For those in the know: Ruta 27 Ch. San Pedro de Atacama ~ Calama ~ Tocopilla, Chile. Date: 16th- 20th December.
I've done enough cycle climbing in the last few days, crossing, then re-crossing all those high hills, what on the map looks like an inability to settle on a country destination. We're looking forward to some flatland for a bit of light relief. So as we leave San Pedro and immediately start right back into an ascent, I put that two hundred metres of gorge down to the geological feature of a 'barancas'. An Andean riverbank, and like so many of the local features, it comes in an exaggerated proportion. It's bound to go flat after this, or so I reason, with some degree of persuasion. Our map is without contours, but with some naming features. 'Llanos de la Patiencia'. When the conquistador's cartographer names it 'Plain of Patience', I assumed he intended some idea of time and space, I assumed it would be a vast, flatland, stretching all the way to the horizon, across which we could sail with ease. Such are the delusional wishes of an oxygen depleted mind. Patience is exactly the virtue that we will need. For the plain is more a wide valley, into which we freewheel and spend the next three hours climbing back out off. All the way back up into thin air country.
With hindsight, I'm not sure why I was surprised. All mountain ranges have foothills, it's part of their design philosophy. There's usually at least two waves of hills before the high tops grow up. When we do eventually crest the top of that never-ending rise, sure enough there's another range of hills lurking, a vague soft haze of an outline, the merest suggestion of mountain. Only I've no idea of their range, of their distance, there's no ready reckoner, no handy scale.
A long, gradual decent, down a wide open scape that could in no way be described as pretty. Not even austere, more a poorly read 'design spec', and a badly calculated quote, for a land restoration job. Then the QS accepted the price. It's as if the ground had been grubbed over with the intention of rehabilitating it, only the squad of agriculture students, or in the modern Kipper parlance, ''damn Polskis steal our jobs'', have yet to start the stone picking. They took one look at it, turned and fled.
Towards Calama this aura of degraded agro-landscape has turned industrialised. Behind us, we can still just make out that outline of iconic cones, those high tops that we had crossed days previously.To front are some striations on those next hill ranges, geometric petroglyphs that suggest manmade and, closer to us, a small forest of poles. Neither are obvious in purpose or intent, size or scale. The latter are the first to offer a solution. After an hour's worth of freewheeling down that vast slope, the sticks sprout propellers. A wind farm. Very prophetic, as by now that afternoon wind has switched on and is steadily increasing. Now the questions are; 'just how big' are these turbines. How strong will the wind get? As always, there is no measuring stick. That is, until a 'Matchbox' lorry climbs out of a depression. The turbine columns instantly elongate into giants.
The wind has now reached that intensity where we're hunting a sheltering culvert or just a few rocks that could be heaped to give some bielding. There's nothing, just the enormity of industrialscape. Yet those blades have the audacity to keep gyrating slowly. Lazily. Metronomically. Hypnotically. Relentlessly churning out the power. When, what I would like to see is a whirling blur of blade, it would be more in keeping with the debilitating headwind.
Having found one measuring stick and achieved a perspective on the wind farm, it's the turn of those scratches on the distant hillside, lurking in a grime of dust. They're no clearer now, nor seem any nearer. Only there now appears to be an orange building, suggesting that the striated scrapes are modern glyphs. Eventually they take on a third dimension, at which point the proverbial penny drops. It's the reason d'être for the town that were heading for. It's a mega-mine, the Chuquicamata copper mine. Those marks are tiered ranks of stacked, flat topped spoil heaps, like giant turned out jelly moulds. Only I have no idea of height, of bulk or of size.
There's a row of haul trucks in the tyre changing bay at the base of one of the bings, but they too require some measuring scale. I need something well understood to give an idea of the enormity of these endeavours. The stats of scale are readily available, but they too are virtually meaningless. What does six hundred thousand tonnes look like? A steering wheel five metres from the ground? The standard in these instances is to equate to football pitches or the London omnibus, probably not too relevant nor readily available in this instance. What I really need is a person to climb out from a cab, and walk past a tyre, but I suspect he would be shrunk down to gnomic proportions. Anyway, this is a fully mechanised world, where walking is dangerous.
My initial reaction to measuring a scale was to start counting the 'mine traffic'. Ignoring the convoys of shift change buses, concentrating on the red king-cab pick-ups. That's 'Utes to Aussies' and camionettas to Latinos. They're always red, this in a land where auto paint comes in a choice of white or variants on white. Red with a day-glo yellow stripe, roll bars, wheel chocks, fire extinguisher and the tethered flexi-whip light stick. It's the uniform. I start my count, but whilst stopped at a set of traffic lights, I soon give up. We're surrounded by seventeen red pick-ups. Then passing the airport there's a stance of near concentrated red pick-ups, at first glance I assumed it to be a pound of imported trucks. No, it's just the pay and display car park. Eventually I get some scale on those tyres. Two are stacked one upon the other, they out-top a standard steel box container. That's a tread width of an adults' full arm span. Yet, still the enormity of the enterprise is hard to comprehend visually, in part, as the low morning light is diffused by the murk of monochromatic dirt. At one point I get a view of a haul truck below my vantage point, it's a ghostly silhouette. I try a photo', but nothing shows up on the screen.
So I turn to the incidental societal measurements. The small indicators that start to explain a story, that quantify the mega-mine effect. The mall in town, that could be an 'anyplace, anywhere mall'. That comes with generic sports shoe shops, Italian designer leatherware, palettes of cosmetics, and inflated prices. The sole dictator of nationality, the prevelance of the national bank's cash dispensers. So in the interests of investigation, we venture into the DIY store. Pure déjà vu, if you've ever been required to shop in a B+Q or a Home Depot store. The lay out is identical, right down to the position of the paint mixing desk. Next up is the electronics store, for yet another tablet charging cable. Success. Happy Editor. And finally the supermarket for those wee luxuries that never seem to materialise in the dark cave that is Puna kiosk. Ciabatta olive breads. Pan de Pasqua. Deli goodies. Happy Forager. Stepping from this rarefied, anonymous world, you would expect to encounter a stance of yellow and black taxis, and as a pedestrian I would anticipate being plagued with offers of a ride. No waspish taxis. Everybody has a vehicle, everybody drives. Just another measure that leads to the conclusion, "no mine....no mall".
Finally, I play my alter ego role of amateur anthropologist, noting the scatter of bottled-beer crown-caps by the roadside. Exclusively imports. Sols from Mexico, Coronas from Spain, even sub continent Indian Cobra/ Kingfishers. What's missing are the cheap ring pulled tins of the local generic brews. For me they all taste the same, but then that's not the purpose of a bottled cervesa in today's image-orientated culture.
Only we'll not be free of the mega-mine's influence for some time. That impression of industrialised desert will last until we reach the Pacific Coast two days later. We'll have the company of six giant pylon lines, augmented by two poled rows of fibre optics. For much of the time the road will be surrounded, crowded in by all this electricity emanating out of the power plant at Tocopilla. A place that comes as a shock, as it comes with primary colours and a light coastal humidity. Our first contact with either for over ten days. Which serves to emphasise the other beauty of a desertscape. It relies entirely on shape and texture to captivate.
I might have some measure for a mega-mine, some scale for a wind farm, but these aridscapes will always thwart measurement. The road is electric, rising when my eye says that it's falling. It's tomorrow's route when instinct suggests its for later this afternoon. It's these elements of non-accountability that make these dry open spaces so attractive. They're so at variance, so contrary to a moist Scot's natural habitat. Then they defy man's great desire to measure., to quantify and so to conquer. They're all the stronger for that.