A walk into the desert

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A view of the desert from Paranal's residencia
A view of the desert from Paranal’s residencia

This is now the 8th night of this run at the Very Large Telescope. I have been observing at Kueyen, the second 8.2m unit telescope (UT2 for friends). At the moment it is equipped with three spectrographs, UVES, FLAMES, and X-Shooter. All nights where good, very stable and quiet. But tonight the wind is blowing strong, from the north. So strong that we had to close down after some hours of operations. The unit telescopes are huge, 400 tons,  earthquake-proof metallic structures, but still you can move them with a finger. They hold a secondary mirror which is about 1.2m in diameter (which is larger than many professional telescopes around the world…). And this is supported by a complex piece of work, which is capable of tip-tilting the mirror, in order to compensate for several effects. Including the vibrations induced by the wind, which is always present here. However, enough is enough. Tonight’s wind is too much, and it could endanger the sophisticated mechanics that make the thing working so nicely under normal conditions. Wind gusts exceed in fact 85 km/h, and the steel structure of the control room, where I am sitting, shakes from time to time (!). Looking at the trend displayed on monitors of Paranal’s ambient server,  it does not look like it is going to get better any time soon. So, I thought I could blog a bit.

While I guess it is clear to everybody why this place is extraordinary during the night (by the way, yesterday evening we received the visit of the Chilean Ambassador of Thailand), it is maybe less evident why this is a fascinating place in daytime too. In fact, it does not happen very often (at least not to Europeans) to be in the middle of a desert, at more than 2000 m above sea level, far from any civilized place. And still be alive. This is probably why, a couple of days ago, after having some breakfast (at 3 pm…), I decided to go for a walk into the desert, in the direction of the coast. From the top of Paranal I had seen two whitish spots, some km from the residencia. They always attracted my curiosity, and this was the time to see what they actually were. So, I set out heading west. After descending a steep hill, I had to cross a shallow slope populated by big stones. Big a with smooth and polished surfaces, suggesting an extremely long exposure to wind and sand. Just beautiful, natural sculptures. I can’t help myself thinking that my father would love to try them… On my way I collect a few samples; a friend of mine has asked me to bring a few for her collection.

After a while I loose sight of the white spots, and I entere an area full of small stones. My steps lift small clouds of dust, which are immediately blown away by the wind, omnipresent in this place. I keep walking at a good pace, but the distances do not seem to get smaller. It must be the effect of the extreme air transparency, which makes things appear much closer than they are. At least to the eyes of somebody used to look at the landscape through moisture and haze, as is the case in continental Europe. The sun shines fiercely on the dry plain, while I keep striding along a straight line. From time to time I see my final destination emerging from behind the irregularities of the soil. The landscape is stunning. If it were not for this metallic blue sky, I’d say I was on the moon (well, maybe one would need to add a few craters here and there). My mouth starts to be dry, and I feel the heat on my face. Jee, I thought it was shorter…

As I walk I try to imagine how it would be like camping for a night in the middle of this plain. The black vault of the sky pierced by the Milky Way stars, the wind, the desert… it must be fantastic. But tonight I can’t ;-) I have to be back around 6pm, for a quick dinner. Then it will be time to leave the base camp for the top. Another night is awaiting…

After about 50 minutes I get to the place. It is not as white as I had imagined. I had thought it was some kind of salt, the residual of evaporation of rare rain. But no, it is a very fine mud. And it does not even taste like salt; it actually does not have any taste at all (erm, yes, I have tried it…). I lay down on a stone and I watch the sky for  while. I know where the residencia is, but it is too far and I cannot make its shape. I start to be carried away… I really feel alone, and I perceive my fragility more than ever, enhanced by the consciousness of where I am. Fortunately the domes of the VLT, high up, give me a reference, a link to reality (!). From here, those telescopes are the only sign I still am on an inhabited planet. If it were not for those manufacts (and what manufacts!), I could easily be on some solitary moon of an unlikely planetary system… I am not sure whether I should laugh or worry about this… Anyway, it is time to get back. And I have now to proceed uphill. Slowly, as I make progress through the colored stones of the plain, I start regaining the link to Earth. And I rejoice at the thought of the reassuring atmosphere I will breath in the residencia. I indeed had not imagined I would feel so deeply alone in the desert… “Cm’on, you speak like you had been alone on a forty days journey across the Arabic desert!” – I can hear my brother’s voice teasing me… Yes, I would probably have the same reaction to somebody telling me this story.

But as I enter the garden of the residencia, I can’t help myself feeling back home. More than ten years ago, when I was here in Chile as a post-doc, I met an Italian man, who owned a small mining plant in Atacama. “The desert is a philosophy” – he told me once. I remember I had not fully appreciated the meaning of that statement. Maybe now I’ve got a glimpse of what he actually meant.

The wind still blows strong and the telescopes keep being closed. There are four hours before the morning twilight. There is still hope to open again…

2 Responses to A walk into the desert

  1. WOW definitely one of the best posts of this blog ever!!! It touched me.

  2. Philip says:

    Superb photo from the Residencia, probably the best observatoria accommodation in the world, after the OHP which has an outdoor swimming pool…
    Which other observatoria have an indoor or outdoor swimming pool?

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