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!

Advertisements

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!

DSCF5716

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).

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.

20130819_074925

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.