La Palma 2001

First trip to the Observatorio Roque de los Muchachos

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Madrid by mistake

Monday, July 30th 2001

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When I got back from Africa I had the biggest sense of culture shock I've ever experienced. I walked around London, bewildered by the buildings, the noise, the lack of friendly conversation, and the pace of life. But I'd barely even unpacked my bags when I found out I'd be hitting the road again within days. My PhD supervisor had applied for time on the Isaac Newton Telescope in the Canary Islands, and he'd been successful, so a week after I'd stepped off the plane from Lilongwe, I stepped onto a plane to Madrid.

My last journey had finished very eventfully, and this one carried on in a similar vein. The flight to Madrid was delayed, and I missed my connection to La Palma as a result. I saw this as an opportunity. I'd never been to Spain before, so I jumped at the chance to see a bit of the capital before heading out to the islands. I got myself booked onto a flight out the next day, and then set out to explore.

I bought a Spanish-language guide book to Madrid. I'd learnt some Spanish in Central America so I was looking forward to practising. I headed for the centre of town and spent the afternoon looking around Madrid, enjoying the 35°C August heat.

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La Palma

Tuesday, July 31st 2001

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In the morning I got a coffee on Gran Via, and then headed back out to Barajas. The flight had been booked so late that I'd had to go business class, which was a whole new experience for me. I got seat A1, and sat back and enjoyed the flight.

Once we'd landed in La Palma I jumped in a taxi and headed straight for the mountain top. We passed through Santa Cruz, the island's capital, took a sharp left and then wound our way upwards. The views over the Atlantic were impressive but pretty soon I wasn't looking anywhere but straight ahead, in a futile attempt to stave off car sickness. The road was twisty but the driver was not into going slowly. We swung left, we swung right, we swung left and right, again and again and again, and I thought that I was going to throw up. I barely held it together, and when we arrived at the observatory after an hour, I staggered out and began to dread the journey back down in five days time.

It was a fantastically clear day. We had an evening spare before our telescope time started, so I went for a walk around the observatory site. At 2400m above sea level, it was cool and fresh, and the altitude was just about noticeable. The moon rose over the barren rocks of the peak, and I was looking forward to doing some proper observing.

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Kalima

Wednesday, August 1st 2001

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It had been incredibly dry and clear when I'd arrived at the mountain top, but while we were familiarising ourselves with the telescope during the afternoon before our run started, the weather sensors were showing that the humidity was steadily rising. Outside, the clear blue skies were turning grey. The cause was the Kalima, a hot wind carrying dust across from the Sahara. By the time the sun set, the atmosphere was so dusty that you couldn't tell where the horizon was.

I thought this would ruin our observations, particularly as it was full moon. But we could still find our objects, and at the huge magnification of the 2.5m telescope, the bright background wasn't really a problem. So we observed. I went out during the night to see what I could see, but only bright stars were shining through the murk.

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Roque

Friday, August 3rd 2001

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The end of a night's observing is always weird. You normally feel pretty tired, and after you've packed up in the control room you're ready to crash. But then you walk outside and it's a bright sunny day, and suddenly you're not tired at all any more. It was pretty disorientating to then go back to the residencia, pull down the light-tight shutters and try to go to sleep.

After our second night's observing, I decided to go up to the very top of the mountain to appreciate the views. The Kalima was blowing hard, and dust and gravel were whipping about. In the distance I could see Tenerife, poking up out of the sea of clouds that covered everything. I was the only person on the mountain top.

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Moonlight

Saturday, August 4th 2001

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We were observing at full moon. Observing with no moon in the sky is normally preferable, but for our purposes it didn't matter too much. It meant that I didn't really see the sky particularly well, but it also made the landscape look interesting and weird at night. Our observations consisted of a never-ending succession of half-hour exposures, so I had plenty of time to go outside and set up night shots.

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Last dawn

Monday, August 6th 2001

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At the end of our final night's observing, the sea of clouds around the islands was blazing orange in the dawn light. It marked the end of a successful run, with only a couple of hours lost due to clouds. I grabbed a couple of hours sleep before our taxi arrived to take us back to sea level, and luckily this meant I was so tired I almost didn't notice how carsick I felt as we twisted and turned back down.

The journey home was uneventful but long. We flew to Tenerife, then to Barcelona, then to London, and so we spent all day in airports. By the time we got back I felt pretty shattered. I didn't know where I'd be travelling next, I hoped it would be somewhere exciting but I also hoped I'd get to stay at home for more than a week before I was off again.

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