OK, so here's the thing I don't get: why is a guy like me-somebody who appreciates the comforts available in life, somebody who likes being able to turn a dial and make the air cooler or hotter-why do I constantly find myself out in the middle of nowhere, cut off from air conditioning, refrigerators, the Net, and the dozen- and-one other creature comforts of my familiar cocooned artificiality?
And AFRICA? Great googly moogly. On top of everything else, a locale where I'm no longer at the top of the food chain, where I actually become a menu option for all creatures great and small.Well, it was the eclipse that got me. A total solar eclipse is a breathtaking event, unlike anything else in life...but they have this annoying habit of only occurring out of doors. And frequently, wayyy out of doors. Like Africa. Like northern Zimbabwe, a full day's drive away from even the thin veneer of civilization of the Harare Sheraton.
Seeing a total solar eclipse tends to make converts out of people. They become "shadow chasers," the mostly-unknown subculture of people who trek all over the world seeking a few minutes here and there of totality, the Grail of the eclipse worshiper.
This was to be my third eclipse. I'd been to Mexico in 1991 and Romania in 1999. Also along was Pam Bloxham, who had been to both, and Dave & Kathy Lindquist, who had been to the Romania eclipse. The first-timer (almost) in our group was Ron Ebert, who had been in Germany for the 1999 eclipse, but got clouded out, about the most heart-breaking thing that can happen to an eclipse chaser.
The eclipse was on June 21, 2001, which was winter down there, but fortunately, it was dry winter...and, it turns, out, also the best time of the year to visit the area, not only because the weather is nice, but because most of the water holes have dried up and the animals tend to congregate in larger numbers at fewer spots, making them easier to find. As far as eclipse weather, we had a better than 80% chance of clear skies.
In 2000, when we first started planning the trip, the first thing we had to decide was exactly where we wanted to go. The path of totality typically runs for several thousand kilometers, but some spots along the path are better than others. All other things being equal, you try to get to the center point of the eclipse, where the length of totality is at a maximum. For this eclipse, that would be nearly five minutes. Unfortunately, that point was about 1000 km out to sea, off the west coast of Africa, and none of us were thrilled with the idea of a long sea cruise.
The first place it hit land was actually a worse choice: Angola. Landmines and gunfire can put an awful damper on the eclipse-viewing experience. Finally, we settled on Zimbabwe, which has its problems (which got worse later), but seemed a fair compromise. Since this would be our first, and maybe only time to visit Africa, we also wanted to get in some of the "African experience," lions and tigers and...um, well, lions and elephants and whatever.
The next thing we discovered is that there are basically two levels of Africa tourism: really roughing it, which is a little pricey, and anything better, which is BREATHTAKINGLY expensive. We finally settled on a package eclipse tour to Zimbabwe and Botswana, which came with the staggering price tag of SIX THOUSAND DOLLARS. Ack. And that was from New York. Starting in Los Angeles cost us about another $400. The length of totality we would get would be about three minutes. Two thousand bucks a minute...
And the next shock was the luggage limit. About half the trip would consist of flying out to remote safari camps in little bush planes, and our luggage weight limit would be just 10 kg (22 lbs) per person. Hey, whaddya want for your lousy $6000? The trouble was, my camera gear alone was about 8 kg. However, the travel agent assured us that we could average out the weight among all our luggage, and it probably wouldn't be a problem. Probably?
So began the great Expedition Outfitting Phase. In reading up on the region, the first thing I discovered was that I owned no clothing that was suitable for going out into the African bush. When you're in such an environment, it is strongly advisable to wear colors that look like the surrounding landscape, khakis, dark greens, that sort of thing. Wearing loud or vivid colors is a little like waving a big flag that says "hot lunch here" for the animals. I read that some safari guides will even refuse to take you out in the bush if you're not dressed appropriately.
So, I had to buy khaki clothes, which I owned none of. Fortunately, khaki was trendy at the time, so it was easy to find, but I also had to search for clothing that was extra light, to try and meet the weight limits. Trying to decide on what to take was difficult, because the information we got was sketchy at best, and frequently contradictory. We heard that it could get down to freezing at night. We heard that we should take a jacket and tie.
The luggage weight limit technically referred to checked bags, so I decided I could circumvent it by wearing as much of my gear as possible. I bought a nice Domke photographer's vest that held all of my photo gear except the tripod. Of course, the bush planes can only carry so much weight total, so this was kinda cheating...but I did manage to lose 4.5 kg (10 lbs) between the time we signed up and the time we left, so I figured I was "owed" that much.
But I finally got my gear together...and it only cost about another $700, once I added in the new clothes, a fancy new geared head for my Bogen tripod, the photo vest, and assorted other little goodies. Hey, if you're blowing $6000 on a one-time trip to Africa, you don't wanna play it cheap on your gear.
The tour operator told us that we had the option of leaving some luggage behind in Victoria Falls, and getting it back after the Botswana bush camps, so I eventually wound up with my notorious "body bag," a large, heavy canvas military-style duffel bag that would weigh in at some 35 kg by the end of the trip. Inside, I had a second, lighter nylon bag of clothes and stuff that I'd pared down to less than 9 kg. We were promised most of the camps would have laundry service, so I kept everyday clothing to a minimum.
And there was the health issue. We were heading to a place in the world where merely dipping your toe in a river could result in a case of Zambezi purple spotted bleeding death fever or something. So we started checking up on what vaccinations and precautions we should take. Again, we got a lot of sketchy and conflicting information, but the ONE thing that EVERY health source agreed on was that we should take along US-made condoms. AIDS isn't just serious over there, it's a grim fact of everyday life. We finally settled on protection from hepatitis A & B and malaria. I was...er..."lucky" in that I'd already had hep A, so I was immune from further infection. The hep B vaccine was a series of three shots, and for malaria, we got Lariam (more about which later).
Then the political situation in Zimbabwe started going downhill. Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia back in the British Empire days, had won its independence from England back in 1980, but has still had a lot of white/black tension since. The latest wrinkle was that the government had started allowing the seizure of white-owned farms by black squatters. In many cases, the new tenants were not farming the land, so a food crisis developed. People were being killed over the color of their skin. There were isolated riots. The UK cut off some of its economic aid to the country, and a few foreign companies left, declaring that the country was "no longer under rule of law." There were coup rumors. Angola was starting to look like a more attractive choice..
Our schedule called for us to fly from New York to Johannesburg, then up into Harare, the capital, spend the night there, then drive up north the next day to the camp where we would see the eclipse. After that, we would drive to Kariba, catch a plane over to Victoria Falls, spend a day there, then head over to Botswana and spend a week at bush camps in the Okavango Delta. We were quite worried about the Zimbabwe part of the trip, and all agreed we would feel much better when we finally made it to Botswana.
Originally, the travel agency had booked us into a LA-NY flight that touched down in NY just a few hours before the Africa plane was due to leave, and THAT made us nervous as well. A half-hour delay here or there, and we could end up missing the Africa flight. If we missed that flight, we would miss the eclipse; there would be no way to catch up in time. But by booking our own LA-NY (and back) flight, we lost the protection of the tour package if anything went wrong.
We finally decided to give ourselves PLENTY of breathing room to make the Africa connection by flying out to NY three days early and spend the weekend touring Long Island. More money, of course. On the return, we had something like a five-hour layover scheduled in NY, which didn't sound appealing, but again, the possible alternative was missing the flight by 5 minutes and having to buy another airline ticket.
See, now THIS is what you wanna spend $6000 of vacation money on. Stress, uncertainty, risky gambles, and doubt.
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