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Dec 02

Solar Eclipse in the Outback

Day 1: Arrival (December 3, 2002)
We stand yawning in Sydney airport’s domestic terminal. It is not yet 6am, as we arrive at the departure gate. The airport is uncharacteristically quiet, expected at this hour, but still feels somewhat surreal. Large letters printed on the windows announce that the gate is for departures to Adelaide. The chairs in the terminal are dotted with the usual businessmen, flying to attend early Tuesday morning meetings elsewhere in the country, but this morning’s mixture of flyers is different. Here and there, people are not attired in the typical garb of business suits, but instead, shorts and t-shirts. People who are blinking in an effort to clear their bleary eyes whilst pouring over maps, and arcane charts filled with numbers and symbols. These people, like us, are chasing the solar eclipse of December 4, 2002.

The flight to Adelaide takes only a little longer than the average Hollywood movie, 1 hour and 45 minutes. Breakfast is served, and soon we land in Adelaide, only 75 minutes after we left due to time zone differences. The morning sun is weak, and it is only 16 degrees, so we don jumpers and head off in the car that we have rented, a fairly new Ford Falcon with 12000 km on the clock. Our destination for the day is Port Augusta, roughly 300km away, or a three hour drive. As we have plenty of time, we decide to have a poke around Adelaide, unaffectionately acknowledged as the biggest hole of an Australian state capital city where nothing ever happens.

It is just past 9am, and the city barely feels like it is waking up. Many shops are still shut or in the process of opening, and the streets are surprisingly empty in what should be peak hour traffic. We wander around Rundle mall, basically a small version of Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall, but without the people, and shop until noon. At lunchtime, the city is decidedly more active, though the footpaths are still far from being crowded. I complain to Dad how much of a hole Adelaide is, to which he chides me for being so critical.

“Ok, you name me one thing Adelaide is famous for.”

No reply is forthcoming. To be fair, Adelaide, built around the Torrens River, is a pleasant city, although its demeanour is similar to that of an oversized country town than a major city. Still, finding that Adelaide has nothing to offer us that we don’t already have in Sydney, we begin our drive northwards.

South Australia’s tourism commission proudly proclaims the state’s miles of unwinding road. Indeed, South Australia is a wonderful state for driving. The main highway is wide, with many kilometres of dead straight road. The day is bright and sunny, with scattered clouds punctuating a pale blue sky, but a constant breeze keeps the temperature at a comfortable level. Meanwhile, the terrain that scrolls by is ever changing. In keeping with Australia’s reputation for being an incredibly flat country, visibility extends for kilometres around. There is a distinct impression of space and freedom. The horizons, normally suffocated by the cityscape’s irregular outline of buildings, are replaced by the more natural features of the Australian landscape. In the distance to the west, gently rolling hills have acquired a deep cerulean hue in the wavering heat haze, emanating off an intercepting expanse of water that is Spencer Gulf. To the east, tanned plains extend to meet a range of hills – a mixture of rich ochre and auburn rock, speckled with the faded greenery of parched vegetation.

We pull into Port Pirie for a rest, although its name is a mystery to us, as this “port” seems to be kilometres off the coast of the Gulf. Nonetheless, this non-descript country town sports a McDonald’s which serves as a toilet stop for us. Stepping down from the car, we are assaulted with a barrage of flies, reminding us that summer has once again returned.

We arrive at Port Augusta in the late afternoon, although dusk is still some hours off. It is here that we have accommodation booked in a motel for the next two nights – a staging point for our eclipse viewing.

Choice of viewing location is crucial for any eclipse. Because of the remoteness of the locations this eclipse passes over, travel to any location will be time consuming. The path of the total eclipse (the “umbra”) is a narrow band, only tens of kilometres wide, which starts in eastern Africa in the morning, and sweeps across the Indian ocean. It once again crosses over land via Australia’s southern seaboard in the late evening (7.40pm), before setting, still partially eclipsed. Although totality – the point where the moon completely covers the sun – lasts for over three minutes at the peak of the eclipse, somewhere over the Indian ocean, Australia only catches the last dregs of it. Totality will be, at maximum, 30 seconds.

Although the eclipse crosses over large tracts of both the African and Australian continent, there are only two towns in the world that are in the direct path of 2002’s solar eclipse: Ceduna and Lyndhurst. Ceduna is a coastal town, some 464km west of Port Augusta. Lyndhurst is much further inland, about 300km north east of Port Augusta. In Ceduna, hotels, motels and inns alike have been booked out months in advance. This small town, population 3000, expected an extra 20000 people to swarm in for the eclipse. Many of these 20000 have travelled internationally especially for the eclipse, and one particularly enterprising group of Japanese even hired out a football field for the occasion. Because Ceduna could not hope to accommodate this sudden influx of people, an array of “tent cities” have been set up around the town, impromptu lodging for the thousands of travellers gathered there for a brief, but spectacular and momentous event.

Ceduna has better facilities than Lyndhurst, being less remote. Ceduna, basically situated where the eclipse enters Australia, experiences a totality four seconds longer than Lyndhurst. However, being a coastal town, the chances of inclement weather are increased. Cloud cover over the sun will destroy the full effect of a total eclipse. Further inland, although not immune from cloudy conditions, has greater possibilities of clear weather.

Stepping out of the restaurant at 7.40pm, I check the sky, anxious that the late hour of the eclipse would see the sun being too low on the horizon, dampening the impact of the eclipse. I need not have worried, though, as due to daylight saving, and the lengthier Australian summer days, the sun was still at a fair height. The weather situation in Ceduna, on the other hand, is looking doubtful, with scattered cloud forecasts arriving in for all coastal regions. However, our choice for viewing location takes us neither to Ceduna nor Lyndhurst. Rather, tomorrow, we were off to Wirraminna.

Day 2: Eclipse (December 4, 2002)
Geographically, Wirraminna is roughly halfway between Ceduna and Lyndhurst. Wirraminna is not a town, but merely the name of a 2 kilometre rail siding, designed exclusively to let trains, in their long journey across the continent from Darwin to Adelaide, pass each other. Because of this, the crowds at this location were likely to be a small fraction of those in the towns and viewing conditions among the best.

Wirraminna is approximately 250km north-west of Port Augusta, situated along the Stuart Highway: a single laned, but well maintained, road that crawls thousands of kilometres up through the great, vast deserts of outback Australia, from Adelaide, through Alice Springs and finally to Darwin at the north end of the country. The highway is named after explorer John McDouall Stuart, who in 1862, after numerous failed attempts, found a path from Adelaide, through the gruelling outback environment, to the north coast of Australia – a seven month journey.

Start of the Stuart Highway

We pack for the day’s trip, ensuring that we have sufficient fuel, food and water, and importantly, our photographic equipment, which between the four of us, is composed of 2 video, 1 SLR, 1 digital and 2 normal “point-and-shoot” cameras. It is 9am when we leave.

In Australia, there are three types of environments: the urban, the bush and the outback. Away from Port Augusta, the transition from the urban to the outback is sharp. Unlike New South Wales, there is hardly any land that could be considered as bushland, as the Australian outback begins to claim the inland terrain almost immediately.

The outback landscape is extraordinary. As with the trip to Port Augusta, a 360 degree view of the horizon is possible, except that out here, the horizon is absolutely flat. Unbridled flatness. The same rusty red dirt that has scattered itself along the highway extends outwards for kilometres around. Tufts of dry grass abound, with the occasional low-lying Mulga tree disrupting the skyline. Wildlife, though scarce, exists, with the occasional emu striding off in the distance, or the occasional fly-ridden kangaroo carcass – victims of roadkill – lying alongside the road. The landscape is starkly monotonous, but the desolation is strangely mesmerising. The further we progress inland, the more barren the surroundings become.

Panorama of the Outback

We stop at a lookout that opens up a view across a salt flat. A vast, perfectly flat pan of reflective whiteness, a remnant of what, in the wet season, used to be a large lake. Now, it is a sterile curiousity, parched from the relentless evaporation inflicted upon it by the sun. The many lakes along the highway are in fact salt lakes at this time of year, a literally glaring reminder of the aridness of this place.

Traffic along the highway is busier than usual. Eclipse tourists. A line of cars, campervans and four-wheel drives stretches out in front and behind us. We pass only a handful of vehicles headed the other way, mostly road trains: huge, lumbering 150 ton trucks, towing up to three trailers, fully laden with a myriad of supplies for, or from, the townships along the highway.

At another rest point, a salt lake rests right by the roadside. We shuffle down a short embankment to get a closer look. Surprisingly, there is still a trace of water in this lake, centimetres thick, above a crust of damp salt. The damp salt tastes putrid, and is undercut by a gluggy layer of mud. Further away, where the water has long vanished, the salt has transmogrified into a rock hard, glittering surface. A Swedish eclipse watcher with a Canon Powershot G2 camera lies down to capture a particularly bizarre salt formation on the lake surface on film, but struggles to maneuver himself into a position where his supporting arms are not scratched by the salt beneath his elbows. The Swede has travelled a long distance to be here, his last eclipse viewing in Germany being stymied by cloud cover. He gazes up towards the heavens and smiles optimistically. Today will not be a disappointment, he says.

We look around and realise that we have been lucky. The sky is cloudless. The blueness above, even more featureless than the brownness below. The sun is high above the horizon, but it is not hot. A strong wind has arisen from the west, blowing dry but cooling gusts of air across the outback. Meanwhile, news from Ceduna filtering up is reporting scattered cloud down south.

It is still early by the time we reach Pimba, a tiny town marking a turnoff from the highway that goes to Roxby Downs. Pimba has not much besides Spud’s roadhouse. A 24 hour service station with attached bar and room full of pokies machines. Though mainly catering to passing truckies, today Spud’s was lively with tourists. We decide that Woomera, only 8 kilometres up the road, is a more interesting place and drive there for lunch instead.

Woomera is well known for its role as a missile test site, most active in the 50s and 60s last century. The Woomera township itself borders a huge area of land, the Woomera prohibited area, that is still under military control. More recently, Woomera has been in the news as it is the site of Australia’s much maligned refugee centre. Not surprisingly, there is no evidence that a refugee centre exists at all in the area. Instead, the town is dedicated to a commemoration of its historical role in rocketry development. Woomera was bustling. Probably the bustling it had been since the town was founded in 1946. Throngs of tourists – Americans with thick yankee accents, to mainland Chinese dressed in their characteristic suits and ties despite the outback weather, to Europeans wearing “Eclipse in the Outback” t-shirts – all milling around.

Inside the Woomera heritage centre, we eat lunch, and then elect to visit the local museum. We pay $3 for entry and ask for an entry ticket, only to be told that none exists. “Just go in,” we are told. I guess the honour system works well out here.

The small one-room museum hosts a variety of memorabilia from Woomera’s heyday, with model rockets and planes, theodolites and faded photos. A model of the Lake Hart Launch Area stands on one side of the room. The launch area was to be the test site for a cutting edge “V2” rocket that Britain was jointly developing with Australia. Unfortunately, after the equivalent of $200 million being spent on the construction of the site, Britain decided that it no longer thought the project was viable, and canned it. The site still exists today, alongside the salt flat that is Lake Hart, but all that remains of the launch area are its giant crumbling concrete foundations.

The hour of the eclipse draws closer and I spend some time constructing makeshift solar filters for my camera and video camera from the lenses of some eclipse glasses. Having not bought any costly solar filters, I decided to make them myself. After aiming them at the sun, now descending in the sky, I was feeling quite satisfied of their effectiveness. Not as good as proper $100 filters, but still incredibly good value for $6.

“First contact”, where the moon would first start to creep across the sun, would occur at 6.40pm, with totality being achieved almost exactly an hour after that. It is now 4pm. We leave Woomera and Pimba behind and make our final trip to the eclipse site, stopping by Lake Hart along the way. On the approach to Wirraminna, campervans, tents and caravans begin to line the roadside. Anticipation builds, as 52km from Pimba, we cross a cattle grid. 1.4km later, we cross the southern limit of the eclipse area and enter the umbral zone, where anyone within would see totality, albeit only briefly at this extremity.

10km further and we near the centreline of the eclipse. Crowds have started to gather by the roadside, an array of sedans, four-wheel drives, vans, tour buses, and even road trains whose drivers have been fortunate enough to pass through the area at the time, all sitting lined up on the dirt. The high radio mast of a solar powered radio transmitter signifies the Wirraminna rail stop to our right, but we decide to press on. The centreline of the eclipse is the point at which totality lasts the longest, however, due to factors such as atmospheric refraction, the true centreline now lay a few kilometres further down the road, just past the Coondambo Fibre Optic Repeater Station. The repeater station is a fully automated, solar powered facility. It acts as a repeater device, regenerating the optical signals that travel along the fibre cable that joins Adelaide to Darwin. Gigabytes of Internet traffic data stream through it, and from Darwin, are forwarded onwards to Asia and Europe.

Wirraminna roadside at about 5.30pm (large panorama). Cars continue to pour in over the next hour.

The roadside is now like a car park, as more cars continue to stream in. In the outback, however, space is ample, and we have no trouble finding a viewing spot, just opposite the repeater station. It is roughly 5.30pm, and we begin to set ourselves up. Conditions are perfect, except for a stiff wind that is buffeting our camera tripod, so we tie it down with three shopping bags filled with rocks.

Stretching up and down the roadside in one of Australia’s more remote areas, are now lines and lines of people, all waiting expectantly for the spectacle about to unfold. Some chill in banana chairs, VBs in hand. Some are fiddling with their equipment. Some are sharing a yarn. Telescopes, and all sorts of cameras and other monitoring devices point westwards, and there is a buzz in the air, palpable even in the brisk wind, and the excitement mounts.

6.40pm approaches, and people begin to cast their glances towards the sun. I slip my eclipse glasses on, which turns the blindingly incandescent fireball in the sky into an angry red circle, framed in blackness. The seconds tick on. Nothing seems to happen, but then in the bottom-left corner, something. An optical illusion? Our imaginations playing on our expectations, perhaps? But no, in the corner of what should be a perfect circle, is an imperfection. It is the moon. The eclipse begins.

In the initial minutes, people are pointing skywards, jabbering, “Look! Look!” Tautologically, it would seem, for there is not a single person not transfixed. Thus begins the hour long wait, as the moon slowly consumes the sun. Without the glasses, you wouldn’t suspect a thing, for although the sun is being covered, there is no visible diminishment in its radiance.

The eclipse begins at 6.40pm / The moon marches on.* / Almost there…

Relatively few people on earth witness a solar eclipse, for not only are they rare events, but when they do occur, they happen over remote, unpopulated areas or the ocean. Solar eclipses are rare, because the moon’s orbital plane is tilted from earth’s orbital plane. Thus, only when the moon lies between the earth and sun, and where its orbital plane intersects earth’s, will an eclipse occur. A maximum of five solar eclipses can happen in a year. Though lunar eclipses happen less frequently, they are more visible because when one occurs, half the earth can see it (those in nighttime), whereas, solar eclipses are only visible along the umbral path. Furthermore, solar eclipses are sometimes annular. This means that the moon is not large enough to cover the full face of the sun (even though it travels directly across it) and the normal effect of a solar eclipse is not achieved.

Solar eclipses in history have signified many things. Asians have traditionally believed that a dragon was munching its way through the sun, and have employed measures such as drum-banging, firecrackers and shooting arrows into the sky in an effort to scare it away. In Tahiti, eclipses have been regarded as the sun and moon engaging in sex. Even today, solar eclipses are interpreted as signals of divine providence, or omens. We Aussies are just happy that such a spectacle landed in our backyard.

The excitement simmers, while people stand around looking silly in their eclipse glasses. Some, though, employ a more traditional method of eclipse viewing – poking a hole in a card, and then projecting the image of the sun through that hole onto another piece of cardboard. It is at about 7.30pm when things start to pick up again. By this time, the moon is covering up a sizeable portion of the sun. And subtly, the light across the outback plains starts to dim. Imperceptibly at first, but slowly everyone notices. It is an eerie experience. Even though it is late in the late evening, the sun is still appearing to shine as brightly as ever in the sky. However, all around, things are harder to make out than they should be. The sun, through glasses, is crescent shaped.

Darkness begins to fall. This is not the gradual darkness of dusk, or even the sudden darkness of a black storm cloud covering the sun, but such something much more intense and foreboding. The drop in sunlight sweeps across the plains uniformly in all directions, ever accelerating, and even now, the sun itself is beginning to fail in the sky. The wind has whipped up, and the temperature drops. Shadows began to fade, merging with the increasing gloom. Silence.

Anticipation builds, and not a soul is not looking towards the dimming sun. Through the glasses, the moon continues is smooth slide across the sun, which is now but a sliver. People start to yell, “it is coming!” The sliver seems to thin forever, but suddenly there is a flash, the flash of the diamond ring effect – a parting gesture from the sun – as the moon completely slides across it, achieving totality and plunging the land into darkness.

It is as if a key had been turned in a lock, and clicked.

7.40pm: Totality.* / End of totality, shown by a diamond ring effect as the moon moves off the sun.* / The momentary flash of light from the diamond ring effect.

Everyone is awestruck. Some people are cheering, some people are clapping, some people are looking dumbfounded. But everyone has whipped off their glasses and is staring upwards.

All around, it is night time. Objects appear murky. Stars, shimmering beacons in the celestial void, have come out, and the temperature drops a few more degrees. But the chills running up and down my spine are not from the cold. No, for up in the sky is one of the most remarkably staggering and extraordinary sights people have witnessed, or will witness, in their lives. For me, it was the achievement of one of my lifelong goals, and an unforgettable moment. Suspended in the sky, which was no longer blue, but black, was the silhouette of the moon, as perfect a circle and as black a black as you could ever see, encircled and emblazoned by a fiery aura of rich crimson and orange – the sun’s corona – which appeared to gently pulsate and throb with a graceful smoothness. I was spellbound. All around, cameras fired and shutters whirled, people whistled and others moaned in wonder. The atmosphere was electric.

The landscape during totality. This has been scanned directly from the photo negative as the photo development place somehow neglected to develop this particular picture.*

28 seconds. A brief 28 seconds to savour the experience. A rich experience of sight, sounds, and spine-tingling feeling. It was all over too fast, as a flash from the second diamond ring effect triumphantly announced the return of the sun and the end of the unique spectacle. In my state of awe, I had forgotten to remove the filter from the video camera, thereby failing to capture totality on film, but it was but a small bother. I had seen a total solar eclipse, and that was what mattered.

Minutes later, people begin to leave. We decide to stay back to watch the outback sunset. Light gradually returns as the moon moves onwards. The sky begins to acquire a pinkish haze as the sun drifts down. We relax from the car, as another traveler begins to leave. A single man, from rural New South Wales. He too, drove from Port Augusta, and was meant to meet up with friends in Ceduna. However, upon hearing about the weather, decided to head for Wirraminna instead, thinking it to be the wiser option. Further news from Ceduna, however, was that the clouds had fortuitously parted in time for the eclipse. The sun finally creeps below the horizon, still in partial eclipse, obscured by the retreating moon, and twilight arrives.

Sunset in the outback. The sun is still partially eclipsed. / Queueing for petrol at Spud’s in Pimba.

On the way home, we are all exhilarated. Not in a psyched up, adrenaline induced way, but in a reserved manner of disbelief and amazement. It is a long drive home, so we stop over at Spud’s for dinner. Spud’s is doing business like it has never done before. Tourists are converging here from the surrounding eclipse zones for dinner or for refueling. Cars are queued up several deep, waiting for a petrol pump, and it takes up to an hour to get served food.

By the time we finish eating, the queues at the fuel station are gone, and Spud’s has started to clear out. The sun’s rays have completely disappeared from the land. On the highway back to Port Augusta, we pull into an observation point. A few cars are parked here, people staying for the night in their cars and campervans. We switch off the headlights and at once involuntarily gasp as we are enveloped in pure darkness and the beauty of the night sky becomes immediately apparent.

Far away from the “pollution” of city lights, it is as dark as it gets, and the night sky is free to explode in a dazzling display of starlight. The land around is shrouded in utter blackness, but where it meets the horizon, the sky has a deep, faint blue glow. Without light for kilometres around, save from passing traffic, it is so dark you cannot see yourself, nor your surroundings – only the stars above. A thick band of stars swathing the sky from east to west forms the Milky Way. There are clouds in the sky, except that you realise that the night is cloudless. These clouds are actually the magellanic clouds, distant clusters of stars. We spot the Southern Cross, low over the western horizon. Sirius and Canopus, the two brightest stars as viewed from earth, twinkle to the south. An unwavering point amongst a sea of thousands of shimmering dots is Saturn. Although forever gone from the city skies, the beauty of the night sky still reigns over the outback, as it has since the dawn of time.

It is 1.30am when we return to our motel room, slipping easily into a deep, satisfied slumber. We had seen what we came for.

* * *

The next eclipse in the world has a totality that extends for seven minutes, but as it is over Antarctica, very few people will have the chance to see it. In contrast, in a decade or so, another eclipse will pass near Shanghai, and will be witnessed by millions.
* Photo Notes
Most photos were taken with my digital camera. However, being the three year old brick that it is, it had trouble with the light metering, resulting in wonky exposures. Soph’s normal point-and-shoot camera was more successful in capturing the sun. These photos were scanned in and are denoted with an asterisk. Unfortunately, none of these photos remotely do justice to what was seen on the day.

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