2012 November 14, Wednesday

     This is my eighth total-solar-eclipse trip. Previous trips have taken me to Aruba, Hungary, Zambia, Australia, Libya, China, and China again. So far I've been lucky enough to see all my eclipses, clear skies (or clear enough) seven for seven. Now I'm going for number eight, Cairns, Australia, with Astro Trails, the new home company of the good people who ran Explorers on previous trips.

     A total solar eclipse is a primal experience, watching the sun go out during the daytime. Like any other Great Big Event that happens rarely, there's a community of eclipse chasers. It's a lot easier in an age of jumbo-jet airline travel and Internet communication than it must have been 50 or 100 years ago. I see the same faces in different places, people who have been with me on previous eclipse trips, like my friend Jeremy.

     Besides the glory of totality, there's also the novelty of traveling to places I would not otherwise go, like Libya or Uganda or Easter Island (I didn't make it to that one in 2010). Just as Robert Heinlein wrote of the man who traveled in elephants, I choose to travel in eclipses. (I don't have to carry samples either.)

     (As the Australian dollar (AUD) is pretty close to the United States dollar (USD), I figure I'll refer to both as dollars $$$ without making a clear distinction which is which.)


2012 November 8, Thursday, to Sydney, Australia

How to Photograph a Solar Eclipse
     I think it was Eastern Airlines who said getting there is half the fun. If getting anywhere my airline is half the fun, then you must be going someplace pretty awful. Still, I have enough frequent-flier miles to have gotten first-class travel across the Pacific Ocean and that makes the thirteen-hour flight a lot more pleasant.

     I gave myself an extra 24 hours in Sydney at each end of my trip to minimize the likelihood of missing my connections. It also gave me a chance to visit with my friend Tony and to see some of Sydney.


2012 November 9, Friday, non-existence

     I left Los Angeles late Thursday night and arrived in Sydney Saturday morning, which means I crossed the International Date Line sometime around midnight. That means my existence on 2012 November 9, Friday, might have been an hour or two while I was sleeping on a jumbo-jet airliner.


2012 November 10, Saturday, in Sydney, Australia

     My friend Tony from Sydney visited me a couple of times in Scottsdale. "If you're ever in Sydney," he said, and he meant it. We met at the airport (after an hour and a half of cell-phone hassle at my end which Tony cheerfully put up with) and he took me over to the famous Opera House.

     We took a ferry across the harbour to Manly. There were lots of sailboats of varying types moving briskly in the breeze. It was a pretty ride and Tony was good company.

     When we got to Manly, in New South Wales, the same state as Sydney, Tony had tickets for Manly Sea Life, a tourist aquarium where visitors get to see big, bright-colored coral and fish. There is even a walkway under and through a big tank with big sharks and bigger manta rays.

     After a ferry ride back, we strolled around the opera house and then walked around the Royal Botanical Gardens nearby. Australia in general, and Sydney in particular, had a good ambassador and I had a good host.

     I made tentative arrangements with Tony to go flying together next Saturday morning on the return part of my trip through Sydney. Alas, that was not to happen.


2012 November 11, Sunday, to Cairns, Australia

     I got up bright and early to run a few miles before my flight. My itinerary took me down to and around a pond near the airport, so I got a lakeside loop instead of just out and back and saw some interesting birds I then paid $8.00 for a ride to "the airport" where we stopped at the international terminal to drop off one passenger and then to the domestic terminal for my Sydney-to-Cairns flight.

     Wouldn't you know it? The SYD-CNS flight continues to Osaka, Japan, so it leaves from the international terminal. It's a good thing I got there good and early since it's an every-half-hour ride on the T-Bus for another $5.50 to get there. I didn't have a lot of time to spare, but I made it and enjoyed my three-hour flight. Since temperate Sydney has Daylight Savings Time and tropical Cairns does not, there's a one-hour time difference between them this time of year.

     After more cell-phone confusion and Internet service at Cairns Airport that worked well enough to charge me $3.00 but not well enough to connect me to anything, I finally got to my hotel and met up with my friend Jeremy. We had a good, expensive lunch in the tourist area, did some walking around, and had a good, cheap dinner at the hostel where he was staying.

     Cairns is home not only to some interesting and exotic birds but also to some large bats which hang from the roadside trees. Temperatures were warm but hardly brutal with mornings around 20°C (70°F) and afternoons around 30°C (85°F) with more humidity than Scottsdale.


2012 November 12, Monday, Barrier Reef tour

     Monday was barrier-reef-tour day on my schedule and started with a run along a bicycle path that connected Cairns to another town called Aeroglen, according to the sign. There was a beach and there was a boardwalk and there were clouds in the sky with rainy patches, not the best omen for a Wednesday solar eclipse. When I reached the point where the bicycle path crosses the highway, I met a local couple on bicycles who told me where the path goes, which is where I went. They also suggested a side trip along a path into a nearby park which I took on Friday.

     The trip out to the Barrier-Reef was two hours on a tour-boat-sized catamaran with a midpoint stop at Green Island. It was a windy and bouncy two hours and a few passengers took advantage of the vomit bags handed out. (At least they were free. After paying $5.50 for an airport bus in Sydney, and paying $4.00 for a 600 ml plastic bottle of Coca-Cola, I expected the tour company to charge for them.)

     There was a floating facility at the reef with snorkeling gear, scuba gear, an underwater viewing area, and a "semi-sub" with an underwater tour just beneath the surface. I tried snorkeling for a bit and enjoyed some of the views, but after a while I found too much water leaked into my mask and got into my nose and the waves made it harder to breath than I liked. After that, I stuck to less-active underwater viewing, the underwater walkway and the semi-sub.

     My last snorkeling experience was 1968 at Hanauma Bay, a sunken volcano crater on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. This was before the tourists discovered it and I remember getting a mask and snorkel for about two dollars (back then) and seeing coral and fish within a meter of my diving mask with my sister. This view was further and bluer and the waves were bigger.


2012 November 13, Tuesday, Tjapukai Aboriginal park

     On my morning run, I noted that it was sunny at 6:38, the time of tomorrow's eclipse. It was cloudy at 6:35 and 6:45, so it wasn't all cheerful news, but at least we saw some sun.

     I wanted to hear some unamplified aboriginal music, presumably a didgeridoo with some vocals without a western beat in the background like I heard in Sydney. So I signed up for the Tjapukai Aboriginal Tour a short bus ride from Cairns. The tour has five stops including music and dance, weapons, face painting, and, of course, the gift shop. The music was a bit westernized, but the dance was fun, and the weapons included letting us chuck spears and throw boomerangs.

     After spending a few months forty years ago learning to throw a red, plastic boomerang (from Wham-O toys), it was cool to throw a boomerang in Australia with a real aborigine, or at least somebody who looked like one. The boomerang didn't land at my feet, but I made a respectable throw and it flew a reasonable circuit.

     I enjoyed my Tjapukai time and got my face painted. I was going to keep the paint on through the next morning's eclipse, but they were merciful enough to use paint with little staying power. (I can just see somebody doing this tour at the end of a vacation and showing up at work with face paint that won't easily come off!)

     One interesting moment. Upon hearing my "yank" accent, one fellow on the bus asked me what I thought of our elections. After I told him, he paused and said, "Well Romney is just creepy." I got similar response from an English friend. Somehow, the Obama campaign, with all its mystery and secrecy, managed to communicate to the American people and the world that ordinary-American-background, successful-American-businessman Mitt Romney is the creepy one.

     I had planned to get some sleep this afternoon in anticipation of the two-in-the-morning departure on eclipse day. Alas, the folks at JetStar had other plans. I got a call from them that they canceled my flight to Sydney, but they could get me there the next Tuesday, three days after my now-not-changeable flight back home to the United States. Or, they said, they could route me through Melbourne and get me to Sydney just a few hours after my get-me-home flight. Or, they said finally, they could give me my money back.

     Well, thanks a lot! It's eclipse week in Cairns, not much chance of a seat to Sydney, and certainly not much chance of a cheap one. I found a seat (the last seat, actually) early Saturday morning on Virgin Australia for $925. (At least it was business class.) That would make Saturday a very long day, cancel my plans in Sydney for Saturday morning (I had a Piper Warrier reserved for some small-airplane flying), and cost me my non-refundable hotel reservation in Sydney. The Plan-B alternative was two days by train or Greyhound or buying a new, full-fare, walk-up airline ticket back to Phoenix.

     Assuming I get a refund from JetStar, I'm out about $900 and a long afternoon of telephone calls. (I don't know what my cell carrier will end up charging me. It's kind of like a satellite phone: it may be terribly expensive but, in an emergency, you're not worried about the cost of a phone call.) I was told by the front desk fellow at the hotel that JetStar is notorious for this kind of monkeyshines. I feel an airline ticket is a stronger commitment from an airline than "we'll take you there if we feel like it and we'll return your money if we don't."

     The evening was the Astro Trails, Francisco Diego, presenting his description of a solar eclipse and telling us what to expect. The first thing to expect was a long bus ride inland as the coast was still cloudy.


2012 November 14, Wednesday, total solar eclipse

     Up at 1:30, meet at 2:00, depart at 2:30 for Who Knows Where in the mountains west of Port Douglas. I brought my running gear in hopes of celebrating the eclipse a few miles along the highway along with my tripod and my image-stabilized binoculars from 1998. We piled into a couple of coaches (buses) and off we went.

     After an hour and a bit, we stopped at a small hotel for a rest stop, one GENTS and one LADIES, so we had a bit of a lineup in the pre-dawn darkness. Apparently, we woke somebody up and, apparently, we had forgotten to ask permission, because the irate owner came out and had a few words with the bus drivers. I have mixed feelings about it: I'm sympathetic that he didn't want his guests awakened by a couple of buses and a bunch of tourists. On the other hand, he's selling out his rooms, probably at top dollar, because of the event that drove us out there in the first place.

     We found our site along a roadside and set up eclipse-watching camp. There were lots of tripods and fancy cameras. The sun's angle was 17° above the horizon, enough that everybody's view was unobstructed even with people in front of other people. With almost an hour before totality, I figured I had time to run out 2.5 Km and back, so I got to wave at other eclipse parties along this nowhere road. I remembered to run on the right side, facing traffic, and there were a few cars going to and fro. By the time I got back, the sun was well above the horizon with a big bite taken out by the moon's shadow.

     When the final moments before totality arrived, I looked carefully for shadow bands on the roadway, but it was too early in the day, the air was too still, for them to appear.

     I got lucky this time, somebody hollered "DIAMOND RING!" at the early stage and I took off my eclipse glasses soon enough to see it, diamond rings before and after the main totality stage (both second and third contact, in eclipse speak). The totality phase offered a good corona and several red prominences around the face of the sun. The binoculars did their job and the picture was stunning. My little, point-and-shoot camera got about thirty seconds of my two minutes and I got three pictures all of which had noticeable holes in the bright-corona smudges, about the best it could do. The rest of the time was spent just watching the show.

     Afterward we waited for the last partial eclipse to disappear, made introductions and told stories of other eclipse trips. Some of the stories were even true!

     There's nothing to talk about afterward. We all came for the exact same thing and saw exactly the same show. Still, there's a positive, buoyant spirit.

     I don't know what the overall odds are, but I feel pretty lucky that I'm eight out of eight on total eclipses, nine if we count the annular eclipse this year, I've seen one between rainclouds and another through thin clouds, but I've seen all eight that I have traveled to.

     I spent the afternoon at the ZOOm Wildlife Dome, an indoor, open-air, mostly-birds-with-a-few-lizards animal place on the roof of the local casino. I couldn't resist a koala bear and had my picture taken with one.


2012 November 15, Thursday, Kuranda rain forest tour

     The Down Under Tours rain forest trip was a terrific day. It had a scenic railroad, a short stay in a small town, a cable-gondola ride over the rain forest, and an animal show with crocodiles, snakes, and big birds. There also was a stretch of time where we moved on our own, not just shuttled as a group from one conveyance to another.

     A busload of us left our hotel, picked some others up at some other hotels, and drove us to a train station for the Kuranda Scenic Rail. It reminded me of my trip last month on the Durango-Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad in Colorado.

     We got to the end at Kuranda where we had a little while to walk around, just not enough to see very much there. We took the Skyrail Cableway, a sequence of green gondolas moving by wire over the rain forest. We were given an hour and a half to cover the forty-minute route with two stops, so we had time to look around. At the end of the gondola ride, we all were herded back onto a coach for a trip to Hartley's Crocodile Adventure.

     At Hartley's Crocodile Adventure we saw shows on crocodile farms, snakes, crocodile handling, cassowary feeding, and other stuff. These were on a half-hour schedule including a boat ride where the driver teased crocs out of the water with the promise of tasty chicken. He told bad jokes and was good fun.

     On the way back there were signs warning us of electric ants on land and jellyfish and crocodiles at sea, not the typical United-States warnings.


2012 November 16, Friday, Botanical Garden and Zoo

     On Tuesday, my first morning in Cairns, I met a couple on bicycles who suggested taking a side trip along a path in a park, so that's what I did this morning. One direction went a quarter-mile (400 meters) into a housing development while the other direction went along a stream into the Cairns Botanical Gardens. What a piece of luck for me!

     The Cairns Botanical Gardens is a collection of outdoor walkways without any entrance fee. There were many interesting plants and a few colorful birds, a lily-pad pond, and a 460-meter boardwalk over rain-forest vegetation. There was a big sign, "JOGGING PROHIBITED," at the boardwalk, so I interrupted my run to walk the half mile out and back. (There was a littered pack of cigarettes with a gross picture of gangrene as a consequence of smoking along with "SMOKING CAUSES PERIPHERAL VASCULAR DISEASE" threatening words.)

     My English friend Jeremy and I walked around Cairns and saw trees full of sleeping bats. We went back to the ZOOm Wildlife Dome at the casino.


2012 November 17, Saturday, long day back to USA

     I originally was going to get back to Sydney Friday night and to fly a Piper Warrier at a local airport this morning. Instead, thanks to JetStar canceling my flight during eclipse week, I got up at 2:30 (in the A.M.) to make a 3:30 cab to a 5:10 flight on Virgin Australia. Their regional-jet business class consisted of having alternate seats empty and serving a very nice meal. Since my rollerboard wouldn't fit in their overhead, I checked my bag and waited until the apparent last bag was claimed. An airline employee was telling me it was time to talk to the lost-bags people ("Oh joy!") when it appeared. Whew!

     Once I got to Sydney, I waited a few hours in the huge, international lobby until I could check in. My airline-club membership was enough to get me into the Air New Zealand club at Sydney Airport so I could mess with my computer for a couple of hours. My flight back to Los Angeles was thirteen hours, there was a three-hour connection (enough time for a long line at U.S. customs), and a brief flight to my home in Phoenix.

     The time change, with the date line and all, was seventeen hours. I left Saturday morning and got home Saturday afternoon. Total elapsed time from hotel door to my door was thirty hours.


2012 November 18, Sunday, back home, afterward

     I'm back home with my cats and my computers and my record collection. (I've found myself hooked on Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 since I got home.)

     Australia was a lot of fun the second time, as it was fun the first time. It's a good place to be a tourist. There are beautiful places to visit, interesting plants and animals to see, and welcoming people who treat tourists well.

     Alas, the currency exchange rate has changed against Americans by a factor of two while Australian prices didn't change, so it has become an expensive tourist destination. (600-ml, 20-ounce, Coke bottles were four dollars, but at least the Coca-Cola had sugar rather than corn syrup.) I felt "nickled-and-dimed" by Sydney airport inter-terminal bus charges, by Cairns airport Internet charges (without actual Internet), by expensive cab fares, and by expensive wireless charges at my hotel. Australia is worth the price.

     Astro Trails did a terrific job. I got their briefest, simplest tour with just hotel and eclipse travel. The hotel was terrific and they did a terrific job getting us to a clear-skies eclipse-viewing site. I'm buying and expecting more from them on next year's eclipse tour in Uganda, my eclipse number nine.



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