Total Solar Eclipse

Under the brilliant starry sky we are waiting for dawn and the eclipse. It’s just after four am and similarly minded folk are on the move. There’s a lot of traffic on the road. But we’ve got our spot. We wait.
The Milky Way and then the fainter stars disappear as the sky shifts from black velvet to deep blue. Venus is well risen, our guide for a clear view to the east.
By a quarter to five we see a distant cloud bank, dark in the pale sky. Coastal clouds. A long way off, but how far up the sky will they rise? It’s all back in the melting pot again.
The sun will only be about fourteen degrees above the horizon at the time of the eclipse. If the clouds stay as they are I reckon we’ll have a few degrees spare. We breakfast on fruit cake and bottled water. Alison insisted on a full tank, at least a gallon of water and basic rations on board before she would embark on such a perilous anabasis into the outback. She may have a point. Anxiety has whetted our appetites and the warm air is dehydrating.
The sun rises around five thirty. Small patches of light cloud drift over the sky to the north. A sense of panic rises. Do we make a further dash westward? Or do we hold our ground here? This is not good for the health.
We make the decision to stand and fight, observe, whatever. The sun now becomes partially visible through the clouds. We put on our eclipse spectacles bought for a few dollars a couple of days back. We can see nothing though them. Have we been conned by the grasping locals? Ten to six and we get a clearer view of the sun. Now the spectacles provide a fine view of the half-eaten sun. The honest yeomen of Queensland are exonerated. We see a fat crescent which I can project with the binoculars onto a sketch pad.
The sun has now cleared the cloud bank. My confidence that we will have a clear view of totality is increasing, but it’s still a tense situation. By six twenty the crescent of the sun is very slim. The quality of the morning light is changing, it is dimmer, less vibrant.
Six thirty, the crescent is a sliver which is clearly visible to the naked eye without much discomfort. The light around us is very eerie. It is not like dawn. It is not like evening. It has a dead, colourless quality which is disturbing. I place the blank sketch pad so it’s facing the sun. I’m sure I see faint, rapidly moving shadows on it. This is a diffraction effect on the last rays from the sun which I have heard about.
It’s here, and astounding. The sky suddenly dims to a deep, deep twilight and the brighter stars appear. A tiny, brilliant necklace, Bailey’s beads, surround the dark moon for an instant and I seem to see a deep redness within them. The pale corona of the sun pushes out from the black disk of the moon like a gas stove being lit..
There are ‘Ooohs’ and ‘Aaahs’ from further up the road where a lot of people are parked. We chime in too. ‘Wow!’ Is the most articulate comment I can muster. ‘That’s just wonderful’ gasps Alison.
The scene before us is something the mind has difficulty taking in. We’ve seen it so many times before in photos and video. But this is different. There is a stark sense of the enormous scale of the event we are watching, like seeing an unbelievably high mountain. If you didn’t know what was going on this would be terrifying. I attempt to use the camcorder. It turns out that I get a few seconds of decent video but the camera is all over the place, a fair reflection of my state of mind. We’ve only just been lucky though, a cloud is very close to the sun.
Then a brilliant spot appears on the upper left of the disk. The diamond on the ring grows and as suddenly as it started totality is over. We are back in the eerie twilight. I have a poignant sense of the passing of a magic moment. This incredible event will happen again, millions of times. But it may well be that I never see it again.
Driving back down to Port Douglas feelings of quiet elation and contentment take over. I get quite jingoistic. Our defeat by cloud at Rheims in 1999 has been avenged! We have seen the total eclipse of the sun!


Night Drive and Stars

Drive from Port Douglas, early morning, 14th November.
The evening is tense. We are trying to decide whether we drive inland or stay put. The weather satellite pics shows a narrow coastal fringe of cloud. The same is forecast for tomorrow, the morning of the total eclipse. It should be clear west of Mareeba according to the latest Weather Bureau report. Eventually we come down on the side the drive inland. It won’t be worse than on the beach and may be better. Not as far as the Palmer Roadhouse though. Ten thousand people have congregated there. Sounds like it will be overpopulated by those of the New Age. Unappealing.
We set off at two am. The drive out is through the warm darkness and across the flat, coastal area of the Cook Highway beyond Port Douglas. We climb into the hills to Julatten by an incredibly long and winding road. We turn North onto the Mulligan Highway. Graeme has warned us of the danger of kangaroos and stock on the roads. Signs on the road repeat the warning as does the squashed body of a roo. There are very few cars. This is a relief, we had feared a mass exodus. Clearly not everyone is as worried about the weather as we are. Then we are on to the long, straight road beyond Mount Carbine. We see A number of cars that have already parked on the roadside as we drive. The road verge is of sunbaked mud with scattered trees beyond. We spot a broad area, drive off the road and park. It is around three thirty am.
We get out into a silence rendered more intense by a quiet, insect background. The air smells delicately spicy, sort of vanilla. It is warm but not the humid oppression of Port Douglas. Then we see the starscape in the sky above us. It is just stunning. The sky is totally dark. The air is clear. The exquisite bright band of the Milky Way rises from the south east to cross the sky. The bold brilliance of Orion is vertically above us and Sirius a little to the west. Canopus leads the stars of the Ship scattered along the Milky Way. Suddenly I realise that the four stars just above a tree in front of us is the Southern Cross. Hello at last! The Coal Sack is clearly visible. A hole in the Milky Way just below the Cross as we see it. Above that there are several patches of nebulousity. Once again I’m using SkySafari with its compass setting. It really is good. There’s eta Carinae, lambda Centauri and the Southern Pleiades. The whole area is incredibly rich. Sweeping it with binoculars takes your breath away. There’s kappa Crucis, the Jewel Box in the Cross. I need to get a look at that with a telescope. Now, low in the sky through the trees, I see alpha Centauri. For the first time in my life I see the third brightest star in the sky.
Time for a little ceremony. The only luxury item in my luggage is the old ‘Norton’s Star Atlas’ I used to use as a teenaged amateur astronomer. I have the glossy, greatly expanded and updated version at home. I used to look at the plate of the South Polar stars and say to myself; ‘ Someday I’ll see you.’ Well, today’s the day! Alison takes a photo of me with the battered old volume open at that page standing in front of the Southern Cross. There’s no way you can see the Cross but I know it’s there.


Of Stars and Snakes

November 11th November, late
The night has fallen with the rapid onset of darkness and sudden, unnerving burst of cicada activity we have noted before. We eat to the accompaniment of Sarah Vaughan (via the iPhone) and the cicada aubade.
It is very clear outside. We decide to go down to the lakeside and take a look at the stars. We get out at the lakeside car park in pitch darkness. There is a wonderful display of stars. The trees around are a bit high for a perfect view but this is the best sight we’ve had so far of the southern sky. There is a cloudy patch of light low in the west which is the star clouds in Sagittarius. The teapot shape is diving, spout first, towards the western horizon. I find other familiar stars. Altair then Deneb, the inverted Pegasus and Andromeda and the Pleiades very low in the north east.
Our eyes are now accustomed to the dark. It is still very warm. This tropical night seems to induce synaesthesia. I feel the sky as dark velvet. The stars are like tiny, brilliant drops of some exotic pine resin. I can smell them. OK, maybe its the surrounding trees, eucalyptus and the like. But this is really exciting. This is my first good view of the southern constellations.
Fomalhaut is close to the zenith and I clearly see the shape of the southern fish. Below it is another definite shape, Grus really does look like an aboriginal stylised crane. Achernar I had picked out even in the glare above Brisbane and it is high to my left.
I’m using the iPad app SkySafari (set to show the sky at Cairns since I don’t have internet connectivity for the ‘Current Location’ setting) and, as a self luminous star map, it really is good for navigation.
I locate alpha Pavonis. The remarkable app informs me that it was named ‘Peacock’ by HM Nautical Almanac Office in the 1930s. From Peacock I can identify stars in Indus and Tucana. Between Pavo and Sagittarius is the exquisite circlet of Corona Australis looking unreal as it is so precisely drawn. From Achernar I can trace the river Eridanus. I always thought it a bit of a cheat to have a river as a constellation, after all, any group of stars can take the shape of a river. But the stars of Eridanus seen from this latitude link together beautifully like a pearl necklace, reinforcing the velvet feel of the sky.
Above Achernar the Phoenix is another moderately convincing bird shape. Below Achernar alpha and beta Hydri are easy to spot. And just above beta the faint patch of light that is the Smaller Magellanic Cloud. That’s definitely 25 points on my ‘I Spy’ score. My app tells me that the larger cloud has risen but the trees around the lake are too high and dense to make a sighting. A treat for another night, but not I think, tomorrow when we’ll be in Port Douglas and back in the bright lights. We call it a night, and a very satisfying one too.
On the way back as we make our way down the dark track to our cabin Alison cries ‘Stop!’ I peer at what I take at first to be a large root across the path. It is not. It is a large snake motionless in the headlights. It must be close to eight feet in length. We wait for it to move. It doesn’t. I get the impression it is basking in the warmth of the path rather than crossing it. Eventually I get out of the car, approach it gingerly on the assumption that any snake that size is going to be a constrictor rather than a venomous one. I poke it very gently with a stick. I must admit I checked the stick carefully before picking it up. The snake turns and moves back towards the side then stops again. Another gentle nudge. The huge beast slides gracefully and unhurriedly back into the undergrowth. We drive on.
This is not the sort of incident you associate with an evening’s star watching, not in Northamptonshire, anyway.


First Glimpses

Tuesday evening is mainly overcast. We have dinner in an Indian restaurant in nearby Rosalie after a walk through the scented night. Here there is a group of popular and lively eateries. Cup Day revellers are in evidence among the clientele. The meal is more than adequate and plentiful.
Late on I take a look through the balcony door and see a bright star high in the South East. I guess that it is Canopus. This is the first time in my life that I have seen the second brightest star in the entire sky.
We take a late stroll through the brightly lit streets. Only a few of the brighter stars are visible through the glare. In the north is an inverted view of Orion, Taurus, Aries and Pegasus. It is still warm and Sirius is very high and bright. This is not it’s usual sparkling, frosty and wintry persona. Fomalhaut, which I am so used to seeing lying on the bottom of its aquarium tank on the southern horizon of an autumn evening, is high up in the South West.
Turning again to the south, Achernar is high in front of us and we can identify the Tucan and the Peacock from the southern aviary. We try to organise the few remaining available stars into a southern cross. It is not convincing. Later I realise that the Cross has not risen yet. I’ve been using SkySafari to familiarise myself with the southern sky. I have the location set at Christchurch, NZ where the Cross is circumpolar. In Brisbane at 23 degrees South, the cross will not rise for another hour or two.
It will be a while before I’m as comfortable with this view of the sky as I am with the one where the Plough and Cassiopeia are permanent residents. Here, they are nowhere to be seen.