Travel Journals by Hilary Hopkins

June 19 -30 2001 / Zambia: African Circle Part 2

Total Eclipse in Zimbabwe, and Walking in Zambia
Part 1 - To Zimbabwe for the Total Solar Eclipse

Part 1 - To Zimbabwe for the Total Solar Eclipse

6/19  our last day in Namibia.  Okonjima Lodge to Harare, Zimbabwe

I have been getting up before dawn each day and this day is no exception.   I dress and wash quickly, avoiding the stinkbugs as best I can, and come out into the fine morning.  At the Lion Lapa, the terrace overlooking the lions' visiting area, I have hot coffee and chat a bit with a Brit woman who is also there, about the coming eclipse, and the lions, and all.  The lions appear, the two males' manes glowing in the new sunlight.  A couple more Brit ladies gather round as I go on about the eclipse, how to use the welder's glass, and whatever.  A few more people arrive, including some of ours.  Paul, who with his wife Joan are the best of the lot, are there, and Paul gives me a wonderful compliment.  "I can see you really are a teacher," he says, "You looked so happy, teaching those women.  I wish I'd had a teacher like you."  Tears start in my eyes and I thank him for this recognition of my most important  self.

Too soon we pile into the open-topped vehicle, our bags in another, and drive a few minutes to the little grass airstrip, where our small charter plane will meet us.  It arrives, pulls up smartly, and out hops a cute young pilot in shorts, looking just about old enough to shave.  We squeeze into our seats, after hugging Vincent goodbye, and at liftoff the last animals we see are a pair of jackals, watching us alertly as always.

As I always do in small planes, I love seeing the landscape from up here, snuggled close to John, making our own little island of illusionary safety, and comfort.

After an hour we land just short of the border with Botswana, and in an empty building go through the brief formalities of leaving Namibia. 

In bed in these early mornings, when I waken about 4 am, I have been spending an hour in re-collection of images: the white pure pan, the red satin dunes, the galloping giraffe--or taking a virtual re-tour of Australia, or of Alaska or Belize, or Hawaii, or even Papua New Guinea--an encyclopedia of images of places to which I can return at any time.  The Mara.  Kenya and Tanzania seemed more African to us because we were surrounded by black people, who seemed much more a part of this landscape than the white people.  I liked being here on their terms rather than white terms  I am sure I have this all wrong, but that is how it looks and feels.

After this brief stop, we take off again, as easily as a small bird, and fly over the desert for another couple of hours, to land this time in Botswana for refueling and the bathroom.   We mill about restlessly, with nothing to do but wait.  Christian our boy pilot is chatting with the guys pumping fuel, and finally comes in to tell us that as soon as the helicopter which has landed by the fuel pumps and departs, we can be off.  It does and we are.

We fly over a town.  I see a scummy river below in which are people bathing, washing, walking along, and there are animals in the water.  There are square houses with tin roofs.   The shadow of our plane courses the landscape of sparse woodland.  The horizon is milky blue and perfectly flat.  Lines of roads appear and disappear below, seeming not to go anywhere, but which must connect the people to something of importance to them. 

We cross the wide mown border with Zimbabwe.  Almost immediately signs of prosperity appear--farms, larger buildings, round irrigated swathes.  Little settlements, some towns.  Fires whose smoke rises to a certain level and then collects and flattens out along an invisible ceiling.

Finally we land in Harare, the capitol of Zimbabwe.  Once again we are the only passengers in the airport, which this time is enormous and appears brand new, built and opened yesterday afternoon perhaps.  Turns out three months ago. There are little kiosks renting telephones, and a branch of the bank, and a bar area, all deserted except for their smartly turned out tenders, who are all black and very spiff. 

The meet and greets are white, though, and at length we load onto a large bus and are joined by the other Namibia group, who has been going on our trip only in the opposite direction.  They are older than all of us, and cranky.  We have made not very kind jokes about them ever since we found out about them oh, surely a few months ago.

At the hotel, we meet a couple of people who were on the Turkey eclipse with us, on the boat on the Turquoise Coast trip, and that is pleasant, and we have dinner, and I clean everything up including myself, and we sleep, this time without lions, or stinkbugs, on the tenth floor of a very new hotel, in the middle of Africa nonetheless.


6/20  In Harare

There is not a lion to be seen before or during breakfast.

Instead, there is a handsome group of big young athletes, handsome black men of large and healthy stature, a sports team of some kind.    There are other black guests too, and I feel better.

Our morning's excursion is to a place described as a sculpture park, a strange conglomeration of a "traditional village" presided over by a traditional healer, who is markedly shrewd, sharp, observant, and humorous, dressed in a black and white robe and ostrich headdress, missing most of his teeth.  He says he tells fortunes, and will be available after lunch; I feel drawn to this idea.

The main thing here is a vast collection of stone sculptures, done in a strange bulky spare style; one of our group says they look like mythological figures and I agree.  There are resident sculptors here on 3-month fellowships, one of whom, named Nicholas, shows us a bit about his work.  Nicholas has an easy body and quick radiant smile, and is quick to understand the import of people's questions.  He looks sharply and appraisingly at his work, handles his tools respectfully. 

Then we are eased toward the gallery for possible purchases.  I would really like to make a purchase but the art leaves me unmoved.  We explore a bit in some "crafts" stores, but most of it is uninteresting.  I have already bought my fine photograph of the zebras galloping across the desert, and some beautiful pillowcases, and my guinea fowl from Etosha, and another tiny guinea fowl which I'll introduce to my other tiny animals.  I'd love a piece of kinte cloth, some examples of which are framed in the bar in the hotel, but I don't see any.  And anyway that is a West African art.

Our Namibia group grabs one of the folks from Wilderness Travel, to bend her ear about how great the trip was, and how we don't want the geriatric grumpy group to have the only input.  She's pleased and listens carefully, but I think the damage was done a while back, since I know their tours for next year are already decided, and omit all the cross-country driving we have done.  Too bad.

After lunch we have the entertainment, dancing, drumming, singing and story-telling by a troupe which has been doing this here at the sculpture park since it opened fifteen years ago.  They are wonderful, vastly energetic and versatile, and the story-teller, the leader, has the whole group of a hundred of us in thrall with his story.  He reminds me, in his tradition, of our very own Brother Blue of  Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts..  His language is precise and telling, and his face compels one to watch and listen.. 

Back here at the hotel, I have a nap while John goes to astronomy talks, and I catch myself up in here.  Tomorrow is the eclipse, and then we shall be off to Zambia.  We have met the family we'll be traveling with, and they seem fine.

In fewer than 24 hours the moon and sun and earth will be in this alignment for such a brief time, but enough to cause all of these many events in which we are participating.  The gears turn soundlessly--or is that them I hear, so faintly, beneath the human noises? 

6/21  Eclipse Day   Summer Solstice   First Day of Summer.  In the countryside of Zimbabwe.

So the whole group gathers in the pre-dawn  to board the buses, to take us to the eclipse setting up in the mountains.  There are supposed to be three buses, but the one we are to get on has some trouble and keeps us waiting for half an hour.  I am frantic with concern, because I can imagine a situation in which I will not get to see the eclipse, which might very well be the last one I will ever see...

But the bus comes, and we drive at sunrise past farmlands and neat settlements of thatched rondavels and square houses, past people walking and riding, higher and higher.  As we get closer to the site, there are more and more people waving at us from the sides of the road.

The most touching sight of all, that I shall always remember, is of a whole school, the children lined up by their teacher by the side of the road outside their school building, in their neat uniforms, all waving to us and smiling and calling.  I would so love to have stopped, gone into that school, and taken that class of small African children for an hour or so.  That was inspired of the teacher, to organize her children in this way, on this great day.  I hope that all of the children remember this day, and the day's experiences, their whole lives.  I will think of them and their teacher now and then, and our lives that were tangent to each other.

We all arrive at the site of the base camp, a sort of camping place in a conservation area, and then we're taken a ten minute drive down the road to the viewing site, so we can all check it out and think where we might want to be. 

It's a wonderful sight, it is, 122 people and their leaders scrambling up the hillside, gathered around Bill Abbot (the president and founder of Wilderness Travel), as he explains the reasons they chose this site.  I love it right away; there is a splendid view down the side of the mountain across the next ridge to the flat plains that are laid out with farmlands.  I go just over and down the crest of the hill and find where I want to be, which will be near people but not with them, which is what I want.  I'm happy with it and now just want to get started.

But we go back to base camp, where people mill about eating and drinking and making little cardboard holders for their eclipse filter glass.   We tend to first things: purchase a couple of eclipse t-shirts from the local conservation organization, which they are selling to raise money, and then wander over to where there are supposed to be "village crafts."  It's not much of a thing, it seems, at first glance--just one young man who has set out some of the stone sculptures on some blankets, and a few other things--walking sticks, and the like.  I so desperately want to have something from here, to help him out and to bring something from this place that will become important to me--so I look carefully at the smallest sculptures.  Among them is a lovely little baboon, of black stone, in his standing stance, his shoulders slightly higher than his withers, I check the price.  It is, sadly and wonderfully, only $2US.  So I buy him, and I will take him home with me and have him to remind me of this day and this place.

After I tape my welders’ glass to my binoculars, I look at the sun.  There are wonderful sunspots, two big ones and a cluster of smaller ones.  I rush about trying to show them to others, ever the teacher, the facilitator.  Nothing delights me as much as the cry of delight when someone sees what I am trying to get them to see. 

We are racing to keep our appointment with the sun and the moon, and time and physics.  Other people  are on the roads, too,  stopped with barbeques and coolers by the sides of the road.  If they have never seen an eclipse--which I am sure most of them never have--they cannot imagine what it will be like.

Finally people are herded to the buses for the real drive to the viewing site.  John and I are first off the bus, each of us grabs a red folding chair and we hustle up the hill.

I get my spot, just below the hill's crest, overlooking the plain of farms.  There are yellow grass tussocks around my chair which I have set up under a small tree on the dry soil.   Some yellow butterflies, and some blues, flutter around.  A couple of beetles lumber past my feet.  There are people all over, on the hill just above me, and on the roadside below.  I can see little groups scattered among the trees.  I hear voices, laughter, and music.  A festive atmosphere. 

I am waiting for First Contact.  I love First Contact because it is a profound affirmation that the great mechanics of the universe are working.  Imagine the fright if the eclipse were predicted to happen at a certain time, and it did not happen then.  Imagine the terror. 

My pulse rises and my breath shortens as 2:18 approaches.   At 2:16 by my watch I lift the binoculars to my eyes and watch and watch, looking for that faint sharpness of the moon upon the disc of the sun.  My hands shake and it is a bit hard to see, but I know what to look for.  And there it is, deeply reassuring.

"First Contact!"  I shout. 

Now I settle in for the next bit of time, that time of subtleties that gradually drop away to the final horrible moments.  I keep a record, the first time I have done this.


20 minutes in.  Changes are starting.  A quick darting glance toward the sun shows the light is not as diffuse as it should be, and a little breeze, maybe not related, washes our hillside.

I'm quite alone.  I hear and see people behind and below me, but no one comes down here.  Now and then I go up to talk to John a bit, but otherwise I am alone, which is how I like it.

I am sitting in direct sunlight, and its heat is less now, I can tell from my legs that are directly exposed.  The shadows on the page here are longer, or different.


28 minutes in.  The grass shadows on a rock at my feet are sharpening.

Just under my chair, there is a sprig of grass with purple twisted feathery seeds emerging from a neatly braided array.  There's the breeze again.


45 minutes in.  That breeze is still here, and I think I hear more bird calls, their soft evening ones.  A quick dart of a glance at the sun does not even leave an after-image on my retina, and the shadow of my pen is crisp. 

I decide to take a little series of pictures of the grass tussock, and the horizon, at different intervals.  Because there is no one around me, I can concentrate completely on the eclipse, and do not have to pay attention to what other people are doing or saying, and I can hear and see only what is happening to the sun and my own landscape.


2:40 pm, over an hour gone now.  The light is attenuating and getting watery.  I hear more evening bird songs, the richer, fuller, more melodious sounds of evening.


2:48, one hour and a half in now, there are many new birds making their evening calls. 


2:51, evening odors rise with the bird song and the breeze and shadows, all of these sharpening.   Later one of the astronomers said that while an eclipse is very sensory, you can't smell it.  I did.  I smelled the rise of the sweet evening smells.

There is much raucous laughter all around.  There are lots of people here and below us, and if it is their first eclipse they will be stunned.


2:56  I stand up now, and take off my sun hat.  The light is like water or glass.   I stand to mark the implacable event with my body.


2:57  the sun is dying!  It is DYING!


3:02.  The light is smeared across the landscape thinly, and instead of being hot, it is pleasantly cool now, though nothing is pleasant at this time.  Some of the chatter behind me has dropped away.


3:08  The sun is a huge gleaming pearl.  I can look at it.  Its light is dying, draining.  The sounds the people make are deeper, and there is only a little laughter now.




3:13-3:16  now.

I see Baily’s Beads and think, They are mountains on the thinly crescent moon which in a way they are.

Pink and orange prominences.

That implacable, ghastly, ravishing black circle hanging like a horrible terrible mighty god in the heavens.

At the final moment of light, just as the light disappears, a great cry rises from all the people, of terror, of desolation, of grief, of passion.  Like a cry of desolated passion.

The birds are silent in the darkness.

The gleaming corona spreads out past the pure black disc like a great coronation.

The horizon as far around as I can see is dark massive sunset of blue and red.  Jupiter glows near the black sun. 

I weep and cry out, I talk to the sun, I am alone with this great god of celestial mechanics who knows nothing of me, or anything on earth, of the earth itself.  For it is only an event for humans, not for the sun or for the moon, or for anything not on earth.  The solar eclipse is only perceived by, only happens, for humans and for other living things, but we are the only ones who fear it.

I see the chromosphere, glittering pink on the lower limb of the sun.  I see the diamond ring.  I see the light come back, the warmth return though thinly, and it is all over.

The most beautiful of the eclipses.