The 2001 Eclipse in Zimbabwe

Suddenly the light from the dimmed Sun became a point as the Moon covered the final sliver. The point lingered for an instant before flickering out like a candle. Darkness descended like a shroud as the Sun's Corona flashed into view dotted with pink flame-like Prominances. Totality had begun. Jupiter could be seen close to the Sun.

Ruya River, Northern Zimbabwe
The Ruya River

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Pre-Eclipse

I love travelling independently. The freedom; the mingling; the bumpy and crowded bus journeys, the stories to exaggerate...

This time it was not to be. Because of work and home commitments, I had no time to research, plan, and execute an itinerary that would include eclipse chasing with animal spotting (and shopping - Talaat). So I turned to Explorers Tours.

For a princely sum of my hard earned sterling, they offered to take me to South Africa for a week (something called the Garden Route, which made Talaat very happy), Zimbabwe for another week (including transport to an eclipse site) and a safari in Kenya and Tanzania for the third week. Since I had never visited sub-Saharan Africa before, I agreed terms, signed on the dotted line, and let somebody else do the hard work.

All I had to do was check the cameras, buy lots of film, break out the eclipse glasses, and make sure my injections were up to date (ouch!). Everything was set.

We flew from London to Cape Town in South Africa, arriving in a drizzly city early on Sunday morning. The group was 37 strong and filled a single coach. Our printed itinerary said Cape Town city tour. We introduced ourselves to the tour leaders and promptly went to the pier for a boat to Robben Island. Here we saw the prison that housed Nelson Mandela for several years. We also saw our first African wildlife: African Penguins, Bontebok and Cape Seal.

On Monday we were told to meet in the lobby at 08:00 for a trip to Cape Point. At 08:00, Talaat said "it's 8 o'clock" to a sleeping Kryss. Kryss grunted, turned over and realised the meaning of the message.

Never had the two of us moved so quickly! Luckilly our day pack is always ready for each day trip: packed with cameras and film as well as maps, and snacks.

We only just made the coach. We apologised for keeping everybody waiting and were relegated to the dark back seats next to the toilet.

I was glad we made it because that day we saw Kelp Gull, Cape Cormorant, Ostrich, Chacma Baboon, and many Red Wing Starling. The day begun with clouds but cleared.

We were first on the coach on Tuesday with an accommodating smile on our faces. We obeyed all orders given to us and were the perfect group tourists. Well almost: when the rest of the group went wine tasting in the Winelands, Talaat and I sneaked away and explored four Dutch houses, now open as museums.

It was a bright, sunny day and the views from the top of Table Mountain were excellent (many Hyrax scampered about on the rocks).

That night in Hermanus, far from city lights we saw the Southern sky gleaming above us.

Wednesday saw us visit an Ostrich Farm:

"Ostriches are the largest flightless birds in the world. They are the only birds with two toes. Their eggs take two and a half hours to hard boil."

That night we had a star party in the middle of nowhere. The Milky Way was superb. Both Magellanic Clouds and several star clusters were seen both with the naked eye and with various optics. The Northern constellations were upside down. Mars was at its reddest, brightest, and highest.

Our destination on Thursday was Knysna. We saw some San paintings in the Cango Caves and enjoyed a fish lunch of sole followed by malva, a delicious sweet, I'd never tasted before.

On Friday, we took a boat trip at Plettenberg Bay. My breakfast decided to spread itself over the heaving sea. From my position slumped over the side of the boat, I spotted African Oyster Catchers, White Breasted Cormorant, an Elephant Seal, and some surfing Bottle Nosed Dolphins.

Saturday saw us moving towards Port Elizabeth. At our lunch stop I saw a group of lovely yellow Weaver Birds. We flew to Johannesburg for a night stop.

Next day we flew to Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe). Our group size had now increased to nearly 300 requiring several hotels and more buses.

On Monday morning, our coach was set to pick us up at 09:00. By that time Talaat and I had de-grouped (sorry, folks) and were already at the magnificent falls enjoying them in their uncrowded form. We walked to Zambia past a group of Black Faced Vervet Monkeys. We got to see the Zambesi Gorge and looked at the falls from a different angle.

Before returning, Talaat bought some wood carvings. Five pieces for $30 from a starting price of $30 per piece. Talaat's bargaining has to be seen to be believed. I just keep well out of the way.

That night we took a cruise on the Zambesi River above the falls (Hippopotamus) and saw a spectacular sunset.

Tuesday. Only two days before the eclipse. It had been sunny for over a week. We headed south through Matebeleland to Hwange National Park for my first safari game drive in the back of a jeep:

African Elephant, Warthog, Grey Lorrie, Long Tailed Shrike, Lilac Breasted Roller, Burchell's Zebra, Impala, Black Wildebeest, Yellow Billed Hornbill, Crimson Breasted Shrike, Fork Tailed Drongo, White Crowned Plover, Sable Antelope, Greater Kudu, and Maribu Stork.

Our day ended in Bulawayo.

We awoke on Wednesday and saw many clouds. There must be an eclipse coming soon! We headed north through Mashonaland to Harare. Our lunch stop was Kadoma. The group was herded to a buffet lunch (cost $15 per person at the official rate of exchange) in the garden of a hotel. Kryss and Talaat could be found having the same lunch inside the hotel for $4 (unofficial rate of exchange - sshhh!).

Talaat bought several pieces of lace and crochet for less that $8.

We arrived in Harare to clear weather.


The Eclipse

Thursday was eclipse day.

This was my 8th eclipse. In all the previous ones I had spent the night before the eclipse within the path of totality. This time was different. I was 100km away from the edge of the path.

We took breakfast early to avoid the rush. The background was American Country and Western music about truck drivers and divorces. I thought some Zimbabwe foot tapping music would have been nicer - to get us all in the mood.

Departure was due at 08:00. At 08:15 we were in the coaches and we had not moved "due to technical problems". I was agitated. To my great relief, we finally set off. We headed north away from the city and arrived at a police check point. Zimbabwe's President had appeared on TV the previous night welcoming the eclipse tourists. He told Zimbabweans not to impede the passage of eclipse tourists.

We were not impeded.

Our route took us through Shamva, Madziwa, Mount Darwin and Rushinga. We were now deep within the path of totality. So far we had been on surfaced roads. Now we had 16km of dusty, unsurfaced track to reach our destination. Villagers waved at our coach as we bumped along. Our flotilla of vehicles came to a halt at the tiny village of Maname. A 100m walk took us to the wide banks of the Ruya River, our eclipse site.

This river is a tributary of the Zambezi and flows into Mozambique, 10km away. Each bank is a mixture of sand and boulders, flanked by trees. Over 300 people were setting up tripods, telescopes and cameras on a wide area of the sandy bank. Talaat and I moved upstream to a cluster of boulders sheltered by trees. We were joined by Harold and Graham. Our position allowed us to view the Sun. The observation site was pretty and atmospheric but lacked the all round views of the horizon that we like.

The morning's scattered cumulus clouds had dissipated by 13:00. Explorers Tours had provided a barbecue lunch but had forgotten to bring plates - we had meat and salad in cups! Tinned and bottled drinks were passed around (thanks Graham). We relaxed and prepared for the eclipse.

First Contact was at 13:51. We saw the bite in the 7 o'clock position a little later. At around 14:25, we noticed the light becoming more mellow and golden. The air cooled. This was still 50 minutes before totality. The Sun was only 30° above the horizon. The Moon's shadow was approaching from the Sun's direction. In the south the sky was turning a deep intense blue.

Behind us, two women with babes in swaddling were enjoying the experience. Looking at the partially eclipsed Sun through mylar glasses, feeding the babies and smiling at us. Boys timidly approached to politely ask questions.

The murmurs died down as the light faded and the heat vanished. A bird came to roost in our tree. Lizards scampered back into their rocky homes. I could hear crickets chirping above the roar of the river.

The blue river had now turned green; the yellow sand was golden; the green leaves had turned darker; the sky was an almost purple blue.

Suddenly the light from the dimmed Sun became a point as the Moon covered the final sliver. The point lingered for an instant before flickering out like a candle. Darkness descended like a shroud as the Sun's Corona flashed into view dotted with pink flame-like Prominances. Totality had begun. Jupiter could be seen close to the Sun.

Near the begining of Totality
Near the beginning of Totality looking into the depth of the umbra.
Jupiter can be seen at the 7 o'clock position.

The women behind us stood up, ululated and clapped their hands. From the masses, whoops of awe, wonder and joy could be heard. For many people this was their first real eclipse after the disappointment of Cornwall (1999).

Inner Corona
The Inner Corona with prominances.
Outer Corona
The Outer Corona near the end of totality

Full Corona
The full Corona

I savoured the experience. The Corona was straight and spiky. There were several Prominances including a huge one easily visible to the naked eye in the 3 o'clock position. I noted that the Moon's shadow was elliptical: the horizon was darker in the East-West direction than North-South. Talaat spotted Sirius; the first time either of us had seen a star during totality. We could see the horizon beginning to light up with reds, oranges and yellows as the shadow rushed past us at 1.4 kilometers per second (1 mile per second).

Near the end of Totality
Near the end of Totality; the sky is brightening and appears orange.

The eclipse was total for 3 minutes 20 seconds. It passed by like an instant. Totality is always too brief. There is so much to see. I know I missed as much as I saw. You cannot see everything in a single eclipse.

Planets During Totality
Two planets near the eclipsed Sun. Jupiter is the bright object at 7 o'clock; Saturn is to the extreme left and fainter.

We kept the photography simple and made time to look at the eclipsed Sun through binoculars and to look around. I zoomed in on the Sun with a hand held telephoto lens. Talaat took panoramas with a wide angle lens on a tripod. Keep it simple and don't panic - easier said than done.

The Diamond Ring
The Diamond Ring.

The Diamond Ring reflects on the river
The Diamond Ring reflects on the Ruya River as Totality ends.

Totality ended with a brilliant diamond ring appearing in the 7 o'clock position and lingering for longer than I'd ever seen before. The light returned to the landscape. It was just past 15:18 and totality had ended.

The End of Totality
The end of Totality.

People clapped the end of the total phase. Another eclipse had been seen successfully. A collective sigh of relief and happiness was heaved. Drinks were passed around. The villagers looked bemused. The Explorers group exchanged stories and feelings.

One man told me "it was like the first time I had sex". Another man said that this eclipse was much better than his first in Hungary. On that occasion, he had not removed his mylar glasses during totality.

It was not long before nightfall. With a three hour drive back to Harare we couldn't linger. The buses set off to waves, smiles and dances from the villagers on the side of the road. The looks of joy on the faces of these people will be one of the enduring images of the 2001 eclipse in Zimbabwe.


Post-Eclipse

Friday was a quiet day in Harare. Talaat bought some more lace ($5), a carved wooden bowl (ferociously bargained down from $20 to $2.50), and four wooden figures ($3.25).

Saturday was meant to be "at leasure". Talaat and I had organised a group of 12 for a day trip. At 06:00 we were in the hotel lobby collecting our boxed breakfasts and jumping onto a small minibus. Our guide Patrick explained about Shona culture as we sped off southwards in the morning twilight.

We visited Great Zimbabwe, the largest archiological site in sub-Saharan Africa (Black and White Shrike) and saw some 20,000 year old San paintings overlooking Lake Mutirikwe. It was 20:45 by the time we returned to the hotel (yawn!).

On Sunday we flew from Harare to Nairobi (Kenya). Our group size had shrunk to less than 100.

We didn't stay long. The next day we travelled on various vehicles through southern Kenya and into northern Tanzania to our first safari lodgings. Blue Wildebeest, a pair of Secretary Birds and a troop of Olive Baboon were seen en route.

Tuesday was a special day. I had always wanted to visit the Ngorongoro Crater having seen it on TV. It was not a disappointing day:

In the morning we saw Thiskal Shrike, Grant's Gazelle, African Buffalo (with their attendant Yellow Billed Ox Peckers), Crowned Cranes, Black Backed Jackal, Kori Bustard, Blacksmith Plovers, Thompson's Gazelle, Coke's Hartebeest, Spotted Hyena (with young in a rocky den), a flock of African White Backed Pelicans (swimming with the Hippos), Black Headed Heron, Sacred Ibis, Cattle Egrets, two Black Rhinos (one in the long grass the other at distance), a single Golden Jackal, and African Griffin.

After lunch we spotted Crested Guinea Fowl in the dense undergrowth. On Lake Magadi there were Egyptian Geese, Greater Flamingos, Lesser Flamingos, Grey Headed Gulls, and Red Billed Ducks. A Yellow Billed Stork was our final bird. The wildebeest and zebras were a backdrop to everything we saw.

On Wednesday, we descended onto the plains of Serengeti. This was another place I had seen on TV. The journey to the lodge was eventful with plenty of wildlife to keep us amused:

Hooded Vultures, Kirk's Dik-Dik (Africa's smallest antelope), many Superb Starlings, Red Billed Buffalo Weavers, D'Arboud's Barbet.

Thursday's safari day in the Serengeti was superb and dominated by wildebeest, zebras, gazelles and Lions. We saw several prides complete with cubs. They were resting, sleeping, sitting in trees, walking from water holes, and over a kill.

That would have been enough. In addition we saw Agama Lizards, three Cheetah (one with two cubs), Leopard, Maasai Giraffes, a Serval (with cub), a Monitor Lizard, several Bare-Faced Go-Away Birds, Topi, Reedbuck, Waterbuck, Cuckoo Shrike, Magpie Shrike, Ruppell's Long Tailed Starling, White Backed Vulture (nesting with young), a single African Fish Eagle, two Nile Crocodiles, a Nubian Vulture, a pair of African Hoopoes, and some Little Bee Eaters at sunset.

Friday's journey was the beginning of our return home. We travelled to Lake Manyara. Today's animals were Eland (Africa's largest antelope), Blue Monkeys, and two Auger Buzzards.

It was now Saturday and the trip was almost over. We returned to Kenya and reached Amboseli in the shadow of Kilimanjaro (5896m), Africa's highest mountain. Amongst the elephants, zebras and wildebeest we saw a Tawny Owl and a Ground Hornbill.

Sunday saw us return to Nairobi for our flight back to London. It had been an excellent trip and a superb eclipse.


Credits

Written by Kryss Katsiavriades (© 2001)

Photographs:

Totality close-ups and Ruya River by Kryss Katsiavriades
(Hand held OM2 with 100mm lens and x2 converter; 400 ASA Kodak Royal Film)

Panoramas and eclipse planets by Talaat Qureshi
(OM2N on tripod with 28mm lens; 200 ASA Fuji Film)

Many thanks to Explorers Tours.


Books From Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com


KryssTal Related Pages

The 2001 eclipse main page.

Maps of the path of the 2001 eclipse from Fred Espenak and eclipse details at the observation site.

The times for selected places for the 2001 eclipse.

Photographs of the site and people at the 2001 eclipse.

Accounts of the 2001 eclipse sent to this web site are reproduced here.

During the excitement of totality not all photos come out as expected.

Travel photos from Zimbabwe.


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