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!

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!

Special Edition: Chalk, Snow, and Roman Numismatics (or How Geology Can Shape a People)

It’s the weekend, so why not have a new Special Edition?  (I’ll be honest, I didn’t actually write this today, I wrote it several days ago, as I’m revising practical papers this weekend).  Anyway, the title of this post is of three things that seem pretty unrelated at first, so why a special edition about them?  Well, one day, while procrastinating, I noticed something interesting, a correlation between them.  Also, it’s a little taste of home, which is nice to remember in the midst of all these dastardly exams.

First of all, we need a geological map of Britain.  The area with the box is what we’re looking at today.  Look at the arrow.  You see there is a horseshoe shape of greens and blues in that region?  Good!  Make sure you remember that shape:

The Geology of Southern England: British Geological Survey/Natural Environment Research Council

The Geology of Southern England: British Geological Survey/Natural Environment Research Council

Right, now that we’ve got the geological basis of the post laid down, I’d better get on with the snow (appalling pun intended)! (I know it’s hard to imagine snow in June, with its (occasional) warm sunny days, but give it a go).  Earlier this year, there was a lot of snow across our verdant isle, and a satellite picture was taken by those chaps over at NASA:

Satallite photo of Great Britain: NASA

Satellite photo of Great Britain: NASA

What do we see?  That same horseshoe shape.  Why is it there?  It’s fairly straightforward.  There was a large fold present originally, but now the centre part has eroded away.  As a result, there are now two series of hills that meet in the west (the North Downs – known to me as “home”, and the South Downs).  Snow settles more easily on higher ground, because it’s colder, so it stays on these hills for longer.

Now, let’s move onto where the Romans come into this. “What have they got to do with this geology?” I hear you ask.  Well, let’s have a look.  The Romans were a busy bunch, first invading properly in 43, and not withdrawing until around 410 or so.  As a result, there is a lot of Roman archæology knocking about.  A while ago, I came across a map of where Roman coins had been found over the past 20 years or so, and noticed an interesting pattern.  Yes readers, that horseshoe is back once more (highlighted below).

Locations where Roman coins were found between 1997 and 2010: Portable Antiquities Scheme

Locations where Roman coins were found between 1997 and 2010: Portable Antiquities Scheme

Not being a Roman expert, I can’t really make any solid argument as to why more coins may have been found here relative to the centre of the area.  Maybe my sister (if she’s reading this) could elaborate, as Classics is her thing.  Perhaps the Romans preferred the hills for their strategic value?  Either way, it’s an interesting example of how geology can shape a civilisation.