Sunless safari: a new breed of hunters hits Africa

Armed with telescopes, protective glasses, and sunscreen, visitors from around the world examined the 3-minute eclipse.

In times past, it was the mighty elephant that drew hunters to Africa's open expanses. But the foreigners that trekked here this week were on a different sort of quest.

Armed with telescopes and protective glasses, these visitors looked skyward, waiting for a rare, total eclipse of the sun.

More than 20,000 safari-clad tourists, T-shirted astronomy buffs, and new age 20-somethings from as far away as Japan and Ecuador descended on this sparsely populated African nation to witness one of the world's great celestial events.

For just over three minutes yesterday, a narrow band of southern Africa went dark as the moon passed between the earth and sun. Just after 3 p.m., the stars came out for a few moments, and time seemed to stand still.

Most of the tourists spent the afternoon at farms in the countryside. At one farm, about 5,000 young people gathered and swayed to trance music during a 10-day rave called Solipse.

At other rural locations, scientists and astronomy buffs. who had hauled pounds of expensive equipment halfway around the world, studied the eclipse with their eye pressed to the lens of a camera or telescope.

"There are all sorts of astronomy geeks like me trying to take pictures," says Achut Reddy, an amateur astronomer from outside San Francisco, who spent the days before the eclipse setting up his camera and telescope over and over again, practicing in preparation for the big event. Mr. Reddy, who witnessed his first eclipse in Turkey in 1999, says "the visual effect, the emotional effect, of a total eclipse is completely amazing." Danny Ramsaran quit his job as a recruiter in The Hague to follow the eclipse to southern Africa, after watching the 1999 eclipse from Hungary. "The last one sustained me for two years, it's sustaining me even now," says Mr. Ramsaran, who was at the Solipse festival.

Some of their Zambian hosts, most of whom live on less than $1 day, saw the tourist boomlet as a way to make a little extra money. On a lonely hill outside Lusaka, a young boy hung a hand-painted sign advertising the spot as the best place to view the eclipse, for a small fee.

Although Zambia expects to reap about $15 million from eclipse chasers, few ordinary citizens will benefit.

Most of the visitors came on tours run by European and American companies and spent their few days in the country being shuttled on foreign-registered buses from upscale international hotels to farms owned by wealthy whites.

Through the media, the Zambian government repeatedly warned citizens about the dangers of looking directly into the sun during the eclipse, and handed out thousands of protective glasses. Some reports said that there were not enough glasses to go around, however, raising health concerns. Glasses were also available for sale, but cost 30 cents to $3, putting them out of reach for most.

The night before the eclipse, many locals said they planned to spend the day inside. "There is fear," says George Mbewu. "Many of the old people think they will go blind."

Lacking glasses, children in townships watched the eclipse through scraps of plastic and even welding masks shared among dozens.

At Lusaka's University of Zambia, where thousands of locals gathered to watch the eclipse, it felt like a gigantic tailgate party. When the sun was completely overshadowed, people began singing, dancing and hooting car horns in celebration.

The eclipse was unique, experts say, because it occurred during the southern hemisphere's winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The clear skies were perfect for viewing.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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