PORT DOUGLAS, Australia -- If you've ever pondered a first-time trip -- or a return visit -- to Australia, and have an interest in extraordinary natural phenomena, plan to be in Queensland next month. One spectacle will be in the sky -- a total solar eclipse in mid-November -- and the other will be in the sea, when the coral spawn on the Great Barrier Reef, a surreal event that takes place only once a year.
The countdown is on to see the next total solar eclipse. And there's no better place on earth to witness it than Port Douglas, say tourism officials there who are planning a week-long solar eclipse festival with night markets, a street parade, concerts, astrological events and planetary parties.
During the eclipse -- estimated to take place Nov. 14 at 6:39 a.m. Australian time (Nov. 13, 22:12 Universal Time) -- the sky will darken and the temperature will drop as the Sun is completely obscured by the Moon. The eclipse will last two to four minutes, though a partial eclipse will be visible over much of Australia, all of New Zealand and the South Pacific. As many as 20,000 people are expect to visit Port Douglas for the eclipse, making it the largest international event in the region's history. The next total solar eclipse is not until March 20, 2015.
While in town, visitors can take in two big sporting events. One is a marathon in which Australian running legend Steve Monaghetti is expected to participate. The race will start Nov. 14 as the first rays of the sun re-emerge from behind the moon thus creating, organizers say, "the first ever intergalactic starting gun!" The other event is the world's first game of "Fooket," a unique combination of two of Australia's favourite sports -- football and cricket. The Port Douglas All-Stars will field an AFL team and a cricket team in a simultaneous sporting demonstration unlike anything ever attempted before.
SEX ON THE REEF
It's been called everything from "sex on the reef," to "the biggest orgy on earth." Coral spawning on the Great Barrier Reef takes places every year between November and December, and is attracting an increasing number of visitors curious to see the spectacle first discovered about 30 years ago.
It's impossible to predict the exact time but spawning will occur four to six nights after the full moon next month when there is little tidal movement. Tour operators are expecting it to take place between Nov. 15 and Nov. 18.
Divers, snorkellers and passengers on glass bottom boats who are on the reef at the right time, will see plenty of brilliant colours as different coral species, all in sync, release their sperm and eggs into the ocean, where they fertilize and float away to create new colonies of corals. Some say it resembles an upside down snowstorm. The tiny cells also form a thick pink, red or orange slick across the water's surface, which can stretch for kilometres.
Tours run from several places including Brisbane, Gladstone, Bundaberg and Cairns, though Port Douglas is the closest departure point to the Great Barrier Reef (less than an hour away). During spawning it's also possible to see marine worms breeding en-masse and blue bioluminescent flashes from prawn-like crustaceans spawning near the surface. Tour operators typically provide gear such as wetsuits and flashlights, which will help you see nocturnal animals on the reef
TROPICAL PORT DOUGLAS
Whether you see the eclipse and the coral spawning or not, Port Douglas is a great place to visit, and September to November is the nicest time of year in terms of weather and crowd levels. The gateway to the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest, Port Douglas is surrounded by farmland where sugar cane, tropical fruits, tea, and cocoa are grown. The relaxed town of 11,000 is a favourite with celebrities, so you'll find plenty of good dining and hotels, plus a few historic buildings including the restored 1879 Court House that houses memorabilia from the gold rush and early settlement days.
Possible activities: Swim at beautiful Four Mile Beach, hike in lush Mossman Gorge, search for the rare southern cassowary, visit the rainforest at Daintree and Cape Tribulation, or learn how to hunt mud crab with an aboriginal guide.
When it comes to Mother Nature, there are no guarantees. Getting a clear view of the eclipse will depend on the weather. Based on the time of year though, sky watchers predict the prospects are good for clear skies. Being at the reef when the coral spawn will depend on luck. The phenomenon could happen over one or several nights. But taking a chance is worth the effort.
NEED TO KNOW
For more information, visit Tourism Port Douglas at tourismportdouglas.com.au or Tourism Port Douglas & Daintree at tpdd.com.au. For eclipse details, see 2012solareclipse.com.au. For more on the marathon, contact Michael Walton at Travelling Fit at 0404 828 040 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.