A Motorcycle trip to see the solar eclipse in Zambia, 2001
Author: Kevin Dugmore. email@example.com
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.