Accessibility links

Thousands Watch Solar Eclipse in South Africa - 2002-12-04

A total solar has crossed the earth Wednesday. One of the best places to see it was a part of northern South Africa, where thousands of people from all over the world gathered for the event. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough was among them, atop a huge rock outcropping near the town of Musina.

If you did not know what was going on, you would have thought we were crazy; about 75 people standing on a giant rock, staring at the sky. The reddish boulder on the Klein Bolayi game reserve is the size of a five-story building, and jutting out of the otherwise flat landscape, it offered one of the best views available of the total solar eclipse.

For about an hour, visitors to the windblown rock peered curiously at the sun, most of them using specially made eclipse-viewing glasses that prevent damage to the eyes. A few people used welding visors instead. Some pointed cameras at the sky, the lenses wrapped with makeshift filters.

Gradually, the moon crept in front of the sun. Through the viewing glasses, it looked like someone was taking bigger and bigger bites out of it.

As the eclipse got closer to total, the sunlight weakened, and took on an eerie quality. Finally, a hush fell over the crowd as the sun disappeared entirely. It was 8:30 a.m., but it looked like nightfall. The horizon turned reddish, and a few stars appeared in the sky. The temperature dropped by about 10 degrees. Then, a little more than a minute later, it was over.

The rock-climbing eclipse-gawkers included Graham Hickson, who divided his attention between the eclipse and the affect it had on birds in the area.

"It was awesome! Absolutely awesome," he said. "Did you see the nightjar fly past? Yes, there was a nightjar that flew past here. So in that minute, a bird that would normally only come out at night came out then. And the franklin, they were calling at night, their night call to settle down for the night. And then a minute and a half later they were ready to come start a new day. It was amazing!"

To witness the eclipse, Mr. Hickson and his 15-year-old son drove six hours from Johannesburg, along with a friend. As the eclipse was approaching totality, he walked excitedly all over the giant rock, enjoying the reactions of other visitors.

"It's great to share it with other people. I think it's really important to get the reaction from other people as well. It's pointless being on your own. You've got to share it with other people," he said. "Because it's now just like an after-image. If we had to describe what happened, I don't think you'd actually know how to describe it. It's that sort of strange."

During the slightly more than one minute of totality, the moon completely blocked the sun from view. Only the outermost layer of the sun, called the corona, was visible. At that moment, onlookers could see only a white halo radiating out around the dark disc of the moon. Normally, the corona is obscured by the bright light from the sun itself.

Tourists came from all over the world to witness the solar phenomenon. For many, like Dutch visitor William van Horn, it was their first chance to see a total solar eclipse.

"It was my first one, total. I've seen in the Netherlands a partial eclipse, but that is not exciting. This is exciting!" he exclaimed.

Mr. van Horn says he is hooked he plans to visit Turkey in 2007 for the next easily accessible solar eclipse. There is one more before then, visible only from Antarctica.

The frozen South Pole might be a little far for some to travel, but there are people who make a habit of following eclipses around the world. American teacher Mimi Wixted and her husband, Bo, came down from their home in Saudi Arabia for this one. It was Bo's fourth eclipse, and Mimi's third.

"As international teachers, we have the opportunity to go to odd places," she explained. " Mazatlan [Mexico] was when we lived in America. He went to Thailand. Our next one was Romania in '99, where we saw it from the steps of the Ceaucescu palace, which was incredible. But this tops everything - 2002 on a granite boulder in South Africa. Phenomenal."

Before the eclipse, South Africa's famed Kruger National Park was advertised as the prime destination for eclipse-watching. Where else could a visitor see an eclipse in the morning, and then spend the afternoon looking at elephants and lions?

But the weather did not cooperate. Heavy clouds covered the eastern part of the eclipse zone, and a few people who had planned to watch it from Kruger ended up driving madly westward, trying to get to the town of Musina, where the sky remained clear.

And so about 20 kilometers west of Musina, visitors who climbed the giant rock called Klein Bolayi counted themselves lucky. Clouds blew in from the east just a few minutes after the eclipse ended.