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Stars, Desert & Gasping

Posted on October 17, 2016 at 5:15 PM Comments comments (0)

9 March 2016

I've blundered around in the dark in all kinds of places to get night-sky shots, but this was the trickiest - an area of volcanic formations known as Los Monjes de la Pacana, high in the Chilean Atacama, near the Bolivian border and a good 100km from any kind of town.  This meant a 200km+ round-trip on dramatic mountain roads in the dark, dodging half-asleep truck drivers on switchbacks with big drops on either side. The rental car's engine really didn't like the thin air much either. 

The area around Los Monjes offered relatively easy off-road driving (we had a tough pick-up) when we visited in daylight a day or two earlier, but I knew it would be way too tricky after dark. I had however spotted an unsigned dirt track leading to a parking area with some photogenic rocks nearby, and this is what I used after dark. I had planned to do a long photo shoot with various rock formations, but ultimately I could barely breathe, couldn't see much despite my potent torch, and would have got myself into a world of trouble if I'd explored any further.

I had a little trouble breathing as the altitude is about 4,500m / 14,700ft. There's plenty of oxygen in the air but there's something about the change in pressure that provokes a physical reaction which varies wildy from person to person, regardless of fitness, weight, health, etc. Every few minutes, I'd have a long asthma attack and have to squat and will it away.

Despite the pitch blackness, the gasping and the cold, I managed a few ok shots but didn't have the heart to make a long, technical session of it. I'd found my way from the car to the rock formation by logic, memory and a bit of torchlight. Those processes let me down on the way back. After a lot of trudging, I couldn't work out if I'd undershot or overshot the tiny scrape of a car park, and every scree slope looked the same. Aside from the odd truck rumbling past in the distance, it was a thoroughly lonely spot. 

I had at least learned the sky so used a bit of celestial navigation. I went far enough north to make sure I was nowhere near the car, then headed west 'til I hit the highway and south 'til I picked up the dirt track to the parking space, periodically stopping to get my breathing under control.


I was frustrated that I couldn't make more use of this amazing place so far from home but sometimes reality and hypoxia bite.

The picture shows one of the Los Monjes formations with the Milky Way, Southern Cross and both Magellanic Clouds. 

The Mach Loop

Posted on October 14, 2016 at 2:20 PM

12 October 2016


I made my fourth trip to the Mach Loop in mid-Wales, at the southern end of Snowdonia near the towns of Machynlleth and Dolgellau. The rugged landscape with its characteristic crags, tarns and winding valleys is used by the RAF and other air forces for low-level flight training. A surface-to-air missile can't nail you if you're skimming the telegraph poles and hiding behind mountains.


Compared to other military training areas, the Mach Loop offers a relatively predictable flight-path with narrow, steep-sided valleys that give hardy photographers a close-up and top-down vantage point. At some points on the loop, a 300mm lens and a steady pair of hands can get you a frame-filling shot of a fast jet with the ground rushing by beneath it.


All of which explains why these bleak hillsides are so improbably popular with serious and not-so-serious photographers, not to mention tourists from around the world who make long detours to take a look.


Like others, however, I've learned that it is not on the whole a thrill-a-minute experience. While there are occasional red-letter days which see numerous and varied aircraft perform for the cameras, the overall air traffic has diminished now to the point where days with a couple of passes or none at all are common.


The Mach Loop is, after all, not a public service. While the loop may have been busy from dawn 'til dusk during the Cold War, there are now far fewer military aircraft in circulation and what remain are often deployed abroad. The most frequent visitors are trainee fighter pilots in glossy black Hawks from RAF Valley on Anglesey. Photogenic as they are, snapping them feels like going on a safari trip and seeing lots of buffalo when you really want to bag a leopard or lion. The whole enterprise is a little like serious wildlife photography, involving as it does hours or even days of enduring the elements in order to catch a fleeting glimpse of something shy, rare and very quick.


There is a friendly community of hardy spotters, shutter-geeks and other obsessives on the hillsides, which can take the edge off the empty hours. Even so, I think I've done my time and come to the end of my limited patience, particularly as it's 200 miles from home and not on the way to anywhere but the Irish Sea.


I've put in five full days over several years, sometimes getting up before dawn to travel in, park before the car parks fill and slog up a hill to be ready for the first pass. I've learned that it is nigh impossible to establish what - if anything - is coming your way on a given day. If you plot up near the serious enthusiasts equipped with scanners and smartphones that, unlike mine, can find a 4G signal up there, you might get a short-term heads-up for aircraft coming your way from wherever they're based. But long-term intel is untrustworthy and the MoD's own guidance is essentially a work of fiction.


I picked this week to go as there was a full-on, combined-arms operation planned for Llanbedr, 20-or-so miles away, and the weather was pretty good for wild-west Wales in October. From my preferred vantage point on Cad West, this made little difference. I saw three Hawks, one Tornado and not a glimpse of the Typhoons, Apache, Chinook and MC-130 involved in the war games. I might have snapped the choppers had I gone to my second favorite vantage point at the Bwlch, but its car park was full to the brim by 0715. I got some ok pics and I've had worse days, but it just taught me that in trying to pick a perfect day to go, I may as well have read tea-leaves or chicken entrails.


I've compiled some of my Mach Loop pics on Flickr, omitting the ones from my first ever trip which were poor due to weather, cheap kit and borderline hypothermia.

If you're patient and want to see and perhaps photograph something unique, it may be worth a trip. If you see nothing, don't say I didn't tell you so. If you see a lot of spectacular and rare fast jets, I absolutely do not want to know.