Returning To Civilisation

All good things must come to an end, and for me, my desert adventure is sadly over, and my flight will be departing in a few hours.  It’s been a brilliant experience, and very surreal in places, but it’s been fantastic overall.  So, I think this final desert based post ought to be dedicated to the things I shall and shan’t miss about living here.  So, without further ado, let’s take a look!

Things that I’ll miss about living in the desert:

1.  The scenery  

Yes of course this had to feature.  Admittedly it’s not quite as verdant as the Surrey Hills, but there’s nothing like waking up each morning, looking out of the window at a massive volcano, blue skies, and sand everywhere.  Very different, but beautiful too.

2.  The sense of adventure  

I mean, my office is literally a desert (at least when I’m not writing up rock analyses on Excel).  What do I do at work?  I go out and collect samples.  I work outdoors, and what could be more exciting than exploring?  Life is all about exploring, whether it’s who you are as a person, or the world, or ideally both.  I admit that living in pretty inhospitable conditions might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me personally, working in such a place as the Atacama Desert is a brilliant adventure.  Also, it’s quite a “manly” job I guess (an attribute that those of you who know me personally know I most certainly lack), and people have said I must therefore be “very macho”, and “like Indiana Jones” (although Indiana Jones didn’t benefit from a Toyota Hilux carrying him around everywhere).

3.  The ease of the commute

Everyone hates having to travel to work, but for me, all I have to do is get out of bed, and I’m there.  Couldn’t be easier!

4.  The unpredictability

For most people, going to work is pretty similar day in, day out. Something along the lines of: Get up, travel to office, work, return home, eat and sleep.  Repeat Monday to Friday.  After my experience in the desert, one thing I must admit is that you can never tell what’ll happen next.  While I’ve been here, my bedroom/office has been hit by an earthquake in the middle of the night, and I got snowed in for two days when a random snowstorm decided to make an appearance.

5.  The dark skies

Coming from the UK (and near London to boot), the difference between the night sky there and here in the Atacama is astonishing. There is no light pollution at night (aside from a couple of lights in the camp, but you can go behind the containers to eliminate their light). No town exists within 100 miles, and the high altitude, and cold temperatures only add to the clarity of the skies.  It really is stunning.

So that’s the list of five things I’ll miss about the Atacama, but what about the things that I won’t be missing?  Well, here we go!

Things that I’ll not miss about living in the desert:

1.  The lack of constant running water

We all take access to running water for granted, but up here in the desert, it’s not so constant.  Only available during the day, at night you’re on your own.  Not got a bottle of water to hand, but need to clean your teeth/shave/wash your hands/flush the loo?  Tough luck sonny, you’ll have to wait until morning.

2.  The lack of any humidity whatsoever

While out in both the Far East, and the United States, I knew what high temperatures and humidity meant, namely hot, sticky, sweaty, clammy yuckness!  As a result, I’m not a fan of high humidity. However, very low humidity is pretty horrendous too.  Not got a chap stick?  Sucks to be you then!  Without that, you’ll have a rather unpleasant and painful time.  After my first few days, my lips were completely ruined (but luckily with a chap stick I managed to salvage the situation a bit).  I was tempted to take a photo, but it would have meant me having to pull a “duckface” in order to illustrate my point (hahaha, like that was ever going to happen)!

3.  The cold

I’ve probably already mentioned this, but at night it gets extremely cold.  Getting up in the morning is really really difficult, and when you want to take a swig of water, but find your water bottle frozen, it illustrates the point rather nicely.  By looking at my computer’s internal temperature sensors, it appeared that my room was a rather delightful -5°C when I woke up.

4.  The fact that you can’t use the loo properly

Sort of related to the first thing I won’t be missing.  Essentially, when you use the loo, you cannot put loo roll down it (as it apparently buggers the system up).  Instead, the loo roll has to go in an adjacent bin.  And yes readers, that does unfortunately include after you’ve had a dump…

5.  The altitude

To be honest, I won’t really not miss the altitude, as (aside from the first couple of days) it’s been pretty kind to me.  However, the first few days (with the headache, constant dehydration, and very bizarre dreams with interrupted sleep) were not ideal.  The main issue I have with the altitude is that physical work can be pretty tiring.  Seeing that walking up hills carrying rocks probably counts as “physical work”, it can be a little exhausting (although let’s be honest, it’s probably more to do with my general lack of fitness instead).  On the upside, I had no Acute Mountain Sickness, or a Pulmonary/Cerebral Œdema, so I can’t really complain!

Restaurant Review: La Cantina

I’ve been considering blogging about the restaurants that I visit for a while, and so thought that I’d use this post as a pilot for the general idea (as I’m not totally convinced whether I can pull it off, comments would be appreciated).

Anyway, to kick off this new (probably terrible) feature, we’ll be looking at the canteen of the desert camp.  I don’t think it’s actually got a name, so I’ve arbitrarily given it one.

The restaurant

The restaurant

The first thing to notice is that it is literally a tent.  However, it is always nice and warm inside, which is definitely a huge bonus (as the desert winds can be pretty cold to say the least)!  There’s only one table, as there are only about six people at any one time in the camp, and so we all sit round it together.  It does have satellite TV, so there’s usually something on (although I have to be honest, Chilean game shows are very odd indeed – however, they have a long way to go before beating Japan’s efforts in that particular department)!

The menu is simple, and there is no choice (due to there only being six people to cook for), but the food is varied and of very good quality.

The first course of the first meal I had.

The first course of the first meal I had – mussels and salad.

At every meal, there is bread provided.  Lunch is three courses, supper two, and breakfast is pretty bog standard.  Even though we’re in the middle of the desert, it’s not uncommon to eat fish and shellfish, (as well as meat).  Often there is soup for the first course, which is pretty good.

I only have one criticism of the food here, and that is that almost everything comes with a garnish of coriander.  I’m not a fussy eater, and there are very few foods that I don’t eat (few enough to be counted on one hand), but unfortunately, the thing I hate most is coriander!  However, as all you Brits who read this will undoubtedly understand, one doesn’t make a scene, so I take it on the chin! (Luckily one of the effects of altitude is to reduce the sense of taste and smell)!

Don’t get me wrong though, the food here is excellent!

Back To Work

So the weather has improved sufficiently in order to allow me to go back into the desert to continue working (hooray!), which I’ve been doing for the past two days.  Climbing hills, driving across dry river beds (of which there are many around here), and looking at rocks is the order of the day, but as of today, I’ve managed to cover the area in question, and so begins the data analysis (which I’ll start sorting out tomorrow).  Whether there’ll be more fieldwork, I’m not sure, but I hope so, as it really is the most incredible office!

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The eternally picturesque San Pedro and San Pablo volcano group

Volcano Palpana

Volcano Palpana

I’ve just finished supper, which was very good today, with a rather scrummy artichoke for the starter.  Not had one of those for a long time, so it made a nice change.  I’m aware that I promised to write a review of the canteen here, and don’t worry readers, it is on its way!

Anyway, as supper was a bit earlier tonight, as I write this, I’m enjoying what I was denied a few days ago.  Of course readers, it’s 19:48 in Chile, which means it’s 00:48 BST, so Radio 4 is on (obviously), and I’m listening to the good old Shipping Forecast.  The forecast for the desert?  I’d say “Atacama, East, five, 10 miles, 630, falling slowly” (although there aren’t any boats around here).

Barometer

As an aside, the Radio 4 presenter has just announced that the shipping forecast’s “theme tune” (Sailing By) has been used for 50 years now (see previous post entitled “Thinking Of Blighty” for a YouTube link).

Thinking Of Blighty

While I work in the office, I listen to LBC which is an excellent radio station.  However, I am pretty partial to the Shipping Forecast as lots of you already know.  Owing to the time difference here, it’s broadcast at 19:48 local time.  Five minutes before it started, I was told it was time for supper.  Reluctantly, I tore myself away, and, upon entering the canteen, I was greeted by the sight of girls in bikinis dancing on the TV (a scene from the show Chicas Malas – or, as you’ll know it better, Mean Girls).  Clearly I was gutted by this.

At this point, I assume that most of you are thinking that I am being sarcastic, however, I know that those of you who know me well will realise that I am being deadly serious.

There is something extraordinarily soothing about the Shipping Bulletin, and for those of you who haven’t heard it (philistines the lot of you :P), it opens with a rather peaceful tune called Sailing By. Following this, there’s the preamble, before launching into the shipping areas, with stuff like “Forties, Cromarty, Dogger, Fisher, North Utsire, south or south west, five or six, moderate or good, occasionally poor”.  After that we get the forecast for the coastal stations, and finally that of the inshore waters of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, starting at Cape Wrath, heading clockwise around Great Britain, and finishing up with Ardnamurchan Point, and the Shetland Islands.  Once that’s over, it’s just time for the National Anthem, before Radio 4 closes down and you get switched over to the World Service (after the Greenwich Time Signal of course)!  Yes I may sound like I’m about 90 years old, and if you think so, you’re forgetting two things.  Firstly, I don’t care (hehehe), and secondly, I am quite far from home, in the middle of a desert, and very far from sea level (so a bit of reminiscing about home I think is justified haha)!

If you feel like you’ve been missing out (which you definitely have), you can listen to one such bulletin here.

Fieldwork Galore

Today was my first proper day of fieldwork in the Atacama Desert, and I’ll be honest, I’m knackered.  It’s not the easiest environment to work in, but it’s definitely one of the most scenic!

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Exploration geology involves a LOT of walking about, as quite a few of the outcrops that need to be looked at are rather inaccessible (i.e. you have to scramble up cliffs etc.).  It is very tiring, especially with the altitude, but it is good fun (and superb cardio training!).  Today was mainly spent taking soil samples, a high tech process involving the latest technology money can buy (a trowel, sieve and a bowl).  After a tough 8 hours in the desert sun, it was time to call it a day, and we headed back to camp (for some snacks).

The drive home was wonderful, as the sun was setting, and to be honest, there’s nothing quite like a desert sunset.

Atacaman Sunset

Atacaman Sunset

Life On Mars?

Not only an excellent David Bowie record, and a superb BBC drama series, but also possibly (not really) what it’s like in the desert.  To be fair, parts of it have been compared to the conditions on Mars, except I doubt that Mars has any wifi, or a ready supply of orange juice!

So, what is it like, to live in a camp in the desert?  Well, ironically, the food and communications are much better here than those at the mine.  I have good wifi, and as the camp is so small (a maximum of eight people live and work here at any one time), the food is excellent. I won’t talk about the food at the mine, as there is a review of that on the way, but the difference is unbelievable!  We have a dedicated chef here, who makes delicious meals.  I’ll do a dedicated post of the food here too at a later stage.

The desert camp in its entirety

The desert camp in its entirety

The camp consists of five containers, and a tent, which house the bathroom, canteen, kitchen, storage facilities, bedrooms, and office. There is a satellite internet connection, as well as a phone and tv, and there is plenty of hot water (although the water supply gets cut off at 8 pm, as otherwise it freezes up the pipes).

A view from my front door (with Volcano Palpana in the background)

A view from my front door (with Volcano Palpana in the background)

Owing to the fact that space is at a premium, the office that I work in also doubles as my bedroom.  It does mean that my commute is the sum total of about 30 cm, which I don’t really mind.  It certainly is extremely handy!

Working from home, or living in the office?

Working from home, or living in the office?

However, having been here for a day or so, I am feeling more used to the altitude.  Last night, I slept appallingly, and this morning, woke up really dehydrated (compounded further by the desert air) with a rotter of a headache.  However, my addiction to water has started to wane, and my headache has decided to cut its losses and naff off.  Hopefully I’ll sleep much better tonight!

Tough Times

Now that my itinerary has finally been sorted for my trip to the north, it’s time to address the main issue of the Atacama Desert, namely, the environment.

Not only is it the driest hot desert in the world, with some parts having an average yearly rainfall of 15mm (or 2.5% of London’s average), however some parts are so dry that they’ve been compared to the environment found on Mars, and soil bacteria don’t even live there.

If that’s not challenging enough, the camp I’m staying at is at 4000m altitude (13000 feet ish for those of you who are still in the 19th century), which equates to an air pressure of 0.63 atmospheres, and an oxygen saturation of 70% or so.  The possible effects of altitude – swelling of the lungs and brain – can be fatal, however drug treatments include Sildenafil, or viagra as it’s more commonly known.

The final bonus is the altitude means there’s a high level of ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

All this, in my home for the next two weeks (from Monday).