What was the first time like for you? Did you see stars? Did the earth seem to move beneath your feet? Did the heavens shudder? Were there goose bumps? Grass stains? Did the surprise of first contact send warm tingles down your spine? Was there a shout at climax? An electrical charge? Did you cheer at totality, cry out at the appearance of the diamond ring, and pop champagne corks? Was it over too soon? Did it leave you hungry for more?
My first time - June 21, 2001, from 3:09 - 3:12 PM - was a catered affair for 100 voyeurs, all of whom came equipped with cameras, telescopes, camcorders, and extension devices. Not everyone there was a novice, though, which was good for a beginner like me. The more experienced guided the first-timers through the stages of preparation, handing out protection and warning us about the perils of becoming overly enthusiastic. Our leaders warned us what to expect, including explosions and eruptions. We appreciated all our mentors had to offer in the way of equipment and advice, following them through the stages, afraid that all would be invisible to anyone who didn't know how to look.
No, this wasn't some kinky cult or tribal rite of passage. The enthusiastic novices and experts I describe here, all feeling the pull of the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere, gathered to witness the total eclipse of the sun in Lusaka, Zambia. There were goose bumps from experiencing this miracle of nature, a giant body wave, and grass stains from lying on our backs under a blue Zambian sky, gazing heavenward. At totality, excitement swept over us like an invisible band of light. For 3 minutes and 15 seconds, the ground rippled as if painted in ink on the surface of a lake. We did see stars, and even planets, and it definitely was over too soon, leaving us hungry for more, ready to travel to all points on the globe for the possibility of a repeat performance.
This is a trip that had many firsts and many climaxes, the eclipse itself being just one. It was a whirlwind journey that began as I bravely hung from a cable car as fragile as a bubble suspended from Table Mountain, and continued as I looked into the depths of the eyes of a cheetah and saw for the first time the "tear lines" on his face. My universe expanded when for the first time I stood at the point where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic. For the first time I added 53 new birds to my life list in one day. For the first time I saw the splendor of Victoria Falls and experienced the heartbreak and triumph of Soweto. And each experience equaled the thrill of my first solar eclipse.
These ten days were a treat for the senses. I sucked the marrow from strange bones and tasted ostrich and crocodile and kudu. I smelled the exotic air of African cities and gazed upward at the Milky Way, the sky heavy with stars scattered like sequins on the endless black blanket of the African night. I was hypnotized staring at the cloth of cloud lying gently in the folds of the cliffs of the 12 Apostles as they swept down to the sea outside of Cape Town. I heard the bray of a thousand penguins, the sweet voices of Zambian children raised in song, and the beat of African drums floating through the air on the braak in Stellenbosch. I spied on sacred ibis as they walked through golden wine fields. I screamed as I watched someone I had come to know plunge off the edge of a bridge over the Zambezi River, tethered only by a thin bungee cord. I inhaled the scent of a thousand roses all at once.
All of these first times, the newness, the sense of awe that I experienced in Africa, began on the very first morning in Cape Town as I drew back the curtains to witness sunrise over Table Bay. How strange to see a ghost freighter emerging from the early morning mist, the sun rising over it, coming from where I'd expect the west to be. This journey to the sun has uncovered for me the true meaning of travel: to hope for the unexpected, to savor the strange, the new, to know what it means to feel intensely alive. We have to hope that our lives continue to be a string of such first times, each one causing goose bumps, shudders, and rushes of blood from the heart. I hope each one is as good for you as this one was for me, with or without the hole in the sky.
Last revised: 2008 Jan 28