In Darkness--Africa: Solar Eclipse 2001

How this composite image was made

On June 21, 2001 a total eclipse of the Sun darkened the continent of Africa. The Moon's shadow made its landfall in Angola on the west coast of the continent then swept across Zambia, where the capital, Lusaka, was within the path of totality, onward through the northeast corner of Zimbabwe, then Mozambique. The umbra next crossed into the Indian Ocean and across the island of Madagascar. Based on the likelihood of clear skies on eclipse day, length of totality, safety of travel, and availability of transportation to a suitable site along the eclipse track, a site near Lusaka, Zambia seemed the best of the available options. Here is the path of totality through Zambia.

Path of totality through Zambia
Graphic from Total Solar Eclipse of 2001 June 21 by Fred Espenak and Jay Anderson, NASA

Since this would be the first visit for either of us to sub-Saharan Africa apart from a brief business trip I made to South Africa in 1991, we wanted to combine the eclipse with an opportunity to see some of the scenery and unique wildlife in that part of the Zambia eclipse commemorative stamp world. After exploring several alternatives, we decided to join an expedition organised by Kunjani Safaris of South Africa. We flew from Switzerland to Johannesburg, South Africa on June 10th, 2001, arriving on the morning of Monday the 11th. We joined the tour group on the 12th, visited the Sterkfontein Caves where the skull of the first specimen of Australopithecus africanus was discovered in 1947, Observing site at Pioneer Camp then departed the next day for Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Zambia, culminating with the eclipse on June 21st, which we viewed from Pioneer Camp, northwest of Lusaka, close to the centre line of totality.

The site at Pioneer Camp was on a hilltop with a nearly unobstructed view of the northern sky where the eclipse would occur. The only obstacle to contend with was a set of wires strung on poles across the northern edge of the field. Since the site was not at all crowded, there were plenty of places available where the entire path of the Sun during the eclipse would be visible.

Long range weather forecasts promised an excellent probability of clear skies on eclipse day and, indeed, the sky was almost cloudless—only a few low clouds along the northwestern horizon, distant from the Sun. We'd been more worried about obscuration from smoke. Agricultural practice in southern Africa involves burning fields to clear them in the southern winter. Since the eclipse took place on the very day of the solstice, mid-winter, this was a particular concern. Before the eclipse we'd seen extensive burning in Zambia, often rendering the sky murky and the limb of the Sun ill-defined.

Totality approaches Fortunately, the eclipse was a Big Event in Lusaka, declared a holiday by the government, which issued a commemorative stamp for the occasion and threw a big party adjacent to the airport, within the zone of totality. We saw little or no agricultural burning near Lusaka prior to or during the eclipse, and the skies at both the airport and our observing site couldn't have been more clear. To the left is a picture taken in the last minutes before totality. I've already set up the 35mm camera used to take the pictures in the Eclipse Photo Gallery, aimed it to capture the arc of the Sun during totality, and focused it on the waning crescent Sun using a full-aperture solar filter in front of the telephoto lens. Roxie is checking out some clouds on the horizon which took on a very unusual appearance just before and during totality.

Sky above Lusaka at mid-totality, courtesy of Your Sky
Sky above Lusaka at mid-totality, courtesy of Your Sky.
This eclipse offered excellent opportunities to spot stars and planets during totality: Jupiter, Mercury, and Saturn were all present in the northern sky with the eclipsed Sun, along with the bright stars Betelgeuse, Capella, and Aldebaran. I'm pretty sure I spotted Jupiter, but I was so engaged in observing the corona and prominences of the eclipsed Sun and the strange 360 twilight and colours of the countryside that I didn't devote much time to scanning the sky for objects I can see at night a few months hence.

The tour organisers had brought a cooler for refreshments, and its white plastic top made a perfect surface to exhibit the prominent shadow bands in the final seconds before totality. I was so enraptured watching their pulsating dance that I missed the diamond ring at the start of totality. No problem—there was a beautiful one at the end!

At almost the very moment we were viewing totality on the ground in Zambia, the EUMETSAT Meteosat-6 satellite in geosynchronous orbit 35785 km above the equator at 9 West longitude imaged the Moon's shadow on southern Africa as part of their eclipse observation program. The tiny spot of totality is not resolved in this image but you can clearly see how the density of shadow increases toward the region of totality in Zambia.

The Moon's shadow over Africa from EUMETSAT Meteosat-6
Image Copyright 2001 EUMETSAT       Larger image

Event Time Altitude Azimuth
UTC Local
Partial begins 11:41:33 13:41:33 45 329
Start of Totality 13:09:19 15:09:19 31 310
Mid-Totality 13:10:56 15:10:56 31 310
End of Totality 13:12:33 15:12:33 31 310
Partial ends 14:27:00 16:27:00 16 300
The eclipse was the perfect exclamation point at the end of a rewarding, albeit exhausting, voyage through southern Africa. After the eclipse we flew back to the game lodge near Mfuwe, Zambia, and then the next day on to Johannesburg, departing for Switzerland on Saturday, June 23rd with the precious undeveloped roll of eclipse photos in carry-on luggage. After a few days' suspense the slides came back from Kodak and I was very happy with the results, which you may view in the Eclipse Photo Gallery. I used an Olympus 3040 digital camera for non-eclipse photography during the trip; a selection of wildlife and nature shots and curiosities which caught my eye are presented in Images of Africa.

  Eclipse 2001 Photo Gallery

  Images of Africa


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Eclipse 1999

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by John Walker
July, 2001
This document is in the public domain.