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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Crossing the Atacama Desert

On 21 July I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, a small town in northern Chile founded by the Spanish over 400 years ago. San Pedro is a real oasis in the centre of the Atacama Desert, parts of which have never recorded rain!

This was winter time in the southern hemisphere, and although the sun was very strong in the middle of the day, the bigger problem was to keep warm after dark. The organisers supplied tents at night and water at each checkpoint, while competitors had to carry their own food for seven days, plus sleeping bag, clothes, and all personal gear.

We started by being driven up to Machuca, a desolate village at 13,500 feet with a simple but attractive church. We were all cold, as it was probably -10°C in the early morning. The first day we did multiple crossings of the Rio Grande River, very cold and challenging on one’s feet!

Technically the event is a race, but my objective was simply to walk and try to enjoy the experience. But on each of the first two days the course was 40km+ and so I didn’t finish until after dark.

Days 3 and 4 were very tough. These sections were over exceedingly rough salt flats, like a partially frozen over-ploughed field – no chance of moving quickly lest you twist an ankle.

Day 5 was a ‘double-day’ – 75kms. The scenery was spectacular – in the distance we could see snow-covered extinct volcanoes on the border with Bolivia. In the meantime we were traversing the aptly named ‘Valley of the Moon’ and ‘Valley of Death’, plus the odd monster sand dune to punish us further...

This section took me 25 hours including a few hours’ sleep out on the course. The good news was that other than three small blisters my feet remained intact. The final day was a mere 12km walk to join a victory party back in San Pedro. Only 92 participants out of 132 completed the whole course.

Was it worth it? Absolutely – as I knew every challenging kilometre was attracting more donations to CHAS, the Children’s Hospice Association Scotland!