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Eclipse over South Africa

Ernie Piini


Want to make a million dollars and more? Design a gadget that will filter away clouds at an eclipse and I'll mount it in front of my telescope, camera, and eye glasses; because once my heavy equipment is setup and aligned to the north/south pole I can't make a run for clearer skies or fly above the clouds. Sometimes clouds are impossible to avoid.

Such was the case at our site 50 km east of the city of Messina, Republic of South Africa. Our centerline coordinates were: Latitude 22 deg. 27 min. South; Longitude 30 deg., 27.5 min. East, as measured by my global positioning system (GPS).

For this eclipse I joined Jen Winter's Astronomical Tours, a 27 person expedition of nine RVs caravaning around northern South Africa. Our RV was occupied by eclipse chasers Dr. Jacques Guertin from Newark, CA; Sandra Stewart from Berkeley, CA; and me. We learned how to drive on the wrong side of the road with no accidents!

We arrived at the selected site in the afternoon around 4 p.m. and aligned our RV's in a north-south orientation. This would give us a broadside view of the early morning eclipse.

After a delicious evening barbecue we sat outside our RV's and watched the clear skies with total enjoyment as they turned super dark, displaying those wonderful star-studded southern skies. I've seen the Magellanic Cloud many times before but this had to be the best. There were no nearby cities or towns to pollute the skies. I gazed at this down-under experience in amazement for several hours before going to bed. It looked like the eclipse, just hours away, was a sure bet for a clear sky. Instead of sleeping I remained awake thinking of those tasks I still had to do to optimize my telescope and piggyback camcorder setup. A group several miles to the south played loud Cajun-like music till about 2 a.m., entertaining me since I was not sleeping.

Dr. Guertin and I rose at 4 a.m. and began our final equipment checks. Looking outside we were highly disturbed to see a cloud front, reported to be around 14,000 ft in elevation, moving in from the west. Later, more clouds crisscrossing at a much lower level made improbable our chance of seeing a clear eclipse.

At sunrise I found a few minutes of clear skies and focused my cameras without the solar filters, saving precious moments for totality. First contact was calculated for 7:12:01 a.m. From this moment on the view of the partials was only a teaser. We took a few photographs of the partials imbedded in the clouds. Totality began at 8:18:44 and lasted 1minute and 24 seconds. We verified the timing of each contact with Dr. Guertin's audio recording. We were within one second of time! Realizing we would not see totality, I removed my Canon GL-1 camcorder from the telescope mount and recorded wide angle views of the moon's shadow and the colorful horizons.

Momentarily, we saw the corona backlighting the clouds. Another group, located near Messina, approximately 70 km to the west, saw the eclipse clearly through a break in the clouds-much like what I saw at the August 11, 1999 "Miracle Eclipse" near Munich, Germany.

I felt sorry for the disappointment of those observing a total solar eclipse for the first time. I have been fortunate to have seen many clear and remarkable eclipses in the past. I was hoping they would see their one. Don't be discouraged, there is always a next time, and the view is worth the effort.

The meteorological facts I recorded included a 4 degree Fahrenheit drop in temperature from 6 a.m. to the end of totality, a 10 percent increase in humidity from 60 to 70 percent and, as I have witnessed at other eclipses, the wind ceased during totality.

For traveling halfway around the world to this eclipse, we were rewarded with a fascinating three-day drive through Kruger National Park. We saw scores of wild animals and birds from the roadside. After four trips to Africa, I saw my first rhinos! We saw lions devouring their catch, and a river infested with crocodiles. One evening after a safari observed from an open-air bus, we were treated to another barbecue. After eating we hopped back onto the bus but it could not move uphill. Did we eat that much? We had to walk the last 1000 feet or so to the top, while under protection from the wildlife by rifle-totting guards.

We saw rugged mountain ranges and scenic views. The Mac Mac Falls were interesting but can't compare to Victoria Falls that I saw during my Zambia eclipse visit in 2001. On our pre-eclipse tour we toured Pilgrims Rest, a historic village which includes a small church moved up from Cape Town in the south. The church is now a 12-stool bar, its walls stocked with booze. An awesome view, God's Window, overlooks a colorful valley far below, extending as far as the eye can see.

I loved visiting South Africa and the Kruger National Park. I'd recommend a visit to this land to anyone.


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