Total Solar Eclipse and Adventure on Bangka Island, Indonesia

Eighty-degree sea water gently washed over my feet as I stood in the hot pre-dawn air. The smooth, white sand was populated with eclipse viewers from all over Bangka Island. Most of the locals missed the eclipse in this same place in 1983 because their president at the time, being superstitious, directed everyone to stay indoors for their own safety. This time the population was going to make up for it. All around me people were passing the time smoking, chatting, milling about. Children were running and laughing and playing, unaware of the spectacular sight they were there to behold. The excitement was palpable.

Dawn

The pre-dawn sky on eclipse day.

I had landed on Bangka Island, Indonesia, two days before. I was meeting up with an old astronomy friend from Southern California. Joel was leading a group of eclipse chasers on a tour of Indonesia, culminating at this most wondrous of Mother Nature’s gifts. I was staying at the same accommodations, the gorgeous Soll Marina, a large conference hotel away from the bustle of town.

Amazing experiences have found me everywhere I go during this first two months of travel. On the second day at Soll Marina Hotel, having enjoyed a fantastic buffet breakfast (which seemed more like Indonesian dinner to me), Sanny, the general manager, asked me if I’d like to have him take me for a drive around the island. Well, hello! Of course I jumped at the offer, and off we went in his air-conditioned van.

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Sanny and me at breakfast.

Right away we saw a camera crew on the beach, so we stopped to see what they were doing. They were preparing a video about the eclipse for television news, and they asked if they could interview me, so of course I said yes! You can see the clip here.

News crew

Hotel manager Sanny, reporter Agus, me, and an official from the Ministry of Education.

We continued on our tour of the island, exploring a former tin mine that had been transformed into a lush botanical region.

Pond

A former tin mine, now a peaceful fishing pond.

Not far from the min-turned-pond, a huge field of trees, cacti, actually, stood in the hot sun. The last tired remnants of dragon fruit hung from heavy succulent stalks. We had just missed the harvest, but enormous new blossoms were already making a showing for the next crop of the luscious ruby-red fruit.

Dragon fruit

Dragon fruit.

 

Blossom

Dragon fruit blossom.

We climbed back into the cool van and headed to a Chinese temple deep in the jungle. The temple was absolutely gorgeous. Silent statues of the creatures from the Chinese calendar stood guard, surrounding the grounds. The temple itself glistened with vibrant golds and reds, and the giant candles, out-sized icons, and enormous instruments lent to the atmosphere of serenity and grandeur.

Rat

Sanny checks out the Year of the Rat.

 

Chinese temple

Inside the Chinese temple.

 

Instruments

Holy instruments.

We also stopped at the only Hindu temple on the island. This is a big change from Bali, which is covered with thousands of temples at every turn.

Hindu temple

Hindu temple.

After a delicious traditional Indonesian lunch, we headed to the Museum Tinah Indonesia. Bangka Island is best known for being a tin mining island, and sadly, decades of mining have decimated much of the island’s beauty. But thanks to Sanny’s friend who restored the botanical region and others like him who are working to repair much of the damage to the island’s beautiful ecosystem, progress is being make. The museum is a tribute to the island’s history of mining tin.

Tin trinkets

Products of the tin industry.

We ended our day at a popular fish restaurant, joining a group of Sanny’s friends from Jakarta who had come over for the eclipse.

Dinner

Dinner with new friends.

Two days later I found myself on the edge of the sea, eagerly anticipating my first total solar eclipse. The intermittent clouds were worrying; would they clear for totality? At first bite, the thinning clouds teased us with opalescent views of the gentle edge of the dark moon beginning to slide across the face of the sun. The solar film gripped tightly in my hand rose and fell from my eyes as the clouds ebbed and flowed like the sea around my ankles.

Solar film

Waiting for totality.

Throughout the hour from first bite to totality, glimpses of the rapidly shrinking solar disk flashed through the clouds, giving tantalizing hints of the treasure to come.

Clouds

The clouds begin to part.

Suddenly, silently, the morning sky quickly darkened. A hush came over the crowd. The clouds completely parted, the last razor-thin curve of the sun dissolved, and ahhhhh! TOTALITY! The corona burst into view, its iridescent filaments streaming in all their glory around the pitch-black disk of the moon. A cheer rang out across the water.

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Totality, March 9, 2016, 7:21 a.m. on Bangka Island, Indonesia. Photo by Joel Harris.

The crowd became quiet as we watched, as one, the unspeakable beauty of this rare event. Hushed whispers hung in the humid air, now dark as dusk, as a handful of stars winked into existence.

For two full minutes, the shortest two minutes of my life, we stood in quiet awe of one of nature’s greatest shows.

Totality

Totality from my Galaxy S5.

Then, in one instant, the impossibly bright diamond ring appeared, a single spot of sun that heralded the end of totality. Shouts and laughter and applause broke the silence. The joy at witnessing a total solar eclipse was shared by all. Chatter, laughter, and photos ensued. And just like that, the magic became a memory.

After the eclipse, hundreds of locals gathered around each and every foreigner to take photos. And photos. And more photos. This rather bizarre but truly engaging and fun ritual went on for literally hours. Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, families with children, teenagers surrounded us as they shouted “One by one! One by one!” The locals  wanted only one person with me in each picture, even  if a group photo had been taken already. As soon as I finished the photo op with one knot of people, another one would rush in to fill the void. Without a word, mothers with babes in arms ran up, snuggled close, smiled for the camera, shook my hand with a giggle, and ran back to husbands with cameras.

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My new friend Frian.

 

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Making the sign of “Mission of Peace” with Girl Scouts.

Finally, long, hot hours after the familiar golden Helios had risen out of its encounter with Selene, we trekked to our bus for the bumpy ride back to Soll Marina Hotel. I said my goodbyes to the group, thanked them for letting me tag along, and headed to yet another tasty Indonesian lunch.

I booked several weeks ahead at Soll Marina and paid $83 for two nights. I later added another night for the same price, which was a really good deal, considering the hotel was full with eclipse watchers by then. It’s quite a nice hotel, with a gorgeous pool, a fantastic banquet breakfast (included), and one of the best customer experiences one could hope for! The airport is less than ten minutes away, and pickup is free.