a cosmological odyssey
Totality under a Solar Eclipse .... for years I have been wondering what it must be like, fuelled by many fanatical accounts. My primary interest was one of viewing the corona during the Eclipse, that being the hot solar wind that leaves the surface of the sun in an allegedly spectacular fashion. Photos indicated that it's a fine sight for hungry celestial eyes, after all I have done a fear deal of cosmological sight seeing on that fine telescope of mine. I would have gone up north to the path of totality no matter what, but fortunately there was an option to being stuck with the ranks of astro-geeks with solar gadgets galore. Or so I thought. It was thus that plans were made to attend the Solipse 2001 party, just north of Lusaka in Zambia for the 21st June 2001 Solar Eclipse.
Getting up there of course was a major obstacle. Of course the PCB 4x4 has long ago been redistributed. My situation was aggravated since a recently acquired MSc in London has left me rather broke and devoid of positive cash flow. Fortunately, one well used but seemingly reliable VW Citi Golf was made available to me by faithful and generous friends Bea & Roddy (eternal thanks!). After taking out the back seat to make room for the telescope, solar panels, associated paraphernalia, camping equipment and supplies for 10 days, there was no room for passengers. But I was not to be alone: plans were made to meet friends up there including Gerald, Cleon from Cape Town, associated appendages, and various Joziburgers.
I really would have liked to drive up through Zim, but too many unknowns and the fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time steered me the long Botswana way. My departure at 2am on a Friday morning allowed me to see the usually phrenetic highways of Gauteng devoid of their madness. I swung off the N1 at Potgieterus, where the only sign of life was car full of obnoxious drunk formerly-advantaged on an all-night bender. They were cruising the streets in a fast car, looking for a victim (with racist touts). It was only with the utmost discretion did I avoid all attention and slip off onto the dark road to the Groblers Bridge border post. Some things never change.
The reason why I wanted to avoid Botswana is that I have always had some form of intensely unpleasurable experience during travels there. With turning this into a thread of woes, I was not to be disappointed this time. The Botswana Customs man asked me if I was camping - Yes I chirpily answered, proud of being the 1st through the border at sun rise. Do I have any tinned food? Why yes, I am camping after all and did you every know a South African not to go prepared? Then he insisted to rummage. Why I asked? Tuna, did I have tuna he wanted to know. Of course, how can I go camping and not have tuna pasta on the menu. So out came the 6 pack of tuna tins which in the name of Foot & Mouth prevention was not allowed through. The fact that is was tinned in the Philippines made no impact and I was shown a grubbly 10th generation photocopied piece of paper that forbade the importation of meat and fish into Botswana. He knew he was onto something with me, as he fished out my tinned duck pate and other assorted tinned snacks - tears formed as out came the smoked mussels. He thought he had hit the jackpot with a few tins of Tuna Marine Olives, however after an extended explanation of what an Olive was, I managed to impart the understanding that these things grew on trees and had nothing to do with a fish. No, they don't have receipts. Such is the life of a cretin border official on the take. The next thing I was heading up north in the morning warmth. It was a long road ahead to the Zambia, destination the Kazungula ferry by sunset.
Francistown rolled by, the road got a bit quite and much more pleasant on the long stretch towards Nata. The random 50km speed restrictions were really irritating, popping up in the middle on nowhere, and which have to be strictly abided by since the Botswana traffic cops insist on large amounts of cash if they catch you speeding. The road was lined with golden grasses, and late autumn hues in the trees which made the unrelentingly straight roads and flat landscape endurable, even pleasurable at times. Police road blocks always put you on the spot, and I had some explaining to do that Red Bull was not alcoholic it gives you wings' I told her. Eventually explaining it was like coffee I was set free, little did she know a healthy dose of Vodka was therein. Perhaps the notion of an energy drink has not and will not touch the rural outreaches of Botswana. Heading up to the great Zambezi, there are beautiful forests and lush plains, and my timing was looking good and I excitedly checked out through an empty border post. The Zambezi was flowing strong and deep, throwing up twisting eddies that rose in relief in the late afternoon sun. Welcome to Zambia' the South Africa couple at the front of the car queue said sarcastically after telling me that they has been waiting all afternoon and only one ferry was working, and those trucks in that line arrived yesterday. Enough to make me turn tail and head via Vic Falls, Zimbabwe way. After a very expensive third party, I now understood that travelling though any border post generally entails a nett loss. Mind you, the customs guy was more of my planet and we talked astronomy, prompted by the declaration of one Meade LX200 on the Temporary Import Permit. All you need are binoculars to see the most wonderful things I exclaimed as I drew him a map to the finest of globular clusters, Omega Centauri, telling him to look for a giraffe. Ironic this message of indigenous knowledge is in Livingstone's Missionary territory I pondered as herds of buffalo were avoided in the twilight on the dash to a familiar campsite on the banks of that great river.
It was just me and the Lowveld VW Synchro club at the campsite. I could not help but remember how busy this place used to be during previous visits, although the first time I came to Vics Falls, when it was still recovering from the bush war, complete with burnt out hotels and no-go land-mined areas. Now, something else has happened to Zim after a post independence visitor boom time. There's no one here. There are no toilet seats in the ablutions, not that I really needed one but that was a vital sign of disrepair although a fire was enthusiastically made for me to enjoy a welcome hot shower. The elephants have flattened most of the trees around here. They come at night, I am told by a guard who wonders why I prefer candle light when there is a such a bright neon to be had. He has a capable-looking kattie, which he ensures me will keep the elephants away. Pity, the noise and sights of a elephant on the rampage in the middle of the night will hardly phase me, me who is so used to late night rounds of AK47 fire. And it could be quite exciting, what with a vantage point from a safe bungalo and a powerful halogen torch.
As I prepare for an early night after a quick de-pipped Olive pasta, I look up at the winter sky, the Milky way brilliantly stretches across the sky from East to West, with Scorpio dominating and the scintillating Mars the brightest object in view. With the moon heading towards the Sun, this is astronomical viewing prime time, the starshine so brilliant I would not need that torch to spot the elephants in the middle of the night after all.
Gavin Elmsey Gillespie
that's my grandfather (whom I never met)
I had planned to de-gauteng for a day by the Zambesi, by there was a party up north east with my name on a guest list. It was only 450km to Lusaka, half a day I thought as a set off across that epic bridge from which I have leapt. The border post filled up with backpacker arrivals from the overnight train from Bulawayo as I checked out, it would be a while before we met again. That Zambia road has always has a notorious reputation of disrepair, and as I drove around Livingstone looking for the Standard Bank my grandfather came out from Scotland to manage, I wondered how kind lady luck was going to be today. Mind you, I did have hindsight. Like that road to Maputo, with pot holes big enough for your car to fall into, made one think very carefully about these obstacles. It's all in the shock absorbers I now understand. They must be in good nick. That together with speed and hardy rims, one hardly feels a medium sized pot hole. But the big ones can be problem, flattening tires in the process. Been there, done that so the trick was to judge the size, put foot for the small ones and avoid the biggies. Besides a few bad stretches, the road wasn't too bad and was actually being redone (by South African contractors). But it still took a whole day, and I arrived at Chisimba, just north of Lusaka, by dusk.
At the turn off to Solipse, it was all smiles
It's very undesirable to arrive at a camp site in the dark. Especially when you find out no cars are allowed in the campsite. How the funk am I to get all my kit to home base, and if I managed to blag my way past these security guards (who seems completely unrelenting) how must I find a suitable spot in the dark? In the end, perseverance normally pays off and with strict understanding that I would serious fuck off' Nick if he was to find my car in the camping site tomorrow, I drove down the dusty road and headed into the heart of the campsite. It was populated with backpackers and travellers preparing supper by candlelight and here's a git with headlights driving around. I managed to find a vacant nook behind an infant Acacia, dumped the cargo and returned the car to it's park after feeling some measure of guilt.
The remarkable aspect about this Solipse party was that it was entirely a non-profit event, organised and staffed by volunteers. Considering the lack of resources to organise a dance party - (many called it a rave'), it's really remarkable that it happened. It was organised by a group of 21st century Internationals who did a similar thing at the Hungary Eclipse in 1999. William "fish" is american (but would call himself global or 'from earth'), charly his assistant is from england & the rest of the crew is english, spanish, german... they did not let Africa's woes deter them. They set up a web site last year, including bulletin boards for people to organise transport, and a mailing list kept us all informed of the trials and tribulations of pulling together the event. Vision & dedication are definitely the keywords here. The sound system had been hauled up from Cape Town and was a formidable Turbo Sound rig. A few buses of young Cape Town things had arrived a few days before - the bar and gate staff, all volunteers, most of whom had their off-work time already budgeted to partying.
An African ritual - the water queue
People had indeed come from all over the world. A lot of Europeans who not doubt frequent the summer outdoor trance festival circuit. Obviously people gravitated towards fellow nationals as they arrived, as soon the camp was a collage of cultures. This included a large contingent of Japanese, who arrived in a chartered 747's. Interesting how they are drawn to psychedelic trance, along with the Germans but I will stop cultural dissections right here. The facilities at the campsite were really basic. Long drops were well made, with grass walling and performed perfectly adequately. It was just a matter of acclimatisation I guess - sooner or later everyone would have to go. Such a long haul from the refined fineness of the Japanese home no doubt. The water supply ran out a few times initially. That meant no showers for a day and at one stage, a water trailer was brought in to alleviate demand. Campers formed an orderly queue with every water bottle they could find. No doubt, for many, this was the first time they had to queue for something taken so for granted back home.
As more people arrived, the sense of community grew. Every night, the density of tents increased. Then the overlanders started arriving - the 4x4 brigade. These mechanical beasts now interspersed amongst the campsite changed the gentleness of social fabric - a few even had gillies' along to do their chores.
The music system was switched on Monday evening, with the Zambian minster of culture giving everyone a warm welcome. This really went down well, and so the fun began. The dance floor was set under a massive tree, with it's canopy reaching out high above the reach of any elephant trunk, so I speculated. On the side, there was a an open-air bar at which I had more than one Mosi, many market and food stalls with everything one would expect to find at a trance party festival - chi stalls, jewellery, fluoro body hugging trance clothing, even the Hare Krishners all the way from Cape Town had a large food stall. Can't say I did much shopping, besides the obligatory trance party supplies. It's worth noting that the connection between Cape Town and this festival was much stronger than a Joburg / Gauteng one , perhaps reflecting cultural differences between these regions.
In no time my telescope was rigged, levelled, GPS co-ordinated, aligned to Alpha Crux. I had a bit of a y2k bug scare, since this was the first time I had switched on the computer since 2000. But it handled a one-star alignment, and my nights were spent surfing the milky way for globular clusters and other Messier objects. The prominent Mars (brightest in 11 years) was too bright, just a blurry disk though some surface features visible. Where is Saturn when you need him as a crowd pleaser? So many people wondered past, took a look, and if they showed just the slightest interest, got the celestial south hemisphere low down. Many constellations were prominent, and I took the opportunity to figure out a few more. Doing so requires some stretch of the imagination (ie the Centaur) but once envisioned "it will always be with you". Old favourites did not let me down - the Jewel box never fails to please (the gyrls:). Weird thing was because it was dark I would have all these long conversations with total strangers not knowing (or caring) what they looked like. And then come up the next day, I wouldn't recognise them at all but they knew me the guy with the telescope' given the collective absence of short term memories..
That image of the sun in that print was most appropriate ...and accurate
So there I am crooning over the eye piece around 09h00, tracking the crescent Venus after an early morning Lunar session. The solar panels are out, propped up on a tent poll, soaking up photons. Then this girl in nifty short funky skirt and ravey top pops out of tent, walks up and adjusts here outfit in the reflectance of the silicon panels. Turns out she was there the previous night for a while, and sure knew her constellations. So we got talking Venus. Like that planet, Love certainly comes and goes, all of a sudden and oh so bright at the most unexpected times. Because of the freezing nights, the party really turned out to be a day time thing, where the temperature rose to the 20's. All the shiny people emerged from our nightly hibernation to party during the day - almost Ibizathian in flavour. I was no exception, and after a shower that morning joined the troops. When I got to the dance floor, I almost flipped out my orbit - there she was on the decks! She goes by the DJ name Stella Nutella and she played the most sexy chilled trance for more than a few hours.
That awesome tree - and (turbo) sound rig.
I didn't really keep track of what or who was playing when, just joined the flow and drifted around as it suited me, occasionally crossing paths with new and old acquaintances. People were really quite friendly all around, and it didn't take much effort to meet people. Marek aka Matrx and his crew were up there, having made the arduous journey although not as fortunate as me in terms of tyre fatalities. An acquaintance from early Netraver days, Brad, was a frequent encounter. But what of Gerald & Cleon? It was now Wednesday night and no sign of them at all.
e day arrived - Thursday 21st June, and we all wished each other a Happy Eclipse. There was a serious mood of anticipation as solar viewing glasses were distributed by trance cherubs. Earlier that week, an American called Bob had come by, boasting that he had a Hydrogen Alpha filter handy (serious $k's worth) since he had no room for his telescope in his baggage. He calling cards were holograms ( I got a bud') and he claimed to have been playing with light since he was in nappies (make that 'diapers')- he really knew his optical stuff. This filter is a piece of equipment that allows you to look at the surface of the sun, the photosphere, in great detail (hopefully the chromosphere as well). It blocks of the energy of the sun and only allows a very narrow band of light frequencies through - we are talking 656.3 nanometers here, the hydrogen alpha emission line. We schemed how it would be possible to hook it up ad-hoc, given the lack of adapter couplings etc and made loose arrangements to set it up but we kept missing each other thereafter. The morning of the eclipse came, and I decided to join everyone in the main area for a Group Eclipse' and found a place in the sun with Marek and friends. A quick mission back later in the morning to get binoculars (got to find that corona!) found a few notes stuck under a bungie on the scope. One was announcing Cleon & crew had made it with directions to find them, and the other was an indiscernible scrawl: all I could make out was Bob' and the next thing there he was in person with his goodies. As my state to be of any practical assistance was rapidly diminishing, I left him to sort out the fittings whilst I found Gerald and camp. Only two hours to go!
Dr Hoffman I presume!
They had cunningly bullshitted their way into the vendor area the previous night, their delayed arrival due to an extended stay in luxury at Vic Falls. Such is the life of the Gold Card. Gerald welcomed me with the traditional Vodka & Red Bull, which turned out to be a Vodka & Gin (not bad with a dash of lemon) but then I was on another mission. I was on the dance floor when First Contact was made: everyone put their paper glasses on and looked at the Sun in unison, as the moon started to eat away at the sun. Time to find Bob again. Back at the camp, he had successfully attached the long & heavy filter to the telescope using materials cunningly collected by the two of us, and was in the process of fine tuning. I got the guidance computer going and the next thing we were surfing the surface of the sun in search of sun spots and hydrogen alpha detail, this being a total and most spectacular surprise for me - ultimate in fact. The first sunspot was a treat, and after some forced concentration, I started to see it in relief. God Damn, it was moving as well! OK, it was now getting a bit darker and the warmth of the day was rapidly evaporating. There was a few surrounding campers who drifted past, and we enthusiastically explained that what a sun spot was before showing them close up.
The moment of totality approached . The sky was perfectly clear, all of a sudden - lights out. Nothing - no pictures nor words - had prepared me for this. Mercury was very prominent, close to the sun as it is. Some say it was Jupiter, but I couldn't spot any moons. The Corona was an incredible sight through binoculars. Long white wispy pointy things, so familiar in classical images of the sun. It was so exciting to see this - far surpassed my expectations and now I knew why eclipses were so infectious. The light soon broke, and as Bob went of to pack up his camp, I watched the Moon reveal the Sun in all his glory. Watching the sun spots appear was really exciting in between scanning the perimeter and observing a few loopy prominences. As the forth contact was broken, Bob whipped off his kit, and was gone.
Gerald has details about that Big Moment - "it was a 360 degree sunset, the weird deep silvery blue light all around. Then there was the moving, shimmering halo of cosmic hair, those most excellent red beads of light breaking thru the mountains and valleys of the moon, and that fantastic moment when the diamond ring burst out. Awesome."
Bob - thanks dOOd!
There was also Massimo, an Italian telescope dealer, who frequented my neck of the bush at random times. He really knew his way around the night sky, although this was his first time down south. I got a bit of a hard time over my collimation (or lack thereof) but had a good laugh when after he exclaimed mama mia' when Omega Centauri was in the viewfinder.
The 'Diamong Ring' chromosphere
and ruby red prominences
Saturday meant pack and go home time, my orignal plans projected that I would have had enough of the party people by then. But it was really sad to be leaving early, since it all had a few days still to go, and I was really enjoying it all. I had got to meet such a kaleidoscope of wonderful people - why did it have to end so quickly? In just a few short days, I found a sense of serenity, a rare commodity down this part of the world. I no longer worried about that laptop in my tent being nicked. I moved and grooved in peace and with harmony. This gathering of the global tribe was an island, with a formidable fence of acarcia branches in lieu of those white beaches. We all had to make do in one way of another, and although some of us came more prepared than others, we all had something to give, to share. Cultural barries fell quickly - our common language was dance.
I decided to chance the route home through Zimbabwe, via Kariba and Harare. A welcome feed and sojourn with dear friends Ian, Helen, Karen & Alex and Ivan the Butterfly granddad. I was worried about petrol queues in Zim, but the recent 70% fuel hikes killed those quickly enough. Thus the roads were quiet, except for the occasional tourist 4x4 and Zim cops in flashy cars. More than once I passed a rural food store with a large crowd of people looking more than a bit desperate. A fuel stop in Masvingo and the car was surrounded by curio sellers begging for anything. At the rate of Z$1000 for 12 litres of petrol, it seemed the right thing to do to spread around a few hundred zim dollars. I can only hope that the ordinary people in Zimbabwe pull through the current mess - perhaps one that Zambia has already visited. Such is life in post colonial Africa. Anyway, six border posts later, I was back home and it all went very smoothly. What a profound experience. Many thanks to everyone who made it possible, especially the Solipse crew.
5th July 2001
Also look here:
Solipse 2001 web site
Sky & Telescope 'Scientific Expedition' reports
pics © BRG