Libya, March 22nd-April
Bengt Alfredsson, Michael Gill and I had, for some years, been
working on a private expedition to see this eclipse. The first
incarnation was a 4wd expedition across the Teneré Desert
in Niger. However, in mid-2004, the guide we were dealing with
contacted us to say that their convoys in the areas we wanted
to visit were being hijacked and they advised us to cancel.
We turned our attention to arranging a private expedition into
Libya. We engaged a local guide through Naser Edeeb of Safari
Tourism Services[STS]. We set our own itinerary and were set.
For most of the year prior
to the eclipse, the solar eclipse mailing list[SEML] was rife
with rumours that eclipse observers would experience significant
obstructions to entry to Libya. Rumours of visa refusals, ¤1200
eclipse taxes and other nonsense were being posted with monotonous
regularity. Many of these rumours just happened to be propagated
by people who had commercial interests in tours to countries
other than Libya. The people making these posts had no direct
line of communication to the Libyan Government. We, in contact
with Naser Edeeb, did. Naser was attending the meetings of government
officials where eclipse arrangements were being discussed. Naser
was in private contact with us asking if we could stop the misinformation.
Mike Gill, as SEML moderator, did his best but it was a very
difficult time. Meanwhile, the three of us were absolutely relaxed
about our trip to Libya and ignored the false posts. We felt
sorry for the people who had been duped by the misinformation
into changing travel arrangements to sub-optimal destinations
like Side in Turkey where weather prospects were poor and eclipse
duration some 30 seconds less. Naser even told us that one tour
organizer, who very publicly stated that they had to cancel their
trip to Libya because the Libyans were impossible to work with,
had never even contacted anyone in Libya about a tour, had never
visited the country and had never spoken to any tourism operators
in Libya about a tour. My tour company black list had a few extra
entries in it after the Libya experience.
Getting into Libya was so easy. No onerous visa approval process
required. Naser simply faxed a letter to me at my hotel in Germany
the night before I flew to Tripoli. I arrived in Libya on March
22nd. I handed this over to passport control. My passport was
stamped and, as expected, I breezed through passport control
and customs. They did ask me to wait at passport control but
that was only so they could call a guide from the company to
come up and translate for me as we went through customs. No refusals,
no confiscation of equipment and no eclipse taxes or extraordinary
Bengt arrived about an hour after me. Mike Gill arrived three
days later. On our first night we went to dinner at a restaurant
that STS had arranged. Ali Saidi, owner of STS introduced himself
as I walked in. Because I was not part of a group and due to
my ubiquitous Mediterranean appearance, he thought I was one
of the extra guides STS had engaged.
During the three days we were waiting for Mike Gill, Bengt and
I went to visit the ancient city of Dar Ghadames. On the way,
we visited the old fort and granary. We stopped for lunch. This
was the only practical restaurant / lunch stop. To our horror,
there were several tour buses parked and a long line of people
outside the door as well as inside. "No problem guys,"
our guide Saad said confidently. He slipped in past the line
and went and spoke to the kitchen staff. Next thing we knew he
appeared from the other side of the building and beaconed us.
We walked around the building and stepped in to the kitchen through
a large window. The chefs were setting a small table for us in
one corner of the kitchen and within minutes, we were having
Dar Ghadames is a magnificent
old town located on the northern fringe of the Sahara Desert.
If you've ever seen the 1957 movie all the way to Timbuktu starring
Sophia Loren, Dar Ghadames was the location. UNESCO declared
it a world heritage site in the 1980's. The Libyan government
built a modern city around the old city and the old city was
abandoned to preserve it. For a while, the city was left unattended
and without maintenance,it began to fall apart. Now the city
is used as a tourist attraction and I hope that the money charged
for is used for preservation.
The city is divided into two parts, one side was originally inhabited
by the Benowalide tribe, the other by the Benowazide tribe. Constructed
entirely of mud brick, the streets are tunnels under the city
giving the residents respite from the Saharan summer heat. Light
comes down along a series of vertical tunnels. They bring light
without heat to the subterranean landscape. There are also a
series of roof top walkways. Contact between men and women was
discouraged. When visiting a house, men and women use different
coded knocks to indicate the gender of the visitor. This assures
that an occupant of the same gender will answer the door. Women
also used the rooftop walkways for access to close neighbours.
The city has just one little restaurant. There is also an outdoor
cafe. The restaurant is one of the original residences, furnished
traditionally. The small dining room has room for one group of
up to 8 people. Our guide managed to snag the only reservation
for the day for us. The food was beautiful - we started with
a camel soup, followed by a camel casserole cous cous. Camel
meat really is quite delicious.
For its time, the city had a sophisticated series of waterways.
Water was used sequentially, first for drinking bathing then
irrigation. Water being a precious commodity, had to be paid
for. They had a series of sluice gates they used to direct irrigation
water to various farms and a timing system to regulate volumes
and determine charges. That night at Dar Ghadames was clear and
we took advantage of the relatively dark skies and did a star
test and focus on Bengt's Nikon 180mm f2.8 lens. Early on my
last morning I headed out at first light for a walk around the
city before sunrise.
The waning crescent moon was rising over the large and impressive
Mosque that dominates the centre of town.
We returned to Tripoli and picked up Mike Gill. That night we
were eating dinner at a seafood restaurant at the waterfront.
Kelly Beatty's group was occupying most tables at the restaurant.
Kelly was moving from table to table briefing his clients on
the next days activities. Kelly suddenly appeared at our table
and began reeling off his briefing. He took us by surprise. At
first nobody said anything. Then I stopped him and told him that
we weren't part of his group. He stopped, smiled and then tongue
firmly in cheek, said, "so after breakfast we'll board the
buses and.." We all had a good laugh and he moved on.
Because Mike arrived last, we gave him a choice of what he wanted
to see and what we would do before he arrived. Mike really wanted
to see the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna so we left that
until after his arrival.
Leptis Magna is located on the Mediterranean near the modern
city of Al Khums. The city was founded around 1000BC as a Phoenician
trading port. It became part of the Roman Empire around 200BC
and remained part of the empire for some 600 years. During this
time many magnificent Roman style buildings, stadia and structures
were built during the Roman era. A major earthquake in 365 AD
caused enormous damage to the city. Around 450AD repeated raids
by Germanic tribes called the Vandals dealt a savage blow to
the city's prosperity. It became part of the Byzantine Empire
by 534 AD and was abandoned during this period. Dry desert sands
quickly covered the city and preserved it for the next 1600 years.
Since 1920 the city has been the site of extensive archaeological
excavation, research and restoration.
Mike Gill had been watching the weather models for days. The
weather models indicated nothing but clear skies for Libya. Confirmation
that we'd made the right decision. Meanwhile over in Turkey,
we knew that the people misdirected to Side weren't just biting
their fingernails but were chewing the ends of their fingers
off! It looked like they were going to be clouded out. We found
out that the rest of the gang from the Cameron Corner expedition
Glenn Schneider, Joel Moskowitz, Jay Friedland, Craig Small et
al were in Side desperately trying to charter a plane to fly
from Turkey to Egypt. They worked out a travel plan that involved
non-stop travel for the 36 hrs up to the eclipse. If everything
fell into place, they might just make it into the NW corner of
We made our way to the
airport for our charter flight to Jalu. Things were chaotic at
the airport. As usual, Saad slipped us past the long queues and
checked our bags with a minimum of fuss. We waited for about
an hour until boarding call. As we walked onto the tarmac, I
shook my head in disbelief as one woman lit a cigarette only
30 metres from where they were refuelling our plane. It was a100
minute flight to Jalu. At Jalu, we were transported by bus to
the Eclipse City camp on the centreline about 80km SE of Jalu.
We hired tents at the camp, through STS. STS built and provisioned
the camp. The camp was amazing. It was built on the Great Sand
Sea, a dry sandy patch of desert. STS set up two large marquees,
dining rooms that could hold 500 people each. The tents were
Arabian tents with tall centre poles about 4 x 4 metres. Two
people per tent. Each tent was supplied with mattresses, pillows
and sleeping bags. Along each tent row were electric lights and
power outlets that could be used for recharging batteries. A
satellite uplink next to a marquee with about 20 computers inside
provided the camp with broadband internet. This tent also served
as a temporary but official post office. Each corner of the camp
had shower & toilet blocks - sufficient that I never saw
much of a line for toilets or showers for the 3000 inhabitants
of the camp. We found our tents, Bengt and Saas shared one tent,
Mike and I shared the other.
The afternoon before
eclipse morning, I assembled my telescope gear. Meanwhile, Mike
was having some difficulty coming to terms with his newfound
celebrity. Since arriving at the camp, our tent had received
a steady stream of visitors. Mainly people had just come to meet
the "famous" Mike Gill. Mike's fame had come suddenly
two years earlier when he took over the moderation of the Solar
Eclipse Mailing List. Now everyone wanted to meet him. Mike is
a very modest person and was finding his new celebrity hard to
process. Tongue firmly in cheek, I asked him if I could set up
an autograph booth. We'd charge of course. I'd take a commission
and we could recoup some of our travel expenses. Our visitors
delivered a steady stream of gossip. OF note were a couple of
reports we received of brand new mid-range DSLR's that had ground
to a halt in the desert dust.
My equipment consisted
of an 80mm ED refractor mounted on a lightweight equatorial mount
that I've designed and constructed myself. Because of the high
altitude of this eclipse I left the short legs at home and brought
full-length legs. The legs were made from pine 19 x 42mm. The
Sun's declination was just 5 degrees so I replaced the old declination
axis with two hinged boards held together by a strong spring
and pushed apart by a screw (a barn door). This gave me a rock
solid adjustable declination, balanced on the centre of the RA
axis (no counterweight required). The equatorial wedge was likewise
made of wood. All these components were quick and easy to fabricate
from about $30 worth of pine. They weighed 5kg more than the
old arrangement. It pushed my baggage weight up to 27kg and Lufthansa
hit me for 105 Euros of excess baggage charges. But the long
legs did raise the telescope high enough that I could kneel comfortably
in the sand and look up into the camera comfortably even though
the eclipse altitude was quite high. After the eclipse, I discarded
all the wooden components reducing my baggage weight to an excess
free 22kg. This was all part of the grand plan. I had a further
7 weeks of travel planned after the eclipse and didn't want to
be weighed down.
I assembled the equatorial
mount. I mounted the 80mm refractor and pointed it at the Sun.
I then proceeded to do a polar alignment. I locked the declination
and left the refractor mounted that night. This would simplify
polar alignment the next day. The tent was tall enough that even
though I had tall tripod legs on it, I was able leave it standing
in the tent. At sunset we walked out to the west side of the
camp, less than 50 metres from our tent, and watched the green
flash at sunset.
That night we went for
dinner. There were some long delays at meal times. The dining
tents could seat about 1000 people. It was designed that people
would come in, eat and move out so that others could come in.
People were waiting for hours for dinner on the first night.
Unfortunately, too many people stayed too long and treated it
more like a long social occasion than a rapid turnover chow house.
Tempers frayed and when one group attempted to bypass the long
line, a heated exchange ensued. Luckily for us, Saad didn't try
any of his tricks this time. Some complained bitterly about it.
But think about it, out in the middle of the desert, they'd created
two bistro's capable of seating 1000 people. What were they supposed
to do, have seating for 3000?
At 5am, I woke with a splitting sinus headache. I'd suffered
a bad bout of sinusitis on arriving in Europe the week before.
The aftermath was these head splitters every couple of days.
The pain was so severe that I briefly considered skipping the
eclipse and staying in bed. But I dragged myself out of bed and
we made the first shift for breakfast and got it out of the way
quickly. Our tents were located in the southwest quadrant of
the camp. We took a walk around the open area on the west side
and selected an observing location. We returned to the tents
and began carrying our equipment to the observing site.
I levelled my telescope
mount and then pointed it at the sun using movements in polar
axis azimuth and RA only. This combined with the locked dec the
day before gave me a method of almost instantaneous polar alignment.
It worked well. Considering the way I was feeling, it was just
John Beattie rolled up
on the day (as he does) and joined us. For those who don't know,
John, at the time, had 26 eclipses under his belt. The partial
eclipse began on time. Lot's of shouts echoed around the camp
as the lunar disk became visible first in bigger telescopes then
to the naked eye through eclipse shades. Part way through the
partial eclipse, the Muslim followers gathered near us and stopped
for midday prayers. It was a nice touch. The umbra appeared over
the southwest horizon. It moved slowly at first then sped up
rapidly. Venus was easily visible to the naked eye.
In addition to the telescope,
I had an 18mm wide angle lens and 35mm film camera on a tripod.
I had no digital body, just two 35mm bodies and no automation.
My plan was to
shoot all partial phases at 3 minute intervals through the ED80.
My 35mm film SLR has a built in interval shooter so this is a
'set and forget' operation.
Take wide angle photo's of the shadow approach before 2nd contact;
Take a 360 degree panorama of the 360 degree sunset effect during
Take a picture of totality, the eclipsed sun and the peaked tops
of the tents using my 6x9cm medium format camera.
Shoot totality through the 80mm f7.5 refractor at every shutter
speed 1/1000 - 8 s. ISO 200 film. 14 frames only.
Amazing, if all went to plan all this should only take me 2 minutes
leaving me 2 minutes to just watch and enjoy before returning
to the camera to photograph the diamond ring.
I took a couple of decent
wide-angle views of the shadow approach using the 18mm lens.
Then I dashed across to the ED80 to shoot the diamond ring. What?
No image! Had the drive stopped? No, it was still running. Unfortunately,
somewhat stupidly, I'd left the solar filter on the camera. Fifth
total eclipse I'd photographed but the first time I forgot to
remove the filter. I took it off and took my fourteen-exposure
sequence. Then I set the shutter speed for diamond ring and went
back to the wide-angle images. I finished my photography and
took my two minutes of 'me' time. During this time , I found
myself questioning if eclipses were worth all the effort. In
short, I had a major case of the of ho hums. I later put this
down to the severe headache that I was still suffering from.
I returned to the 80mm refractor to shoot the diamond ring. And
then it was over.
After the eclipse, Mike and Bengt
left the country the next day. I went to Serbha, gateway to the
Sahara desert. I stayed in the country another 5 days and got
an unforgettable look at the wonder that is the Sahara desert.
Ok so I admit it, I'm a desert junkie. Some people like beaches,
I like mountains and deserts. I've been all over the many deserts
of the Australian continent, explored the Martian like landscapes
of the desierte de Atacama in Bolivia and Chile and now I could
add the Sahara to my list. I did have one stroke of luck, so
to speak. One of our cars broke down. It happened that we broke
down in the midst of a fantastic dune field. Our destination
that night was an oasis. These dunes at sunset and especially
at sunrise were truely a sight to behold. A perfect way to end
my all too brief sojourn in Libya.