Monday, 25 February 2008

The Moon (Two)

Three weeks ago I was in the far north of Chile. Five days in and around Iquique, a coastal city (industrial port and beach resort) about 1800km north of Santiago, and then five days in San Pedro de Atacama, a small oasis town on the altiplano of the Atacama desert at 2400m above sea level.
The landscape of the north is out of this world, and is thus frequently likened to that of the moon. Flying over it or driving through it, however you witness it it is hard to accept how vast it is. It is like trying to imagine infinity. And in this vastness there is nearly no life.
There is mechanical fuel powered life, the huge trucks and the air-conditioned coaches that plough up and down the Panamericana (the north south road that runs the length of Chile, but more on that later), but they are always on their way somewhere else.
There are occasional signs of other industrial lifeforms, railway tracks and roads connecting mines in the mountains to the coastal ports; electricity pylons.
There is a fair bit of road side detritus, archaeological evidence of recent human presence - coke cans, fanta bottles and plastic bags that will be beautifully preserved in the gasping dryness of the desert.
There are geoglyphs. More traditional archaeological traces of human culture. El Gigante de Atacama is over a 100m tall, a strange rectilinear creature with a four pronged head, he simultaneously manages to appear very ancient and extremely futuristic. Near San Pedro there were llamas barely bigger than hands carved into the rocks, probably marking livestock transport routes.
There are occasional abandoned villages, abandoned after an earthquake, or as a local mining activity ceases to function. There are many reasons to abandon settlements in this environment.
There are occasional microclimates such as the Pampa del Tamarugal, where scrublike hardy vegetation manages to survive on mysterious waters drawn from deep deep underground.
There are very occasional oases. With bougainvillea, lemon trees and fig trees.
It is not really a sandy desert, there are very few smooth and seductive sand dunes. It is a rocky, stony and dusty desert. It is mostly a greyish brown colour, though when the sun is low in the sky it becomes orange, red and pink.
It is a wonderful and terrifying cinema.

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