San Pedro and Bolivian Salt Flats

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Travelling South America
Salt flats covered in water

If you ever get the chance to visit here, DO! 

Luna Valley, San Pedro

Having taken a 23 hour bus from Santiago to San Pedro, I arrived as the sunset over the Atacama desert. Even with the lights of San Pedro, the sky was filled with stars. 

Moonlit sky over San Pedro

San Pedro isn’t the cheapest place to stay because it is located in the middle of the desert and  surrounded by so many tourist attractions, hostels can afford to up their prices. However, whatever you pay, the cost is worth it. The town in very small and basic, with the majority of the buildings in the centre used by the 40+ tour agencies selling exactly the same trips. Although this choice of agencies can be slightly frustrating, it does present a great opportunity for haggling. 

Mountains rising above the ‘main’ street

San Pedro is one of the starting towns for the expeditions across the Bolivian Salt flats. The other options involve starting in Uyuni or Tupiza. The Tupiza option involves a lot of additional driving.

With the surrounding environment of San Pedro being very similar to that over the Bolivian borders. Many of the San Pedro day trips, visit very similar sites to those included in the Salt flat tour. Whilst in San Pedro, I opted for the Valle De Luna tour which takes you to several different stunning landscapes on the Chilean salt flats before finishing at Luna Valley for sunset. 

Las tres Marias
Licancabur volcano
Moulded by the wind over the years

Other trips offered in San Oedro include various astronomy tours to view the spectacular night skies, early morning visits to the worlds largest Geyser field, Sandboarding, and trips into the Atacama desert to see its lakes and weird geological formations. 

Geyser

Whilst the Atacama desert will wow you, the Bolivian Salt flats will absolutely blow you away. The tour involves a lot of time within the car, but stops are frequent and each is as spectacular as the next. 

James flamingos at Laguna Colorada

The three day/two night salt flat tour includes a visit to a small geyser field with magma pools as well as a number of weird and wonderful rock formations located in the vast desert. 

Geothermal pools
Valle de rocas
Laguna Negra
Camel Rock

Another stunning location is the Anaconda Valley, which offers vast views over a small canyon which hosts a slithering green river.

Anaconda Valley

There are also great opportunities to get up close and personal with the local Lamas and, if you’re lucky, they will have been dressed up by locals. Don’t get too close though, the farmers may get angry and the lamas may spit!

Lama fancy dress

The tour includes stops at various multicoloured lakes. These are coloured as a result of the minerals and sometimes bacteria found within them.

Laguna Blanca
Laguna Verde
Laguna Colorada
Flamingo on Laguna Colorada

Most spectacular of all comes on the final day when you make it to the true salt flats, for sunrise. I was lucky enough to time my visit in early April meaning that there was residual water from the wet season. This meant I had the chance for the sky, reflection pictures that everyone wants.

Pre sunrise
Pre sunrise reflections
Reflections on the salt flats
Sunrise
Stunning pastel colours
Almost as awesome in daylight

The rainy season on the flats comes in February and March, so views like this are almost guarenteed at this time of year. However, if there is too much water, many vehicles struggle to make it through the flats to other promised destinations. By timing your trip for the end of the wet season is you get the best of both! Wet ones allowing for reflection pictures and dry ones allowing for the also cliche perspective pictures.

Crushed by a giant foot
Dry salt flats

Before the tour drops you off in Uyuni ready for a warm shower, there is time for visits to a Salt museum, Artisanal market and the train graveyard. 

National flags outside the salt museum
One of the more modern looking trains at the train graveyard (courtesy of graffiti)
Old car at the artisanal market

If you’re interested, I paid 95,000 Chilean pesos for a 3 day trip which included all food and accommodation (one night in a salt hostel), local guide (only spoke Spanish). I also opted to pay the 5,000 extra so that I could pay by credit card. This means if there were any problems I could withdraw the payment. 

Morning silhouettes

For anyone taking this trip I would recommend taking something to protect your face from the dust which, even with the windows closed, can be brutal at times. Also pack lots of warm clothes as early starts expose you to sub zero temperatures before the desert warms up for the day!

Kick about at one of the lunch stops

For more images from the Bolivian Salt Flats check out my album

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X Rays, Oil Spill and The Navy … again!

This entry is part 29 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

Welcome to another week in the life of a British Antarctic Survey scientist! This week’s events include Oil Spill and X Ray training and, with it being an international weekend in the football calendar, I have news from the South Georgian national team’s latest outing.

Lenticular clouds behind a king penguin at sunrise
Lenticular clouds behind a king penguin at sunrise

Living in South Georgia involves all sorts of weird and wonderful training. Part of living in such a small team in such an isolated location involves being prepared for everything, including tsunamis, shipwrecks and fires.

We also play an important role as first responders to any spillages of potentially hazardous chemicals within a manageable size. Obviously, it is necessary for all the team to be familiar with the Emergency Action Plan and know how to deploy all the equipment. So, this month we rolled out all the equipment in order to first control and then clear up a mock oil spill around the King Edward Point wharf.

Oil Spill Training
Oil Spill Training – booms to contain a spill

We are lucky to have a doctor and surgery here on South Georgia. However, there is only so much that Doc can do alone so it is therefore necessary that we are all trained with some level of medical care in order to assist her or, God forbid, treat her if she hurts herself.

This involves intensive training in the UK before deployment, followed by weekly Doc School once down south. On this week’s agenda was X-Raying. Equipment is limited here so our X Ray machine uses film and we must be able to develop the pictures. Our subject for this practice is an old, frozen Gentoo Penguin from the freezer! You’ll be glad to know it had no broken bones.

Lewis X Raying a frozen Gentoo
Lewis X-Raying a frozen Gentoo

The final piece of training for this month also involved a Major Incident Drill for which the Royal Navy provided the mock, unco-operative casualties. The scenario was a shipwrecked fishing vessel full of conveniently non-English speaking fisherman.

HMS Clyde
HMS Clyde
HMS Clyde in front of Grytviken
HMS Clyde in front of Grytviken

After we had saved the lives of all the people worth saving, we took advantage of the good weather to have another game of football.

Team Photo
Team Photo

The game was strongly contended and this Navy team represented a much greater challenge than previous games. Meteorological conditions were perfect in contrast to the pitch, which is made up of mire, bog and rock. This didn’t affect the level of the play, though, with both teams doing what only the true greats can do by adapting their style of play to the conditions.

Late challenges were more down to the boggy playing conditions than anything else
Late challenges were more down to the boggy playing conditions than anything else

With the wind behind them, the home side settled into the conditions more quickly and were soon peppering the Navy goal with shots. Fortunately for the away team, their keeper possessed many cat-like qualities, pulling out some blinding saves for the cameras.

Noone told us they had a cat playing in goal
No-one told us they had a cat playing in goal!

Tackles were flying in all over the pitch, some timed to perfection but mostly horribly late. Less out of maliciousness but more as a result of the bobbly terrain and low fitness levels.

More mistimed challenges
More mistimed challenges

Not even The Cat in goal could put a stop to the “tica taca” passing which lead to the opening goal. The home team’s passing, which can only be compared to Barcelona, tore through the away defence with Cowie eventually finishing the move and slotting the ball under the helpless keeper.

Cowie opening the scoring for the home team after a flowing move
Cowie opening the scoring for the home team after a flowing move

With the first half approaching its climax, the game was interrupted by an almighty scream. Many dived for cover, concluding that the only possible cause of a scream like that could be a shooting and that maybe we were under attack. However, we eventually discovered this wasn’t the case, but it was almost as bad  – the away team’s right back had been tackled by a tuft of grass.

The devonshire ambulance service coming to the rescue - miraculously the casualty walked again
The Devonshire ambulance service coming to the rescue – miraculously, the casualty was able to walk again

With the casualty carried off, the half drew to an uneventful close, allowing the away team to compose themselves.

The photographer was obviously so thrilled by the match they decided to take pictures of the cloud
The photographer was obviously so enthralled by the match, he decided to take pictures of the clouds instead

Revitalised by their half time oranges and cigarettes, the away team came out a changed team and with the help of the wind, restricted South Georgia to their own half. So relaxed was The Cat about the threat to his goal, after a few minutes he opted to have a cuppa. With the help of some valiant defending and some truly abysmal finishing, the home team hung on and seemed to be heading for an unlikely victory.

The cat was obviously not being worked hard enough in the second half
The Cat was obviously not being worked hard enough in the second half

But with the clock ticking away, the home team did what British Teams do so well and crumbled. With what can only be described as a howler by the keeper (who had been kindly donated by the Navy due to uneven numbers) gifting the equaliser to the Navy by fumbling a  shot, which probably wouldn’t have reached the goal, to the feet of their striker to tap in.

Spectators in fancy dress running down to watch the finale
Spectators in fancy dress running down to watch the finale

With only seconds left, the Navy sensed blood. No sooner had the game kicked off again, the ball was rolling out for an away corner. The Navy piled men forward and after an overhit corner was caught wickedly by the wind and thrown on to the crossbar, it dropped into the six yard box. Tired from their intrepid second-half efforts, South Georgia were slow to react and the ball was scrambled into the net.

After a hard fought game spirits were still high and the home team clapped the deserved winners off the pitch
After a hard fought game spirits were still high and the home team clapped the deserved winners (led by their Man Of The Match) off the pitch

It is always good fun to see people from the outside world even when they beat you at football. The HMS Clyde team were no exception to this and we were happy to invite them into the bar for drinks after the big game.

We look forward to their next visit and hopefully a rematch!

King Penguins seeing off HMS Clyde
King Penguins seeing off HMS Clyde

Royal Marines and King Penguin Chicks!

This entry is part 25 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Rainbow at penguin river
Rainbow at Penguin River

What a few weeks! As per usual they have been hectic, but amazing. We were incredibly lucky to be visited by members of the Royal Marines and Navy, who were part of the Antarctic Endurance Expedition team retracing Sir Ernest Shackleton’s footsteps through South Georgia and the Antarctic in 1914-17.

By the time the team reached us, they were on the final leg of their journey, having just completed the four day hike across South Georgia, which Shackleton had crossed 100 years previously to get help for his crew, who were stranded. They had travelled over 3000 miles across some of the most dangerous seas in the world.

Xplore - the yacht used by the team of Royal Marines and Navy personnel
Xplore – the yacht used by the team of Royal Marines and Navy personnel

The team immediately clocked our football pitch on arrival and challenged us to a game at the world famous South Georgia National Football Stadium, an incredibly brave move, considering that we have never lost a match here (we’ve only played one!)

Having been soaked through to the skin by a well-timed South Georgian shower during the national anthems, the game eventually kicked off with the away team kicking down into the bog. With the tempo and quality of play reaching levels never seen before on this famous footballing island, the bog provided players with much appreciated rests.

The spectators, all two of them, were so taken away with what they were seeing, they had to remove themselves from the stadium before they got too carried away! I would like to say that when a game of such beauty and skill as this takes place, the score doesn’t matter, only football is the winner and lots of other clichés, but it’s not every day you get to smash Her Majesty’s finest 6-0 on your your home ground!

 

South Georgia National Football Stadium
South Georgia National Football Stadium – don’t let the appearance of the pitch/players fool you, the standard was sometimes comparable with Brazil (Picture by Sub Lieutenant Emily Kutarski)

Although maybe not footballers, our opponents comprised a group of incredible people and it’s no wonder their mission had been so successful.

 

With the breeding season winding down now, my time has freed up fractionally, meaning I have had a few hours around work to spend time with and appreciate the amazing wildlife and landscape on our front door.

South Georgia Sunrise
South Georgia sunrise from my window

With the king penguins around base now having completed their moult, they are beginning to look quite spectacular. On a rare, bright, still evening, I got myself out with my camera onto the beach and spent a bit of time observing a small group. Every now and then it really hits me how ridiculously privileged I am to be here!

The group had two pairs amongst them who were posturing and calling to each other – I could have watched these majestic animals for hours. However, just because the sun was out, it doesn’t mean it was warm and it wasn’t long before my hands had turned blue and the kettle was calling.

King Penguins posturing in to each other in front of base
King Penguins posturing to each other in front of base
Group of king penguins in front of the South Georgia mountains
Group of king penguins in front of the South Georgia mountains

With scientific work easing slightly, I have also had more time to crew and cox our RIBs and jet boats. Having spent a lot of time on board powerboats before the RIB training, they weren’t too much of a challenge but getting my head around jet boats is another completely different challenge. A challenge which I am loving, I have to say, since it means I get to see more of the island and spend time at sea.

And when you’re on board either sort of boat, you’re never too far from beautiful scenery…

Lyelly glacier from the jet boat during boating activities
Lyelly glacier from the jet boat

 

Neumayer glacier from the jet boat
Neumayer glacier from the jet boat

Incidentally, we do have a small breeding colony of King Penguins accessible to us by foot near King Edward Point at the aptly named Penguin River. Due to the small size of the colony, breeding isn’t often successful, unfortunately. However, on a visit this week, I was happy to find eight new chicks ready to give it a go.

First king penguin chicks at penguin river
First king penguin chicks at Penguin River

All the chicks and their parents seemed healthy and were in full voice throughout my visit despite the poor conditions and I was incredibly happy to see the adults regularly feeding their demanding chicks.

King penguin chicks are being fed well
King penguin chicks are being fed well