Africa banks on solar eclipse

Book a tour now or miss out, say tour operators. Charles de Ledesma reports
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The Independent Travel

June's total eclipse of the sun looks set to make southern Africa one of the most popular long-haul destinations for Britons this summer. But flight availability into the key airports of Harare, Lusaka and Johannesburg is problematic, and agents are reporting that eclipse tours are filling up fast.

June's total eclipse of the sun looks set to make southern Africa one of the most popular long-haul destinations for Britons this summer. But flight availability into the key airports of Harare, Lusaka and Johannesburg is problematic, and agents are reporting that eclipse tours are filling up fast.

"We have experienced a huge level of demand," said Alison Holman of Okavango Tours and Safaris. "Immediately after the August 1999 eclipse we secured accommodation in Africa: most of those spaces were filled within a week and all of them by the end of 1999."

Weather conditions are expected to be close to perfect across Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Madagascar where solar "totality" can be witnessed in its glory across vast swathes of land. "One problem is that much of the eclipse's path is through impenetrable country, with few options for travellers," said Nigel Vere Nicholl of the Africa Travel and Tourism Association.

But the eclipse tourism effort has been running into obstacles. Fuel shortages in Zimbabwe - linked to the growing political and economic crisis - have forced one operation, Total Solar Eclipse, to cancel a 12-night trip to the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border.

The severe floods in Mozambique have also caused problems, although London-based Rainbow Tours is pressing ahead with two trips to Mozambique's Tete Province and Xai-Xai beach, as well as a canoe safari in Zimbabwe and other tours across Madagascar.

"We booked accommodation in Madagascar more than a year ago," said Rainbow's Roger Diski. "I am deeply suspicious of many of the eclipse tours on offer now. The itineraries have been dreamed up by people thinking they can make a killing."

The biggest geographical hitch of all for serious umbraphiles (literally "shadow lovers") is Angola, so dangerous that no tour company is advertising any trips. But the duration of totality will be a lengthy four minutes and 34 seconds on the Angolan coast. By the time it reaches Madagascar to the east it will be down to two minutes.

All this points to Zambia, the country in the centre of the zone, as the most popular eclipse-watching location. However, impoverished Zambia is not well set up for large-scale tourism - day trips to Victoria Falls and micro-tours of national parks low on infrastructure have characterised its fledgling industry so far. There are few places remaining in Zambia and the advice is to try the experienced operators. "Zambia can only benefit from the eclipse," said Rob McConaghy of Malawi's Ulendo Safaris. "The tourism industry has got itself into gear well in advance and will cope well with the influx."

Independent travellers may still take their chances. Camping and home-stays are an option, and there are reports of Zimbabwean farmers offering two-night eclipse breaks on land and farms, near Kariba airport. "Despite the negative publicity for Zimbabwe there are visitors who have opted to view the eclipse from the other side of the Zambezi as prices are more competitive," added McConaghy. "The spin-off has been great for Malawi."

While many will be going to the eclipse region for a great travel experience, leading umbraphiles admit to a total obsession. The world leader, Arizona-based Glenn Schneider, who has seen 21 total eclipses and once chartered a plane to see totality from 12km up, will be near the western shore of the Zambezi River on 21 June. "Those who have not seen a total eclipse will have difficulty perhaps in understanding that umbraphilia is not only an addiction, but an affliction, and a way of life," he said.

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