One week in the driest place in Europe. Wish me luck…

by Dr Anthony D. Cliffe

I’ve always entertained the thought of myself as being an adventurer at heart. Well he’s hidden away somewhere. That statement will probably come as a surprise to many people who know me as the definition of stoic and unadventurous. It’s true, I mean it wasn’t until last year that I had my first Stir-fry and my version of being adventurous is not taking a bottle of water out with me (total badass I know). So although I’m usually unadventurous in the things I do and eat, from the age of 2 months old I was put on a plane and taken to another country. Thanks to my parents I grew up traveling long distances across the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s hard to not suppress the travel bug when you’ve explored the entire nation of Canada and most of the USA to date. I’m as close as I can be to a seasoned traveller to I guess.

For years I’ve always entertained places to go to, to satisfy my inner need for adventure. Once you fly a plane and the vast openness of the sky is before you, it’s impossible not to imagine just jumping in your plane and heading in one direction and seeing where you come out. Plus, I’ve always been fascinated by Indian Jones type stories and of course my generations version, Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series (Total dude!).  If I could be like anyone it would definitely be a mixture of Alex Rider and Nathan Drake. I guess I still have a long way to go 😛

Although my adventure is looming is not as exotic as say some hidden temple in the Middle East, for me it’s as close as it probably will be. Plus we all know it’s very rare that anything in my life goes to plan so god knows what will happen while I’m away! If someone told me to go to the driest place in Europe, in 28 degree heat and stay in a “shack” with little water and electricity with no bedding and forced to take my own sleeping bag. I’d have looked at them and used some choice words. However as its part of my Masters course, I have no choice.

To many I’m sure, this trip would be quite funny to follow me on a fly on the wall type documentary. It’s as far out of my comfort zone as I can probably place myself. The nearest city is 170 km away, nothing but desert and xerophyte shrubs, government solar instillations and mountain ranges in the way. I don’t particularly do well in heat. I sweat when it’s 13 degrees outside and I drink at least 2 litres of water a day just to stay hydrated. Drop me in 28 degrees and it’s like dropping an ice cube into boiling water. It doesn’t last very long. However after surviving 45 degree weather in Valencia last year (How lucky was I to be in Valencia on one of their hottest ever recorded days) I’m sure 28 for a week will be no problem at all. I’m usually a very placid person in nature; it takes a lot to get me wound up. That is until it gets hot. My poor friend Luke had to sit through a torrent of abuse in a Valencia square when I was adamamet that the cathedral was my way. Even funnier to him, I’m sure, when I started to kick shit out of my bike which got a puncture in 38 degree weather, 10 miles from anywhere. So I do hope that I don’t end up killing anyone while we do some core samples.

So that’s where I’m off to in a few days, the aptly and uninviting name, “The bad lands of Spain”. If anyone wants to know where I am Google Almeria and then travel 170km odd North East of there and somewhere in that mass of mountain ranges is where I’ll be staying.  Practically every Spaghetti western was filmed there, including the Dr Who episode a Town Called Mercy. For the week we’ll be looking at caves, we have special insight into numerous usually restricted government instillations in the desert such as the desalination plant, solar institute (used by NASA) and we get to go into one of the worlds most advanced biospheres were we all have to wear white suits so not to upset the atmosphere. It’s the driest place in Europe but all of your veg in UK winter comes from these biospheres. In fact NASA runs experiments in this place to simulate Mars conditions and how to grow crops there. It’s going to be a pretty fascinating and varied trip.

 At least now I can finally call myself a ‘proper Geographer’ in the eyes of some. Although my degree was a BSc in Geography, I chose mostly Human topics, with a few physical ones to, to earn myself a bachelor of science instead of art, because that sounds gay. For those of you who are unaware of the differences between a human and a physical geographer, let me explain. A physical Geographer is the rugged explorer, the ones who marvel and excel in the outdoors, will climb mountains to count Lichen and marvel at rock formations. A human geographer is the type to excel in SPSS, questionnaires and sit in Café’s eating cakes and making said questionnaire responses up. The reason for this, is in final year, was the last time I went on a ‘Physical’ trip in second year I ended up falling face first down a scree slope, smashing my thigh into a boulder and smashing my Blackberry into tiny pieces. I much preferred getting abuse from the residents of Liverpool airport handing out questionnaires for my dissertation, while others were doing core samples in some windswept area of the country. I suppose at heart I’ve always been a Hybrid Geographer, if you can call it that. Dabbling in both sides of the Geographical Hemisphere.

Now I get to dust off the walking boots, throw some combats on, a lot of Kaki and become a physical geographer for the week.  There are many reasons I’m looking forward to this trip tho. First and foremost, I finally get on a trip that is outside of the country! In my undergrad years, Physical, Natural Hazards and IDS students went to different countries were my only option of abroad fieldwork was an optional trip to New York which I couldn’t afford! So the most exotic place I ever went to was Slapton in first year. Although I’m not knocking Slapton because I don’t think any trip will ever beat Slapton!

That leads me onto number 2. When you go on field work, especially residential fieldwork trips you usually form a really close bond with people you’re working with. I first experienced such a bond in Year 12 when I and my fellow small biology class were subjected to 5 days of torture in the form of Lichen forms 1-5 and the non-stop Commandant Day. Although fieldwork is meant to strike up partnerships, team work etc. through completing tasks, on that field trip to the Lakes we were brought together through the mutual hatred and exhaustion. But it was a brilliant trip, I’m still incredibly proud to be the champion tosser to! I wish we came up with a better name for that game!

When I went to London with A2 Astrophysics and Quantum Mechanics class that bond continued, especially as I’m sure if I saw any of them again in a few years they’ll still mention “I’m just putting it out there” :p.

And of course, when I went to uni, Slapton came about. I know, I know I still haven’t finished those blogs but it was too epic to cram everything into a blog. I’ve honestly never gone to a place and came back a changed man. I met and formed so many close ties and friendships in that place. Literally the people there and they know who they are became some of my best friends and they still make me laugh the crazy bunch. Susan Grace and the Candy Man Is all I have to say. I miss you guys!!

The final thing is it’s going to be one hell of an adventure, in a very harsh landscape, on the go all the time. It’s going to be a big personal achievement to complete the week and I’m sure I’ll have many stories to tell. It’s a brutal and harsh environment but that also makes it incredibly beautiful. I can’t wait to see the stars, untouched native lands, no tourism for over 175km around, I really will be in the middle of nowhere. I hear this place is one of the best places to see stars due to no light pollution for hundreds of miles around, so the astronomer in me cannot wait to see them.

I can’t wait to capture everything on my camera and share the experience with you guys when I get back. It’s going to be fun I’m sure. I’m nervous as hell but excitement is starting to creep in now that I’m just over 14 hours until I depart on my 30 hour journey by Planes, train and Automobiles. I hear the UK weather this week is a bit naff, 28 degrees and sun every day I’ll be in. Nice!

So tomorrow I head to London, then onto Madrid, then onto Almeria and then an hour’s drive over dirt tracks and mountain passes to the field base at Urra. Which is an old abandoned farm house. So sleeping in sleeping bags all week with a lovely selection of snakes to keep us company!

So here I go off on an adventure, it’s an adventure unlike any I’ve ever done before and it’s time to earn that Geography card.  

So hopefully I’ll survive.

If not someone finish off my novel please!

Until next time, I hope you all have a good week and I’ll see you next Tuesday!

Love Tony