Drama in the driest place on Earth

Photo of Mark Thornton

Our travel writer recounts a life-threatening and altering experience for his daughter in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

This is Part 2 of Mark Thornton’s coverage of how his daughter and her partner’s dreams came true on a trip to the vibrant, rugged South American country...


Chile’s Atacama Desert is a 1000km-long plateau with an altitude averaging 3000m and a backdrop of the Andes Mountains rising above 6000m. 

It is the driest place on Earth and its dusty, barren landscape is often compared with that of Mars. 

Yet it is the third most visited tourist attraction in the country, probably because the scenery is so starkly unique.

Getting there is not that hard. A bus from Santiago takes about 22 hours and costs only about $50. 

But while reaching the desert was one of their main aims in Chile, my daughter Alex and her partner Jeremy took the slow way north, visiting the wide variety of cities and towns, sightseeing and absorbing the Latin American culture along the way. 

They took a series of buses to Calama, the biggest town on the edge of the desert, and hired a car for $80 per day with two friends, a Spanish woman named Noa and Bella, a New Zealander. There are numerous tour bus operators that take organised groups into the desert but you have to go where they think you want to go. Having a car made more sense and with four people contributing it was cheaper than individual tour prices.

“As we drove east into the desert the scenery became increasingly stark and strange,” Alex wrote to me. “Yet we found ourselves stopping every 15 minutes to examine some new aspect of the landscape, while on the eastern horizon the snow-covered Andes Mountains loomed.

“The scale of the land was so big that even as we drove towards them the mountains, notably a 5900m-high volcano named Mt Licancabur on the border with Bolivia, did not seem to get any bigger. The name means “Mountain of People” in the indigenous Kunza language and the locals regard it as sacred and discourage climbers. Its summit contains a crater with one of the highest lakes in the world.”

About 100km east of Calama they reached San Pedro, a small town of about 5000 that grew quietly over many centuries around an oasis before becoming a centre for tourists wanting to experience the desert. Nearby is the Valley of the Moons with spectacular sand and stone formations eroded over millennia by wind and water that look, well, moon-like. “Much of the area had mounds that resembled scorched meringues,” Alex observed, noting that much of the region had not received rain for more than 100 years.

The whole region is noted for its extreme dryness. In 2003 a team of scientists duplicating tests used by the Viking 1 and Viking 2 Mars landers could find no evidence of any life in the desert soil, declaring the region unique on Earth. 

Their tests matched the lowest humidity measurements taken by NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory at the Gale Crater on Mars. 

The desert owes its extreme aridity to a constant temperature inversion due to the cold north-flowing Humboldt ocean current, and the presence of high atmospheric pressure formed by the Pacific anticyclone creating an ever-present rain shadow. 

Scientists now believe the desert may be the oldest, continuously arid desert on earth, having experienced extreme hyperaridity for at least three million years. The desert occupies 128,000sqkm making it about twice the size of Tasmania. Most of it consists of stony terrain, sand and ancient lava flows. However, unexpectedly there are some small, very cold pools with 38 per cent salt not only making them saltier than the Dead Sea but also preventing them from freezing.

Jeremy wrote: “Everywhere you look is incredible. We found a whole lot of nothing, yet everything all at the same time. Such vast landscapes; epic mountains line the horizon, freezing pools yet also boiling hot geysers. And then there were the epic sunsets followed by the seemingly endless sky filled with countless stars.”

Jeremy took a photograph of Alex in one of the salt pools, known for a small population of flamingos — there were two visible in the distance that day. Despite the water temperature the photo shows her in a state of absolute bliss in a wonderful landscape. The next day they visited another local highlight, the geysers of El Tatio, roughly translated as “The Grandfather”.

There are more than 80 active geysers and the best time to see them is at sunrise when each one is topped by a column of steam formed by condensation in the bitterly cold early morning air at the altitude of 4200m. On the day Alex’s party visited the temperature was minus 23C. You don’t see great roaring columns of water as with the US Yellowstone National Park geysers, but the steam plumes are impressive and worth a visit.

Later that day Alex complained of stomach cramps. At first she and the others thought the pain was due to swollen bellies they all had, caused by low pressure at the high altitude, so she dismissed it. 

The next day the team went on a guided astronomy tour just outside San Pedro. Thanks to the dry climate and clear air, star gazing in the Atacama is exceptional and through the telescopes provided the friends were able to see a brilliant array of stars and our own planets, including the rings of Saturn.

The next night Alex doubled over with severe abdominal pain. This could not be ignored so they took her to a small hospital in San Pedro at 3.30am where a paramedic gave laxatives. These didn’t work so they returned at 8.30am to see a doctor, who prescribed stronger laxatives. Still no result and the pain was worse so they packed the car and drove to Calama where their insurance company assured them was a good hospital.

At first the woman on reception was reluctant to admit her at all. Then a doctor appeared and thanks to Noa translating the exchange, the staff agreed to admit Alex provided she gave them $US6000 up front in cash or cheque. Thanks to good planning Alex and Jeremy had the best travel insurance on the market but this meant nothing to the hospital staff. Alex had neither cash nor a cheque book and the hospital wouldn’t accept Jeremy’s credit card. The staff argued for 90 minutes with Alex writhing in pain but wouldn’t admit her. Then something Noa said must have changed their minds and Alex was finally admitted.

A series of examinations followed with inconclusive results until a scan revealed something was awry with her abdomen. Surgeon Dr Ivan Vergara was called and he decided exploratory surgery was necessary to see what the problem was. The scans were inconclusive but indicated something was seriously wrong.

After the earlier hassle about the need for upfront payments before anything would be done, Dr Vergara said: “I don’t care about the money, my priority is the patient and she clearly needs help.”

Alex told me: “Dr Vergara literally saved my life. I was experiencing the most excruciating pain of my life, listening to doctors, nurses and my loved ones argue about what to do (in Spanish), not being able to contribute as I was unable to move let alone talk, so felt Dr Vergara was the epitome of clarity and sense, the white knight who rode into the story when all seemed lost, and made things happen.

“I was prepared for surgery and the last thing I remember was a doctor saying in perfect English: ‘Do you feel OK? (I did) I’m going to give you a general for this.’”

Alex was told the surgery took 3 1/2  hours. “The issue was a toxic megacolon, and 91cm of my large intestine was removed. It became inflamed due to my being at high altitude. After waking from surgery I had a few minutes where I thought am I dead? Then I began to feel some sensations and realised I was alive and the surgery was over. I was in hospital for the next eight days. In my room were my partner Jeremy and friend Noa. It was so wonderful to see their smiling, relieved faces. Someone told me the surgery had gone really well, and for me to rest.

“I was so weak and nervous at first that my digestion wouldn’t work. But gradually I was able to eat normally. Food never tasted so good. However, the main thing was being able to drink water. I will never take water for granted again. Being a marine biologist stuck in a hospital in the middle of the desert felt extremely claustrophobic and I longed for the sea. Every night I dreamed of swimming in the ocean and I realised that not only was I healing physically but had to heal mentally as well. Thinking about David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 helped keep me sane and took me to the ocean where I longed to be.

“A couple of days later my dear friend Noa decided to continue on her journey. I can never have enough words to express my gratitude to her. Having only known me for a short time, she selflessly stayed with us, taking care of me, helping to translate and make sure I got the care I needed. She truly is an angel walking among us. My mother flew over from Australia to be with me, which I feel so grateful for. There’s just something about having your mum there and I am fortunate to have such a friend in her as well.

“I was discharged after eight days. Ultimately, despite the hassles, the experience demonstrated the importance of having good health insurance — I dread to think how we would have coped without it.

“Looking back, it was unfortunate our trip had to be cut short so soon, however, I don’t regret anything that we experienced and feel a stronger person for it. It was an absolute nightmare at the time, but I knew that the people I had around me taking care of me were going to do the best they could to see that I was OK.

“Experiences like this really teach one sometimes to trust in fate. I was fortunate enough to be well taken care of and have healed in the best way possible. I have a permanent souvenir of a large scar on my abdomen that I would have thought I would not like but now I see it as the symbol of the operation that saved my life. After a few months of recovery and rehab with family, I am headed to Port Douglas to be with the ocean and the reef. Who knows — maybe we’ll pick up where we left off and head back to South America.”


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