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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Scenery

This entry is part 37 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

South Georgia is absolutely incredible for rich and diverse wildlife, this is something we all know. What makes it that little bit more special than other places of this nature is the breathtaking scenery all around you wherever you go. With wildlife sightings currently at their lowest around base, I took a bit of time to photograph the landscapes.

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Sunset in Cumberland Bay

Almost as spectacular as the landscape are the skies now that the days are getting lighter again: sunset and sunrise are falling perfectly in time with the beginning and end of work. We have also been witness to some amazing lenticular cloud formations in recent weeks.

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Lenticular clouds at sunset over King Edward Point Research Station

Even with wildlife sightings down around base, I am still making the weekly trips to Maiviken to see the few lingering Antarctic Fur Seals. Its very rare that I make the commute and don’t get my camera out, even if only my phone (like the two below). I must have a thousand pictures of my route by now, but it’s not one I ever want to forget!

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Phone shot of the commute back from work

Our numbers have recently dropped with the loss of our lead boatman, who has headed back to the equally as spectacular Essex. His loss means that there is a much greater demand for the rest of us to take out the boats.

'Three Brothers' mountains behind the Neumayer glacier
‘Three Brothers mountains behind the Neumayer glacier

An out of character spell of calm weather has allowed me to rack up some hours of training in recent weeks on board the Jet boats. I have been training at night time navigation – during the day! Our boating officer, Russ, used a very high tech training methodology of putting cardboard on all the windows and making me navigate only using the GPS equipment. When I eventually stepped outside, the day and the view was pretty stunning (see above).

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Big old chunk of blue ice

We have also had lots of time training with our Fisheries Patrol vessel, practicing ‘at sea transfers’.

Coming alongside the fisheries patrol vessel in the jetboat
Coming alongside the fisheries patrol vessel in the jetboat

 

Finally, myself and another team member, took the short commute across to Grytviken, for a night away from base. The weather was too good to stay indoors so we headed out with a flask of mulled wine and watched the almost full moon rise over Mount Duse and the derelict remains of Grytviken whaling station.

Camping trip to Grytviken
Camping trip to Grytviken
Moon Rising over the old Whaling ship 'Diaz
Moon Rising over the old Whaling ship ‘Diaz
Petrel Whaling Ship in the mooinlight
Petrel Whaling Ship in the moonlight

IMG_3322After a bitterly cold night, we were woken by a nosy neighbour at the front door, trying to get in to steal our warmth. A snowy sheathbill was wading through the snow in order to check if we had left any scraps. Unfortunately, we disappointed!

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Snowy Sheathbill in front of our tent in the morning
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Snowy Sheathbill in the snow

Greene Bay Adventure

This entry is part 20 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

This week it was time to go and check my Southern Giant Petrel chicks. This involved an overnight trip to the Greene Peninsula and a quick hike to Harpon. I am sure you will be glad to know that both colonies seemed to be doing well. There are lots of healthy looking chicks around, many of which are so large they can now protect themselves  – which means they have kicked both adults off the nest to forage!

Large Southern Giant Petrel Chick on the Greene Peninsula, South Georgia
Large Southern Giant Petrel Chick on the Greene Peninsula, South Georgia

Because there is only ever one adult on the nest, you don’t necessarily see both parents. So I was delighted to find two more white morph Southern Giant Petrels on the Greene, taking the total up to three.

White Morph Giant Petrel in flight over the Greene Peninsula
White Morph Giant Petrel in flight over the Greene Peninsula

Incidentally, did you know that the word petrel comes from Peter from the story of St Peter, who walked on the water, and it refers to their take-off strategy which involves running across the surface of the water.

White Morph Giant Petrel in flight in front of adult and chick on the Greene
Another White Morph Giant Petrel in flight, this time in front of an adult and chick on the Greene

After an evening of monitoring, we headed back to our accommodation (a tent for me) to rest up, have some food and take in the spectacular moon rise.

Moonrise over the Greene Peninsula
Moonrise over the Greene Peninsula

We awoke with big ambitions for the day and with the weather gods apparently smiling down on us, we set off along Morraine Fjord to the second Greene Giant Petrel colony.

View out of Moraine Fjord over an Elephant Seals back
View out of Moraine Fjord over an Elephant Seal’s back

This is a much smaller colony (only 20 birds), although seemingly just as successful, and in my opinion, the birds should pay extra for the view since it’s situated with the stunning backdrop of the Harker and Hamburg Glaciers!

Southern Giant Petrel in front of the Harker Glacier
Southern Giant Petrel in front of the Harker Glacier

With the work complete, we set off on a bid to circumnavigate the entire Greene Peninsula. Our first big climb was long and up horrible scree slopes but every time you gained height and turned around, you got progressively better views of the spectacular glaciers. The need to take almost the same picture time and time again as we climbed meant that the going was often slow but we eventually made it.

View across to the Harker Glacier from the Greene
View across to the Harker Glacier from the Greene
You can understand why we had to stop for lots of pictures... Stunning view of both Hamburg and Harker Glacier
You can understand why we had to stop for lots of pictures… Stunning view of both Hamburg and Harker Glacier

Once over the saddle and onto the east of the island, we lost the views of the Harker and Hamburg but it wasn’t long before we had the Nordenskjold glacier in our sights. The sheer size of this thing is mind-blowing. Flows of ice span as far as you can see from the surrounding hills down over the sea.

First views of the Nordenskjold Glacier with some numpty stood in the way!
Glorious view of the Nordenskjold Glacier with some numpty standing in the way!

As we clambered down to its edges, its size and colours became more and more impressive and as the sun weaved through the clouds and reflected through the ice, shades of blue I didn’t even know existed started to appear! Then, to top the experience off, a pair of snow petrels circled overhead before heading up into the mountains. As clichéd as it may sound, “magical” is the best word I can think of to describe the experience.

View across the Nordenskjold glacier to the sea
View across the Nordenskjold glacier to the sea
Glacier as far as you can see over the South Georgian Mountains
Glacier as far as you can see over the South Georgian Mountains

Taking our time to absorb all of the landscape, we slowly made our way down past ice caves and rock slides to the glacier’s face. A selection of wildlife awaited in the sea for calving ice to disturb prey species and aid foraging. This included several more Snow Petrel although, as per usual, they sat just out of good photo range. I need to have a word with their agent!

View of some scree covered ice caves at the Glaciers edge
Although they look like rock, these are actually ice caves at the glacier’s edge. The ice here has a thin coating of rocks and scree
Shades of blue -looking across the face of the Nordenskold Glacier
Shades of blue  – looking across the face of the Nordenskold Glacier

The final third of the walk involved scrambling over pebble beaches away from the Nordenskjold. Beaches tend to have the highest congregations of wildlife on South Georgia, meaning there were lots of opportunities to practice taking the perfect South Georgia shot: wildlife, glaciers, sea and mountains all in the frame and no need to use Photoshop!

Elephant Seals on the Greene Peninsula in front of the Nordenskjold Glacier
Elephant Seals on the Greene Peninsula in front of the Nordenskjold Glacier
Group of King Penguins on the Greene beach in front of the Nordenskjold glacier
Group of King Penguins on the Greene beach in front of the Nordenskjold glacier

Sadly every beach you visit around South Georgia, you are constantly reminded of the devastation that man can cause. Coastlines are scattered with the remains of the whales and seals which were harvested until near extinction.

The remains of a once majestic animal on the Greene beach
The remains of a once majestic animal on the Greene beach

Not wanting to end the blog on a low note, the trip had one last surprise, well in fact five of them. These came in the form of very obliging chinstrap penguins resting at various points along the Greene coastline. As per usual with ‘cuddly’ penguins, fighting and scrapping was observed but sadly, despite their best efforts, no flying.

Displaying Chinstrap Penguin on Greene beach
Displaying Chinstrap Penguin on Greene beach
Close up of a pair of Chinstrap Penguins on the beach
Close up of a pair of Chinstrap Penguins on the beach
Chinstrap penguins fighting as per usual
Chinstrap penguins fighting as per usual
Chinstrap Penguin attempting to 'fly'
Chinstrap Penguin attempting to ‘fly’

The work wasn’t completed there fortunately. The morning after my return from the Greene, myself and Lewis, the fisheries biologist here, set off for the Giant Petrel colony at Harpon. Last time we made the trip in deep snow and with company it took 4.5 hours, so we were ready for a long trek; but apparently we are both getting fitter because we were drinking tea in Harpon Hut 1 hour 50 mins later.

The Harpon colony is made up of 25 birds, which so far have a healthy productivity.

View from Echo Pass to the Neumayer Glacier and Harpon
View from Echo Pass to the spectacular Neumayer Glacier and Harpon
Southern Giant Petrel chick in front of the Lyell Glacier
Southern Giant Petrel chick in front of the Lyell Glacier