Where the sun don't shine

THE alarm went off at 3.45am. It took a moment to remember why I had done this to myself as I caromed off walls to the kitchen, the coffee and then, total recall.

I had to get to the airport. I had an appointment with a cosmic coincidence.

Boarding the packed 6am flight to Cairns, it was clear I was not alone. As I was to discover, there were passengers on this flight who had started in Helsinki, San Francisco, London, all on the last leg of their own rendezvous with totality on November 14, 2012.

The eclipse chasers were on the move.

The fellow next to me was on a disability pension and had come from South Australia. His back, he said, was "mostly metal" and every move was painful.

"But I have to see this. I saw the one in Ceduna in 2002 and I'm hooked." He ordered beers for both of us. The far north Queensland flavour of the expedition was already apparent.

At Cairns airport I was picked up by Dave, a geologist mate who'd driven up from Townsville the morning before, and spent the afternoon catching up with mates over a 10-hour lunch. He was unwell, and apologised for being late.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of kilometres away, the inexorable celestial clockwork ground on. Relentlessly, the moon was moving closer to the moment when it would block out the sun. But other natural forces were in play – as we began the drive to Port Douglas, where the event would take place the next morning just after dawn, it began to rain.

We drove past Ellis beach, where my friend John Power was setting up his gear. John is a bass player who toured with Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons and the Hippos, as well as an engineer who worked on the Collins class submarine, but today he wore his amateur astronomer hat. He'd driven from Wellington, NSW, for his third eclipse.

"I want everything to be ready," he said. "I don't want to be messing around with cameras too much when it happens. I just want to experience it."

Old eclipse hands talk like that. I was a newbie and, while I'd been told totality was something special, I wasn't prepared for the primal nature of it.

I'd decided months before I would be there. Eclipses happen all over the world, more often than not over oceans or in places such as Siberia, the Sahara or the Sinai. I figured if I couldn't make my way to the beach at Port Douglas, I'd never do it. Anyway, maybe we'd miss it. It continued to rain as we pulled into the hotel.

We had an early night, by FNQ standards, at least – no more than a dozen beers were consumed, and we were up with the sun. Sadly, the sun was up behind a wall of cloud but, along with thousands of others, we walked to the beach.

We got lucky. The clouds parted and myriad eyes, peering through cardboard glasses that were on sale everywhere from Cairns to the cape, turned to the sun, and a muffled roar went up as we saw that the black disc of the moon was already sliding across the face of the orange ball. It looked like a Jaffa with a bite taken out of it.

It takes a while for the moon to cover the sun, so I took a moment to survey the beach. There must have been up to 15,000 people, all looking skywards. It looked like those pictures you see of 1950s cinema audiences staring though their 3D glasses. There was a girl on a banana chair in a bikini, drinking her third XXXX and wearing a welder's helmet. There were backpackers, face-down in the sand, who would see nothing of it. There were tech-heavy camera guys and overexcited kids splashing in the shallows.

Then it happened.

Just before totality, there is an eerie, dusky light you will never experience anywhere else, as the last 1 per cent of the sun is consumed. This vanishes in an instant and, to the throng's roar of approval and amazement, then darkness. Venus shone brightly, and then the stars. The crowd fell almost silent, just standing, transfixed, staring, astonished.

A sphere of rock, 3400 kilometres across and 380,000 kilometres away, fitting precisely across the face of a star 1.4 million kilometres across and 150 million kilometres away. The sheer unlikelihood of this arrangement only adds to the fascination.

Two minutes later, the rim of the sun appeared on the opposite side of the moon's silhouette and normality returned. It doesn't take much of the sun to light up the landscape. The crowd dispersed, shaking their heads, many wishing it had lasted longer. But to me, the beauty of a total eclipse is its brevity. It is transitory, an illusion. Nothing happens to the sun, the moon or the Earth, apart from forming a straight line – for just a minute or two – before the shadow roars out into the Pacific to scare the daylights out of a baffled albatross.

As Dave the geologist put it, "I think I now understand paganism."

We met John for lunch. The clouds had closed in again and the rain was back.

"I met an American bloke on the beach," he told me. "There's a total eclipse in the midwest in 2017, and he's invited me over to stay at his place in Nebraska." I didn't bother to ask if he was going to go. He'd probably already booked his flight.

We are not alone

It is often said that the coincidence whereby the moon exactly matches the diameter of the sun from the point of view of viewers on Earth is unique in our solar system and, would indeed, be incredibly rare anywhere in the galaxy. But in the 1990s Dave Courtney, an American amateur astronomer, decided to test this.

After torturous calculations, he established that on July 16, 1997, an observer on Jupiter's moon Ganymede would have been able to see a total solar eclipse as the moon Europa passed in front of the sun. Not just blocking the light but matching exactly the size and position of the sun, just as seen from Earth. You would have witnessed the glowing solar corona and, as a bonus, the view would include a massive crescent Jupiter, Venus, Earth, Mercury and another Jovian moon, Callisto.

But with a surface temperature of minus 170 degrees and no atmosphere, Ganymede isn't exactly Port Douglas. Stay healthy for another 16 years for the totality event of 2028 and you'll be able to watch the sun go out from the beer garden at Watsons Bay.

This story Where the sun don't shine first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.