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Bushcamp Eclipse

The Total Solar Eclipse on 4. December 2002 in Camp Shingwedzi, Kruger National Park, South Africa

Experience Report

Stephan Heinsius and Eclipse 2002

At almost 100% cloud cover Corona successfully observed!

Solar Eclipse in Africa. After the 21. June 2001 a second time. And more opportunities to observe animals and landscapes. That is what was offered by a travel description, that I found on the Website of Reisebüro "Bonn-Südstadt". Observation of the total solar eclipse in the Kruger National Park and a lot of animal observations were on the itinerary, as tour guide a biologist and zoologist. Enthusiastic by the stalk drives of my Zimbabwe-travel of 2001 I wished not only to observe a total solar eclipse (maybe this time more and bigger, anyway other prominences to be seen), but also wild animals in beautiful landscape with strong cumulus clouds and clear blue skies, because different to June during December within this area Africa’s rainy season should be present.

Within an astonishing small travel group of only 5 people I reached as participant of this tour operated by "Karawane" after visiting the towns of Johannesburg and Pretoria already on 29. November the Kruger National Park, located in the extreme northeast of South Africa. The drive went from Pretoria to eastern directions, amongst others through the impressing sparse mountain landscapes at Blyde River Canyon. From the mountains we could see already a few days earlier into the easterly located plane, where the ca. 60 kilometers wide and ca. 400 kilometers long Kruger National Park ranged.

The game drives in Kruger Park, which began shortly after sunrise at 5 a.m., presented us encounters with many different wild animals in various environments, at overcast and at sunny weather, and in different distances and numbers of animals. Unfortunately the silence of the natural environment only could be experienced, when the air condition and the engine of our bus were switched off. The silence of the extent of the park often was withheld. But it was really not so silent, because a lot of animal voices shaped the sound patterns of the landscape in the near and in the far, mainly the cries and tweets of the birds.

Elephants Panorama

Elephants Panorama













We moved through the middle and northern areas of the park, stayed overnight at the camps Satara, Letaba, Olifants and Shingwedzi. At the two days before the solar eclipse the sun beamed down from a summerly blue sky, where the most contrasts due to shadows were present at mornings and evenings. At noon the sun stood in the zenith (the southern tropic (of Capricorn) runs directly through the park) and gave the landscape due to the shadowlessness a foreign insipid view, that is not known in central Europe and best can be compared with the impression of alight high cloud cover, that despite the brightness dispossesses the landscape from its shadows.

On the evening before the solar eclipse I assembled my telescope equipment, consisting of a Revue refractor (D=60mm, f=910mm) and a Skywatcher refractor (D=70mm, f=700mm). From the western parts of the camp Olifants located on a hill now the "dress rehearsal" for the solar eclipse consisted of the capture of the sunset over the Kruger National Park. At the morning I viewed the lunar crescent 28 hours before the solar eclipse. Now also the last sunset before the great event.

Sunset in Kruger National Park

Sunset in Kruger National Park

Lunar Crescent

Lunar Crescent 28 hours before the Solar Eclipse

But would the weather keep as good as it was until now? During the whole day in the west and in the south upcoming cirrus clouds could be seen. Would they become more and cover the remaining blue sky? The thought of an approaching warm front had finally dispersed around noon, as the fine clouds towards the horizon showed partly significant holes. The cirrus clouds finally gave the sunset additional brilliance.

4. December 2002 – The day of the solar eclipse over Kruger National Park – Wake up at 3:20 a.m., departure from the Camp Olifants at 4:00 a.m.. Instead of 4:30 a.m. today on the day of eclipse, the gate of the camp should be opened already at 4:00 a.m.. We had more then 100km to drive into the zone of totality, had to consider possible chaotic traffic conditions, speed limits and road closures beginning at certain times.

Within the zone of totality was the camp Shingwedzi, with a totality duration of 1:26 minute located near the center line, best for solar eclipse observation. According dashboard coming from the South it should only be allowed to drive to a temporarily constructed observation zone "Dzombo Plato". A further drive to the North, to Shingwedzi, should not be possible.

So I hoped, to reach Dzombo with a totality duration of 1:12 minute, and not to be routed to Mupani (0:41 Minute totality duration) due to a late approach.

Still in Olifants I recognized that stars were hardly visible, and those with a small veil around. Have cirrus clouds from yesterday spread over the whole sky? Inner unrest – wait, how it looks like, when it is becoming lighter...

Not cirrus clouds. No, on our drive to the North in the area of Letaba a deep closed cloud cover revealed with dawn around 4:30 a.m.! Just at Letaba itself a remarkable hole un the clouds. From the West a rain front seemed to come up! The hope, to see just a bit of the sun during the eclipse decreased to nearly zero. I thought: "A wonder must have to happen, if this eclipse should become a success."

We passed Mupani early and drove further North, reached Dzombo already around 6 a.m.. Also Dzombo we could pass unexpectedly and drove further to Shingwedzi. Despite traffic jam before Shingwedzi we reached the camp before 7 a.m..

Aready in the area around Dzombo the weather situation improved such that it became thrilling again. The sun has risen in the meantime and seemed to melt away clouds due to its increasing beaming angle. The cloud cover became thin, holes emerged. A second higher cloud cover was relatively week. And despite clouds around the sun shone in Shingwedzi, when we arrived there.

I looked for a suitable observation site and found it despite many people at the camp at a free space with eastern viewing direction near the weather station at the eastern border of the camp. Due to having already assembled my telescopes the day before, and the possibility to transport it during the drive on two free seats in the bus, just separated from the tripod, the construction of my observation equipment lasted a few minutes only.

Cloud situation

Cloud situation before first contact

Unfortunately the sun now did not shine anymore. The first contact at 7:13 a.m. was hidden behind clouds and the situation seemed not to change. We could be happy at these much clouds, when we could see the partial phase just a single time! I sat at the tour group, in a few meters distance to my instruments. I saw a small cloud hole and thought, that it may become interesting, without to think about that it could happen already a few moments later: At the next view I saw it actually and fully unexpectedly, the sun already ca. 50% eclipsed - "There it is!" I called and rushed to my equipment, aligned, focussed and shot the first photo, noted 07:45 a.m..

Then clouds again. 8 a.m. – Sun there again, now for a longer time, but permanently weakened by clouds. No I could bring my Revue refractor to action, but not as planned with, but solely without filter foil. A difficult and (only for very experienced observers!) extremely carefully to handle situation. The exposure times repeatedly changing – that could only be made with automatic exposure. No sunspots visible. With the filter it was all dark, and without filter the sun was too bright and the risk too high, to observe it in more detail. The tops of the crescent I could use for focus adjustment after leaving of the display window, and already this observation was rather too risky.

Solar Crescent (1): 600mm

8:00 a.m.: View of the partial solar eclipse

Solar Crescent (2): 910mm

Solar Crescent

The solar crescent became thinner and thinner, gleaming colours in the cloud structures pulling ahead. The sun came out and disappeared again and again behind smaller thicker cloud areas. A group of Spaniards beside me supported me with my adjustments at the Revue refractor indirectly by their callings at appearing sun, because the difficulty was that the partially disappeared sun was not available for adjustment of display window and focussing and additionally at disappeared sun it was not clear, if the display window still was correct. It became cooler and darker, a few minutes before totality! I decided to demount the video camera (Sony DCR-VX 700) mounted on the Skywatcher Refractor and just let it switched on instead of the originally planned wide angle video pictures of corona and leaving moon shadow.

The permanent forth and back and the upcoming totality let it run hot through my veins, shivering by exitement. The thin solar crescent, that just already lost ist tops, was gone, no second contact visible. Like with a dimmer the light turned down the moon’s shadow laid over us from behind. Darkness. Cloud puffs in the display angle of the 35mm lens of the Olympus OM1-camera.

Solar crescent (3): 910mm

Solar crescent shortly before totality

Solar crescent (4): 910mm

Solar crescent shortly after totality

Wolkensituation (hoch)

Cloud situation shortly before totality

Suddenly a piece of corona, but so weakly, also in the telescope: the auto- exposure mechanism of the Canon-EOS500N-camera positioned behind the Revue refractor focally at 910mm wants to give me 8 seconds of exposure time. That is (without tracking) much too long, thus switching to manual, 1.5 seconds, more may it simply not be. View through the viewfinder before releasing, but is then the corona is gone again, everything black! With the naked eye I recognize the flat coating clouds, which laid themselves already again in front of it. The view through the viewfinder of the video camera does not show anything more. In the viewfinder of the Canon camera everything remains deeply black. And again watch with the naked eyes again: There it is again, the corona. The Spaniards call. In the viewfinder of the camera it could be seen also, a little bit moved out to the top, nevertheless released with 1.5 seconds of exposure time.



Corona 2contrast-increased

Corona 25% contrast-increased

The corona can be seen as a dark weak wreath. Yes, it is complete, but so dark, it can not separate from the clouds, and already it is gone again. Around the place, where it just was, is can be seen with the naked eyes now that all around there it has become a bit brighter, a wreath of smallest cloud holes, or simply just thinner areas at the overcast sky. And then the light turns on again. Behind the small flat cloud, only some solar diameters large, the light breaks out again. It becomes bright, also around me. And there again the narrow solar crescent can be seen again, not yet it is completely round. It stands differently around than before, the moon moves out now again on the other side of the sun.

I took some other few photos at 910mm, zoomed with the video camera again a bit closer to the solar crescent. Before the totality had I had to zoom away, so that the upward left moving sun still would remain within the picture safely. A new adjustment at the tripod was so short before totality too risky for me, since it was not safe, whether the sun would be seen long enough to do the adjustment of the image window.

I could hardly use the Skywatcher refractor, which I wanted to use for the observation, since it was too risky for the direct view into the sun due to the constantly changing lighting conditions, and with sun filter (Baader foil) nearly nothing could be seen.

The thicker become solar crescent showed up then for a few minutes quite well with filter visible, so that I could allow myself and the others of the group views through both telescopes and in addition also could take with a quarter of the past image window photographs with 2x tele converter at 1820mm.

Shortly after that stronger clouds came up, which reached the horizon. Now the sun remained hidden over half an hour completely behind it. 10-15 minutes before the fourth contact it came out again and already had climbed significantly toward the zenith. I took some other photos at different focal lengths, and could pursue the moon up to the fourth contact at 09:38.

Solar Crescent (5): 910mm

Solar Crescent

Sun with spots: 1820mm

Sun with spots some minutes before the fourth contact

Afterwards I allowed myself a small breakfast, then got my things together, disassembled the telescopes and packed them again. Around 10:10 our bus came back and picked me up. After moving into our rooms in Shingwedzi we went again for a game drive, this time along the nearly drained Shingwedzi river.

Animals could hardly be seen here. Perhaps they also were still busy with the impressions of the terminated solar eclipse like me. It was totally exciting, because of constantly changing cloud conditions and the totality with the corona seen twice, even if one had the impression that the sky hung of full clouds.

With these clouds now the rainy season began, because on the day after the weather was similar, and then it began to rain. Now there were actually the sunny mornings and the large heap clouds in the afternoon and evening, from which there were heavy rains.

For the conclusion of the journey we were in the private game reservation Entabeni at the Waterbergs, a marvelous mountain landscape, where we finally had seen the rhinos, which we looked for in vain in the Kruger park.

Rhinos in Entabeni

Rhinos in Entabeni

Stephan Heinsius.

Copy of the records of 5. and 8.12.2002 to 14.12.2002, adding the pictures at 15. and 18.12.2002.

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