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Report on the Total Solar Eclipse of 1999 Aug 11

by Kris Delcourte (Corbeny, France)

On 11th Aug., my wife Katherine and I witnessed the most wonderful and spectacular eclipse in France.But, we had to go through a lot of great efforts and really thrilling experiences before we could enjoy the excitement of more than 2 minutes of totality.

A month earlier, we surveyed some prospective sites of German towns.But due to the uncertainty of the weather conditions, at the final hour, 2 days before the event, we had to abandon our hotel booking in Leipheim (near ULM, south of Germany).

On the 9th Aug., basing on the weather forecasts we decided to head for North of France in the area of Laon.This middle area of the north of France got better chances than Normandy and the Alsace according to the French mto.At last, we were relieved of the tension of looking at web sites, telephoning weather services (some paying services did not update their message for the last 2 days).First worry was to find a hotel, as I heard stories that for the 10th of Aug, all hotel rooms were completely booked out since months!Let's find this out.We reached the first sleepy little village north of Laon (La Fre) and luck with us, found a room for 2 days!!

The next day, on the eve of the eclipse, we surveyed a few sites in the area, avoiding forested regions and looked for open fields.This gives better and wider panoramic views for the approaching moon shadow.In addition, in case of scattered clouds, the chances of having clearings in open fields are higher as clouds seemed to collect and hover forests, swampy areas and hill tops.We landed at a location near Vivaise some 5 km north of Laon, with wide views for following the approaching moon shadow and towards the south, the sun would be over the city of Laon with its majestic cathedral looking over a steep hill top.The French authorities had prepared several parking places in the fields (laid with white grounded chalk, most ideal for seeing the shadow bands!).Weather conditions still very unpredictable and towards the evening, it rained heavily with lightnings and thunder, and tensions were high.

On the 11th morning, the day itself looked so disastrously gloomy and confirmed our worst fears of the night before.The dark sky and thick low clouds with the sun nowhere in sight!!!It certainly looked like "dooms day"!We decided to drive over to our picked site before 0900hrs.Around 1000hrs, the first signs of hope appeared with small blue patches but not promising enough, and soon emerged in the clouds again!Meanwhile, more people arrived at our site.So, with uncertainty but hoping for the best, I decided to set up my facilities, the telescope (76mm refractor, f 910mm), and mounted my cameras (2 Nikons) preparing for the waited moment.Around 11.00, we missed the first contact which happened behind the thick clouds.The uncertainty was growing now every minute.We waited patiently until 11.25 (1 hour before 2nd contact), we still saw nothing from the partial phase.On the contrary, there were threatening rain clouds coming towards us from the north.As I could see some signs of hope with brighter sky in the direction of Reims, we decided to try our chances somewhere else.We threw everything back into our back seat of our car, no time for detaching the telescope and sped off in the direction of Reims.

Katherine was the driver and I navigated, we began the mad chase!We literally live up to our image as "eclipse chasers" and rushing towards any signs of clearings in whichever direction.We took small countryside roads to avoid the congestion along the expressways.After a few kms, our hearts "opened up" as we saw in the distance some cars with bright sun reflections on their roof, as giant spotlights shining at us !We headed in the direction of the sun reflections and reached the clearings.Hurriedly, we parked alongside grass curbs, jumped out of our car and for the first time, excitedly saw the partially eclipsed sun at 11.45hours!Our very first little success gave us so much joy and excitement and provided us with the courage to continue our "clearings chase".The clouds seemed to be advancing rapidly and we had to rush again heading towards bigger clearings.Thanks to the decision of the French authorities there were no trucks on the road and we could drive freely and "crazily".Our priority at that moment was to see as much as possible of the phenomenon and abandon the idea of shooting pictures or setting up the telescope again.

Reaching the next 'observation in the clearing', we turned to the right in order to follow the direction of the clearing.Several other cars did the same kind of kamikaze drive, and just parked the car in the grass next to the road.One more stop.We are coming close to totality, some ten minutes left.The colours were fantastic: the dark green of the wooded scenery as we drove through.The blue of the hole in the sky, the grey of the clouds following, the white of another higher cloud, the black of a rain cloud that was catching up, the yellow of the sunlight on the fields!We felt some chills.Now we came to a road split.All cars went into different directions (no more in the direction of the clearing).Everybody seemed lost!We had mixed feelings.What do we do?

First we drove left.It seemed to go into the forest.For a moment, I thought this was not the right direction seeing the clearing moving more to the right and we changed course, drove for a short while.This was too dangerous as all cars are panicking chasing against our direction on this too narrow road, so we reversed.Luckily, the road has a bend into the right direction which means towards our clearing and we were again in the chase of the clearing.We overtook a bicycle, who was struggling very hard, but I am afraid he will not have made it.It was very close to totality now.We reached a spot where many cars had already stopped.Looking through the open roof from which I was monitoring the progress of the eclipse, I screamed 'stop' and we jumped out of the car.

The sky was already pretty dark now, and we were about half a minute away from totality.Swallows flew like crazy over the fields.The colours were from another world.There was a rainbow like halo visible in the clouds that are approaching the sun.The last 10 seconds or so I watched with the naked eye and saw the last part of direct sunlight disappearing behind the moon's limb.The Bailey's beads were glorious and lasted for several seconds !Yes, that's it, we've witnessed it!.I could see the corona and the pink chromosphere already just before totality started.The corona itself was brilliant!The main structure was quite spherical, but there were very long and well-pronounced streamers in all kind of directions.People started screaming and shouting with joy and excitement!Even myself, who usually stayed quite calm, cried loudly: the cry of relief that we made it!!!.There were several big prominences visible.Pictures and television recordings will show them better than I can ever described here.The sky was also very dark.I must say that of the 6 total eclipses I have experienced so far, this is definitely the darkest.Probably, this is due to the cloud cover.The horizon was not orange coloured, but dark grey.

Suddenly, the image of the corona was getting fainter.A thin cloud was hanging now over the sun.A few seconds further and we didn't see anything anymore from the corona.But, Venus appeared, sparkling through a clear patch.Some more seconds and the clouds stole the show of the sun lighting up, as if a light was switched on behind a screen.This was third contact.The sky was almost completely grey now and minutes later it started to rain, probably due to the cooling down effect of the eclipse.In the next village we stopped the car and Katherine noticed the cock crowing.As I looked, I saw a few chickens sitting on their resting stick.One last glimpse of the 90% eclipsed sun with the naked eye, filtered through a thick cloud, and this eclipse is over for us.Well this was a real thriller, and fantastic experience, fortunately with a happy end.The chase was well worth the efforts and tensions!

Next time, rendez-vous from the borders of the Zambezi in Africa in June, 21 - 2001???

1999 Total Eclipse Reports and Photos

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