watching, their mouths hanging open.

I realized how inadequate all the photos I’ve seen of an eclipse are. They lack context – the sky, the ground, the bits of brightness visible around the edge of the sun’s shadow at the horizon. Many people say they feel small and insignificant when observing the universe in all its vastness. But I felt connected to the cosmos, part of a perfect machine.

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