Missing the Eclipse
Yesterday, my cousin sent me a little reminder about the Solar Eclipse coming up this Friday. From her home in Scotland, she will have a good view of the partial eclipse, and she gently teased me about not having any way to see it myself from down here in Africa. While I am disappointed at missing out, I’m not suffering too much because I’ve had much worse experiences that have pretty much hardened me against anything eclipse related.
Back in 2002, there was great excitement about an eclipse whose path of totality (that long narrow region where the umbral shadow of the Moon passes, in which viewers get the full experience of a vanishing Sun, visible stars, and raised hairs on the backs of their necks) would be passing through South Africa. I was a single guy with limited funds, and my passion for astronomy was lower than at any other stage of my life, so while I daydreamed about making the trip, I wasn’t particularly excited. Until, that is, my brother told me that one of his work colleagues was organising an eclipse trip and needed one more person to share the fuel costs. She and her Dad were both very excited to make the journey and had family up North who could accommodate us, and she’d just bought a new car which we could drive in comfort. Not only that, but they had made contact with a group of astronomy students from the University of Cape Town, who had arranged access to a farm where they could camp out and watch the eclipse.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime. All I had to do was pack a few changes of clothes, pay my share of the fuel and take a few shifts behind the wheel, and I would get to see the Sun vanish behind the Moon with my own two eyes. So I put in leave at work, and met up with my new eclipse buddies. These people were obviously seasoned travellers: they were well stocked with low-mess snacks, and a wide range of audiobooks ranging from romance novels to spy thrillers. The back seat was packed with comfortable pillows and blankets, so that at any time, one of us could sleep or relax, one could drive, and one could enjoy the sites and make conversation.
It was a long drive. We started in Pietermaritzburg, heading inland towards Johannesburg. From there, we headed north-east, eventually arriving at our first stop: a game lodge run by a relative of my companion’s, and his wife. The lodge supported two businesses: paying guests could enjoy a break away from the city, and see the animals living on the property, while the animals themselves were bred for sale to reserves and private game farms. We took a walk into the bush to stretch the travel cramps out from our legs, and when we turned to return to the lodge were surprised by a herd of Kudu which had appeared behind us. They were huge, magnificent beasts, standing almost as tall as horses with long horns curled into long helical points. And then, having noticed our scrutiny, they fled in a series of impossibly high, graceful leaps.
We had dinner, and shared drinks with our hosts on the elevated deck extending from the roof of the lodge. While up there, they pointed out the live capture system they had built to collect the animals for transport with as little stress as possible: large feeders to attract a herd, at the centre of a vast suspended ring, from which hung a curtain of tarpaulins. When the animals gathered around the feeding trough, the curtains were closed around them, and then gradually closed in, causing the animals to gradually funnel towards the one remaining exit, up a ramp, and into the back of a truck. Quite ingenious.
The next morning, we were on the phone with the university group to coordinate our movements. We needed to meet with them so that they could lead us to our final destination, but we were coming from different directions and were both travelling on unfamiliar roads. After several hours, shortly after I took the wheel, we realised that we needed to catch up a lot of distance if we were to have any hope of catching up, so I put my foot down and carried us along at a good speed for several hours. Looking back, it’s strange that nobody had anything to say about the risk of driving so fast above the speed limit, or the wear and tear I was putting on her new car, but maybe they were grateful that I was eating up the kilometers so quickly and bringing us closer to the other group.
We eventually found the university group, and arrived at the farm. We were met by several extremely warm and friendly people (I never did work out what their relationship was, or who owned the property), who led us to a field where we set up our tents and settled in for the evening. I don’t remember a great deal of what we did that night, except that the ground was littered with vicious thorns that embedded themselves firmly into the soles of our shoes, that there were at least fifty people there, and that me and my travelling group opted to lay out our sleeping bags on the ground outside our tents and sleep beneath the stars.
The next morning, Eclipse Day, we were addressed by our hosts. The eclipse was not due to start till the afternoon, so they had arranged a tour of the local sights for us, which would end with us at a perfect viewing spot. This came as something of a relief since we knew we had camped tens of kilometers outside of the path of totality and would need to move in order to see the actual eclipse. The tour began with a visit to a nearby tea plantation. It was interesting, and educational. We saw steep hills dotted with gnarled, woody, ancient tea plants, tended by teams of old women with gnarled, knotty calf muscles. Each bore a huge basket made from heavy tarpaulins on a frame, which she filled with leaves plucked by hand from each plant. The baskets were tipped into trailers behind tractors, the trailers were emptied onto long conveyor belts which warmed and dried the leaves, then ground them, then sorted them by the size of the flakes. Were were given a tea tasting, and introduced to the idea of teas from different plantations around the world being blended to make the distinctive flavours of different tea brands.
Our hosts seemed a little irritated by our general lack of enthusiasm, but they should have realised that we were there for the eclipse, not the tea tour. So they took us to a beauty spot by a river, a little oasis of green lawns and splashing streams where we lunched before beginning the final trip to the eclipse viewing spot. It was while on the final drive that people began speaking the worries that had been nagging at them all morning. First, the light cloud had been steadily thickening and it was now fully overcast. We could only hope that it would clear again within the next half hour. And second, at the rate we were travelling on the rugged, rocky trail, nobody could see how we were going to make it to the path of totality in time.
But we finally arrived. The location was breathtaking: We were in another green area, at the top of a steep hill looking over a valley marked with sheer rock faces, a lake, fields of grass and stands of trees. It was spoiled only by being out of the path of totality – according to our charts, that location would achieve no more than 99.5% totality. In retrospect, our hosts were not astronomers, and probably thought “Well it’s only a half percent off – that’s basically the whole thing, they’ll thank us for giving them something interesting to look at”. But at the time, we were quite livid. I overheard more than one muttered threat to throw our hosts off the cliff and into the lake below…
In the end, what saved our hosts from ever really knowing how badly they had botched the trip was the cloud cover. Even if we had been in the right place, we would have seen nothing. And without any chance of seeing the solar disc vanish, with no hope of seeing the Sun’s corona shine its magical tendrils across the sky, we were able to experience the side-effects of the sudden darkness. Throughout the day, the sunlight had steadily weakened as the Moon moved into position, blocking out more and more of the Sun’s radiance. And as the final moments approached, it began to darken perceptibly, until we felt a very real sensation of having somebody turning the dial on a dimmer switch – it darkened that rapidly. As the light faded, all the birds stopped their songs, and a hush fell over the world. And as the final almost-complete darkness swept over us, a distant keening and wailing floated up from the valley: a village of uneducated farmers, still living the traditional tribal lifestyle they’d had before the first settlers arrived, did not know about eclipses and were frightened by the fall of night at midday. At least, that is the explanation offered by our hosts (along with stories of human sacrifice in superstitious rituals), and I’m not sure how much of all this was truth, and how much was a story concocted for the tourists.
So we sat in darkness for a few seconds, not daring to move or speak in case we tripped over something, and then the light returned as quickly as it had gone, and with even less fuss. The wails and cries stopped, the birds began singing, the world returned to life. And our convoy turned around and headed back to the farm, feeling both elated at the mysterious experience of the sudden looming darkness, and angry at having missed the real show.
The journey home felt longer than the trip outwards, and we took a different route, spending our third night at a different relative’s home. We bumped into many other eclipse pilgrims who had travelled a little further, into the Kruger National Park, or even across the border, and all had been well inside the path of totality. Some had also been clouded out and experienced only the spooky darkness, others had been lucky enough to have patchy skies and seen the ring of fire around the pitch black disk of the Moon. We were jealous, of course, but tried to be generous in spirit. It was the luck of the dice, after all, and it made no sense to resent people for simply being lucky enough to have a gap in the clouds.
I’d forgotten all of this until my cousin stirred my memory with her comments. So thank you, Monica, for bringing it back to me. It was disappointing, it was exhausting, but I never regretted the journey, and I’ll always be one of the few people who know what it feels like when mid-day turns into night.
One more thing: the next eclipse visible in totality over South Africa occurs on 25 November, 2030. And this time, I WILL get it right!