Ningaloo Eclipse: As Exmouth prepares to be plunged into darkness, it’s the small town’s time to shine

By Candice Marshall 18 April 2023
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How does a small remote community not only manage, but impress, an influx of 20,000 global travellers?

The remote Western Australian community of Exmouth has a population of just over 3000 people. Later this week that number will have grown eightfold to around 25,000 as stargazers from around the world gather to witness a rare type of total solar eclipse.

The peak of this astronomical phenomenon will occur at 11.27am this Thursday (20 April) when Exmouth (and surrounding areas falling into part of a 40km-wide radius) will experience total darkness for 62 seconds as the Sun, Moon and Earth align in unison.

Dubbed the ‘Ningaloo Eclipsedue to Exmouth’s location in WA’s Ningaloo region, Australia’s Astronomer at Large, Fred Watson, says this is “a particularly rare event.”

“Only three per cent of eclipses are so-called hybrids like this one, in which the curvature of the Earth plays a part in whether the Moon disc totally covers the Sun or doesn’t quite obscure it, producing a ‘ring of fire’.”

Related: What is a solar eclipse?

This is only the third time this century a total solar eclipse has been visible from Australia.

“The first was outback SA in 2002, followed by Cairns in 2012,” explains astronomy expert Glenn Dawes.

“It’s possibly the most spectacular view nature can offer, being the only time the solar corona is visible to the unaided eye.”

The ‘ring of fire’ effect created during the ‘annular’ phase of a hybrid solar eclipse. Image credit: Gabor Tinz/shutterstock
The ‘totality’ phase of a hybrid or total solar eclipse. Image credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

The path of the the Moon’s shadow will also create a total eclipse across the north-west cape of Western Australia, parts of southeast Asia, and Antarctica. But Exmouth is the most accessible land-based place on Earth to view the spectacle.

This is why ten of thousands of umbraphiles (Eclipse chasers) are making the long journey to the coastal town.

“People are already starting to arrive,” says Exmouth Shire President, Darlene Allston. “It’s defintely getting busier around town.”

“Over the weekend we’ve had lots of campsites and tents set up in the area… there’s things happening on the ovals, the markets have started, stages are coming together… There’s a lot going on, there’s a buzz in town, it’s definitely getting that festival feel about it.”

The town’s small size and remote location presents extremely unique challenges when it comes to hosting such a large influx of people.

It’s not that the Exmouth community isn’t familiar with large amounts of visitors. The town and surrounding region is a top tourist destination, with drawcards including the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Coast (famous for its whale shark encounters), remarkable beaches, stunning landscapes and Cape Range National Park’s epic gorges and canyons.

But numbers like this, all at once, is unchartered territory.

“It’s certainly going to be busy,” says Cr Allston.

‘Busy’ is an understatement. On the ground, all accomodation options are fully booked and camping grounds will soon be bursting at the seams.

A plethora of package tours and visitor experiences have been created to cater for the large number of people, including hiking adventures to the best eclipse vantage points, cultural experiences viewing the sky from Aboriginal perspectives, degustation showcases, themed dinners, glamping with astronomy guides and special events at local observatories.

The Dark Sky Festival has even been created to entertain visitors already in town for the eclipse. The three-day event, hosted at different public spaces and venues throughout the town, includes live music, markets, food stalls, street parties, art workshops, public talks, family fun days and many stargazing sessions.  

A one-day Indigenous cultural arts festival, Jamba Nyinayi Festival, is also being held the day before the eclipse.

In the water, a special few will be diving or snorkelling – and even swimming with whale sharks – at the exact time of eclipse ‘totality’.

And first, before all of this transpires, everyone has to actually get into the town!

“There is just one road in and one road out!” says Cr Allston.

While extra traffic management measures are in place, “the road is just going to be busy”, she says. “We’re advising people to take it easy coming into town.”

More commercial flights to nearby airports have also been scheduled, as well as extra busses, to meet demand.

So, how will the town cope?

The Shire of Exmouth has spent years working as part of a taskforce led by WA’s Department of JTSI (Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation) dedicated to ensuring the town can manage the immense pressure put on its infrastructure and community.

“They started doing some research and putting some ideas in place about five years ago. Then from that information they started about two years ago getting some things in place,” explains Cr Allston.

“It’s been a long process. It hasn’t happened quickly. It’s been something that’s been worked on by multiple government agencies over the last few years.”

Measures taken by council and the taskforce include:

  • An additional telecommunications tower acquired to bear the load of extra demand, and temporary mobile units scattered throughout town to boost phone reception
  • Redevelopment of the town’s foreshore precinct, including upgrades to power and water services
  • Local grocery stores and restaurants stocking up on extra food, water, and other beverages in advance
  • Roads resurfaced and traffic management systems implemented
  • Shuttle bus services running to reduce the number of cars on the roads
  • Water tank with a capacity of six million litres constructed to meet high demands
  • Extra overflow campsite built to provide extra accommodation, holding 6000 people.

The list goes on.

Local laws have even been altered for the month surrounding the event, with private property owners allowed (and encouraged) to rent out their gardens and yards as temporary accommodation to campers.

“We’ve had lots of the community jump on board with that – it’s great that they’ve been showing their support,” says Cr Allston.

“The community want to be part of it. And they want to help get the message out there about what the town has to share. Ningaloo is an amazing place so it’s great for us to be able to showcase it to the world – this is a global showcase of everything that we have to offer.”

Cr Allston says the town and community “are ready”.

“Any event of this size is going to appear overwhelming to start with until you start putting the bones in place as to how things can be managed. But there’s always been excitement from the beginning.

“This is something that’s very unique, great for tourism, great for our town, and it’s going to create history so it’s nice to be a part of that.”

When it’s all done and dusted, when the tide of visitors has come and gone, Cr Allston says the best case scenario will be “that the people that have come to our town to experience Ningaloo have enjoyed what we have to offer and that they’ll go home and they’ll tell their family and friends what an amazing place Exmouth is and that they have to come too!”

Related: Ningaloo Eclipse: When and where you can see it