Chasing the Sun

Eclipse fans traipse to the four corners of the Earth to see nature's big show

March 19, 2006|By APRIL ORCUTT | APRIL ORCUTT,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The universe has gone beautifully awry. The temperature drops, daylight darkens eerily, dots of sunlight on the ground turn into crescents, sunlight on pale colors starts to ripple as though reflected through a swimming pool. Then the moon fully covers the sun -- which turns into a black dot in the sky surrounded by a diaphanous halo, stars and planets. If watching a total solar eclipse is not the most incredible experience you can have, it has few competitors.

A solar eclipse occurs when the sun, moon and Earth line up (in that order), and the moon's shadow falls on the Earth. (A lunar eclipse happens when the sun, Earth and moon align, and the Earth's shadow falls on the moon.)

Once I saw one, I was hooked.

I have chased total solar eclipses in Hawaii, Chile and Curacao, but it's hard to imagine a more sur- real landscape in which to experience the awesome eeriness of a total solar eclipse than the Cappadocia region in central Turkey.

On March 29, weather permitting, when the moon lines up between the Earth and the sun, muted light in a luminescent teal sky will paint Cappadocia's white cliffs and hoodoos cyan. The shadow of the moon will cross almost all of the area, including the tourist towns of Goreme, Uchisar and Urgup.

This bizarre countryside formed thousands of years ago when hard basalt covered soft volcanic ash called tuff or tufa. Erosion later wore away much of the softer rock, leaving basalt "caps" on oddly shaped towers of tuff. Hundreds of years ago residents dug into the soft tuff of the larger hills to create cave-homes, churches, vast tunnels and at least 36 underground cities.

The oddball rocks, frescoed churches and eight-level underground towns turned Cappadocia into one of Turkey's most popular tourist areas -- and into a weird place to view an eclipse. I was enchanted when I visited the area a few years ago, and the idea of going again this spring for the eclipse could be too much to resist.

At first sight

I saw my first total solar eclipse on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1991 with my husband, Michael. We made the decision to go a week before the event.

The morning of the eclipse we clambered to the top of a "puu" -- a small, volcanic cinder cone -- where we could see the countryside below and the sky above. Michael groused about getting up at 4 to see the 7 a.m. show, but when totality hit -- the moon completely covered the sun -- he cheered for four minutes straight.

He wasn't alone. Everyone cheered.

Now unabashed total-solar-eclipse junkies, we headed to northern Chile three years later for our second eclipse.

Planning 18 months ahead and looking for clear weather, we used NASA maps showing where totality would be to select a location in the Atacama Desert -- where rainfall has never been recorded.

Trying to get above as much atmosphere as possible, we settled on the village of Putre at 11,500 feet in the Andes. We weren't alone.

Hundreds of people crowded into the village the morning of the eclipse.

One pleasure in seeing an eclipse is the shared experience, and we joined a hundred cheering eclipse converts in Putre who spontaneously formed a circle, held hands and danced on the hillside after totality.

Our third eclipse took us to the Caribbean and Curacao in 1998.

We found an upscale hotel in a prime eclipse-viewing location that would enable us to eat a buffet lunch and stand on their property for $50 each; but a quarter mile away a free, public, white-sand beach embraced by black cliffs beckoned. We plotted which thatched, umbrella-like palapa we would secure in the morning.

Curacao chafed under a 10-month drought -- but when we awoke at 5 a.m., rain poured down. We wanted the palapa for sun protection -- but it sheltered us equally well from the rain. The sky cleared completely only 20 minutes before totality, and the beach afforded a broad vista that added to the grandeur of our experience.

Follow the sun

Total solar eclipses occur around the globe -- this month's eclipse can be seen in parts of Africa, Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Russia and Mongolia -- so they are a great excuse for trips to exotic locales like the Cappadocia region. With its "fairy chimneys" that look like 20-foot mushrooms, boulders you would swear were camels, and a landscape of pointed hills honeycombed with caves that create the illusion of faces, central Turkey offers prime locations to view the eclipse.

For visitors who love the sea, the moon's shadow will also cross much of the rugged Mediterranean coast of the Lycian Peninsula, the towns of Antalya and Alanya, and the plain and beaches that run between them.

Seeking a view of the coastline and the snowy Taurus Mountains near Antalya during a visit one March, my husband and I went to the small bar perched on the outside of castle walls surrounding the city's restored Roman harbor. Later I relished the serenity walking through Kaleici, the historic old town section with beautiful Ottoman houses, to Antalya's landmark 13th-century fluted Yivli Minaret.

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