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!

One Last Trip

It’s Friday, and so it’s the penultimate day I have in the desert (I’m not counting Sunday, as most of that will be packing and travelling to the airport in Calama).  I was filling in a map, when my boss and the assistant said they were going out into the field, and asked whether I’d like to join them.  Obviously I agreed at once, and I’m very glad that I did, as it involved new and even more spectacular scenery.

The main objective was to see where “roads” could be built, in order to access new exploration areas, but there were lots of cool things to see on the way.  First of all, we arrived at a point with an incredible view.


I thought I’d seen how desolate the desert looked, but after this view, I had to change my mind!

Anyway, after that, we headed down into a valley (which is to the right of the photo – out of shot though), and I was shown an abandoned village.

The abadoned village of Chitigua

The abadoned village of Chitigua

Apparently it was composed of two families, and all that can be seen today are a few buildings.  The village was abandoned in the 60s.  To be honest, I don’t know why anyone would live there, as it’s probably the least friendly place you could possibly decide to build a house.

Further along, we came across what was originally a farm (presumably this is where the inhabitants of Chitigua grew their food.

Abandoned terraced fields in Chitigua

Abandoned terraced fields in Chitigua

Overall, the scenery today was brilliant.  There’s not a lot else to say really!

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!


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).


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).

The Sound Of Silence

What’s that I can hear outside?  That’s right, nothing!  The storm ended late yesterday afternoon, and today I am greeted by glorious blue skies, and rapidly melting snow.  Owing to the fact that I didn’t have to barricade myself in my room, I also slept infinitely better last night too.  It was however, extremely cold last night, and it’s still quite cold today.

It’s not all coming up roses however, and the cold has taken its toll on some camp services.  My hands, as I write this, are rather numb, and I woke this morning to find the that the water (which I keep by my bed to drink from) was frozen!  Additionally, it appears as if the running water has stopped.  Usually it’s around during the day, but gets switched off at night to stop the pipes freezing, yet today, it’s not been working during the day either.  As I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth this morning, I came across a colleague trying to thaw the pipes with a blow torch.

The weather of the past few days has been unusual, and the town of San Pedro de Atacama, a famous tourist spot a few hours away has had the first snow in 30 years.  Seems odd doesn’t it, that once I leave the UK, a week later, there’s the hottest summer for seven years, and once I arrive in the desert, a week later, there’s the first snow in that town for 30 years.  Just saying!

Well That Escalated Quickly!

This post has changed a bit from the original one due to various unforeseen… incidents, so I’ve put approximate times in each paragraph detailing the evolution of the post!

24th August 2013

21:00 – As I write this, the storm is raging relentlessly outside.  The container is creaking, and the noise of the wind is incredible.  Snow is being blown all over the place, and I’ve had to lock my door for the first time since I’ve been here, owing to the fact that it blew open a few minutes ago, such was the force of the wind, and deposited a rather picturesque dusting of snow indoors.  A couple of hours ago, I took a brief video of the blizzard outside, which you can watch here (although since then, it does seem to have got worse, rather than better).

23:00 – Unfortunately, a few minutes ago, my internet connection has actually failed, so I don’t know when I’ll be able to post this.  For reasons that I assume are to boost the wifi signal in the other containers, the router is kept outside, and uncovered, as this picture from a couple of minutes ago rather hilariously illustrates. Snow, ice, wind, and wifi routers don’t mix kids!


I’m pretty sure that fieldwork is unlikely to happen tomorrow, given the strength of the wind.  If it stays like this all night, it’ll be another quiet day in the camp.  Quiet is an relative term here, as I was writing that sentence, an absolutely enormous gust of wind hit the container (I can see the walls moving!), and I genuinely was rather worried about whether it can withstand the force!  Additionally, the door would have blown open again had I not locked it.  I really really really hope the lock holds, as otherwise, things will get a bit nippy later on, and dying of exposure is not on my to do list!

25th August 2013

00:00 – Turns out that the lock on my door came off second best against the wind, in spite of a valiant effort. Apparently shutting and locking a door won’t stop the wind opening it. I was rather taken aback at this particular development, especially as I was just falling asleep to some rather peaceful music. Needless to say, the sight of my door bursting open, and a gale blowing snow right in my face dispelled my drowsiness with unrivalled efficiency. Some rather colourful language later, I managed to hop to the door (as I was in my sleeping bag), and shut and locked it again. Not trusting the lock this time, I tied my boot lace around the handle, and a point inside the container (very Blue Peter if I may say so myself). Testing it out demonstrated that the door could still open a small amount, but it was the best I could manage under the circumstances! Hopefully this third shutting mechanism won’t be necessary!

00:30 – The door has burst open again, but luckily the shoe lace is holding it (for now). Not really sure what to do at this point, things seemed to have got a little out of hand! Is it apt, or horribly ironic that I happen to be listening to “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear” at the moment? I’ll be brutally honest, it’s bloomin’ freezing outside, and I dread to think how high the wind speeds are! If that shoelace doesn’t hold, well, let’s just say that I hope that this sleeping bag is sufficiently robust! On the upside folks, what an anecdote!

00:45 – Feeling the temperature dropping rapidly, I decided that I needed to reinforce my door closing system. In true geologist style (transferable skills anyone?), I tied my compass-clino around the door handle, and to that tied my handlens set (to which a large rock was hastily attached) – accompanied once more by a liberal dose of colourful language. I’m not especially optimistic as to the efficacy of this “improved” design, but it’s worth a try. I can feel the whole building shake with some of the gusts (with the walls moving of course), which only adds to my doubts. Give me that earthquake any day!

02:30 – The door appears to be holding, woo!

04:45 – I spoke too soon, there is snow inside my room now…

Snow, and improvised door closing mechanism

Snow, and improvised door closing mechanism

07:15 – Having survived the night, I’m enjoying a rather warming breakfast of bread, cheese, and hot chocolate. Every cloud and all that! Internet seems buggered still, so I’ve volunteered to dismantle the router and give it a bit of a dry. Turns out it was pretty full of snow, so hopefully it’s not been permanently damaged!

08:45 – The wifi router is now in front of an electric heater to warm it up a bit. Outside, the storm still rages like a lunatic with anger management issues on speed. Pretty ridiculous really, and it’s bagged me another day off. I’m writing this from the wired connection, but unless the wifi gets back up and running, there won’t be a lot of time when I’m online.

15:30 – The storm has calmed a bit (although not much), and the wifi has been written off.  However, GOOD NEWS: The field assistant appears to have fixed my door (thanks to the trusty crowbar), so hopefully I won’t be getting any more chilly surprises tonight!  I have noticed however, that after the particularly violent gusts of wind, a light flurry of snow comes through the ceiling next to my bed!

I’m Dreaming Of A White Weekend

Last night was interesting, I’ll be honest.  I woke up a few times only to be subjected to what sounded like the craziest storm ever.  Windy was not the word, and the container I live in was creaking quite a fair bit.  Anyway, luckily metal is quite strong, so I thought nothing of it.  I rapidly revised my “thinking nothing of it” once I opened the front door, and promptly put my foot into a couple of inches of snow.  The Atacama is the driest hot desert apparently, but I dispute that.  At the moment, it most certainly is neither dry nor hot, and I’m shivering as I type this with my numb fingers (in spite of the fan heater’s best efforts).  Popping out to the container with the loos in, I noticed that there was quite a bit of snow that had blown in under the door, and in the canteen the tent flap kept opening and a gust of icy wind bade us a good morning.

Ermm ok then...

Ermm, right…

I’ve just finished breakfast, which did warm me up a bit, and talking to my colleagues, fieldwork today has been cancelled (I wonder why)?! Quite different from the “We do fieldwork in all weather!” mantra from the BGS!

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.

Shake Shake Shake

As you are no doubt aware, I’ve not been sleeping too well lately, owing to the altitude.  Last night, I had the best night sleep since I’ve got to the desert, or rather, I would have, had I not been rudely surprised at half past four this morning.  I’d woken at 4 am, just randomly, and was just about to go back to sleep around half an hour later, when it happened.  My bed started to move of its own accord. Evidently, there was only one explanation, namely that there’d been an earthquake.

Obviously as a geologist, I HAD to know more about it, and so, in spite of only having about 4 hours of sleep this point, I went immediately to my USGS earthquake application on my phone to get the details (and decided to ignore the requirement for sleep).

Screenshot of the USGS earthquake Android application.  Data from the USGS

Screenshot of the USGS earthquake Android application. Image data: USGS

After a quick look at Google Earth later on in the morning, it turned out that the epicentre was 48 miles from the camp, which explained why it was easily felt, and was quite deep, showing that it is associated with the subduction of the Nazca Plate under South America.  Anyway, it’s another thing on my to do list that I can tick off.  The past 24 hours seems to have been quite good for getting those sorted, what with the astronomy last night, and now the earthquake this morning!

If you want more information about this earthquake, then there is a lot of information available from the United States Geological Survey website (including fault plane solutions).  The link is here.

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.