The big one: Total eclipse 2001

First, it goes quiet; then it goes dark. For the painfully finite seconds of totality, assorted animals, plus you and your fellow watchers, are smothered into silence by awe and abject humility as the heavens show their hand in a gesture of astronomical contempt. The meek moon reveals, briefly, its ability to suppress a swaggering sun.

First, it goes quiet; then it goes dark. For the painfully finite seconds of totality, assorted animals, plus you and your fellow watchers, are smothered into silence by awe and abject humility as the heavens show their hand in a gesture of astronomical contempt. The meek moon reveals, briefly, its ability to suppress a swaggering sun.

The great cosmic coincidence, whereby both the sun and the moon appear to be exactly the same size when viewed from the Earth, means that most years there is one day when the sun can but flare feebly behind the solid black disc. It is an event that will live with you forever.

Astronomers have long known that on 21 June next year there will be one interesting thing about the sun: it will not rise over the South Atlantic off Brazil.

The moon will, for a few minutes in each location along the eclipse trajectory, completely block out the sun. Roughly once a year, a strip of the earth's surface is flung into darkness as the moon blots out the sun.

The strip results from the rotation of the earth, which is why eclipses always "rise" in the west and "set" in the east. (See picture, above.)

The trick for the viewer is to find a venue which (a) you can reach relatively easily, and (b) will be free of cloud cover at the right time.

The 2001 eclipse is especially promising, at least compared with the damp squib over Cornwall in 1999.

The land mass over which the total solar eclipse passes is southern Africa during the dry season - which makes it Christmas, or at least Winter Solstice, for eclipse watchers. Besides accessibility and visibility, a third consideration is equally important, according to the travel industry's eclipse guru, Brian McGee, of Explorers Tours: Ambiance.

He says: "There's a trade-off between maximising the length of totality and enjoying the surroundings."

His company has been planning its key location for the past three years. The options are considerable.

The eclipse strikes the African land mass on the Angolan coast, sweeps across the waist of Angola and central Zambia. It bestows on Lusaka the honour of being the only capital city on the track of a total eclipse this year or next - when southern Africa hits the totality jackpot, being visited by a moment of daytime darkness two years in a row.

Next, the eclipse moves uncannily along the Zimbabwean-Mozambican border, clipping a little corner of Malawi before finally departing the African continent over central Mozambique.

It then enjoys its final territorial flourish over southern Madagascar.

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