Southern Africa Turns to Watch Solar Eclipse

By Singy Hanyona

WINDHOEK, Namibia, December 3, 2002 (ENS) - In the northeast of Namibia people are gearing up for the total eclipse of the Sun that will occur on the morning of December 4. The totality of the eclipse will be visible in southern Africa for the second time in 18 months.

A total solar eclipse is when the sun, the moon and the earth all line up. If one stands in the right place at the time, one can watch the moon cover the sun completely, a period known as the totality. The spectacle could last for up to seven minutes.

The path of the Moon's shadow begins in the South Atlantic, crosses southern Africa and the Indian Ocean, and ends at sunset in southern Australia. A partial eclipse will be seen within the much broader path of the Moon's penumbral shadow, which includes the southern two thirds of Africa, Antarctica, Indian Ocean and Australia.

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Total eclipse of the Sun (Photo courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA))
The totality of the eclipse will be visible in a narrow band from the Caprivi strip in northern Namibia, along the border of Zambia and Botswana, in the Limpopo province of South Africa, from Beitbridge in Zimbabwe down along the coastal lowlands of Mozambique, crossing the Limpopo River near Xai-Xai.

The single best location astronomers say, seems to lie at Beitbridge, a community of 6,000 on the north bank of the Limpopo River. Because Beitbridge marks the main border crossing between Zimbabwe and South Africa and is very close to where the center line crosses, viewing sites can be selected in either country.

In Botswana, the track of the eclipse crosses the Chobe Game Park but the wet season severely restricts travel within the Park. December is still early in the rainy season and the eclipse may be accessible with four wheel drive vehicles.

Farther south, the track zigzags back and forth between Botswana and Zimbabwe, passing through Hwange National Park, one the finest conservation areas in the world.

Since the end of the civil war in Angola and the lifting of travel warnings from European Union countries, the tourist business in northeast Namibia has picked up considerably, and the eclipse has brought hundreds of eclipsomaniacs to the path of totality.

A survey conducted by the independent company TNN Tour Operators of Namibia indicates that most accomodation facilities along the rivers where Namibia borders Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, were booked out months ago.

For eclipse watchers in this four country region, an added bonus to the solar spectacle will be the many elephants on the banks of the great Chobe River.

Some live within the novel Salambana Conservancy developed by conservators John Wambach and Anneli Ferreira. Seven kilometres from the eastern border post and 78 kilometers from the eastern town of Katima Mulilo on the Zambian border the floating camp of Elephant Tracking forms part of a controlled tourism development plan for the 92,000 hectare communal conservancy.

At the Floating Camp local paople take tourists on Mukoro trips on the the river or demonstrate how they track animals using traditional tracking skills. With support from WWF, among others, two cultural centers were developed where pottery is made according to traditional methods and tourists can meet the local inhabitants.

Namibia has always been regarded as one of the best destinations for stargazers. Cloudless skies and virtually zero pollution attract many enthusiasts to the country.

Kruger National Park is likely to be one of the primary destinations for the 2002 eclipse, which will reach the park just after 8:20 in the morning. The center line travels across the drier part of the park, though in December the vegetation is a lush green because of the summer rains. Punda Maria and Shingwedzi are the two major camps within the zone of totality; Shingwedzi is barely north of the centerline.

The last solar eclipse occurred in southern Africa on June 21, 2001. Scientists say, between now and 2016 more eclipses will be visible on the African continent, but not in the southern region. The next eclipse in May 2003 will be visible from Iceland.

When watching a solar eclipse, precautions must be taken not to damage the eyes in observing the partially eclipsed but still blindingly bright Sun.

Do not look at the Sun. Staring directly at the Sun during an eclipse can cause permanent eye damage. Nor should the Sun be viewed through any optical device not designed for the task.

The safest way to watch the eclipse is indirectly by projecting the Sun's image through some device and onto a wall or ceiling. A simple hole can be punched in cardboard or, for an enlarged view, the image can be projected through binoculars or a telescope onto a shaded wall.

A NASA solar eclipse website is found at: http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/TSE2002/TSE2002.html