Ring of fire

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Melissa Kay reports on a safari experience to eclipse all others in Tanzania

Melissa-Valente-eclipse_comp2“As the temperature drops and the light all but disappears, insects are silenced, owls and frogs take over their calls and impala draw together, twitching and alert.” These are observations gathered from the 2001 eclipse. Now Africa prepares for its next astronomical adventure and tourists considering safari in 2016 could add similar experiences to their itineraries.

On 1 September, a broad swathe of central and southern Africa will fall under the eerie twilight of an annular solar eclipse, and for those in just the right location there will be the rare opportunity to enjoy the resulting ‘ring of fire’ in the sky, combined with wildlife reacting to the sudden drop in temperature and light.

Anticipating animal behaviour
Animal behaviour during an eclipse remains something of a mystery. It is simply such an unusual combination to encounter that very few people have had the opportunity. Travel Africa spoke to some of the animal behaviour experts who have experienced the magic of an eclipse in Africa and this is what they had to say: “In 1980 I opted to spend the solar eclipse in the Ngorongoro Crater where the light dropped 98 per cent,” explains Dr Craig Packer, Professor at the University of Minnesota and author of Lions in the Balance. “It was more than thirty years ago, but a few key moments stand out. First, as the temperature dropped, a swarm of bees was caught mid-flight and literally dropped out of the sky onto my vehicle: thousands and thousands of them huddling to keep their queen warm. The flamingos also stood out, as it was clear they were preparing to roost for the night, tucking their heads under their wings and standing on one leg. But above all, what I remember is the strangely vivid light; despite our dim surroundings, colours seemed brighter. It was evident that this was not simply the sky darkening due to a storm, it felt different, and the animals seemed to sense it, too.”

Professor Paul Murdin, of Cambridge University and a Senior Fellow of the Institute of Astronomy, relays similar findings from his experience over Mana Pools in Zimbabwe: “The diminishing light and warmth caused hippos sleeping on a sandbank to wake and disperse into the river, seeking breakfast. When the sunlight returned, they were clearly not sure whether to eat or go back to bed.” He adds:  “The drama of an eclipse is not only awe-inspiring for us; the sudden chill has a very real physiological impact.”

Perhaps it is this less tangible aspect of an eclipse that causes wildlife such as zebra and wildebeest to react. They have been reported to gather youngsters to the centre of their groups, while Egyptian geese, generally found enjoying the cool of a waterside location during the day have been spotted flying in the fading light. When it comes to larger mammals, less is known. Dame Daphne Sheldrick of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust states: “I would not expect elephants to act differently, but they are highly sensitive and will be aware of it.” She adds: “As far as we are aware there has been no research into this, so it will be interesting to see.”

Animals such as big cats or other hunting mammals may be found to respond to the unusual light conditions. Alexandra Swanson, Ph.D, comments: “Lions use the darkness of night to hunt most effectively, so if the opportunity to hunt during the eclipse arose, perhaps they would be tempted. Of course, the eclipse may not last long enough for them to take advantage of the darkness.”

The science
While most of Africa will see at least a partial eclipse, only those directly on the line of annularity will see the beautiful symmetry of the Moon’s shadow aligning with the sun to create that circle of light. It will start in the Atlantic Ocean, move across Gabon, the Congo, Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar, and out into the Indian Ocean. Most of these places are logistically or politically complex, but experts are citing Tanzania as the destination to watch it from, since the country’s dependable weather, invariably clear ‘big skies’, abundant wildlife and peaceful reputation make it a top tourist destination. There won’t be another annular solar eclipse in Tanzania until 21 May 2031.

The central line will fall along Western Tanzania, making Katavi National Park the only National Park directly on the eclipse path and thus the ultimate spot to be in on the day. Other places where symmetry will be good, though not absolute, will include Mahale Mountains and Mbeya.

Terry Moseley (author, former President of the IAA, Fellow of the RAS and tour astronomer for The Independent Traveller), explains: “An annular eclipse occurs when the Moon’s apparent disc does not appear big enough to completely cover the Sun, so a thin ring of the Sun’s outer edge remains. This means that the darkness is not absolute, in this case about nine percent so while annulars do not produce the special effects seen during totality, they have an eerie twilight beauty of their own. On or near the central line the ring appears as a circle, and the symmetry is spectacular.”

How to book
Booking with an astronomy travel specialist will enable you to optimise the potential of this experience. A reputable company will provide eye protection (no solar eclipse should be viewed without it), specialist equipment such as telescopes and an astronomer guide. Aim to combine this with good quality safari vehicles, the ideal location and some experienced guides who know the park well.

 

The Independent Traveller (eclipse.independenttraveller.com) is one of the only tour companies with accommodation pre-booked directly on the path of the eclipse, in Katavi National Park.

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