I arrived in Dili, the capital of Timor Leste by bus from Kupang in the afternoon of the 10th of April, 2023. I had come as part of my trip around the world to visit one of the least visited countries on Earth.
Little did I know, just 10 days later a rare event would gather hundreds on its eastern coast – the Total Solar Eclipse 2023 would pass through Timor Leste!
I didn’t come specifically for the Solar Eclipse – I didn’t even know it was happening there and then. But I quickly changed my travel plans to be on the line of totality at 13:21 on the 20th of April.
It was a spectacle to behold! I had never witnessed a Total Solar Eclipse before and this, albeit being only 76 seconds of totality, was breathtaking.
Solar Eclipses Statistics
Solar Eclipses are rare! There will only be 224 Solar eclipses in the 21st century. Most of these are partial eclipses where the Moon only covers a portion of the Sun.
Total Solar Eclipses are even rarer! Of these 224, only 68 are Total.
There’s a third kind called Annular Solar Eclipses of which there will be 73 in the 21st century. During an Annular Eclipse, the Sun’s perceived diameter is bigger than the Moon’s, so we on Earth see a ring (or a donut) of light.
The rarest of eclipses is the Hybrid Solar Eclipse which alternates between Total and Annular depending on location. There will only be 7 such eclipses in our century.
The April 2023 Solar Eclipse was precisely a Hybrid Eclipse. During the Sun’s movement over Timor Leste, it was a Total Solar Eclipse.
Total Solar Eclipses: some basic science
Why Total Solar Eclipses occur
A Total Solar Eclipse occurs when the Moon passes in front of the Sun and its perceived size is equal to or bigger than that of the Sun.
It’s extraordinary that that’s even possible! The reason Total Solar Eclipses happen on Earth is that the distance to the Sun is 400 times longer than the distance to the Moon and the diameter of the Sun is 400 times wider than the diameter of the Moon.
The fact that these two numbers match is the reason the Moon and the Sun look basically the same size in the sky and the reason we have Total Solar Eclipses.
What’s an even bigger cosmic coincidence is that we live in an age when Total Eclipses are possible.
Due to the fact that the Moon slowly drifts away from the Earth, there will be no more Total Eclipses in the not-so-near-future. How near? About 563 million years from now. A lot, but in the grand scheme of things – not that much.
Where Total Solar Eclipses occur
There is on average 1 Total Solar Eclipse every 18 months. The thing is, they occur somewhere on Earth, not everywhere. Some eclipses pass over the Polar Circles, others over large swats of ocean, and others yet over remote, hard-to-reach regions.
Moreover, when it comes to Eclipses, the Line of Totality is everything. The Line of Totality is the line of the Sun’s path where the eclipse appears, well, total. Go outside of this line and the eclipse becomes partial.
You shouldn’t ever look at the sun during a partial eclipse, but you can during Totality. This is the WOW moment.
The Line of Totality is between 100 and 170 km. The closer you are to the middle, the longer the eclipse.
There’s a growing community of Eclipse Hunters, who travel around the world to witness every eclipse. Some make hotel reservations 10 years in advance!
They do extensive research about the best places to observe the next eclipse, including checking historical weather reports, terrain maps, travel, and tourism infrastructure, etc. Yeah, some are hardcore into Eclipses.
The 2023 Total Solar Eclipse
The path of the April 2023 Solar Eclipse was mostly over water. A few notable land patches it crossed were Exmouth Australia, Timor Leste, some small Maluku Islands, and the jungles of West Papua. Yup, that’s it. You can check the precise map here.
Exmouth was the best place to watch the Eclipse, as it rarely sees any clouds. The Eclipse passed over a very narrow strip of land in Australia and tens of thousands of scientists, eclipse hunters, and enthusiasts flocked to watch. It was a mad event!
In Timor Leste, the best place to observe this incredible natural phenomenon was the seaside resort town of Com on the east coast of the island.
The 2023 Total Solar Eclipse was a relatively short one, lasting only up to 76 seconds in the middle of the Line of Totality.
Timor Leste and the Total Solar Eclipse
When I arrived in Timor Leste on the 10th of April, an awareness campaign had already begun. I actually found out about the eclipse from a billboard in the center of Dili featuring the President and information about the upcoming TV specials.
The name of the Solar Eclipse Phenomenon in the local Tetun language is “Loron Mate“, which literally means “The Sun dies” and I think that’s an awesome name!
The Government of Timor Leste had ordered upwards of 100.000 eclipse-viewing glasses for its citizens, but getting them into the hands of the Timorese in rural and remote areas had proven difficult.
In the end, they told people it’s dangerous to look up (which it is, except during totality) and even that going out during the day is dangerous (which it isn’t).
I guess it’s about risk and damage control – kids might be prompted to look up at the Sun and damage their eyes.
Nonetheless, many managed to get their pair of eclipse glasses either through the government campaign or from the dozens of eclipse hunters who brought extra pairs to give away.
Even though the eclipse passed over many towns in eastern Timor Leste, including Viqueque and Lospalos, the best place to watch it was on the beach in Com where most would go. There was an entertainment program every day for the 3 days before the eclipse and many acts on the specially-made stage on the day of the eclipse. That’s also where I went to watch the eclipse.
The Day of the Eclipse
There was a lot of hype in Com on the day of the eclipse – 20.04.2023. Many of the foreign tourists and eclipse hunters had already arrived a few days before and there was literally no guesthouse room left empty. I actually had to sleep in Lospalos, as everything in Com was fully booked.
Many Timorese traveled to Com in the morning, including many students. That’s also how I reached Com – I hitchhiked on a school bus from Lospalos!
In Com there were many souvenir stands with unique trinkets, bracelets, hats, and whatever else the locals had prepared. On the giant scene, Timorese from all corners of the country performed traditional dances and invited visitors to join.
On the beach and the pier, scientists and photography enthusiasts had set up their cameras and equipment, ready to capture the phenomenon.
Everyone had a good time. Eclipse hunters shared memories of their previous eclipses, locals scrambled to find another pair of eclipse glasses, many danced, scientists prepared their equipment, and photographers took pictures of the Moon eating the Sun.
Best of all, it was a cloudless day! The vibe was superb!
In the fast-paced, things-amassing world we live in, it’s so much better and more rewarding to collect experiences instead!
As totality neared, the colors around became more vivid, as if someone had increased the contrast of the image. It was surreal, I can’t really explain it and the pictures don’t do it the best justice either.
It was approaching 13:20 local time.
I watched as the last bit of the Sun was covered by the incoming Moon. Then everyone removed their eclipse glasses. Words cannot describe it. Pictures of the eclipse cannot capture it completely. This is the greatest natural show on Earth.
Everyone quieted down as they marveled at the Sun’s corona hugging the Moon. It was noticeably darker, almost eerie. Simply amazing.
It only lasted for 76 seconds, but my oh my, what 76 seconds it was! I’m hooked! Sign me up for the next Total Solar Eclipse. Mexico, April 8, 2024, here I come!