Nothing can prepare you for what it’s like to see a total solar eclipse in all its mind-blowing glory. It has got to be one of the most overwhelming natural phenomena I’ve ever witnessed. And once you’ve seen one, it leaves you in total awe, wanting to see more. Wanting to see another one. It is highly addictive.
I experienced this sensation for the first time on 11 August 1999.
On that day, we were lucky enough to see a solar eclipse in Europe, where it is very rare for one to occur. I went to a little village in the Moesel valley in Germany, strategically located near the path of totality, with my brother and his friend. Things had been looking bright & sunny for weeks. But when eclipse day dawned, we were greeted by gloomy & cloud-covered skies. Stubbornly defying our feelings of discouragement, we set out to a nearby field that we had scouted out on the previous day, where we settled down with a picnic lunch & a bottle of wine. And by a lucky stroke of chance, the clouds briefly disappeared just as the eclipse was reaching its totality. We could watch the complete event before the clouds covered the returning sun again. And just sat there speechless, in complete & utter awe.
It was a very special moment. My first thought was: ‘Whoooow! I have got to see another one!’
In 2006 I finally had the opportunity to do just that. I went on a trip to Egypt, where another solar eclipse took place on 29 March in Al Salloum, near the Libyan border. A desolate place on the edge of the desert, where no tourist would normally venture. A distinctive atmosphere of excitement hung in the air as thousands of people from all over the world gathered there to witness the eclipse. I was surprised to see how well it was organized, considering the normal daily life chaos that is so evident in Egypt.
Eclipse bedouin tents at Al Salloum, Egypt.
The place had to be de-mined specifically to accommodate the eclipse event, as there were still lots of WW-II bombs & other nasty stuff lying around. And no-one had been bothered to clean it up before. Up until the last minute, no-one knew exactly what had been organized, and what facilities could be expected. So when we arrived at the crack of dawn, we were pleasantly surprised to find large bedouin style tents set up, complete with rickety tables and chairs inside, and even a toilet unit. Nearby was a roadside coffeeshop, where local musicians were playing traditional flute & percussion music outside to entertain the crowds. It was almost like a festival party atmosphere!
Coincidence of space and time
Solar eclipses can only happen because – by a freak accident of nature – the sun’s diameter is as many times bigger than the moon’s as its distance to the Earth compared to the moon’s, which is approximately 400 times. Therefore, they look the same size from our point of view. When they are in a straight line with the Earth, it creates the illusion of the sun being completely covered by the moon. And along with this comes one of the most spectacular light shows you’re ever likely to see.
These effects will only happen if the sun is totally eclipsed. Even when the eclipse is 99% it will still be light enough; as if it was an hour before sunset. But as the final 1% of the sun disappears, a plethora of special effects suddenly happen all at once. One side of the horizon turns bright orange, just like after sunset. On the other side darkness rapidly increases with steely blue colours, as if a threatening thunderstorm is approaching very fast.
Pre-eclipse steely blue sky.
And as the last tiny bit of the sun disappears, sparks of light appear like a pearly necklace, followed by what looks like a diamond ring around the obliterated sun. Then the light goes out for a split second, before a blazing corona shoots out from all directions behind the black circle of the moon, lasting throughout the whole duration of the eclipse.
It is as if you’re staring directly into the vortex of the universe.
People start cheering in awe & admiration as if they were at a rock concert of their favourite band! Even though I had seen an eclipse before, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer beauty of seeing one in a completely cloudless sky & an uninterrupted 360 degree view to all horizons, where the complete set of special effects would be clearly visible.
I was so overwhelmed by the immensity of it all that I was literally moved to tears.
Once you’ve experienced this magic, it will stay with you forever.
But it will also leave you restless, addicted and yearning for another one. When you’ve been exposed to it, you will never fully recover. And it may very well turn you into an umbraphile 😉 After Germany and Egypt, I was well & truly hit by a stroke of eclipse insanity. It triggered me to go to China in 2009, and Australia in 2012 to see the eclipse happening there.
Chasing the eclipse
The next solar eclipse will be on 21 August 2017. It takes place in the USA, where the path of totality moves across the entire width of the country, from the northwest to the southeast.
Dr. Kate Russo has become an authority on chasing eclipses, the effects of experiencing an eclipse on the human brain, and the mind-boggling amount of logistics and planning involved when a solar eclipse happens to occur in your area. Some excellent stories and unique scientific research can be found on her website Being in the Shadow.
(c) Nancy Claus – Wilderness Coffee & Natural High
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Eclipse @ Palmer River (QLD), Australia 2012.
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