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The March 29, 2006 Total Solar Eclipse traveled through northwest Africa, turned slightly east emerging from the Libyan coast, crossing the Mediterranean into Turkey. I had read that traveling in Africa is usually more difficult than in Turkey, so began researching trips there.
I had settled on a coastal location as a viewing site, when I came across a brochure for an eclipse cruise that piqued my interest. It advertised viewing the eclipse from the Sahara Desert in Libya. Now 2005-2006 was a brief window when the U.S. State Department allowed Americans to travel to Libya and since the duration of totality was greater there than Turkey, I figured I should try it. (My wife and I thoroughly enjoy cruising.) A group consisting of my wife and I, my brother and his wife, a friend of theirs, a former student, and three teachers arrived at Genoa, Italy to board the MSC Sinfonia for a 12 day Mediterranean cruise, including stops at places I had only read about: Naples, Syracuse, Alexandria, Tobruk (I had actually never read about, indeed, never heard of Tobruk,) Tripoli, Malta, and Salerno. It was over my school’s spring break so I only missed a week of school. Man was it worth it.
On this trip, I was not in charge. I did not have to arrange anything for the group. I was a participant only and it felt good. There were over 3000 passengers on board, all there for the same reason as I, to see the eclipse. Once again I was in astronomy nerd heaven. There were daily seminars on eclipses with several big name astronomers sharing their expertise. The ship was equipped with stabilizers so even at sea solar telescopes were set up on the deck for people to peer through.
This was my brother’s first eclipse and I recall him making a point of telling me of his discussions with people on the ship who knew how many total minutes they had been in the moon’s umbra, the full shadow, in the many eclipses they had viewed. I thought, “Yeah, I know that. No big deal.” (It’s 14 minutes, 28 seconds)
The weather was great for the entire trip. Spring in the Mediterranean was delightful. I did many firsts (and lasts) like ride a camel, see the pyramids, travel on a funiculare and enjoy the view of Mare Nostrum (the Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea) from a remarkably well preserved ruin in Libya, Leptis Magna.
The day before E-day we pulled in to Tobruk. The Sinfonia had never called on that port before. In fact no ship in the MSC line had ever called on Tobruk, so this was a big deal. We watched from the railing as dignitaries arrived at the gangway and a ceremony marking the arrival and new relationship unfolded below us. Flowers were brought by children and a great show of welcome and hospitality was made. I should mention that, in a somewhat ironic turn of events, shortly before our arrival at this port, all the passengers were informed by the ship’s officers that Libya had added a $100 per person entry fee into the country, and as a courtesy that charge would be added to our room bill.
Early the next morning we looked out on the pier and saw 50 or more buses there to drive us two hours into the Sahara Desert to a site that had been set up for viewing the eclipse. One problem: there was fog in every direction. We boarded the buses in fog and drove through the city and into the country in the fog. We spent the next hour trying to convince ourselves that the fog would not last and the sun would shortly burn it off. Well, it took longer than I had hoped but it did, in fact, clear up.
The morning fog on our way to the Sahara viewing site.
The string of buses turned off the highway and trekked up a slight incline to a plateau. There was a tent city set up with vendors with all kinds of goods along with dozens of port-a-potties. We each grabbed a chair and a table for our group of 9 and picked a spot from among the several acres where people were spreading out. We were in the company of thousands but literally in the middle of nowhere. The horizon was clear in all directions. No sand dunes here. Nothing but the flat, pebbly, hard packed soil as far as the eye could see.
This was a big event for Libya. Seldom had so many foreigners been allowed to enter the country. A news crew with a camera on a cherry picker documented the throng. Libyan Boy Scouts entertained with dances and songs. Merchants hawked their wares as the passengers filled the booths.
We set up our gear and then walked around inspecting other setups. To say that there was an interesting juxtaposition of raw nature and high tech telescopes and cameras is an understatement. But all that faded into the background with first contact. The sky was totally devoid of clouds. Only the sun and the silhouetted moon existed. As the moon advanced across the sun, the color of the sky became as rich and varied as I have ever seen it. As the moon’s shadow raced across the ground from the southwest and engulfed our temporary town, the rich colors of dusk washed over the entire horizon. Beautiful yellows and oranges and reds no matter where you turned. And the crowd roared its approval and cheered encouragement for the moon to cover the last bit of the photosphere. For a few, precious seconds a clear, crisp diamond ring adorned the sky. More cheers went up as the last bit was covered.
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The eclipsed sun in this photo is from another photo taken that day.
And then there was the corona. That awesome black circle, hole in the sky, surrounded by gorgeous streamers of pearly light. Some of those extended three, four and more solar diameters away from the black hole! Man, what an amazing sight. jaw-dropping, mind-blowing, breath-taking sight. Nearby, the planets and bright stars appeared. In the middle of the day! There were no animals or birds to go to roost, but a hush fell over the spectators of this grandest of celestial events. Cameras snapped and videos rolled as time seemed to stand still and we soaked up the rare ambiance of this syzygy. This was a moment worth savoring. But time moves on and while this eclipse lasted for 4 minutes, all too soon, with the crowd roaring its encouragement, the moon began the lengthy reveal of the sun and allowed its return to its normal, dazzling self.
As the moon receded from the sun, a box lunch was provided by the cruise line staff. Munching on a sandwich and fruit the reality of viewing the eclipse from such a grand but desolate location began to sink in. It was doubtful that these circumstances would ever be repeated, so if I have said it before I will say it again, this was a once in a lifetime experience.
(Excerpt from Go See The Eclipse And Take A Kid With You by Chap Percival.)
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