There’s something very pleasurable about digging around in dusty bookshelves. Apart from the dust and odd little collections of forgotten treasures, there is occasionally a real find amongst the old notebooks and journals. Klaus Mahler was such a find. We only spent a few hours together on a February day in 1999 but over the years I have thought of him when things astronomical have been happening in the heavens.
Klaus was 66 when we met and would now be 80. As a child in Germany, he asked his teacher what happened when the moon passed between the sun and earth. She couldn’t tell him and he decided to find out (no google back then!), promising himself that at some point in his life he would travel to a place on the earth where he could see the results…and that is what he had been doing for 30 years. Possessions packed in leather saddle bags, two pieces of ‘special’ green glass wrapped in soft leather, money stashed between the leaves of a book on stamps and a folder of papers and notes, all were carried on a ladies style red and silver bicycle with three gears. In those 30 years he had ridden through and to 100 countries, around the world eleven times and in his sixties preferred to travel in ‘safe’ countries, “but where is really safe?” he said. That “you cannot ride a bicycle in Russia” was very frustrating and he used public transport when bicycle riding was not permitted or physically impossible. However the bike travelled with him regardless until the next time he could ride it.
We met in a park near my previous home in the Bickley Valley in the Hills east of Perth. More an escarpment really which involves a drive, or ride, from the Perth coastal plains up steep winding roads (there is no other option!). Now on weekends the lycra clad, multi geared bike riders toil up these roads at snail’s pace and it still is amazing to think that Klaus and all his gear made that journey. On our daily dog walk, Wallis ( a belligerent StaffyxBassett with Queen Anne legs) and Lily ( a cute but somewhat dim King Charles Cavalier) decided that the beatle haired, tanned, whippet slim individual wandering out of the bush was their new best friend. I headed over to drag them away and he asked me how far away the Mundaring Youth Hostel was.
And so the story unfolded as to why he was camping in the hills.
Bickley is home to Perth’s Observatory and while travelling in New Zealand, Klaus had heard that the prime observation spot for that particular total solar eclipse was at Greenough, a TINY hamlet on the west coast. To get a bit techie now, a total solar eclipse can only be seen in certain parts of the world which lie in the ‘path of totality’, the path along which the moon’s shadow passes across the earth and is never wider than 274km. This often covers great tracts of ocean but in this instance the ‘p.o.t’ started just south of Madagascar and first landfall was at Greenhough. Klaus had booked the last seat on the bus (along with 40 fellow eclipse watchers) leaving from the Observatory. He had packed bike and possessions, hopped on a plane in New Zealand, camped in the bush outside Perth’s Airport and been woken by the water sprinklers before heading up the hill. Three nights of camping were enough and he was off to Mundaring Youth Hostel to re-organise for the big event. Yet more winding roads lay ahead so Klaus, the dogs and I wandered home for breakfast and loaded up his gear. My dog walking gear is scruffy at the best of times and he was looking a tad worse for wear too. We were eyeballed with some suspicion trailing through the supermarket, and much to his delight a KFC!, stocking up on watermelon, bread, milk and a chicken. “I will dine like a king tonight” he said, insisting I take a huge slice of watermelon home for the boys.
Klaus’ story is more than just that of an eclipse hunter. He had worked for a radio station in Hamburg and rented a small room in a friend’s house. When not writing about, reading about or hunting eclipses, he had two other passions. Stamps and his girlfriend. He had written and published (at that time in its second edition) a 500 page book about East German stamps which he planned to update as the stamp values would have to be converted to Euros. His girlfriend was ‘his true love’ and they had re-met a few years previously, after being separated as young children at the school where they first met some fifty years ago. “She doesn’t like to travel” he said but they kept in touch and she always knew the exact time he would be looking at an eclipse wherever he was in the world. “She looks to the sky at that time in her time zone and knows we are doing the same thing at the same moment,” he said.
The eclipse was a huge success. He left a note on my door written on the back of a sheet torn from the stamp book he carried with him saying ‘It was the best one I have ever seen in my lifetime’.
When we parted company at the Youth Hostel, Klaus stood at the gate waving a blue handkerchief up and down in farewell until I could no longer see him in the car mirror. We did however cross paths again a few days later at the airport where I was seeing my folks off to Europe. Klaus was there with possessions in hand and bike all crated up for a return trip to New Zealand and then who knows where in his search for the next eclipse.