Steve Hyslop is not an Eclipse Chaser. He's not even an amateur astronomer. But something told this South Africa "man in the street" that the total eclipse of June 21st was something not to be missed. Steve's refreshing, down-to-earth eclipse narrative captures all the excitment, awe and wonder of seeing his first eclipse. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did!
June 21st 2001: the shortest day for us here in the southern hemisphere; the day with the longest memories. For those of you who have seen a total solar eclipse you'll know what I mean.
I had known for a long time that it was coming to this part of the world, that it was supposed to be quite spectacular and that it would be a bit of a schlep to get to a place to see it properly. That meant going up to Zambia or Zimbabwe or, if you're brave enough, Angola. Zambia seemed to be about right. I did some searching around and found out that there were some tours going up to Lusaka (capital of Zambia) on the day. But, at US$650 per head for the day I was a bit reluctant. I hesitated. For weeks.
But, after some negotiation with the guy organizing the tour I found I could get the deal for about half price. Ok, it was the day before, and I suppose he'd already "closed the bookings" and didn't have much to lose by letting me join at the last minute. So, that's what I did. And being a man of semi-leisure (hey, I've got to take advantage of the situation) I could do it. And the other man of semi-leisure, Paul Spies, joined me - it took a bit of persuasion to get him to abandon a couple of meetings but, as he would admit now, it was all worth it.
So, we arrive at the airport on Thurs morning armed only with a chequebook, a passport and some forex. That's all we needed. We pay our fare and join the other bright-eyed folk milling around with their tripods and cameras. In this respect we were grossly under-prepared. I'd just grabbed my dad's camera on the way to the airport and didn't even know what film to use - I used the one already inside.
Then we figure what we really need is some kind of filter or visor to check out the sun. All sorts of misinformation was floating about as to when and how you could look at the sun during its various stages of eclipse. We searched high and low in the airport duty free section for some - we thought they'd be included in the day's newspaper for some reason. Not even the local sunglasses shop could help us out. So, we decided to deal with the situation by joining part of the rest of the gang and having a quiet coffee while we figured something out. The table next door to us was occupied by a quiet couple who piped up very usefully and informed us that they were from the SA Astronomical Society and had some visors which we could buy for R2 each. We duly bought and sat around like true Jo'burgers discussing how mad these people were to sell these things for so little. So, I suggested that the correct thing to do is to go to them and buy them all for R2 each (they had about 40 of them) and take them with us and sell them closer to the time when the market value was bound to soar. Being the thinker and not the doer I just threw this idea out on to the table. One of the others, Mark, being the doer took it up. He duly bought them all. As he announced after his first sale (three minutes later): "guys, we've just broken even". Oh, one can never keep a good businessman down!
Anyway, I digress somewhat. But it is quite important to set the scene somewhat. The selection of characters on our little day trip to Lusaka was what made it so special. We've already met the die-hard entrepreneurs and the do-good scientists. We were also joined by hairy journalists with satellite phones (we were going into deepest-darkest Africa remember), Germans (there are always Germans, no matter where you go - the more exotic, the more there are), and nutty enthusiasts with lots of stuff. We also passed a couple of smiling Nigerians carrying large teddy bears going the other way. I wonder what they were up to.
So, we board our chartered 727 and head off to Lusaka. The plan was to arrive there, taxi off to a far corner, set up our camp and get stuck into some serious nature viewing - albeit with beer in one hand and visor in the other. And thus it came to be.
Even though we were to just spend the day at Lusaka airport we had to go through passport control and customs and pay things here and there. This is Africa, it's important to spread the wealth voluntarily. So, some locals at the airport set up a couple of dusty old tables in the corner somewhere, straightened their ties and inspected our documents and money. They stamped their way through a selection of passports, collected some cash and then we passed through customs - which was a door to the outside of the hangar. Here was a first encounter with the star (ahem) of the day - our dear Sun. It was bloody hot, dry and crispened your skin on impact. Being multi-generational African Europeans we responded well with a nice distribution of melanin - that is, we got a tan.
Then we ambled across to another semi-useful building a few hundred meters away where some shade, crates of beers and a lamb idly turning above a hot fire awaited our arrival. We settled in.
By this time it was about 12h00. The Totality (i.e. the time when the moon would totally cover the sun and all the action would occur) was supposed to be at 15h11. So we had some time to fatten our stomachs and fraternise with the mob. The mob being our motley collection of enthusiasts of various persuasions. Some guys had quite a bit of stuff that they started assembling on the tarmac (we were basically in some corner of the airport away from the main airport-type action - like big jets thundering along).
I became an instant expert on everything to do with Solar Eclipses. In fact, in true form, I'd read a boatload about it before hand, and so I could talk the same language as these guys. Bit of background to Solar Eclipses. They're not too rare. You get them every couple of years of so. But, they're often not in very accessible places - like in the middle of the ocean, are difficult to get to, or don't last very long. There's also a lot of ignorance of their existence. So, generally most human beings in their time on the planet never see one. You also get things called Annular Solar Eclipses. These occur because the moon actually varies in distance from the sun and that even though the moon passes exactly in front of the sun in this instance, it's too far from the earth at the time and it doesn't block out the sun totally. These are not as good as Total Solar Eclipses. We were in for the real thing.
I also learned (after the fact) that partial eclipses are not a fraction as good as a total.
There were guys there who were avid astronomers and had never seen one. They were shaking with anticipation. There was one guy who'd read about the 2001 eclipse 20 years ago when he was a boy. He'd been looking forward to it ever since - and here he was. The journalists were starting to write down what they were going to say when they crossed live to their radio stations. They'd never seen it before either. I wonder what they wrote down before hand? There were some non-scientists who'd come along for the ride, for interest. That was me. But, I told the others in my class that at 14h30 some aliens were going to land and offer to take us away and save us from what was going to happen. They bought into it. Maybe they were just humouring me, thinking "here's one of those nutcases". You need nutcases at things like this though.
But, the best character was this guy from New York (I think his name was John Beatty). He apparently had seen 20 of these things before and was a complete nut for them. He was great to have around. He was nice and eccentric and attracted a lot of laughs that didn't seem to bother him. With minutes to go he was darting around amongst us telling us to get ready, running down the tarmac to tell a light aircraft to switch off and generally drumming up a lot of spirit. His best comment, shortly before totality was "In 1 minute I'm going to shout '10 minutes' !! ". That tweaked my interest for about 10 minutes as I mulled over that comment.
But, let's go back in time. At about 13h45 the moon started covering the sun. It's amazing that at any point before that there's no way at all that you can see the moon close to the sun - the sun's too bright. You just suddenly see this little chunk eating its way out of the sun. You have to use visors to watch it at this point - you also need to cover your telescopes and cameras with the right kind of filter.
We knew we had until 15h11 before the real action (we were not too sure what that was though) and so we had about an hour and half to keep talking shit, having a few beers and some lamb. Every now and then we'd take a peek at the sun to see how it was doing - and then peek at the lamb to see how it was going. It's very exciting knowing that it's heading straight for totality (the sun that is) and that it's just a matter of time before the real show starts.
When it gets to about 60% cover you can sense the difference in the general light of the environment. It's as if you've got some light sunglasses on. It starts to get a little cooler - which was quite a relief. In fact thinking about it now reminds me that the light was quite similar to when you get a nice southern African veld fire that filters out the sun.
As it covers more and more the light keeps dipping, but not as much as I thought. And in fact looking at the sun with more and more cover by the moon starts to get less and less interesting - there's less to see. Pretty soon there's just a slither of sun sticking out the one side. Without the visors the sun is still too bright to look at directly, but you can kind of sense that it's quite diminished - if you kind of look at it out of the corner of your eye, and just glance in its direction and can kind of see that it's just a crescent shape.
But, it's when the Totality occurs that it is at its most amazing. Where we were on the path of the eclipse we were expecting Totality of about 3mins40 - it varies along the path.
It came exactly on time. That's part of the amazement - the clockwork-like precision of the interaction between the earth, moon and Sun.
Up to 99% cover it's still pretty light. You still cannot look directly at the sun. As it hits 100% the character of your environment changes instantly. Darkness falls like a cloak over the world. Where the bright sun was of 1 second ago you're left with this other-worldly disc of a ring of fire hanging in the sky. The inner disk is pitch black. It's the darkest thing in the sky. It's like a black hole into another universe. The sun's corona licks out around this disk and illuminates the sky around it a little. It's pretty dark. It's not like night. It's like pre-dawn. All around the horizon is what looks like an impending sunrise. You have a 360-degree glow on the horizon. The sky is dark purple. You can see some stars. Very close to the eclipse was a single bright star - it was Jupiter (we were told). Fantastic!
It's the most amazing experience. As the lights get turned off and this fiery eye stares at you from the heavens groups of people let out a sound or fear or amazement or joy. It pulls out these emotions in you. You can see quite clearly how an eclipse can reduce someone to tears, to sink to their knees in fear or raise their arms in ecstasy. It suspends your existence for those long minutes. You don't feel like you're on this planet. You don't know where you are. The only touch with your reality is the people around you. You feel simultaneously very miniscule and all powerful. You are reminded of your utter insignificance in this event. You are not responsible for it. No human being is. It continues over millions of years without us. No politician or movie director can have a say in it. We can just place ourselves in its path and observe. Your humanity is affirmed because unlike other animals on the planet you know what it is. It still affects you though. Despite all your learning and preparation it touches your inner being. You feel your feet sink into the sand. A cold wind blows.
Then a flash of light bursts out from the side as the moon keeps on its ancient path and lets the sun regain its domination. You cannot look at it again. You have to avert your stare. The world brightens up instantly. The crickets die down again. They're affected as much as we are. They just don't know why. In fact, nor do we really know why it affects us.
Within minutes you find yourself standing on a disused section of tarmac at Lusaka International Airport on an ordinary June day in Africa. We stand around with nothing to say. We can't really believe that what we saw was really part of the day, was part of nature. The sun's back up there burning our eyes, warming our skins. Nothing has happened, but we're all deeply moved.
Within half an hour we're back on the plane, heading back to Jo'burg.
All I can say is that as a human being on this planet you must do yourself one favour. Next time there's a Total Solar Eclipse in your vicinity, drop your daily existence, spend your savings and go. You will not regret it. There was not one person on that plane going back to Jo'burg who was not affected by what they saw. The unemotional scientists were reduced to tears. The journalists were quiet.
Hope that was as good for you as it was for me!
Last revised: 2008 Jan 28