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Eclipse!

Thursday, June 21st 2001

Eclipse day. During the night, I had a succession of horrible dreams in which I was in Cornwall again, watching the clouds cover up the crescent sun, or I was waking up in Zambia to find that it was cloudy. And when I woke some time before sunrise I thought my worst nightmares were coming true. I looked out the window to see dull grey skies casting a lifeless light over the land, and my heart leapt into my mouth. Surely this was all wrong! It took a while to realise that this was just the very early pre-dawn light making things look odd, and as the sky tinged blue with the oncoming day I relaxed, just a little bit.

We got up and went down to the river to watch the sun rise. Two years earlier I'd watched the Sun rise over pools of mist from a Cornish hilltop, and I'd listened to Mute by Porcupine Tree. I did the same here on the banks of the Zambezi as I watched the sun sliding inexorably towards its rendezvous with the moon, lurking unseen next to it in the sky. There was not even a hint of a cloud in the sky, so my paranoia began to work on other possibilities. Perhaps the calculations were wrong and we would only see a partial eclipse? Perhaps there’d be a dust storm? Perhaps I’d get food poisoning from my lunch?

In the middle of the morning, we heard a drum begin to beat outside our hotel. It turned out to be a band with dancers, playing the traditional Makishi music which is common in this part of Zambia. We watched the dancing and listened to the singing with a large audience of locals against the stunning backdrop of the river and plains.

After a quick lunch of nshima and meat, we were ready to find an eclipse spot. We headed down to the river to get a boat across to the other side. Horror! There was not a boatman or a boat in sight. This was not what we expected. The local authorities had told the people to stay indoors unless they had a safe way of viewing the eclipse, and clearly a lot of people had decided to take a day off. Eventually a boatman appeared, and found a canoe in which he ferried us across to the other side. As we waited on the east bank, the first bite was taken out of the sun by the encroaching moon, and the eclipse was underway.

We walked along the west bank for a little while until we found a good spot to set up. The sun was now about a quarter covered up, but I knew from Cornwall that things wouldn’t really look any different until the sun was at least three-quarters gone. I tried to keep from panicking as I ran through my photographic plans once again.

And as the predicted time approached, we began to notice that it was getting cooler, and the light was beginning to take on the strange quality of an unreddened sunset. Gradually at first but ever faster, the light was beginning to drain away. I felt like I was going blind. The sun was a breathtakingly slender crescent now, and getting smaller by the second. Darker still and darker, and then - the sun was gone and in its place a great black hole appeared, surrounded by the unearthly, astonishingly beautiful, glowing corona. From all up and down the river there came the sound of shouting from the villages. I uttered some urgent profanities. We could see Jupiter near the sun, and a few other stars as well. I took photo after photo after photo, and managed to find a few seconds in which to stare at this utterly startling sight.

Far too quickly it came to a rapid end. With a sudden brightening, the first rays of sunlight appeared from behind the moon, producing a brief but brilliant ‘Diamond Ring’ effect, before the corona was drowned out by the return of the day. Bands of shadow briefly rippled across the landscape. Within a few seconds it was daylight, and a few minutes later it was like it had never happened. Two small planes chartered by high-rolling eclipse chasers had flown in just before the eclipse, and within ten minutes they were off again, and Zambezi was well on its way to normality. Most of the sun was still covered, though, and we sat on the riverbanks until the moon was clear of the sun once again.

After two years of planning and expectation, the end of the eclipse was a bit of an anticlimax. A herd of oxen was driven by into the river to swim across it, and we followed them in our canoe. It was just after 5pm. We decided to pop into the Riverside bar for a ‘quick post-eclipse drink’. Feelings of anticlimax soon went away as it turned into a raucous eight-hour party, quite by accident. The locals were in the mood for celebrating, and we celebrated with them, dancing energetically and outrageously to thumping Congolese pop, causing hilarity by trying to learn the local languages, and playing pool and chess. A combination of me being a teetotaller and most of the locals emphatically being no such thing gave me a protracted run of success on the pool table, and for some time I reigned as the Zambezi Pool King, to delighted rapture from those who had decided to support me, and some grudging respect from the backers of the local heroes. I began to think of how I would tell the story of the evening when I returned home (“…and after my seventeenth straight victory, they asked me to become their chief!”), but sadly in the eighth game I came up against a more sober opponent, who ended my impudent run with a narrow victory. John, meanwhile, had been battling for the title of Zambezi Chess Prime Minister, with varying success.

The night wore on, more crazy dancing was done, much fun was had, and I really didn’t want the day to end. A magical eclipse experience in a marvellous part of the world, followed by a legendary evening in a superb bar was really beyond my best expectations.

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