CAIRNS is full. Full, that is, of NASA scientists, astronomers, hippies and geeks who are taking over the town to experience Wednesday's total eclipse. The international eclipse chasers have arrived en masse. The hot-air balloons are almost sold out for a dawn ascent. Visitors can even get an eclipse cocktail - an upside-down tequila sunrise.
Tourism Tropical North Queensland has organised the official webcast, which will be streamed by NASA.
Tourism spokesman Dale Flack said: ''Two or three weeks ago we were at 80 to 90 per cent hotel occupancy but now it is close to capacity.''
Near Kuranda, Judy Freeman, who has a background in the tourism industry, will entertain eclipse watchers. She has 1300 chairs in lines on her 20-hectare elevated property. She says it's a VIP event with Wi-Fi, bar and catering. The price? ''I'm not saying. I'll be long dead when it happens again,'' she said.
Australia's first total solar eclipse in a decade will plunge Cairns and Port Douglas into darkness. The event, known as ''totality'', will begin at 5.45am in Cairns, with the full eclipse coming at 6.39am and lasting for two minutes before returning to partiality for another hour.
Melbourne will experience a partial eclipse, with the moon blocking out nearly half the sun.
The last total eclipse in Australia was visible in remote parts of South Australia. The spokesman for the Astronomical Society of Victoria, Perry Vlahos, said the two minutes of total eclipse was a reasonable period of darkness. ''It's not as short as it can be, but it's not as long as seven minutes 31 seconds, which is the longest a total eclipse can be - that's under the most ideal conditions of Earth, moon and sun geometry,'' he said.
Mr Vlahos said he and many others would be scouting for locations in Cairns with a clear, unimpeded view of the east, such as the beach or a high mountain top.
''People will arrive en masse from right around the world. It's a mecca for anyone with an interest in astronomy … within a space of 50 metres or so you will hear 10 languages.''
Terry Cuttle, of the Queensland Astronomical Society, said the eclipse would be ''spine-tingling''. ''You can see in the west the moon shadow approaching, getting bigger and bigger, darker and darker, closer and closer. And then the sun goes out in the middle of the day. You can imagine what people used to think hundreds of years ago.''
Although there were many satellites focused on the sun from space, he said none of them could capture the same amount of detail as photographs that would be taken during the eclipse. The society was co-ordinating the transmission of footage back to NASA, he said, and scientists were particularly interested in the ''enigma'' of why the sun's corona was hotter than the sun's surface itself.
''If you were to wait in one place, you'd only see a total solar eclipse every 400 years. That's why people have to travel to see it.''
Tanya Hill, astronomer at Museum Victoria's Planetarium, said she too would be travelling to Cairns. ''I can't wait - I haven't seen a total eclipse at all. My friends who have seen one tell me that once you see one, you're caught - you start following them everywhere … I am told it's an absolutely amazing experience.''
In Cairns, sales and marketing manager at the Mercure Cairns Harbourside David Penney said the town was bustling with eclipse expectation.
Peta Zietsch of Raging Thunder balloons said she planned to get 50 passengers airborne in three balloons launched from Mareeba on the morning of the eclipse.
''If there's a bit of cloud about there's a better chance of getting a clearer view from the air,'' she said.
With MARIS BECK