A backlit black disc hangs in the sky low over the western horizon, like a hole in the atmosphere. An eerie, incongruous twilight has descended, yet the hills on the horizon in all directions remain sunlit. Someone yells excitedly in a language that is unfamiliar to me. It is echoed by another voice, another language. A series of yells follows and I am glad that some spectators can express their feelings like this. It reminds me of the range of cultures and peoples that are here, adding a human element to this overwhelmingly astronomical event. I can't think of anything worth yelling aloud. What can you say? What did original inhabitants of this land think when the sun mysteriously disappeared? Did they have words to describe it? Stories to explain it? For many cultures it was a portentous event. A dragon eating the sun.
As when the Sun, new risen,
Looks through the horizontal misty air,
Shorn of his beams, or from behind the Moon,
In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
Milton: Paradise Lost
I am a scientist, truly, although I hated physics at school. I still have only a high school understanding of classical physics although I am intrigued by the mysteries and surreal beauty of quantum physics even if I don't understand the mind-bending mathematics behind the concepts. Likewise here I am awed by the spectacle that is a solar eclipse. Something that can be explained, predicted, mathematically characterized. And at the same time it is exceptionally strange and beautiful. Like the fractals that form the massive sunshade over the dancefloor or, indeed, the electronic music that is the fabric of this festival. The whole transcends the cold, hard empirical description.
Myriad people have converged on the desert for a rare event – like the pelicans flocking to nearby Lake Eyre when it ephemerally fills with water – to experience the sun disappearing behind the moon.
Astronomers, self-funded amateurs and highly-paid professionals, travel the globe following the total eclipses that occur around 75 times every century. At any spot on the Earth's surface the average interval between total solar eclipses is 375 years. The next one visible from Australia is at Cape York in 2012.
I didn't see any astronomers. They were most likely off in the desert somewhere far from the sightseers at the Lyndhurst pub and the freaks, the ferals and the earth-shaking bass at the Solar Eclipse Festival.
We sped along incredibly straight, flat roads, with one of the festival headline psytrance acts on the car stereo to get us in the bushdoof mindset. No doubt many other vehicles were travelling to the same soundtrack on various highways and backroads, converging from cities and towns in all states. No doubt many more people were disappointed when it transpired that X-Dream and two other international acts were not attending the event. However the constant supply of beats and the thril of the eclipse created enough positivity to avoid any mass outbreak of malcontent over the musical shortcomings.
One thing that hallucinogens have helped me understand, as a counterpoint to my scientific education, is that objectivity, analysis and categorisation – the scientific method – is a constrained way to view the world. My appreciation of a tree, for instance, is no less for my not knowing its scientific name. Witnessing the eclipse I did not think in terms of the 'corolla', or the 'corona' (names that are more meaningful to most people in an automotive rather than an astronomical context).
Nature, or god, can be a surrealist.
Later I reconciled my experience with the emotionally inert science – corolla, umbra, first contact, limb geometry – all these words make sense to me, but at the time they were as superfluous as any expressions of awe.
In some ways the astronomers have it easy. They are dealing with intractable numbers, formulae and universal constants. They have words to accurately communicate the phenomena they are dealing with. They needn't even have seen an eclipse. My words are inadequate.
Sitting on dusty carpet in the breezy ambience of the chillout tent, I could be anywhere. The darkness outside might just as well be concealing mountains and glaciers. Conversations around me convey numerous accents, mostly European, backed by the musical scurrying of squeaks and bouncing of bleeps. Many people are still overwhelmed by the spectacle, I am sure, but there is little talk of it. Language is limiting I suppose. And I am glad that there are no mobs of drunken Aussie yobs or British backpackers carrying on about how “fucken awesome, mate” it all was. The fairy fabric of the walls and ceiling pulsate organically, soothingly, animated by the desert wind and, perhaps, the chemicals.
My mind drifts back to sometime earlier. Days and times are unimportant. “I have acquired some acid,” says a serious voice. But the mouth is grinning. “Excellent,” I respond to my comrade. Acid has been nearly as difficult to find in my home state as the reputedly extinct thylacine. Anyhow, acid was now on the menu and our pupils would soon resemble a reflection of the total eclipse.
It is the strangest thing I have ever seen. And yet we knew it was going to happen with mechanical certainty, science having removed any spontaneity from the phenomenon. It had been known for decades, to the second: 19:41:07 local time the total eclipse begins, 26 seconds later it is over. I had seen photographs and sequences of images from previous eclipses in Mexico, Africa and elsewhere. Yet it was no less amazing. Photographs, like words, are inadequate.
And then there are the people standing in the shadow of the moon. Many of them from distant parts of the world, where the sun is now shining like on any other day, or the sky is uniformly dark with night. Engrossed by the transitory spectacle, I am temporarily unaware of their manifold presence.
My perception of the outback comes from film and television portrayals of the landscape, from The Bush Tucker Man to Rabbit Proof Fence. This has not prepared me for the sheer scale of the sky, the lack of landmarks, the subtlety of the topography. My psychogeography has largely been informed by the mountainous, green, island of Tasmania, where expansiveness is the air below you from a mountain peak or the ocean beyond. Here the land itself is expansive and the sky above more so.
I can't help relating the whole trip to films. They seem to provide a reference point in this mental and physical landscape that I have traversed. Elements of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert merge with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Cars that Ate Paris and the desert scene in The Doors.
The anticipation is made audible by unrestrained shrieks, subliminal gasping and heart-pulsing drumming. As if under the tidal influence of the moon the crowd has risen to stand.
Thousands of people are gathered here – along the old Ghan railway line embankment that traverses the desert like a huge endless line of dirty brown powdered speed – and it is like no other gathering that I have known. This is not a sporting event, nor a rock concert. Perhaps there is some similarity to a fireworks display or a new year countdown, but these seem superficial in comparison despite the pervasive sense of anticipation. Neither is this awestruck assortment of humans, radiant in the light of a brief new dawn, like any other mass gathering.
Part of the attraction, I believe, is that standing in the umbral shadow we were also standing in a temporary autonomous zone, a reality where day and night coexist. The autonomy and the promise of a world where smiles and wonder are normal were not confined to the eclipse; rather they were part of the entire three-day festival.
My body feels exhausted and my mind is in a peculiar state combining overstimulation and the tiredness resulting therefrom. I think about lying down somewhere soft, sheltered from the cool wind. Oh for softness! And deep sleep to escape the dusty griminess and the equally pervasive pounding bass.
“I am going to bed,” I unenthusiastically announce to my companions who are not looking in the least bit tired. “Don't be silly, you can't sleep.” The reality check comes from a bouncy fairy in a silver skirt with wide eyes and an even wider grin. How can I argue. “We're taking you to the chill out tent.”
Good idea; a change of pace is just what I need. But first I have to stride across the desert toward the seemingly distant glow of the chill tent, trying to keep up with the frantic figures leading my way through the maze of saltbush. As sleep eclipses my flagging neurons, the words from an Einst?¬?rzende Neubauten song are orbiting inside my mind: “All I ever really, really, really want to see is a total eclipse of the sun.”