November 3rd 2013 went down in history as one of the rarest days of our time. Believe me not, such a day will not come back again in our generation; you missed a glimpse of it? Then your great grand children will meet you in heaven to tell you the tales of a similar day that will happen sometime in their generation.
Wondering? Well, this is the day when the Hybrid Solar Eclipse visited Pakwach, some little rustic cradle land in West Nile region of Uganda. I say that it visited Pakwach (place of many Leopards) because this was the primmest of the viewing spots in the whole world.
A similar astronomical event had last happened on March 16th 1466 and the next one will happen on June 3rd 2114. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA), only 7 of these have ever happened since the birth of Jesus Christ, and Jesus Himself did not get an opportunity to see one! So we were hugely blessed to have this hybrid solar eclipse happen during our time but double blessed to have the best viewing spot in Uganda.
So I could not miss out on this event. People were traveling from China, Russia, USA, Australia, everywhere in the world to grab the best viewing spot in Uganda. The rest of the people in the world who could have an opportunity to view it could only have a partial glimpse.
I set out on Saturday afternoon, November 2nd, with my friend, Andrew Odongo, aboard GaaGaa coach, to the West Nile town of Pakwach, about 400km north west of capital, Kampala. Another group of friends, Becky and her Belgian fiancé, Jean Marie, were also traveling, when their bus, KK Travelers, got a technical glitch and they were stuck on the road near Migera town for hours. Very hungry and with no access to shops or restaurants, they called and we dropped for them some packets of milk and other eats we were carrying. They were very happy, and that act of selfless service would create unprecedented rapport that would be very helpful during our adventure.
So we reached Pakwach town close to dark and all the budget accommodation had already been booked. The average accommodation was now 4, 5 or even 10 times as expensive as the normal fares. So we decide to move around town (since we were not aliens in the place, I had been there about 3 times before and Adongo spent part his early childhood in the same town when his dad worked for the Rift Valley Railways based at Pakwach Inland Port). We found some tents which were going for 80,000shs per head but remember we were on a shoeless budget. If I remember properly, I had about 40,000shs in my wallet and Odongo had about the same amount of money. That is about just $32 in total. So we practically could not afford the kind of accommodation that was available but we were determined and we could not miss an inch of the event. So we go to the bar, not to drink, but to buy time. We took a soda each and sooner it was 11pm and the bar was closing. There was a club open, Shooters, the only club in town, but we equally could not afford going to there.
Now we are out on the bar veranda, carrying our rack sacks, waiting for the next move before an ingenious idea popped in. “We can sleep on this veranda” I told Odongo, who quickly bought the idea. So we ask the security man at the bar if we could do just that and he was kind enough to grant us the opportunity. So we hurriedly grab the papyrus mats which were kept on the extreme corner of the bar veranda by the roadside women venders. We each got one which served as a mattress and a blanket (thanks to the rolling ability of the mats). Our rack sacks served as pillows and soon we were asleep. The night was very calm and tranquil and the breeze was not as cold as we expected. Sometime in the night at around 3am, a man came with a female ‘escort’ and asked the security guard for a lodge in vain, but what was so amusing was the question from the lady ‘you don’t even have some condoms?’ and the security guard gladly replied: no thank you. And they left. Where they slept, what happened and whether they got condoms or not, the heavens can only tell! But I liked her courage and the understanding that ‘if it’s not on, then it’s not safe!’
The dawn came without any other interruption. We grabbed the shots of our beds and thanked and tipped the security guard and left. The viewing of the eclipse would be in the late afternoon at Owinyi Primary School, some 8km from Pakwach town, so used our prior hours to do some adventure. Slopping down toward the Nile River, I captured some rare shots of sun rise and it was magical. The army men could not allow us to go to the bridge at the river and after assuring them that what they were doing was against my basic rights, we abandoned that move and went to Pakwach Inland Port. Deserted and abandoned, we grabbed some shots at the bush-engulfed Port but what is so special about this place is that it is where the great East African Railway ends. The project which started in Mombasa in 1896 finally ended at this point! The very last rails can be seen in this picture.
And it was mid morning and we were still moving, through the ‘manyatta’-clustered town suburbs, we kept walking, looking and speaking to the locals. Odongo, of the Langi origin, can communicate fluently in Alur, the two are sort of cousins, and because he had stayed in the same neighborhoods when he was young, he enjoyed refreshing his memory by looking up for spots and places he still remembered. Our spirits were restless, and so our feet kept on moving. We crossed and went to the Nile River, attacking it from another suburb where we could not be stopped. We actually found a fleet of police men at the river but we exhibited immense confidence that they could not stop us this time. We found one Mr. Ayub, a fisher man on the river who would be so good to us. We asked to take a canoe ride which he agreed to (but of course he asked for some money which we gladly offered). And the canoe ride would turn out as one of the highlights of our adventure.
It was mid day, and we come back to town and waited for lunch at a canteen, where we met Hilary Heuler, a freelance journalist affiliated to Voice Of America (VOA) radio. We had a good discourse on different things, adventure, the eclipse, state of Africa, and we gladly granted her an interview for the radio. And we had lunch at a renowned restaurant in town, but remember, our dime would soon run out. Meanwhile, Becky and her fiancé, who had continued to sleep in Arua, the major town in West Nile, would soon join us to go to Owinyi primary school. They had now hired a vehicle, and beginning to tell them our story from the previous night, they offered that we would travel with them after the eclipse and spend a night at White Castle hotel in Arua where they had stayed and re-booked. So you see, our rapport we created on the way near Migera is now beginning to pay off, and Becky called the hotel to confirm our booking (yes, everything on them!).
At Awinyi Primary School, it was a bee hive of people and activities. International Tourists, locals, vendors, security, journalists, renowned astronomers, the president, people of all sizes, race and color were there waiting for that historical astronomical event. We waited patiently, the event started many minutes after the communicated time, and it took about an hour to reach at a point when the moon totally engulfed the sun. We were only lucky because the cloud had covered and for a long time we could not see what was taking place, but about 2 minutes before its totality, the cloud cleared and the total engulf lasted fewer than 45 seconds. It was magical! Finest magical! To me, it was not just another astronomical event; it was a confirmation and empirical evidence of the existence of a mighty God!
Then the hustle to get back to our car! But we enjoyed it because we captured a video along the way, interviewing different people, we acted as if we were international journalists or astronomers from NASA or space.com, our Belgian friend was another source of unparalleled humor that added life to our adventure. We got to our car (yes the hired car, but hey, a Mercedes!) and sped off to our hotel in Arua, reaching in the night. We would leave the next day for Kampala.
It was a wonderful adventure! From the night on the bar veranda, to the $75 a night hotel and from the rare scenes of sun rise, the point of the very last rails of the East African great railway at Pakwach inland port and the canoe ride at the Nile River to the magical moments of the hybrid solar eclipse, we could never have paid a better price!
My friend, Odong (in grey T-shirt)