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Iain's Rover Diary Day 1 2 3

Day Two

I can’t say that I’ve ever drunk my own urine before. I’ve not had the inclination or need. So it was probably a sign of the desperation that Ellen and I had got at the end of day 2 that drove me to sample my own bottled water.

Things had started well, with Ellen and I leading Kate to look for water up one of the main dry stream beds that winds up into the hills from the playa. Again there were signs of past flowing water in the smoothed rock surfaces, and as we press on Ellen spots the gradual vegetation changes that indicates the water table is getting closer to the surface. When it looks like it is a metre of so down, we can dig for it, and in the end the sign is pretty obvious – a small pocket of lush vegetation and trees growing in damp soil. It looks as if the water is leaking up from a natural spring below, probably coming out at the contact between the sedimentary rocks (shales and sandstone) that we’ve been trekking through and the volcanic rocks (which appear to be dark basaltic lava) that start immediately upstream of the spring. The contact looks like a geological fault, a deep crack in the rocks that is a natural pathway for water. Still, we could have done with flowing or ponded water, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Kate, encouraged by our find, leaves us to dig. We film a spoof Iain-lets-Ellen-dig-the-holes sequence and then get on with really digging a few holes. Ellen actually does end up digging most of the holes, albeit under careful geological instruction, but they are dry. The trouble is that we can’t dig exactly where the lushest vegetation is. An archaeological warden tells us that our spring ‘oasis’ could be the site where there might be native American or other historical cultural remains. The historical cultural remains seem to be limited to a rusted iron pipe that once fed water to a mine close by, but our permits for filming are strict. We dig just down the slope, but there is no water.

Although we don’t hit water, the wet soil gives Ellen the idea to convert the holes to solar stills. This is where you stretch transparent polythene across a shallow hole and leave the sun to dry out the moist soil and organic matter – the evaporated moisture condenses on the underside of the plastic sheet, and trickles down into a collecting jar in the centre of the hole. Although we do a few solar stills, we’re both not confident about the amount of water that we’ll get, so we come up with a couple of further ideas. Ellen goes off to ‘bag’ a tree (covering it in plastic sheeting so that moisture ‘exhaled’ by the leaves condenses) while I go off to pee in one of my holes.

Now it is rather unnerving being asked to urinate to order, and an even stranger sensation having a film crew record it for posterity. For me, it was a potential BAFTA-award-winning moment for cameraman Keith and sound recordist Rob, but for them, a clear low-point in otherwise esteemed professional careers. The objective was to see if artificially adding ‘moisture’ to the soil in the hole might get that solar still to yield a greater amount of water. It is the same principle as before - the sun’s heat should evaporate off the water from those salts and chemicals that so spoil the taste of natural urine, leaving condensed moisture that is drinkable. Drinkable, that is, only by the provider, because this process doesn’t filter out potential biological nasties. In the end, I don’t think Ellen minded missing out. Still, although a few hours of solar heating released only a trickle of ‘Scottish’ water, it wasn’t half bad.

(Producer's note: Sadly for Iain, his heroic sacrifice was sacrificed on the cutting room floor – there just wasn’t time to show it.)


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Iain gets a chance to relax
Scientist's Diaries

Water or wheels? How did the other members of the Rough Science team cope with the first challenge? Read their diaries to find out: