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Rare Total Eclipse Speeds Across Africa, Australia

December 4, 2002

MUSINA, South Africa (Reuters) - Skies darkened over southern Africa and Australia on Wednesday as a rare total solar eclipse raced across both continents, delighting astronomers, astounding tourists and confusing animals as day became night.

"It's amazing for us," said 15-year-old Rhengu Baloyi as he peered skywards with special eclipse glasses distributed by South African tourism authorities.

"For a moment I thought our lives were going to be endangered."

The eclipse first touched African shores at around 12:15 a.m. EST as the moon moved in between the sun and the earth, blocking out the summer sunshine.

Starting from Angola, the lunar shadow sped eastward across the continent at speeds greater than 3,125 miles per hour, momentarily casting parts of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa into darkness before heading out to sea at Xai-Xai in Mozambique.

The total eclipse touched southern Australia at 4:10 a.m. EST.

Thousands of astronomers, serious and amateur, tourists and new age worshippers gathered on a beach at the outback coastal town of Ceduna on the south Australian coast to watch the astronomical phenomenon.

Sitting on deck chairs or beach towels Australians watched in awe as the moon crept across the sun, applauding "totality," and claiming the ocean seemed to calm as the eclipse occurred.

In Australia's main city of Sydney, sky watchers were treated to the sight of brown smoke from dozens of bushfires wreathing the setting sun as the moon crept slowly up its face.


In northern South Africa, cars pulled to the side of the road in rural areas in and around the country's famous Kruger National Park as tourists put themselves into prime position to see the celestial spectacular.

It grew colder, the sky grew black and the murmuring crowd went quiet as the moon passed in front of the sun.

"It's awesome," said Cherie, a South African woman.

Nearby, dancers kicked up clouds of dust at an all-night rave party held to mark the eclipse. People sporting nose-rings, tattoos and tie-dyed shirts boogied in the bush to booming techno music.

"It was amazing. Life is never going to be the same after this," said Ben, a wild-haired rave fan from Cape Town decked out in surfer necklaces and mirrored sunglasses.

Across the border in Zimbabwe, visiting motorists viewed the eclipse through dark viewers while school children made do with tinted plastic bags in defiance of media warnings that this could cause eye damage.

Elsewhere along the eclipse path, villagers continued tilling their fields, pausing only for a few minutes to watch the eclipse, while some joined long queues outside rural shops for scant supplies of food in a country where about half the estimated 14 million population faces starvation.


Wildlife experts said the eclipse could be briefly confusing for animals, although the speed with which daylight returned would probably prevent any major impact.

In Johannesburg, South Africa's commercial capital, the eclipse meant the sun was about 85 percent obscured. Partly cloudy conditions hid much of the action, however -- a disappointment for many who were hoping to get a good view of the last eclipse in the region for almost three decades.

The eclipse had been billed as a major tourism draw for southern Africa, where towns along the path of the total eclipse have set up special festivals and travel companies have packed tourists into hotels, game lodges and national parks to witness the sky go dark.

Tourists at Musina's five-day eclipse festival picked through handicrafts and souvenirs, which included T-shirts proclaiming "Africlipse."

But some businesses reported less than stellar sales, which they attributed to overpriced tour packages, some cancellations following a series of attacks on tourists, and general hype involved with the event.

"It's a marvelous opportunity which has become a total disaster," said Alida Lourens, who was selling pottery at the Musina festival.