A Total Solar Eclipse in Zambia

This story is adapted from an email written in two stages while journeying home to Moshi from Lusaka, Zambia. An edited version appeared as an article in The Ellsworth American on July 12, 2001.

On Thursday, June 21, 2001 there was a total eclipse of the Sun visible along a swath of southern Africa passing through Angola, Zambia, Mozambique, and then offshore to Madagascar. This was hailed as the first totality of the millennium. Its path was shorter than that of the August 11, 1999 eclipse visible over much of Europe and the Middle East, and it passed over less land and some remote, hard to get to areas. On the plus side, the duration of totality was significantly longer (well over four minutes in the south atlantic ocean and parts of Angola), and some places along the path boast cloud-free skies this time of year. So since this event coincided very nicely with school vacation in Tanzania, I traveled with a group with five of my American friends, four other Peace Corps/Tanzania teachers, Clay Hogen, Laurel Brown, Gary Port and Mardi Brinck (now Mrs. Gary Port) and one freelance photographer, John Brecher, to catch sight of the eclipse in bordering Zambia.

This trip began on Friday, June 15, when the six of us boarded the train in Dar Es Salaam to claim our reserved, second-class compartment for what would become a fifty-five hour trip to New Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia. The train ride was very long, but not unpleasant, all things considered. The only reason we took the bus back was that we failed to reserve return train tickets. The bus was actually quicker, but less comfortable and more expensive.

So we arrived in Zambia on Sunday evening, and managed to get as far as the capital, Lusaka, a relatively clean, modern city without any really notable landmarks but with lots of Western influence. This was quite striking to me after nine months in Tanzania. I hadn't been in a real supermarket for my whole time in Africa! But we were lucky, arriving after dark in this unfamiliar place, that this one really nice backpackers lodge (called Cha Cha Cha) still had enough room for us to pitch our tents, for the bargain price of $3 per person. Since the eclipse was still four days away at that time, we decided to continue on down to Livingstone (as in "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?") and check out the famous Victoria falls. This was another six-hour-plus bus ride, which actually took us south of the path of the total eclipse, which was only 75 miles (120 km) wide. We would need to return to Lusaka by June 21 to be within that narrow range of totality.

We had similar luck arriving in Livingstone---the patron saint of clueless young travelers on a budget, whoever that is, must have been looking after us. We had a couple of taxi drivers, not the most trustworthy demographic in Africa, take us to this lovely place called the Nyala Lodge, where once again we were allowed to camp on the cheap. There was also some great food available, and the proprietor, Paul, a white man from Zimbabwe, gave us a level of service that is hard to find in the US, and therefore virtually unheard of in that part of the world. Paul gave us extra blankets and even set four of us up with a white-water rafting trip down the Zambezi River the very next day! A year later, when Clay and Laurel returned to Livingstone, they stayed again at the Nyala Lodge, and Paul was still regaling his customers with the story of the six young American travelers who showed up on his doorstep after dark on the busiest night he'd ever had. "I was so booked up, I didn't even have enough blankets," he told Clay and Laurel, not remembering that they were among those very American travelers. "So I had to give them the blankets that my dogs sleep on!"

Tuesday, then, I did not actually see Victoria Falls, as we spent the whole day rafting 18 km through the incredibly beautiful Zambezi River gorge, and over some pretty gnarly rapids. It was my first such experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and want to do it again. I never fell in, although three of my companions did go over the side on one rapid, and we had to fish people out of the river from two other rafts that flipped while going over a six-foot-high wall of water called "Terminator 2."

Wednesday also was an interesting day. We needed to make it back to Lusaka, but Laurel (also an astronomer) and I still needed to see the Falls. This we did, and we got wet, and it was just lovely. I took lots of photos. So Clay and John went into town to try and reserve bus tickets for four of us (Gary and Mardi elected to remain in Livingstone an extra day). When Laurel and I got back to town from the Falls, we found that Clay had managed to buy only the last two tickets for the last big bus to Lusaka. His plan was for him and John, as the larger two people and the ones who had waited around town to get the tickets, to take this bus with all of the luggage and that Laurel and I could squeeze onto one of the minibuses that would leave a little later.

This seemed a sound plan at the time, except that of course Zambian public transport is even more sketchy than that of Tanzania. No bus service anticipated the increase in business due to this eclipse. In other words, the minibuses all had filled up and left ahead of schedule, even ahead of the bus that Clay and John were on, so Laurel and I were stuck with whatever transportation we could find. This ended up being the back of a large, open truck stuffed full with stranded Zambians who also wanted to get to Lusaka that day. It cost us nearly as much as a bus would have, but took over nine hours because of the grandmotherly pace at which pace we drove. It was an incredible, awful experience that makes every other form of transport seem like luxury, even that overnight bus with people crammed into the aisles that we rode on our return to Tanzania. Without our big bags, Laurel and I were stuck with what clothes we had on our backs or what we could borrow, in the cold Zambian night for 4 hours after sunset. I know that many of you will find this hard to believe, but southern Africa, even the part near the equator, gets cold in June, particularly in highland areas like most of Zambia and southern Tanzania. Laurel and I estimated that with windchill, the back of that truck was about freezing. Some of the Zambians anticipated these cold layers of air that we passed through on our way down into Lusaka, and they came equipped with blankets and coats. Others, particularly those who jumped on the truck late, were not so well-prepared, and they would huddle into fetal positions and cry out, in English, "Oh, we will not survive this!" When we finally arrived in downtown Lusaka, it was 11:30 PM. The driver let us off next to a pizza place, and we ate pepperoni pizza in the taxi on the way back to Cha Cha Cha, where Clay and John were waiting. When we finally arrived there around midnight, we had just about stopped shivering.

But enough about that. This brings us to the day of the eclipse, which was as gorgeous a cloudless day as you will ever see anywhere. Zambia truly is a good place for an event like this---Tanzania, I heard, got a lot of rain in places on that day. We elected to go out to an eclipse-viewing festival at the University of Zambia just outside of town. This was neat because the vast majority of the very large crowd there were Zambians, not foreign tourists. It was great to see how people were getting into this event---those people who had some knowledge of what was going to happen were helping to educate the vast majority who weren't sure what to expect or how to view it safely (there were several big runs on the eclipse glasses that were made available there). For my part, I separated myself from my group and spent most of the time wandering through the crowd. During the partial phase, I was almost completely absorbed watching the shadows underneath one particularly lush tree. Its foliage projected countless images of the partial eclipse onto two white automobiles parked under the tree, and the patterns were striking. I pointed this out to whoever was interested---very few people noticed this effect on their own.

But the real show, of course, was the totality. You cannot compare a partial eclipse to a total one. When that last bit of the solar photosphere (the Sun's disk) disappears behind the moon in a spectacular flash called the Diamond Ring (this is precisely what it looks like---a dazzling jewel in the sky), even knowing what to expect, I had my breath taken away. At this point you can throw off your glasses, and those three minutes were absolutely surreal. I saw the solar corona, the outermost atmosphere of the sun. I devoted my last year of college and the summer afterwards to studying it but had never before seen it with my own eyes. It was just like every photograph I'd ever seen. The bright planet Jupiter was visible to the lower right of the eclipsed Sun. I could not spot Mercury, which was a bit disappointing---I've never seen that planet. When I tore my eyes away from the Sun for a moment, I noticed that the entire horizon appeared to be ringed with fire, like a diffuse sunset in every direction. People were cheering, gawking, holding each other, basically acting nuts, but that was all part of the experience. John, I think, put it best, as he often has a way of doing. He has often said, since then, that the eclipse changed his life. He describes it as a total observational experience; that just by observing the thing, you are participating in it fully, and that there is no end to what you are able to observe---layers upon layers of phenomena that are just unique, out of the realm of ordinary experience.

The three plus minutes went really quickly. One moment I was glancing at my watch in the pale blue darkness (3:09 PM local time), and the next instant, it seemed, the second diamond ring flashed and the world was again bathed in light (my watch then read 3:13 PM). Of course, that was still the wan light of a heavy partial eclipse, like wearing a pair of very dark sunglasses. Then the crowd started to dissipate, for the main event was certainly over.

For me, the most special part of this eclipse experience was people's reactions to it. This is a natural phenomenon that has inspired uncomprehending awe, even violent terror, in human beings for most of history. I suspect that there were plenty of back-bush villages in the path of this particular eclipse where the same reaction could still be found. But in the main, Zambia was totally aware of this event, and it was a cause for celebration, not fear. The day was declared a national holiday, and everyone we spoke to stopped what they were doing to watch. I remember talking to some of the locals the day before, and I got the sense that many people were somewhat skeptical about the whole deal, like they couldn't believe it was really going to happen, or at least that something so crazy could also be so predictable---more predictable than the weather. Other people were asking us if we were going to go to certain designated places to see the eclipse, as if it would only be visible wherever someone was throwing a party. To this we invariably replied that seeing the eclipse was unavoidable for anyone who was in the Lusaka region---unless they closed there eyes and shoved their heads under a blanket. I think many people got an education in seeing this, and now all are believers. I did not meet a single person who reacted to the event in anything but a positive way. It was universally inspiring. So, for me, this eclipse story really represents everything that got me interested in astronomy in the first place.

There are a few other pictures related to this story in the Photo Gallery.

For more information about solar physics and eclipses, view the Sun at the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory or go check out Sky & Telescope Magazine.

Read the USA Today article about this eclipse, at the end of which I am quoted!

Back to Welcome to Tanzania!

Write to Matt Povich.