It doesn’t happen as often as you might think. A total solar eclipse doesn’t occur every year. For the path to fall across a location that’s not only accessible but somewhere you’ve been waiting to visit is unusual.
This year the sweet spot traversed Indonesia and the central Pacific, so it was decided: for March 2016 we would become eclipsechasers.
Our agreed destination was the eastern most part of Indonesia, within the vast marine reserve of Raja Ampat. At the heart of the coral triangle, this is home to more endemic species than anywhere else on the planet. It’s remote, still relatively wild, and astonishingly beautiful.
A dream for scuba divers, photographers, bird watchers, geologists, and just about anyone with a passing interest in nature or tropical idylls.Chartering a boat into this region comes with its own plethora of possibilities but our needs were simple and quite specific.
As a small group of close friends, usually dispersed across the globe, we weren’t keen on sharing our time with anyone else. We wanted to dive, but not too much. We fancied some land excursions. Overall we were looking for adventure, comfort, and the flexibility to make a few decisions on the spot; all en route towards a spot reasonably close that crucial eclipse path.The boat we settled on was Mantra, a beautiful 23m phinisi style wooden sailboat; handcrafted on a beach of South Sulawesi by traditional boat builders, using techniques passed down the generations by word of mouth. Everything about the boat, from the iconic design to the quality and finish of the hardwood, was in keeping with our timeless unspoiled surroundings. We could have been in another century. There at the edge of the earth we could have been adventurers and explorers; discovering the unknown and chartering new frontiers. It felt an apt vehicle for chasing an age old phenomenon.
After a day or two we’d fallen easily into the gentle rhythm of life on board. The sunshine woke us just after first light, and the ocean rocked us to sleep a few hours after dark. We emerged eagerly onto the deck every morning to see what new scene awaited. During the day a heady combination of sunshine, salt water, and whipping breeze exhilarated and unwound us in equal measure. At night the sky unfolded to a new dimension of twinkling galaxies. Our musthave items became superfluous. The reflex to check phones was forgotten.
By the time eclipse day arrived we were so chilled out that our main objective now just felt like a cherry on top. This was fortunate because it wasn’t looking promising. We were heading north towards our agreed destination of Pulau Sayang where, if it was clear, we would get 99.75% totality. But since sunrise the sky had been getting progressively darker, and as we gathered for breakfast the dark clouds were still rolling in.So far our journey had taken us from Sorong in west Papua into Raja Ampat and north over the equator. Every day dolphins joined us at the bow, sometimes in pods of 20 or more. We’d dived at an array of mind blowing sites, been on bushwhacking treks through tropical rainforest, and kayaked around mangroves and a vast labyrinth of a lagoon. We’d seen rare endemic birds, ancient rock art, traditional papuan villages, and had climbed to exhilarating heights for a breathtaking 360 degree panoramic view.
It had been an epic few days, but the main event looked set to be a washout.
The Brits among us were facing the prospect of untimely bad weather with adept good humour. The American continued to predict a bright outcome with dogged determination.By 8:45 the drizzle had set in. We huddled under cover with necks craned towards the lightest part of the sky, peering up into the clouds. Unlikely patches of thinner cloud were starting to pass by, offering occasional glimpses of a more defined shape and, undoubtedly now, there was a small dint in the top right corner of the sun.
By 9:15 perhaps a quarter of the sun was covered. We’d moved the boat into a brighter looking spot and it wasn’t raining anymore. Actually the sun was 75% out and shining. We continued to check the progress through what we now recognised to be very helpful patches of cloud cover.
And at 9:57 there it was, bent around a solid black silhouette; a delicate line of pinkish- orange light, like an eyelash on a photograph. Around us it was almost twilight, but the patches of clear sky behind us were a brilliant blue. Unsure of what to do we cheered, clapped, and called for beer.As the wisp grew into a crescent and the sunshine spilled back into the day we began our return south. Although it had been what we’d planned for, the reality surpassed our expectations. The weather added doubt and suspense, as if the sun going out wasn’t going to be dramatic enough, and it made the event feel that bit rarer and more special.
KLM Mantra is available to charter year round through Komodo, Raja Ampat, Alor, and beyond; accommodating up to 8 guests in stylish, contemporary cabins. Suggested itineraries combine worldclass scuba diving with select land excursions, and can be tailored to specific interests, so groups enjoy a personalised version of the best these areas have to offer.
For more information, enquiries, and bookings please check www.mantradiveandsail.com