Chasing Solar Eclipses in Indonesia
Yesterday, birdsong stopped. The world became a mixture of darkness and persimmon. Nocturnal crickets and other insects began to roar, signalling the approach of evening. But it wasn’t evening – it was the dead of the day. I was on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, and I was lucky enough to witness a total eclipse of the sun.
A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes in front of the sun, blocking its entire photosphere from sight, leaving a fiery corona fringing the moon’s big black disc. Viewing one is perhaps the most perplexing, mystical and eerie moment a human can experience. In fact, it seems like the fucking end of the world.
For a given period of time, you are able to stare at a black sun illuminated by a flaming circle – an event known as totality. In the last moment of total coverage of the sun, the first glimmer of sun emerges as the moon moves past and a diamond ring appears in the sky for a split second. Then the entire sky explodes with light. At this point you must look away or you risk retinal damage.
Total eclipses of the sun can occur once or twice a year, but opportunities for humans to actually witness these events are rare. This is because a large number occur only over the ocean or the Antarctic, meaning unless you’re a deep-sea fisherman or a penguin, you are shit out of luck.
My family has chased eclipses of the sun ever since I was born. We witnessed one in South Australia in 2002, and another in Turkey in 2006. Yesterday’s eclipse in Indonesia was my third.
One runs a huge risk in chasing these events, as something as simple as a cloud in the sky blocking the sun at the wrong time can ruin the experience entirely. My father had spent the previous day searching for the perfect spot to watch the eclipse, and had carefully chosen a cute town he rated 8/10 named Ampana, which had an easterly-facing wharf extending into the ocean.
We woke at 7 and hopped straight in the car with our friendly driver Namu, a speaker of zero English just like everyone else we came across in the village. We were in great spirits, all happy and chatty with not a cloud in the sky. But when we reached our destination, we were dismayed. Several other eclipse followers had had the same idea to come to Ampana, and we’d hoped we’d be the only ones. Namu had no idea why so many orang puti (white people) were making such a big fuss about this “eclipse thing”. But even worse that the crowd, large clouds loomed, threatening to transform our 8/10 venue to a 0/10.
So we gazed at the sky, a mere hour from totality, and made a decision. Clear skies tantalised us from further east, so we jumped in the car and hauled arse as far in that direction as we dared.
Namu began driving at a regular speed, completely oblivious to our relentless panic. The end of our world seemed very near.
“Cepat!” we screamed. “Cepat!” (Faster! Faster!)
Namu caught our drift and sped up, but we were soon trapped behind a man trotting along in a wooden carriage pulled by two bulls at a glacial pace. Our white skin turned red. We screamed and argued. Namu was beside himself.
Finally, we broke free from the man in the bull cart and found a secluded coastal location to await the approaching darkness. We gazed at the sun through our welders’ glasses (number 13+ so we did not go blind). All around us, the landscape gradually darkened. Shades of orange deepened and a strange mood struck.
We watched as the usual shade patterns of dappled foliage transformed into half-moons scattered across the earth – one of the many phenomena that occur during an eclipse of the sun, total or partial. How magical it was to watch the sun go from a quarter black to half black to three-quarters black to black. Then suddenly, there it was.
“Look!” screamed my father. “LOOK!” We all removed our welders’ glasses and stared with our naked eyes at what seemed to be a black sun ringed by white fire for a magnificent two-and-a-half minutes.
As the moon moved across the sun, a lunar crater allowed a pinpoint of light to appear at the top right-hand corner, and for a split second, a diamond ring appeared in the sky. It was as if the entire heavens had exploded.
My father screamed again.
And it was all over.
Cover and inset 1 by Podraic Koen, insets 2 and 3 by the author