Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich)
Solar Total Eclipse, 11 July 2010
As I had built up a wealth of hotel loyalty points through very many nights away from home this year on business, I decided to extend my trip to observe the 11 July 2010 eclipse by travelling to Heathrow the day before departure. This turned out to be a good idea as I was upgraded to a suite, which had the additional benefit of free access to the club lounge. Thus began a three day champagne binge! Let me explain... Travel to Tahiti takes around twenty hours flying time plus a night stop-over in Los Angeles; this demanded an upgrade to business class travel, which brought with it access to the airline lounges in Heathrow and Los Angeles, which in turn meant continuation of the champagne binge. Still, it was my birthday!
I travelled with Explorers Astronomy Tours, joining a party of 120 travellers who eventually arrived at Tahiti. True to Explorers' form, the hotel originally booked for our stay, the Hilton, had closed down (!) and we had instead been hastily re-booked in the Radisson Plaza. The accommodation there was very pleasant; we didn't quite monopolise the hotel, in fact there were at least two other eclipse parties staying there, but they kept themselves to themselves.
As always with Explorers the phrase "a leisurely day" was far from the truth, especially when sightseeing was involved... The half day tour of Tahiti was generally good, visiting Point Venus, where Captain Cook observed the 1769 Transit of Venus, and a natural sea cliff blow hole, but the Paul Gauguin museum was a little um, let's say, not to my taste.
The next day saw John Mason give his usual pre-eclipse briefing, definitely up to standard (DVD available later). However before he got started, much to my embarrassment, he presented me with a birthday card from the Explorers team.
Unfortunately, the Radisson was over-booked and the following day we had to move to another, newer hotel for one night. The rooms in the newer hotel were much nicer than those in the Radisson and it was much nearer to the town centre and its facilities, but alas the immediate environment and catering were much inferior to the Radisson. The move effectively occupied a whole day of our leisure time.
On Saturday 10 July, we took a private charter flight to the coral atoll of Hao. This is an interesting place. The island around which the atoll formed has long since eroded into the sea, leaving the atoll around a classic South Pacific lagoon. It boasts the longest runway in the South Pacific (3.5 km) - it is in fact an emergency landing site for the space shuttle although, as John Mason put it, the likely reaction of the 200 local inhabitants to such a landing is unknown! We were met at Hao airport by the local mayor and given the traditional greeting dance by young ladies in grass skirts.
A group of Americans had beaten us to the only spare beds on the island (school dormitories), so we had to camp. The campsite was quite amazing. Nothing but scrub had existed on the site two months before our arrival; the whole site had been cleared and set up especially for us. The site had been levelled with crushed concrete (from the base buildings of the earlier French atomic testing) and sand. It was nice - paved and planted with coconut plants. Three blocks - toilet cum shower, dining and bar - were especially built out of logs and banana leaves. The toilet cum shower block was amazing. The toilets were of the long drop variety, and needed to be "flushed" with a bucket of sand after use. I still have no idea where the shower water came from. The only lights for miles around were the faint ones on the toilet block - great for observing but not good for dressing/undressing. The sun rose at 8am and set at 6pm; and that meant bedtime at 9pm! Unfortunately, the "beds", consisting of 5 mm of foam, were so uncomfortable as to deny prolonged sleep, and generally encouraged waking at 1am!! The food was as good as it could be given that everything had to be imported, but the island's attitude of the concept of mañana being altogether too urgent did little to help food preparation and delivery. However both beer and water were cheaper than in Tahiti, despite our fears of suppliers exploiting their captive audience. To summarise: uncomfortable nights, bug feeding frenzies, horrible food and long drop toilets. Some people even slept on the park benches....
In Hao, we were located three miles from town and two miles from the airport, and local school buses (converted lorries) were our taxis. We were invited to the local Heiva (a month-long festival celebrated across the whole of French Polynesia). Here we saw Mr & Miss Heiva being auditioned and crowned - plus of course the usual extortionate eclipse tee-shirt merchandising.
And so the day of the eclipse dawned. The site was really excellent. Bill Gates, Richard Branson and possibly Fred Espenak were rumoured to be on or close by the island on boats. The eclipse itself (saros 146) was of shorter overall duration than most, around three hours from first to last contact. We had a great view over the Pacific Ocean. Although our location was statistically the best for minimum cloud cover, we suffered some fleeting clouds but fortunately they did not interfere significantly with our observations. There were wonderful point source lighting effects - sharp shadows - as the Moon slowly inched over the solar disk. There was a Tahiti TV film crew on site, who made a nuisance of themselves by disturbing observers during the eclipse.
Totality: there was a tight compact corona as would be expected at the lower end of the solar activity cycle. There were three streamers (strong magnetic lines of force carrying solar material away from the surface). A number of prominences were seen around the edge and a sunspot group (seen just prior to 2nd contact). Mercury could be seen easily but little else was visible in the heavens.
Later that day, after the eclipse, we wandered on to the long runway, where John gave us his usual southern live planetarium show. This was particularly good given the really clear skies. I had my best view ever of the Milky Way, including the dark dust lanes and the coal sack nebula. Later, there was a more serious observing session, where we saw the Triffid Nebula, Lagoon Nebula, Eta Carina, objects in Sagittarius and the more obscure (from the northern hemisphere!) southern constellations.
Then it was back to Tahiti for more early starts, but we didn't care - at last we had proper toilets, loo paper, a bed and proper food! The next day saw a catamaran trip across to Moorea island (used for the back drop of the film Mutiny on the Bounty), and some scenes in South Pacific). Our jolly bus driver provided a commentary all the way around the island, driving the coach up incredible slopes, with the clutch slipping freely. Then he informed us about the hot bed of mosquitoes and dengue fever, and told us he would be shutting the bus door behind us! After an hour or so of this full day tour he dropped us off at a pearl shop for an hour followed by a three hour stop for lunch 200 metres up the road. So four hours of this full day tour was "at leisure". As it happened we took zero time at the pearl shop (beer seller next door) but it did take over two hours to serve lunch to half a dozen people. Such speedy service was a general trait of French Polynesia. Then we enjoyed a 4x4 tour of Tahiti's mountainous heart - more mosquitoes with dengue fever. Where's the insect repellent?
On to Easter Island or Rapa Nui. (Rapa Nui means Big Rapa. Rapa Ini, Little Rapa, is also in the Tahitian Group). Very green and wet and not as set up for tourism as Tahiti. Our hotel (reputed to be one of the best on the island) claimed three stars. I would rate it as three B&B rosettes, some six or seven classifications below the hotel we occupied in Tahiti. The rooms were varied. Some people had vast domains with no furniture apart from a bed; others (including me) had minute spaces crammed with, well, a bed. Service was friendly enough but overwhelmed by so many people. For example, dinner: vegetables were served at 7.30pm, more vegetables were served at 8.00pm, and the meat followed at 8.35pm, with some salad. As someone said: it will be a very nice hotel when it's finished! However the sights on the island are incredible. The Maui (the big heads) have a lot more history behind them than one may at first think, and we were told about every minute of that history by the very keen historian and island archaeologist Sergio Rapu, who also happened to be the former Governor of Easter Island and owner of the hotel and local tour company. We'll never forget Professor William Molloy!
Entertainment was sparse in the evenings on Easter Island - we had the standard local barbecue and folklore evening on the last night, but I thought I would liven things up by re-running the music quiz first seen at the OASI barbecue in 2009. It went down quite well, with Explorers providing a bottle of wine for the winning team. The weather on Easter Island was very variable, calm blue skies one minute and stormy tempests the next. Rainbows were very commonplace - an average of three or four a day. On a couple of occasions the night produced superbly clear skies providing yet another opportunity to view the southern constellations, the incredible Milky Way and the Magellanic clouds.
Finally the epic saga of the homeward journey: four days with only one night in a bed; best forgotten I think. All in all, it was an experience - I wouldn't have missed it but I wouldn't rush back!
The following images show some aspects of the trip.
See Fred Espenak's eclipse web site eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse.html
Paul Whiting, FRAS