Magazine article Geographical

Out of the Classroom and into the Andes: In an Effort to Rekindle His Passion for the Physical World, Geography Teacher Peter Lewis Swaps an Inner-City School in Birmingham for the Chilean Andes

Magazine article Geographical

Out of the Classroom and into the Andes: In an Effort to Rekindle His Passion for the Physical World, Geography Teacher Peter Lewis Swaps an Inner-City School in Birmingham for the Chilean Andes

Article excerpt

The sun has only just risen, but already I can feel its warmth. A white-sand beach curves away into the distance, a solitary set of footprints crossing it to the azure sea and back. There is no human sound--no voices, no cars, no boats, no planes--just the distant cramp of waves breaking in the bay and the occasional whirr of a desert cicada on its territorial rounds.

Normally, at this time of day I would be setting off to teach geography in inner-city Birmingham, as I've done for the past 30 years. Instead, I'm sitting on a beach on the edge of Chile's Atacama Desert, savouring the solitude and enjoying a bivouac breakfast.

I teach geography because I love it and I think that it's liberating. I remember from my own school experience how enjoyable it was to learn about the world, and the exhilaration I felt when I was able to use this knowledge to piece together the history of the landscape outside the bus or train window. Trying to instil inner-city students with the same enjoyment can be a pretty exhausting task. It helps if you can keep developing your interests and widening your experiences. Towards the end of a grey British autumn I was given a wonderful opportunity to do just that when I was awarded a grant by the Goldsmiths' Company to cross the Atacama region of Chile, a long-held ambition of mine.

Plate theory has been the greatest geographical development to take place during my lifetime. Evidence that separate pieces of the Earth's crust were moving relative to each other emerged when I was at school and was subsequently used to explain the major physical features of the Earth's surface. The Atacama region of Chile is part of the western edge of the South American Plate, where the Andes Mountains buckle up and the Nazca Plate plunges beneath. My aim was to cross the edge of the plate from the ocean in the west through the Atacama Desert and up into the Andes to the world's highest active volcano, Ojos del Salado, which reaches an altitude of 6,893 metres on the border with Argentina. I would also study the most interesting cacti in the world, members of the genus Copiapoa.

It was late November when I arrived in Chile. After hiring a four-wheel-drive vehicle, I drove to the coast, where local fishermen took me out to Isla Pan de Azucar (Sugar Loaf Island). Although the land here is a barren stony desert, the sea is often alive with birds, including Chilean pelicans and Humboldt penguins, which are attracted by the rich sealife that accompanies the cold waters of the Humboldt Current and upwellings from the deep ocean trench. The island gets its name from its coating of white guano, which was once so thick that it formed the basis of an industry that produced the world's best fertiliser.

The cold water that is responsible for the richness of life at sea also affects life on land. The main airstream moves from south to north, blowing over the sea parallel to the shore and partly driving the ocean current. This means that no rain reaches the land. However, condensation does take place over the cold water at night, resulting in mist and low stratus cloud that may penetrate up to 60 kilometres inland. This phenomenon, known locally as the camanchaca, generally stops short of the hilly areas immediately inland, which see no moisture at all and are true, barren desert. Indeed, there are areas that are said to have received no rain in recorded history.

The camanchaca brings essential moisture to a community of semi-desert cactus scrub plants and their dependant insects, reptiles, birds and mammals. 1 explored this area for several days, looking for cacti and recording the ways in which the different species have adopted different forms of spination, habit, size and colour to respond to the prevailing conditions.

Cacti are very specialised plants, with their stems swollen to hold moisture and their leaf petioles transformed into spines to protect against herbivores, to reflect sunlight or to help gather atmospheric moisture. …

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