From La Paz, our next stop was the Salt Flats in the south of Bolivia. We were joined by Emma and Joe from the Wild Rover on the bus down to the jump-off town of Uyuni. The bus was overnight but sleep was a distant possibility. The journey was around eight hours but the last six were easily the bumpiest I‟ve ever experienced; it was like being on a bucking bronco ride. I couldn’t be sure, because it was pitch black outside, but it must have been the rockiest dirt track in the country.
We arrived in Uyuni at around 6am and we were exhausted. Even so we were refreshed by the sheer outback look and feel of the place with dusty, sandy roads revolving primarily around one main street. We found the travel agent for our three day trip to the Salar de Uyuni, the legendary Bolivian Salt Flats; the biggest salt plains in the world. Our contact was a classic looking Bolivian old woman with two or three teeth left. She introduced us to Alejandro, our guide and protector for the next few days. Alejandro, at well over six feet tall, was easily the biggest Bolivian I‟d seen so far. He was quiet most of the time, and very good natured. He almost always wore classic dark aviator sunglasses and had a frontier look to him. He was also an extremely fast driver. One of the concerns of travellers going to the Salar de Uyuni is that some of the drivers are drunks; hopefully, Alejandro wasn‟t! Unfortunately, he didn‟t have much English. Luckily, Joe had some Spanish, becoming our de facto translator and was banished to the front seat as his reward.
Despite assurances from every operator that, were the maximum capacity of six for the trip not be met, we would just go as a group of four, we trawled the streets for additions to our party. We were told that an Australian couple was late and that we were waiting for them. Eventually, a Dutch couple, Michel and Leonie, got into the 4×4 and they promptly asked us if we were Australian!
The Salt Flats are part of the Bolivian desert and, immediately on leaving Uyuni, we were straight into huge landscapes and mighty vistas with mountains far off on the distant horizon. We raced to a locomotive graveyard where we stood on rusting old trains; a totally surreal place, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Our next stop was the Salar de Uyuni itself, an absolutely mind-blowing landscape and the closest thing I‟ve ever experienced as to the Sublime. These are the largest Salt Flats in the world, at more than 10,000 square km. By way of brief history, 40,000 years ago, the area was part of Lake Minchin, a pre-historic lake which dried to leave two smaller, modern lakes and two salt flats, one of which is Uyuni. The Salar de Uyuni has an estimated 10 billion tons of salt of which only 25,000 tons are extracted annually. The Flats are pure white, and, during the dry season, crusty to the crunch underfoot. It‟s like a thick, impossibly large layer of rock salt and is „cracked‟ into almost hexagonal „tiles‟ about the size of a book. I‟ve never been able to have such a panoramic view of a landscape. The terrain is almost completely flat meaning that the horizon is incomprehensibly distant. Some mountains are just about visible to the west; I‟m guessing they were the feet of the Andes. This flatness combined with the whiteness of the ground and the brilliance of the intensely azure sky means you can have some great fun with the use of perspective in photographs. You can make yourself look the same size as a small object (like the height of a can of Coke) with some clever positioning and with the camera placed really close to the ground. We had lunch on the Isle de Pescado or the Island of Fish, a huge „iceberg‟-like natural structure of coral that stands incongruously, improbably alone in the middle of this astonishing terrain.
The whole place is like driving on Star War‟s Tattooine; totally otherworldly and exhilarating. The Flats had a powerful impact on me, the kind of feeling I get when in true wildernesses. We drove through the Salar de Uyuni for hours (it‟s such a massive space) and stayed the night in a spartan village. We were sharing the house with a family and we were in a barracks-like annex at the back. The conditions were basic with cold running water and a narrow bed each, but it felt exactly right; we needed nothing else. We ate like kings for supper; Alejandro rustled up some delicious fried chicken and some sopa verduras (Andean vegetable soup), with enormous, chunky chips. We got to know the others: Leonie and Michel Van Lieshout were really lovely people; they were on a three-month honeymoon making their way south to Chile via the Salt Flats; we couldn’t help but notice that the Dutch speak incredibly good English, probably better than most English people. Joe was in IT consultancy in London and took regular extended holidays; this time he wanted to explore Bolivia over the course of a month. Emma was a student who was six months into a huge year-long round-the-world trip. We washed the meal down with mugs of hot coca tea. That night was so cold. I went outside where the wind-chill factor made it feel below freezing; I have never seen so many stars in the night sky; thousands and thousands of fiercely burning stars; a sight I‟ll never forget, seared on my memory.
It was an early start the next day to drive further south-west towards the volcanoes that populate this part of the desert. As with the Salt Flats, the landscapes and the skies seemed so exceptionally vast; I‟m not sure what causes this perception. We saw a volcano smoking in the distance around the Bolivian-Chilean border and, remarkably, a young man cycling through the desert with his backpack on the back of his bike. What the fuck was he doing here?! The sun was at its midday strongest and there was nothing of navigable note to guide him. Alejandro slowed to check with the man that he had enough water and gave him rough directions to the nearest town and we waved him good luck. It mustn‟t be that infrequent an occurrence to see a cyclist in the middle of the Bolivian desert with no visible civilisation in sight.
We saw several huge lakes with various minerals in huge quantities giving their waters brilliant colours such as coppery greens, rusty reds and deep cobalt blues. At one lake, we saw a huge flock of pink flamingos just lolling in the water; a beautiful, utterly random and unanticipated sight. What do they feed on? What can live in this shallow body of water in the middle of a huge desert? Hmmm…a flock of flamingos of course! We ate a fine lunch on the shore of that lake gently pickling under the strong sun, munching on Bolivian sour apples. I looked around and had a feeling that I‟d not enjoy a lunch like this again for a long time. We‟d spend most of that day driving around that vast landscape gentling tracing an anti-clockwise circle back towards Uyuni, our starting point. I‟d grown to love long distance car and bus journeys; I enjoyed long bus trips and now, just sitting in the back of a battered but perfectly functional 4×4, gave you time to think. Something about the starkly beautiful and faintly supernatural desert was conducive to thought; I‟d stare out of the window and think about everything from where I was going with my life to my travelling experiences so far and to evolving thoughts on my own beliefs.
One topic we discussed was the nature of love; specifically on the theory of whether there really is “the One”, a preordained match. Both of us had had mild crushes on the Inca Trail trip and we were in the mood to ponder the question. The opposing theory would be that there wasn’t a “the One”, and that there are in fact countless possible, compatible partners with whom you could fall in love. I thought there might be a middle way between these two opposing views. The basis is “attraction”; attraction in the widest sense. Attraction could be between anybody. It‟s between people who are drawn to each other. This ‘being drawn to’ doesn’t happen between one person and too many other people; it’s too dependent on mutuality and like-mindedness to be. It’s also not necessarily sexual. For example, a girl could have a best friend (might also be a girl), who she’s drawn to (i.e. attracted to) but not necessarily want to have sex with, perhaps because they’re both heterosexual. Whilst, they exhibit all the signs of attraction (they’re happier in each other‟s company, they yearn for the other when they’re separated) they’re just clearly not each other’s future love-match because they‟re not sexually attracted to each other. Anyway, over the course of your life, you’ve met probably about 5-10 people to whom you’re attracted to as a person and to whom you’re also sexually attracted to. Any of these 5-10 people could develop into your future love-match. Therefore, there does not need to be a “the One”, just several possibilities who could develop into, well you know! If so, then neither do we have to believe in the „many fish‟ scenario. It‟s all theoretical of course; it could be a third way for the sake of finding middle ground. Perhaps it‟s just best to plump for one side. Sorry dear reader, I told you that you start to think random stuff!
Another thought: we‟d also noticed how much more receptive we‟d become to new things, new people and new experiences. We‟d already met so many great people in such a short space of time and we wondered whether that was because the number of interesting people we‟d met had simply increased on the road or if instead it was because we had become more open, and less judgmental, towards new people. It wasn‟t difficult to at least correlate this feeling with our current happier and freer states of mind. It became a recurring thought, along with the determination to retain this attitude when we returned home. I began to wonder about the extent to which your environment impacts on your state of mind. Clearly, being taken out of your normal surroundings (work, friends, family, societal expectations etc.) is a mentally liberating experience. It‟s probably this „freeing‟ property that enables this increased receptivity. A related state of mind was the increase of the “Yes” function whereby because of this increased openness, you‟re just more inclined to say “Yes” a lot more, especially to things you‟d normally “Um” and “Ah” about and say “Maybe” to things you‟d normally just dismiss. I‟d see it in myself and almost every traveller I‟d meet. To the guy we‟d just met in a market, “Fancy coming to Uyuni tomorrow?” “Yes why not!” Or to some random traveller you’ve just met over breakfast, “Fancy a morning of sightseeing round galleries and museums then a walk for four hours round the city?” “Sure thing, sounds great!”; “Fancy a three day detour that wasn‟t in your plans to see something you‟ve never heard of?” “Absolutely! Sign me up! It could be the time of my life!” It‟s just a “Yes, Yes, Yes” mentality when travelling; a state of being that‟s just joyful. Anyway, enough of my journal ramblings for now!
That evening, we pulled up to about 3,900m into one of the most otherworldly places I‟d ever seen; rocky, mountainous and, once the sun fell, incredibly cold. In the wind, it must have been about minus 20 degrees Celsius. I walked by myself in a straight line in this treeless, flat hinterland and, after twenty minutes, I couldn‟t have been more alone; I was literally on the other side of the world. That night, we all drank some vodka that we‟d brought with us and chatted by the fire until the early hours.
After just a few hours sleep, we were back on the road at 5am whilst it was still dark. We sped off to a collection of volcanic geysers where we peered into a steaming mud-hole which was so hot compared to the freezing air around it. I‟d heard that some of these geysers had been man-made for the burgeoning tourist interest in them. I got close enough to feel the heat from a live geyser and to feel the bubbling, grey mud sliding underneath me.
We drove off to a nearby rock pool where we were going to enjoy breakfast. It looked busier here, with more tourist groups. It seemed like the idea was to jump into this open-air pool heated by volcanic activity and enjoy our first bath since we‟d arrived in South America. The trouble was that it was still ball-shrivellingly cold and, despite the first beams of sunlight appearing, no-one wanted to get down to their smalls. Grant thought about it for a second and just jumped in. Of course, I couldn‟t let him just be the only one in, so I was next. It was glorious! The water was warm and soft and the surroundings were just magnificent; a slowly emerging sunrise atop a mountainous backdrop; it was an expansive and almost unbridled wilderness; it was easily the most memorable bath I‟d ever had. It was memorable for Grant in a different way when he received the sight of another man‟s early morning semi-glory just inches from his face!
As with the Inca Trail, bowel movements had been a running joke throughout the Salar de Uyuni trip so far because facilities were so sparse that, even if you didn‟t really need to go, you went anyway to avoid pain and embarrassment down the line. That morning we knew that we wouldn‟t have the chance to go for the next six hours so we decided to give it a go despite not really needing to. Alejandro was about to leave so we ran to the banos which were really just holes in the ground (with sand and shit at the bottom about two metres below); each hole separated by a thin wall. I hadn’t really mastered this technique yet; I don’t think that men’s leg muscles are used to the squatting position. My legs started wobbling almost immediately; I mean this is actually a stress position used by interrogators! I needed the wall behind me as a support. The fact that Grant and I could talk to each other over the partition during the act was even funnier; we were trying to make each other laugh so that the other might fall down the hole!
We dropped Michel and Leonie at the Chilean border near San Pedro from where they would head to Valparaiso to continue their honeymoon. It took us six hours of straight driving to get back to Uyuni where we said goodbye to Emma, Joe and the fantastic Alejandro and jumped on the overnight bus back to La Paz via Oruro.
We had decided to climb Huayna Potosi.