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Full Circle

Day 176: Calama

Chuquicamata mine, Chile 
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Chuquicamata, the world's biggest copper mine.
Michael Palin - Full CircleBack at Calama. Half the crew were billeted on the same wing as the schoolgirls, so half the crew hasn't slept. Roger has had strong words with the teachers who shrug and apologize but what can they do? It's a school journey. The children have come all the way from Santiago. They're over-excited. As we leave the hotel the girls are clustered, six deep, around the single public telephone.

There is only one reason why there is a hotel at Calama, and an airport, and a good, hard-top road, indeed a town at all, and that is copper. The Atacama desert may look like a wasteland, but beneath it lies enormous mineral wealth - gold, silver, manganese, zinc, molybdenum, but particularly copper.

The Chuquicamata mine, five miles from Calama, has been producing almost continuously since reserves were discovered by prospectors in 1911. It is of such size that a hiccup in output causes indigestion in markets all over the world.

Copper production has an insatiable appetite. Five hundred and fifty thousand tons of rock are extracted every day, of which only 160,000 tons are processed, and only one per cent will contain copper. The rest is waste. There are now cliffs and plateaux and mountains of spoil around the mine so vast that they are almost indistinguishable from nature itself.

The search for copper has gouged a hole in the earth two and a half miles long, one and a half miles wide and two thousand five hundred feet deep. The mine has its own town for the twelve thousand workers and their twenty thousand dependants. It has its own river system - six pipelines bringing water seventy-five miles from the mountains, to satisfy a thirst for four hundred and fifty million litres every day. And it has its own cloud formations, coils of black and grey smoke from the smelting plant that drift lazily upwards, the only stains on a piercingly clear blue sky.

It is a world of giants. Excavators with shovels that can lift sixty tons at a time fill dump trucks as high as houses.
Chuquicamata mine, Chile 
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Sixty-ton shovels at Chuquicamata.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 176
  • Country/sea: Chile
  • Place: Calama
  • Book page no: 233

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