Where the Desert meets the Ocean

We finally had some time to look around this fascinating area. In Chile the distances are huge, and some places that would be nice to see are “just” some 490 km away, which makes it impractical to try and visit when you have a day to do it. To make the rest day most enjoyable and still see something we have decided to limit our scope to the Mejillones peninsula.

The area is only about 40 min away from Antofagasta by car, yet it offers a visitor plenty of sweeping views and an opportunity to formulate an impression of the Chilean coast. For me, this was “Ocean and Desert”. Where else can you imagine the ocean and desert touching each other?

Where the desert meets the ocean
Where the desert meets the ocean

The trip naturally starts with visiting La Portada. The locals are proud of this natural arch located to the North of the city. Again, I saw online reviews saying “5 minutes is enough at La Portada, it is a rock arch”. Yes it is that, indeed. Whether 5 minutes is enough you can decide for yourself; if you are not inclined to admire nature’s wonders you may be better off looking at La Portada’s online pictures. I found it required way more than that, especially if you actually listen to the wildlife officer stationed there on the weekends who will gladly tell you about and even point out to you the hidden jewels of the small park.

Humboldt penguins at La Portada
Humboldt penguins at La Portada

For me the neatest thing was, there is a permanent colony of Humboldt penguins living at La Portada. There are about 700 of them down there, but to see them you have to go around the slightly rundown restaurant area and descend down a flight of rickety stairs that lead seemingly nowhere. At the bottom of the stairs there is a small sloping area covered with loose sand and gravel, perched atop a 100 foot sandstone drop-off. You can see the evidence of this sandstone occasionally breaking off along the coastline, so going down to this area is up to you. I am thinking, in the U.S. this area would be fenced off with a 10 foot chainlink fence extending a mile in each direction, and a TV monitor that would allow watching the penguins. In Chile, the officers supervising the park simply say “Be careful, there is no handrails and you can fall down” and leave you to be a responsible adult.

To watch the penguins you need to get close to the drop-off
To watch the penguins you need to get close to the drop-off

I guess the Chileans haven’t figured out yet that some individuals can try to become reach by suing others as being responsible for their own stupidity, so this little park still is open to the public. On the second thought though, if you went over the edge there I don’t think you would live to enjoy the benefits from a lawsuit, even if there were any.

The penguins perch on the sea-washed rocks at the bottom of the sandstone cliffs, swim in the pools, dive through the surf and flap their little wings and wiggle their tails. They are always busy doing something, and I could watch them for hours.

In addition to the penguins there is a variety of other sea birds at the park, and you can see them both in the air and on the water. The park also has a boardwalk leading down to the water edge, however this boardwalk was closed all the times we were there.

Continuing along the roads through the Mejillones Peninsula you will find yourself crossing vast expanses of dry gravel desert. There is no biosphere to speak of, no plants, or animals, or insects. There is no fresh water. The wind blows all the time, sometimes harder, sometimes much harder. If you keep driving to the West you will arrive in Juan Lopez, a small town that on weekends hosts a bit of a festivity. There are a couple of places to eat, with decent food and very low prices for both food and beverage. The buildings are fairly upscale for a coastal Chilean village, and the roads are mostly paved. When we drove through it the air was filled with the aroma of meat cooked over the charcoals. For a while we contemplated giving in and joining the people sitting in the shade of the red Coca Cola umbrellas and indulging in some local food but the desire to see more prevailed. You can eat later if you want; this was our only chance to see something, so we ignored the food.

Santamaria - Mejillones Peninsula
Santamaria - Mejillones Peninsula

The second road through Mejillones goes North, to the little town of Santamaria. Compared to it, Juan Lopez is a metropolis. The buildings in Santamaria are made of drywall, without any outside sheeting – I guess this is ok to do in a place where it never rains, or of corrugated iron. There were no eateries that we could tell. There were people working in the fishing boats, taking bundles of sea weeds out of them and putting them onto a truck, and some children fishing off a pier and riding bicycles back and forth along the 200 foot stretch of pavement leading to the pier. I really felt like a tourist in this small village, way overdressed in light colored clothes, and especially with a camera that looked more expensive than the vehicles and boats owned by the locals.

Judging from the curious glances, wandering gringos are not very typical in Santamaria. We did not feel any hostility, short of some awkwardness that I felt from being in a place so obviously poor.

Morro Moreno National Park
Morro Moreno National Park

From Santamaria we continued further Northwest to the Morro Moreno national park. This is the first place where we saw native vegetation. It consisted of three or four gnarly little bushes some 3 inches in height, with leaves looking like tiny bulbs. The outer perimeter of the bushes was devoid of the leaves and the soil looked like a little path, as if some animals ran around them a lot and ate all the leaves. Maybe this is what it was but we didn’t get to see any wildlife.

After the entrance sign the road becomes a little bit on the rough side, and another half a mile later it becomes unsuitable for a passenger car. A 4WD vehicle will have no problems, and you can drive all the way across the ridge and down onto the plain on the coast on the other side. We just limited ourselves to a short walk to the top of the ridge and looked out onto the ocean to the North. The rugged dry country with nothing around but dry, hot, sun-baked rock and gravel, left a bit of a daunting impression on me: being from the cold but wooded North, I consider forest a home with nothing to be afraid of. This arid land will left you parched and helpless in no time. I had the feeling that there is no messing around with the desert, it gained my utmost respect. What an amazing landscape though!

On the way back to Antofagasta at the end of this day full of impressions we stopped on the bay for a swim in the ocean. The beach on the bay is several miles long, and the locals pull off the highway at random places, drive up onto the sand and have parties. There can be quite a bit of trash left behind but there are cleaner places one can find, and we enjoyed one of them. The Pacific was as peaceful as usual, with 4-foot swells rolling in that built up sand banks and a trench a short distance from the water edge. Once past the trench it was fun to swim in the waves, the water temperature being on the cold side but still very enjoyable. We came across several parts of the beach where the ocean created deposits of just shells and parts of shells. Small fragments 1/4″ to 2″ in size, smooth and rounded from the endless action of the surf, would lay 10″ deep on top of the sand and take up areas of some 50×60 feet, and we sat in the middle of these, fingering the little fragments of shells as if they were memories from the past, and thinking of the endless cycle of life and of how special it was, being here on this deserted beach.

Antofagasta, Chile: a subtle might

The time has come again for the Global Travelers to leave home and go somewhere they have not been before. This time our path led us to Antofagasta, Chile. From there we will fly our Gulfstream-V airplane equipped with advanced scientific instruments to the West and South over the Pacific to study the effects that upwelling has on the release of gases into the atmosphere that people never measured before and importance of which to global climate change is not well understood. This is the reason our research was funded, and we all believe the reason is important enough to send 20 people half a world away, to measure and record these minute changes in atmospheric constituents to better understand how our planet operates.

La Portada, the Natural Monument North of Antofagasta
La Portada, the Natural Monument North of Antofagasta


But this time I will focus not on the science of the project but on the places we are visiting. This is because on our travels we get to meet people we have never met before, whom you discover to be genuine, helpful, interested and partial to our work, which they have not heard anything about just a few days ago.

On our approach into Antofagasta’s San Moreno airport one couldn’t help but notice the striking landscape of the Central Chile. In short, there is nothing under the wing of the airplane. No trees, no rivers, lakes, bushes or even grass. There is a lot of… bare land. Gosh, are we landing on the Moon? Barren, with tire tracks everywhere, some of which probably date back several decades because once there, they don’t disappear and only slowly fade away from the eolian erosion. Bare mountains tower over bare plains, and infrequent threads of paved highways cross this vast, endless desert lit by the relentless summer sun.

Upon landing we have discovered that the land is not that inhospitable. The temperature is a comfortable 27°C and the sun is not as hot as one might think from the looks of the land. We are met by friendly, patient people who wait on us to complete our unusual routine of shutting down the instruments, then covering the numerous probes attached to the wings and fuselage with caps and covers, then finally turning everything off and following our hosts to customs and immigration. I think this is probably when we begin to establish the helpful and benign reputation of “los científicos locos”, in the nice meaning of the word, that the polite Chileans would never let us be known but very likely share in their quick Spanish dialogue behind the scenes.

Now, to the actual impression from Antofagasta.

I have read reviews like “well… there is nothing to see there. It is just an industrial town”. I am glad to see such reviews; this means to me that people I don’t want to meet most likely will not come to Antofagasta. Good for the rest of us.

If you are looking for prepared entertainment, canned excitement and boardwalk sightseeing, head somewhere else. Antofagasta is not for you. Disney Land is probably better.

Antofagasta is wedged between the ocean, desert and the mountains
Antofagasta is wedged between the ocean, desert and the mountains

If you can appreciate the hardy quarter million people building a city on the border between the sea and the desert, if you like the salty smell of the ocean drifting in the evening through your open windows, if you can feel the energy of the young people laughing with their children on the ocean shore walkways – you may like it here. Antofagasta is a happening place. It is not for the pampered but it is full of raw, furious energy during the day paired with hearty, light-minded relaxation in the evening that I have not seen in other places I have been to.

Coastline near Mejillones
Coastline near Mejillones

As you drive along Highway 1 from Antofagasta heading North, the trip we had to make daily for work, you could see one of the two things. It is either the dry, featureless, boring desert spreading like a table cloth as far as you can see, torn up on the East by just as featureless ridge of mountains and with a bunch of shacks at the base of those. Or you could see the intricately structured surface of the land, featured by millions of hours of relentless work of wind, and the tireless people working in the dust, moving earth and raising modern buildings or glass and concrete in the dramatic contrast with the stark landscape. This is how I saw Antofagasta, and it captured my heart.

The city is growing, and it is very obvious. New residential buildings are coming up on the North side, and the older blocks of residences appear obsolete along the new four lane road that edges the city along the coastline. People jog, ride bicycles and walk along the wide sidewalks that stretch for miles through the city along the ocean coast. Tent cities, some curiously appearing semi-permanent, cluster the flatter beaches where it happened to be convenient to set them up; the climate is very forgiving to light shelters with night lows being 20°C.

Large cargo ships drift in the harbor; numerous buses dart around the streets and the cars swerve in and out of lanes, passing slow pokes and big trucks that carry building materials; people cross the roads here and there, going to the ocean shores, in and out of stores, to and from workplaces. Life is loudly abuzz here, and only a snob can miss its pulse. There is one thing I have not noticed: one person working and three people supervising. I will keep looking; so far this sight was for me a sign of a more developed country.

Cars on the road have 2-5 people in them, and some engines smoke; the luxury of single drivers is not common here as I could tell. Gas is expensive at 800 Chilean pesos per liter, or $6 U.S. per gallon. I have not seen too many single driver commuters with cell phones between their ear and shoulder, putting on lipstick or gulping down Starbucks as they nervously pass each other. I have not seen people gesturing to each other even when cut off, they swerve through the traffic because this is the way it is. These roads have a different purpose. They convey a crazy mix of people heading to relax with those doing hard labor. These roads smell of sweat and burnt oil, not Starbucks and irritability.

If I hurt someone’s Starbucks feelings I apologize. I didn’t mean to. My point was, Antofagasta may or may not be the place you ever decide to visit. Tourist guides have information in them, and please do read them. They will help you choose to go or not, or help you get your expectations aligned.

What I am trying to do here is give you a feel for the city. It is a fast, unsophisticated, young and strong place, growing confidently and rapidly in one of the most inhospitable environments I have ever seen.


Burris Eliminator rifle scope review

Welcome to the Eliminator

Some 10 years ago when the laser range finders became widely available I had thought that integrating one with a riflescope and placing the calculated bullet impact point on the vertical crosshair of the reticle would be a brilliant idea. The technology caught up with the dream only recently, and Burris introduced the Eliminator. I got my hands on one only this year, partly due to the lack of need, partly due to its fairly high cost. This year I decided that I want a shorted and handier rifle than a 24″-barreled Weatherby Vanguard in .300 Weatherby Magnum for hunting elk in the aspens and dark timber, so a Ruger Hawkeye in .338 RCM with a 20″ barrel joined my hunting arsenal. The Weatherby now was destined to become a long range, open country rifle, so the Eliminator was a logical choice.

The scope is very heavy by any standard at over 1.5 lbs, so if you have a 5.5 lb rifle that you value for its light weight as a mountain gun, you may not want to put the Eliminator on it. The mount is an integral one, suitable for installation on a Picatinny or Weaver rail only. To put the Eliminator on my Vanguard so I had to remove the Talley single piece rings that held my previous scope and installed a single-piece EGW rail that fit perfectly. One has to pay attention to the length of the screws that hold the rail on the receiver as they have different length for front and back; if you install the longer screw in the rear hole by mistake it will interfere with the bolt and the shorter screw will not engage the threads properly if placed in the forward hole. This is not rocket science, just pay attention to what you are doing. I put blue Locktite on the threads and GunSeal under the rail. I know; they tell you to wipe the receiver dry but when I did that I would get slight rust under the bases, so I use GunSeal from now on.

The mount on the Eliminator aligns properly with the rear edge of the Picatinny rail slot only on the rear scope mount, and the forward slot, while it does allow the cross bolt to pass, does not appear to bottom out on the cross bolt when the scope is slid all the way forward. Therefore, only one of the cross bolts will provide shear resistance, the other only clamps the rail. This does not appear to have any ill effects on the mounting strength, and tightening the nuts on cross bolts to the recommended 65 in/lbs of torque resulted in a rock solid mount, later tested by an unfortunate drop onto the scope in the field with no effect on the point of impact.

Since the scope has a machined mount there is no need to work to ensure its proper alignment above the rifle bore. It will be as accurate as the machining of the mounting holes on the rifle’s receiver, which in my case proved to be accurate enough for all practical purposes.

I like to cover the lenses on my scopes to protect them from snow, twigs and dust. For the Eliminator I picked up a set of Butler Creek caps. The proper Butler Creek cover size for the objective of the Eliminator is 46, and 10 for the ocular. The ocular of this scope is tapered and the larger cover will fit too but it will bottom out on it and will not be tight.  You may see the next size up as the recommended; I tried this and they were loose enough to slide off effortlessly. I prefer a tight fit and the 10 and 46 will provide exactly that. This time around I was very disappointed in the caps quality. I have Butler Creek caps on all of my scopes but they all date back 5 years or more and they all fit tightly and close snugly, without a hitch. Since then the quality has gone down a lot. The objective cover did not want to stay closed at all, and, out of time and frustrated, I simply covered the cap edges with foil and ironed them with a hot iron, pressing them inwards. This deformed the cap enough to keep it in place when closed but of course one can not expect a reliable hermetic seal that way. I don’t think I will be buying more Butler Creek covers if I can help it at all.

After installing the scope I naturally had to take the rifle to the range and get to know the new hunting tool. I shoot primarily handloads in the Weatherby and prefer heavy bullets for the caliber, so as one would expect the recoil is noticeable. Previously the rifle was fitted with a light 2×7 Weaver scope, and shooting it with the Eliminator was a pleasant surprise: the recoil was noticeably reduced by the added weight of the scope.

The one concern that people interested in the Eliminator may have is whether or not the reticle is too thick and obstructs too much of the target. In my opinion it is not. The vertical pin of the reticle is just thin enough to pose no problems, and it is also translucent on the edges and darker along the centerline to where it is very comfortable to the eye. The orange aiming dots, when lit, are bright enough to be visible against the snow although they will not exactly jump out at you like a turkey head ring in a shotgun scope. Not that I would want that anyway in a rifle scope. I think the engineers at Burris hit the nail on the head with the size and brightness of the aiming dots: they are visible enough in bright daylight, yet not overwhelming at dusk.

The optics of the Eliminator are not as bright as the 42 mm Swarovision binoculars. They are on the same level as Leupold’s VXII or Burris Fullfield, which is adequate for most people who are not obsessed with counting twigs on a bush 500 yards away in the last 15 seconds of legal shooting time. To me, bright optics are needed in the binoculars, which are used for hours during the day. The scope, on the other hand, I use for all of a minute during a big game hunt, and the quality of the Burris optics is totally adequate for this. I was also very pleased with the flatness of the field of view, which was nearly free of roll-off distortion and parallax in the Eliminator, unlike the Fullfield E-1 that I happen to own as well. I am sure there will be people screaming that nothing short of Swarovski will ever do or else their $20,000 guided hunt for the trophy of a lifetime might be in jeopardy. They can do whatever they want. If it is too dark to see the animal I will come back tomorrow morning, if for no other reason then at least not to have to deal with the kill in the dark.

Operating the Eliminator is as easy as anyone thinks from looking through the manual. There is one membrane button to activate the scope, and a second press on it or on the remote control button causes the scope to range and put up the aiming dot. This process is instantaneous for all practical purposes, and I found that is is easy to range even on small targets, such as a “Posted” sign from 450 yards because you are ranging using the steady rifle hold, not using a weightless hand held device where all motions of your wrist immediately translate into wild swings of the projected laser beam.

I had two loads for the .300 Wby: a Federal Premium 200 gr Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and a 200 gr Barnes TSX flat base over 79.5 grains of Reloader-22. Both loads shoot very much to the same point of impact, and I chose the 1-36 table for the cartridges, considering that the shooting was being done at 6,000+ ft elevation.

At the range the Eliminator showed very accurate adjustments, pretty much to the claimed 1/4 MOA and was very easy to bore sight and zero just by laying the rifle on the sandbags and looking through the bore at a 100 yard target. Once on the paper it tracked accurately enough to where 4 rounds were sufficient to get the rifle to shoot where I wanted.

Now, a word of warning: where I wanted and where I should have are different things. Being used to sighting in regular scopes I dialed the point of impact at 1.5″ above the bulls eye, and then was surprised to see that the rifle shot high at 200 yards. I think this would be a very typical user error, since the Eliminator should be dialed in to shoot exactly at bulls eye at 100 yards, if this is how you are sighting the rifle in. It took me a minute to figure out what did I do wrong, and the only correction needed at that point was to change the ballistic table in the scope from 1-36 to 2-36, indicating the 200 yard zero.

I will explain this detail just a little: the two types of zero in Eliminator allow to effectively increase the calculated range for most cartridges to 600 yards with a “2” series table compared to the 500 yards with the “1” series tables. In effect both the 100 and 200 yard points of impact will be at the same point, the crosshairs. If you go to the 200 yard zero (the “2” series table) then the five dots that the scope will calculate drop compensation for in the absence of a good range will be 200, 300, 400, 500 and 600 yards. Of course if you range a good target the scope will calculate compensation for ranges out to 800 yards but you really should test out loads and pay attention to the bullet’s ballistic coefficient and Burris drop tables if you are planning to try those ranges. If you are, I am sure you know all of this already.

What you would actually see in my case was, ranging the target at 100 yards (97 to be exact), there was an aiming dot at the crosshairs and in my zeroing in I had a 1.5″ high point of impact. Ranging the 200 yard target (197 yards to be exact), I saw an aiming dot just one or two down from the crosshairs. If used, this put the point of impact at 200 yards about 6″ too high because the scope added the drop compensation to what was already a 3″ high point of aim at 200 yards. Once I switched to a 2-36 table the aiming dot for both 100 and 200 yards appeared exactly at the crosshairs, and the point of impact was 1.5″ high at 100 yards and dead on at 200 yards.

Another word of warning: the Eliminator will only give accurate bullet drop compensation at full magnification, x12. It will put the aiming dot on at any other magnification too, but it will way overcompensate. I imagine that with some creative tinkering one can calibrate the scope so that it will give accurate compensation at lower magnifications but I didn’t bother with this.

This completed the setup, and as an aside I tested a couple of powders I haven’t used before, both working very well in the .300 Wby.

Field Test

The scope went on an elk hunt in the Colorado GMU 12 in late October, 2011. I scouted the area around the Jensen SWA in the summer and it is fairly open, sagebrush country with aspen stands along the creeks and valleys. I brought both the Weatherby and the Ruger with me, and carried the longer gun since visibility was several hundred yards. Most of the time, at least.

The first opportunity at a cow elk, which was my quarry this time around, came about within the first 2 hours of hunting. I just finished practicing ranging with the Eliminator at some shrubs and the three mule deer does 250 yards away, and was walking along when the two cows came out running 40 yards away from me. They stopped for 2-3 seconds and then moved on. I tried to aim and… realized the scope is still on x12 power! It is very difficult, at least for me, to see an elk at 40 yards through a x12 power scope. So the two cows moved on unharmed, and I saw no more elk that day. The scope ranged fine on the snow covered slopes, and the 20F degree temperatures were not an issue.

The next day I went deeper into the mountains, and picked up a trail of five elk heading into a thickly overgrown creek. A ranging scope is absolutely unnecessary in that kind of environment as the longest possible shot there would be 10 yards. However, the steep snow filled valley provided a robustness test for the Eliminator. It was repeatedly covered in snow that fell on me from the trees; it was shaken mercilessly along with the rifle when I fell, and finally soaked with water when all the snow that I couldn’t clean out melted in the sun once I got to the valley bottom. The butchered Butler Creek covers sort of held up, opening occasionally but overall preventing most of the snow from getting into the objective lens. I did have to re-close them several times after snagging the rifle on branches of scrub oaks and willows.

Eliminator's first elk
Eliminator's first elk

An hour later the scope and the rifle were traveling on my back up another creek, back to the top of the ridge. The valley was very steep and snow covered, and I took multiple falls, finally tiring enough to fall and drop the rifle, which I previously religiously held up when falling, taking the impact with my own ribs but protecting the gun. This time the rifle slid off my shoulder and went under the snow, where the scope hit a deadfall with a dull “thunk”. It was the time for a break, and I sat down in the snow, fished out the rifle and proceeded trying to clean out the snow from all the crevices that exist on a bolt action.

And, as I lifted my eyes from the snow ball that my Weatherby has become, I saw elk on the opposite side of the valley, looking my way, trying to determine if I was any threat.

The rifle required removal of the bolt and purging of snow from the barrel as well, and it took a while to do this properly. Some 5 minutes later the elk were still there and I was ready to shoot. The Eliminator ranged the shot at 196 yards, and there was no need to adjust the point of impact. I picked out the fatter looking cow from the small herd of 5 and squeezed the trigger. The 200 grain TSX did its part, and the cow is now in the freezer.

The fall the rifle took had no effect on the point of impact, the bullet hit precisely where I put the aiming dot. In hindsight I should have shot the cow in the neck, preventing her from going down into the ravine before expiring and forcing me to pack the meat some 200 extra vertical yards, but I prefer the more reliable heart / lung or shoulder shot.

In conclusion, the Eliminator passed the ruggedness test. I did not get to use its long ranging ability but that is just it: you never know how far is the shot going to be, and having the instant, well computed bullet drop right in the scope is what I bought the Eliminator for. I recommend it to others for the same reason – take the uncertainty out of your moderate range, out to 450-500 yards, shot.