THE TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE FROM AFRICA DECEMBER 4, 2002—by Paul Maley
The independent kingdom of Lesotho is just an hour away from Johannesberg. Lynn jogged at the track at the Lesotho Sun Hotel before we set off on our tour of the kingdom. Our first stop was a hike up Tabo Busio, a mountain that is the burial place of Lesotho’s kings. It is a great observing site but a tough hike in hot weather (86 deg F). Each person who hikes up the mountain is requested to put a rock on the rock pile (shown in the right side of the picture).
Here we had two game drives in the heat of the day. Unfortunately in our vehicle there were also 4 Dutch tourists who insisted on being obnoxious, talking loudly as we approached an elephant. At one point, the elephant walked up to our vehicle as if to chastise them, flared his ears, then passed aside. All talking ceased at this point. Following this, our driver took us up to a water hole where no less than 14 rhino lay in the mud. The vehicle stopped 15 feet from one rhino. Hearing the Dutch tourists, the rhino charged the vehicle and attempted to flip it over with its horn. Yes, this really happened! Then he backed off and we turned around. Our driver then drove us to the other side of the same water hole. Unlike any other game drive, we were told could get out and walk up to the edge of the water hole and take whatever pictures we wanted. The group did it cautiously. Then several rhino at once made quick moves toward us and everyone ran like hell back to the vehicle. That is the last time anybody got close and personal with animals. We had lunch in the park and afterward the food table was raided by a giant wart hog who pulled down plates and tablecloth, as well as an ostrich that gobbled up all the food she could get before being chased off.
An unrelated attempt to observe an occultation of a 6.8 magnitude star by the asteroid Asterope was a failure in Durban due to clouds.The daily weather pattern that we had witnessed showed clear skies every day until the day before the eclipse. It would cloud up in the afternoon and then rain in the evening. By dawn it was clear again. We got a couple of good sunburns during our game runs. Then, on December 3 a massive system brought multiple cloud layers from southwest to northeast over Johannesburg and toward Mozambique.
It was that day that we flew to Maputo, capitol of Mozambique and checked in at the Holiday Inn. Located on the beach fronting the Indian Ocean, it was the best hotel in town and a great place to be in an otherwise very impoverished country. Our guide Philippe picked us up at 3am the next morning (eclipse day) and we headed northeast toward Xai-Xai—a big collection point for eclipse observers in the area or so we were told. When we walked out of the hotel it was totally overcast with multiple decks of clouds. This was a really bad sign. We had seen NOBODY headed for Mozambique and certainly no Americans. We had been told that about 500 foreign tourists and 800 Mozambicans were encamped at Xai-Xai. Was this a myth?
The expected 2.5 hour trip took 2 hours with Philippe driving at 100 to 150 km/hour in a new Kia sedan. His English was poor and it took Lynn trying to speak in Spanish in order for us to communicate ‘effectively’. Since Portuguese is the local language, Spanish is a close second.Dawn appeared before 5am and it was my goal to set up at the southern edge of the eclipse path where about 40 seconds of totality was expected in between Baily’s Beads phenomena. But the skies were horrendous and it seemed we had no chance of ever seeing the sun.
Finally we stopped in front of a house and this was to be our observing spot. The house was in a village with no name. I set up one camcorder in front of the house to tape the eclipse darkness. The clouds had gotten worse and there was no hope in continuing to drive further. Over us was really just one level with a patchwork of clouds and holes in between. We could get good partial phase views every 10 or 20 seconds. At the house there were numerous birds, mostly swifts and darters that flew back and forth around our heads. A few children came out to watch us but sat back and did not bother us. Very atypical behavior judging from our past experiences. Ants scurrying about in a nest by the car disappeared as totality approached. Nobody seemed to know or care about the eclipse in this collection of widely spaced huts and houses. As totality descended the north horizon took on a look as you would see at sunset with various colors changing back and forth. The west horizon had more clouds and was mainly just white while the rest of the sky turned darkish gray. The south and east were already subdued due to advancing rain clouds.
As the moon’s shadow descended quietly moving in from the west and headed for more eager eclipse-goers in Australia, it got quite dark. The next photo shows a dramatic view of the shadow on the earth. This is the dark horizontal line; the photo was taken by International Space Station astronaut Don Petit at 07h58m UT on December 4 as the shadow is in the south Indian Ocean and the ISS is about 900 miles to the north west. This photo was shot 1h32m (or about one ISS orbit) after our encounter with the shadow in Mozambique. This nearly horizontal view of the shadow gives the viewer an idea of the darker umbral size ( 79 km) compared to the much larger size of the lighter penumbral shadow.
During the eclipse, Philippe had met the owner of the house and gone inside for a chat. As totality ended he came out but nobody else did. We could hear music from a radio. There had been publicity in Mozambique about the eclipse yet the event had no apparent effect on the locals around us. We were far from any semblance of eclipse observers. They seemed completely oblivious and more concerned about their daily survival. Whenever we stopped before, we had a small but respectful audience. I brought a Meade ETX90 and decided that due to the clouds there was no point in setting it up.
The moon’s shadow passed over us at 8:26am local time (6h26m UT) and the holes in between the clouds that were bright white turned dark blue. Had we been on the center line we could have experienced about 91 seconds of totality. But we were near the edge. Venus, brilliant as ever, popped out in a hole in the clouds almost overhead. I gazed up at where the sun should be and saw a faint glimmer in the cloud. Then a hole opened up—it was the corona! Two prominences peeked out on the eastern side of the sun’s disk. Seconds after that the western side of the sun showed corona. Ten seconds later the sun was gone again. All of this was captured on videotape, not still images. Though it was brief, we could see this beautiful sight as if it was for the very first time. We had thought it would have been impossible to see anything.
From our location, we had been under the eclipse for 46 seconds. Then it was over. The shadow lifted and the sky brightened remarkably fast from the west.The bird chatter resumed—it had fallen silent briefly during totality. Philippe and Lynn used mylar, binoculars and welder’s glass to watch the crescent as it began to reform.
My colleague Friedhelm Dorst observed from a site that had thinner and less cloud near the village of Navashila. Here he observed 90 seconds of total eclipse. Both of the beautiful photos below were taken by him using a D1H Nikon using ASA 200 film.
Africa was again a wonderful experience. The people, the animals; yes, even the mayhem of trying to outrun the clouds. Many others shared our fate and worse. But we were certainly lucky again this time because we had a 10 second vision of the sun unplugged.