N R I C H M E N T T O U R S
TOTAL ECLIPSE ON THE CHACO
Gran Chaco of Paraguay
October 26 - November
On November 3, 1994, the Earth, moon and sun aligned themselves in such a
way that the moon's conical shadow fell upon the surface of our planet.
Hundreds of "eclipse chasers" traveled thousands of miles to get a glimpse
of one of nature's greatest celestial shows: a total eclipse of the
sun. I was one of them; I led a group of ten San Diego sky watchers, along with
three dozen others from around the U.S., to the Gran Chaco of Paraguay to experience the drama of
After a week of enjoying the sights,
sounds, aromas and flavors of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, and
after discussing every detail of eclipse mechanics, weather and
photography, we were ready for the main event. It was November 2,
and we had settled in for the evening at a small hotel in Filadelfia,
a tiny town southwest of Asuncion. A wonderfully hearty
early-evening dinner was followed by a few hours of Southern
Hemisphere stargazing. But it wasn't long before everyone had
retired for the night, all in eager anticipation of what the morning
would hold in store.
Our wakeup call on E-Day at 4:30 a.m. came
in the form of a hotel employee banging on doors and yelling "Get
up!" in Guarani, the primary native language of Paraguay. "No need
to shout," I thought. Adrenaline had kept me awake most of the
night anyway. Racing to get dressed, I kept muttering to myself "I
hope it's clear... I hope it's clear..." After all, only one cloud
strategically placed over the sun would end the show before it
As I opened the door and looked up into the
blackness, my anxiety proved unfounded. The sky was perfectly
clear, and the Southern Cross shone exquisitely above the
southeastern horizon. "Yes!" I exclaimed, "It couldn't be better!"
Now the adrenaline was really pumping.
After a spirited breakfast, we piled into
the bus for the trip south toward the eclipse centerline. Despite
getting very little sleep the night before, everyone was abuzz with
discussion. "Would exposures for the 'diamond ring' capture
prominences as well? How many stars would we see during totality?
How close to the centerline can we actually drive?"
By now, the sky to the east was beginning
to show first light―right
on time. Despite having been through the chase before, I
couldn't help rejoicing silently that the cosmos was behaving just
as it should. What a show we were going to have!
Within the hour,
we arrived at the pre-planned observation site―a
remote location of scrubby brush and tropical trees. After hauling
our gear 50 yards across the dirt road and over a 3-foot-high fence,
we began setting up camp. My equipment consisted of a platform for
an 80mm-diameter, f/6 University Optics refractor telescope and
three 35mm cameras, a German equatorial-mounted tripod connected to
a 12-volt battery, and a short-wave radio and antenna for picking up
accurate time signals from WWV.
At 8:27, it's show time and for us
that means its payoff time. Shouts of "first contact!" could be
heard as the moon's curved silhouette first darkened the western
limb of the sun. Camera shutters clicked and eyes turned toward the
sky. The drama was on!
As the moon drifted eastward in front of
our star, excited chatter came from everywhere. Some in our group
simply lay on the ground enjoying the sights; others were
diligently operating complex batteries of optical tools, hoping to
record every second of the action. I, of course, was one of the
By 9:30, the sunlight had dimmed
significantly and only a delicate crescent star remained. Shadows on
the ground had become noticeably sharper, and sunlight streaming
through the leaves of trees projected myriad tiny eclipses onto the
ground below. The mid-morning dusk brought to the sizzling Chaco
some much-welcomed cool air. Flowers began to close in the waning
light; birds returned to roost; nocturnal animals became more
Now, with only seconds until totality, the
moon's dark shadow descended ominously and rapidly from the west,
engulfing the Paraguayan landscape in a still and eerie darkness.
Shutters clicked madly at the rapidly changing scene, and heartbeats
began to accelerate. Soon, the last burst of sunlight disappeared
behind the moon's edge―the
"diamond ring." And then, totality!
The place where the mighty sun once shone
was a void, around which the sun's gossamer corona streamed outward
across the sapphire sky. Some cheered its arrival; some wept at
its splendor. And some gazed in silent awe at the most glorious
spectacle nature has to offer. What a magnificent and exhilarating
that some had waited an entire lifetime to experience.
In the darkened
sky, the glistening planets Venus and Jupiter shone like jewels barely a
dozen degrees from the pearly-white corona, and glowing near the horizon
were the wonderfully warm colors of a 360-degree sunset. If ever an
alien landscape existed on Earth, this was it. Its beauty held even
the most veteran of eclipse chasers hostage, and we all became swept up by
the haunting celestial theater.
Three and a quarter minutes passed, yet it
seemed like only seconds, until the sun's familiar rays burst into
view again. "No! It can't be over yet! It just began!" But
Mother Nature had her own plans, and there was nothing we could do
about them. All we could do was excitedly relive the past three
minutes, and begin to plan where we would be for the next eclipse
nearly a full year, and an entire world, away.
Three years of calculating, planning and
rehearsing were now complete. The 1994 Gran Chaco total solar
eclipse was history, etched forever in the minds of those who
watched. For a few magical moments, we had become one with the
perfect syzygy with the three most important bodies in the heavens.
We had been touched by the power of our universe in a way impossible
to describe, and felt emotions impossible to communicate.
For, you see,
there are two types of people in this world: those who have
experienced totality, and those who have not. And those of us who
have will never, ever, be the same again.