Article on the 2002 Outback eclipse

By eclipseguy
RASC, Toronto Centre
March 2003 Issue of SCOPE – Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

One of the things I love about astronomy is that it invites you to tackle some pretty intense concepts. While the nature of the universe, its composition, dimensions and behaviour are sure to kill conversation at a dinner party, I have always enjoyed the intellectual wrestling match of cosmology, and I have found myself gravitating towards people and things that stimulate this nerve.

Here in our solar system geometry is a particularly significant concept and one of my favourites. With a good working knowledge of the celestial mechanics of our Sun, planets and moons there is a lot of great astronomy available to you. I’ll never forget the moment I came to understand truly how our Moon works and how she changes her appearance so mysteriously night after night. It was a turning point in my intellectual life, and although I didn’t know it at the time it was the genesis of my becoming a rabid eclipse chaser.

Now the motions of the Moon are one thing – the dynamics of its shadow are quite another. During a total eclipse of the sun it seems that for a single exclusive moment the mighty majesty of the solar system is unleashed, branded onto the Earth, making brilliantly evident the entire system that lies beyond. For me, these events are the front door into astronomy. After an eclipse, I don’t need any more convincing.

I’ve done some pretty crazy things in pursuit of the shadow. Driving to within 100 kilometers of the Iraqi No-Fly Zone in southern Turkey and stomaching the seas of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico during a tropical storm are a few examples. But I think flying into the middle of the Outback in a tiny, twin-prop aircraft to camp on an airstrip pretty much takes the cake.

In the past, I have been a part of all kinds of eclipse expeditions. From solo voyages to trips with the family to groups of fifty or more RASC members enjoying two weeks together in some remote location. For the total eclipse of 04 December 2002, I convinced my friend, Matt Montgomery, a pilot living in Sydney, to fly five of us to Lyndhurst, South Australia, in an attempt to rendezvous with the shadow in one of the most unforgiving landscapes in the world.

Planning this chase took a year. A myriad of factors had to be woven into a single strategy if we were to successfully observe the eclipse and get out of there alive – two things that were essential. After narrowing down our list of potential observing sites within the path of totality to Lyndhurst, and selecting an appropriate aircraft for the task, our biggest management issue was weight. We had a team of five, camping equipment, food and water, film and video gear and a narrow ninety kilogram allowance for everything. I did my part to meet the target by eating power bars and choosing cameras not clothes!

From Sydney, we took a leisurely three days to arrive in the eclipse zone, stopping at remote towns each night to break up the flying. In White Cliffs, we slept underground in a cave attached to an opal mine! The unique Bed & Breakfast was cooled naturally by the air from the giant caverns and was completely protected from the blast-furnace heat of the desert. And this place is booked 300 days a year!

Camped beside our plane on the airstrip at Lyndhurst waiting for the eclipse, we endured two days of dry, stiff winds stirring up the red sands and dust of the desert. The wind was strong enough to force the tiny particles of dust through the tent walls and we soon learned that in addition to trying to keep the tents from collapsing, we would have to work, sleep and eat in the dust! And the harsh conditions did nothing to stop 6,000 freaky revellers from attending the Outback Eclipse Festival only a kilometer from our camp! The biggest psychedelic eclipse party ever!

Fortunately, all this did nothing to cloud the perfectly clear skies we enjoyed for the duration, allowing me get my first-ever sightings of the Magellanic Clouds. I did not know dark until I camped in the Outback.

On eclipse day I am like a nine year-old on Christmas morning. I spent the day blissfully wound up in the anticipation of the eclipse and the intense extreme of my location. And wandering around a rave in the middle of the desert with thousands of artists and performers was an experience I will not soon forget!

A few hours before the eclipse, we were back at our camp on the airstrip. My cameras were locked down and the clock was running. The mechanics of the solar system were working perfectly and my chances of seeing totality were now 100%.

When it finally came it was swift and sublime. My journal recalls, this was one of the prettiest totalities I have ever seen. Electric chromosphere! We were so far along the eclipse path, the angle of the shadow cone so narrow, that from inside the umbra the shadow looked like a giant set of eagles wings reaching towards me from the horizon! Incredible! I was only just beginning to believe my eyes when the diamond ring at third contact burst into the picture. My finger hit the cable release attached to my Nikon F3 just at that second. Got it! Then I saw the shadow rush away from us and up into space. Whew! What took a year to plan was over in 24 seconds. But it was the best 24 seconds of the trip. And that terrific post-eclipse glow was even better knowing I had that picture in the can.

And there was much rejoicing. I love to party after seeing an eclipse and the Aussies know what that’s about. Chasers from all over the world joined together at the Elsewhere Hotel in Lyndhurst for a traditional Outback BBQ dinner and another terrific night under the stars.

The concepts that govern the universe might be tough to tackle but if you can get out there and watch them at work it all becomes clearer. Much more than the illusion of the two dimensional barrier known as the sky, we live in a deep, dynamic system of light and mass and motion. And if you come with me next time I’ll turn you into an eclipse chaser, too.

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