The Cornish eclipse of 1999 was special because it was on home soil. It was a rare opportunity to witness England’s green and pleasant land shrouded in darkness, but, as we all remember, it was not a perfect eclipse. In contrast, the skies for this year’s eclipse were cloudless, the roads were empty, the hype non-existent and there was the opportunity to appreciate the subtleties of impala droppings.
The Cornish eclipse was my first eclipse, and despite the weather I regarded it as a staggering spectacle, one which I was keen to experience again. On the drive home, I decided that henceforth I would allow eclipses to dictate my holiday plans, and I started searching the web to find the location of next one – Southern Africa, 21 June 2001, the shortest day of the year.
For me, allowing the sun and the moon to take control of my holidays had a couple of advantages beyond seeing another, hopefully clearer, eclipse. First, it simplified the holiday planning process because the conjunction tells me roughly where and exactly when to go. Second, it forced me to go to visit a place that I might not ordinarily consider. Instead of going to America, Europe or India, I would be spending 21 June, 2001, at some point along the eclipse path, which was going to pass over Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Madagascar. Coincidentally, in 2002 the eclipse path follows a similar path, but after that it passes through Antarctica in 2003, Central America in 2005, Brazil, West Africa, the Sahara and to the Middle East in 2006, Central Asia in 2008, and Easter Island to the southern most tip of South America in 2010.
Planning where exactly to go in 2001 required some thought. The eclipse occurs along a 200 km wide corridor that crosses several countries, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Angola would have the longest eclipse, but not in a stable environment. Similarly, when I was making my plans, Zimbabwe was in the headlines, so that that was also off the list. Mozambique ran a relatively high risk of cloud cover, leaving just Zambia and Madagascar. Madagascar offered the chance of a yo-yo eclipse at Morombe on the west coast. The sun would be blotted out at 16.25, reappear at 16.28, and then disappear again at sunset at 17.52. However, my objective alongside viewing the eclipse was to see wildlife, and seeing numerous species of Madagascan lemurs did not compare well with the lions and leopards of mainland Africa, so in the end I settled on Zambia.
After an eleven hour flight to Lilongwe in Malawi (via Entebbe), another flight in a 5-seater into Zambia (delayed by 24 hours due to the plane’s dicky starter engine), and a two hour jeep drive, I eventually arrived in the South Luangwa Valley National Park. The park is speckled with small bush camps, as opposed to the large lodges that dominate in many other African countries, which results in a privileged and close-up view of the wildlife.
Each day, the five visitors in our group, all eclipse chasers, were escorted by guides, who led us on foot through the bush. Sometimes the guides were from Zimbabwe, whose tourist industry has suffered over the last year, but more usually they were local Zambians. In every case, they were astute, courageous and knowledgeable, which was just as well as we were putting our lives in their hands.
Driving safaris are fantastic, but being in the bush, among the wildlife, allows you to see things that would otherwise be out of sight, such as a camouflaged chameleon, the intricate tracks of a monitor lizard or the nest of a praying mantis. It is also possible to track animals, studying their spoor and droppings along the way. I am now able to differentiate between male and female impala droppings by analysing the distance between the pellets and the pool of urine. Not a particularly useful skill in West London, but one I will not forget.
Walking across sparse terrain with eyes peeled is a nervy experience. Walking through tall elephant grass (a.k.a. adrenaline grass) is even more tense. Reassuringly, ahead of the guide walks an armed scout, whose main task is to make sure that we do not surprise any animals. As long as they can see us coming from a distance, then there is little risk of them becoming aggressive. Our scout Enoch, in all his years scouting with visitors, had only had to kill an animal once. That was a charging buffalo. During the rainy season, Enoch and the other scouts protect the park against poachers. While chatting during the walk, he revealed a nasty wound in his stomach caused by a bullet from an AK-47.
We did not come across any lions or leopards (or poachers) while on foot, largely because walking is only permitted during the day when the cats are snoozing, but we did encounter many other creatures, including zebra, antelope, giraffe, hyena, warthogs, buffalo and a huge lone bull elephant with a temper tantrum. In the case of the elephant, we beat a gentle, steady and silent retreat.
Each night we took a drive into the bush. Like the bushwalks, the night drives are allowed if you are based in one of Zambia’s bush camps, but not in most lodges in most other countries. This is when the predators come out to play, and we witnessed the most extraordinary sights. As well as numerous hyenas, genets, porcupines and mongeese, we also had several sightings of lions and leopards. In one case, our searchlight revealed a leopard escorting its cub on a hunting trip. The previous evening, we watched as another leopard tracked and failed to kill an impala. These are not dots in the distance, but animals that breeze within just a few metres of the open top land rover. We watched two lions mating, from just twenty metres. When mating starts, it occurs every fifteen minutes for four days. We watched two sessions, before moving on. Two hours later, on our way back to camp, we passed by them again. They were still at it.
Even the bush camps provided a chance to see animals at close quarters. At our first camp, on the Luangwe River, we could watch the hippos and crocodiles. At our second camp, a pair of hippos, a hyena and a family of elephants loitered within thirty metres of where we had dinner. At night, I fell asleep to the calls of lions, hyena, elephants and hippos, while monkeys crawled on the roof and bats flew round the bed.
At the crack of dawn on 21 June, we headed down to the Zambezi to witness the eclipse. A historic eclipse had occurred on the river 166 years earlier. The Ngonis, escaping from the Mfecane wars in South Africa, were about to cross the Zambezi when daylight suddenly disappeared. They retreated, thinking that the eclipse was a bad omen.
By lunchtime we were in place. We watched first contact, and then waited for totality. Ten minutes before the sun would be obliterated, it became noticeably chilly, the light dimmed to twilight, and the birds began to behave as if night was falling. I had seen the doom laden shadow approaching in Cornwall, so this time I focussed on catching the phenomena that occur around the sun at the moment of totality, waiting for the diamond ring effect and Bailey’s beads. The latter is the name given to the final sparks of the sun visible through the craters at edge of the moon. At 15.12 the sun disappeared.
Silence descended upon the thirty of us that were standing on the bluff above the river. Some had telescopes and sophisticated cameras, while others just stood and stared at the sun’s corona, the breath-taking halo that was still visible around the moon. Several bright pink spots were embedded at the base of the corona. These were solar prominences, huge flares that explode from the sun’s surface. We have just passed a peak in the sun’s activity, which accounts for the high number of prominences.
I looked away for a second, just to take in the landscape and the faint glow on the horizon, when the shadow disappeared and raced down the river. The eclipse was over. It was the quickest four minutes of my entire life. There was unanimous surprise among the group, as the eclipse left us and continued its journey, inspiring awe in Mozambique and Madasgacar.
As I returned to Luangwa, I met a man who had seen 21 other eclipses. Each eclipse is only a fleeting glimpse of an intense beauty that merely leaves a craving for more. The only cure is to keep seeking out eclipses. Next year (December 4, 2002), I plan to return to southern Africa, perhaps the Okavango Delta in Botswana, Kruger National Park in South Africa or Xai-Xai beach in Mozambique. The bad news is that the eclipse occurs during the rainy season, so before deciding exactly where I will be going, I will need to work out the likelihood of cloud cover in each location. The good news is that a cloudy eclipse is still a remarkable event, and a trip to southern Africa is always memorable even with no eclipse at all.