I headed for Goose Green. Between Elephant Beach and there I only saw a couple of other cars, and there were hardly any settlements or even houses for a lot of the way. The Falklands are incredibly empty. Mongolia is a vast howling wilderness and it has twenty times the population density.
Articles tagged with "car journey"
On the way back from Volunteer Beach we drove back past Mount Kent. The hills near Stanley were the scene of fierce fighting during the war, and even now, 30 years later, relics still remain. We made a stop at the wreckage of an Argentinian helicopter. Keith told us that in the later stages of the occupation of Stanley, when British forces were shelling the town, senior Argentinians would leave at night for safer refuges in the hills. This helicopter had been ferrying officers away from Stanley for the night when it was attacked and shot down by a British aircraft.
We drove from Durban-Corbières back to the UK, stopping off in Orléans on the way. I was happy that our route would take us over the Millau viaduct. I’d seen plenty of pictures of the bridge but it was still incredible to cross it. When we saw the tops of the pylons poking above the horizon from some distance away we could really appreciate how huge it is. We soared over the Tarn valley, and then stopped on the other side to have a look. We were there at the wrong time of day for good photographs, though, with the sun shining more or less directly at us from over the bridge.
We climbed the road. Árni’s GPS told us how high we were going, and before too long we were 700m above sea level, and there was snow on the ground around us. Rocky ground covered in snow eventually gave way to the glacier proper. We stopped to reduce the tyre pressure still further, and then drove onto the ice. The wisdom of driving in a convoy became clear here; sometimes a vehicle would get into some difficulties up the steeper slopes, and anyone driving alone would have been pretty miserable. The other convoy members were ready to help, but the odd slippery moment was not a big problem, and we all climbed up and up and up.
It was getting dark and progress was getting slow. The problem was that there had been heavy rain up here. Snow would have been fine, but the rain had frozen and the driving conditions were far more treacherous than they had been a few days earlier. The jeep rocked wildly as we reached 1000m above sea level. Árni was a policeman by trade but had also driven jeeps in Afghanistan. His skills here were impressive and we rocked and bounced our way up the glacier, eventually reaching 1400m above sea level before heading down into the pass. We’d left Reykjavík at 4pm, and we’d hoped to reach the volcano by 8pm, but the journey continued. By 9pm the daylight was fading fast, and suddenly in the distance there was a vivid orange glow. Our luck was in.
We passed Seljalandsfoss, and after a couple of hours we reached Hvolsvöllur. Seven vehicles were attempting the trip, and tiny Hvolsvöllur was briefly overrun by volcano tourists. I bought a coffee and weirdly spotted someone who I’d met in Greenland last year. I didn’t have time to say hello before we were back in the jeep and heading onwards. We reached a turning where a rough dirt track disappeared into the mist. Somewhere up in the clouds were the Eyjafjallajökull and Myrdalsjökull glaciers, and in between the two, a split in the Earth’s crust from which molten rock was spurting. It hardly seemed possible.
We stopped to reduce the tyre pressures and coordinate the convoy, and then we headed uphill. Our route would take us high up onto the Myrdalsjökull, and then down into the pass.
Sunday morning dawned wild and rainy. It was beginning to look like my frivolous blowing of several hundred pounds was going to be in vain. My distant glimpse of the volcano from the plane might be my only sighting of it. Still, I hadn’t told anyone I was coming to Iceland as I felt that it might jinx the trip, so I could just not mention it.
I had time to kill. I was waiting for the phone call that would tell me if I could go to the volcano or not, and I stomped anxiously around town. The day seemed to drag on ridiculously, but eventually my phone rang. There was a chance, they told me, that there would be a break in the weather. Just a chance, and no guarantee of anything, but would I like to take the risk? I certainly would, I told them. I headed back to the hostel, and a vehicle appeared at 4.30pm. I met the driver, Árni, and my fellow travellers Diana from Portugal and two Swedes who lived in Algeria. We headed out of Reykjavík.
We stopped at a petrol station on the outskirts, and Árni said that this was our point of no return – if we quit the tour here we’d get our money back; if we went on and saw nothing, a not inconsiderable amount of money would have been wasted. None of us took the quitting option. We headed out of town. Soon we passed Hveragerði, where giant greenhouses with powerful artificial lights make the place look like a serious cannabis factory. Rain battered down. Quitting had never been an option but I was beginning to think I’d be very lucky to see anything.
Heading back from Chiricahua to Tucson, we passed through the tiny town of Willcox. As we crossed the railway tracks, we saw a restaurant in an old dining carriage, and on a whim we stopped. The town felt remote, and the railway reminded me of ‘Bad day at Black Rock‘.
The restaurant was a fantastic place. There was not much on offer for vegetarians, so I just had a starter. This was small town America where portions are vast and grease is good, and long before I’d finished it I was disgustingly full.
After the conference I had two days to spare in southern Arizona. You can’t do much there without a car, but luckily a friend had been observing at the nearby Kitt Peak National Observatory and had a motor. He’d just finished his observing run, and we headed out into the desert.
Our destination was Chiricahua National Monument. It was a little bit cooler in the hills there than it had been back in Tucson. Near to the car park there were quite a few people on the trails, many of whom did not look very much like hikers at all and occupied most of the width of the narrow paths. As we got further away, there were fewer and fewer people, and the wilderness was spectacular.
After a few hours we reached a turnoff for ‘Inspiration Point’. I was initially not too fussed, as we’d already covered a lot of ground and seen some pretty inspiring things. Luckily we decided to check it out, and soon reached the most impressive viewpoint of the day.
On the last day of my trip, we went for a drive in the mountains. We headed out towards Metsovo, to the Pindus National Park. We had wanted to go hiking, but it turned out the national park office was closed for the week and we couldn’t get any information about the trails. So we decided to just drive up interesting trails and see where we got to, and found ourselves going through some seriously remote forest. Eventually we reached a clearing where a lone shepherd was tending his flock. The track after here became impassable, so we turned around and headed back.
We took another road into a different part of the forest. We wound up in another clearing near a river, where we stopped and hiked downstream a bit. There was no-one else around and the woods were calm and peaceful, except for the distant bark of sheepdogs.
It was getting late and we had to head off. Back where the car was parked, some shepherds were working and their dogs were pretty aggressive. They chased the car, barking furiously as we drove, and followed us for quite a while. Eventually we shook them off. Then, we rounded a corner and saw a large animal sitting in the road. For a second I thought it was another dog, but we’d hardly seen it when it got up and shambled off into the forest. It was a bear; I didn’t even know there were bears in these forests so I definitely didn’t expect to see one.
We drove up to the Roque de los Muchachos. It seemed strange to come up here and not check in at the Residencia. We walked out onto the rocky ridge which juts out into the caldera, and I took the same photos I take every time I’m up there. I think I’ve photographed every possible view, but it wouldn’t seem right to leave without some new versions of them.
We headed back down the road to Santa Cruz. We’d both been victims of the legendary Lionel, who drove astronomers to the top for many years, knew the roads far too well and raced around forest curves in a way guaranteed to induce extreme car sickness. One time after a ride to the top, I felt sick for five days. So I drove down at a sedate pace and got to the bottom feeling great.
We drove north. Our plans were vague but involved following the coast road around the north end of the island, so we were quite surprised when the road swung far inland. We presumed we were still on the main road so we carried on, but it got narrower and narrower, and higher and higher. When we started to pass through tunnels which were just hewn from the bare rock, we decided we must have taken a wrong turning somewhere.
We guessed that if we carried on, we’d get back to the main road. After an hour or so we began descending again, and eventually we did reach the right road. As we rounded a turn to look south, we could suddenly see the Isaac Newton Telescope perched on the mountain top high above us. We decided to head up there.
From Tazacorte we headed inland, planning just to head back to Santa Cruz. But we passed a sign to ‘La Cumbrecita’ and thought we’d investigate. The road led us through the forests in the centre of the island, and eventually became a single-track dirt road. We were not sure if we would be coming to anything worth seeing, but La Cumbrecita turned out to be pretty awesome. When we reached a small car park at the end of the road, we found ourselves on the south side of the caldera, with a view across to the northern side. Mist was pooling in the caldera, and clouds were flowing over its walls, evaporating as they tumbled down.
We drove up the west coast of the island. It feels pretty remote out that way. We stopped for a fantastic coffee in an empty bar in the desolate hamlet of San Nicolás, then drove on to Tazacorte. The island is dominated by the vast Caldera de Taburiente, a giant crater whose walls rise two kilometres above its centre, and Tazacorte is perfectly situated for amazing views into the crater.
Tazacorte’s main claim to fame is that it was the last port of call for some of the conquistadores who were on their way to colonise Latin America. Today it betrays no hint that it would ever be worthwhile for any ship to call in. While observing on the mountain top on previous trips I’d seen the lights of Tazacorte shining far below, but from here I couldn’t spot the telescopes on the crater rim.
I got up at 5am the next day to watch a beautiful sunrise over the Salar. Then, after a quick breakfast we got onto the highlight of the journey which was seeing the Salar itself close up. We drove straight out onto it, which was oddly disconcerting, and followed vague trails marked on it. It struck me that it would be extremely easy to get lost if the weather wasn’t ideal, but today it was and the Sun beat down. After an hour or so we stopped in the middle of nowhere, to have a look. Having learnt my lesson at Villarrica, I put plenty of sunblock everywhere, including underneath my nose, and got out into the the shining white. The surface was just slightly crunchy to walk on, and for my own satisfaction I verified by taste that it really was salt. I thought of taking a lump home as some kind of souvenir but imagined it would soon crumble into a really lame souvenir.
Further across the Salar we came to Isla Incahuasi, rising weirdly from the salt ocean and covered in cactuses. We climbed up to the top of the island, and also walked out a little way from the island into the Salar. The endless salt on all sides made me feel very thirsty just looking at it, and I was glad we were carrying huge amounts of water. After taking some panoramic shots of the island, we drove on, and after a brief commercial stop at a hotel made out of blocks of salt, we came to the end of our journey at Uyuni.
The early start was not too brutal – I slept well even in the thin air, and woke feeling fine at 5.30am. The others felt better too, and more up for a day of sightseeing than they had been yesterday. The lake, so red the previous day, was now more or less all blue. We breakfasted on mate de coca, crusty bread and scrambled flamingo eggs and left Laguna Colorada at 7am.
Our first stop was a group of stones sculpted into weird and wonderful shapes by the winds of the high Altiplano. The centrepiece is the Arbol de Piedra, a stone ‘tree’ which stands on an implausibly thin base and looks as if it could be toppled with a light push. A few other vehicles were there, and a few people were trying to topple it, but all found it impossible. We spent half an hour or so scrambling over the rocks, looking around at the desert and the mountains and the wilderness, before setting off. There were no roads here, just dusty tracks which we almost seemed to glide along in the 4WD. Victor had a CD of reggaeton music, and was becoming worryingly fond of one particular track as we ploughed through the thick sand. It was beginning to drive us slightly mad, but would become the almost constant soundtrack to our Altiplano journey.
We stopped at Villa Alota for lunch. It was a strange place, just a few dozen houses in the middle of nowhere and more or less deserted. Victor left us eating lunch while he gave someone a lift somewhere, which took an hour or so, and then for reasons we couldn’t work out he drained all the fuel from the car into a large tub, before refilling it. Then we had a pretty boring afternoon of driving through the desert to the village of Chuvica, which sits right on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar looked strange in the evening light as we arrived, glistening in the sun and stretching away as far as the eye could see.
We headed on to Laguna Colorada. We arrived in the mid-afternoon and the lake was bright red, with flamingoes dotted all across the waters. What looked like steam rising from the lake in the distance was apparently salt water whirlwinds, a common site here. We were staying here for the night, at Campamento Ende, a meteorological station on the south-western shore of the lake, and we were all now feeling the altitude. My trip to El Tatio had definitely done me some good, acclimatisation-wise, as had the trip up to Sol de Mañana and back down to here, and I went for a walk while the others rested, but I was still totally exhausted if I walked even a few metres uphill. I took a lot of photos of the lake, which was getting redder and redder due to mineral reactions in the sunlight, and the thousands of flamingoes strutting about in the shallow waters.
Night fell not long after 6pm, and the temperature plummeted. I stood on the shores of the lake, breathing the thin cold air and watching a thunderstorm in the distance, until 9pm when the generator at Campamento Ende was shut off, and the only light was coming from the moon. I went to bed exhausted by the altitude and slightly dreading the 6am start we were apparently planning for the morning.
Over the previous month I’d travelled from the ice-bound fjords of Patagonia more than two thousand miles away, all the way to here. From northern Scotland to Timbuktu is about the same distance. Chile had been an amazing place but I had less than two months left until I needed to be in Quito so I had to move on. Sprawling across thousands of square miles of southern Bolivia between San Pedro and the nearest Bolivian town of Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, and I hooked up with Sebastian from Germany and Pia and Signe from Denmark to cross it. We would travel across in a 4WD driven by Victor from Bolivia.
The Bolivian border is only thirty miles from San Pedro but it’s more than 2 kilometres higher, and the rapid ascent was a bit risky from the point of view of altitude sickness. My trip to El Tatio had been good for acclimatisation, though, and I felt OK as we waited in the thin air to get our passports stamped. Near by, an old bus was decaying into the desert sands. It seemed a strange place to have a border, and I wondered just how boring it must get here on a slow day, with absolutely nothing here but the border itself – no town, no shops, no scenery.
Our first stop was Laguna Blanca, just a short distance from the border. It’s a deep green mineral lake, which sits at the base of Volcán Licancabur. San Pedro was just on the other side of the mountain, hardly any distance at all, but it felt like we were in a different world, here in the thin air and harsh terrain. I walked down to the chalky muddy shores of the lake to take some photographs before we drove on to Laguna Verde, a little bit higher up and further on. Here we found hot springs, and we took a warm bath in the hot Altiplano sunshine. I made a huge tactical error in not putting on more sun cream – somehow, although I’ve spent a lifetime getting sunburnt even in the Arctic, I thought I would not get burnt in the midday sun 4,000m above sea level in the tropics. Within twenty minutes my shoulders were a terrifying red, and I knew I was in for an uncomfortable few days.
It was a great place for a dip, though, in fantastically warm water and surrounding by vast wild high-altitude desert and a horizon dotted with volcanoes. None of us were yet feeling the effects of the altitude and the mood was good as we headed yet higher, to Sol de Mañana, 5,000m above sea level and apparently the highest geothermal area in the world. A few roaring holes in the ground were spattering mud, and steam was rising from everywhere. At this altitude there is barely half the amount of oxygen you get at sea level, and I was beginning to feel a bit spaced out. I tried to take some video footage of the mud geysers, but didn’t even notice until later that I was taking stills by mistake. I was glad that our destination for the day was 700m lower than here.