The Great Escape

How a gang of nine German and Austrian eclipse chasers managed to get a clear view of South Africa's total eclipse of the Sun on Dec. 4, 2002 - by speeding away from the clouds

by Daniel Fischer

The eclipse as seen from the "Baobab site", west of Messina;
shot with a 500 mm and a 24 mm lens by the author.
A digital wide angle image by Michael Karrer is here.

Northern Limpopo Province, the setting of the eclipse
(the sunset was shot the evening before the event; few clouds in sight ...)

The Large Magellanic Cloud as seen with 50 mm from Loskopdam

The Magellanic Clouds over our vehicle at Loskopdam (24 mm)

Eta Car and the Cross rising over Marakele National Park (50 mm)

Cartoon from Beeld of Dec. 5. The monkey says: "All this waste for a minute of darkness!" (Thanks to Peter Tiedt for the precise translation!)

Typical eclipse coverage, from The Citizen and the Daily Sun of Dec. 5

What the eclipse was really all about ... (from The Star of Dec. 7)

Typical preview articles in the Daily Sun of Dec. 4 and the Palabora Hoedspruit Herald of Nov. 29 and an illustration in ReadRight, a supplement of the Sunday Times of Nov. 24. It carries a disclaimer, in tiny font (1 mm!): »The Department of Science and Technology and the Foundation for Education, Science and Technology disclaim any liability for any loss or injury howsoever incurred from viewing the solar eclipse.«

They had seen it coming, for days already. It had been building up on a special web page by the Weather Service, and it had been reported in the papers. »Weather warning for eclipse day,« the Saturday Star had blurted on November 30: »The South African Weather Service is forecasting fine weather for the Limpopo Lowveld on December 3, but an ominous 'partly cloudy becoming cloudy' on December 4, the day of the eclipse.« And this day was now dawning, over those low-lying areas in the extreme Northeast of South Africa, along the Zimbabwean border and between Botswana and Mocambique. Would the weather have held ...?

The days before had been sunny and hot indeed, quite surprising for the growing crowd of eclipse chasers that was converging here, expecting to encounter the rainy season. And the night skies on the eve of the eclipse had been exceptionally clear, with the duo of Magellanic clouds culminating on the black canvas above the lowveld. But when dawn came to the Limpopo province (formerly known as the Northern Province and even earlier being part of Transvaal) at 4:30 a.m., the picture had changed: The sky was now a mix of blue patches and cloud layers moving in different directions but generally coming in from the East. Just as they had predicted: There was a system about to sweep over our base camp at the Nwanedi Resort (in the National Park of the same name), east of Tshisipe, and it was evident that plans C, D and E would have to be abandoned.

»Plan A« had been, for years, to travel to Australia for this eclipse because the prospects of a rainy season seemed to make Southern Africa the far worse choise for a December event. That assessment had changed in the minds of many after a) the marvellous experience of the June 2001 eclipse in Zambia (that almost cried out for an encore in this thrilling part of our planet) and b) the »official« climate analysis which, in September 2001, gave Australia a surprisingly modest edge over certain regions in Southern Africa. Here the eclipse would also be longer (up to 1 minute and 30 seconds) than in Oz and much higher in the sky, getting there would take less time, and while the African section of the track of totality would fall onto a region rich in touristy sights, the Aussie part would meet a particularly remote part of that country.

»Plan B« in our minds had then centered on Zimbabwe which we had encountered (briefly) in 2001 as a particularly friendly and attractive country. Alas, the disputed elections in early 2002 would not bring stability but lead to a rapid deterioration of the social and economic situation there, finally crowning South Africa as the clear leader (with Botswana somehow falling thru our cracks). Here then the northern section of the Kruger National Park might have been a prime location, but it had soon become clear that others might have the same idea: access would be limited, it was said, e.g. on an official park web page, and special camps would be available only at high prices. (Much later we would learn that in fact many vancancies were left at the regular low rates in the existing camps - apparently some miscalculation.)

Thus our idea had become, before setting out on the journey, to search for suitable observing spots where the center line of the eclipse would intersect roads, west of the park. And so the plans C, D and E were born, during an extensive scouting trip the crew of vehicle two (including the author) undertook on December 2 when the cloudless skies still seemed to say that only geometry counted and the weather would not be a decisive factor. Ours was the 2nd of 3 Toyota Hilux 4x4 vehicles with roof tents that were crusing around South Africa independently at that time: One was on what would become a 6500-km 3-week journey all the way from Cape Town via a previously unvisited confluence point to the eclipse zone and back to Jo'burg, ours was on a 3500-km 2-week trip all over the the Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces, and the third one was here only for one week. All in all we would be nine, mostly veterans of the 2001 Zambian trip - and all three vehicles were supposed to meet near the town Musina (formerly known as Messina) later on Dec. 2nd.

Before that, however, us 2-weekers went to all the suitable observing spots, armed with a GPS receiver and the only (moderately) detailled road map available that had geographic coordinates on it. The preceding week had been devoted to taking in as many of the highlights of South Africa's Northeast as possible, with the Loskop Dam, the Blyde River Canyon and its waterfalls, the Echo Caves, the middle section of the Kruger National Park, the Magoebaskloof and the Modjadji region where the country really began to »feel like Africa.« Here the famous »Rain Queen« used to reside, but she - as well as her daughter - had died just after the 2001 eclipse, leaving this position vacant for the time being. The narrow path of totality had finally been entered just North of Thohoyandou, and crossing the scenic Soutpansberg we had finally ended up in the Nwanedi National Park.

The Nwanedi Resort (now belonging to the Aventura chain and still undergoing frantic upgrade work just days before the eclipse) would prove to be a convenient logistical center for our expedition. Finding vacant campgrounds had been no problem whatsoever, given that November is a particularly slow season with the South Africans (where the big holidays start only in December) and foreigners alike. Rarely did we have to pay more than 100 rand (roughly 11 euros or dollars at that time) for one night. But in the remote - even by South African standards - eclipse zone such places are a rarity, and we were quite happy when we managed to stay here for three nights in a row (and that without any reservation). Remarkably there had been no rate hike at all because of the eclipse, and you could still get your camp site for 50 rand per car, plus 20 rand per person.

The location was beautiful (except for the mosquitos, that is), albeit a bit inconvenient in astronomical terms as the Resort is surrounded by mountains and a major dam. Still observing the eclipse would have been possible from here, geometry-wise, despite the early hour - staying right here would have been Plan C. Totality would come at 8:19 local time, but with the Sun already over 40 degrees up, well clear of all the mountains. Apparently we weren't the only ones who had noticed that as the camp grounds filled up quickly and other eclipse activities unfolded in the area. The province government seemed to have defined some spots around the Resort as official viewing sites for dignitaries, a TV helicopter made some low overflights, and reporters for South Africa's TV ended up in the Resort's office (when they noticed that their mobile phones wouldn't work here).

Those reporters would also hijack our group (miraculously all three Toyotas would indeed reach the predetermined meeting point, albeit in the nick of time) for impromptu interviews - which were used indeed for the main evening news on eclipse eve. And while we couldn't watch those (did anyone videotape the SABC news on Dec. 3???), several times people would approach us later, recalling at least our faces. Based on the scouting trip and revisits of some of the sites most in the group were in favor of observing the eclipse from a rocky side road forking off just where a fine gravel and sand road was intersected by the center line not far from the Resort and halfway between two small villages. Travelling there (»Plan D«) would take less than 45 minutes, and one would be surrounded by many of the fascinating baobab trees that abound in this part of Limpopo province (and the allegedly thickest specimen in the world was only a few km away). Here we would have gotten some 1 minute 25 seconds of totality.

Finally, a plan E (not considered seriously by us at that point) would have involved the only tarred road crossed by the center line in this area, the R 525. It was obvious that the pretty barren R 525/center line intersection would become mighty crowded on eclipse day, as there were at least two observing camps being set up there, including a very officially looking one for local politicians. It had even a Stonehenge-like monument for the eclipse to be unveiled which we could inspect in the still pre-veiled state. Apart from the Nwanedi area all land seems to be in private hands and is completey fenced in, so there were basically no other choices when you wanted to be on the center line (there was a third road huddling the Zim border which we checked, but it would take long to reach and there would be no good place to set up any instruments).

So far for the planning in the days before - and now what? Had Peter Hers been right all along who had advised to stay away from the mountains and to go as close to the Limpopo river (i.e. the border with Zimbabwe) as possible, based on the weather situation exactly 12 months earlier? Leaving the Nwanedi Resort seemed the obvious choice now, with the rapidly changing but obviously increasing cloudiness, and at 5:30 our convoy got moving - in a direction away from the center line crossings. The only hope was to escape from the cloud system by heading as far west as possible while still staying inside the zone of totality. Indeed the situation seemed to improve as we left the mountains of Nwanedi and headed into the lowveld and west on the R 525 - while a lot more cars were now sitting either next to the road or were in fact heading in the opposite direction, i.e. towards the clouds. The lure of the center line seemed to be stronger ...

In Tshipise we turned north onto the R 508, straight into Musina and then parallel to the Zim border on the R 572 - the cloud front was now well behind us but still threatening on the low Eastern horizon. Fortunately there was no traffic congestion (yet?) in or around Musina, and the R 572 was pretty empty. But the farther west you went, the more you approached the southern limit of the zone of totality: How far should we go to stay as far ahead of the clouds as possible and still get enough totality time? After perphaps 10 km on the big road there split off another, smaller gravel road going north to no apparent destination. It was here that the group deciced to split as well: Those with equatorial mounts needed time to set up and stayed just next to R 572 while the others headed into that mysterious side road. By then the first partial phase had long begun, and totality would be upon us in less than one hour.

The mystery road continued for a while, then made a sharp turn towards the west, and there was a gate, closed but not locked. In Africa this usually means that you can enter here, and that we did (without noticing a sign that granted access only to »licensed prospectors« - we still don't know for sure what was going on here). The gravel road continued amongst some baobab trees, and suddenly it was crystal-clear what we had to do: find a particularly beautiful one as a foreground for wide- angle shots of the eclipse. Just as we approached a particularly big specimen there was another path going away from the main road that would bring us to a perfect spot with respect to the tree. The quest was over. Now if only the weather would hold: The massive clouds had't followed us and still hang around only low in the East. The only threat were occasional isolated cumulus clouds approaching the Sun on an otherwise perfectly blue sky.

When the tripods were set up in strategic positions around the baobab, it was less than ½ hour to go until totality. The overall light level was already reduced, and soon the atmosphere would turn eerie as the Sun shrank to a smaller and smaller crescent. Sometimes it was covered by one of the cumulus cloud packets, and the crescent could be seen with the unshielded eye. The tension rose by the minute. We had solidly outrun the big clouds - a feat achieved for the first time in my 19-year eclipse chasing carreer, I may add - but those cumuli had no intention to dissolve, despite the sinking air temperature. When the umbra of the Moon would finally engulf us, the Sun sat just at the edge of such a cloud: a spectacular chain of Baily's Beads and the chromosphere were well seen, as was the corona (still surprisingly maximum-like).

But a few seconds later, the show disappeared behind the cloud (causing one observer to swear so loudly that this acoustic beacon will serve us well to time-synchronize the 5 video cameras running simultaneously :-), only to re-emerge a nail-biting 20 seconds or so later. Normally that would have been no big deal, bit with less than 1 ½ minutes of totality these seconds felt very long. Then the cloud became transparent again and moved off, and the corona could be seen in all its unspolit glory, hovering marvellously above our imposing baobab. And still another few seconds later the photosphere began to reappear behind the Moon, bringing totality to a close. Once again a long arc of Baily's Beads developped, and shortly thereafter another cumulus covered the Sun again. And some half hour later the big cloud field finally reached our site.

We had just made it: Had the eclipse taken place half an hour later - or had we not gone that far west - we would in all likelyhood have lost totality (as have so many who stayed behind in the Nwanedi area or in the Kruger Park, as we would soon learn). The subgroup with the equatorial mounts had even less cloud interruption that the baobapists and could add valuable high-resolution video and photographic records to our more scenic impressions. On the way back to Musina and further down the highway N1 finally a traffic jam materialized, with many eclipse afficionados leaving the eclipse zone towards the south simultaneously. The shape of the former was now a purely mathematical memory, but thanks to hundreds of new road signs pointing (more or less correctly) towards the "Eclipse Viewing Zone" from even hundreds of kilometers away the memory will linger for a while.

On eclipse day we made it to Polokwane (formerly known as Pietersburg), a big town half way between Musina and Pretoria - and apparently many other eclipse fans had come just as far as all but one hotel were fully booked. The one hotel that could still take us was a pretty luxurios one, connected to a major casino (and still the rate was just 20$ p.p.). We had to stay in a real hotel that one night (in all the others the roof tents had served us well): For one we wanted to watch our half-dozen videos on a decent TV set - and we were eager to see what the South African TV had made out of the eclipse. It was not even the first item on most of the evening news, but eventually we got to see the eclipse story on SABC three times, in different editing and with commentary in Afrikaans, Zulu and finally also English.

There were a wild mix of good and bad pictures of the eclipse itself, both from the Musina area (where a gap in the clouds had given a great crowd on one of the eclipse festivals there a fine view of totality) and Australia, where at least some sites had been lucky, too - and sound bites from many in South Africa who had been clouded out but were still happy about the rare event. On the next morning, only the two leading broadsheet newspapers (Beeld and The Star) put large pictures of the eclipse on their front pages (one from the Musina area, the other from Oz, with spectators in front of the very low corona), while the tabloids (The Citizen, Sowetan and Daily Sun) had other leaders and devoted less than one page to the event - this in sharp contrast to past eclipses in Latin America where esp. the tabloids couldn't get enough out of such a celestial spectacle.

The newspaper coverage leading up to the event had also been somewhat strange: While there were the usual previews and general facts with fancy color graphics and (mostly reasonable) safety advisories, many longer stories dealt with superstitions and esoteric interpretations of the eclipse - which some authors seemed to take dead serious. The Star, for example, on Nov. 30 went into deep astrological thoughts: »Wednesday morning's eclipse is a southern node eclipse. That makes it a Dragon's Tail eclipse. For astrologers this is a warning bell.« And since the eclipse would touch the same region of Africa as the last one just 1 ½ years earlier, »I see this as a powerful focus of cosmic energy on these countries« where more trouble could be brewing.

Strangely enough the article then advised readers to go to the Jo'burg Planetarium and buy a good astronomy book on the eclipse. The Sowetan on Dec. 1 saw things quite differently, however: »A new African age is dawning,« the paper claimed, as »according to Mathole Motshekga of the Kara Heritage Institute, an African intellectual powerhouse, Wednesday's eclipse is about renewal and the birth of a new age in Africa. [... W]e are moving into a female-dominated era and this female is a goddess called the Black Madonna. [... F]or the first time in history humanity will see the rise of woman power in the religious, economic and political arenas« - which would be a clear sign of hope for Southern Africa, moving beyond a century of atrocities.

Somewhat more enlightening were some articles on eclipse-related beliefs by the indigenous people of South Africa, but again no clear picture was painted. For example, the Sunday Times of Dec. 1 claimed that for the Venda - whose territory the track of totality would dominate - the eclipse (called »Mutshakavhili«) would be a bad thing, meaning that the normally kind god N'wali was angry about something and came to visit, often bringing on drought as a punishment. But according to The Star of Dec. 5 the Venda had been »very happy because our god came to visit us« - the two accounts agree, though, that the Venda believe one is not to watch an eclipse because then one would be hit by lightning and burn to ashes. Instead one should bow one's head in respect to N'wali.

Fortunately many South Africans as well as foreign visitors had done exactly the opposite and come in droves to the northern Limpopo area, usually off the beaten track - a few ten thousands overall, it seems. Even for South African journalists the trek north could be a strange experience: »And there are baobs,« Trish Murphy marvelled in The Citizen of Dec. 7 from the Musina area, »thousands of them standing head and shoulders above the other vegetation, their shiny, coppery bark catching the sunlight. The look like an alien army that has arrived from outer space and come to an uncertain halt, lost and bewildered.« The Saturday Star of Dec. 7 saw things more prosaic: »The economy of Limpopo received a big boost this week when thousands of local and foreign visitors converged on the the province [...]

The chairperson of the Limpopo Tourism and Parks board Edgar Mushwana, said the province had invested just over R6-million [about 650'000 dollars or euros] into the marketing of the eclipse event but generated more than R140-million [15 million dollars/euros] in revenue. [...] 'The most satisfying feeling was that people left with a positive message. There were no accidents reported. The feeling of security was very high. That is why most of them promised to come back,' he said.« The Limpopo government now felt that the eclipse had put this province firmly on the map. Eclipse-wise, however, the story quoted a local astronomy professor, nearly all of South Africa had been clouded out and only a small area west of Musina - our area - was lucky.

With that in mind our expedition quickly approached its conclusion: Other sights visited on the way back to Jo'burg included the spectacularly rugged Marakele National Park, the delicious hot springs of Warmbaths and the Tswaing meteorite crater, a brother of Arizona's Barringer Crater but full of water and densely vegetated. Some eclipse celebrities were encountered enroute, e.g. the Poitevins (lucky a bit south of Musina), the Winters (unlucky in the Kruger Park) and Barrie Jones of UK's Open University who had experienced completely cloud-free conditions in Botswana. Would have been a nice destination, too - or one for the future. And maybe one can even go to South Africa without an eclipse: The next one will take place there only in 2030 ...

First version drafted Dec. 11-12, first pictures added Dec. 14, 2002. Still more pictures taken by our group (as well as a pro- and an epilogue) will be added later. Another report from this trip is here (in German) and more pictures are here (at the bottom) and here. Lots more links can be found in the header of the Cosmic Mirror # 246