Apr 21, 2012 in Falkland Islands 2012
I arrived in Chile at the end of September 2011 and by April 2012 I still hadn’t left. The last time I spent more than six months in one country, it was 1999. So even though this six months has been spent in a foreign country, I’ve still been getting ever itchier feet. But a nightmarish situation with a herniated disc meant that for a few of those months I could barely even leave the house let alone the country. With the back situation easing a bit, and having just completed my first solo night shift at the observatory, I decided the time was right to hit the road again. I’d long fancied a trip to the Falklands, had started actually planning it a few weeks ago, and finally a week before I wanted to go, I booked the flight. And what a flight it was. I came down from Paranal on Thursday, had Friday to get used to daylight again and pack, and then at 4am on Saturday I headed out into the streets to grab a taxi to the airport. I had a fun ride with a friendly driver who thought it was really funny that I was [...]
Apr 14, 2012 in Chile
After my interrupted sleep I wasn’t looking forward to my first night unsupervised at the controls, but in the end it was postponed again. Early the next afternoon the decision was taken that the telescopes would not open at all that night, to avoid any possibility of water getting in. The “domes” have flat tops and any standing water could spell disaster for all the sensitive mechanics and electronics. So we went up to the control room anyway but no astronomy would be done tonight. It was a pity, because the skies after the storm were stunningly clear. With the luxury of having no observatory work to do, I went out on the platform late in the night to appreciate the view. I moved here in October, at which time the centre of the Milky Way is setting and can’t be seen very well. Now, for the first time, I got a good look at it. It’s stunningly bright and you can only see it well from the Southern Hemisphere. This is a real shame for the 90% of the world’s population who live in the Northern Hemisphere – their view of our home galaxy is completely inadequate in comparison. [...]
Apr 13, 2012 in Chile
After four nights of this shift, one had been completely lost and three partially lost to bad weather. The fifth was my first night as a trained night astronomer. Crunch time. Would I mess it up? Would I break the telescope? Fortunately it turned out I wouldn’t, because the night was also completely lost, with thick clouds and high humidity ruining any chance of doing any astronomy. I was slightly relieved. I went out on to the telescope platform a few times. Lightning was flickering some way inland, but I assumed the storm would not come out our way. Since I moved to Chile in September 2011, I had hardly seen any rain at all. There was an evening of drizzle in October, and I felt a few spots, literally no more than 10 or so, in January. Otherwise, nothing, and my English soul was in need of watering. But up here in the Atacama, I didn’t think it was going to get any. So when I went out on to the platform again at 5am and actually felt spots of rain, I didn’t really believe it was rain. I just thought it was extreme humidity. We gave up a [...]
Apr 09, 2012 in Chile
I’m at Paranal right now, undergoing my final training before they let me fly solo at the controls of the world’s premier optical observatory. My training so far has been seriously affected by weather – of the 11 nights I’ve done, five have been completely lost and most of the rest have been partly lost. Last night the telescopes were closed a couple of hours early, and tonight we didn’t open at all. The telescopes have to be closed when the humidity goes above 60%, and tonight it was nearly 100% and there were clouds right on the peak. Before the clouds came in, though, I went out to take a photo of the night sky. The moon was rising, and Orion was setting. When I took the photo, I couldn’t see the shadow the moon was casting, so I was pretty amazed when I looked at the camera screen to see the shadow of the telescopes, cast on to the clouds below.
Mar 26, 2012 in Chile
Chile is on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the great tectonic band where about 90 per cent of the world’s earthquakes happen. Before I moved here, I’d experienced four earthquakes, one tiny one in Guatemala, two moderate ones in the UK, and one on a previous visit to Chile. Since I arrived here six months ago I’ve felt five more and I’m starting to get used to how often they happen. I felt two at Paranal on my first shift there, and then in January I felt my first one in Santiago, when my building wobbled startlingly. Every earthquake feels different. On Saturday morning I was woken at 4.30am by the building shaking again, and it felt like all the motion was vertical. The previous quake had felt completely side-to-side. There were two distinct pulses of shaking, and the building creaked eerily in the quiet night. I got up and went out onto my balcony, and all around I could see lights coming on in apartments. I tried to check sismologia.cl but found that the website was down. This happened in January as well. Any earthquake large enough to be felt triggers a wave of people wanting to know how [...]
Nov 27, 2011 in Chile
As I checked out of my hostel, they asked me if I was on my way to Bolivia. I wished I was. Sadly my direction now was south, and I caught the bus to Calama instead of heading up into the Altiplano. San Pedro is among some of the most incredible scenery in the Atacama. On my first journey here from Calama six years ago, I was blown away by the outrageous desert, and since then I had travelled this road another five times. Today it was my seventh trip along the road, and it seemed even wilder and even more incredible than before. I had the seat at the front of the bus, and I spent the whole hour and a half just staring out and enjoying the expansive views of the driest place on Earth.
Nov 26, 2011 in Chile
We headed back down from Chajnantor, exhausted by the altitude but impressed by the place. We stopped at the base camp and were shown around the antenna constructions, but I was not really concentrating very much – I had a slight headache that might have been altitude-related, or might have been because I hadn’t had any coffee for almost seven hours. So I followed the group around the facilities but didn’t really take any of it in. The next day a group of us went on a trip to see some of the salt lakes in the desert near San Pedro. We headed to Laguna Chaxa, where flamingoes paddled in the shallow waters. The scenery was breathtaking, with the salt plains, lakes, volcanoes and deep blue sky all looking otherworldly. I’d crossed the Salar de Uyuni six years ago, and it was flat, white and it tasted of salt. The Salar de Atacama was different – rumpled and dirty grey and apparently containing all sorts of things like arsenic and lithium. I didn’t try tasting it.
Nov 25, 2011 in Chile
Near to ALMA is APEX, a single dish radio telescope built as a precursor to the main array, to establish that the site was excellent and to test the technology to be used. We drove over to APEX, and I felt a little more clear-headed. Here, we were slightly higher than ALMA and had amazing views over the plateau. Near to APEX, the last of the winter snows were melting away. In places like this, snow melts in strange ways, turning into strange formations called penitentes, serrated peaks and valleys waving across the red desert landscape. We walked among the penitentes, which were about half as high as we were. The vandalistic among us tried pushing them over; some fell very easily, others were on more solid foundations.
Nov 25, 2011 in Chile
ALMA is the cutting edge of astronomy. Currently being built on the breathless heights of the Llano de Chajnantor, 5100m above sea level in the Atacama, it will consist of 66 12-metre radio telescopes all operating together to perceive detail smaller and fainter than has ever been possible before. I was hoping that at some point during my time in Chile, I’d get a chance to visit the observatory. The chance came much sooner than expected – a trip was arranged as part of a meeting in Chile of all the fellows from ESO’s headquarters in both Germany and here. We all travelled up to the north, spending a night in San Pedro de Atacama before heading up to Chajnantor the next day. It was my third visit to San Pedro. It was strange to be back again, six years after I first arrived there half way through my epic journey around South America. The small dusty town has changed quite a lot since then, with power 24 hours, and cash machines that work. In 2005 I’d had to borrow money to get a bus to Calama to get money out. On the day of the visit, we drove from [...]
Nov 20, 2011 in Chile
One thing that I really notice here is how dry it is. The humidity is always low, my clothes dry in minutes when I take them out of the washing machine, and in the two months since I arrived, it’s only rained once in Santiago – a slightly drizzly evening in early October. London in comparison is damp and dank and I wonder how I didn’t have permanent prune skin when I lived there. Today it rained for the second time. I was in the centre of town, going up Cerro San Cristóbal and then walking around Bellavista and Recoleta, and enjoying another hot sunny day. But in the eastern suburbs there was some kind of shower. I got back to Las Condes to find that the sun was shining but the streets were wet, and clouds were roiling over the mountains. I headed back up to my apartment and watched the retreating rainclouds being lit up by the evening sun.
Nov 02, 2011 in Chile
Apparently when the first site tests were being carried out at Paranal, almost thirty years ago, the dryness was so extreme that it was sometimes thought that the instrument measuring the humidity was stuck on zero. As soon as you arrive there you feel like the moisture is being sucked out of you and into the endless desert. The desert is almost completely barren; red rocky terrain as far as you can see with no hint of green anywhere. It’s not a place where human being should live. But it’s amazing for astronomy. The sky is almost always clear, the atmosphere is very stable, and it’s a better place to observe the night sky than almost anywhere else on Earth.
Oct 25, 2011 in Chile
All of my stuff arrived from the UK today. It had made the journey much more quickly than I’d expected it to, arriving in Chile before I’d even got around to trying to work out where on the high seas it was. On a cool autumn day in London, I’d seen it all disappear into the bowels of a huge lorry, and as I watched it drive away from my flat I couldn’t help wondering if I’d ever see any of it again. Then there was a story on the news about a container ship sinking off New Zealand. So when it actually arrived I was extremely happy. It seemed quite strange to see all my familiar old possessions again, on this hot summer day in Santiago. The two things that I most wanted to arrive intact were my coffee machine, and a kilogram of Marmite that I’d packed in. I was a bit worried that the Marmite could get confiscated, as Chile has very strict rules about food import. But it made it, and with great joy I cracked it open. I ate so much that I got stomach ache. I don’t think I’ll eat any more for a [...]
Oct 23, 2011 in Chile
My previous attempt to see the Cajon del Maipo had been a bit half-arsed, relying on public transport and ending up in the nondescript hamlet of San Gabriel, instead of actually out in the mountains hiking. So I tried again this weekend, with a couple of other ESO people. We hired a car, and left reasonably early. Having your own wheels definitely makes a big difference, and instead of spending hours on the bus chugging through all the distant Santiago suburbs, we were in the valley in less than an hour. But we didn’t get everything right. We stopped in Baños Morales for a lengthy and tasty lunch, planning to hike to a glacier afterwards. But by the time we rolled up to the national park entrance, sated and sleepy but none the less keen to hike, we were told the trail had closed 20 minutes earlier. So we had to find something else to do. We randomly ended up spotting a large red rocky outcrop, high up in the hills above Lo Valdes, and decided to go there. It was a good hike, scrambling up some steep and precarious scree slopes. The skies threatened but only delivered a few [...]
Oct 15, 2011 in Chile
I moved into a new flat yesterday. I was perhaps a bit rash, as it was only the second place I looked at, but it was more or less the kind of thing I was looking for and I didn’t want to spend any longer than necessary in my temporary accommodation. What really persuaded me was the views from the balcony. London is not a high-rise city, and I’d almost always lived in houses while I was there. The one time I lived in a block of flats I was on the first floor. So this flat, up high on the 15th floor, was something new. And it faces east towards the mountains, so the height is worth having.
Oct 09, 2011 in Chile
With a couple of other ESO people, I made a plan to explore the Cajón del Maipo. It’s a famous Andean valley, just outside Santiago, and I’d heard many good things about it. We didn’t have a car so we decided to tackle the valley by public transport. Being lazy types, we arranged to meet in the early afternoon, and got a metro to Bellavista de la Florida. From here we could get a bus into the valley, and we bought a ticket to San José de Maipo. The bus rumbled off into the suburbs of Santiago, travelling extraordinarily slowly for a very long time. In the end its route took us not far from where we’d got onto the metro, hours earlier. The bus chugged and rumbled and clattered along, eventually leaving the city and winding its way up the valley of the Maipo river. Before very long at all we were in San José, but before we could work that out, we were out the other side and off up the valley. So we decided we’d get off at the next interesting-looking place. On we went, and each settlement we got to never quite looked promising enough to [...]
Oct 03, 2011 in Chile
I’d submitted my ESO job application just a little bit less than a year ago and it was already ten months since I’d been offered the job and accepted it. And finally it was time to actually start. Wanting to make a change from my notoriously poor time-keeping in the UK, I got up very early and arrived at 9.30am. The first day was a bit anticlimactic though. A spot in an office will become mine, in due course, but for now I’m in a visitor’s office. No-one else was visiting today, so I sat in the quiet office on my own, didn’t meet anyone, didn’t speak to anyone, until 6pm when I went home. At least I caught up on all the e-mails that had been piling up since I left the UK.
Oct 02, 2011 in Chile
Cerro San Cristóbal is the highest point inside Santiago and it’s always nice to go up there and see the views of the city surround by the mountains. I went up again, late on a Sunday evening, taking the lazy route to the top on the funicular railway. The place is always crawling with cyclists, and as soon as my bike arrives from Europe I can’t wait to tackle this hill. It’s about 300m from street level to the peak, a bit more of a challenge than my cycle up Highgate Hill used to be. I like the atmosphere at the top of San Cristóbal. You can hear the noise of the sprawling city but it feels very calm and tranquil. I sat and watched the sun set and the lights of the city come on, then headed back down to the streets.
Sep 25, 2011 in Chile
I got a night bus to Pucón. One of the things I want to see a lot of while I’m in Chile is erupting volcanoes, and so I thought I might as well start with one of the most reliable, Villarrica. I’d been here before, in 2005, climbed to the crater rim and watched fountains of lava jetting up, so close that I could feel the heat from them. I was hoping for the same this time. It was a warm night in Santiago when I got the bus, but in the morning, 400 miles further south, it was raining heavily. I was shivering as I walked from the bus station into town, and unless conditions got dramatically better, going to be climbing any mountains. But I went to various climbing agencies, and found out that the weather for the next day was going to be perfect. So I signed up for a climb, and at 6.45am the next morning I was kitting up with a group of 12 other travellers, from Chile, Brazil, Australia, the US and Denmark. As we drove out of Pucón I caught sight of the perfect cone of the volcano, dark against the dawn light. [...]
Sep 20, 2011 in Chile
I first visited Chile during an epic four month journey around South America in 2005-2006. I travelled from Patagonia to the Atacama and had an incredible time. I came back in 2009 to use the telescopes at La Silla. And yesterday I arrived in Chile for the third time. This time I’ll be here for three years and possibly more. In a little over a week I’ll start work at the European Southern Observatory, doing a job that I have coveted for years. I’m pretty excited at the incredible opportunity, and I can’t wait to get up to the finest optical telescopes in the world at Paranal. My time here started very smoothly, being met at the airport by someone from ESO and taken to a comfortable apartment where I can stay for up to five weeks while I get myself a permanent address. The only problem was that having been dropped off, I had no idea where I was. I had the same problem when I stayed at the ESO guesthouse in 2009, and I solved the problem in the same way, by walking randomly and finding an extremely inefficient route to the nearest metro station. Having worked out [...]
Jan 06, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009
Back in Chile it was a beautiful summery day. I had only an afternoon and a morning before heading back to Europe. News from home was that it was the coldest winter for years, and London was in chaos as a few inches of snow caused a kind of mass panic. All that was thousands of miles away and I found it hard not to feel a little bit of schadenfreude as I relaxed in the warm sun. I sat in the Plaza de Armas, enjoying the relaxed vibe. An eccentric old man sat down next to me and started chatting. It was good to practice my Spanish, and at first the conversation was quite sensible, but later it became more surreal and confusing. When I could no longer understand what he was saying, I got up and left. My trip ended badly. I got ill on my last night, and felt horrific the next morning. I felt so bad that I thought I might not make it to the airport, but after a morning doing nothing but sipping water I decided to give it a go. I threw on my pack and staggered out into the heat of the [...]
Jan 06, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009
I headed to the airport at 5.30am. Only when I got there did I realise that my flight was not non-stop but would actually involve three legs, touching down in Iquique and Copiapó. I knew that between Copiapó and Santiago we’d fly over La Silla, and I wanted to look out for it. We flew over central Iquique, and I looked down nostalgically at the places I’d been a few days earlier. Then it was mostly cloudy from Iquique to Copiapó as the morning fog rolled in off the Pacific. I started dozing just after we left Copiapó, and soon fell fast asleep. Suddenly I woke, infuriated with myself because I was sure we must have passed La Silla. I looked out of the window over the incredible expanse of the Atacama, and right below me, as clear as anything, were the domes of the observatory. It was good to see them again.
Jan 05, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009
We took the road towards Bolivia, which rose steeply into the Andes. I was fine at Putre, 3,500m above sea level, but started to feel the effects of the thin air as we got higher. By the time we reached the shores of Lago Chungará at 4,500m above sea level, I was feeling pretty spaced out. I staggered along the shore, struggling to remember how to operate my camera. My head felt like it was full of cotton wool, and every step was an effort. But despite this I could appreciate the spectacular scenery, with Parinacota and Pomerape volcanoes towering over the lake, their summits more than a mile above the shores. We went to Parinacota village, a hundred metres lower down but still the highest inhabited place in Chile. I bought some Bolivian-style popcorn and some sopaipillas, and felt a little bit better for eating. There was a brief rainshower and a few cracks of thunder, and I took shelter in the tiny church. A small table is tied to the wall here; legend has it that the table once got up and walked to a house, whose inhabitant then died. It’s been tethered ever since to prevent anything [...]
Jan 05, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009
I went on a day trip to Parque Nacional Lauca. The journey would take me from sea level to 4,500m in just a few hours, which was certainly going to be a major mistake, more or less guaranteed to give me altitude sickness. But I wanted to see the Altiplano wilderness and this was my only way of getting to the park. So at 7am I got on the bus and we headed inland. We stopped at some places en route. The first was Poconchile, a small town not far from Arica. The cemetery there is famous for its decorated grave markings, and we stopped for a look. It reminded me a lot of the Arctic cemeteries I’d seen in Greenland a few months earlier. In both places, the graves surrounded by savage lands made the place feel like it was on the very limits of where human beings could thrive.
Jan 03, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009
I was sad to leave Iquique, but I took a lot of good memories with me. I didn’t have much time left now before my flight home, and I still wanted to make it up to the very top of Chile. I got a bus to Arica, the northernmost town in the country. Arica wasn’t as cool as Iquique, but I still liked it a lot. It was a lot more run-down looking, with low houses sprawling over a huge area. The hostel I stayed in was quite a way out of the centre, so I walked for many miles during my few days here. The first day I was there was a Sunday, which was a shame because it meant all the travel agents were closed, and my plan to spend three days in Parque Nacional Lauca was impossible. So instead I wandered around the city, eventually finding my way up El Morro, a huge headland which towers over the centre. I got there as the sun was setting, and climbed up it for some amazing views of the Pacific sunset. In the other direction, looking east I could see two giant snow-capped Andean peaks, so far away they [...]
Dec 31, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
I got a bus to Iquique. It was a great journey through the desert to Antofagasta, and then up the coast. A stunning moonrise over the Andes felt like a sign that this was a good direction to be heading in. And Iquique was fantastic. The weather was awesome, the setting of the city between the desert mountains and the Pacific was incredible, the place I stayed was great, the people I met were fun, and I was in a great mood. It was New Year’s Eve, and I had a few things to sort out. I needed to buy a flight from Arica to Santiago, if I was going to make it up there and still get back in time for my flight home; I needed a new bag because mine was falling apart; and I needed an FC Iquique football top. I had a great Spanish day and accomplished all my tasks with a minimum of misunderstanding. My errands run, I went for a walk on the beach. I kept on getting into random conversations with friendly locals – someone from Santiago visiting the north for the first time, and enjoying the weather, a local who told me [...]
Dec 29, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
I’d liked El Tatio the last time I was here, four years earlier. The geothermal activity was impressive and the Altiplano scenery around it was staggering. This time I didn’t like it so much. The weather was pretty bad, with thick clouds drifting over the place when we arrived. On my first trip it had been savagely cold; it wasn’t so bad this time, but the clouds really made it look much less impressive. So I walked around the geysers, thinking I should probably have gone somewhere else instead of returning here. The 4,300m altitude and a slight lack of caffeine worsened my mood. But suddenly, startlingly, just as we were leaving, the clouds dispersed. Within a couple of minutes, the Altiplano had emerged from the gloom, and the sun shone on the wisps of steam from the declining geysers, which only erupt for a couple of hours after sunrise. We drove back to San Pedro, via Machuca, where a white adobe church shines brightly under the Atacama sun, and where locals sell handicrafts and food. Last time I’d been here, we’d had a puncture and a long wait to change the tyre. I’d been suffering with the altitude and [...]
Dec 28, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
I headed back to San Pedro. The scenery here was really mind-blowing, with the horizon fringed by giant volcanoes and in the foreground, the wild rock formations of the Valle de la Luna. Sometimes these volcanoes erupt; Lascar had erupted only a few years earlier, and Putana was smoking. I hoped that one day I’d be able to come here and see an eruption. In the evening I cycled out to the Valle de la Muerte, much closer to San Pedro than the Valle de la Luna. I stood on a hilltop looking out over the surroundings, as a strong evening wind blew down the valley. Night fell, and I cycled back into town. It had been a tiring day, and in normal circumstances I might have slept late the next morning. But I had to be up at 3.30am, because I would be returning to El Tatio.
Dec 28, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
I’d been to San Pedro before. It’s nice enough despite being amazingly touristy. All backpackers in Chile come here at some point on their journeys, and I was no different. I wanted to see some of the desert sights here again before pushing on further north. I’d cycled in the desert last time, and I decided to do the same again now. I don’t really like riding bikes that aren’t mine, but the flat-pedalled, slightly too small machine that I hired would suffice for a few tens of miles anyway. I headed out into the desert. I cycled to the Valle de la Luna. Most people come here at sunset; I arrived in the powerful heat of midday. The advantage was that I had the place entirely to myself; the disadvantage was sunburn so bad that it was visible for weeks. But that would only affect me later. On the day, I enjoyed it. I walked down some canyons, up some rock formations, and over some sand dunes. I spent a while in the silent desert setting up my camera to take photos of me cycling by. And eventually I reached Las Tres Marias, a strange rock formation quite a [...]
Dec 26, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
I was heading for San Pedro de Atacama. I had a few hours to kill before the bus left, and I didn’t feel too keen to spend them in La Serena. I wanted to go to Vicuña, a village nearby, but the buses there didn’t seem to follow any timetable. I decided that if one came in the next 15 minutes, I’d go. 10 minutes later, one came into the station, so I got on and headed out. An hour later I was in peaceful Vicuña, where the pace of life seemed very slow. It was a hot, hot day. I sat in the main square for a little while, watching things happen. A small child drove by in a powerful-looking kart – it must have been a great Christmas for him. It was heading towards midday, and the sun was beating down fiercely. I foolishly decided I fancied a walk up into the hills, bought myself an ice cream and some water, and headed out of town on a path leading to a viewpoint. It was thirsty work, but it didn’t take me very long to get up to a nice viewpoint. I could see here that Vicuña was [...]
Dec 26, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
I’d probably not have minded leaving La Serena on Boxing Day, but buses weren’t running so we had another relaxing day. At nightfall I went out onto the beach, deserted now after a busy day, and watched the sea rolling in for a while. The lights of Coquimbo shone down the coast, but I didn’t feel a great urge to go there. I wanted to head up to the far north, to places I didn’t go to on my last trip. Not feeling the La Serena vibe, I took experimental photos on the dark beach and then packed up ready to leave early the next morning.
Dec 24, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
Too soon, it was time to leave La Silla. Our observing run had been very successful, and we had enjoyed the place a lot. Now it was time to relax for a few days. It was Christmas, and we spent a couple of days in a small cottage by the beach in La Serena. I wasn’t sure if I liked La Serena that much. The town was pleasant enough but very quiet, and the beach was a long walk away from the centre. And although I enjoyed relaxing for a couple of days, I felt very impatient to get travelling to more interesting parts. Christmas day was hot and sunny. We had gone to a supermarket the day before but not found very much that we could make a traditional British Christmas dinner out of, especially with the limitations imposed by our cottage, which had hobs but no oven. So we had pancakes for breakfast and a strange potato-egg-vegetable fry up for lunch. Then we walked on the beach, which seemed very weird. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to Christmas Day not being dark and cold.
Dec 22, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
The nights passed. We lost half of one due to technical problems, but we were a night up thanks to the earlier “technical” night, so we weren’t unhappy. The observations ran smoothly and I had plenty of time during our long hours tracking each object to go out and look at the sky. We didn’t have the mountain top entirely to ourselves. Apart from other astronomers and staff, we also saw vizcachas, Andean foxes, and donkeys rambling around the arid slopes. In the night, the only difficulty about taking long exposures of the stars spinning overhead was that I kept hearing noises of animal movements in the dark, and I was never sure what was actually there. So I’d go to remote parts of the observatory, set the camera going and then head back to the comfort of the control room, the kitchen, or the pool table, where each morning we would continue an epic series of games. One of them was slightly disrupted by a magnitude 5.5 earthquake, which I still maintain led to my narrow 39-38 defeat in the series.
Dec 21, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
In times past, the telescope control rooms were in the telescope domes, and observers would drive out each night and spent the hours of darkness ensconced in the dome. But in recent years they’ve moved all the major telescope controls into one room. It’s conveniently close to the kitchen so getting a midnight meal is easy, but it feels strange to be so far from the actual telescope. But we took a trip out there with our day technician, Paul, one evening when he was checking things over. We looked in on the 2.2m telescope and the 3.6m telescope while we were up there, and then walked back via the spectacular views from the 15m disused Swedish radio telescope. We spent our nights in the control room. In our temporary office in the same building, there was a spectacularly good coffee machine which dispensed awesome espressos at the touch of a button. The first night we were there I pressed that button 15 times, and by dawn I felt slightly unusual. In subsequent nights I kept my button presses to single figures. The only thing I seriously didn’t like about the control room was its bizarre cuckoo clock, which chimed [...]
Dec 20, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
Our run started early, in the end. A whole night was scheduled for technical work which ended up being finished early, so we were let at the NTT controls a night ahead of plan. This was a bonus, and we set to work, observing luminous stars in our galaxy and two others a few tens of thousands of light years away. I had time during the night to set up some star trail shots. The sky was stunningly clear, even if the humidity stayed just a little bit too high for conditions to be absolutely perfect. The unfamiliar southern stars were amazingly bright, and the arc of the Milky Way stretched right across the sky from horizon to horizon.
Dec 19, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
We got a bus to La Serena, spent a night there and then headed up to the observatory at La Silla. This was the first major observatory built in the southern hemisphere, and the list of incredible discoveries made here is long and impressive. But ESO’s main observatory these days is at Paranal, a few hundred miles further north. The atmosphere at La Silla is one of faded glory and a place whose best years are behind it. Most of the telescope domes are now unused. But the telescopes that still run are still among the best in the world, and we had five nights on the largest of them, the 3.6m New Technology Telescope. But because of the transport schedule, we had to arrive at the observatory three nights before our run started. So we had plenty of time to appreciate the incredible scenery up here on the southern fringes of the Atacama desert. The food was awesome, we made extensive use of the ice cream machine, we watched condors hover over the desert, and I discovered the best coffee machine in the world. All was good.
Dec 14, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
South America, to me, was hallowed ground of a kind. It was the last inhabited continent that I visited, and my first trip there was a long, epic voyage, which I’d planned for years and that will probably always be my greatest travel experience. So in a way I was wary about going back a second time. It could never match up to the times I’d had before. I was going back for work. We had some time on the telescopes of La Silla, and my presence was required as a relatively experienced observer to make sure nothing went terribly wrong. Our run was just before Christmas, so I left behind a chilly London, sat on a plane for 15 hours, and then emerged into a hot, sunny Santiago. It was fantastic to be back. I’d liked Santiago from the moment I first arrived here, on a night train from Temuco in December 2005. This time we stayed in the fantastic ESO guesthouse, in the wealthy suburb of Las Condes, and the day we arrived was the day of the 2009 presidential election. The election meant that everything was closed, and we had a look round the quiet streets of [...]
Dec 15, 2005 in South America 2005
Over the previous month I’d travelled from the ice-bound fjords of Patagonia more than two thousand miles away, all the way to here. From northern Scotland to Timbuktu is about the same distance. Chile had been an amazing place but I had less than two months left until I needed to be in Quito so I had to move on. Sprawling across thousands of square miles of southern Bolivia between San Pedro and the nearest Bolivian town of Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, and I hooked up with Sebastian from Germany and Pia and Signe from Denmark to cross it. We would travel across in a 4WD driven by Victor from Bolivia. The Bolivian border is only thirty miles from San Pedro but it’s more than 2 kilometres higher, and the rapid ascent was a bit risky from the point of view of altitude sickness. My trip to El Tatio had been good for acclimatisation, though, and I felt OK as we waited in the thin air to get our passports stamped. Near by, an old bus was decaying into the desert sands. It seemed a strange place to have a border, and I wondered just [...]
Dec 12, 2005 in South America 2005
In an ideal world, after a day of cycling in the desert I’d have had a lie-in to recover. But I’d booked myself onto a trip to El Tatio, northern Chile’s most famous geyser field, and for reasons I really can’t begin to understand, these geysers only erupt for a couple of hours after sunrise. This meant that seeing them required a 4am start. My guide book said that the lights of San Pedro were off between midnight and dawn, so I thought I might see some good skies, but they’ve obviously got some better electricity since the book was published, and I waited for my minibus under a lit streetlight. The bus arrived shortly after 4, and we drove off into the night. After about half an hour we stopped to have a look at the sky, and it was absolutely stunning. It was absolutely filled with stars, and the Milky Way blazed overhead. I dozed during the rest of the journey. The air was getting thinner and colder, and even though I’d been at about 2000m above sea level for almost a week, the sudden rush to over 4,000m was quite taxing. As dawn began to break, we [...]
Dec 11, 2005 in South America 2005
I stocked up on more cakes from the cafe across the road before leaving Calama to go to San Pedro de Atacama. The bus journey took us through some forbidding Atacama scenery, rocky canyons and exposed plains and barely a speck of green in sight, and it seemed amazing to me that people could make a journey like this, through some of the harshest terrain in the world, by bus. My fellow passengers were mostly locals and I looked around at them, feeling some kind of envy that they lived in this remarkable place. I arrived in San Pedro in the early afternoon, and the sun beat down on the low whitewashed buildings which glared fiercely. I found a hostel and checked in, and wandered around the tiny village, quickly exploring more or less all of it. It was clearly a town that lived off tourism, but it didn’t seem as in-your-face about it as El Calafate or Pucón had been. El Calafate seemed to be built with wealthy visitors in mind, while Pucón was a middle-class Chilean sort of place, but San Pedro was definitely about backpackers. It made for a sociable time but I never much like places [...]
Dec 08, 2005 in South America 2005
I got a bus from Santiago to Antofagasta, 1100km north and sandwiched between the Atacama Desert and the Pacific Ocean. During the evening, at a stop somewhere in Chile’s wine-growing country, a man got on the bus selling small cakes, and I tried to buy a couple, but I didn’t quite catch what the price was and tried to pay with a note that was ridiculously too large for the transaction. He didn’t even try to explain – he just snatched back his cakes, threw my note back at me and stormed off the bus. Luckily, a friendly girl sat across the aisle from me shared her cakes with me, and told me that trying to pay for 50 peso cakes with a 5,000 peso note was not a good thing to do. We stopped at La Serena at midnight, and then I slept until dawn. When I woke, it was like I was in a bus on the surface of the moon – we were in the Atacama. Not a single living thing could be seen in the harsh grey rocky desert, and we were surrounded by brown hills which looked like lumps of plasticine dropped from a great [...]
Dec 06, 2005 in South America 2005
Before I headed towards northern Chile I spent a day in Valparaíso, Chile’s premier port city. On a blazing hot morning I got the bus there from Santiago and spent a fantastic day wandering around its colourful streets. I’ve rarely been to a city so atmospheric as this one, and I felt that the air was somehow heavy with history. The city sprawls over cliffs which rise incredibly steeply from the wide blue Pacific Ocean, so steeply in fact that roads are often impossible and the only way to ascend is via clanking ascensores, miniature funicular railways a hundred years old that feel like they might crash back down to sea level at any moment as they laboriously climb to the heights. I wound my way from one end of the city to the other, alternately ascending and descending. Up high there was a rarefied, serene atmosphere; down low it was non-stop bustle and activity, with just a hint of hostility. At the top of Ascensor Espiritu Santo I found Cerro Bellavista, where the houses reached new heights of colourfulness, and bright murals covered many walls. I found a cafe with a terrace, and enjoyed a long slow coffee looking [...]
Dec 05, 2005 in South America 2005
The train to Santiago was incredibly uncomfortable. I’d been tight and bought the cheapest ticket, which was for a non-reclining seat. It seemed to be designed so there was no realistic way of lying down or doing anything but sitting bolt upright, so I didn’t manage to get a huge amount of sleep. I quite liked the restaurant car though, where my ongoing efforts to become a vegetarian were again spectacularly thwarted. There was an extensive menu, and I asked for various likely things which proved to be unavailable, before the server said to me “Look, in fact all we have is steak, and you can have a large one or a small one”. Knowing about how South Americans describe steak, I ordered the small one, which when it came was spilling off the sides of the plate. It turned out to be horribly tasty. Having failed to sleep, I was in a bit of a daze when we arrived at Santiago’s Estacion Central at 7am the next morning. There were not many people in the huge airy station building, and it didn’t feel anything like as dodgy as big city train stations often do. I liked Santiago straight away [...]
Dec 01, 2005 in South America 2005
Pucón is a popular place to go in Chile, with all sorts of adventure sports happening in the surrounding areas. For me, the big draw was Volcán Villarrica, a perfect Fuji-like snow-capped conical mountain to the south of town, which has an active lava lake in its crater. I wanted to climb it, and get closer to lava than I’d managed on previous trips to active volcanoes in Sicily and Central America. I’d seen lava fountains at Etna, watched glowing house-sized boulders tumble down the mountain side at Arenal in Costa Rica, and listened to the roar of Volcán Santamaría as I camped on its summit in Guatemala, but here I had the opportunity to stand on the rim of an active crater. Disturbingly, I was woken on my first morning in Pucón by wailing air-raid sirens. Not quite knowing what was going on, I looked out of my window half expecting to see a cataclysmic volcanic eruption underway, but Villarrica was just gently steaming and the sirens stopped as soon as they had begun. They went off several times during my stay, and I never worked out what they signified. Around town there were various signs detailing the procedure [...]
Nov 29, 2005 in South America 2005
The boat north was supposed to be going at 11pm but when I bought a ticket I found out it was running late and would not be leaving until 3am. I had many hours to kill but luckily Carlito, the owner of the place I was staying, said I could wait in the hotel even though I wasn’t paying for an extra night. He was waiting up for the ferry as well, as his daughter was on board, and I spent a lot of the evening trying to improve my Spanish by talking to him. He turned out to be an ardent Pinochet supporter, and was quite aggrieved that after years of legal wranglings, the ex-dictator had just been stripped of his immunity from prosecution and put under house arrest. Carlito’s view was that the general was 90 years old and should be enjoying a quiet life instead of facing jail, and that although lots of bad things happened during the dictatorship, the responsibility for them lay not with Pinochet but with other senior government people. Carlito was not just a fan, he’d actually met Pinochet on several occasions and had had dinner with him when he visited Chaitén. “A [...]
Nov 28, 2005 in South America 2005
There was a boat from Chaitén to Puerto Montt leaving the evening after I arrived. I spent my spare day exploring the nearby Parque Pumalín, with the two Italian girls who had arrived with me from Coyhaique. The park is somewhat controversial in Chile as it is all private land, owned by a non-Chilean, and it stretches from the coast to the Argentinian border, apart from a narrow strip in the middle. Chileans have accused the park’s owner of trying to split the country in two, and his efforts to buy the remaining strip have been fiercely resisted. Ignoring the politics of the situation, we asked around Chaitén and found a friendly guy called Juan who had a 4WD and was willing to drive us up to the park for the day. As it had been ever since Coyhaique, the weather was not great, although the rain had eased off from being torrential to just being quite heavy. Most of Pumalín is inaccessible without serious preparation, but we drove for about an hour north of Chaitén, to a place where a couple of trails run a short way into the park. The first took us to some impressive waterfalls, and [...]
Nov 27, 2005 in South America 2005
I spent a couple of relaxed days in Coyhaique, always intending to go walking in the surrounding hills but somehow never quite getting there. The town was laid back and quite bourgeois, with a well-to-do atmosphere and nice cafes on pedestrianised shopping streets. It also had the biggest supermarket I had seen in South America, with all sorts of produce that you wouldn’t expect to find in a small rainy town in Patagonia. I had wanted to get a ferry up the coast from Puerto Chacabuco, not far from Coyhaique, but it appeared that boats only go from there at random irregular intervals. A company which used to do the run had gone bust due to rising fuel prices, and it seemed I would have to go north by bus. This was no disaster though, because the road north is no ordinary road, but the legendary Carretera Austral, which runs through the wild temperate rainforests of seldom-visited central Patagonia. Early on a Sunday morning I walked through the rain-soaked streets to the bus station and caught a minibus to Chaitén, a few hundred miles further up the country. There were about 12 of us on the bus, all locals apart [...]
Nov 23, 2005 in South America 2005
It seemed like it might be quite difficult to head north from El Chaltén except by travelling right back over to the east side of the continent where the endless plains allow good roads. Luckily, though, there are occasional buses which use Ruta 40 to get from El Chaltén to Los Antiguos. My guidebook described Ruta 40 as ‘one of the world’s worst roads, passing through some of its most boring scenery’, but I’ve been on that road, it’s in Zambia. So I headed north on this road, and actually I found some of the scenery pretty spectacular. We passed through some astonishingly remote places, tiny villages with just a house or two and a cafe which must get no business at all except when buses pass through. The sun shone and I dozed a lot of the way. Late in the afternoon we stopped at Perito Moreno, where a lot of passengers got off, before turning east along the shores of Lago Buenos Aires, South America’s second-largest lake. Snowy mountains lined the shores of the deep blue lake. Late in the evening we arrived at Los Antiguos, a small town by the border with Chile. I tried to find [...]
Nov 14, 2005 in South America 2005
The next day I walked 17km along the shores of Lago Nordenskiöld to get to Albergue Las Torres, my last destination of the hike. The first couple of hours saw the path rise steeply for a while, then drop down to the lake shore and a beautiful beach. I sat down and relaxed in the hot sunshine for a while. Every now and then I’d hear the roar of an avalanche on Paine Grande from behind me, followed a couple of seconds later by its echo from the mountains across the lake in front of me. Further on I reached the Albergue Los Cuernos, and stopped for lunch. While I was there, two tiny colourful birds seemed to be having a fight, dive-bombing each other frantically by where I was sat. One of them landed about an inch away from me, squawking furiously at the other. When his opponent flew off, he sat for a moment before noticing me and flying off. After that it was a long walk under a hot sun to the Albergue Las Torres. The next day I set off early to climb up to the base of Las Torres themselves. Still tired from the previous [...]
Nov 12, 2005 in South America 2005
My next day was an easy one – a three hour walk around the west end of Lago Pehoé, over some low hills and then around the shores of the almost-as-blue Lago Nordenskiöld to Campamento Italiano, at the bottom of the Valle Francés, one of the park’s most scenic sections. I walked slowly, enjoying the scenery, and particularly liked the last section which involved crossing the wild and turbulent Río Francés on a narrow and bouncy rope bridge. I set up camp in the forest and relaxed by the river for the afternoon, enjoying the amazing views of the towering face of Paine Grande. I met my friends the Australians at the campsite and spent the evening chatting to them over a hot fire, until it was almost too dark to find my tent. I was woken several times in the night by the roar of avalanches from Paine Grande. One was so loud that it caused me slight concern about possibly flash flooding, but nothing happened so I went back to sleep. In the morning I set off up the trail to the Campamento Británico, 600m higher up in the middle of the Valle Francés. It was a steep [...]
Nov 10, 2005 in South America 2005
My first day of real hiking at Torres del Paine was to take me up the left hand end of the W and back, to Glaciar Grey. Despite being among some of the wildest scenery in the world I struggled to muster up enthusiasm for the hike for a while, thick cloud and heavy drizzle encouraging me to have a relaxed breakfast first. Luckily the rain stopped, and I set off at 12.30. The first hour’s walk took me through a fairly nondescript gully, at the end of which the path climbed up to a small windswept lake. Cresting a rise a few minutes after that, I found Lago Grey, milky white and dotted with icebergs, stretching out in front of me. The path now wound its way along side the lake but high above it, and soon I got my first view of Glaciar Grey itself, basking in the sunshine and seeming to glow from within where beams of sunlight fell on it. The path took a detour inland for a while, and without the lake views the trekking was not too spectacular. Occasional glimpses of the towering face of the glacier provided encouragement though, and I pushed on. [...]
Nov 09, 2005 in South America 2005
I had an awesome day’s travelling. I was up at 4.30am, and after a quick bowl of porridge I set out into the cold morning to catch the bus to Río Grande. Various other backpacked figures were emerging into the semi-darkness from hostels along the road, and we all trooped in tired silence towards the bus stop. A blazing sunrise was starting by the time we left for Ushuaia at 5.30am, and no clouds troubled the clear blue skies until the sun was setting 16 hours later. We stopped for breakfast at Tolhuin, on the eastern side of Tierra del Fuego, and I got a coffee and a couple of empanadas. I watched the empty plains drift by as we rolled on towards Río Grande, spotting just the occasional guanaco or two. We arrived at about 9am, and caught a bus to Punta Arenas, across the Straits of Magellan in Chile. This bus was largely occupied by a depressing group of about 20 fussy women and henpecked husbands, and as I was in a travel-snobbish mood I avoided letting any of them know I was English lest they talk to me. As we boarded the boat to cross the straits, [...]
Nov 02, 2005 in South America 2005
The journey to Río Gallegos was great. It seemed amazing to be getting a bus such a long way through such wild country. After a brief stop in Trelew the endless featureless plains began and few signs of human influence could be seen. Occasional decaying car bodies by the roadside indicated what a bad place this would be to get a puncture. The only major negative was that The Motorcycle Diaries came on the bus TV, and it would have been perfect viewing, but inexplicably they turned it off after a few seconds and put on a film so dire it makes me cringe to think of it. But the film aside, all was good. I read Ernest Shackleton’s Heart of the Antarctic, watched the bleak scenery go by, and as night fell I watched the sky fill with stars. In the morning things looked a bit colder and a bit harsher than they had the night before, and at 8.15am we arrived at Río Gallegos under heavy grey skies. I bought a ticket for the bus to Ushuaia, and left for the southern-most city in the world a few minutes later. A strip of Chile lies between Río Gallegos [...]