You wait ages for a total eclipse and then two come along

Trail of the Unexpected
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The Independent Travel

There is a small part of war-ravaged Angola that will have an extraordinary experience a year from now: its second total eclipse of the Sun within 18 months.

There is a small part of war-ravaged Angola that will have an extraordinary experience a year from now: its second total eclipse of the Sun within 18 months. It will take place on 4 December 2002 and the path of totality will be 10,000 miles long and 100 miles wide. The Moon will blot out the Sun across the South Atlantic before the eclipse sweeps across the southern half of the African continent and the south Indian Ocean, ending, at sunset, in southern Australia.

Although Africa will experience a longer eclipse than Australia, it will take place during the wet summer season, so viewers risk disappointment. The maximum duration of the eclipse will be 1 minute 56 seconds, over the Indian Ocean. Mozambique will experience the longest on-land viewing at 1 minute 25 seconds. At the cost of a shorter eclipse (totality will last only 33 seconds), you can increase your chances of seeing it by heading to southern Australia. Here the possibility of a clear view ranges from 55 per cent on the coast to 65 per cent further inland, 5 to 8 per cent higher than in Africa.

Throughout history, eclipses have been seen as portentous events, heralding the arrival of dark forces on earth. "The Sun has perished out of heaven," Homer wrote in the 8th century BC, "and an evil mist hovers over all". The more prosaic explanation is that a total eclipse can only occur during a new moon, and only when the path of the lunar orbit aligns the Moon with both the Earth and the Sun. Due to the slight tilt of the Moon's orbit, the alignment for a total solar eclipse occurs, on average, twice a year and it is only visible from a narrow area on the earth's surface.

The chances of seeing a total eclipse are therefore limited, and it is worth planning now to make sure you don't miss the next big one. Several operators are offering trips to Australia. Voyages Jules Verne (www.vjv.com/mailing/sep.html, 020-7616 1000) has a 20-night tour that takes in a trip to Adelaide, a visit to a historic Aborigine site, dolphin watching, an outback adventure, a wine-tasting tour and, of course, the eclipse. Participants will spend the night of the eclipse in a special tent city and watch it from a reserved viewing site. You will be able to look through large Celestron telescopes, sited in the Gammon Ranges at Arkaroola, to compensate for the short duration of totality. However, the trip does not come cheap; prices start from £3,595 for the three-week tour.

Explorers Tours is still finalising the itinerary and prices for its 2002 eclipse expedition, but it hopes to produce a brochure in January (for details ring 01753 681 999 or visit www.explorers.co.uk). If you decide to go, www.eclipsechaser.com is a site for diehard eclipse chasers; it has tips on mounting such expeditions.

If you can't wait for 2002, an annular eclipse is due to take place on Friday (14 December). An annular eclipse occurs when the Moon moves in front of the Sun, but doesn't completely cover it because the Moon's disc appears smaller than the Sun. This eclipse will be visible in most of the United States, southern Canada, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and northern parts of South America. But the best place to view it will be Hawaii, where the Sun will be 84 per cent covered.

If you miss out on 2002's solar eclipse, you will have to wait until May 2003, when the next total eclipse that will be visible from most of Canada, the US (except the East Coast), Mexico, the whole of Europe (including the UK) and the whole African continent takes place. Or, for the really dedicated, wait until November 2003 and take a trip to the Antarctic; Explorers Tours are planning to do a specialist expedition, details of which will be available next year.

How To Protect Your Eyes

Anyone who watches a solar eclipse, total or partial, must protect their eyes (for tips on eclipse safety, go to www.mreclipse.com). The safest but least spectacular way to view an eclipse is through a pin-hole camera made of two pieces of white card. The top sheet has a pinhole in it and the second acts as a screen on which the image is projected.

If you want to view the eclipse "directly", solar filters are safe to look through as they allow only a tiny fraction of light to pass, but standard or Polaroid sunglasses offer no protection to the eye when looking directly at the Sun. If you don't mind throwing fashion to the wind, welder's goggles with a rating of 14 or higher are a cheap alternative. Protection is not needed during the eclipse's totality, but it is essential before and after.

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