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  Field Notes From
Atacama Desert

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Atacama Desert On AssignmentArrows

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From Photographer

Joel Sartore

Atacama Desert On Assignment

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From Author

Priit J. Vesilind

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Dennis Dimick (top) and Jodi Cobb


Atacama Desert

Field Notes From Photographer
Joel Sartore
Best Worst Quirkiest
    I was able to call home several times using a Stratos satellite phone. It was the first time I was able to talk to my wife and young children on a regular basis from half a world away. It sounded like I was right next door. This one thing helped keep all of us in good spirits for the month I was gone. The sat phone turned out to be one of the best new technologies to come along during my entire career at National Geographic.

    There's not much in the way of rain or plant life, so every scar humans leave in the desert stays there for hundreds of years, if not longer. Man's impact can be seen everywhere, from sets of tire tracks defacing the valley floors to the huge plume of brownish black soot coloring the ground for miles around Chuquicamata, the world's largest open-pit copper mine, near Calama, Chile. It's left a hole so big some people say you can see it from space. Pollution is everywhere these days, but it really stands out in the desert.

    I covered this ghost town with a cemetery that had been looted many years ago. There are several of these desecrated sites in the Atacama. And since there's never any rain to decompose anything, once the tombs are opened, the bodies are visible even decades later. The weirdest moment was shooting through the tomb of someone who had died a hundred years ago, looking out across a pair of turn-of-the-century boots still on the feet of the person who was buried in them. (See pages 70-71 in the August NGM.)

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