Seeing sun disappear, it all becomes clear
AS PRIMARY-SCHOOL children, we learnt about what causes a total eclipse of the sun. We're also taught the moon is much smaller than the sun, but because the sun is so very far away, the nearby moon can obscure it.
However, teachers didn't say anything about the almost mystical experience it can be to observe; nor the serene natural calm that descends just before totality, as if being in the presence of some deity. There are shouts of joy and spontaneous applause. People speaking in tongues. Candlelit vigils. And the forlorn heartbreak of those who get clouded out after travelling thousands of kilometres to see it. For all of that makes this cosmic event so majestic, personal and real, you have to be there.
I've always opposed viewing astronomical phenomena on big screens to accommodate large numbers, because there's none of the elusive direct connection with the universe, which can only be achieved when the real photons from that object hit your retina. This is especially true of a total solar eclipse. No matter how many pictures you see, or videos you watch, they're a poor substitute for what is experienced in person.
From the moment I boarded the flight for Cairns, there was a festive mood. It was amplified along the Captain Cook Highway to Port Douglas in the days leading up to the eclipse. I heard friends parting with the words ''happy eclipse'', reminiscent of the days before Christmas. The morning of the eclipse was like the anticipation and euphoria we felt as children, just before opening our gifts.
When I stood in the moon's shadow, it was as close as I've ever been to a spiritual experience. People really were speaking in tongues; there was American English, German, French, Russian, Japanese, Korean and more, but I understood perfectly the exhilaration they felt when darkness fell and the pearly-white corona appeared around the invisible sun.
Street lamps came on and cars drove with headlights - why anyone would rather be driving, I don't know. In the darkness I could see the flicker of hundreds of candles held up high in homage on the beach between me and the black hole in the sky, where the sun used to be. But wait, they were not candles - they were screens of digital phones and cameras! There was none of that in the South Australian desert in 2002, but the emotions shared were the same.