On occasion of our noon break, we conducted a closer inspection of one of the ancient sodium-nitrate digs. The workers had removed the soil to a depth of 1 meter, at which the caliche ore, the nitrate-rich layers, occurred. The overburden was piled next to the pit or filled in digs that were already exhausted. Apparently the nitrate had been filled in sacks and manually or by mules had been carried over to the nearby loading platform.
Next to the remnants of the railway, the foundations of a small stone building could be seen, and around it were the remains of numerous dwellings and fire pits. Forged nails, cans and enameled pots dated the site to the late 19th, early 20th century. After that the operation must have ceased, as we did not find any artefacts produced later than around 1920.
This was in concordance with the history of nitrate mining in Chile. For more than a century, the Atacama had almost exclusively provided the world supply of mined saltpeter. Starting in 1879, Chile had even fought and won a four-year long bloody war, the Guerra del Pacífico, with its neighbors Peru and Bolivia for the Saltpeter sources. At the turn of the 20th century, however, the German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed an industrial process to synthetically produce ammonia from the atmosphere. With the onset of the 1st World War, Germany began converting ammonia into a synthetic Chilean saltpeter at large scale for the production of gunpowder and fertilizers. Until the 1940s, this conversion process resulted in a dramatic decline in demand for sodium nitrate procured from natural sources and the majority of mining operations in the Atacama came to an end.
With Peter I looked around the derelict dwelling and studied the abundant artifacts. A rusted tin box displayed the stamped lettering “West India Oil Company.” Andi came over, picking up a string of conversation from the morning: “Svend, I just found indubitable evidence that this indeed was once the seabed of an ocean.” Expecting some sort of marine fossil, I glanced at the object he triumphantly waved at me. It was an enameled cup boasting an ornamented anchor and the navy-style lettering “Marina de Chile.”
The search in the morning and the ardous drive to the new area had exhausted us. Early for our standards we called it a day. Below the summit of a hill that offered a splendid vista we pitched camp. Large solitary boulders were strewn about the site that looked as if giants had abandoned a game of marbles. Marc had already set up the kitchen, and while Andi and I piled up the sawed telephone poles into a neat fire stack, Marc went for a stroll and disappeared behind the hill.
Five minutes later, Thomas, who peacefully sat at the dinner table and thought about what stellar clusters he would observe tonight, had a close encounter of the third kind. All of a sudden, a pick-up appeared from out of nowhere and came dashing towards our camp. A quick glance confirmed Thomas that none of our own trucks were missing. It had to be somebody else. The truck was now closing fast, and the sight of it caused Thomas to almost spill his cup of Early Grey. On the truck bed he could make out two cloaked figures, one of them sporting a fierce beard, and they were yelling and shouting.
“Jihadists!” Thomas was convinced. Who else would dare to interrupt his evening contemplations so rudely? However, before things escalated further, the truck came to a halt in a dust cloud and he recognized our own Marc as one of the “jihadists”. A little confused, Thomas turned to Andi and me: “Where in the world did he come up with these people. Who are they”?