2020 Annular eclipse in Ethiopia

An annular eclipse, where the moon almost covers the sun, leaves a bright ring of fire in an otherwise dark sky. It’s in Lalibela, from a Mad Max-style mountaintop restaurant, that Mark Chapman, founder of our Ethiopian travel specialists Tesfa Tours, plans to watch this year’s solar eclipse. Whether you’re an eclipse-chaser or a casual enthusiast, you can join him there too. 

“There’s a mad group of people that follow solar eclipses around the world and, looking at their blogs and websites, the eclipse cuts exactly over Lalibela,” says Mark. “The central part cuts right over Lalibela, and it goes over a certain number of kilometres to the north and south of there. So if you’re in that band, you’ll see a full annular solar eclipse.”
The eclipse starts at six in the morning, so Tesfa Tours have arranged a champagne breakfast to celebrate the unusual sight in an equally unusual setting – one you may recognise if you’ve been watching Ben Fogle’s New Lives in the Wild.
“One of my best friends built the restaurant: a guy called Habtamu, along with Susan, who originally left Scotland to help build schools in Ethiopia,” says Mark. “Habtamu’s a bit of an entrepreneur, so together they worked with some crazy architect to build this bizarre place. Of course, now, it’s got the Ben Fogel fame. But I’ve been sending people there ever since they built it. The food is good and it’s a lovely place to see the landscape and the mountains around.” 
You don’t need a solar eclipse to have a spectacular time in Ethiopia, but as Mark says: “It makes a perfect end to your tour on that Sunday morning. What a climax to the trip!”
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The ring of fire

From its position in the sky, as seen from Lalibela, the moon will almost completely block out the sun on Sunday 21 June 2020. Baily’s beads – or the ‘diamond ring effect’ – may arc out around its outline; these spots of sunlight sometimes shine through the moon’s dimpled surface, caused by its many craters and mountains. When the eclipse happens, it will be a very thin ring of fire.

“It’s going to be very, very dark,” asserts Mark. “I think local people are going to be pretty shocked by it, because I don’t think anybody in that area will have seen it before.”

Mark hopes that the government will put out advice on local TV and radio, and plans to help spread information about the dangers to people’s eyes of looking at the eclipse, which lasts over two hours from start to finish. “But there’s only just over one minute of the absolute eclipse, where the moon is perfectly in front of the sun,” he says.
From NASA and graphs and ‘eclipsophile’ websites, eclipse chasers can see that the show will start over central Africa, where heavy rain clouds likely mean low visibility. Further south, too much sand in the air risks obscuring the eclipse over Oman, while humidity in China and Thailand means too much cloud cover.
“I think madly keen people might try to go to Tibet, probably the best place to see it in terms of clear skies,” says Mark, although travelers to Tibet will see an even shorter 23-second eclipse. “Ethiopia is going to be one of the best places to see it. The Highlands is one place where it’s still relatively clear. If you want a level of comfort and something set up for you, Lalibela is the best place to see it.” 
Mark explains that June signals the onset of the rainy season in Addis Ababa. But Lalibela is over 300km north and, in places, more than 3,000m high. The rain here comes later.
“Obviously there’s a risk that the damp weather comes early,” says Mark, “and our seasons are so mixed up at the moment it’s really hard to be sure. But I think seeing the eclipse in a country like Ethiopia, where everything has a mystical, religious significance... people will read a lot into it when they see it, in a place like Lalibela.”

Highlights of an Ethiopian solar eclipse vacation

Ethiopian culture

On Friday morning, two days before the solar eclipse, another special event, one much more important to the local people, is taking place in Lalibela. “King Lalibela was a saint king who directed the construction of the town after seeing visions,” explains Mark, “and it’s the anniversary of his death.”
The celebrations of one of Ethiopia’s most revered saints, buried in Golgotha church in Lalibela, coincide with one of the big annual Saint Michael’s days (like all Ethiopian saints, he has several). Tabots, holy replicas of the Ark of the Covenant, are brought out from the churches and paraded about. “In a kind of throwback to King David’s time, in Old Testament times,” says Mark. “It’s quite a mystical thing, a lot of incense, these special drums are being beaten and there’s singing and dancing.”
In fact, it’s the second biggest day in Lalibela after Christmas, which annually attracts several thousand tourists who come to watch. Mark explains that the Saint Michael’s day celebrations, as well the huge market that follows, are just as important but don’t attract the same kind of crowds.
“We take people up to the rock, from which the churches have been cut, to witness the praying and chanting the night before. Then, in the early morning, we take them up to see the tabots. There will be maybe a thousand people or more gathered around there to celebrate this big day, but very few foreigners.”

Highland trekking

For most travelers, the highlight of this tour will be the solar eclipse, but don’t overlook the simply astronomical scenery Ethiopia offers for trekking – especially when this is how you will spend the majority of the trip.

“I love walking in mountains and it is just an absolute joy to be out trekking in the mountains of Ethiopia,” says Mark. “You’re at 2,500-3,000m altitude, which means it’s not too hot, you’ve got no malaria to think about, it cools down a little bit at night, and you get birds of prey and gelada baboons on the cliffs.”
Staying in rural communities along part of the way, you’ll see children tend their flocks of sheep, farmers ploughing their fields with pairs of oxen, and open views over flat plateau fields and the remote Abyssinian Mountains. It’s a unique insight into local villages and a rare opportunity to learn about authentic village life and to meet the people – made possible by the village guest houses built in partnership between Tesfa Tours and the communities. In return, you can be sure the money that pays for your tour is going straight to the people who need it; 55 percent of profits goes directly to the community, and 25 percent pays the wages of your local trekking guides.
The trekking is suitable for travelers who do a bit of walking or sport on a regular basis. “They don’t have to be as fit as they’d like to be,” assures Mark, “although there will be one day that stretches them and they’ll feel stiff afterwards, but the walking is magnificent.”
The terrain is mostly flat but rough and sometimes rocky underfoot, so some people may prefer to bring walking poles, although most won’t have any problems at all. And there will be the chance to rest your feet as you stop to visit cultural sights: Selassie Cathedral, the last resting place of the former Ethiopian emperor; the curious castles at the city of Gondar; Debre Berhan Selassie Church and its ceiling of painted angels. 
Written by Bryony Cottam
Photo credits: [Page banner: James Niland] [Ben Abeba Restaurant: Chuck Moravec] [Ring of fire: National Park Service] [Ethiopian culture (St Michael's Day): Tesfa Tours] [Highland trekking: Tesfa Tours]
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