The story of this trip really begins on August 11th 1999. There was a total solar eclipse of the sun happening, and the track was to cross the United Kingdom. I’d been looking forward to this for years, and on the morning of the eclipse I was in position to see it. The weather was clear and sunny, and anticipation was high. Sadly, though, as the morning progressed, the cloud thickened, and the sun slowly disappeared from view. When totality began the much-hyped wonders of the Bailie’s Beads, diamond ring and corona came and went unseen.
Later that evening, as the world began to wobble a bit through the bottom of my whiskey glass, I said to those around me ‘Well, I’m just going to have to go to Africa for the next one’. At least, I tried to say that. I may not have succeeded.
But the fact remained that the next chance I would have to see a total solar eclipse would be in southern Africa on June 21st, 2001. Some research revealed that west was best, with a longer eclipse and better weather, but west meant war as well, as the eclipse touched Africa first in conflict-ridden Angola. But next in line was much safer Zambia. A look at the map revealed a town called Zambezi right in the middle of the eclipse path. I decided that this sounded adventurous enough, and the plans were laid. And thus I found myself, on June 14th 2001, flying towards Lusaka.
At this stage of the trip I was still not at all sure it was possible to reach Zambezi. I’d heard vague word of the legendary ‘Time Bus’ between Solwezi and Zambezi, but whether I’d get there with days to spare, or find myself sat on my rucksack in the bush watching a partial eclipse, I wasn’t sure. I was travelling with my friend John for the first two weeks, and we’d arranged to stay at a backpacker’s place in Lusaka. Wade, the owner, picked us up at the airport, and as we drove into Lusaka, we told him of our plans. Half-expecting him to say “Are you insane? Do you have any idea where you are?”, we were extremely relieved when he told us they sounded good.
When we arrived at the Chachacha backpackers, we found it disturbingly full of neo-hippies, who were flooding into Zambia for a festival. They were all looking forward to 10 days of banging trance, and most had no intention of seeing anything of Zambia other than the festival site. I found them all a bit depressing, and we were keen to get out into the real Zambia, so we made plans to leave early the next morning for Solwezi, on the way to Zambezi.
The bus was supposed to be leaving at 9.30am, and by 8.30am we had bought our tickets and were on board. At 9am the engine started and we were ready to go. At 9.20am the engine stalled and my heart sank. It turned out we needed more petrol, and after getting the bus to a petrol station and filling up, we got on the way at 11am. Quite quickly we were out of Lusaka and into the endless Zambian bush. After a brief stop in the copper-mining town of Kabwe, we were out of the eclipse path and into risky territory. If we got stuck somewhere now, there was a big chance of missing the eclipse altogether.
The bush rolled by, mesmerically, and I slept for a lot of the journey. Zambia is a huge country, three times the size of the UK, and yet has a population smaller than London’s. For mile upon eye-popping mile, the countryside was absolutely flat, with featureless scrubby forest growing in red sandy soil.
Mid-afternoon, I was woken very suddenly when the bus encountered a bridge with a ramp leading onto it, at some speed. The bus leapt into the air, action movie style, crashing down a couple of seconds later, shedding bits of bodywork as we careered to a halt a few hundred metres down the road. Some police happened to have been around and gave the bus driver a fine. The guys from the bus spent a few minutes collecting the bits of bodywork from the road and the bush, and we drove on. About 20 minutes later a window fell out, and we thought the bus might crumble and collapse before we got to Solwezi, but nothing else broke. A few somewhat breezy hours later we arrived in Solwezi, just after sunset. With a Norwegian guy called Rune who we’d met on the bus, we found our way to a hotel.