Total solar eclipses aren’t so rare, but they seldom happen close to home, so when the Moon and the Sun aligned over Indonesia on the 9th of March, it was the easiest travel decision we’ve ever made.
The path of totality passed right through the middle of Indonesia starting in South Sumatra, cruising over southern Borneo, Central Sulawesi and then directly over the Moluccas and out into the Pacific Ocean all the way up towards Hawaii, leaving our home in Bali with only a partial glimpse. We looked for the nearest place to experience its full, darkened glory and there was but one choice within easy reach – Borneo’s city of Balikpapan in East Kalimantan. It’s not the first choice of holiday destinations, I must admit, but it turned out to be better than we could ever have dreamed of, with great food and amazing wildlife and of course, that celestial first prize – a total eclipse of the sun.
Balikpapan is a nice little port city of half a million people that makes its living on oil and gas, and the large river mouth is filled with tankers, barges, tugboats and small boats of every description, giving it a fast moving energy. There’s a sizeable expat community and plenty of prosperity, with lots of good restaurants, decent hotels and an over the top, yet beautifully designed airport. Arriving in town on the day before the eclipse, we checked in to our ocean front hotel room on the 16th floor of the Aston to see that our pre-trip phone calls had not been in vain, and we had indeed been given the room with the balcony that we had asked for – one facing directly east along the coastline and offering the perfect viewing spot.
We woke the next morning to a fiery sunrise with just a small smattering of cloud, so we held high hopes for what was to unfold. The eclipse was set to start at 7.33am and last for about two hours, with totality hitting at 8.33am, so we splurged at the hotel’s special Eclipse Breakfast, complete with jazz band, huge buffet and masses of other stargazers, and then we retreated to our room just in time to watch the main event unfold.
We sat in our deckchairs under the blue sky in our pitch-dark eclipse glasses, drinking wine (special occasion, ahem), and watching the moon slowly gobble up the sun until it was no more than a sliver. It was at this point that the most eerie thing happened – day turned to night and the sun became an empty black hole in the sky. The stars came back out, the temperature dropped and everything turned a deep shade of grey with a golden hue circling the horizon. A great cheer rang out and the banging of drums erupted from the hordes on the water’s edge below, cancelling out the pops of our very own celebratory champagne corks. Atheist or believer, this was the glory we had all been waiting for.
Totality lasted just 75 seconds and before we knew it there was a huge rising flash from top left: the magical Diamond Ring Effect, where the sunbeams escape the shadow to create a blinding sci-fi light from the darkened disc of the moon. This is the stuff of legend, the perfect eclipse, and we’d just seen it for the first and maybe last time of our lives. As the darkness returned to light, we knew we’d just experienced something very special.
It was still only 9.30 in the morning, and with a whole day to fill we set off with a driver in search of what else Balikpapan has to offer the tourist. We found it in the form of bears and big-nosed monkeys. Just 25km northwest of the city is the Sun Bear Education and Conservation Centre, a locally funded NGO which has secured a 1.3 hectare block of land in which reside seven rescued sun bears – Southeast Asia’s only bear and the world’s smallest. People are not allowed inside the enclosure but instead can walk around it on an elevated walkway with the hope of catching a glimpse of the bears.
This is not a zoo, but a wonderful project to provide the bears with a good quality of life after having spent much of their lives in captivity as pets. Being solitary animals, 1.3 hectares is by no means a big enough area and conflicts over territory do arise, and we did hear some angry bickering going on, but on the whole they do get along. There are several sunning spots built close to the fence where visitors can often see the bears, like we did with Benny, who has been with the park for seven years since he was relieved of his human owners, who had pulled out his claws and canines in an attempt to turn him into a cuddly teddy bear for their family. The conservation centre is a great facility with a large visitors’ area featuring well designed and informative displays on all of the world’s eight species of bears, their lifestyles, populations, and inevitably, how endangered they are in this anthropocentric world. There are also a lot of friendly cats, which are open to adoption.
Later in the afternoon it was off across town to the river and the Margomulyo Mangrove Forest to rent a boat and try to catch a glimpse of Borneo’s endemic proboscis monkeys. Male proboscis monkeys use their fleshy, pendulous noses to attract mates and scientists think these outsize organs create an echo chamber that amplifies the monkey’s call, impressing females and intimidating rival males. They are also the primate world’s most prolific swimmers, frequently leaping from tree limbs and hitting the water with a comical belly flop. They’ve evolved webbed feet and hands to help them outpace the crocodiles that are some of their main predators.
They usually come down to the river to feed on leaves and shoots as dusk approaches, and our timing couldn‘t have been more perfect. We didn’t have to wait long before a large troupe came down to the water’s edge and sat in the trees along side our floating, ringside seat and put on a dinnertime show just for us. Our guide told us that one of their local names is ‘monyet Balanda’, which is Indonesian for ‘Dutch monkey’, the connection being made from not just their red-whiskered faces, but more importantly, for the huge size of their ‘European’ noses; something we all saw the funny side of.
When the sky went dark for the second time that day, we knew our trip was nearly at an end, and as we sat by the sea at Ocean’s Restaurant that night eating crab, prawns and fish, washing it down with a fair bit of cold Bintang beer and loving life, we talked about our new-found respect for bears, monkeys, Balikpapan and the Universe in general. And although the eclipse had stolen the show that day and made the visit worthwhile, it just goes to show that no matter where you go in the world, there’s always something special to seek out and enjoy.