No, this is not a review of another Chelsea Quinn Yarbro novel, this is a personal adventure to Indonesia in order to be present on the day of the recent Total Eclipse of the sun.
Before anything, I must say that the whole expedition was brilliantly organised by David Phillips and his colleagues at Intrepid, the tour company behind the whole enterprise. Intrepid run astronomy tours and, in this case, around 160 people needed to be at the right place at the right time. Not only that but different groups took part in different activities, either arriving from places such as Java or going on to Borneo or Komodo, all under the umbrella of the Indonesian Eclipse trip.
The trip got off to a delayed start as the crew of our Malaysian Air craft need to check out a technical fault before take-off. When you are going to be 13 hours in the air, it’s always useful to be sure that all bits are attached and working. This made us late at Kuala Lumpur and a large contingent of us missed the next flight to Bali. The airline very slickly found us all seats on the next flight and we finally arrived at our resort hotel as dusk was falling. If all you want is a beach holiday, this was a very pleasant place to be, even though the swimming is better in the pools than in the sea. The restaurant on the beach served good quality Italian food (you could eat Indonesian elsewhere) and put on a spectacular acrobatic display of bats feasting on moths around the lights.
Intrepid always ensure that there are activities other than sunbathing for those who want to see more of the place they are visiting. Coaches took us up to a local village where we were introduced to the process of rice production before being provided with a feast of tea and sweet-meats. The trip also included a visit to a temple amidst pouring rain and to a coffee producer where we were offered samples and, if we wanted, try and buy the much vaunted ‘civet’ coffee.
By this time most of us were encamped on Sanur Beach in Bali. The next step was to get all of us from there to Ternate, an island to the north which lay in the path of the eclipse. It’s not an island used to vast hordes of visitors but is renowned as where Alfred Russell Wallace lived while gathering the evidence that spurred Darwin into publishing ‘On The Origin Of Species’. Otherwise Wallace would have got all the credit for the same ideas. To get us all there, Intrepid had chartered a special flight leaving at dawn. On arrival, we were met by an assortment of coaches. These seemed to have been commandeered from wherever. Some were provided by the police and came equipped with police driver, sirens and blue flashing lights. Leading the convoy, which also included school buses, they went the wrong way down one-way streets and generally ignored all the rules of the road.
The hotel, styled an international conference centre, although having enough rooms to accommodate us, clearly wasn’t used to such an influx of tourists all wanting food and drink as it is a Muslim country.
Unlike Bali, the people of Ternate were gearing up to celebrate the eclipse, having recognised it as an event not expected to occur again in the near future. There was an air of excitement with posters everywhere.
Three Minutes Of Ecstasy
The reason for heading to the neighbouring island of Tidore was simple. There, we would get an extra 19 seconds of totality. The logistics entailed getting all the eclipse chasers to the right island in time to set up as some had sophisticated telescopes and cameras before the event took place. In darkness, we mounted twelve buses to take us to the ferry. Fortunately, it was a RORO but, even so, packing all the vehicles on called for deft manoeuvring. A short trip on the other side brought us to the Sultan’s Palace. These days this is not so much a place to live but used for meetings rather like our town halls but with the Lord Mayor elected for life. The atmosphere was one big party. Stalls were set up around the field providing free drinks and snacks. Children from the local schools all wanted to take selfies with these weird strangers.
As first contact approached, everything settled down. While there was little to see, even through the must-wear special glasses, there was the tension of expectation. The few clouds were high and wispy. The first part of an eclipse is slow, patience is needed but as totality approaches, the twilight seeps into the atmosphere. The world becomes chiaroscuro, colour drains away. The temperature, hot in direct sunlight, drops to a comfortable level. The sun is black edged by silver. At totality, second contact, the corona flares and bright amethyst flares dot the perimeter. For three minutes and five seconds the world is still and silent, then the searing white of the diamond ring and it is over. Slowly colour and sound reassert themselves. The eclipse is not over but there is less interest now. It is time for the party to begin.
Our hosts, the Sultan and people of Tidore, had laid on a feast for their visitors, a range of local dishes laid out on tables. We were entertained with dancing and invited to join in. Nutmeg and clove trees were planted to mark the occasion. Then, when we thought it was over, we were ferried to the beach where we were encouraged to join in another party. More food, more music and incredibly friendly people.
Intrepid Dragon Hunters
For some, the adventure was over. Home beckoned. For others, groups scattered to various locations such as Borneo and Java. Some of us opted for Komodo.
From Bali, we flew to Flores and immediately transferred to boats in the harbour. It was a four hour journey across very calm water. Meals were cooked aboard by the crew. We had the opportunity to swim and snorkel in the clear water before mooring off Komodo for the night. The sunset was spectacular as were the hundreds of fruit bats that flew past on their way to their feeding grounds.
Next morning, we set food on Komodo itself. The three metre long monitor lizards for which the island is famous, roam freely. They are the masters here.
Then it rained. The dragons powered down and lay like dead logs underneath bushes.
There are actually four islands inhabited by the reptiles so we headed for Rinca. The weather cleared, the dragons woke up. Other than having a lethal, bacteria-laden bite, they have other unsavoury habits. The female will lay her eggs in a nest on the same site as a megapode (a kind of bird) and will visit regularly, not to care for the eggs but to eat any of her offspring that might be emerging. As a result, newly hatched komodo dragons make a bolt for the nearest tree and spend the first three years of their life in the branches. We were lucky enough to see both a visiting female but also a three-week-old infant.
The boat ride back to Flores did become a little choppy but nothing too fierce.
After a night on the island, the final stop was to the Batu or Mirror Caves. These are the home of bats, cave spiders and crickets. Along narrow passages, between stalactites, we were taken to the place where, when the sun is right, the light shines down a rock chimney and reflects on the cave walls, giving a mirror effect. This was our last tourist visit before heading for the airport and beginning the long journey home.
For those who know me, yes, I did photograph butterflies on most of the islands.
Once again, I have nothing but praise for the team at Intrepid who organised everything, sorted out the problems and got us where we needed to be, when we needed to be there. The next total solar eclipse is in Wyoming in 2017. Anyone interested in seeing it should check out www.intrepidtravel.com