ECLIPSE chasers knew for decades the exact moment when the moon would pass directly in front of the sun and cast a shadow on far north Queensland on Wednesday morning.
But minutes before the total solar eclipse, a view of the rare celestial event was threatened by a less predictable earthly phenomenon - the weather. As the sun emerged above the horizon, thick coastal cloud - typical in the tropics - refused to budge.
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Total eclipse draws thousands
More than 60,000 amateur astronomers descend on Cairns to watch a total eclipse of the sun early Wednesday morning.
At Palm Cove, north of Cairns, thousands of beach-side viewers seemed perplexed - do you put on protective solar glasses when there is no sun?
It was halfway through the first phase of the partial eclipse when the sky cleared, the sun's big red disc half eaten by the moon.
The crowd whooped and cheered as if they had seen Moses part the Red Sea.
When the final sliver of sunlight disappeared behind the moon, day turned to night. A confused pit bull winced and jumped. Someone yelled, ''time to take off your glasses''.
With the sun obscured, the star's outer layers of hot gas glowed a pearly white. For two minutes the ring of the sun's corona was the brightest object in the sky.
Some people were so entranced the rising tide washed over them.
Then, almost as fast as the sky darkened, a twinkle of light emerged and the moon continued its journey across the sun.
A total solar eclipse is the only time scientists can study the corona from Earth. Usually, the sun's outer layer of gas is too faint against the blue sky.
An American astronomer who researches the phenomenon, Jay Pasachoff, witnessed his 56th solar eclipse on Wednesday.
''Studying the the sun is a laboratory for understanding other stars,'' he said.
The astronomer Alan Hale, known for his co-discovery of the Hale-Bopp comet, uses eclipses to watch for sun-grazing comets, whose orbits pass close to the star.
While no comets passed the sun during Wednesday's event, Dr Hale's seventh total eclipse was still ''a spectacular event''. Jenny Kyriacou, a Melbourne nurse, said the total eclipse had been a ''sort of spiritual experience''.
Ms Kyriacou and her friend, Cathy Young, booked their holiday unaware they would be in the right location to view Australia's first total solar eclipse in a decade. ''I've seen two total eclipses in my life - that's pretty special,'' Ms Young said.
Japanese couple Tatsuo and Reiko Makino travelled from Tokyo for the eclipse, their third.
Mrs Reiko said they almost ''gave up'' hope they would see it when rain pounded their hotel Tuesday night. ''We are very lucky,'' Mr Makino said.
Amateur astronomer Mike Chapman, who travelled from Sydney to view his first total solar eclipse, said the the moment of totality was better than he expected.
A book by the wife of world famous astronomer and author Carl Sagan first piqued his interest in the rare solar events.
''She described the full experience of the eclipse, watching the shadow across the ground, the drop in temperature and all the lights coming on in houses,'' he said.