Only a memory now, but a memory that returns with thoughts of the solar eclipse of coming on July 22, 2009 and the eclipse back on December 4th, 2002. By amazing coincidence that latter Christmas eclipse crossed a similar path over Africa to the eclipse in the summer of 2001. The weather prospects however were not so good there, as it was the middle of the rainy season in December. Many people traveled to sunny summery Australia instead, another location where the eclipse was visible.

Myself and Patricia Carroll with some pupils from Maname School at the eclipse site.

I am prompted nonetheless to recall the summer of 2001 when I was drawn to the vast continent of Africa by the promise of a total solar eclipse and good clear skies. It is said that a total eclipse happens on average only once in every 400 years in any particular location. Hence the reason why I and some fellow members of the Irish Astronomical Society had travelled several thousand miles to Zimbabwe. Our aim was to be in the path of the moon’s shadow when it passed over the sun on the 21st June, 2001, mid-Winter’s day in the tropical and semi-arid climate of Zimbabwe. This pathway of darkness would only be 80 miles wide at the maximum and it fell across the Zambezi river valley in the north of the country. Our destination, then for eclipse day was to be a remote rural part of North Eastern Zimbabwe, a four hour busride, 200km from Harare, the capital, where we were staying.

Some of the Masai tribe, Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

A level of anticipation about the eclipse had been building up. Eclipse chasers from all over the world were gathering to view the spectacle. On eclipse day we set off, from Harare, a convoy of eleven buses carrying about 400 people from Explorers Tours. The highly visible buses created quite a sight as they passed along the unsurfaced roads raising clouds of dust in the very dry and bare landscape, prompting many curious natives to come out and wave. This was rural Zimbabwe, a miombo woodland wilderness dotted with termite hills and baobab trees and the occasional gathering of little round and sometimes square straw roofed houses where the people lived.

The eclipse site was very picturesque. It was in the grounds of the Maname school, situated alongside the Ruya River, a tributary of the Zambezi. We had no sooner arrived at the sandy river bed when first contact began and the moon’s black disc started to eat its way into the sun. Over the next hour or so in the early afternoon, an eerie light began to descend over everything. A hush spread over the people present, colours intensified, the sky became bluer, the distant hills became dark and forbidding and the river became louder. The stage was set for the drama that was about to unfold with second contact, when suddenly the moon’s shadow would sweep over the immediate landscape plunging everything into darkness. This sudden darkness can be so unexpected that it is not unusual to feel a sense of shock and disorientation. However the sound of the crowd cheering brings one back to earth.

Landscape view of totality at the Ruya River, Maname School, northern Zimbabwe. Jupiter visible at 7pm position. Film, 200 ASA, F8, Lens 28mm, Exposure 1 sec.

Second contact began as the last rays of the sun’s light formed a most beautiful diamond ring on the black disc of the moon. When the sun disappeared, one had only a few minutes of totality to try and grasp the scene. The solar corona, a pearly luminescent light surrounding the black sun was an awesome site with its beautiful orchid shape and long streamers reaching out into the sky. The golden horizon, another characteristic of a solar eclipse added colour to this otherwise very dark eclipse.

Just over 3 minutes later, third contact came, ending totality with a sudden flash of light and the emergence of the sun’s rays once again. Everyone was celebrating at this stage and fourth contact, when the moon entirely leaves the vicinity of the sun, was completely forgotten about.

During our time in Zimbabwe, we visited the Victoria Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world, we took a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River and became quite familiar with the hummock shaped hippos as they bathed in the water. Even warthogs parading around the hotel grounds with their young became a familiar site. No trip to Africa would be complete without doing a jeep safari. I was to become familiar with a lot of wildlife before I would leave; the lions in the Serengeti, the elephants at Kilimanjaro and the wildebeast at the Ngorongoro crater. Each was fabulous in its own right, but none compared to the eclipse at Maname School.

Diamond ring showing its development at the beginning of totality, 2nd contact. Film, 200 ASA, F8, Lens 200mm, Exposure 1/500 sec.

Diamond ring showing its development at the end of totality, 3rd contact. Film, 200 ASA, F8, Lens 200mm, Exposure 1/250 sec.

Did You Know?
…that the maximum possible duration of a solar eclipse is seven minutes and thirty-one seconds and that the highest number of eclipses possible in a year is seven and the lowest number is two, both of which must be solar?

More information

Click for special web page on the Total Solar Eclipse of 2009 Jul 22

NASA Eclipse Website – Provides information on past, presesnt and future Solar and Lunar eclipses. Planetary transits across the Sun are also covered. – Fred Espenak’s site dedicated to all things about eclipses.

Solar Eclipse: Stories from the Path of Totality – Archived webcasts and photos of previous Solar Eclipses along with information about eclipses and how to observe them.


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