It's the 22 June 2001, one day after the 'big African Eclipse'. I am writing this report sitting under a thatched shelter overlooking the Kafue River at the 'Lufupa Camp' in Kafue National Park, with its 22,400 square kilometers being Zambia's biggest national park. Feeling very satisfied...
Three days ago, on the 19 June, we arrived late at this campsite, after a long drive from Lusaka over Zambia's rough roads. We were completely exhausted after roughing through the long, winding and dusty tarmac roads with lots of pot-holes. Finally, we reached the gate and it was completely dark. We still had to finish the last 60 kilometers over a dirty track, adding a supplementary night safari to our program. We spotted a hyena and a jackal en route. Eventually, we pitched our tents around 21:00, about 3 hours after sun set.
On 20 June, the day before the eclipse, we did a game drive in the early morning and another game drive in the late afternoon. During this last game drive, we discovered a big plain along the Lufupa river, just a few kilometers from the camp site in the direction of Moshi. The plain is stocked with wildlife: plenty of pukus and impala antelopes, hundreds of waterbirds feeding on the receding water of some landlocked lagoons. On the plain grows the typical African savannah grass which at this time of the year, the beginning of the dry winter season, is long and brown-coloured. Grey termite hills could be found sprouting everywhere out of the ground like pins of a fakir's seat. Some bushes and some trees break the monotony of the plain. Here and there, the gracious lilala palms (also called "doomed palms") assembled together like small islands in the middle of an ocean. "This would be a great spot to observe the total eclipse", we all agreed. We imagined seeing the shadow coming from the west over the plain. To me, it offers the ideal dream landscape: the African lilala palms as the foreground in the middle of the African savannah and of course completed with a totally eclipsed sun with a brilliant corona in the sky!
We arrived at this place with a group of seven people from Belgium plus a local driver and a local bush cook. The trip has been organised by the amateur observatory 'Urania' from Antwerp, Belgium. Most of us are amateur astronomers with some experience in eclipses, our tour guide is a real wildlife and bush expert but a novice to eclipses.
On the day of the eclipse, all of us were restless and couldn't wait to leave... so, we took off already in the morning to find a nice spot next to a group of doom palms. Until the day of the eclipse, we weren't worried at all about the weather. For the past week, all days in Kafue National Park experienced perfectly blue skies with not a single cloud. Hence, on the 21Jun-2001, the weather remains unchanged from the previous days. We started assembling our instruments. After some time, it looks like we are not the only ones who have 'discovered' and fell in love with this surrounding of natural beauty. Selfishly, we looked with fear as we noticed new cars heading in our direction in a big cloud of dust: are they going to station themselves right in the middle of our view? Katherine anxiously guarding from top of our Unimog truck which is now acting as the watch tower. It was a big relief each time the intruder passed by. Just as we are coming close to first contact the unavoidable happened: a big overland truck stationed himself in the middle of the plain and in my landscape picture. I have to move closer to the ilala palm trees to rid the unsightly vehicles out of my way. Since I am the only one concentrating on landscape shots, hence, I have chosen this particular spot and, standing all alone near the palm trees, which is more than 100 meters away from the group. In the midst of this wilderness, I prayed that the lions won't start hunting during these few minutes of totality!
Since this special environment offers such a big variety of animal life, I felt the urge to record the time and observe the behaviour of some of the animals, mostly birds. Here follows a recap in short cut diary style (local times in minutes, rounded up) during the event itself:
13:35 - First Contact
13:50 - A herd of puku antelopes passing some 50 meters by my observation post
14:08 - A forktailed drongo is sitting in a dead bush next to me, now and then flying up (to catch insects) and going back to its branch. Later I noticed that this is its normal behaviour.
14:13 - A couple of white-fronted bee-eaters sit on top of a tree a bit further. Same as for the drongo: they fly up from time to time and go back to their branch. Once again quite normal behaviour. We are now some 20 minutes after first contact.
14:14 - A zooming sound that starts like a mosquito buzz soon turns into an approaching piper aeroplane: a dark swarm of killer bees is approaching. They are not interested in eclipse chasers and are just passing by.
14:25 to 14:27- A juvenile bateleur is circling in the sky, looking for prey.
14:29 - Life at the savannah is getting aware that something special is going on. There are some moments when the silence is complete: no bird whistle, not even from the noisy pigeons, no cricket sound, nothing. After a break of a few minutes, the choir resumes its tune. This is happening a few times until totality. From now on there is also a clear reduction in the activity of the tsetse flies that had not seized to pester me.
14:47 - A tawny eagle is circling around.
14:55 - Last observation of the tsetse fly before totality.
14:56 - Cry of the African fish eagle.
14:58 - Some doves fly in my ilala palm trees. The colours become unreal.
15:00 - Some more pigeons fly up. It is getting very silent. I can feel the tension of a ghost movie. Cool!
15:01 - From the Lufupa river, a few hundreds meters behind me, hippos started their familiar nightly snorting sounds. We are now 4 minutes before totality.
15:02 - I hear the roar of a lion, also coming from near the river. Was that far enough, away from me to keep my attention focused on totality? Interesting but panicky...
15:05 - The last beams of solar light form a magnificent chain of Baily's beads and finally a diamond ring that lasts for several seconds. I start now my photographic program at a shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second with the 28 mm 2.8 wide angle lens and a working diaphragm of 5.6. I am using Fuji Sensia slide film of 100 ASA. After the diamond ring, I move the shutter speed to 1/8 of a second and I take now shots by doubling the shutter speed each time up to a maximum of 15 seconds. Then I go down again to 1/8 of a second.
In the middle of totality I get a shock: 2 doves began to fly up from the ilala trees right in front of me with loud flapping wings. The hippos keep snorting, one more lion roar! The fish eagle cries. After my photographic session, I have enough time left for watching with the binoculars, enjoying the corona and the prominences. The big prominent prominence at the top right of the sun (around 2 o'clock) is clearly visible with the naked eye. To the left side of the solar disk there are several (I count 4) smaller prominences that are quite symmetrically distributed along the left limb of the moon (from 7 to 11 o'clock). They popped out from behind the lunar disk as the moon is shifting over the sun. The corona is very symmetric as expected for a solar maximum with long streamers. The horizon turns orange and the sky into a dark, dirty blue. I find it quite dark and cannot read the LCD readings on my camera. On the other hand I don't see many stars. They must probably be hidden behind the palm trees. Needless to say that it is now much cooler than sometime before totality, however I did not notice any wind at all.
15:09 - Through my binos, sadly, I could see the southern edge of the lunar disk becoming brighter, announcing the end of totality. I move away the binos and take some more shots of the final diamond ring at a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second. The diamond ring lasts again for several seconds. So fast this eclipse was over! While I am still admiring the dark sky in the eastwards direction, a hamerkop is flying over. The snorting of the hippos appears to decline. One last lion roar.
After this episode, I collected my camera and tripod and return very satisfied to join the group. Time to celebrate with a glass of champagne. Everybody is very excited and relating his own personal experience. Our local guide is still looking for the lion from the top of the Unimog but failed to sight it.
Once again, it was a really fantastic spectacle, and especially, combined with this unique wilderness experience making this an outstanding eclipse!!! Short and sweet memories...very contented....the feeling is beyond description.
Unique enough to come back to Africa next year? or will it be Australia?
We still have to finalize our next site for 04 December, 2002... till then.......
Last revised: 2008 Jan 28