Articles tagged with "desert"
A view from out the back of the residencia, where you can see the southern stars trailing to the right, and the northern stars trailing to the left.
A view over the residence at Paranal, looking towards the celestial equator. I stacked 763 individual photos to make this one, each of the individual ones being a 20s exposure at ISO 800, using a 24mm lens at f/2.8.
On my second trip to La Silla, I had plenty of free time. We were observing for three nights, but the transport from La Serena to La Silla only goes three times a week, so we had to arrive three nights before our run started, and leave one night after. So, we did a lot of photography. I made this image by stacking 700 individual images, each of which was a 20s exposure at ISO 100, using a 24mm lens at f/1.4. I started the sequence about 45 minutes after sunset, so that there was still some twilight to light up the sky. The moon was full, so the telescopes and the desert got illuminated by that.
A view towards the residencia from the platform at Paranal. I made this photo by stacking 500 photos, each of which was a 5s exposure at ISO 3200.
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.
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 like it might have been my fault. 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.
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.
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.
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.
To my mind, the bus journey between Calama and San Pedro is one of the most spectacular there is. This time 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.
I went to Laguna Chaxa, where flamingos 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.
On the altiplano, snow melts in strange ways. It forms peaks and valleys, and the valleys deepen until you’re left with large snow pillars called penitentes standing in the red desert landscape.
With a group of astronomers, I went to Llano de Chajnantor, 5100m above sea level in the Atacama, to see the ALMA observatory being constructed. 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 probably 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.
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.
Part of my job here in Chile is to assist in the running of the world’s premier visible light observatory, the Very Large Telescope. A couple of days ago I made my first journey here from Santiago, flying up to Antofagasta and getting a bus from there up into the savagely dry Atacama desert, to the observatory at Cerro Paranal.
What a place Paranal is. I’ve been to several observatories but none have been anything like this. The residencia is an awesome piece of architecture, the scale of the operation is immense, the level of activity is impressive, and the unbelievably harsh desert is terrifyingly beautiful. I will be coming here about once a month for the next three years so perhaps I will get bored of it. But on this first visit, I’m feeling impressed.
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 stops 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 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 and right below me, as clear as anything, was the observatory.
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 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 survive.
I headed back to San Pedro. The scenery was really mind-blowing, with giant volcanoes on the horizon, over the wild rock formations of the Valle de la Luna. 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. It had been a pretty 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.
I’d been to San Pedro before. All backpackers in Chile come here at some point on their journeys, and I was no different. I stopped off on my way north to see some desert sights.
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 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 Vicuña, where 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 hard work, but luckily not far.
I wandered back into town and got a bus going back to La Serena, and from there I got the night bus to San Pedro. I slept well, happy with the thought that I would wake up in the middle of the Atacama. Before I fell asleep, though, I got one last glimpse of the domes of La Silla on a distant hilltop as the bus rumbled north.
After the conference I had two days to spare in southern Arizona. You can’t do much there without a car, but luckily a friend had been observing at the nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory and had a motor. He’d just finished his observing run, and we headed out into the desert.
Our destination was Chiricahua National Monument. It was a little bit cooler in the hills there than it had been back in Tucson. Near to the car park there were quite a few people on the trails, many of whom did not look very much like hikers at all and occupied most of the width of the narrow paths. As we got further away, there were fewer and fewer people, and the wilderness was spectacular.
After a few hours we reached a turnoff for ‘Inspiration Point’. I was initially not too fussed, as we’d already covered a lot of ground and seen some pretty inspiring things. Luckily we decided to check it out, and soon reached the most impressive viewpoint of the day.
The early start was not too brutal – I slept well even in the thin air, and woke feeling fine at 5.30am. The others felt better too, and more up for a day of sightseeing than they had been yesterday. The lake, so red the previous day, was now more or less all blue. We breakfasted on mate de coca, crusty bread and scrambled flamingo eggs and left Laguna Colorada at 7am.
Our first stop was a group of stones sculpted into weird and wonderful shapes by the winds of the high Altiplano. The centrepiece is the Arbol de Piedra, a stone ‘tree’ which stands on an implausibly thin base and looks as if it could be toppled with a light push. A few other vehicles were there, and a few people were trying to topple it, but all found it impossible. We spent half an hour or so scrambling over the rocks, looking around at the desert and the mountains and the wilderness, before setting off. There were no roads here, just dusty tracks which we almost seemed to glide along in the 4WD. Victor had a CD of reggaeton music, and was becoming worryingly fond of one particular track as we ploughed through the thick sand. It was beginning to drive us slightly mad, but would become the almost constant soundtrack to our Altiplano journey.
We stopped at Villa Alota for lunch. It was a strange place, just a few dozen houses in the middle of nowhere and more or less deserted. Victor left us eating lunch while he gave someone a lift somewhere, which took an hour or so, and then for reasons we couldn’t work out he drained all the fuel from the car into a large tub, before refilling it. Then we had a pretty boring afternoon of driving through the desert to the village of Chuvica, which sits right on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar looked strange in the evening light as we arrived, glistening in the sun and stretching away as far as the eye could see.
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 the geysers at El Tatio, 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.
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 were passing through the village of Machuca, and half an hour before dawn we were at the geysers. The temperature outside was almost -10°C, and we were on a plain 4,300m above sea level, surrounded by mountains a few hundred metres high, with steam rising all around and a deep velvet blue sky overhead.
I set off to explore straight away. The ground was frosty in places but hot in others. Having seen geysers in Iceland, at first I thought these ones were not too impressive. The most powerful was only throwing water up a couple of metres, compared to Iceland’s finest, Strokkur, which jetted out columns of water up to 15 metres tall. And all of these geysers were in almost constant eruption, rather than the occasional jets from Strokkur. But these were more impressive in their own way, especially because they covered such a large area. And the biting cold of the Altiplano dawn meant that each droplet of water left a trail of steam behind it, and everything was wreathed in mist.
As soon as the Sun came up, I liked El Tatio more. The warmth was tangible and the light on the geysers was impressive. Also fun was the breakfast provided by the people I’d come with – they put a box of eggs in one hot pool, and a carton of chocolate-flavoured milk in another, and within a few minutes we were eating delicious soft-boiled eggs and drinking hot chocolate. Overhead, the interplay of sunlight and ice particles was creating a circumzenithal arc, something I’d never seen before.
It was quite eerie when the geysers began to die down at about 8am. It seemed like someone was turning off the heat, and that perhaps the whole thing was somehow artificial, generated only for the tourists. By 9am only a few wisps of steam still rose into the warming morning, and it was time to head back down to San Pedro. I was starting to feel the effects of the altitude now, and was glad to be descending again. We drove to Machuca and stopped there for lunch. It’s a spectacular place, a tiny village lost in the brown Atacama, but with a glowing white church to make it stand out. They were selling empanadas at a fairly extortionate price, but it was clearly a poor village and I didn’t begrudge them this revenue source. Besides, by now my head felt like it was about to explode any minute, and I was hardly able to convert from Chilean pesos into pounds anyway.
We drove for a long while on a plain about 4000m above sea level, spotting herds of vicuña well camouflaged in the brown background. As we began to descend, we got a puncture, and stopped for about half an hour to fix it, which seemed like forever given my pounding high-altitude headache. I was incredibly relieved to get back to the relatively dense atmosphere of San Pedro at 3pm, and spent the afternoon recovering lazily.
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 where local culture has been overwhelmed by outsiders. It’s the central problem of travel really – I want to visit amazing places and see spectacular things, but I don’t really want anyone else to.
I hired a bike in San Pedro, and spent a day exploring the surrounding desert. Fortunately I got a sensible machine, far more realistic a proposition than the contraption I’d hired in Puerto Madryn and definitely up to the task of cycling in the driest place on the planet. I started by heading north to the Pukará de Quitor, a hilltop fort which was the site of a last stand during the Spanish conquest. The views from here over the desert showed what an anomaly San Pedro is, with trees and vegetation in an otherwise unremitting sea of light brown.
Further north, I spent a while in the Quebrada del Diablo, a twisting narrow canyon that cuts deep into the hills. I don’t know how far I went down it – I started by cycling but before too long the floor of the canyon was too rough to make that worthwhile, so I left the bike and went on by foot. It was an amazing place – just hot sand, orange rocks and blue skies, and if I stood still and held my breath the silence was total. It was obvious that water had rushed violently through here at some point, but extremely hard to believe that could ever happen in the arid heat of the middle of the day.
After the Quebrada, I headed a little bit further down the road to what was allegedly the Inca ruins of Catarpe. But either I didn’t go to the right place, or Catarpe is really rubbish – there seemed to be nothing at all to see except a stone wall which could have been built yesterday. It was now far too hot to realistically explore any more, so I headed back to San Pedro for lunch. I’d taken plenty of water and drunk pints and pints, but still I’d almost lost my voice thanks to the extreme dryness. I found a shop selling ice cream in San Pedro and decided that for health reasons I should buy some. One portion left me feeling only partially restored, but a second had me feeling like doing more cycling, and as the afternoon heat gradually receded, I set out for the Valle de la Luna, an area of rock formations 17km south of San Pedro, to catch the sunset there.
This was far less fun than the morning’s cycling had been. Earlier, there hadn’t been even a breath to disturb the hot stillness, but now in the late afternoon a wind had sprung up from the west, and it was getting stronger by the second. Although it was much cooler than it had been, the wind was hot, and it felt like I was cycling into a hairdryer as I slowly pedalled down the tarmac toward the valley. The scenery was stunning, barren beyond belief and with towering volcanoes fringing the horizon, but I was beginning to get angry with the wind. After a few kilometres the tarmac stopped and I was on a sandy track, with the wind still blowing right at me, and every time I stopped for a second to catch my breath, the wind seemed to drop to nothing, only to start up again when I pushed off. At times I even struggled to cycle downhill. I cycled on in a furious rage, cursing the desert and the wind and thinking I could have been sat on an air-conditioned tour bus which would have cost me less than my bike hire had.
But eventually the valley appeared, and as soon as I wasn’t cycling any more I enjoyed the cycling I’d just done. The valley looked alive in the blazing evening light, and I scrambled up the sides to get stunning views over the surroundings, with Volcán Licancábur standing solemnly over everything. After the Sun had set the light quickly began to fade, and I set off for the return cycle. This was massively more fun, and with the wind behind me it took me barely half an hour to get back to San Pedro. By the end of the journey it was almost dark except for the light of the full moon, and I felt pretty pleased with 50 kilometres of cycling in the world’s driest desert.
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 height. I thought I was dreaming when I saw a giant hand reaching up from the desert, a little way away from the road, but it turned out to be La Mano del Desierto, a sculpture by Mario Irarrázabal. We continued up the Inter-American Highway to Antofagasta, and it seemed crazy to me that, nominally at least, this was the same road I’d travelled on five years ago in Central America. A road connecting this place to the misty mountains of Guatemala seemed impossible.
By 10am we were in Antofagasta, and my first mission was to get coffee. Inexplicably for a South American bus, they’d only served tea for breakfast, and so I set off under the tropical sun to the nearest cafe. Unfortunately, they served me a cup of undrinkable filth, so I went to the next cafe where I got a better one. A third cup at the next cafe along was better still, and now I was ready to look around. I spent a few hours in the city before getting a bus deep into the desert to Calama, a spectacular journey in the late evening sun. I arrived in Calama at 10pm, and set off for the centre of town, which was about a mile from the bus station. I started off walking quickly, but soon realised that I was now 2,400m above sea level and walking quickly was suddenly quite tiring. Gasping for breath, I walked slowly into town.
Calama is a mining town and not particularly nice. Apparently since the Spanish colonisation, 400 years ago, it has rained once, and that was in 1972. I’d wanted to go and see the copper mine at Chuquicamata, where Che Guevara and Alberto Granado had seen the foreign exploitation of Chile’s natural resources in 1952, but I’d arrived on a Friday and there were no tours over the weekend. So I just spent a day relaxing in the unforgiving sunshine, watching life on the main drag and buying occasional viciously cold cokes and amazing cakes from a friendly cafe over the road from my hotel.
It would take 24 hours to cover the thousand-odd miles to Adelaide. As I settled into the blissfully cool air conditioned carriage, I looked at the spare seat next to me and thought it would be great if a cute girl happened to be booked onto that seat. As I thought this, a cute girl appeared at the end of the carriage, walked down and took the seat next to me.
As we rumbled out of Central station, we started talking. The train clacked along slowly, the engines struggling to haul the great body of the train up out of Sydney and into the Blue Mountains. After a few hours we’d crossed the Great Dividing Range, and we accelerated down into the endless plains of New South Wales. By nightfall me and the girl were still talking, although we were both English so we hadn’t found out each other’s names yet.
When we woke up in the morning we were in the red deserts of New South Wales, not far from Broken Hill. I looked out the window and saw two kangaroos bouncing off into the distance. Me and the girl went for breakfast in the restaurant car, and finally got around to introducing ourselves. During the morning, a conductor reported regular news from a World Cup qualifying match between Australia and Uruguay. Australia had to win to qualify, and initially the word was positive, but the conductor became increasingly forlorn as the Australians went down 3-0 to the South Americans.
We made an early start the next day, all four of us hoping to be 250 miles away in Livingstone by the evening. We walked the long walk back to the road, arriving not long after nine. As we knew it would be, the road was absolutely quiet, so we sat down with our bags and taught Susan and Remco to play Shithead, the greatest card game of all time. After nearly an hour, we heard a vehicle in the distance and leapt up. We were in luck – it stopped for us, and asked where we going. We were in enormous luck – it was going all the way to Livingstone. We negotiated our fare and jumped in the back. It was a truck, in untypically good condition, and the only snag was that the back was very small, and already contained fifteen pumpkins and three sacks of maize. With a very tight squeeze we fitted four people and four backpacks in with them, and we were off.
Three of us could lean against the back of the cab, but I was the unlucky one who had to sit on the back of the truck. The road was bumpy and extremely dusty, and I had to hold tightly on to the truck to avoid being thrown out the back. Letting go would have been madness, but holding on meant that I couldn’t brush off the dust which was gathering thickly on my arms and face. Pretty soon I was grey and featureless and the sun was heating up the dust which was slowly cooking my arms. But every now and then a particularly large bump would knock some of the dust off as it sent shockwaves up my spine.
After three hours we reached the river once again, and crossed on the Sesheke pontoon. Here one of the passengers in the cab got out, and so Susan got in. The back was a spacious delight for the next few hours, and the road was smooth sand. I began to doze as the endlessly similar landscape rolled on by. Then, suddenly, my reverie was shattered as I woke to find myself and the contents of the back of the truck about two feet above the truck. As we crashed back down, we realised that we must have hit an unexpected bump. I decided it would be prudent to hold on again.
The rest of the journey went smoothly, very smoothly for the last hour or so as we got onto very good tarmac. We arrived in Livingstone at 7pm, and finding that our preferred choices of accommodation were full, stayed at the Red Cross hostel. Livingstone seemed extremely, extremely touristy compared to the places we’d been, and we thought we might be able to get something other than nshima and fish for dinner. We could, and we ate disgustingly well at a Chinese restaurant. During the meal, we each slipped out to the toilets to freshen up, for we all looked quite ridiculously filthy, covered in dust and grime. Me and John especially appreciated the food: we’d left Mongu with four loaves of bread, but along the way one of them had got soaked in petrol and the other was eaten by an elephant, so we’d not exactly eaten lavishly since then. And my caffeine cravings were at last eased by glorious, fabulous, real coffee. Being back on the beaten path was not entirely disappointing.
Tired but happy, we rose early the next morning to make our exit from Zambezi and get on with the trip. We walked to the bus station and found the Solwezi bus loading up. We planned to get this bus to a town called Mumbeji, from where we would hitch a lift to Lukulu, further downriver, but the bus looked like it was going nowhere fast. We asked the driver when it would be leaving. “Oh, about 10.30 I think”, he replied. It was nearly 11am already. We gave up on the bus and decided to start hitching, asking the bus to pick us up if we hadn’t got a lift when it passed by. To our shame it passed by only about 20 minutes later, and we were off.
I was thankful, so thankful that unlike Martin and many others on the bus, we had only two hours until Mumbeji. The journey went OK, with a minor interruption when a goat which had been on the roof fell off and ran into the bush. John was particularly startled by this as it fell past his window. All the passengers trooped off to search for the hapless creature, recovering it before very long and securing it once more to its rooftop spot.
As we got off the bus in Mumbeji, we found ourselves waist-high in enthusiastic food sellers, thrusting eggs, fruit, drinks and chickens at us. We waded through them to a spot by the Lukulu road, and settled down to hitch. There’s not a lot of entertainment to be had in Lukulu, and for these thirty-odd kids, a couple of white guys with backpacks were worth a look. They gathered around in a semi-circle and watched. And watched. After a while, I laid back on my pack and put my hat over my face. The kids found this side-splittingly funny, and more kids raced up to have a look at us. After an hour or so in which no traffic passed by, we thought we might be the Mumbeji freakshow overnight, but fortunately at that point, a big 4WD truck with space in the back passed by, and we negotiated a price for Lukulu. We waved goodbye to the kids of Mumbeji, and drove off, sharing the truck with, among others, a soldier on leave heading home and a fish trader heading to the river for a catch.
We crossed the Kabompo river on a pontoon, and then drove off down the deep sandy road to Lukulu. Here we provided more quality entertainment for the local kids. The truck alone was quite exciting on a road which saw very little traffic, but a couple of white guys in the back was an added bonus. Each village poured forth a stream of kids who shouted and waved at us, delighted when we reciprocated. One kid raced out from his hut with an armful of oranges and hurled them vigorously at us. People who travelled the route regularly said that he always did this.
Frequently the truck got bogged down in the sand and had to be dug out. Like almost every vehicle in Zambia it had a duff starter motor, and required a push start every time. Pushing a heavy 4WD truck through sand was extremely good exercise. We stopped off on the way to help the truck driver gather some firewood, which was another workout. Then we drove on, watching the sun set, spectacularly as ever, behind the trees of the endless forest. We also saw an incredibly thin crescent moon, 28 hours past new, setting with the last of the day. Then the stars came out, and we arrived in Lukulu at about 8pm. We said goodbye to our travelling companions and set off in search of the Government Resthouse.
We didn’t find it, instead chancing upon a friendly preacher who offered to drive us to different accommodation, saying the Government resthouse was probably full. And so we ended up at the Washala Washala restaurant and hotel, where we booked a room for the night and got a meal of nshima and bream from the river.
Eclipse day. During the night, I had a succession of horrible dreams in which I was in Cornwall again, watching the clouds cover up the crescent sun, or I was waking up in Zambia to find that it was cloudy. And when I woke some time before sunrise I thought my worst nightmares were coming true. I looked out the window to see dull grey skies casting a lifeless light over the land, and my heart leapt into my mouth. Surely this was all wrong! It took a while to realise that this was just the very early pre-dawn light making things look odd, and as the sky tinged blue with the oncoming day I relaxed, just a little bit.
We got up and went down to the river to watch the sun rise. Two years earlier I’d watched the Sun rise over pools of mist from a Cornish hilltop, and I’d listened to Mute by Porcupine Tree. I did the same here on the banks of the Zambezi as I watched the sun sliding inexorably towards its rendezvous with the moon, lurking unseen next to it in the sky. There was not even a hint of a cloud in the sky, so my paranoia began to work on other possibilities. Perhaps the calculations were wrong and we would only see a partial eclipse? Perhaps there’d be a dust storm? Perhaps I’d get food poisoning from my lunch?
In the middle of the morning, we heard a drum begin to beat outside our hotel. It turned out to be a band with dancers, playing the traditional Makishi music which is common in this part of Zambia. We watched the dancing and listened to the singing with a large audience of locals against the stunning backdrop of the river and plains.
After a quick lunch of nshima and meat, we were ready to find an eclipse spot. We headed down to the river to get a boat across to the other side. Horror! There was not a boatman or a boat in sight. This was not what we expected. The local authorities had told the people to stay indoors unless they had a safe way of viewing the eclipse, and clearly a lot of people had decided to take a day off. Eventually a boatman appeared, and found a canoe in which he ferried us across to the other side. As we waited on the east bank, the first bite was taken out of the sun by the encroaching moon, and the eclipse was underway.
We walked along the west bank for a little while until we found a good spot to set up. The sun was now about a quarter covered up, but I knew from Cornwall that things wouldn’t really look any different until the sun was at least three-quarters gone. I tried to keep from panicking as I ran through my photographic plans once again.
And as the predicted time approached, we began to notice that it was getting cooler, and the light was beginning to take on the strange quality of an unreddened sunset. Gradually at first but ever faster, the light was beginning to drain away. I felt like I was going blind. The sun was a breathtakingly slender crescent now, and getting smaller by the second. Darker still and darker, and then – the sun was gone and in its place a great black hole appeared, surrounded by the unearthly, astonishingly beautiful, glowing corona. From all up and down the river there came the sound of shouting from the villages. I uttered some urgent profanities. We could see Jupiter near the sun, and a few other stars as well. I took photo after photo after photo, and managed to find a few seconds in which to stare at this utterly startling sight.
Far too quickly it came to a rapid end. With a sudden brightening, the first rays of sunlight appeared from behind the moon, producing a brief but brilliant ‘Diamond Ring’ effect, before the corona was drowned out by the return of the day. Bands of shadow briefly rippled across the landscape. Within a few seconds it was daylight, and a few minutes later it was like it had never happened. Two small planes chartered by high-rolling eclipse chasers had flown in just before the eclipse, and within ten minutes they were off again, and Zambezi was well on its way to normality. Most of the sun was still covered, though, and we sat on the riverbanks until the moon was clear of the sun once again.
After two years of planning and expectation, the end of the eclipse was a bit of an anticlimax. A herd of oxen was driven by into the river to swim across it, and we followed them in our canoe. It was just after 5pm. We decided to pop into the Riverside bar for a ‘quick post-eclipse drink’. Feelings of anticlimax soon went away as it turned into a raucous eight-hour party, quite by accident. The locals were in the mood for celebrating, and we celebrated with them, dancing energetically and outrageously to thumping Congolese pop, causing hilarity by trying to learn the local languages, and playing pool and chess. A combination of me being a teetotaller and most of the locals emphatically being no such thing gave me a protracted run of success on the pool table, and for some time I reigned as the Zambezi Pool King, to delighted rapture from those who had decided to support me, and some grudging respect from the backers of the local heroes. I began to think of how I would tell the story of the evening when I returned home (“…and after my seventeenth straight victory, they asked me to become their chief!”), but sadly in the eighth game I came up against a more sober opponent, who ended my impudent run with a narrow victory. John, meanwhile, had been battling for the title of Zambezi Chess Prime Minister, with varying success.
The night wore on, more crazy dancing was done, much fun was had, and I really didn’t want the day to end. A magical eclipse experience in a marvellous part of the world, followed by a legendary evening in a superb bar was really beyond my best expectations.
Day 7. One day before eclipse day. We were recovered enough to contemplate travel, and we decided we would go to Chinyingi. It seemed amazing to me that between source and sea there were just four bridges across the Zambezi. Chinyingi was the uppermost of them. We headed to the bus station to see if by some miracle there was a bus heading in that direction, but there wasn’t. Instead of a bus, we found Catherine, a bank worker who we had met in Solwezi. She had thought she wouldn’t be able to get time off work to come and see the eclipse, but it turned out she had managed it, and so here she was in the path of totality. Like us, she could not believe what an experience the journey to here had been. Unlike us, poor woman, she would be returning the same way after the eclipse.
Catherine wanted to head to Chavuma, to meet up with Rune, and as Chinyingi is on the way to there, we invited her along with us. In the absence of buses, hitching is the way to head north from Zambezi, but hitching in Zambia always involves a contribution to petrol costs. Usually you pay the same as the bus fare, but sometimes negotiation is involved. We met a guy called Edwin who had a car and would drive us to Chinyingi. ‘How much will you pay me?’, he asked. ‘How much do you want?’, we asked. ‘No no, I asked first!’, he replied. We were still coming to terms with the exchange rate, and ignorant of the price of petrol, but fortunately we managed not to insult Edwin with our first offer, and then find a mutually agreeable price.
So off we drove up the rough road to Angola. There was a surprising amount of traffic on this road, and we were to learn that though the town had had problems with gun-runners in the past, nowadays the situation across the border is more stable, the epicentre of the civil war in that country having shifted. We drove up the road for a while before taking a left turn to cross the flood plain. The rainy season had ended not many weeks before, but the broad plain was now dry. Pretty much all of Zambia is flat, but the flood plain is devoid of trees, and looks even flatter than the rest of the country.
On the way we met Roger and Robert, two Dutch travellers who had got on the bus from Solwezi in the middle of the long, long night. They were walking out to a village north of Zambezi, with a local guide, and though Edwin’s car was small we offered them a lift. They crammed themselves in, somehow, and from somewhere behind their bags they said they were fine. After we dropped them off we drove on up to Chinyingi.
The bridge was built in the early seventies, after four people drowned trying to cross the river in a small boat on a stormy night. The missionaries from the nearby Chinyingi mission, undeterred by a lack of bridge-building experience, built it from materials donated by the mines of Zambia’s Copperbelt, and nearly thirty years later it was still standing. It’s a suspension footbridge, and as we bounced across to the other side, our confidence in the Brothers’ bridge-building skills grew. The river flowed gently into the distance and it was hard to believe it could ever become the raging flood that prompted the building of the bridge.
After a quick look around the grounds of the Chinyingi mission, we wandered down to the banks of the river, and here I began to feel like an explorer. Broad expanses of sand, which must have been uncovered by the dwindling river some weeks before, had not a single footprint to be seen on them. We took some photographs, left some footprints and headed back home. We dropped Catherine off by the road to Chavuma and wished her luck. After another perfect sunset and another over-enthusiastic photography session, we headed to the Riverside bar for the evening.
I could have slept for at least a week, but we were woken early by Martin, who was keen for us to see the sights. And oh, what a sight when we pulled back the curtains to see the river winding towards us from Angola, dazzling under the bright sun. Though we were weary and battered, we managed to get up and go for a stagger around Zambezi. The town stood on thick sand, the northern fringes of the Kalahari desert, so walking around was hard work, but we managed it. Soon enough we found our way to a bar, and decided to stop for a while. It was the Riverside Club, which as we were to discover over the next few days, is one of the best places in the world to spend an evening. Still shellshocked from our overnight odyssey, we sat there for some time, drinking cold drinks and watching the river go by.
Rune, who had travelled with us from Solwezi, was intending to go on to Chavuma, right up on the border with Angola, so after a bone-soothing few hours at the Riverside, we wandered off with him to find out about transport in that direction. It turned out that the only possible way of getting there was to hitch, so we found a good hitching spot and left Rune there. Then we decided it was time to get down on the mighty Zambezi and see it close up. It was a timeless scene up there at Zambezi with little dugout canoes ferrying people back and forth between the villages on either bank. We hired one of these for a quick trip up the river.
We decided in the afternoon that some more recovery was in order, and so we did nothing. I sat in the sun, by this great river, reading H. Rider Haggard and feeling like I was lost in the middle of Africa. This happy state of affairs lasted until sunset, when we found enough energy to walk down to the riverbanks to watch the first of many Zambezi sunsets. It was the first of many occasions on which I took a large number of very similar photos.
The semi-mythical bus from here to Zambezi turned out to be a real thing, which left at 9am on Monday morning, so we spent the weekend in Solwezi. On Friday night we went into town, and discovered nshima, the staple food of Southern Africa. It’s a kind of maize porridge, served with either meat, chicken or fish, and you eat it with your fingers. We also discovered how overwhelmingly friendly Zambians are, and being typically restrained Englishmen, I think we came across as slightly unfriendly. ‘Are you scared of me?’ asked one very drunk guy in the bar.
During the weekend we met many local people. Joe and Chris, who owned the motel we were staying in, turned out to be grandsons of the local chief. We met many members of their family, and we were invited to go to visit the chief with them. But sadly their Saturday evening lasted most of Sunday as well, and they were in no fit state to visit royalty, so we had to give it a miss. We also met Daniel and Clifford, two eccentric characters with a hand puppet, who demanded that we take photographs of them, before accompanying us into town for a drink or two. And we met Martin, an interesting guy who had worked all over southern Africa, and casually mentioned that he’d once spent a year in prison in Angola. Somehow, (it’s still not quite clear how we managed it) we ended up agreeing to pay him to come with us to Zambezi.
When Monday morning came we had to make a quick trip to the bank when it opened to get ourselves a couple of million Kwacha, forced to get huge wads of money by the outrageous minimum commission on traveller’s cheques. And then we went to the bus station and boarded the bus to Zambezi. It was supposed to leave at 9am, and arrive at 6pm, but like all Zambian buses it left the regulation hour and a half late. It was crammed full of people and luggage, with a vast array of possessions piled high on the roof as well. The chaotic process of loading up the bus seemed to have exhausted everyone, for within half an hour as we rolled west, everyone on the bus was asleep, and a peaceful atmosphere prevailed.
For the first couple of hours, the road was smooth tar, but not long after midday the good surface ran out, and we were onto gravel. The bus had no suspension to speak of, and the seats had no padding to speak of either, so very quickly the journey became uncomfortable. We bounced along for a couple of hours before suddenly stopping in the middle of nowhere. Everyone got off the bus to stretch legs and massage weary buttocks, while some urgent bush mechanics got underway. Fortunately the engine was going again within half an hour and we were back on the way.
The mesmerising monotony of the Zambian landscape was beginning to rob me of my sense of time, but I snapped out of it and stopped dribbling as the sun set magnificently, and for a couple of hours I stared delightedly out the window as the twilight colours gave way to inky black darkness, splattered with the breathtakingly bright Milky Way, and interrupted occasionally by the light of fires in and around the villages. Around 8pm I foolishly began to think ‘Well, we must almost be there by now…’
But we rumbled on, slowly and increasingly painfully. Every couple of hours we would stop, and everyone would fall over everyone else as they all tried to get off the bus at the same time. Then the last people off would fall over the first people off as they got back on again. Then as the bus driver revved up, everyone still outside would fall over themselves in their haste to get back on board. I joined in the whole process each time, just for a chance to restore circulation to my legs and get a glimpse of the starry, starry sky.
By two in the morning I was beginning to wonder if the journey would ever end. By wrapping my head in several jumpers and resting it on the back of the seat in front of me, I could attempt to sleep without risk of brain damage, but this was a tougher journey than I had ever anticipated. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that Western Zambia is way off the beaten tracks.
I was really expecting to watch the sun rise from the bus, but at four in the morning, battered and bruised, we finally arrived. The bus stopped by the government resthouse, but that turned out to be full. Luckily there were some people from the Zambezi Motel looking for customers off the bus, so we followed them. It was quite a walk from the bus stop, especially after 20 hours of getting smacked about on bumpy roads, and as we staggered along one of them warned me not to expect too much from the Motel. ‘You know the saying, when in Rome do as the Romans do?’, she asked. ‘Well, just remember you’re in Zambezi…this is the bush!’.
Alice Springs is in the middle of nowhere. If you drew a circle 600 miles across centred on Alice Springs, about 10,000 people would live within it. If you did the same thing in London, you’d encompass about 60 million people. We wandered up Anzac Hill and looked over the town to the Heavitree Gap. Beyond the Gap you could travel through empty desert all the way to Ceduna on the South Australian coast. At the other end of town from Anzac Hill was Billy Goat Hill. This was off-limits to all except aborigines, being a sacred place to them. The sad state of urban aborigines was clear to see near Billy Goat Hill, as there were always a number of miserable-looking people there clutching bottles.
It rained while we were in Alice Springs. This only happens once or twice a month, and after the shower had passed, the concrete paths near our hotel became covered in cockroaches. As quickly as they appeared, they disappeared, with only a few pieces of pulpy mess left behind where a careless foot had fallen at the wrong time.
Kata Tjuta is a collection of giant red rocks about 20 miles from Uluru. The tallest rocks are taller than Uluru but I hadn’t even heard of it before we arrived in Yulara. We headed out there to have a look around, and did an excellent walk through the rocks. We passed through the Valley of the Winds, and the six of us were the only people in sight in the vastness of the landscape. I felt like we were walking on the surface of Mars.
The darkness of the skies over Uluru was incredible. Even from the cities, the Milky Way was impressively bright, but out here in the desert it looked like it was painted on the sky. I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing. I walked a little way out into the desert outside Yulara to try to photograph the river of stars.
I didn’t spend too long out there in the end – it was getting very cold very quickly, and I was still traumatised by my close encounter with a huntsman spider in Adelaide. I could hear a lot of noises of things moving about in the spinifex. When I thought I heard something running across the ground near my feet, I hurriedly packed up and headed back to Yulara.
We went out to a viewing point near the rock one evening at sunset. It was extremely touristy, and there were people nearby drinking champagne, which I thought was a bit over the top. But the sunset was more impressive than I thought it would be, with the rock turning some vivid colours as the shadow of the Earth crept up on it.
We didn’t even know helicopter flights were an option here before we arrived, but when we found out we could do them, we didn’t hesitate. It was a spectacular ride – we flew high over the rock, and it was the best possible way to appreciate what an astonishing place we were in. Everything was flat, red and barren, and the only things in the whole landscape that stood out were Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
We spent a few days in Adelaide staying with relatives. I had a terrifyingly close encounter with a huntsman spider while we were there, which left me on edge for days afterwards. A day out touring South Australian vineyards helped me to relax again, as did wandering along the shores of the Southern Ocean at Hallett Cove, watching porpoises swimming just off shore.
After that, we set off on another epic journey, this time by bus to Yulara, a couple of miles from Uluru. “Don’t worry if you feel a sudden huge thump in the middle of the night”, said the driver as we pulled out of Glendambo at nightfall. “That’ll just be us hitting a kangaroo”. We passed through the Woomera Prohibited Area during the night, and at 6am we found ourselves in Yulara. It was freezing cold, and frost glittered in the morning sun.
Later that day, we walked out to a viewpoint near the town. All around was flat, the horizon never-ending, except for the solitary form of the bright red rock.
To get from Perth to Adelaide we took the train. We rumbled out of East Perth station in the early afternoon, and until nightfall we wound our way through some fairly green countryside. At 11pm we arrived in Kalgoorlie, and in the morning we were deep into the desert. The line was a single track, and so the train would occasionally stop at a passing loop in the middle of nowhere, sometimes waiting for a long time for whatever was coming in the other direction. An announcement was made that getting off the train at any point like this would be a seriously bad idea. “If you get left behind”, said the announcer, “you will die.”
On the second day we travelled along the longest straight stretch of track in the world, three hundred miles without a single bend. It was monotonous enough for me; I wondered how the drivers did it without going insane. I thought we might be able to get up some serious pace with no corners to worry about, but we continued on at the stately pace we’d been running the whole way. Over the whole trip we averaged just over 40 miles an hour; if there was a TGV line here, you could do the journey in about ten hours.
In the afternoon of the second day, we stopped in Cook, formerly a reasonably sized village but now with a population of two. A sign at the edge of town said “No food or fuel for next 862km”.
In the middle of the second night, we stopped at Port Augusta. I got off the train to stretch my legs, looked up and saw a bright meteor run right down the length of the Milky Way. Early the next morning we arrived in Adelaide.
While we were in Perth we visited the Pinnacles Desert. It doesn’t look far on the map but it takes a few hours to get there. After a long drive north, we stopped at a town called Cervantes just before we reached the Pinnacles. On a white sandy beach by the Indian Ocean, we could see a storm approaching, and soon the rain was battering down.
The rain passed but the skies were still heavy when we arrived at the Pinnacles. Some of them are small, some huge, and they all looked amazing under the dark stormy skies.