Clouds over Paranal

Oct 22, 2013 in Chile 2013

Clouds over Paranal

We finished our epic Chile journey with a visit to Paranal where I spend 80 nights a year working at the telescopes. We had some bad luck though. The skies are normally clear here at least 90 per cent of the time, but the last couple of years have seen quite a lot of bad weather. And today we managed to pick a cloudy day. We’d seen the cirrus over the desert as we headed out from Antofagasta, but there is quite often cloud nearer to Antofagasta while Paranal is clear. Today it was not so, and the clouds thickened during the afternoon.

By nightfall they’d decided not to open the telescopes. The opening is always impressive to see, so this was a pity, but the engineer who would have opened the dome treated us to a good display anyway, tilting and rotating the telescope so that we got great views of it inside the closed dome.

We went out onto the platform in the night, and through breaks in the clouds we could see stars, but nothing like the normal blazing skies. It was a pity, as I’d planned the trip for a time when there would be no moon and the centre of the Milky Way would be high in the sky at the start of the night. The night before, and the night after, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

But Paranal is not only about the night skies. We went for a walk in the desert the next day, and that’s always great. The terrain here is so harsh that just before we arrived, they’d been testing a Mars rover nearby.

Puncture in the desert

Oct 21, 2013 in Chile 2013

Puncture in the desert

We drove back down to San Pedro. We were in no rush, the driver took his time, and we stopped at some amazing places. At Vado Putana, where the Río Putana spreads out into a huge wetland, previous trips I’d been on had stopped for a few minutes, but we spent a while here with the driver pointing out all the birds and wildlife that could be seen. Not long after that some groups of vicuñas and llamas crossed the road, and we stopped to let them cross.

Everything about the trip was good, and even when we got a puncture, that was good. It was the second time I’d had a puncture on my four trips so I felt somehow responsible. The first puncture, on my first trip, was a bit of a nightmare as it took a long time to fix, we were in the middle of nowhere, and I had a pounding headache from the altitude. This one happened just outside the village of Machuca, and it meant we got to stop and appreciate the amazing views over the village that you normally just see flashing past out the window of the minibus. We waited near the van for a while as the driver jacked it up, and eventually he said we might as well walk down to Machuca while he fixed it. The staying awake on the way up thing had really worked well – the four of us strolled down into Machuca while everyone who’d slept on the way up seemed to be suffering now and shuffled slowly down behind us. One girl just stayed in the bus and drove down with it once the tyre had been fixed.

Machuca was busy. Every bus stops here on the way down from the geysers. It had changed a lot since my first visit, 8 years ago – when I looked at my photos from 2005 there was just one van there and hardly any people. Today there were about 30 cars and vans parked in the village, and there was even a mobile phone mast.

But by the time we got into the village, most of them had gone. It was good to be on the most relaxed trip of the day. We had plenty of time to look around, enjoy the Machuca vibe, and get coffees and empanadas. It would have been a shame not to have got the puncture.

El Tatio again

Oct 21, 2013 in Chile 2013

El Tatio again

We went to see the geysers at El Tatio. I’d been there three times already and although it’s a pretty awesome place, I was thinking that maybe four visits is a bit excessive. And seeing as you have to get up at 4am to go there, and it’s brutally cold when you get there, and it’s 4300m above sea level, I was wondering if my mum and dad and aunt would actually get any enjoyment from this at all.

But we got lucky with the tour we went with. Everyone, everyone who visits San Pedro will go to El Tatio, so agencies really don’t have to work very hard to earn their custom. But the trip we went on was one of the few that actually makes an effort. The driver advised us not to sleep on the way up, telling us that you adjust more easily to high altitude if you’re awake. We thought this sounded like it would be worth a try so we stayed awake all the way up. The Italians, Brazilians and Chileans who were also on the trip ignored it and were soon fast asleep.

But it was good advice. I felt better when we got to El Tatio than I’d done on any of my previous visits, and as well as that the place looked more incredible than ever before. It was brutally, savagely cold, 15 degrees below freezing, and in those conditions huge steam pillars rise from even the tiniest geothermal hole in the ground. It was stunning.

We had plenty of time at the geysers. On previous trips I’d always felt a bit rushed, but we hung around until pretty much all of the other minibuses had left. Once the sun came up, the savage temperatures got a tiny bit more agreeable.

All the tours start in the main geyser field and then drive over to a geothermal pool that you can swim in. I’d swum in it on my last trip. It was horrific. It’s like getting into a bath that you ran nice and hot and then forgot about for a bit, and then you have to get out into sub-zero air. So we passed on a swim this time.

I was in a great mood as we headed away from El Tatio. This had been the best of my four trips here without a doubt. So, my advice for having a great trip to El Tatio is 1. go with the Maxim tour agency, they are really good; 2. stay awake on the way up; and 3. don’t swim in the pool unless you like disappointment and misery.

Cordillera de la Sal

Oct 19, 2013 in Chile 2013

Cordillera de la Sal

We’d been to the southernmost parts of Chile, and now it was time to head north to San Pedro de Atacama. It was the fifth time I’d been here, only a few weeks after my fourth visit.

San Pedro is full of tour agencies, some good, some bad. We went on a trip to the Valle de la Luna with a bad one. And the trouble is, there are so many agencies, I can’t remember which one it was I actually booked through. Whoever it was, they had a van that was tiny and they were trying to fit too many people into it, and after our first stop it wouldn’t restart for a while.

But, at least it managed to deliver us to a good viewpoint over the desert in time to see the sun go down. San Pedro might be excessively touristy but it’s got a prime location and I don’t think I could ever get bored of seeing the desert scenery around here.

Desert rains

Apr 13, 2012 in Chile

Desert rains

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 couple of hours before dawn when it was obvious the weather wasn’t going to improve. I went to bed at about 7am. Then, at 9am, I was woken up by thunder. Blearily I got to my feet. Thunder? Surely not? And what was this sound, something like rain battering on the window. In disbelief I rolled up the blind and saw that it was true – an epic downpour was in progress. Still half asleep, I went out into the corridor of the residencia and found rain pouring through the roof. The building appears not to be even slightly waterproof.

I was just stunned. I hadn’t expected to see anything like this here in the driest desert on Earth. They tell me it does rain here, sometimes, but the last time had been only eight months ago. I’d thought, during the long dry summer, that when I did finally experience rain again, I might go out and stand in it and enjoy it. But after two hours sleep I was so tired that I just went back to bed, and slept through the rest of the storm once the thunder had stopped.

For a couple of days afterwards, water was still dripping through the ceiling.

The road to Calama

Nov 27, 2011 in Atacama 2011

The road to Calama

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 scenery, 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 views of the driest place on Earth.

Touring the lagunas

Nov 26, 2011 in Atacama 2011

Touring the lagunas

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.

Penitentes

Nov 25, 2011 in Atacama 2011

Penitentes

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.

ALMA

Nov 25, 2011 in Atacama 2011

ALMA

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 San Pedro to the ALMA base camp, near the village of Toconao at 2900m above sea level. We had medical tests here, to check blood pressure and oxygenation, before heading on up to the heights. I knew from previous trips to high altitude that I was probably going to feel spaced out and confused, and it turned out as I expected; I felt a little bit out of body by the time we got up to 5100m, hardly able to understand what people said to me and only capable of shuffling slowly across the plateau from the main building to the antennae.

My oxygen-deprived memories are very hazy but I think it was awesome. The array is not complete and only about a third of the eventual number of antennae have been installed so far, but it looked incredibly futuristic with all of the dishes strung out across the barren desert plateau. I staggered around and took lots of photos, and occasionally took shots of oxygen from the canisters we’d all been given.

Atacama

Nov 02, 2011 in Chile

Atacama

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.