I remember standing in the school playground when I was ten years old watching a solar eclipse with my classmates under the supervision of our teacher. The world didn’t go particularly dark but that’s because it was only a partial eclipse. I’d never seen one since, until I watched one in totality in the clear blue sky of Balikpapan, in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.
Upon arrival at our hotel, we were delighted to find that our apartment was on the sixteenth floor with a balcony facing east over the ocean. The eclipse was due to start at 7.25 a.m. and would last for two hours and twenty-eight minutes with two minutes of totality at 8.34 a.m., and of course it was going to be bang on time. We ascertained the height and position that the sun would be in the sky, and before we went to bed that night, I looked up at the stars and whispered a silent prayer to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles and god of making things happen, “Please don’t let there be any clouds”.
The Indonesians are great at turning any event (celestial or otherwise) into a celebration, and the Aston Hotel opened its doors to the public and came to the party with a “Jazzy Eclipse Breakfast.” After getting up early to witness an auspicious sunrise and an almost-clear sky with scatterings of high cloud, we headed down for breakfast at 7 o’clock and found the poolside area packed out with eclipse goers, clutching their specialist eclipse eyewear and claiming their front-row seats to what promised to be the most spectacular celestial event visible from Balikpapan in living memory. Lunar eclipses and partial solar eclipses wax and wane but this was to be the first total solar eclipse in this region since the eighteenth of May 1901. We saw TV cameras and professional eclipse chasers with tripods, fancy camera equipment and huge telescopes set up alongside the waterfront. One man later told us it was his forty-second eclipse; his wife was on her eleventh. I figured these must be the sort of enthusiasts who sell their photos to N.A.S.A and National Geographic. A live band was playing mellow jazz on the deck, cooking stations had been set up, and a grand breakfast buffet, including innovative delights such as Eclipse Cake and Eclipse Pizza, was spread out along the pool terraces. By the time we had found a table and grabbed some breakfast, it was almost time for the show to begin, so cafe lattés in hand, we retreated from the madding crowd and headed up to our private sixteenth floor “royal box” which was possibly the best viewing station in the house. And the sky was still clear, how lucky were we!
Up on the balcony we set the Go-pro rolling on a time-lapse, donned our blacker-than-black cardboard-framed sunnies, and stared up at the sun. All of us, that is, apart one member of our intimate group of five, who had loitered for just a few minutes’ longer over her breakfast with the words, “I’ll see you up there.”
It was 7.30 and already we could see a tiny nibble on the side of the sun. Gazing in awe, we were shaken from our mesmerised state by the sound of a phone ringing somewhere in the distance. After picking up the phone in the kitchenette and another receiver in the bedroom, I finally located the source of the ringing, which was my mobile phone in a bag on the floor. I noted with confusion that the caller was the missing member of our group. “Hurry up and get your arse up here,” I shouted, “it’s already begun.” Her voice when she replied, however, was strained and serious, “I’ve got a problem.” Really? What could possibly have gone wrong between the pool deck and the sixteenth floor? “I’m stuck in the lift.”
She might as well have said “Houston, we have a problem,” I repeated her words back to her in disbelief, “Yes”, she assured me, “it’s overloaded, it suddenly jolted and dropped and now we’re stuck between floors.” Shit! The eclipse wasn’t going to wait for anyone; after all our months of planning, the thought that she might miss the event was unbearable. “Hang on in there,” I told her, “We’re on our way, don’t worry, we’ll get you out of there.” All four of us ran to the three elevator doors on the landing outside, where we noted in dismay that instead of indicating a number and a flashing arrow, one of the floor designators above the call button revealed two ominous flat lines. “Stay on the line, I told my friend, we’re not going to leave you now.” This was the material of disaster movies and I swelled with pride as a member of our team, our very own Bruce Willis, raced to the phone in our room to inform the staff at the reception desk. By the time he returned, it was all over. A man on the inside with a walkie-talkie had informed an engineer on the outside and after establishing, with difficulty, which floor they were closest to, the doors had been forced by the engineer. The shaken occupants of the lift had been rescued and our friend was on her way up the stairs.
Thankfully, the eclipse was nowhere near over; the tiny nibble had become a bite-sized chunk but we were still only fifteen minutes into the event. For the next forty-five minutes we watched enthralled as the moon passed between the Sun and the Earth, and the Sun slowly became a crescent. We had been a tad sceptical about our eclipse eyewear, ordered in the mail from a distributor in Yogyakarta. Emblazoned with the words “Souvenir Eyewear 26 February 2017.” The manufactures obviously hadn’t anticipated the demand for the total eclipse of March 9th 2016 and had had to break into next year’s supply. Upon testing it the night before, holding it right up against lightbulbs and cigarette lighters, we couldn’t see a damned thing. Had we been conned, we wondered. Using the eyewear to stare at the Sun however, everything had become clear, or rather we could clearly see the sun as the black bite became bigger and the crescent of light became thinner.
At just over one hour into the event, we were thrilled to witness the diamond ring effect, which occurred just seconds before the extraordinary one-and-a-quarter-minutes of totality. And yes, our world went quiet and eerily slipped into twilight, with a golden glow hovering over the horizon. The temperature dropped, the stars came back out, and we were spellbound.