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It occurs very seldom that hopes and efforts of many people are for a long time concentrated into short fleeting event. Total solar eclipses are such an event. Some may perhaps wonder why is there so much fuss and effort for few minutes of a show. But those who have seen it, they know for themselves.
I look forwards the eclipse since my childhood, when I started to be interested in astronomy. Then the year 1999 look so immensely distant, that I was not considering the thing or planning anything. Maybe it was partly because I lived for a long time in a popular mistake that the eclipse will be observable from the Czech Republic area—so there seemed to be nothing to think about. Later on I discovered, that the eclipse will only be partial in my country and that it will be necessary to travel a little.
Some month before the magical date I decided with Jirka Fišer, with whom I was planning the total solar eclipse expedition to go to Hungary with option to change plan and go to Austria if it will be going to be better. Hungary was a clear choice since it had the best probability of good weather of the near countries. As the 11th August was drawing nearer we started to follow weather forecasts. The Czech Hydrometeorological Institute, that was publishing forecast for the path of totality and high resolution meteorological images from Eumetsat satellite otherwise available only on a commercial basis, helped us (and other observers) a lot. The forecasts were not very optimistic. While the end of July and beginning of August spell was best characterized as sunny and stable, to the date of eclipse it was becoming apparent that it won't stay that way and that cooler and less sunny weather is to follow.
We set off from Ústí on Monday 9th August afternoon. Weather forecast for path of totality to somewhere in Romania was bad and cold front started to cross Europe. For the journey I borrowed my father's Honda Accord 2.0 TDi, since I hope that it will be more comfortable and cheaper than in my Škoda Forman. It turned out somehow differently, though, but I'll mention that later. In the evening we arrived to Rajhradice near Brno and then to Bratčice a little past it. There we stayed overnight and the third expedition member had joined us, too.
On the other day in the morning after a rainy night not adding to anyone's optimism we set off on D2 highway towards Bratislava. We crossed the Slovak border without any difficulties at Kúty crossing point. We went through Bratislava to crossing point with Hungary at Rajka. There we, again without any problem, crossed border and entered our destination country. Through Mosonmagyaróvár we got to Győr (with some roundabout way unfortunately). through it we continued towards Székesfehérvár while crossing the path of totality edge near Mór in which we were to remain. In town of Dunaföldváros we crossed Donau using a unique narrow combined railway and road bridge. The road traffic was not especially high and the catastrophic visions of complete traffic jam had not certainly become true.
So far the travel has been calm or even idyllic. Not for long, though. After crossing Donau the oil pressure lamp started to be lit occasionally. The blinking was becoming more frequent till it was on for all the time. I could not believe something very wrong could happen in such a car. While stop in a smaller town of Solt I sterted to look for the problem. When I checked the oil level measure I was stunned—there was no oil level indication at all. That was looking really strange. So I looked under the car and the worst expectation turned into the reality. In the dust under the car was a large dark spot and oil was dripping out of the oil reservoir. Chill passed over my back since it was clear that we are not going any further in this state. Later on I noticed oil traces on a crossing in the town as we were arriving. Clearly, all the oil leaked during the last few tens of meters. It was a big luck that I stopped so soon and that I managed not to damage the car's engine (at least so it was looking). But what next? After experience with buying phone card it was clear to me that to find help and explain what we need is going to be difficult. English is not spoken by many here, as it seems. In the end, our curiosity had helped us—during our journey we noticed that in Hungariand auto-repair service is pronounced just like it is in Czech. A kind bank teller was good enough to make what we want from her and called for help. We were towed to nearby service station. There our car was lifted, the oil reservoir cover removed—and—in it calmly laid the oil-reservoir nut. At the service the car has recently been to someone clever forgot to fasten the nut and so after almost 5000 km it finally became loose. For me it was a relief since now the only thing necessary was to fill in the oil we could go on. It even wasn't too expensive, some 1800,– CZK which is hardly more than the oil's price. So that after 2 hours we luckily continued in our travel.
We weren't going too much further, however. We stopped by the road, ate and relaxed. Then we chose a nice and peaceful place for our overnight stay near small village Pirtó about 10 km to north from Kiskunhalas. We spent evening with a pleasant chatting and also with a less pleasant sight of the sky—from the west thick clouds were approaching. My fellows were sleeping in a tent, I remained in my car. That turned out to be a mistake—sleeping in a car is so uncomfortable, the next time I'm taking my tent with me. I couldn't fall asleep for some time so I could watch clear and cloudy sky changing during the night. There was also very intensive thunderstorm in the direction of Szeged. In the morning it was raining heavily and the storm was right at our place.
We woke up around half past eight. A glance at the sky was depressing. Thick layer of cloud was overhead. One needed not to be a meteorologist to recognize frontal clouds. Our mood was ice-frosty, one could even hear sentences like: “So we're going to wait for Turkey 2006” etc. So the day we all were looking for so many years was looking like this? The hope soon made its appearance in a form of a thin blue strip on the north-west. We debated whether it's coming to this place until the eclipse time. In the end we decided to go against the blue sky—at worst we shall be closer to our homes. We left our overnight place at 9 o'clock am. We were taking the way we came. Weather was getting better and when we came to city of Kiskőrös, Sun was optimistically shining on blue sky and white clouds were passing by to the south-east. Our mood got 100% better and we went for a short walk to the city. Which in fact was busy preparing itself for the great event. Crowd of people, readying their filters, cameras, tripods or browsing through various leaflets and maps. So we rather went on since, who knows, maybe later there'll be no easy way out of the city. Along the road we were going on, there were number of cars and numerous groups of observers preparing themselves. We noticed even some bigger observation gear (larger telescopes). About 7 km away from the city (which was about 2 km from Akazstó village) we drove in to a meadow by the road. We unpacked our modest equipment consisting of three welding glasses with filters, two binoculars (7×50 and 15×60), one monocular (10×30), two welding glass tables no. 6, two Praktica photocameras and a Sony Hi8 (8× zoom) camera on a tripod and we went on awaiting the Great event.
The waiting was very (at least for me) enjoyable, since the conditions were ideal—sky was completely clear. There were clouds along all horizon to be seen, but they had no chance of affecting our observation. We noticed the first contact with Pavel on projected Sun's image at 11:29:20 (±10 seconds). We began to watch Moon gradually eating from Sun's disc—both with projection and directly through filters. It was so enjoyable waiting. We knew, that we are going to see the eclipse.
The fist signs of diminishing light were noticed by Jirka and Pavel around 12:18. At first I refused to believe this, but soon I noticed it, too. At 12:30 the proceeding twilight was well noticeable. Sun was becoming only a narrow crescent.
At 12:35 only a very narrow crescent of the Sun remains. Landscape is engulfed in worrysome cold light, which looks sad and ghostly. It's beginning to cool down and the direct sunglight has already lost its power and doesn't give warmth any longer. I am fascinated and think of our ancient ancestors to whom this happened without a warning. They must had been all crazed., since this really looks like the End of the World.
12:37: I am turning on video-camera and through filter I'm taking first shot of Sun's crescent.
12:45: I shoot another view of now so minuscule cresent. The crescent can also be viewed by direct look at the Sun. But one still cannot look for more than a second—even this small part of Sun's disc is too bright.
After 12:50 the tension is starting to escalate. To the moment of totality only two minutes remain. I hoped that I'll see the shadow bands, but only thing I saw were completely dark clouds on the west. Then I turned on camera. Following events happened too fast. Darkness came in about ten seconds. Diamond ring appeared and through few seconds phase of Baily's beads passed into the totality. The Total Solar Eclipes has just begun.
That, what rises after the second contact cannot be described with words. The darkness is like while full Moon. Sky is dark blue colour with orangish border along the horizon. And instead of daystar—a hole in the sky. Dark, sharp cut, surrounded by fine pearly filaments of the corona. We hear cries of excitement and sighs of extasy. We can see Venus to the east of Sun and after a while I also manage to find Mercury—this is for the first time I ever see it. Above the western horizon I see Sirius. For a moment I'm trying to find Jupiter, too, but soon I give up. I rather absorb the image that won't last for long. Jirka about half a minute before the totality end remembers his telescope, so I too take my own one and aim at the eclipsed Sun. The prominences are beautiful and there's plenty of them, red protrusions all along the Sun's discs rim. At the right upper rim the brightness is increasing—a sign of the coming third contact. After 2 minutes and 22 seconds the eclipse ends in a diamond ring. Landscape is flooded by sunlight again—now, after totality it seems rather bright. The inner corona is observable with naked eye and after few seconds only with filter for about half minute. The Total Solar Eclipse is now history.
The exit phases are not interesting for us any more. After the experience of the totality it is too weak a cup of tea. So we rather pack up and set off to road. During it we glance the quickly waxing Sun's disc from time to time. We cross both border after about 30 minutes of waiting. We arrive at home—after two stops—around midnight.
Solar eclipse observation is always a bit of game. On one side nature gives a spectatuclar show; on the other side though, this show is prudently hidden by veil of clouds and makes chasing moon-shadow a thrilling adventure. Anyway, we had the better feeling after we succeeded in our pursuit and found good observation place. Now we already know that in Central Europe it was only really good place in the path of totality. In no other eclipse report I read they would have clear skies throughout entire eclipse, ie. from the first to the fourth contact, like we had. There were clouds in any other place along the path of totality and so visibility was all local matter. They could see eclipse fine somewhere while few kilometers nothing was seen. There was bad weather even at Balaton lake, from which we were not so far away and nearby city of Szeged can thank its luck that allowed to see them the total phase, since there were intensive thunderstorms prior to the eclipse. Only fragments of the partial eclipse were seen in our hometown Ústí nad Labem. In Prague the partial eclipse maximum was even spoiled by heavy rain.
Total solar eclipse is a phonomena that cannot be fully conveyed in its fullness. Any amount of words, the best television and photographic equipment won't capture everything a man sees and feels during an eclipse. Especially I would like to stress that total eclipse is whole different from partial one—no matter how large part of the Sun's disc is obscured. I can only repeat: He shall not understand who has not seen it.
Next eclipse I plan to see will take place on 26th March, 2006 in Turkey. So see you again in the shadow of Moon!