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.

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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.

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!

High And Dry

The fact that you’re reading this (and I’m writing this) means that yes, there does happen to be wifi at the camp, which ironically means the facilities in my room here (which is a shipping container) are actually better than those found at the mine itself!  I did have all the backup posts lined up, but I’ve postponed some of them (I’ll publish a couple about food though soon).

So at 4:30 this morning, I got up, and headed to the airport for my flight to Calama.  I managed to get a window seat which was brilliant. First, I got to sneak another peek at dawn over the Andes, which is always nice.

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Brrrr, wouldn’t like to get lost in that!

I also flew over the Atacama, and so was able to see it from the air. It looked so desolate it was unbelievable!

The Atacama Desert from the air

The Atacama Desert from the air

Shortly after, I arrived in Calama, and disembarked the plane.  The city is at about 2200 metres of altitude, which equates to the same amount of air pressure roughly as inside the plane whilst airborne, and so there was no need for ears to be popped on the descent.

Calama Airport

Calama Airport

My boss was waiting for me outside, and soon, we were driving off to the field camp.  It was about 100 miles away from the city, and the scenery was incredible.  It was very flat, with nothing at all, just sand and rock, and a tiny bit of snow on top of the highest mountains.  We drove past San Pedro, and San Pablo volcanoes, the summits of which are about 6000 metres or so.

San Pablo and San Pedro volcano.  You can see a lava flow to the right hand side (the black horizontal bit) and a new cone developing to the front.

San Pablo and San Pedro volcanoes. You can see a lava flow to the right hand side (the black horizontal bit) and a new cone developing to the front

We kept driving, and eventually made it to the camp, at an altitude of 4100 metres.  The altitude means that the air pressure is only about 620 mbar (about 62% of that at sea level), which also means there is significantly less oxygen (and 72% blood oxygen saturation). However, for the time being at least, I feel completely fine, so I hope that doesn’t change.  It is exceptionally arid up here though, and you can physically feel your lips drying out which is interesting!  More details about the camp to follow in the next (not Santiago themed) post.

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).

Into The Unknown

Today is my last day at the mine (at least for the next three weeks), and I’m all packed and ready to go.  On Monday morning, bright and early, I’ll be flying to the city of Calama, from which I shall be driven for a few hours to the camp in the middle of the Atacama Desert.  It’ll be very interesting, and I’m excited, although I have no idea what to expect (apart from a lot of sun and sand).  However, today is quite quiet.  This morning, I had a mine safety induction (so that for my final two weeks, when I’m back here at the mine, I may go and visit it), which should be interesting!

I do have another free weekend in Santiago to look forward to, which will be great.  I get an extra day this time, as tomorrow is a public holiday, and so nobody is at work.  Anyway, all this week, the other geologists are at a training course in Santiago, and my boss is in the north doing some field stuff, so it’s been just me with the field assistants for a week.  I’ve enjoyed it, and haven’t spoken any English for ages.  I think I’m starting to take up Spanish a lot more, as I’ve had to stop myself writing some Spanish words when messaging my English speaking friends!