Paracelsus' poison

Paracelsus' poison

An eye-witness report from the solar eclipse

Crescent leaf shadows. Ian Musgrave

The difference between today and 2002 could have hardly been more stark. Then, a knot of us waited in the desert on a slight rise over an ancient ochre mine. The air was dry and the sun was setting over a gibber plain while the wind lashed at us.

This time, I was on a lush green hill in tropical North Queensland. The rising sun sparkled off the sea as we breathed in the humid air waiting for syzygy.

Syzygy is an alignment of planetary bodies, in this case the sun and moon, creating a solar eclipse, the first total solar eclipse in Australia since 2002. Below us, thousands of people were lined up on the beach waiting for what was, for many, a once in a lifetime event. For others – the eclipse followers – this was one more eclipse they had travelled across the world to see.

Up and down the coast, and inland, the scenes were the same, from families with eclipse glasses to serious eclipse watchers with serious telescopes and cameras with alarming telephoto lenses. But all were bound by the desire to see a rare but amazing event.

We are at an unusual point in Earth history, the moon is big enough and far enough away from Earth that when it (very occasionally), passes in front of the sun it just covers it, so we get darkness and spectacular views of the solar corona. You can see eclipses from Mars when its moon Deimos passes in front of the sun – but with only about a third of the sun covered. It’s not as spectacular as the view from Earth. But at least on Mars you don’t have to compete with thick, orgulous rain clouds.

I’d picked out my spot to view the eclipse carefully. Yorkeys Knob (in Cairns) doesn’t climb far above the sea, but it does climb a bit and had spectacular uninterrupted views to the east. Don, the sailor I was staying next to, said when he climbed Yorkeys, he pre-dialled 000 and walked up with his finger on the send button, ready for the incipient heart attack. He wasn’t joking.

When I got the feeling back in my legs, I set up my camera and binocular projection system amidst a crowd of far fitter onlookers.

The sun rose above the peak jutting out in the sea, glowing with promise. And then ran smack into a bank of cloud.

The sky, which had been fairly clear except for a band of cloud hugging the horizon, was suddenly filled with the kinds of dark pendulous clouds that promise a good soaking. So began a game of hide-and-seek, as the moon slid over the sun. We had brief glimpses of the increasingly crescent sun as gaps in the cloud came over. Finally, large chunks of the sky were clear except for one persistent cloud which was squatting, you guessed it, right over the sun.

Suddenly, the light went out as if some one had thrown a switch. There had been a pool of light underneath the recalcitrant cloud, and that too vanished. Everyone on the hill gasped or cheered. We waited, the cloud waited.

Then all of a sudden the light appeared again, a thin sliver of sunlight, like a glowing wire, broke through the cloud. We had missed totality, but we were able to see the sun appear from behind the moon clearly. After a little while, when the sun was still making crescent shadows in the leaves of the nearby trees, people started to wander off, and by the end, only a few of the diehard were left to watch the moon slide off the sun.

What we saw just after totality. Ian Musgrave

Each eclipse is different, and even the the same eclipse can be different from different locations. Up our end of Yorkeys and next door at Trinity beach (my other favoured location) the eclipse was hidden. Down the other end of the beach, they saw totality. Cairns was clouded out, but Palm Beach and Mareebra clear for those critical moments. Even out of those who had gone to sea to escape the cloud, some succeeded, some didn’t.

Me, while I’m sad I didn’t see the corona, I still had a marvellous experience that I am glad I didn’t miss. The next total eclipse in Australia is 2028, so I’m making plans again. But for the moment I’ll bask in the memories of this one.