Nov 25, 2011 in Atacama 2011


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.


Nov 01, 2011 in Chile


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.

Cerro San Cristóbal

Oct 02, 2011 in Chile

Cerro San Cristóbal

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.

Ice climbing

Sep 25, 2011 in Chile

Ice climbing

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.

At the base of the climb, our guides briefed us. They told us that in all likelihood, the rain of the last few days would have made the upper slopes extremely icy, perhaps too icy to safely climb. We were offered the chance to back out now, because we wouldn’t get our money back if we didn’t make the summit. But we all felt lucky, and we headed into the snows.

We set a good pace up the mountain. My two worries were firstly that I was still slightly suffering from a trapped nerve in my back which made my left leg ache constantly, and secondly that I had had no coffee yet. I ignored both problems with grim determination as we ascended.

We passed some places that I recognised, and it didn’t seem to take very long before we were at the base of the summit cone. It was beginning to get treacherous, and we crossed some tricky sheets of ice. I could see that the guides were getting a bit unenthusiastic, and I wasn’t very surprised when we stopped for a break and they told us they really didn’t think we should carry on. Volcanic gases were pouring out of the mountain just a few hundred metres away from us, but it was a few hundred metres up a 45 degree slope, from which one slip would result in a very unpleasant slide over rough ice. The group consulted, and we decided to take the guides’ advice. Reluctantly we turned around.

Going down was at first much harder than going up. Re-crossing the ice sheets was extremely precarious, but luckily we soon got to the snowy slopes, on which we could take the favoured Villarrica descent method of sitting down, lifting your feet up, and sliding. Before very long we were back at the ski-lift, where the cafe had opened, and I got a life-saving coffee which helped to ease the disappointment of not making the summit.

That evening, back in Pucón, I went down to the lake. Last time, I’d seen occasional flickers of red on the summit of the mountain but this time I was amazed to see a bright red glow constantly shining from the peak. Clearly there was a lot of lava up there. I’ll be back before long to try and see it up close again.

Stormy weather

Apr 26, 2011 in Canada 2011

Stormy weather

It rained almost continuously the next day. I’d planned to explore some outdoor places, but in the end the rain battered down relentlessly and I spent most of the day in cafes looking for breaks in the weather. I wandered towards the Distillery District, which my guide book said was awesome without really explaining why. But it was quite a way from the centre, and the intermittent deluge drove me into so many places en route that I never made it.

I found a food market, in which there was a spectacular choice of maple syrup. I realised here that what is sold as maple syrup in the UK must almost always be mostly flavouring, or else I was getting severely ripped off here, because the tiniest plastic bottle of the stuff here was as much as a decent sized jar in the UK. I bought some anyway, having been advised by a friend to get hold of the dark stuff that you don’t get anywhere else.

I bought some food and coffee in the market, relieved to have broken my severe Tim Hortons addiction that had blown up over the past few days. And then I walked back towards my hostel for the last time, through the sodden streets and the crowds of umbrellas. A thick fog brewed up and when I got to the airport for my flight home I could hardly see the planes on the runway. The weather matched my mood – a fun spontaneous trip was ending, and in the morning I would be back at work.


Apr 25, 2011 in Canada 2011


The next morning I managed to get to Union station in time for the train to Niagara Falls. I still almost got into trouble with a streetcar that stopped short of its normal destination and left me a few minutes away, but I got on the train with a couple of minutes to spare.

The train was going to New York. As it hauled itself slowly out of Toronto I felt that I wanted to be going on a much longer journey than the two hour run to the border. Ontario sped past outside the window, as the bright blue sunshine that had started the day ebbed away and left behind high grey cloud. We passed through towns called Aldershot and Grimsby, and eventually we pulled into Niagara Falls station.

The grey clouds were descending. I walked out of the station, into an empty town. I was coming to one of the most touristy places in the world, but it looked like not many people arrive by train and walk two and a half miles down to the falls. I reached the cliffs above the wide green Niagara River and walked south. Small icebergs in the river floated north.

I didn’t expect much of the falls. I wasn’t even sure why I was going there. I’ve seen some of the biggest and widest falls the world has to offer, and these ones would surely pale in comparison. But then I walked round a corned, and in the distance saw a wall of water thundering over a cliff, and it was breathtaking. I walked on down the road. Spots of rain were starting to fall. I passed the international bridge and wondered if I should pop over to the US while I was here, but I thought that my battered and frayed passport might make it much more hassle than it was worth. I decided to stay in Canada.

The rain got heavier. By the time I reached the falls it was utterly grim, and at the lip of the falls it was even more grim as the spray competed with the rain and made everything twice as wet. I briefly retreated inside a ghastly tourist complex, had a nauseating Tim Hortons doughnut and a coffee, and then decided that whether it was raining or not, I had to get out of there. I walked up into Niagara Falls town. Giant hotels and casinos lined the streets. I was thinking of going up an observation tower, but the top of it was in the clouds. I walked randomly until I got to a place downstream of the falls where I could look over the rushing river with the massive horseshoe bite taken out of it.

The rain eased off and I walked back to the falls. In spite of the horrible commercialisation and the horrible numbers of tourists, they were impressive. I watched the water powering over the precipice for a while, wondering why humans like waterfalls enough to build grotesque tourist empires next to them.

Then the rain started falling again, and I headed back up to the station. Clouds clung to the sides of the river valley, and icebergs drifted by. The bus back to Toronto fought its way through the downpour and at one point the driver had to ask a passenger to wipe the condensation off his front window. Wet to the skin, I trudged back to where I was staying.


Jan 08, 2011 in Luxembourg 2011


I went to Luxembourg on a whim. I’d kind of been there before, passing through at the age of six on the way from the UK to Switzerland. But it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea what the place was like, would not recognise a picture of the place if I saw one, and yet it was only 300 miles away and very easy to get to.

So I bought some Eurostar tickets, and a couple of days later I headed off. A high speed journey took me to grey rainy Brussels in less than two hours. I got a coffee and pastry for breakfast in Midi station, then got on the much slower train to Luxembourg. The clouds cleared and the sun was shining as we passed through the snowy forests of the Ardennes.

It was cloudy again when I got to Luxemboug. I can’t imagine ever getting bored of arriving in a place I’ve never been to before, especially one so close to home but so completely obscure to me. I was in a good mood as I walked out of the station and into the city. I walked randomly towards the centre, crossed a soaring bridge over the Pétrusse valley, and then found myself on the Corniche, a narrow road along a cliff edge over the Alzette valley. The deep valleys and steep cliffs were pretty impressive and already I was wondering why I’d never, to the best of my recollection, seen even a single photo of this town.

Later, as the sun was setting, I went to the ruined fortifications of the city and headed up to some viewpoints. The city lights were coming on, and the scene was, I thought, pretty awesome. I was glad I’d made the effort to come here.

La Laguna

Oct 27, 2010 in Tenerife 2010

La Laguna

I spent a few days in La Laguna. Last time I’d been here it had been cold, wet and misty, but this time it was sunny and quite warm. I stayed in the centre of town and walked each day down to the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, where the meeting was being held. I liked the town and thought I’d probably quite like to live here one day.

I was interested to see a sign one morning advertising a demonstration for independence for the Canary Islands. I was disappointed to find I’d missed it by a few days – I’d have loved to see what the independence movement was like. If they ever secede from Spain it will be nice to have a new country to visit.

Terminal 3

Oct 23, 2010 in Tenerife 2010

Terminal 3

As an astronomer I have travelled to the Canary Islands many times. Right from the first trip I liked them a lot. Some of the touristy bits are pretty horrible but a lot of the islands are wild and remote. A meeting about a subject I was very interested in gave me the opportunity to visit the islands once more.

My flight was very early. Somehow it often seems to me that it’s a better idea to stay up all night than to get just a few hours of sleep, so I went out, got back late, packed up and then headed for Heathrow. It seemed like a good idea at the time but I was unbelievably tired by the time I got to the airport. I got to terminal 3 long before sunrise, and in my exhausted state I decided that the purple lighting and sixties architecture looked quite cool.

A Coruña

Sep 13, 2010 in Santiago de Compostela 2010

A Coruña

Everyone except me was flying back home from Santiago’s airport. I am prepared to go to great lengths to avoid flying with Ryanair, and so I’d booked a slightly more expensive flight from A Coruña. It at least gave me a chance to see another place, so I headed out after I’d said goodbye to everyone.

A Coruña is much bigger than Santiago. It felt far less touristy and far more like a big city. I walked through the hot streets from the station into the city centre. One very cool thing about the city is that it’s surrounded by the sea and has beaches right in the city centre. I went and sat one one for a while, making the most of the September sunshine.

I walked on to the main square, which was grand and impressive. But I’d spent too long on the beach and I didn’t have time to make use of one of the cafes here. I thought I should probably come back some time. I got the bus to the airport, and even though my flight was then delayed by several hours, I did not regret continuing my Ryanair boycott.