Travel: Eclipse Trips - The Full Moonty

On Thursday, a stripe of darkness will descend upon Latin America. Our turn next, writes Simon Calder - but Britain's travel industry is in danger of being eclipsed itself
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Silence envelops you as completely as the darkness. For the painfully finite seconds of totality, you and your fellow watchers are smothered by a blanket of awe and humility as the heavens show their hand. The meek moon reveals, briefly, its power to suppress a swaggering sun which can but flare feebly behind the solid black disc. This is a demonstration of astronomical contempt that will live with you for ever.

All of which was completely lost on the merry band of eclipse watchers in Mongolia last March. I had bade farewell to them at the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo. Bearing battered trunks trussed firmly with fine brass fittings, they were setting out by train to a desolate point outside the world's coolest capital, Ulan Bator. About an hour before the 1997 total solar eclipse, a snowstorm muscled over the horizon and rained on the parade of amateur astronomers lined up to watch the universe at work.

They were, my reports suggest, remarkably sanguine about the maddening meteorological intervention. Perhaps that's because we live in an astonishingly fortunate age when cheap travel makes it possible to witness next Thursday's total eclipse of the sun for a sum equivalent to a fortnight's work at the average British wage. While the British are generally characterised as sun-seekers, a substantial minority of us who like to see the orb of our desires disappear. Since the great Indian event of 1995 (where I lost my eclipse virginity), the holidaying fraternity has been looking forward to another warm weather experience.

You'd be lucky, though, to find a seat on a flight to the favoured site for viewing this year's totality: the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. The astronomer Dr John Mason said yesterday there was not a cloud within 1,000 miles ofthe island.

Roughly once a year, a stripe of the earth's surface will be flung into darkness as the moon blots out the sun. And once you're started on eclipse tourism, it's difficult to stop at the sun. Many enthusiasts track down more esoteric lunar eclipses - when the earth blacks out a full moon, with the dramatic results demonstrated (pictured, right) seen in Arizona in 1996.

The trick, though, for solar eclipses is to find a venue that (a) you can reach relatively easily, and (b) will be free of cloud cover. A third consideration is, according to the travel industry's eclipse guru Brian McGee: "Ambience - we find there's a trade-off between maximising the length of totality and enjoying the surroundings."

As a satisfied customer of Mr McGee's company, Explorers' Tours, I am inclined to agree. In 1995 I spent the (for me) hitherto unheard-of sum of pounds 1,400 on a fortnight's holiday in India, witnessing the eclipse at the extraordinary abandoned fort of Fatehpur Sikri, between Jaipur and Agra. Totality lasted barely a minute, which for old eclipsians is a seven- stone solar weakling; Thursday's show will last around three minutes. But the magical surroundings of heroically crumbling sandstone made the event a surreal study of humankind, showing not only our innate fragility but also how over-excited we can get about an entirely predictable event.

Predicting the track of an eclipse is a relatively trivial scientific exercise. We know that on Wednesday 11 August next year, at 11.11am, the path of totality will make landfall a mile north of St Just, the village north of Land's End. In the following minute, it will sweep across west Cornwall just north of Penzance and south of Falmouth. The line of darkness will streak across the Channel, then start blacking out a series of cities: Luxembourg, Stuttgart, Munich and Bucharest will experience totality, whereas Paris, Vienna and Budapest will see more than 99 per cent of the sun disappear.

Within Britain, anyone south of Newcastle will experience a significant darkening of the sky - seen through a Mylar viewer, the sun will look like the slenderest crescent moon. But for the Full Moonty, you have to head for the south-western tip of Britain.

Which is when life gets tricky. Thursday's eclipse will spark huge interest in the biggest astronomical event in Britain for 70 years: a total solar eclipse over our favourite holiday county, Cornwall. HM Nautical Almanac Office, which produces an excellent guide to the event, says it "has the potential of being seen by the largest number of people in the history of eclipse-watching". But the lack of planning in the UK amounts to a Millennium Dome-type muddle. It is still not clear what facilities are available for amateur astronomers, or how they will get there.

The traffic jams on the A30 in Cornwall are dreadful in the middle of any August, let alone one in which everyone is trying to straddle the solid black line of totality. History demonstrates that sanity becomes a precious commodity whenever a total eclipse appears, and anyone who values their mental stability will want to travel by rail. Mr McGee has already chartered a couple of special trains to travel overnight to Penzance. But anyone who wishes to rely on scheduled trains is in for a communications black-out.

A declaration of self-interest. I live in Waterloo, whence the sleeper departs for Penzance - the optimum ambience for eclipse-viewing. My extended family are keen to be there - it'll be the last for 92 years. Get the overnight train down, we reckon. Enjoy an astronomical breakfast at the cafe opposite the station, then wander along the sands to Marazion to watch the eclipse within the awesome framework afforded by St Michael's Mount. Spend the rest of the day winding down on the beach, then head back to the station and dream heavenly dreams all the way back to Waterloo.

We can fill an entire carriage on the sleeper. The current going rate is pounds 85 return, but in view of the inevitable heavy demand we are prepared to pay, right now, twice as much to guarantee our place out of the sun. That represents potential earnings to Great Western of about pounds 5,000 for doing nothing trickier than hooking up an extra carriage to the train.

The problem is that the company is unwilling or unable to take the money and run the train. When you phone up and try to book, you are told that no bookings will be taken until April 1999.

Perhaps it's the wrong kind of eclipse.

Explorers' Tours: 01753 681999.

`A Guide to the 1999 Total Eclipse of the Sun', by Steve Bell (HMSO, pounds 5.95) comes complete with Mylar viewer. Call 0171-873 9090.