A day has never felt quite as long as the day I saw my first total solar eclipse in Palembang, located in the Indonesian province of South Sumatra. Ok that’s not true – I’ve sat through boring long meetings that felt like forever, but this was my first eclipse experience and I was stoked. Maybe it’s cheap thrills, but there’s something so surreal about everything going dark in the middle of the day. In 2016, Palembang was one of the first major cities in Indonesia (and the world) that would be able to witness the total eclipse, so I thought I’d share a little about what it was like experiencing a total solar eclipse.
I was invited to explore Palembang by the South Sumatra Tourism Agency who sponsored this trip.
3am wake up call
The eclipse was due to take place at around 8am, but because there was a whole special event called GMT Palembang that we were to attend, my morning actually started in darkness at about 3am. We had to be ready in the lobby by 4am in anticipation of potential crowds and heavy traffic at our viewing spot – Palembang’s iconic red Ampera Bridge. Yes, they were blocking off the roads on this usually busy road bridge, the very first time the government had ever done so for an event since the bridge was built in 1965.
I usually sleep pretty late at home – 3am is usually the time I go to sleep so waking up was HARD. so this was a lot closer to sleeping time then waking up time for me!
We headed over to Benteng Kuso Besak, a fort built along the Musi River at the end of the 18th century as the center of the Palembang Sultanate. We had actually explored this waterside area the evening before so being back here at 5am felt like we had never left. It was much busier than usual – people and motorcycles were streaming in to the carpark and the bridge was all lit up and festive… everyone was getting ready for GMT Palembang!
It could just be the novelty of being allowed to walk along this bridge that is usually cars-only, but climbing up onto the bridge itself showed just how many people were excited for this event. Even at 5am in the morning, the bridge was starting to fill up with people all ready to grab a good spot for the eclipse that would only happen at 720am.
When we arrived, the roads had already been cordoned off and the tarmac was lined with tables and chairs for a special part of the programme: enjoying breakfast on the bridge. We had arrived early enough to pick out some prime spots, which came in useful later on as the crowds continued to swell and would eventually spill over due to sheer volume.
Good morning! Getting ready
While the solar eclipse was a marquee event Palembang had been waiting for, it seemed like Mother Nature was not going to make things easy. Reports that day were concerned about the growing cloudy weather which would obscure a full view of the sun. As the morning passed, it definitely looked like the clouds weren’t going to clear properly to allow for the best views. The sun rose at around 620am, but it was one of those sunrises where we merely saw the sky get brighter because it was so cloudy.
Meanwhile the crowds continued to grow, optimistic folk were still hoping for a minor miracle that would clear the skies for this landmark event.
It was a bit of a party while we were waiting – there were musicians and emcees entertaining the crowd, and as bloggers do, we mostly entertained ourselves taking photos and videos and wefies while we waited. Watching the crowds around us, I even spotted some folks with a dragon dancing in the distance, slowly inching its way through the crowd., perhaps a call out to that ancient Chinese legend that attributed the disappearance of the sun to a mighty dragon having a bit of a solar snack. It took the noise and clamour of the common people to persuade the dragon to leave the sun as it is, and it felt a bit like we were doing just that on the bridge.
We were given special eclipse glasses to observe the phenomenon – a quick warning to NEVER ever try and look directly at the sun, even with polarised sunglasses or in cloudy weather because UV rays are piercing and can blind you easily. I could see spots forming even with a short glance towards the shaded sun, so I made sure to stick to the eclipse glasses. The lenses of the eclipse sunglasses are really, really dark. You can’t see anything else through them because they are so well filtered, but when you look directly at the sun, you can see the round ball of the sun as well as any shadows that might cover it.
The sky continued to be relentlessly cloudy. There were some moments of clarity, and there would be cheers from the crowd everytime the sun managed to shine through the clouds. As the hour approached for the full eclipse effect, you could start seeing the usually round sun being partially obscured by oddly neat shadows, similar to how the waxing and waning moon looks at night. What was pretty surreal that while it got brighter earlier, as the eclipse progressed it started to get darker. 7am morning light suddenly felt like 6pm evening approaching sunset.
Total eclipse of the sun (and my heart of course)
720am: the moment of the total eclipse was pretty damn epic – though you couldn’t see the sun for the clouds, the sky had become pitch dark and the crowds around us were singing – there was a real swell of emotion in the air. I took a very short video to capture that moment. Note how dark it was!
There were a ton of drones being flown that day – here’s a timelapse video that gives you a much better idea of what it was like to go from night to day to night and back to day again.
And just as suddenly as the moon started to uncover the sun, it was like the lights were switched back on again. It started to get bright again and I experience my 2nd sunrise in a day, which was all sorts of bizarre. We hung around waiting for the crowds to disperse some before we made our way off the bridge, grabbing some food from the buffet and food trucks along the way.
It was 9am when we left the bridge and headed back for a much-needed nap. We would be in for a long day of travel, heading for lunch and then our of Palembang, and it would be dark again by the time we reached our next hotel. I was honestly quite relieved when that extremely long day was over.
Much thanks again to the South Sumatra Tourism board and the city of Palembang for an awesome experience of my first ever total solar eclipse.