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Total solar eclipse from Zambia - 21 June 2001

Report and photos by John Axtell.

Iremember that I was a boy of about 10 when I became aware that only Total Solar Eclipse to occur in England during my lifetime was going to be in Cornwall in 1999. All through the years I remained determined since that age to see that event, and as we all know in the event it was a cloud-covered washout. We actually did better than most, with wife Sue and daughter Jenny and some family friends we were lucky enough to get a partial gap in the clouds and saw something of the eclipse through thin higher clouds. To be honest I thought that was it and was at least partially satisfied.

I have made several trips to Africa to perform IT consultancy and training. Early in 2001 I was asked to run a two-week course for IT staff from the Cabinet Office of the Government of the Republic of Zambia. Imagine my delight to discover that my fortnight there would coincide with the June 2001 Total Eclipse of the Sun, with the path of totality passing directly through the capital Lusaka, where the course was being held.

It was winter there (it being in the Southern Hemisphere) and my first week there saw considerable cloud - I got a distinct feeling of déjà vu. However as the days rolled by the weather just got better and better. The students and I agreed that we would halt the course for an hour either side of totality, so we could pop out and watch. Then a big extra surprise - at very short notice President Chiluba declared Eclipse Day to be a public holiday! This meant I could not run the course that day and just had nowhere else to go but the pool, have a few beers and get ready with my camera for the eclipse!!

There wasn't a cloud in the sky, conditions were perfect. As totality neared the temperature dropped noticeably, the light levels began to fall and all the neighbourhood dogs began barking and rushing around. When totality began the sky became indigo, with a great number of stars clearly visible, and Jupiter was prominent only a few degrees away from the black sun. The corona was absolutely magnificent, interestingly a translucent pearly white and irregular in shape. This created an image twice the size of the moon's disk, at the edge of which solar prominences could easily be seen, an angry orange-red in colour. Whilst this was going on the dogs' barking was drowned out by the cheering coming from miles around - the whole country was yelling and whooping - me amongst them! At the very end of totality we saw the "Bailey's Beads", momentary glimpses of the edge of the moon as light poured down valleys and between mountain crags on the edge of the lunar disk. And when it was over, it only needed a tiny bit of the sun to reappear to wash out the glowing corona, and to banish the stars once more until true night time.

When it was over all I could do was grab another beer (or three!), and sit and contemplate my luck. Talk about being in the right place at the right time, and being paid to be there into the bargain!

Camera:Olympus OM2N, Bell & Howell 650mm Mirror lens plus Tamron 2x converter - turning camera almost into a small telescope! Kodak ASA 1000 film.