Eclipse Mozambique  Zambia Africa

A Motorcycle trip to see the solar eclipse in Zambia, 2001

Author: Kevin Dugmore.

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Yamaha XT600

It was while listening to an astronomy radio show that my interest was sparked; the presenter stated that a total solar eclipse is perhaps the most spectacular astronomical event that one is likely to experience. He went on to say that it has been estimated that only 1 in 1000 people have seen the moon completely block the sun (totality) and that a total solar eclipse will be visible from within a narrow band, crossing central Africa later that year. Motivated by what I had heard, I began to seek a way to see this eclipse by planning a trip to Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique

The selection of a mode of transport for my tour occurred instantaneously since my delight in exploring new places from the saddle of one of my motorbikes, in this case a Yamaha XT600,  eliminated any other transport options that I may have considered.

Lusaka Zambia, because of its good chance of clear skies and proximity to the path of totality was chosen as my eclipse-viewing site. To travel so far and not do some exploring would have been a pity, thus I planned route that would take me to the north east of Lusaka, into Mozambique, across to the Indian Ocean, south along the Mozambique coast and then back into South Africa. See the red line on the map below for the exact route

Motorcycle tour route through Africa

Through the use of motorcycling web page I made contact with Floris Burger, a motorcyclist from Pretoria who was also planning to head to Lusaka for the eclipse. The following pages are a description of some of my experiences during this motorcycle adventure.


Kevin and his Yamaha XT600

The picture shows me speaking nicely to my Yamaha XT600, asking for reliability and good fortune for my motorbike tour. Elsewhere in the country the ‘Comrades Marathon’ was being run and the Springboks were playing a test match. However these events were far from my mind since excitement, anticipation and nervousness filled me.

Early on a frosty morning 2 days later, as planned, I met Floris and his BMW R1150 GS in Pretoria. Minutes later we were heading north, far happier than the occupants of the cars that were stuck in the Monday morning traffic.

At the Botswana side of the Groblersberg border, border control officials sprayed our boots and motorbikes with a pungent white fluid. It was up to us to guess what this fluid was and to trust that it would not cause things such as deformities in the next generation.

A group of British tourists, also on their way to see the eclipse were congregated close to the customs offices. Judging by the commitment with which they were eating some boerewors it was clear that no meat was allowed to cross the border. I therefore had to eat all the meat from my sandwiches. I wanted to point out to the border officials that, strictly speaking, even though I had consumed the meat, I would still be taking it into their country and that I would most probably leave it, in a less pleasant form, inside their country. I decided rather to be safe and kept quiet.

Even this far from Zambia, people were talking about the solar eclipse. The border control official who was supervising the consumption of my sandwiches said that many eclipse watchers, had in the previous few days crossed the border. He clearly doubted our sanity for travelling so far on what to him must have looked like uncomfortable and dangerous transport to merely see the sun and the moon.

On a tediously flat and straight Botswana road I was thankful for the entertainment provided by a fly that became trapped in my helmet. He walked about on the inside of my visor and occasionally tried to explore a nostril. I was disappointed when after about half an hour he found an exit and left.

That evening at a campsite near Nata the almost perfect silence was obvious and it was hard to believe that earlier in the day I had been in Pretoria’s Monday morning rush hour traffic. It was so quiet that the sound of a small leaf, falling through a tree’s branches could be called a commotion.

In northern Botswana there were many large heaps of processed vegetation, deposited upon the road. Floris’s theory about these heaps is as follows: While walking through the bush an elephant’s feet become accustomed to the moderate temperature of the ground. As the elephant steps onto the extremely hot road surface, the sudden temperature change shocks the elephant’s system, thereby causing one of the heaps that one regularly sees along this stretch of road.

Ferry at Kusane Botswana

At Kusane we entered Zambia by crossing the Zambezi River on a ferry. There was a 2 hour-long queue of cars and trucks waiting for a space on the ferry. We were able to jump the queue and get onto the first ferry trip after our arrival since the motorbikes were small enough to be squeezed in next to the vehicles.

The Zambezi at Kusane is unlike most other African rivers. Instead of a narrow trickle of muddy water passing between sand bars, clean water flows powerfully from bank to bank.  

Our campsite at Lusaka, Zambia was very full, mostly with tour groups travelling in overlanders. On the evening before the eclipse there was an excitement in the atmosphere and the campsite had the positive feel that reminded me of a festival. 

The day of the eclipse was declared a public holiday. The sky was perfectly clear and realizing that the presence of clouds would not be blocking the event an expectant nervousness set in. At mid morning I searched the sky, expecting to see the moon, on it’s way to its 1pm appointment with the sun. There was no sign of the moon and this puzzled me. 

In Lusaka I witnessed a budding riot at a shop that was giving away sets of solar filters. (A set of cheap sunglasses that are necessary to safely view the eclipse during its partial phases.) Shortly after the disturbance started the police arrived and defused the situation by ordering the crowd to form a queue. I suspect that many people wanted to get solar filters to sell them to tourists. 

At midday we took a main road in a northerly direction out of Lusaka so as to get as close as possible to the solar eclipse’s centreline. The road was busy with foreign cars and excited eclipse chasers. At the entrance to the ‘Solipse’ festival there was a lot of frantic confusion as people rushed about in an effort to get to the best possible viewing site. Rather than enter the festival and participate in the confusion we decided to head a few kilometres back toward Lusaka to a clearing next to the road at the top of a hill. We selected a spot at the top of a hill because we hoped to see the approaching shadow of the moon as it races at thousands of kilometres per hour across the landscape. 

At our chosen spot there was a jovial and friendly faction of locals who seemed more interested in us than the eclipse. Many of this faction had chosen to celebrate the occasion by drinking a home-brewed beer (try to guess which one of those in the picture had been drinking).

Jovial locals on the day of the eclipse


My first look at the sun revealed that the moon had just begun to pass over the disk of the sun (first contact). The moon was not at all visible and it appeared that an arc had been pressed into the side of the sun. I then realised that the reason I had not seen the moon earlier was because the sun is so bright in comparison to the moon. 

I can now understand, because it is not clear that it is the moon that is blocking the sun, why people of ancient times found eclipses so frightening. 

During the next hour as the light dimmed, the temperature dropped and the excitement level escalated. Once the sun was about 90% covered the ends of the longer shadows became blurred. At this time the landscape was bathed in an unusual light. It was as if it were dawn or dusk but different since the whole sky was dim whereas at dawn or dusk the sky has a light and a dark side. Even when it was 95% covered, when glanced at without the filter the sun appeared, as normal, to be a bright circular disk. 

Darkness then swept across everything very suddenly and the temperature dropped further. I was not looking in a westerly direction at this moment so I missed the view of the approaching shadow. There was sufficient light during totality for me to read the settings on the camera as I changed the shutter speed after each of the 6 photos that I took. 

Baily’s beads (beads of sunlight that shine down the valleys at the edge of the moon) were briefly visible. The sky became a deep indigo colour and it was dark enough for stars to be visible, even at a short distance from the eclipsed sun. The sun’s corona (the upper atmosphere of the sun) was clearly visible and extended into the purple sky as sharp points of radiant white. Since the sun was at the peak of it’s 11-year cycle of activity, the length of corona was approximately equal in all directions and extended to about 1½ times the sun’s diameter. The moon, now completely covering the sun, appeared black. The indigo sky, radiant white corona and the black disk of the moon are a memory that I will have no difficulty in remembering. It looked like there was a black hole in the sky and that a beautiful light was shining outward from the circumference of the hole. Many of the observers were howling as a dog would at the full moon and I participated in this lunacy.

As quickly as it had become dark, it became light again and the temperature began to rise. The 3 minutes of totality had passed in what seemed like an instant. Floris said that as soon as he can he will begin to make plans to see the 2002 solar eclipse and that every kilometre of travelling by motorcycle had been worth it. 

Shortly after the end of totality a young Zambian woman, who before the eclipse had persistently begged for food, returned.  She carried with her a half empty bottle of champagne that a tourist had probably given to her. It was obvious, judging by her change in manner since our previous meeting, where the other half of the champagne had gone. She snatched a packet of noodles from one of my bags before running away. 

Because of the alcohol-fuelled rowdiness of some of the local group, Floris and I decided that it would be wise to leave. Before I was ‘allowed’ to leave, Ester Lumbe insisted that I give her my postal address and that I write down her address so that I can write to her. We swapped addresses and could leave only once I had promised to write to her. 

Back at Eureka campsite that evening I had a chat with 2 other motorcyclists, one of whom had done some riding in Mozambique. I mentioned my considered route through Mozambique. His response contained words such as ‘reasonable roads’, ‘azure sea’, ‘white beach sand’ and ‘tropical palms’. In that moment I decided that I would take my envisioned route through Mozambique on the way back to South Africa. 

Floris’s plans were to try to meet up with a group from his club who were at that time in the Caprivi Strip in Namibia. Thus we parted ways and I would explore Mozambique on my own. 

In the icy pre dawn mist I endured camping’s most dreaded task. This task is of course the packing up of a dirty, wet tent before the warmth of a cup of tea or sunrise. However I was soon riding northeast on my Yamaha XT600 on my way to Mozambique through beautiful unspoilt countryside and was thankful for the early start.

My map indicated that there are few towns with petrol (fuel) on this road. Concerned that I would not have sufficient petrol I stopped to ask about its availability. Because of how remote the area was the response to my query was surprising. In true salesman’s pitch the man claimed, “We provide petrol, diesel, oil, paraffin and other natural gas.” I decided that petrol rather than ‘other natural gas’ would the safest option. He assured me that he had the octane that that I required (called ‘super’ in this country rather than 93) and that it would be clean. The salesman directed an instruction at a boy who then ran away into the bush. The boy returned minutes later with a 5l plastic container of petrol. As far as I could tell, there was no dirt in the container and the salesman was adamant that it was ‘super’. After calculating the distance to the next real petrol station, I realized that I had no choice and agreed to buy 5 litres, the price of which was 24 000 Kwacha (R 60-00, $8-00)

The landscape was beautifully set in its autumn colours, however its most arresting feature was the silence. During a breakfast stop I heard only birdcalls and in half an hour only one vehicle passed.

The Charcoal Industry

Many people in Zambia earn a living by making charcoal. The charcoal is packed into large sacks. At least four filled sacks are then tied to a bicycle and wheeled to collection points along the main roads.




For the rest of the day I enjoyed the good road, the hills, corners, the passing landscape and worried a little about what the 5 litres of ‘super’ may be doing to the motorcycle engine. The atmosphere was slightly hazy due to the seasonal burning of the grass. Quite close to one of these fires I rode through a swarm of bees, which must have been escaping the smoke. I sustained multiple bee strikes that made the view through the visor nasty and my jacket sticky.

I spent a night at Tikondane community centre and guesthouse at Katete. That evening, eager to try the type of food eaten in Zambia I ordered a dish called ‘beef-nsima’ from the guesthouse’s kitchen. I was presented with a kind of beef stew; a helping of spinach and on a separate plate was a thick maize porridge. 

Behaving in my ‘first world manner’ I politely waited, expecting a knife and fork to be brought to me. Hunger and the smell of the food made me impatient and I asked at the kitchen for my utensils. The cook resolutely declared that beef-nsima is eaten with the fingers and by no other means. Obviously this point was not open for discussion and I thus returned to my seat, rolled up my sleeves and got stuck in. The beef was slightly oily, flavoursome and combined well with the nsima. By observing others in the restaurant I learnt the correct nsima-eating technique. 

Before I had finished, the cook brought me a 30cm plastic bowl of cold water. I was puzzled at first because the size of the bowl prevented me from recognizing it as a finger-bowl. Perhaps, in this part of the world, they are actually called ‘arms, torso and face’ bowls and need to be so big because of the eating style. 

Mozambique was a Portuguese colony, thus I copied a list of useful Portuguese phrases from my guidebook and stuck this onto the inside of the bike’s windshield. I memorized some phrases while riding and had mastered some basic communication by the time I reached the border. 

My first night in Mozambique was spent at Tete, the settlement surrounding Mozambique’s only bridge across the Zambezi. The road into Tete leads directly to this bridge at which one has to pay a Mt 250 (10 c) toll fee. I rode up to the tollbooth and then realised that I had just missed the turnoff to a campsite. Before I could turn around, the cashier had handed me a receipt and was expecting the toll fee. I tried to hand the receipt back and attempted to explain that I did not want to cross the bridge and wanted to return the way that I had come. He became angry, and thinking that I was refusing to pay he filled my ears with could only have been appalling insults. Fortunately I could not understand what he was saying as I persistently tried to hand the receipt back. He finally gave in, took the receipt and lifted the boom. He must have then been astonished to see me turn around and head back the way that I had come, thereby refusing the free crossing that I seemed to have fought for. 

Later in the day I needed to cross the bridge to get to Tete’s market. Unfortunately I had to deal with the same cashier that I had annoyed earlier. I approached and handed him the only Mozambican money that I had. His response was once again one of anger since I had given him a Mt 50 000 note for a toll fee that was Mt 250 and he did not have change. Now very upset, he tried to short-change me and handed over Mt 20 000. I refused this as well as the Mt 30 000 that he insisted was the correct change. Eventually he aggressively returned my Mt 50 000 note, shouted something in Portuguese, the last word of which was Johannesburg, and then lifted the boom to let me through. I think that what he shouted meant something much less polite than ‘go back to Johannesburg’. Relieved to have survived this confrontation I crossed the bridge.

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Reed Harvesting

Some Mozambicans earn a living by harvesting reeds that grow on the river’s islands. The reeds are transported from the islands on dugout canoes. They are then sold at the town’s market and are used to make houses.