2006 March 29, Wednesday

     This is my fifth total solar eclipse, would you believe it? That puts me out of the novice eclipse-viewer class. I met a fellow who had been to twenty-four, so I'm definitely not at the seasoned-veteran end of the eclipse-viewer scale.

     For readers who want to skip to a specific part of it, this travelogue has the following fourteen sections.

Before the Trip to Libya
2006 March 24: Phoenix to London
2006 March 24:     London to Ηρακλειου (Heraklion)
2006 March 25: Κνωσος (Knossos)
Aboard the Περλα (Perla)
2006 March 28: Cyrene
2006 March 29: The Eclipse
2006 March 31: Leptis Magna
2006 April 2: Σαντορινη (Santorini)
2006 April 3: Αθηνα (Athens) to London
2006 April 4: London to Phoenix
Explorers Tours
Yes, I'm Glad I Went

Added 2013 January 29
     The links are "titled" so you can see a one-line caption for a picture or text link by holding the mouse over it.



Before the Trip to Libya

     After my previous trip with London-based Explorers I decided that I would go with them again. As they quoted me from before, "Other tour members were repeat customers of Explorers and they were not shy about telling me why. ... The big things were done right and little things were done right." Once I found out they were going to Libya, I figured I'm going to Libya.

     The full-colour, highly-illustrated brochure is titled "Total Solar Eclipse Expedition March 2006, Eight Night Mediterranean Cruise" and subtitled "Programme includes Heraklion, Benghazi, Apollonia, Cyrene, the Sahara Desert, Tripoli, Leptis Magna, Santorini, and Athens," and "Eclipse observation from south of Jalu Oasis in the Sahara Desert."

     Explorers had trips from £995 in their literature but by the time I e-mailed them, the least expensive option available was £1295, about £150 in optional tours, and £39 for the administrative cost of getting visas into Libya. It was well worth about US $70 to have somebody else take care of all the paperwork in advance.



2006 March 24: Phoenix to London

     After seeing Dave Brubeck (the "Time Out" jazz fellow) the night before, I began my long airline trip on Air Canada from Phoenix to London on a good note. With eleven and a half days between leaving and returning, I decided to use SuperShuttle to get to and from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX).

     With a three-hour connection in Calgary (YYC), I ended up spending a few Canadian dollars at a Tim Horton snack bar making this a five-currency trip. This was my first trip from America's southwest region to Europe and it feels a lot longer than my earlier Europe trips from Minnesota and the east coast.

     I have a friend, Richard, from my Bell Labs days who took a teaching position at Cambridge University, the college that graduated great minds from Sir Isaac Newton to Douglas Adams. He and his new wife were happy to receive me for a few hours and I got a brief walking tour of Cambridge in the drizzle that characterizes English springtime.

     The coach (bus) trip from Cambridge to London Gatwick Airport (LGW) was fraught with peril as England has "British Summer Time" (BST), which we call Daylight Savings Time (DST) in the States. My planned travel from Cambridge to LGW was precisely during the one-hour time change and the coach company clearly was confused. Not only was the connecting coach one hour late, bad enough, it was two hours late for some reason. Appropriately paranoid, I left several extra hours for my trip and arrived at Gatwick with hours to spare anyway.

     In the confusion of time changes and bus schedules, I left my spare camera battery and charger at Richard's place. He has American-style outlets in addition to the English mains, was nice enough to recharge my battery, and I was dumb enough to leave it there. Fortunately, I'm paranoid enough to bring a spare charger, so my trip's photo opportunities weren't lost.




2006 March 24: London to Ηρακλειου (Heraklion)

     Once I met up with the Explorers group I had a safe-in-the-rocking-chair feeling in spite of the long lines to board the charter flight from LGW to Heraklion Airport (HER) in Crete. Interestingly enough, the only other long-line, endless-wait experience was for the return trip on the same charter airline, ThomsonFly, where they clearly did not have their act together. This is the only time I have ever been charged for soft drinks (PepsiMax in this case) during a flight, although the meals were included on the four hour flights from England to Greece and back.

     When we arrived in Greece, the immigration part went very smoothly. There was a chain of people with bright "Explorers" signs to guide us to the appropriate places to enter Greece. The Greek authorities gave English passports a cursory glance and inspected the American passports closely. This may be because England is part of the European Union and we're not.



2006 March 25: Κνωσος (Knossos)

     Knossos (Κνωσος in Greek) is a site of now-ancient ruins where kings ruled forty centuries ago, if I remember our guide. My memory might be hazy as I didn't get much sleep on the coaches the night before and not enough the two nights before. I still found time to take my own pictures of the site.

     According to myth, King Minos defeated the Minataur and Dædelus and Icarus began their ill-fated, human-powered flight at this place. According to history, great kings ruled Crete from this place and they built a large, living community around them with practical living facilities and art for their minds.

     As our guide walked us over the stones that were once floors of a great palace, we could imagine the walls and ceilings making these ruins into living spaces long ago.




Aboard the Περλα (Perla)

     Our cruise ship MS Perla (Περλα in Greek) carried 770 of us eclipse weenies. In contrast, on my first eclipse trip, the Carnival ship Fascination had close to 3000 passengers, so this was a smaller boat. While they didn't have the exercise facilities I liked aboard the Fascination, seven "cardio" machines instead of jogging track and full weight room, they had the same full-service attitude in both my steward and the dining-room staff. They also had three computers with satellite Internet service, expensive for images, cheap for text e-mail like mine, and annoyingly slow in its response time.

     The Mediterranean voyage had a short day trip to Knossos in Crete, went from Heraklion, Crete, to Benghazi, Libya, for a day and two nights, stayed for two day trips to Cyrene and the eclipse, went from Benghazi to Tripoli for a day and two nights, stayed for the day trip to Leptis Magna, went from Tripoli to Santorini Island in Greece for a day and two nights, stayed for the day trip to Santorini, and went from there to Athens overnight.

     The MS Perla typically does three-day cruises of the Greek islands, so having the same passengers for eight nights was a change. The people I talked to on board seemed happy about it as most passengers spend the first two days of a cruise finding their way around the ship.

     Because this was a British tour, the official currency of the ship was £ sterling rather than € euros. I got the feeling they left all the prices alone and let people pay the same number of £ pounds as would otherwise be € euros. Since £1.00 is about €1.40, that would be a nice windfall for the ship store. Then again, I'm told the store had a 30% discount to compensate for the currency difference and I happened not to see the signs.

     I had a cabin-mate named Martin whom I almost never saw. My philosophy, to paraphrase (or to parody) Ben Franklin, is "Early to rise, early to bed makes a man healthy and socially dead." I was fast asleep when Martin came to bed and I was up and about before he awoke in the morning.

     I spent a lot more time with my dinner companions Delia and George. Typically (based on my two cruise-ship experiences), cruises arrange to have the same people at the dinner tables each evening. This time we had some ad-hoc dinners, so we dined together most of the nights.

2002 eclipse trip -- Woomera, Dr. John Mason
2002 eclipse trip -- Australian flies biting John Mason
2006 eclipse trip -- eclipse talk by John Mason

     Talks were scheduled on our sea-voyage days and the speakers were generally excellent. John Mason's eclipse talk is a regular part of Explorers eclipse tours and he did his homework. His talk not only presented the generic stuff about solar eclipses (as I do in my discussion), but also presents the specific details of this eclipse. He predicted a dramatic corona because the sun was at near-minimum activity and a good chance of seeing the approaching umbra from the southwest and shadow bands on the sand. After the eclipse, Dr. Mason gave a "post-mortem" presentation with lots of pictures and some videos. One of the videos was good enough to see the shadow bands.

     There was the usual side-topic discussion of the green flash a momentary green flicker occasionally seen at sunset over water. As we were at sea, I took several opportunities to look for it and I did not see it, although others claimed to see it almost every sunset.

     Roger O'Brien gave three historical presentations, one on Cyrene, one on Leptis Magna, and a third on Santorini and Athens. His summary was entertaining and enlightening to give us a feel for ancient times. Lunchtime conversation with the speaker revealed he's an astronomer-physicist with an interest in history.

     There was a general-science talk on "The Universe in 4D," complete with 3D stereo red-green-anaglyph star diagrams. The talk was a high-spirited whirlwind tour of astronomy, cosmology, and physics. He covered the General Theory of Relativity and the Minkowski space-time continuum in ten minutes. There was no real target audience for the talk as nobody was going to learn much from the short subjects and it wasn't satisfying to those who already understood the material. The 3D anaglyphs did not work well as the projection was too dim and the point of the 3D star diagrams wasn't clear at all. Maybe the good stuff holding the 4D talk together wasn't visible from our 3D universe.

     The backup science talk (in case the 4D speaker was not available) was Professor David Hughes talking about unmanned missions to comets. We got to hear the talk because the post-mortem talk took so much preparation that Dr. Mason's volcano talk about Santorini was canceled. This talk was superbly accessible to a wide range of audience from novices intrigued by actual close-up pictures of comets to math geeks like me intrigued by the technical challenges involved.

     Being aboard the Perla in the eastern Mediterranean Sea makes me feel like Homer's Odysseus in his journeys. Like Odysseus, we had neither cable TV (just the BBC) nor broadband Internet (just satellite) and only the stars (and GPS) for navigation.




2006 March 28: Cyrene

     According to Wikipedia and Livius, Cyrene is an ancient Greek city spanning five centuries from 600 BCE near the modern city of Shahhat, Libya. The site is about 170 hectares, 425 acres, not quite a square mile.

     Galen R. Frysinger has a nice web page of photographs (which I found on Google) and I have my own pictures.

     This is an ancient site, last inhabited as a living city 2000 year ago. Our guides did not seem terribly organized (or maybe I should say they were terribly organized) and most of us wandered on our own around the site.

     As we arrived at Cyrene, some of the bus guides explained that we had to buy permits to take pictures, €4 for still pictures and €7 for video while other bus guides did not. The same thing happened three days later at Leptis Magna. Nobody actually checked at the site. I suspect this is a scam to get some money from us, but few of us are willing to argue at this point, so we paid it.

     The most notable aspect of the day was the incredibly-poor coordination of our bus transportation. Once the Libyan authorities went through our passports, we boarded the buses and were on our way. The trip from Benghazi to Cyrene was just over two hours (when Brian from Explorers drove it earlier) but our convoy took almost four hours to get there and the same to get back. There were food-fuel stops and smoke breaks. We were supposed to ride in a convoy with police escort, but the bus drivers took considerable liberties and had to be gathered by the police. We got back to the boat several hours later than planned and the dining room had to be flexible about scheduled times for dinner.

     Explorers is famous in my book for their ability "to roll with the punches" when things don't go as planned. Clearly, this day's delays didn't bode wall for the next day's eclipse trip and I wondered just how long it was going to take for us to hear some plan changes. We arrived at half past seven and by eight o'clock we heard an announcement that the 4:30 a.m. departure was being changed to 3:00 with breakfast at 2:00, more flexibility from the dining staff.




2006 March 29: The Eclipse

     One of my fellow travelers had an expression, "AWA: Africa Wins Again." She meant that no matter what you do, no matter what extra margin you plan for, when you're in Africa it isn't going to help. After our 2:00 breakfast, we pulled out just after 3:00. Ten minutes later we pulled into a petrol station to fill up for an hour and a half. "It takes a long time to fill up all the tanks." Yes, it does, and that's what all night was for.

     My seat-mate for the long eclipse day was Professor David Hughes, astronomy professor at Sheffield, expert on orbits of comets, fascinating company for a long day. He gave the talk on comets a couple days later.

     The Sahara Desert is a big and empty place, sand as far as the eye can see. The only carbon-based entities we saw were the rubber tires people had abandoned on the side of the road, tread worn smooth by the blowing winds and the sands of time. The view is a straight line horizon with brown sand below and blue sky above.

     When Brian from Explorers drove it earlier, the route had good roads and very little traffic, one car per hour. I'm guessing somebody put an X on a map for eclipse viewing so everybody headed for the exact same place to watch, a spot in the Sahara Desert about 80 Km (50 miles) south of the oasis town of Jalu. We sure had a lot more traffic on the big day and we were backed up terribly the last two miles. About a mile from the porta-potties and refreshments, with first contact twenty minutes away, we decided to leave the bus and use the local spot as our viewing area. We set up our telescopes and cameras on tripods in the desert sand.

     First contact came at 12:09 as scheduled just before local noon (11:09 local (Libyan) time, 12:09 "ship" (Greek) time, 9:09 universal time, we stayed on ship time even when we were in Libya). We would have liked more time to set up our equipment, especially those with fancy stuff and those taking time-sequence pictures of the eclipse. My own pictures are more modest.

     First contact is the moment when the moon's shadow takes the first nibble from the sun's disk in the sky. Second contact is the moment when the moon's leading edge, as seen from earth, reaches the far end of the sun, the beginning of the total-eclipse phase. Third contact is the moment when the moon's trailing edge meets the edge of the sun, then end of totality. Finally, fourth contact is the moment when the moon's trailing edge leaves the sun and the full circle is restored.

     When the moon as seen from earth is smaller than the sun, the central phase is annular (Latin for ring-shaped) with a thin ring of red-yellow sun. In an annular eclipse, third contact comes before second contact. Just before dawn of my last African eclipse day, 2001 June 21, I was running through the maize fields and came across a bunch of photographers aiming their cameras east. I said, "Waiting for third contact?" and got some chuckles from the crowd.

     As Dr. Mason pointed out in his talk, this was a long eclipse, four minutes of totality. The moon as seen from earth was five percent larger than the sun, large enough for it to take some time between second and third contact. Another factor in the eclipse duration is the speed of the earth's rotation. Let me explain: the moon goes about 3550 Km/hour (2200 miles per hour) in its orbit around the earth. Accounting for the earth's revolution around the sun gives a moon's-shadow speed of about 3290 Km/hour (2000 miles per hour). At the equator, the earth's surface moves about half that fast in the same direction, so a noontime eclipse lasts twice as long as a result of the relative speed reduction. The drawback of a large-moon eclipse is that it's hard to see the sun's prominences (solar flares) when the moon goes out further from the sun's surface and there weren't likely to be many prominences during this low-solar-activity period in the sun's eleven-year sunspot cycle.

     The weather was perfect, cloudless blue sky, light breeze, no dust storms from blowing sand. The temperature dropped from 28°C. to 22° (80°F. to 70°F.) as the sun shrank in the sky.

     Second contact, totality, the Big Moment, was coming at 13:26, just after noon. The sun went from chipped to half, then to crescent. The sky darkened and the temperature drop became noticeable. In the southwest sky there was a darker zone coming and then light-dark shadow-band ripples started moving on the ground. I called out "Shadow bands!" and my eclipse neighbors later thanked me for calling my attention to them. The remaining narrow slit of the sun (seen through a sun-viewing eye filter) turned into tiny fragments of light known as Baily's beads. A moment later the moment came and the corona appeared.

     I looked up and looked at the corona with long streamers on the sides of the sun. Then I saw red dots on the rim of the black moon, prominences, solar flares that we did not expect to see. I decided I would spend thirty seconds of the four minutes to try to take a good picture with my point-and-shoot camera and then I gave up, took a quick look at Venus and Mercury, pulled out my image-stabilizing binoculars, and enjoyed the view.

     As the moon moved further along the sun's disk we got another surprise, more prominences on the other side of the sun, glorious red points along the inner ring of the corona. Then the third-contact side of the sun started to glow, not the usual white precursor to the diamond ring but a rich red "ruby broach." As the red brightened and whitened, I put down my binoculars and looked up one last time to see the brilliant sun reappearing. Others saw a double diamond ring, the sun shining through dual lunar canyons, two spots appearing at once. Others also saw shadow bands again which I missed in the celebratory atmosphere between third and fourth contacts.

     We piled into the bus to leave and saw fourth contact through the window of the bus. We drove to the actual, official viewing site where we were trying to be this morning. The western-style porta-potties were nice and we saw a tent city of folks who, I presume, waited overnight at the site. There were folks giving away some eclipse t-shirts, a post-event general crowd scene.

     We made a ten-minute stop in Jalu that turned into an hour and a half and our bus driver took off without the guide. Our bus drivers who didn't speak English were accompanied by bi-lingual guides. When the driver realized the guide wasn't in his seat, he tried to ask us if the guide were somewhere else in the bus. Then he turned back to retrieve the other member of his crew.

     When we finally got back to the boat right around midnight, the dining room crew gave us a full dinner service compressed only by shorter intervals between courses. Once again, they were terrific in adapting to difficult schedule circumstances.

     John Mason's eclipse post-mortem talk scheduled for the next day was postponed two days to give him time to put together a more-involved show with still pictures and video.




2006 March 31: Leptis Magna

     After the nuttiness of the bus rides in Benghazi, and after using third-world toilets, some folks refused to go back into Libya in Tripoli to see Leptis Magna. In his talk, Roger O'Brien described Leptis Magna as the Roman Empire's postcard city, built to impress visitors with its glory. This was not a sight of a site to be missed. I figured it wouldn't be any worse than Benghazi.

     Not only wasn't the transport any worse than Benghazi, it was worlds better. The buses were lined up and ready to go, they ran smoothly on time, and our guides were pleasant and knowledgeable. Like Benghazi there were the Qadhafi billboards and posters and there were police checkpoints along the roadway.

     As we arrived at Leptis Magna, some of the bus guides explained that we had to buy permits to take pictures, €4 for still pictures and €7 for video while other bus guides did not. The same thing happened three days earlier at Cyrene. Nobody actually checked at the site. I suspect this is a scam to get some money from us, but few of us are willing to argue at this point, so we paid it.

     Leptis Magna was a glorious place and we were walked along roads, through the gymnasium, baths, temples with gargoyles of Medusa, views of the harbor, the marketplace, and, finally, the amphitheater. I took lots of my own pictures of the site. While we were all hanging around the amphitheater, a large woman with a big voice sat in the middle of the stage area and sang a song filling the space with music. I scurried to the expensive seats, sat down, and enjoyed the sound of her voice. After all, the test of an amphitheater is the sound and this place sounded very nice.

     Our group of several hundred people had plenty of company from other tour groups. One large group was speaking Italian and another sounded Arabic. When Brian from Explorers checked out this ancient site on his visit, he says he was alone, the only living human being there, his only company was the souls who lived there nearly two thousand years ago.

     When we got back from the guided tour of the site, there were plenty of souvenir shops where I bought my Qadhafi watch and quenched my thirst with a Diet Coke. It was pretty much like any collection of vendors at a tourist attraction in Europe or the United States.




2006 April 2: Σαντορινη (Santorini)

     Santorini (Σαντορινη in Greek) is one of the world's beautiful fantasy places. One of my co-workers has Santorini postcard-pictures on her wall. As I remember, the island was a large volcano known as Thera (Θηρα in Greek) that blew its stack sometime around 1650 BCE as loudly as Krakatoa, loud enough to be heard in Greece to the north and in Crete to the south. The remaining stunningly beautiful ring of islands is prone to devastating earthquakes, the most recent in 1956. Some believe Thera was the lost continent of Atlantis.

     I took my own pictures of this beautiful place. Our wonderful tour guide told us about the vineyards, the churches, the towns, the pumice, the desert, the tourist business, and even Santorini Airport (JTR).

     Santorini has vineyards where they arrange the grape vines into a basket shape to protect them against the wind. There isn't enough of a wine business to sustain the population. They used to make a living selling pumice from the island but that was selling the island itself out from under them.

     Now the main business of Santorini is tourism. Two of our three stops were shopping opportunities.




2006 April 3: Αθηνα (Athens) to London

     Our cruise ended in Athens (Αθην&alpha in Greek), the legendary cradle of democracy from ancient times and home of the Parthenon on the Acropolis. I took my own pictures of Athens. Our guide bought our tickets to the Acropolis and took us up to the top where he told us about the various temples and monuments. The admission ticket to the Acropolis is the most beautiful ticket or receipt I've seen.

     The Acropolis atop Athens is the ancient center of defense against invaders from the fifth century BCE. Standing atop this ancient holy place I found the whispers of the ancient souls masked by the sounds of hundreds of school kids on their spring break.

     When we got to the Athens Airport (ATH) we got in line at the Thomsonfly ticket counter and waited. Then we waited and waited and waited and waited. After a few hours, some fellow came by and asked how long we were waiting. I gave the snappy answer, "What day is it?"

     It turns out that somebody put a wrong letter-digit in the flight number stored in the computer. As a consequence every single boarding pass had to be filled out individually by hand. So much for computers working they way they were supposed to. By the time I got to the agent she was so distraught by this that she issued tags for twelve bags of 1 Kg rather than my one bag of 12 Kg.

     I would point out that the Explorers game plan left enough extra time that all this delay still got us off the ground within ten minutes of schedule.




2006 April 4: London to Phoenix

     Once I got to London Gatwick Airport (LGW) I was no longer under the Explorers care umbrella. Fortunately, my hotel reservation was waiting for me at the Gatwick Moat House hotel. In spite of its English-castle sounding name, the Moat House was a very ordinary hotel. Their half-hourly airport shuttle bus is £2.50 each way.

     My LGW to PHX itinerary involved an eight-hour flight to Philadelphia (PHL), a friendly-but-complete going over at U.S. customs, a three-hour wait, and a five and a half hours to Phoenix. When I was waiting in Philadelphia I ran into an associate from work who had just arrived for a meeting the next morning in Newtown Square, just south of Philadelphia. We were both pretty surprised to see each other.

     When I used to work for the airline I went to Europe for the weekend and found the seven-hour time change more fatiguing going east there than coming home west. When I went to India, a twelve-and-a-half hour change, I found myself far more fatigued coming home, maybe because it was the second night-day change, maybe because my guard was down. This ten-hour-change trip was more like India, I was fine going out and pooped coming back.

     Given that I ate three full meals a day including appetizers and desserts, and given that running opportunities on the boat were limited to a treadmill, I was pleasantly surprised to find I gained no weight during my nine-day voyage.




Explorers Tours

     In my last eclipse page, I had nice things to say about Explorers, their way of organizing things to run well and of adapting the plan to deal with change. Well, the Libyan organization in Benghazi was a severe test and the Explorers team of Brian, Wendy, Loretta, Dave, and Khaled rose to the challenge.

     Even before the trip began, Explorers was on top of things. Just as I would be about to write to ask about something, I would get an e-mail, or a posted paper letter, telling me what I was about to ask. Passports and visas were all taken care of seamlessly and all paperwork was done in advance or without long queues. The only exception, the only queues where we had to wait, were those for the charter flights on Thomsonfly.

     Their challenges aren't going away, either. The next total solar eclipse on 2008 August 1 has its best viewing in the Gobi Desert in China not far from Mongolia. Of course, 2008 is an Olympic year in Beijing and Brian's Explorers crew has its work cut out for it.





     So what about Libya?

     Benghazi left an impression of disorganization, stereotypical for Africa, also stereotypical for the middle east. The driving was crazy by American standards but I doubt an Italian would notice anything wrong. Tripoli was far better organized and the drivers were far saner.

     The other American stereotype of Libya is about police hassles and personal risk. There was absolutely no sense of this kind of politics while I was there. The U.S. and Libyan governments have not always been friendly (an understatement), but they were happy to welcome our tour, mostly British but some Americans and Canadians.

     It was a bit strange for an American to pass through all the police checkpoints. The buses were waved through without a problem, but it wasn't like the United States where we can drive 3000 miles without police involvement. Also, seeing pictures of Qadhafi was a bit strange to me.




Yes, I'm Glad I Went!

     Am I glad I went on this strange journey to a new, different, and scary place? Yes, I'm glad I went!

     I admit going on any kind of adventure tour with Explorers is like shooting fish in a barrel. Things may not always go right, but it takes a serious twist of fate before their customers feel the pain.

     England, Greece, and Libya were fun places to visit on this trip and the eclipse was the best of the five I have seen. I hope to see my eclipse friends next time around, 2008 August 1 in the Gobi Desert in China.

     What more could anyone ask?



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