November 18, 2012
A total solar eclipse... not
My Mum always wanted to see a total eclipse of the sun, and I promised at a young age to take her to the tip of Cornwall on 11 August 1999 for the first total eclipse in the UK since 1927. It was nine days before what would have been her birthday; but she'd died nine years before the eclipse. I didn't go without her – it didn't seem the same, somehow. The weather was typically August holiday weather: few spectators had a cloud-free eclipse experience. I watched with colleagues on Waterloo Bridge in London where, despite 96 per cent totality and high cloud, it remained disappointingly light. The quality of the light was strange, however; nothing like it is at sunrise or sunset. It's often described as metallic, or silvery: it's unique, for sure. And I was surprised to see the event revealed in shadows on the ground: beneath leafy trees there were crescent shapes as the gaps between leaves acted as pin-hole projectors.
Long before we knew we were coming to live in Brisbane, we'd planned a holiday in Far North Queensland to coincide with the 2012 total eclipse. Once here and settled, I got down to planning our eclipse trip to Port Douglas. Some accommodation was already booked out, by mid-2010.
I'd realised from the outset that mid-November is on the verge of the Wet, and that cloud might be a spoiler. But I dismissed it from my mind. Not in the Sunshine State, surely? The weather forecast looked a bit iffey the week before. But there's none so deaf as those who don't want to hear. On Tuesday, Four Mile Beach looked more like the northwest of Scotland than Far North Queensland; but I couldn't believe things wouldn't go according to plan the next morning. When I posted the picture below a friend advised me to go inland; she warned me against meteorological unpredictability in Port Douglas. But I fancied the idea of watching the eclipse from a stunning palm-backed tropical beach rather than taking my chances along some highway heading inland to Mt Carbine (Mt Carbine?!). We'd read that it was better to view from (low down on) the coast. Locals only told us after the event how clear it had been just a little way up the Mowbray River. We were about to make a monumentally wrong decision.
The countdown to totality became increasingly stressful as the sun appeared sporadically in holes between clouds that seemed to be travelling at the same speed and in the same direction as it was. Suddenly, the light was weird; substanceless, faded. It was getting dark again, barely an hour after daybreak. We couldn't hear if the birds had been silenced; just the sound of waves breaking and a low excitable hubbub. And then it was almost dark. Spontaneous applause broke out among our fellow observers. The eclipse was total, but a great big slow-moving cloud blocked the pice de résistance that I seemed to have waited so long for. No Diamond Ring Effect; no Bailey's Beads. But bright Venus shone like a gem in a clear patch of sky.
I can't quite describe the disappointment. It morphed from disbelief to anticlimax to resentment to cheerlessness. I should have fancied champagne with my breakfast: instead, I listened to a couple from Victoria on the next table describe their clear view from Mt Carbine and their enjoyment of their third total eclipse. 'S not fair.
I saw a partial eclipse, which I've seen several times before. I marvelled at the changing light, as I'd done in London. A new aspect did strike me about the phenomenon, however: the sun took on the characteristics of the moon that was concealing it. We were briefly on the beach in moonlight on a partly cloudy night.
My camera could only cope with the sun when it was behind clouds, which really did have silver linings. Below is what I saw... and then I started planning our trip to the US in 2017. It's unfinished business. And hopefully I'll identify a location that will as near-as-dammit guarantee us a completely clear sky.