A rare solar event viewed from a tropical island - what could go wrong? The weather, of course, writes Kirsty Johnston.
There we were, on a windy clifftop in the middle of the Pacific Ocean at five in the morning, staring into the horizon. Below us, waves were crashing across jagged coral. Above us, clouds were threatening to ruin our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - viewing a partial solar eclipse.
"Everyone blow at the clouds," host Richard Somerville-Ryan joked, although it was clear he wasn't really kidding. Someone made blowing noises. Someone else laughed. One of the staff offered another round of bubbles. It was far, far too early for drinking alcohol, but I took one and sipped it in solidarity, and stared forcibly at the sky.
We'd arrived in Niue the evening before, a tour group of 20 from New Zealand, the tiny island nation's first Dark Sky tourists. At the welcome dinner, Niue's head of tourism Felicity Bollen explained the goal - that Niue was hoping to become a stargazing destination. It was launching with the eclipse, a rare celestial event where the moon briefly obscures part of the sun. This one would only be able to be seen in parts of Chile, Argentina, and remote places in the Pacific Ocean.
It was due to occur around 6.55am the following morning.
"But we are in the hands of the weather gods," Bollen said. She'd smiled with her mouth, but her eyes looked mildly panicked.
I'd walked outside and stared across the oily sea to where the sun was presumably setting. The skies were cloudy. A spit of rain landed on my head. I asked Kirk Yates, the High Commissioner to Niue, what would happen if we couldn't see the eclipse. Would the Dark Sky plan still go ahead? He looked at me for a long time and then said: "Let's not go there."
I went to bed in my huge ocean-view suite early, then tossed and turned all night. What would I write if the weather didn't clear? There'd be no option but to pretend the whole thing never happened and I'd have to write yet another benign story about the beauty of the island instead.
Niue - a large coral atoll popularly referred to as "The Rock" - lies in the centre of a triangle of nations made up of Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands. A three-hour plane ride from New Zealand, the island is an increasingly popular holiday destination, where tourists can easily hire a car and go exploring among the lush rainforest, limestone caves and crystal clear waters.
Currently, the high season spans New Zealand's winter, mainly from July to October, when the humpback whales are calving along the coastline. Given the island's extremely small population (just 1500 people live there full-time) and limited infrastructure, tourism bosses are reluctant to push that season too much further - and instead are focusing on other reasons tourists might want to come to this remote outcrop, at off-peak times. Namely, its excellent opportunities for stargazing. Due to a lack of light pollution, Niue's skies are extremely dark - in fact so dark it is applying to be the first entire country in the world to become an official Dark Sky Sanctuary.
The idea was first raised in May last year, when Richard and Gendie Somerville-Ryan, fresh from gaining sanctuary status for their home of Great Barrier Island, were on holiday in Niue. While there, they noticed the views of the Milky Way were extremely clear. They floated the idea of a sanctuary with Bollen, and by September had returned to start the process - which includes measuring the darkness of the island; taking an inventory of lighting, and justifying why a sanctuary is important to those who live there.
"On Niue, that's things like, the resurgence of stories about the skies. Starlore," Gendie Somerville-Ryan says. "And explaining why it can't be polluted like other places - because it's in the middle of nowhere."
Only the most fragile sites can become sanctuaries, a designation designed by the International Dark-Sky Association to increase awareness of these sites and promote their long-term conservation.
Somerville-Ryan says the process is a lot of work, but it's worth it. Their first step on Niue was measuring the darkness. It averages 21.67 mpsas, she says, which stands for "magnitude per square arc second". Each step on the scale is twice as dark as the one before. Auckland, for example, is 18, so in Niue you can see 10 times more stars than in Auckland.
"In other words," Somerville-Ryan says. "It's very, very dark."
There are some hurdles, however. On the Barrier, there was no airport, and no wharf lights. Niue does have some lights which will need to be adjusted - replaced with special bulbs, or changed to angle downwards, for example. But largely, Dark Sky tourism is very low-impact - it needs no infrastructure, it has no footprint. And the local Niuean people seem largely supportive of the idea, some even hoping it will help bring back more locals from the diaspora offshore. There is even talk of purchasing a telescope for the island for future tour groups to enjoy.
"You can't do [the sanctuary] unless people want it. But here they love it. We've been going around the villages doing telescope sessions and they're very popular," Somerville-Ryan says.
"Most people didn't realise that what they see all the time is something other people can't see at all."
On the morning of the eclipse, we wake at 4.30am. The group piles, bleary-eyed, into minivans and travel in convoy around the southeastern tip of the island. We drive, on the pothole-ridden road past endless abandoned houses and sleeping dogs and scraggly roosters. Black night turns to grey dawn and I begin to feel anxious we won't make it to the viewing site in time.
The minivan is almost silent. I'm clearly not the only one feeling anxious. But there seems to be complicit agreement among the tour group not to speak about the weather. We chat, intermittently, about the arrangement of the churches on the lawns, and how to pronounce the names of the villages: Tamakautoga, Avatele, Vaiea. Finally, we reach Hakupu. We turn down a steep, hidden track and slowly crawl towards the sea. It is windy, and almost cold. Our hosts have arranged tables piled with fresh fruit and champagne, and a cluster of plastic chairs sit facing towards the horizon. Richard has set up a telescope and as we arrives he says, if we hurry, we can have a peek at Jupiter before it gets too light.
As part of the tour, Niue Tourism has also invited two star experts - Dr Stephen Chadwick, a professor in astronomy from Massey University in New Zealand; and Tony Smith, the planetarium supervisor at Bishop Museum in Hawaii. Over the course of the visit, both will give talks about astronomy, but also about the starlore of the Pacific. While we wait for the weather, they explain some of the science behind what we are about to see.
Solar eclipses are very rare, we hear. A total eclipse - when the moon completely blocks the sun - occurs every one to two years. We learn the period when the moon casts its darkest shadow across the solar disc is called the "zone of totality". Totality is the only time when it is safe to look directly at the sun.
Our eclipse, should the gods shine upon us, will be a different kind - a partial eclipse. This is when the Earth moves through the lighter part of the Moon's shadow, as the Moon moves between Earth and the sun. Depending where you watch from, you might see anything from a large chunk of the sun blotted out, to just a small sliver.
As the time for the eclipse grows nearer, we are given special glasses with solar filters for our eyes. I put them on, and everything is black. I take them off again and look at the clouds. We wait. And wait. I drink all my champagne and feel my heart-rate increase, so I have another to calm down. I know the time for the eclipse has begun, but no one says anything. Yellow rays spread beneath the clouds towards the sea. The edges of the grey clumps covering the sun begin to burn orange. I put my glasses on again to check if I can see anything, and amid the blackness is a slight sliver of reddish light. But it only appears if I don't look directly at it, so I practise sliding my eyes sideways. It looks like faint embers in a dying campfire. Looking at something but not looking at it is hard. I shut my eyes. I can hear the waves and feel the warm wind and think, this place is beautiful.
Suddenly, there is a gasp from beside me. "It's coming!" someone shouts. "I can see it." I peer through my glasses and there, in the dark, is an orange orb with a black circle cut out of the corner, like a clean bite from an apple. It is faint, still obscured by clouds, but as we watch, it grows bright. Everyone is silent. After around 20 seconds it disappears. We stare at each other in wonder. Did it really happen? But a few minutes later, the clouds part and it appears again. Before we leave, after another round of champagne, we see it once more. By now, the chunk is just a sliver out of the corner.
I feel strangely elated. Why, I wonder, when I'd never cared about viewing an eclipse before? It must be just the anxiety alleviating, I decide. Perhaps the champagne has made me sentimental. But as we pile back into the minivans, one of the group grabs my arm, grinning unabashed. "Wasn't it wonderful," she says. "Just a moment in time."
Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Niue.
Dark Sky Tours will continue to be offered as celestial opportunities present. Costs are yet to be confirmed.