Madagascar 2001

The Total Solar Eclipse

Shortly after totality

We arrived in Ranohira in the evening of the 19th June having bussed and cycled from the capital, Antananarivo during the previous five days. On the morning of the day before totality, with the small town rapidly filling with tourists, we tried to get entry permits into the Isola National Park. We were told that unless we had booked permits in advance we could not have one. We asked about cycling up the track to the east of the park and after a some conferring we were told that we could not go there without a permit either! We decided to try anyway and in the afternoon, after lunch at the Hotel Berny and an encounter with a chameleon, we cycled up the track with no problems. There was no one else there anyway! My stomach had been complaining for a while and I didn't want to go too far up the track, although in England, before we had set off, we had decided we would cycle the 15km or so up to the centre line along the track. Instead, we found a couple of spots not too far down the track and decided on a place with a magnificent view of the Isola mountains but far enough away to still be able to see the Sun at its low elevation of 10 degrees which it would be at during totality. This was to prove an important decision...

That evening we joined the Baobab group on a short trip to the Fenètre d'Isola - a natural rock arch behind which the Sun was to set. After ignoring the road block and rumours of bandits we finally reached the rock. A small group of soldiers was on guard there. They were under orders not to let anyone approach, but on seeing the crowds decided to give way, though they were obviously a little uneasy about it all. The sunset was magnificent, but just as strange was the sight of all these people who had come to watch it. It was like a scene out of the film "Close Encounters". On the way back, it rained. Nothing unusual you might think, but we were later told that the last time it rained in June here was over 15 years ago! Perhaps this was a sign that the weather was up to something...

On the morning of the eclipse, we cycled up the path towards the "Piscine Naturel", but we were not allowed through the gate. Soldiers there told us we could get a permit in the town, but we knew otherwise. We decided to go back to the Hotel Berny for lunch. This was when we discovered that the chameleon was in fact a pet of the young boy who pointed him out to people in the hope of being rewarded! The terrace was now full of hopeful eclipse chasers, hoping that there would be a gap in the clouds, which now covered about half the sky, in the right place at the right time. We chatted with several of them, including a young Dutch couple who had decided to spend their honeymoon watching the eclipse.

We cycled up the track again. Several of the Baobab group had decided not to follow their directions to go into the park, but to follow us. They came by bus. We all eagerly awaited the magnificent spectacle about to unfold. Several of the group had missed the last eclipse in Europe and had come all the way to Madagascar to be sure of sunshine this time. Unfortunately, the clouds were building still. First contact - one hour fifteen to go. We watched the Moon slowly cover the face of the Sun until about two-thirds was covered - the excitement and tension was building. A large cloud which had been slowly rising now covered the Sun. We were not too worried - it was moving quite quickly and was sure to pass by before totality - after all there was twenty minutes to go yet. We reassured everyone waiting that anything could happen in the next half hour. The sun shone briefly over Ranohira and then it clouded over there again. Much of the Isola Park was in shade. Behind us, no more than 10km away, the sun was still shining. More to the point, about 10km up the track - where we had originally planned to be - was now back in sunshine.

What you have to remember is that during eclipses, the weather can do funny things. Things change quickly as the air cools. Winds can come quickly, as they did in Romania in 1999, or can stop just as quickly as they did right here and now, leaving that dirty great cloud completely obscuring the sun. By the time it dawned on us that we weren't going to see the eclipse it was too late to move anywhere else. The ground was rough and there was no way we would get to the sunlight, so close and yet so far away in time. Someone began to sing, "Always look on the bright side of life..."

It got dark. Slowly at first and then more quickly. Jupiter shone brightly to the upper left of the Sun in the dark blue sky. The horizon was golden all around. Everyone was silent. It was impressive, but oh how so disappointing not to see the sun. Not to see the final few seconds as the sun fades to become a bright star before being snuffed out. Not to see the corona, the prominences, the magnetic field lines. All too quickly it got light again. It was all over - and we had missed it!

In the evening, in the motel, we watched videos of the eclipse taken by people lucky enough to have seen it. A Japanese guy had a superb image of a double diamond ring. A rather exuberant German guy told us not to be too sad as we had plenty of great eclipses coming up. Fine if you have the money to travel... I felt more sorry for the Baobab travellers who had missed the previous eclipse - they had not yet seen one, and for the young Dutch couple on their honeymoon, who had also been unlucky. At least I could still close my eyes whenever I liked and could see that sight from the top of Cârja in the Transylvanian Alps - the black Sun in a purple sky with a golden horizon all around. I'll never forget it.

You can read more about our cycling tour of Madagascar here



Peter, me & Julian in eclipse T-shirts Isalo Park from the eclipse viewing site Just before the clouds came over! Partially eclipsed sun - see ghost image top right Eclipse group photo sunset after the eclipse Huub & Tineke Nicole, Amy & Peter

Now see what we missed!