(Featured photo courtesy of the Doctor and his photography skills.)
Normally I do these posts in proper order, following my travels as they happen. However, this one time I think it’s worth breaking that habit. For one thing, the first week of this trip has been unusually hectic, with next to no downtime in which to write, so I’m already behind. For a second, the event that this entire trip was centered around has already happened, and to waste any more time in committing my thoughts on it to words risks losing some of the detail.
In 2018, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a collection of observatories in Chile’s Atacama desert, decided to celebrate an upcoming total solar eclipse by selling tickets to an unusually perfect viewing point: their mountaintop site at La Silla. I grabbed three tickets, roping in a couple of friends who were as keen as me to make the most of this opportunity. One had to drop out, but another replaced her, and so the three of us made our way to La Silla for July 2, 2019. The broader story of that trip will be told in the next post, but what follows below is my notes made directly after the event itself.
Well, that was special. It took the Lawyer and the Doctor a little over an hour to return (from their tour of the La Silla site), and when I went to follow in their footsteps, the New Technology Telescope (NTT) tour was closed due to VIP activity. So I returned and we hung out at the viewing spot we’d claimed for an hour or two, until the Lawyer and I went to queue for a tour of the massive reflector that sits on La Silla’s highest peak. Despite the presence of the Chilean President and two kids doing their best to start an avalanche, we made it up to the top of the mountain and spent a few awed moments roaming the interior of the telescope dome and marveling at the massive, if somewhat aged, technology within.
By the time we returned, having also spotted more than a few condors* circling the peak, it was about 1500. The Lawyer went to relieve the Doctor, while I took the opportunity of no queue at the now reopened NTT to tour that as well. After a quick run around the internal workings of the telescope, with its double sensors, cooling technology, and adaptive optics, I returned to our viewing spot. At that stage, there were only a few minutes until first contact at 1523. From that moment on, the crowd’s attention was ever more tightly focused on the sun, staring at it through the provided safety lenses and watching as the moon crawled across the face of the solar disc, dimming it more every minute.
As we approached totality, a chill fell over the land, and the contours of the valleys below La Silla were lost in shadow. Our own shadows were twisted by the crescent sun as strange, untimely colours stained the horizon.
How to describe how things changed at totality? Up until the last few seconds, even the smallest fragment of the sun was too bright to look at. In an instant though, the sun gave way to a disc of complete darkness, wreathed in a halo of white flame. Colours danced along the horizon, the world utterly changed.
For just under two minutes, the hundreds of viewers gathered on the mountaintop experienced a very different universe to the one we know day-to-day.
As totality had been, the return of the sun’s light was greeted by cheers. An initial speck of light on the edge of the black disc was joined by another, bisected by lunar peaks. Moments later, the sun returned to us the world that had been. Once again there was light, and warmth too slowly returned.
It was as if we all released a breath we had been holding. Awed exclamations gave way to cheerful conversations and mutual congratulations. Slowly we turned to checking the records of the moments that we’d made, as if to distract from the ferment in our brains. Only by routine could we reacclimatise to the everyday world.
Slowly, reluctantly, people began to move. Some began to head for the buses and the long trip back to their lodgings. Others, like the three of us, were hanging around until sunset and later, so we retreated to the warmth of the vistors’ tent. That’s where the Lawyer and I are now, still coming down from our high, while the Doctor remains outside to catch some final shots of the occluded sun.
I’ve never experienced anything like that before. Not even close. And the best thing? We still have the stars to come.
We did hang around for a few more hours, as the sun set and the stars came out, brighter and more numerous than any of us had ever seen them before. Using my binoculars and the Doctor’s camera, we made the most of being in that place at that time, and even after the ESO staff shooed us off the mountain so that the observatory could get back to doing actual work, we did some more star-spotting on the plains below. As for getting back to our own lodgings, that turned out to be an adventure in itself, but one for another post. For now, and for then, the eclipse is enough.
* Possibly turkey vultures rather than condors. My birdwatching skills are not the best.