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!

Seeing Stars

I wasn’t going to do another post today, but after I’d had supper, it dawned on me that the moon hadn’t risen, and so I was privy to a dark desert sky (i.e. no light pollution).  This seemed too good an opportunity to miss, as one of the things I’d wanted to do whilst in the desert was to enjoy the Southern Sky properly (as lots of the constellations visible here are not visible in the UK).  So, what did I do?  I decided to think along the lines of carpe diem, (or more accurately in this case, carpe noctem).

I am fortunate enough to own an excellent piece of software called Starry Night Pro, which simulates the night sky from anywhere on Earth (amongst many many other things).  Given that my phone has GPS, all I had to do was type this into the program, to get the exact night sky from where the camp is, displayed on my laptop.  Clicking a few buttons to highlight where each constellation was, and to project the equatorial coordinate system, I was ready to go, and I ventured out into the night with my laptop (not too far though, only behind the containers, but I had to be very careful not to trip over the large satellite dish/pile of drill cores)!

First, and most easy to find was Crux, and moving away from that, I quickly clocked Triangulum Australe, Pavo, Centaurus, Octans, Scorpius, Corona Australisand Libra.  I was also aiming to find the Small Magellanic Cloud, and I think I saw it, but I’m not 100% sure (and the moon had started to rise at this point, making life rather difficult).  It was a blue moon a couple of days ago which, owing to the fact that it is a full moon, totally ruins the darkness of the sky.

Anyway, I decided to rush out with my camera to try to nab a cheeky photo of the sky.  Yes, I know it’s a bit rubbish, but hey, I don’t have a tripod, so I had to hold the camera by hand (hence the slight blurring), and I don’t own/know how to use Photoshop or any photo editing stuff (hey, I’m a lazy git purist, I like my photos with warts and all)!

In this image, we can see very clearly Crux towards the bottom centre.  The two bright stars above it belong to Centaurus, while to the left of them we can see Triangulum Australis.  Above that lies Ara.  The Milky Way is also visible as the fuzzy vertical stripe through the centre of the image.

In this image, we can see very clearly Crux towards the bottom centre. The two bright stars above it belong to Centaurus, while to the left of them we can see Triangulum Australis. Above that lies Ara. The Milky Way is also visible as the fuzzy vertical stripe through the centre of the image.  The fuzzy patch to the left is just a normal cloud.

Time to Explore

Before I begin, the more eagle eyed readers amongst you would have noticed that I never mentioned that I’d found a source for some UK tea (Whittard’s in Santiago), in spite of saying that I miss it.  That’s because I’d forgotten, and it took me until supper last night to remember.  Anyway, after supper last night, the field assistants very kindly showed me where to see Crux in the night sky (as I happened to comment on the way back that I really wanted to see it before I went back to the UK.  Now that I’ve seen it, that’s one thing on the proverbial bucket list to tick off.

Today was the visit to the exploration site, and is the first time I’ve been into the field properly as a proper Exploration Geologist (a job has elicited responses that include “very macho”, and “like Indiana Jones” – beautiful irony that any of you who know me personally will appreciate).  After breakfast we set off, descending through the clouds, just as the sun was rising over the foothills of the Andes, to the Pan-American Highway.  Once on it, I saw the most stereotypical South American sight you could possibly imagine.  Yes, it was a bloke on a horse, riding down the hard shoulder, complete with hat and woolly poncho.  Brilliant!

We stopped off in a small village called La Ligua, to get some sarnies.  The difference between this place and Santiago was huge.  Gone were the glass office blocks and high rise flats.  Instead, slightly tired clapboard bungalows were in their place.  On the side of the motorway were small stalls, their owners flagging down cars to purchase their trinkets and fruit.

A street in La Ligua

A street in La Ligua

We pressed on, and left the Pan-American far behind, and climbed into the mountains, leaving all civilisation behind.  Driving up a beautiful valley along a “track”, it felt very remote.

It was only after we’d forded the river where things started to get interesting.

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As we drove up the mountains, the “track” was blocked in some places.  Not ideal.  If you think your commute is tough (maybe if there’s been a signal failure, or ASLEF/RMT are on strike again), at least you didn’t literally have to clear the road of rock with your bare hands.

The track in the hills

The track in the hills

Anyway, we climbed higher and higher into the mountains, crossing several more rivers in the process, and the scenery was stunning.  Breathtaking in fact.  Almost literally breathtaking (give the large drop in air pressure from the ascent).  We were much higher than the whole of the UK, and kept going, before stopping at an abandoned mine.  It was interesting to visit a creepy, abandoned, flooded Chilean copper mine, but we didn’t go in very far for obvious reasons (maybe 10 metres at most).

Creepy abandoned mine entrance.

Creepy abandoned mine entrance.

Over the top of the pass we went, until we got to the final stop (by this point, the “track” was more of a scree slope), a viewpoint that overlooks the whole of the mine that I’m staying at.  It was a spectacular sight to take in.

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Not too bad a view for your work environment! (Click to enlarge)

After this, it was time to head home.  As we descended, a group of Andean Condors were spotted (right at the very top of the mountain) just flying about.  Apparently they only live at 2,000 metres or higher.

Andean Condors flying about

Andean Condors flying about