Where to next? Australia or Southern Africa again? Totality of the solar eclipse of 21 June 2001 had ended a mere ten minutes yet Martin and I were discussing our travel plans for the next total solar eclipse on 4 December 2002! Once again the lure of standing beneath the Moon's shadow had drawn people from all walks of life to a spot in north-eastern Zimbabwe to experience three minutes twelve seconds of mid-afternoon darkness.
I, along with some other members of the Irish Astronomical Society, first contemplated going to this eclipse at the end of the last one. Seriously, it's true! Well, to be honest, we didn't actually book it there and then -- having to wait for various brochures to be produced by the specialist travel companies such as Explorer's in England. I had planned to cobble together my own trip to Zambia to observe the eclipse from Lusaka (which was the only capital city in the track of totality). However, the Explorer's trip was to prove extremely attractive both price wise and in terms of the itinerary.
The summer of 2001 seemed a long way off when paying for the first instalment for the trip in September 2000. Yet the date of our departure for Africa arrived very quickly and a friend and I travelled over to London a day before the Explorer's group left Gatwick so as we could, well, ease ourselves into the holidays by touring a few pubs! The next day, a Friday, we met up with about 60 other eclipse-chasers in Gatwick and boarded our plane for Harare. After a long flight and coach transfer we made it to our hotel where, after checking in, we spent some of Saturday afternoon exploring the city.
I must say that I eagerly waited nightfall on our first night in the Southern Hemisphere after spending much of June drawing up lists of "must see" deep sky objects.
The hotel had an accessible outdoor pool terrace with a high wall around it that helped shield us from stray light. There, I curled up on a sun lounge waiting on sunset and the oncoming night (it was dark by 7pm local time by the way.) I wasn't to be disappointed! There was Canopus -- and Sirius in June! Alpha and Beta Centauri soon winked into view along with the stars of Crux. I'll deal with what celestial sights we saw later in the article but boy, I could really get used to this shirt sleeve observing!
A bit of Gaelige at Vic Falls
The next day we flew to Victoria Falls and spent two nights there to take in the sights. The Falls are really as magnificent as they appear in photographs or film. Some of us were lucky enough to have a memorable helicopter flight over the falls and a cruise on the Zambezie at sunset was extremely relaxing. A walk along the rim of the gorge that the falls spill into was something else. You feel the falls as well as seeing them -- a thorough soaking being one consequence of wandering along the edge! I did draw the line at attempting a bungee jump off the Zimbabwe/Zambia border bridge however!
We also had the opportunity to do some really dark site observing -- again from a hotel roof. I wonder what the various managers would have made of us lurking around in the dark atop their buildings! Dr. John Mason was the guest speaker on the trip and a packed pre-eclipse briefing on the Monday in the Kingdom Hotel in Victoria Falls heard him enthuse about what people would experience in the build up to, and during, totality.
The following day I encountered a souvenir seller who only confirmed what we all know already; they really have their sales patter down to a fine tee! On him querying where I was from I said "Ireland", to which he replied "Conas atá tú?" (How's it going?) Alas, the command of Gaelic extended to only a couple of other phrases!
After Vic Falls it was time to head back to Harare but not before breaking our coach journey in Bulawayo where we stayed for a night. We really had no time to explore Bulawayo though the hotel laid on a dance ceremony.
A diversion from the Bulawayo drive gave us a chance to visit Hwange National Park and go on a two-hour game drive through the bush. While some others saw giraffe and rhino I was really impressed by the bird life of the park. Storks, heron, egrets, lauries, shrikes, Egyptian geese - One of our group had a book on the wildlife of Southern Africa which we referenced back in the hotel and were able to tick off what we had seen.
Finally, our trip brought us back to the capital and it was E-day minus one. We had a reasonably early night as the travelling (and observing into the wee hours) begun to catch up on our little group.
Eclipse day dawned bright and clear -- though with a few worrying clouds along the northern horizon in the general direction we were heading. However, once we arrived at the observing site the weather was perfect and feverish activity ensued to set up equipment and prepare for the big event. Explorer's had 11 (that's right, eleven!) coaches travelling to within 2km of the centre line in northeastern Zimbabwe where totality was to last 3 minutes 12 seconds.
The observing site was close to a primary school and of course our large party attracted a lot of interest. It was great to share the event with the people of the locality and many of the Explorer's group brought donations of materials and equipment for the school to thank them for supplying facilities at the site.
It was to be my second total solar eclipse; the last being on the IAA trip to Bulgaria in August 1999. I wasn't going to be as ambitious as the last time when I videoed the event but instead planned to concentrate on viewing totality and taking a couple of landscape shots with a 28mm lens.
I have previously commented on the perceived attitude of some eclipse chasers -- what Johnny Horne calls "cold and alone" -- when you tend to get tetchy in the moments before totality and snap at friends who disturb your preparations. I have to say that this time it was marvellous to share the 3 minutes with others around me as we helped each other -- veterans and first-timers -- to extract the maximum enjoyment from the event.
Martin and I set up our gear on a rocky outcrop beside a river and on me commenting about the potential for excitement should crocodile appear during totality, Martin retorted that I had definitely popped too many Lariam tablets! Still, I made sure to be ready to jump for shore if there was anything amiss!
There was a real carnival atmosphere at the observing site as people wandered about chatting to others about their plans for the eclipse and enjoying a barbecue set up for lunch. Many of the local children were eager to get their photos taken and learn about the eclipse. Explorer's had a number of spare viewers that we were able to pass around too.
On cue the Moon took a nick out of the edge of the Sun and a real frisson of anticipation ran through the party. The general build-up to the last few minutes before totality still allows you time to relax and note the activity around you.
Three minutes to go!
Time to turn on the dictaphone to record the sounds and the crowd during totality. A spark from a welder's torch hung in the sky -- and then was snuffed out. A dark veil was drawn over the heavens and the ephemeral solar corona wreathed the dark disk of the Moon. It's a sight that some people have dubbed "the Eye of Heaven". I was definitely less excitable this time but a solar eclipse is still one of the most compelling sights in nature.
The sky was definitely darker than Bulgaria but I found it easier to distinguish the landscape. Maybe it was due to the lower altitude of the sun in the sky (about 33 degrees) and the fact that your eves did not have to wander too far to encompass the surroundings. The horizon colours were slightly paler than Bulgaria -- though still with tinges of saffron. From our vantagepoint by the river I looked back over my shoulder at one point to see the group gathered on the beach all transfixed by the celestial spectacle. It is one of those images that convey the sense of awe we all experienced.
The diamond rings at second and third contact blew us away; long and lingering -- especially at the end of totality -- with vestiges of the corona remaining visible to the naked eye for some time after third contact.
Not so many prominences this time but one particularly big one hung above the eastern limb of the sun. A large sunspot group was visible in the few days leading up to the eclipse with the welder's glass. On the day itself the projected silhouette of the Moon creeping across the group was quite dramatic.
It was the structure in the corona that wowed everyone. Delicate streamers that I believe could never be accurately depicted on film flowed away from the Sun. I was particularly drawn to an area close to the northeastern limb that comprised of whorls of material that I likened to wisps of cirri cloud. The corona was brighter than that of the 1999 eclipse and was "tighter" in around the sun but with extensive streamers and spikes.
Jupiter too added some drama to the scene as it lay just 5 degrees from the eclipsed Sun. Venus had set from our location unfortunately by the time of totality. John O'Neill and a few others spotted Sirius while we heard of one guy later who spent most of totality looking for Alpha and Beta Centauri and some other winter stars!
The Explorer's coaches began leaving soon after the end of totality but again I wanted to wait until the end of the partial phase. It's a great pity that many observers fail to take in the post-totality experience -- in effect it's the build-up played in reverse and many of the phenomena can be re-experienced. There wasn't much wildlife around the area though I did see one or two birds flitting overhead during totality a little confused. The chirping of the cicadas and crickets in the bushes began about twenty minutes before totality and ceased about the same time after.
Back at the hotel in Harare there were smiles all round as everybody celebrated a successful eclipse. I met Ken Medway, a veteran of thirteen eclipses, but it was hearing and sharing in the accounts of the "first-timers" that was especially enjoyable. Patricia Carroll, Angela O'Connell, John O'Neill and I held a "post-eclipse" party the following night in the hotel room -- a toast to an enjoyable trip and new found friends.
And what of the other observing that we did? Well, we definitely couldn't get enough of the southern skies! Our little group had spent a fair bit of time familiarising ourselves with the southern constellations before travelling so we were "adopted" by a lot of people as their sky guides. I commented at one stage that the surfeit of deep sky objects was as if someone shook the sky and all the good stuff slipped south of the equator!
Seeing the Plough upside down and back to front was nice but we really concentrated on the sweep of the Milky Way from Puppis right over to Ophiuchus and beyond. The region around Eta Carina was simply magnificent. I had agonised for days over whether to haul my 20x60mm binoculars on the trip because of their bulk; I'm glad those extra clothes were left behind!
The giant globular Omega Centauri was big, brilliant and showed a hint of "graininess" around the edges. Eta Carinae had numerous dark lanes and was framed by the NGC 3532 and NGC 3293 with the former simply one of the loveliest clusters I had ever seen. The Southern Pleiades -- swarming around theta Carinae -- lay nearby too. The Jewel Box in Crux surprises observers' with its compactness and the binoculars revealed the glint of stellar diamond dust. The Coal Sack was quite obvious too and other knots of dark nebulosity could be traced through Norma and on into Scorpius and Sagittarius.
To see the two latter constellations overhead was stunning. The celestial scorpion skittered across the vault of the sky while Sagittarius drew the eye towards the billowing star clouds of the galactic centre. Dominating the area was Mars, set atop the dome of the night like a fiery beacon. Antares was a feeble "rival" of the Red Planet. It would take pages to describe the wonderful vistas afforded by the binos.
The chance to do some naked eye astronomy brought sightings of the zodiacal light nearly every night tapering up from the horizon into Leo. Comet C/2000 A2 LINEAR was also an easy naked eye object with the binoculars revealing a tail extending for two degrees. Uranus too was also visible to us "eyeball only" observers'. The Small Magellanic Cloud was nicely placed for viewing while it necessitated an early rise to catch the LMC clear of the horizon haze. We also spotted Venus on a few occasions in daylight while the night after the eclipse saw a large group gather on the lawn of our hotel to espy the 29-hour old Moon as a golden curl wafting towards the horizon.
A final few days in Harare rounded off a very successful and enjoyable trip. John, Patricia and Angela were going on an extension tour to Tanzania but the rest of us in the Irish contingent had to travel home on a rather circuitous route via Johannesburg.
I was lucky to have a window seat for our night flight to Heathrow and my view on the world from 35,000 feet revealed marvellous sights that tempted me to shake awake my fellow travellers. Stabbing needles of light punctuated towering cumuli as we skirted an electrical storm over central Africa. Pegasus led Andromeda above the horizon in the early hours and later, before dawn, the Pleiades shimmered in the clear air at this altitude. I was able to follow Aldebaran well into the morning twilight.
Glittering star-like points of city and town lights traced patterns on the Earth below that reminded me of the brilliant bio-luminescence of chains of salps or siphonophores witnessed drifting in the blackness of the very deep ocean.
And the future? Take my word for it, grasp the opportunity to travel south. This is an extremely beautiful part of the world with Victoria Falls and a number of national parks and friendly people. The 2004 transit of Venus is one reason I would not hesitate in recommending southern Africa as a definite holiday destination regardless of the problems that area of the world is currently experiencing.
* Hazvina Mhosva! ("No problem!" in Shona)
Copyright © 2003 John Flannery.