My 14th Solar Eclipse
My 9th successful
Total Eclipse in a row
This was the eclipse adventure of a lifetime…
Part 2: Venice and Sicily
My life-long passion for chasing eclipses continued in March 2006 with a major expedition to the scorched landscapes of the Sahara Desert in Libya. One of the most intensely anticipated eclipses of my career, this trip delivered more beauty, more adventure and more satisfaction than I could have possibly imagined. And I am very demanding! But the Libyans came through! Their country is a vast, seemingly timeless expanse that exerts an undeniable force – pulling on you from the inside. From this one, we all came back changed. It was like going to the Moon and back. Libya is without question one of the hidden gems of the world – The Sahara, one of the most mysterious places. To collide, here, with nature’s grandest spectacle was one of the peak experiences of my life. So killer!
I embark on this journey with my friend Michael Riley. It’s our second chase together. We leave home for almost a month on 17 March 2006 – full of hope and expectations. But we have no idea what is waiting for us on the other side of the world.
I like to do a lot of travelling before the eclipse. The momentum of all the anticipation is great fuel. And I have to say that the beauty of a city built on water and the sheer novelty of the intricate canal system makes Venice one of the must-see cities of the world. A delight for a few nights…
Our plan is to fill up on red wine & Italian food before the prohibition and desert rations of Libya. So that’s exactly what we do. I like!
Within a few short hours from Palermo, you can be at any of Sicily’s great sites. The island is a lush green rock surrounded by Mediterranean Sea – home to a rich traditional culture that remains untouched by the march of time.
Part 3: Tripoli and the Ruins
After a week travelling through Italy, we connect through Rome and before we know it we are walking the streets of Tripoli and exploring the last undiscovered stretch of Mediterranean coastline. Tripoli is a wonderfully peaceful and authentic Muslim city virtually untouched by tourism. There are no western businesses, no street advertising, no hustlers, no pressure. Any merchant, taxi driver or man on the street will lend a hand or a warm smile. It is easy and safe to get around. All my fears about my security and my preconceptions about this ‘rogue terrorist dictatorship’ turn out to be completely false.
At once an ancient settlement conquered by empires and a thriving new metropolis vying for recognition by the west, Tripoli is a city of contrasts. Morning prayers ring out from the minarets at 6am and fill the air between the new hotels and old houses. Nothing if not a spiritual place, Tripoli showed me how peaceful and inspirational the dedication to Islamic prayer can be.
A short drive along the coast in either direction from Tripoli puts you at some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the Mediterranean. I was never a huge fan of Roman ruins – until this…
Part 4: Tent City Sahara Desert
Our expedition numbers over a hundred chasers from South Africa, Europe and North America. We spend the week re-acquainting with old friends, welcoming new ones, and trading stories of past chases. But we can’t stay put for long. The Moon clocks our schedule with precision, and soon we must pack our crates full of telescopes and cameras and make our way out of Tripoli. At this point, I’ve got a bad case of eclipse jitters and my stomach is in knots from the excitement that only adventure travel can generate – but I’m feeling good. I’m on a collision course with the solar system and there is less than 24 hours to go!
We fly Libyan Arab Airlines to the little airstrip outside of Jalu. Never fly Libyan Arab Airlines! (They are constantly off schedule and we had a few really hard landings). The desert air is hot and dry and the terrain is as flat as a sheet of paper. From simply breathing I have tiny particles of sand and dust gritting between my teeth – something I discover I’ll have to get used to. We drive along the barren highway towards our eclipse site and turn off onto a new road created just to bring chasers to the centre of the eclipse path. Within minutes, like a mirage appearing out of the shimmering heat, The Tent City comes into view. It is a temporary home for 4,000 eclipse chasers built by the Libyan government. But in all its years the Sahara has never seen this …
I can’t even describe the rush of excitement I felt as we descended on our home in the desert. It was surreal. I felt as if I had just stepped into a scene from “Close Encounters” – all the believers gathered in the desert because we’ve been told something extra-terrestrial is going to happen. And this is exactly what it was.
We move into our tents and spend the afternoon playing in the world’s biggest sandbox. Who knew I’d be playing frisbee in the Sahara! After dinner we turn our attention to the skies. The sunset seems supernatural out here. When the stars arrive and Jupiter comes tumbling out of its celestial jewelbox we are treated to a night of Arabian wonders.
But my adrenalin rush just won’t subside. Everytime I turn my head, I see something I’ve never seen before. This is one of the most fantastic places I have ever been. I can’t sleep – the eclipse is only hours away – and our Libyan hosts have pulled out all the stops and transformed the desert. I spend the night checking out the air-conditioned internet tent, crafts, live musicians, sound stages, fireworks, espresso bars and coolers full of non-alcoholic beer! Desert living is blowing my mind!
While everyone is marking their plots of sand and getting their equipment set up, Michael and I go off into a sea of rabid chasers from all over the world to get some video. We return to our observing site and get ready for what we all feel is going to be the eclipse of a lifetime.
Part 5: The Eclipse
As the light dimmed and the wind picked up with the approach of the Moon’s shadow, a chill ran up the back of my neck and left goosebumps all over my skin. I had travelled thousands of miles to be here and now the eclipse was only seconds away. The conditions were ideal. Venus was blazing in the sky and I could see the darkening on the horizon. When the umbra was only a few miles away the sun was but a sliver over my head, and with a stream of Shadow Bands racing across my feet, I looked up. The sky was black in front of me and the orange glow on the horizon – the sign of the umbra – looked like it was burning the sand from above. The surreal other-world of totality had come to us in the desert.
The cheers and cries echo across the dark desert floor as the eclipse bathes us in its unearthly light. Totality lasts 4 minutes and 4 seconds. Forever! I had enough time to take some photos, adjust my video cameras and just gaze, aghast, at how beautiful it was. I adored the corona at this eclipse. It was irregular and asymmetrical – my favourite kind of corona. The sky was really dark and hung over us as if Merlin’s cape had just dropped out of the sky. Venus was brilliant – Mercury was obvious – stars were visible – the orange glow of the umbral rim was unbroken for 360 degrees of perfectly flat horizon, something I have never seen before – and a real treat, the ever-elusive Shadow Bands were easily visible on the sand just before and just after totality. Everybody saw them.
After years of chasing I can tell you this was one of sweetest eclipses ever. Everything came together with a degree of ease and perfection that just made the experience that much more intense. Jalu was one of the most awesome places I have ever been – the conditions on eclipse day were perfect – and not a single detail fell out of place. We bet everything that the universe would turn out the way we hoped – and it did!
But when the eclipse was over, the real adventure into the Libyan Sahara was just beginning. Michael and I joined a much smaller group of adventurers heading deep into the southwestern Fezzan region. From Jalu we flew back to Tripoli and on to Sebha where we began a week of trekking in 4x4s and camping in the desert.
Our plan is to drive west from Sebha – through the surreal landscapes of the Sahara – to Ghat, a small Libyan village at the border with Algeria.
Day after day we encounter sights that boggle the mind and stretch the imagination. Waking each day in the beauty and utter silence of the desert becomes one of my favourite things. It’s not hard to see how easily this place gets under your skin.
Part 6: Desert Trekking
Within a few short days I have completely adapted to the reality here. No toilets, no showers, basic food, and only bottled water to drink – hot on the tongue from being stored in the Jeeps. But still I love every minute of it. I spend each day in a state of amazement. The beauty of the earth seems to carry me far. Rock formations, mountains and canyons live in between sweet soft dunes of copper and gold. Every moment here lost in time.
For some reason, Libya was an especially meaningful experience. I’m still digesting it so I am not sure exactly why I feel this way. But Libya did prove to me that everything I am doing to venture out into the world is right. All the thinking, the planning, the money, the time – I was richly rewarded for all of it. Never have I felt more in my element, more sure of myself or more justified in doing these crazy things that I do. The universe wants me to be out here. What a wonderful thing to think.
This expedition lifted the veil on a brand new part of the world, and in the process, revealed a brand new part of myself. One I am only just getting to know.