Eclipse chasers are paying big money for four minutes of ecstasy.

The 1999 solar eclipse over France. Credit: Luc Viatour, background and overlay

The projected path of the March 29th total solar eclipse stretches from the extreme eastern tip of Brazil across the Atlantic, North Africa and the Mediterranean to Turkey and through to central Asia. Under its brief, false night, birds will cease their singing, cows will head for the barn and people will get weak in the knees.

“I remember this one German woman—afterwards, she was saying ‘It’s better than sex! It’s better than sex!’” says Bryan Brewer, an eclipse enthusiast and author, recalling the scene on the deck of the cruise ship from which he witnessed the total eclipse over the Caribbean in 1998.

If it feels that good, people will be willing to pay for it. The March event is the first total solar eclipse in over two years—hardly anyone saw the last one, which happened over Antarctica in late 2003—and would-be eclipse chasers are plunking down thousands of dollars to stand in its shadow. Package tours start at about $2,000 and vary from rugged camping adventures in the deserts of Libya or Niger to Mediterranean cruises and tours of Turkish seaside resorts.

To hear the professionals tell it, a total eclipse is an almost indescribable experience, one worth every penny.

“Even for the most scientifically minded person—you know what’s going on, you know what to expect about five minutes before the eclipse occurs—things really change,” says eclipse tour guide Roy Mayhugh, of California-based Mayhugh Travel. “The whole light changes. Your world changes. Things that are usually soft and fuzzy become very sharp and defined. And then you see this blackness build up. It’s almost like something J.R.R. Tolkien wrote: You see this blackness building in the west, and it comes up and over you at between 800 and 2,000 miles an hour. It looks exactly like somebody just put their finger up there and poked a hole in the sky.”

Once that sun goes out, anything can happen. Paul Maley, a NASA employee who has been leading eclipse tours for nearly 30 years with his Houston-based outfit, Ring of Fire Expeditions, has seen reactions ranging from joyful tears to primal superstition and fear.

“Once we were set up near a mosque in Indonesia, and we were guarded by a group of military policemen,” he remembers. “The local press had given instructions to everyone to hide during the eclipse. Literally within minutes of the key part of the eclipse, the loudspeakers started blaring over from the mosque, and everyone, including our military guards, vanished.”

“I’ve seen people go down on their knees and cry; I’ve seen people scared,” Mayhugh says.

On one of Mayhugh’s past trips, a doctor in the group delivered an impromptu lecture to the rest of the tour party on the body’s natural response to an eclipse. The doctor claimed that as the sky goes dark, our excited endocrine systems start pumping out some of the same hormones it otherwise reserves for sex.

If that’s not enticement enough, many of this year’s tours are offering side trips to the pyramids in Egypt or Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia. The extra attractions are designed in part to soften the blow should clouds cover the main event—a possibility never far from the tour guide’s mind.

“I’m a worry-wart until the eclipse is over with,” says Maley.

Aiming for the best possible viewing conditions, Ring of Fire will be heading to southern Libya, where the totality will be near its peak of just over four minutes of total darkness. For diehard eclipse chasers, clear skies are more than worth the trade-off in comfort. The Libyan Sahara has few tourist amenities—or roads, for that matter—and in accordance with Islamic law, alcohol is strictly prohibited throughout the entire country. As the website of an Irish group calling itself the Ecliptomaniacs laments, “We are going to have to celebrate the eclipse ‘dry.’” The moment’s own mystical climax will just have to be thrill enough.

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Originally published March 27, 2006

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