Safari to the centre of the solar system – can you eclipse that?
The Muzungu simply couldn’t pass on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a Hybrid Solar Eclipse in Uganda.
I’m not usually stuck for words, but even now I’m struggling to describe those 22 seconds of my life: watching the sun – our whole world – temporarily obliterated by the moon. Not only was it dazzlingly beautiful, I thought my heart was going to stop!
Uganda’s NTV neatly summed up the Hybrid Solar Eclipse – but you had to be in Pokwero, in the District of Pakwach, to feel the excitement!
All roads lead to…. Pakwach!
“The total solar eclipse is only going to be visible at an angle of 17°,” explained John the physics teacher from ISU, as he, his wife Leslie and I drove north from Kampala to Pakwach.
Here on the Equator, it gets dark around 6.30 in the evening, all year round. The Eclipse was due at 5.22 p.m. so the sun would be low in the sky: would we be able to see above each other’s heads to view the eclipse, the Muzungu wondered?
Halfway from Kampala to our destination, we stopped at the newish Kabalega Diner for a break. We were the only visitors when I first passed through a year ago. This time I was amazed to see the car park full of minibuses and the Diner jampacked full of Japanese tourists eating burgers and chips. Is this what Uganda might look like one day? Is this the way we want Uganda to look in the future? I ponder how mass tourism would look in a Uganda of the future. And will the Muzungu still love Uganda the same way?
We were intrigued to find out where the group were from. It had taken them two days to travel from Japan: to experience the Eclipse and then go on Safari in Murchison Falls.
“I just hope it won’t be cloudy tomorrow!” The Japanese tourist told me. “But what can we do?”
Mordechai welcomed us to Pakuba Lodge, Murchison Falls National Park
On arrival at Pakuba Lodge, Murchison Falls National Park, we had a wonderful, warm welcome from the towering Mordechai, who very graciously looked after us all weekend. (There was something of the filmstar about Mordechai!) No photo – sorry.
Early evening, ISU student Fabien and I saw three Grey Hornbills and my first Silverbird next to the Lodge.
An eclipse! And ticks for my birdlist too! The Muzungu was in seventh heaven…
Approximately 70 of us stayed at Pakuba Lodge on Saturday night, a number of us opting to camp. Simon Peter, the very charming UWA Ranger visited each tent to reassure us that he would protect us from leopards and scorpions. (Check your shoes, campers!)
“Wake me up if you see a Leopard!” I told him (like I was going to get any sleep anyway…)
Why? Because the Muzungu’s experience shall go down in the annals of camping as “How not to camp.” I knew my strategy of improvising for missing parts of the tent might backfire… The floating toothbrush that welcomed me when I unzipped the tent shamed this former Venture Scout! Luckily I had a plastic cup to bail out “Lake Pakuba,” the huge puddle in one corner of my tent, and spent the night lying rigid on a tiny dry island of sleeping mat, scared I might tip myself into said Lake, while another heavy rain storm threatened overhead.
Meet the Eclipse Chaser!
One of the highlights of the weekend was meeting Kryss Katsiavriades, an ‘eclipse chaser’, in Uganda to see his 14th solar Eclipse. He was a mine of information.
Uganda’s Annular-Total (or Hybrid) Solar Eclipse of 3 November 2013 is one of the rarest types of eclipses, described in detail on Kryss’ excellent website.
Kryss told us that “This kind of solar eclipse happens somewhere in the world every 400 years. It’s calculated that it will be another 400 years before Uganda sees a similar type of Eclipse. I don’t think even Museveni will be in power by then!”
Kryss explained to the Minister that the last time we saw an Eclipse in the UK was in 1999.
“But it was in Germany!” Interrupted a German tourist. Our historical arguments travel with us: the British and the Germans argue, lightheartedly, over ‘who owned the eclipse of 1999.’ (The Muzungu experienced the U.K.’s eclipse of 1999, in Glasgow. All that happened was an already grey sky went a bit greyer! Typically Glaswegian).
Chasing the Eclipse
Across the river in Pakwach, is a very different Uganda to the one I’m used to. I’m intrigued.
I admit this is the first time I’ve crossed Kafu Bridge, over the Albert Nile. There are few cars, few motorbikes and little advertising. The only brick buildings are shops. Geometrically thatched, round bandas proliferate. Most activity takes place in the shade of big trees. Smoked, filleted fish are spread out for sale. It’s very hot and very dusty.
I worry how many people are going to damage their eyes this afternoon attempting to view the eclipse. As we drive down the main street of Pakwach, you can sense eclipse fever.
A man holds dark sunglasses up to the sun. A boy holds a floppy disk, and another looks through a piece of smoked glass. Outside the stationer’s shop, two young men unfurl the unused film from a canister. Most people are trying solutions that I’ve read are dangerous.
I feel like we are on a film set
“We are now in the path of totality,” Kryss announces as we ‘eat the dust’ of a pickup truck full of 20 or more local people in their Sunday best clothes, beaming and ululating as they bounce down the road ahead of us.
In a country of red dusty roads, have I ever seen them this red? Have they ever been this dusty? We’re heading to the middle of nowhere; international Hollywood stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have flown into Uganda just for the event [just a rumour I think! I don’t know anyone who actually saw them!] President Museveni and entourage are coming to Pokwero – and there’s a huge sense of anticipation.
It all feels rather odd.
High security is in evidence. We pass soldiers by the side of the road, and follow a truck full of police to the viewing site at Owiny Primary School, Pokwero.
“2 degrees, 33 minutes and 11 seconds,” announces Kryss.
“And that means…?” Asks Fred the driver.
“It means a little bit further on and we will get to where we have maximum duration of the total solar eclipse.”
Ooooooo, it’s really happening!
The maximum duration of totality is found along the centre, middle blue line.
Kryss has frequently appeared on TV and radio in his global eclipse-chasing quest. True to form, we’ve only just parked our vehicle when an interviewer from Channel 44 approaches Kryss with a camera.
Kryss tells Channel 44 viewers: “The sun is the giver of all life on this planet, and to see it extinguished and the day turning into night, and to see the stars and planets in the middle of the day, is something that you will never forget.”
‘Muzungu Blogger of the Eclipse’ touches down in Pokwero
It had been announced that President Museveni was to be ‘Chief Viewer of the Eclipse’.
The eclipse was a great showcase for putting Northern Uganda on the tourist map but the country’s usual last-minute preparations realistically meant that only dedicated Eclipse chasers who had done their own research chose to visit Uganda for the eclipse. Many went to Kenya. Many went to West Africa. Some hired boats and went out into the Atlantic to view the solar Eclipse.
The King of Alur and the Omukama (Traditional King) of Bunyoro ventured to Pokwero, as did the newly crowned Miss Tourism Uganda.
There was no escaping the party politics as we sat sweating in white plastic chairs, grateful at least for the protection from the glaring hot afternoon sun of 35° or more. The hours passed slowly: listening to welcomes, ‘laying the foundation stone’ on the rather unimaginative Eclipse Memorial, political speeches, schoolchildren dancing and singing, hymns and the national anthem, twice.
I feel sorry for the uneducated person who might actually believe that the government had organised the Eclipse just for Museveni ‘The President of the Eclipse’s entertainment.
To paraphrase one of the speakers, apparently “God chose Uganda for this hybrid solar Eclipse, an event that only happens every 400 years. It’s no coincidence that it’s taking place during the reign of the NRM regime…” i.e. God planned the Eclipse in Uganda in 2013 thanks to the NRM. (Obvious really).
Cue the real stars of the show
Mostly attentive until that point, come 4 o’clock every spectator picked up their chair and turned their back on the President and the dignitaries to view the real stars of the show: the partially eclipsed Sun and the Moon.
The excitement was contagious. We passed around special eclipse glasses and sunglasses customised with camera film, and shared the Ministry of Tourism’s viewing filters with local children. We didn’t speak the same language, but we were all in awe of what was happening in the skies above us.
It was a huge party. Did I mention it was HOT?!
A message came through from Kampala
The partial eclipse was due to last just over two hours. After a few minutes, people started getting bored, waiting and waiting for the total eclipse. Some of them wandered off.
Oh no, perhaps, the Japanese tourists was right? Kryss had reassured me that even if it was cloudy, the experience would still be memorable. The MC switched on the microphone and told everyone not to go home.
“Many clouds?” read the SMS from Kampala.
“Oh bog off,” I replied (although perhaps not quite that politely).
Friends in Kampala said they “couldn’t be bothered” to travel all the way up to Pokwero. Couldn’t be bothered to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience? I was dammed if clouds were going to spoil my eclipse experience while they sat smugly in Kampala.
Despite the clouds, the light was a magical golden colour. The clouds were beautiful too.
We were back on track and I could feel the excitement grow you as the skies darkened on the countdown to the total eclipse.
We watched the sun – our whole world – temporarily obliterated by the moon.
Not only was it dazzlingly beautiful, I thought my heart was going to stop!
And then darkness!
(It was just 5.30 pm in the afternoon…)
I’d been thinking about the solar eclipse non-stop for a few days by then. I couldn’t sleep, I was so excited! In those few magical seconds, my brain and emotions worked hard to process what I was seeing.
None of the photos do justice to how amazing the solar eclipse looked with the naked eye: pink and alive!
Can you imagine seeing ‘flames’ on the surface of the sun with your naked eye? These ‘flames’ were huge bursts of flammable gas the size of a small country!
Imagine getting your best exam results ever, on your birthday, with a firework display in the background and falling in love – all at the same moment … and then someone punches you in the chest! You realise that this thing that you’ve been aching to see could be your terminal undoing, the end of not just your life, but of everyone and everything you hold dear.
The end of the world.
And then it was over. 22 seconds of my life that I shall never forget, and shall always struggle to articulate.
As the moon continued its trajectory away from the sun, there was a blinding flash ‘the diamond ring’ effect, as the sun re-emerged. Totally spectacular.
Within seconds, the sky was lit up again, and life went back to normal … for a while.
I understood with utmost clarity how people can become Eclipse chasers. Apparently NASA’s head meteorologist (who apparently saw just 10 seconds of the eclipse; when the clouds obscured the sun, his group packed up their kit to try and find a better viewing spot – and almost missed the whole thing!) There was no sign of ‘Brangelina’ in Pokwero. Apparently they were in Gulu.
The next total eclipse in Africa is on July 22, 2027 in Egypt. See you there?
A special thank you to John and Leslie McDonald and ISU Lubowa staff, Fabien the birder, Kryss Katsiavriades and Roman Kostenko the amateur astronomers, and Simon Peter, Mordechai, Connie and all the staff at Pakuba Lodge. Last but not least, a big, nocturnal thank you to Uganda Wildlife Authority’s Conservation Area Manager Tom Okello – who helped rescue dozens of vehicles from a flooded swamp on our way back to the lodge! A weekend I’ll never forget…