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Travel [1402.03]

Solar Eclipse over Libya 2006

(this article first appeared in our 2006 holiday newsletter)

A total eclipse of the sun is one of nature’s greatest spectacles. On March 29, we joined thousands of people in Libya in the path of the moon’s shadow.

Although the eclipse path stretched from Brazil to Mongolia, accessibility, weather statistics, and relative political stability made central Libya an excellent choice for experiencing totality. At our site, the eclipse was close to its maximum duration, with the sun high overhead and free from obstruction.

Thousands of tents were erected in the middle of barren, flat desert to create an "Eclipse City." Among the multitudes present were people like us on special eclipse tours, countless busloads from Mediterranean cruise ships, and many Libyans, including Colonel Qaddafi’s son. Our friends Greg and Vicki Buchwald (from the 2004 Venus transit trip to Africa and last year’s Yerkes Observatory visit) helped organize our tour group of over 80.

Unlike the Venus transit, which lasted over five hours, totality only lasted a little over four minutes (and this was a long one). If you were foolish enough to try doing anything other than just observe, the pressure can really put you into a panic. I had a list of several dozen items to do before, during, and after totality, almost none of which got done.

I did manage to create a pinhole pattern, where you make a pinhole in a sheet of paper or foil and use it to project a small image of the sun onto the ground to view the various phases of the eclipse. The picture at the right consists of many tiny crescents of the partially eclipsed sun.

I forgot the foil and wire hanger (thanks to Vicki for providing them during our layover in Chicago!), but I did pack several pins, including an extra large safety pin in case the holes needed to be a bit bigger. It turns out the "pinholes" must be MUCH bigger. I finally determined that a Fisher space pen produces a good puncture size, however making a clean round hole required a firm but yielding surface. At first I used my hand (ouch), until finally finding the perfect material: a couple of bananas from the breakfast tent! It took two to form the many holes in the kendo mask pattern (still not sure what possessed me to do this) and to spell "LIBYA".

The skies were perfectly clear. The eclipse was magnificent, literally spine chilling, and instantly addicting!

Dave has posted his astrophotos, including a merged video of the eclipse. The video gives you a pretty good idea of the experience (be sure to turn up the audio!), but it is impossible to fully convey the exhilaration, the flood of emotions, the downright spookiness of the it all. You’ll just have to go witness one yourself!

Sahara Offroading

Libya is on the north coast of the African continent between Algeria and Egypt, due south of Italy. Covering most of North Africa, the Sahara is the largest desert in the world. A week-long pre-eclipse tour took twelve of us off-road in four-wheel drive vehicles through the spectacular scenery of southwestern Libya.

Our travels often to take us to desert regions, such as the Uluru region in Australia, and the Namib and Kalahari Deserts in southern Africa. Even the Mojave Desert right here in Southern California is impressive, encompassing Death Valley to the north and parts of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. But all these deserts are dwarfed by the Sahara, which is about the same size as the continental U.S.

Although we covered a tiny fraction of this, we did tour many hundreds of miles, perhaps close to a thousand. The amazing sights included ancient medinas, incredible rock formations, 12,000 year old rock art, massive sand dunes, rocky flatlands, and palm-fringed lakes.

With five Toyota Landcruisers for the group, the Dave and I were able to have our "own" vehicle, and on top of that lucked into getting an incredible driver. Among all the tour company drivers, Mohammed was easily the most skilled in off-road driving, and he was also the daredevil of the bunch. He relished launching the vehicle, and its occupants, into the air (with the accompanying sound of heads bonking the ceiling). Once we climbed a high sand dune and almost got stuck in a bowl of soft sand. The thought that no one else would be able to make it up there to help made it even more exciting, but he eventually got us out. It was really cool!

We were so glad we were able to experience desert touring and camping on the Sahara pre-tour. In contrast, the main eclipse tour, which hugged the coast, felt very Mediterranean. We visited several spectacular sites, including Leptis Magna (one of the largest and best preserved Roman sites in the world), Apollonia and Cyrene (Greek ruins dating back to 500+ BC), and Sabratha (more Roman ruins).

The touring far exceeded our expectations, but what really surprised us was the genuine warmth and hospitality of the Libyan people. After 36 years of post-revolutionary rule, the country appears to have settled into a pragmatic blend of traditional values and modern ideas. The generosity of the Libyan people, the majesty of its ancient sites, the beauty of its desert landscapes - how fortunate that the path of the moon's shadow allowed us these experiences!

Our journey ended with a one-night stay in Milan, Italy. Well, that was us, our luggage enjoyed several extra days there (and we nearly did, too). Despite this inauspicious end, we were thrilled with the trip. Many thanks to Spears Travel and Safari Tours, and to the many new friends we enjoyed on the adventure, especially Pat Totten and Fred Espenak (Mr Eclipse), and of course our good friends Vicki and Greg, all certified eclipse addicts (and now I understand why!).

Note: the above article appeared in our 2006 holiday newsletter and ended with a link to an online trip write-up I had started plus the note "more to come from Maui". Sadly, most of the pages are still "coming soon". However, I did manage to complete two of the pages:

Update 1406.12: Added article to newly created eclipse series

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