Articles tagged with "desert"
Flight over Uluru
Night skies over Uluru
Zambian bus odyssey
The semi-mythical bus from here to Zambezi turned out to be a real thing, which left at 9am on Monday morning, so we spent the weekend in Solwezi. On Friday night we went into town, and discovered nshima, the staple food of Southern Africa. It’s a kind of maize porridge, served with either meat, chicken or fish, and you eat it with your fingers. We also discovered how overwhelmingly friendly Zambians are, and being typically restrained Englishmen, I think we came across as slightly unfriendly. ‘Are you scared of me?’ asked one very drunk guy in the bar.
During the weekend we met many local people. Joe and Chris, who owned the motel we were staying in, turned out to be grandsons of the local chief. We met many members of their family, and we were invited to go to visit the chief with them. But sadly their Saturday evening lasted most of Sunday as well, and they were in no fit state to visit royalty, so we had to give it a miss. We also met Daniel and Clifford, two eccentric characters with a hand puppet, who demanded that we take photographs of them, before accompanying us into town for a drink or two. And we met Martin, an interesting guy who had worked all over southern Africa, and casually mentioned that he’d once spent a year in prison in Angola. Somehow, (it’s still not quite clear how we managed it) we ended up agreeing to pay him to come with us to Zambezi.
When Monday morning came we had to make a quick trip to the bank when it opened to get ourselves a couple of million Kwacha, forced to get huge wads of money by the outrageous minimum commission on traveller’s cheques. And then we went to the bus station and boarded the bus to Zambezi. It was supposed to leave at 9am, and arrive at 6pm, but like all Zambian buses it left the regulation hour and a half late. It was crammed full of people and luggage, with a vast array of possessions piled high on the roof as well. The chaotic process of loading up the bus seemed to have exhausted everyone, for within half an hour as we rolled west, everyone on the bus was asleep, and a peaceful atmosphere prevailed.
For the first couple of hours, the road was smooth tar, but not long after midday the good surface ran out, and we were onto gravel. The bus had no suspension to speak of, and the seats had no padding to speak of either, so very quickly the journey became uncomfortable. We bounced along for a couple of hours before suddenly stopping in the middle of nowhere. Everyone got off the bus to stretch legs and massage weary buttocks, while some urgent bush mechanics got underway. Fortunately the engine was going again within half an hour and we were back on the way.
The mesmerising monotony of the Zambian landscape was beginning to rob me of my sense of time, but I snapped out of it and stopped dribbling as the sun set magnificently, and for a couple of hours I stared delightedly out the window as the twilight colours gave way to inky black darkness, splattered with the breathtakingly bright Milky Way, and interrupted occasionally by the light of fires in and around the villages. Around 8pm I foolishly began to think ‘Well, we must almost be there by now…’
But we rumbled on, slowly and increasingly painfully. Every couple of hours we would stop, and everyone would fall over everyone else as they all tried to get off the bus at the same time. Then the last people off would fall over the first people off as they got back on again. Then as the bus driver revved up, everyone still outside would fall over themselves in their haste to get back on board. I joined in the whole process each time, just for a chance to restore circulation to my legs and get a glimpse of the starry, starry sky.
By two in the morning I was beginning to wonder if the journey would ever end. By wrapping my head in several jumpers and resting it on the back of the seat in front of me, I could attempt to sleep without risk of brain damage, but this was a tougher journey than I had ever anticipated. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that Western Zambia is way off the beaten tracks.
I was really expecting to watch the sun rise from the bus, but at four in the morning, battered and bruised, we finally arrived. The bus stopped by the government resthouse, but that turned out to be full. Luckily there were some people from the Zambezi Motel looking for customers off the bus, so we followed them. It was quite a walk from the bus stop, especially after 20 hours of getting smacked about on bumpy roads, and as we staggered along one of them warned me not to expect too much from the Motel. ‘You know the saying, when in Rome do as the Romans do?’, she asked. ‘Well, just remember you’re in Zambezi…this is the bush!’.
Lazy day in Zambezi
I could have slept for at least a week, but we were woken early by Martin, who was keen for us to see the sights. And oh, what a sight when we pulled back the curtains to see the river winding towards us from Angola, dazzling under the bright sun. Though we were weary and battered, we managed to get up and go for a stagger around Zambezi. The town stood on thick sand, the northern fringes of the Kalahari desert, so walking around was hard work, but we managed it. Soon enough we found our way to a bar, and decided to stop for a while. It was the Riverside Club, which as we were to discover over the next few days, is one of the best places in the world to spend an evening. Still shellshocked from our overnight odyssey, we sat there for some time, drinking cold drinks and watching the river go by.
Rune, who had travelled with us from Solwezi, was intending to go on to Chavuma, right up on the border with Angola, so after a bone-soothing few hours at the Riverside, we wandered off with him to find out about transport in that direction. It turned out that the only possible way of getting there was to hitch, so we found a good hitching spot and left Rune there. Then we decided it was time to get down on the mighty Zambezi and see it close up. It was a timeless scene up there at Zambezi with little dugout canoes ferrying people back and forth between the villages on either bank. We hired one of these for a quick trip up the river.
We decided in the afternoon that some more recovery was in order, and so we did nothing. I sat in the sun, by this great river, reading H. Rider Haggard and feeling like I was lost in the middle of Africa. This happy state of affairs lasted until sunset, when we found enough energy to walk down to the riverbanks to watch the first of many Zambezi sunsets. It was the first of many occasions on which I took a large number of very similar photos.
Bridge over the River Zambezi
Day 7. One day before eclipse day. We were recovered enough to contemplate travel, and we decided we would go to Chinyingi. It seemed amazing to me that between source and sea there were just four bridges across the Zambezi. Chinyingi was the uppermost of them. We headed to the bus station to see if by some miracle there was a bus heading in that direction, but there wasn’t. Instead of a bus, we found Catherine, a bank worker who we had met in Solwezi. She had thought she wouldn’t be able to get time off work to come and see the eclipse, but it turned out she had managed it, and so here she was in the path of totality. Like us, she could not believe what an experience the journey to here had been. Unlike us, poor woman, she would be returning the same way after the eclipse.
Catherine wanted to head to Chavuma, to meet up with Rune, and as Chinyingi is on the way to there, we invited her along with us. In the absence of buses, hitching is the way to head north from Zambezi, but hitching in Zambia always involves a contribution to petrol costs. Usually you pay the same as the bus fare, but sometimes negotiation is involved. We met a guy called Edwin who had a car and would drive us to Chinyingi. ‘How much will you pay me?’, he asked. ‘How much do you want?’, we asked. ‘No no, I asked first!’, he replied. We were still coming to terms with the exchange rate, and ignorant of the price of petrol, but fortunately we managed not to insult Edwin with our first offer, and then find a mutually agreeable price.
So off we drove up the rough road to Angola. There was a surprising amount of traffic on this road, and we were to learn that though the town had had problems with gun-runners in the past, nowadays the situation across the border is more stable, the epicentre of the civil war in that country having shifted. We drove up the road for a while before taking a left turn to cross the flood plain. The rainy season had ended not many weeks before, but the broad plain was now dry. Pretty much all of Zambia is flat, but the flood plain is devoid of trees, and looks even flatter than the rest of the country.
On the way we met Roger and Robert, two Dutch travellers who had got on the bus from Solwezi in the middle of the long, long night. They were walking out to a village north of Zambezi, with a local guide, and though Edwin’s car was small we offered them a lift. They crammed themselves in, somehow, and from somewhere behind their bags they said they were fine. After we dropped them off we drove on up to Chinyingi.
The bridge was built in the early seventies, after four people drowned trying to cross the river in a small boat on a stormy night. The missionaries from the nearby Chinyingi mission, undeterred by a lack of bridge-building experience, built it from materials donated by the mines of Zambia’s Copperbelt, and nearly thirty years later it was still standing. It’s a suspension footbridge, and as we bounced across to the other side, our confidence in the Brothers’ bridge-building skills grew. The river flowed gently into the distance and it was hard to believe it could ever become the raging flood that prompted the building of the bridge.
After a quick look around the grounds of the Chinyingi mission, we wandered down to the banks of the river, and here I began to feel like an explorer. Broad expanses of sand, which must have been uncovered by the dwindling river some weeks before, had not a single footprint to be seen on them. We took some photographs, left some footprints and headed back home. We dropped Catherine off by the road to Chavuma and wished her luck. After another perfect sunset and another over-enthusiastic photography session, we headed to the Riverside bar for the evening.
Eclipse day. During the night, I had a succession of horrible dreams in which I was in Cornwall again, watching the clouds cover up the crescent sun, or I was waking up in Zambia to find that it was cloudy. And when I woke some time before sunrise I thought my worst nightmares were coming true. I looked out the window to see dull grey skies casting a lifeless light over the land, and my heart leapt into my mouth. Surely this was all wrong! It took a while to realise that this was just the very early pre-dawn light making things look odd, and as the sky tinged blue with the oncoming day I relaxed, just a little bit.
We got up and went down to the river to watch the sun rise. Two years earlier I’d watched the Sun rise over pools of mist from a Cornish hilltop, and I’d listened to Mute by Porcupine Tree. I did the same here on the banks of the Zambezi as I watched the sun sliding inexorably towards its rendezvous with the moon, lurking unseen next to it in the sky. There was not even a hint of a cloud in the sky, so my paranoia began to work on other possibilities. Perhaps the calculations were wrong and we would only see a partial eclipse? Perhaps there’d be a dust storm? Perhaps I’d get food poisoning from my lunch?
In the middle of the morning, we heard a drum begin to beat outside our hotel. It turned out to be a band with dancers, playing the traditional Makishi music which is common in this part of Zambia. We watched the dancing and listened to the singing with a large audience of locals against the stunning backdrop of the river and plains.
After a quick lunch of nshima and meat, we were ready to find an eclipse spot. We headed down to the river to get a boat across to the other side. Horror! There was not a boatman or a boat in sight. This was not what we expected. The local authorities had told the people to stay indoors unless they had a safe way of viewing the eclipse, and clearly a lot of people had decided to take a day off. Eventually a boatman appeared, and found a canoe in which he ferried us across to the other side. As we waited on the east bank, the first bite was taken out of the sun by the encroaching moon, and the eclipse was underway.
We walked along the west bank for a little while until we found a good spot to set up. The sun was now about a quarter covered up, but I knew from Cornwall that things wouldn’t really look any different until the sun was at least three-quarters gone. I tried to keep from panicking as I ran through my photographic plans once again.
And as the predicted time approached, we began to notice that it was getting cooler, and the light was beginning to take on the strange quality of an unreddened sunset. Gradually at first but ever faster, the light was beginning to drain away. I felt like I was going blind. The sun was a breathtakingly slender crescent now, and getting smaller by the second. Darker still and darker, and then – the sun was gone and in its place a great black hole appeared, surrounded by the unearthly, astonishingly beautiful, glowing corona. From all up and down the river there came the sound of shouting from the villages. I uttered some urgent profanities. We could see Jupiter near the sun, and a few other stars as well. I took photo after photo after photo, and managed to find a few seconds in which to stare at this utterly startling sight.
Far too quickly it came to a rapid end. With a sudden brightening, the first rays of sunlight appeared from behind the moon, producing a brief but brilliant ‘Diamond Ring’ effect, before the corona was drowned out by the return of the day. Bands of shadow briefly rippled across the landscape. Within a few seconds it was daylight, and a few minutes later it was like it had never happened. Two small planes chartered by high-rolling eclipse chasers had flown in just before the eclipse, and within ten minutes they were off again, and Zambezi was well on its way to normality. Most of the sun was still covered, though, and we sat on the riverbanks until the moon was clear of the sun once again.
After two years of planning and expectation, the end of the eclipse was a bit of an anticlimax. A herd of oxen was driven by into the river to swim across it, and we followed them in our canoe. It was just after 5pm. We decided to pop into the Riverside bar for a ‘quick post-eclipse drink’. Feelings of anticlimax soon went away as it turned into a raucous eight-hour party, quite by accident. The locals were in the mood for celebrating, and we celebrated with them, dancing energetically and outrageously to thumping Congolese pop, causing hilarity by trying to learn the local languages, and playing pool and chess. A combination of me being a teetotaller and most of the locals emphatically being no such thing gave me a protracted run of success on the pool table, and for some time I reigned as the Zambezi Pool King, to delighted rapture from those who had decided to support me, and some grudging respect from the backers of the local heroes. I began to think of how I would tell the story of the evening when I returned home (“…and after my seventeenth straight victory, they asked me to become their chief!”), but sadly in the eighth game I came up against a more sober opponent, who ended my impudent run with a narrow victory. John, meanwhile, had been battling for the title of Zambezi Chess Prime Minister, with varying success.
The night wore on, more crazy dancing was done, much fun was had, and I really didn’t want the day to end. A magical eclipse experience in a marvellous part of the world, followed by a legendary evening in a superb bar was really beyond my best expectations.
Down the river
Tired but happy, we rose early the next morning to make our exit from Zambezi and get on with the trip. We walked to the bus station and found the Solwezi bus loading up. We planned to get this bus to a town called Mumbeji, from where we would hitch a lift to Lukulu, further downriver, but the bus looked like it was going nowhere fast. We asked the driver when it would be leaving. “Oh, about 10.30 I think”, he replied. It was nearly 11am already. We gave up on the bus and decided to start hitching, asking the bus to pick us up if we hadn’t got a lift when it passed by. To our shame it passed by only about 20 minutes later, and we were off.
I was thankful, so thankful that unlike Martin and many others on the bus, we had only two hours until Mumbeji. The journey went OK, with a minor interruption when a goat which had been on the roof fell off and ran into the bush. John was particularly startled by this as it fell past his window. All the passengers trooped off to search for the hapless creature, recovering it before very long and securing it once more to its rooftop spot.
As we got off the bus in Mumbeji, we found ourselves waist-high in enthusiastic food sellers, thrusting eggs, fruit, drinks and chickens at us. We waded through them to a spot by the Lukulu road, and settled down to hitch. There’s not a lot of entertainment to be had in Lukulu, and for these thirty-odd kids, a couple of white guys with backpacks were worth a look. They gathered around in a semi-circle and watched. And watched. After a while, I laid back on my pack and put my hat over my face. The kids found this side-splittingly funny, and more kids raced up to have a look at us. After an hour or so in which no traffic passed by, we thought we might be the Mumbeji freakshow overnight, but fortunately at that point, a big 4WD truck with space in the back passed by, and we negotiated a price for Lukulu. We waved goodbye to the kids of Mumbeji, and drove off, sharing the truck with, among others, a soldier on leave heading home and a fish trader heading to the river for a catch.
We crossed the Kabompo river on a pontoon, and then drove off down the deep sandy road to Lukulu. Here we provided more quality entertainment for the local kids. The truck alone was quite exciting on a road which saw very little traffic, but a couple of white guys in the back was an added bonus. Each village poured forth a stream of kids who shouted and waved at us, delighted when we reciprocated. One kid raced out from his hut with an armful of oranges and hurled them vigorously at us. People who travelled the route regularly said that he always did this.
Frequently the truck got bogged down in the sand and had to be dug out. Like almost every vehicle in Zambia it had a duff starter motor, and required a push start every time. Pushing a heavy 4WD truck through sand was extremely good exercise. We stopped off on the way to help the truck driver gather some firewood, which was another workout. Then we drove on, watching the sun set, spectacularly as ever, behind the trees of the endless forest. We also saw an incredibly thin crescent moon, 28 hours past new, setting with the last of the day. Then the stars came out, and we arrived in Lukulu at about 8pm. We said goodbye to our travelling companions and set off in search of the Government Resthouse.
We didn’t find it, instead chancing upon a friendly preacher who offered to drive us to different accommodation, saying the Government resthouse was probably full. And so we ended up at the Washala Washala restaurant and hotel, where we booked a room for the night and got a meal of nshima and bream from the river.
From one falls to another
We made an early start the next day, all four of us hoping to be 250 miles away in Livingstone by the evening. We walked the long walk back to the road, arriving not long after nine. As we knew it would be, the road was absolutely quiet, so we sat down with our bags and taught Susan and Remco to play Shithead, the greatest card game of all time. After nearly an hour, we heard a vehicle in the distance and leapt up. We were in luck – it stopped for us, and asked where we going. We were in enormous luck – it was going all the way to Livingstone. We negotiated our fare and jumped in the back. It was a truck, in untypically good condition, and the only snag was that the back was very small, and already contained fifteen pumpkins and three sacks of maize. With a very tight squeeze we fitted four people and four backpacks in with them, and we were off.
Three of us could lean against the back of the cab, but I was the unlucky one who had to sit on the back of the truck. The road was bumpy and extremely dusty, and I had to hold tightly on to the truck to avoid being thrown out the back. Letting go would have been madness, but holding on meant that I couldn’t brush off the dust which was gathering thickly on my arms and face. Pretty soon I was grey and featureless and the sun was heating up the dust which was slowly cooking my arms. But every now and then a particularly large bump would knock some of the dust off as it sent shockwaves up my spine.
After three hours we reached the river once again, and crossed on the Sesheke pontoon. Here one of the passengers in the cab got out, and so Susan got in. The back was a spacious delight for the next few hours, and the road was smooth sand. I began to doze as the endlessly similar landscape rolled on by. Then, suddenly, my reverie was shattered as I woke to find myself and the contents of the back of the truck about two feet above the truck. As we crashed back down, we realised that we must have hit an unexpected bump. I decided it would be prudent to hold on again.
The rest of the journey went smoothly, very smoothly for the last hour or so as we got onto very good tarmac. We arrived in Livingstone at 7pm, and finding that our preferred choices of accommodation were full, stayed at the Red Cross hostel. Livingstone seemed extremely, extremely touristy compared to the places we’d been, and we thought we might be able to get something other than nshima and fish for dinner. We could, and we ate disgustingly well at a Chinese restaurant. During the meal, we each slipped out to the toilets to freshen up, for we all looked quite ridiculously filthy, covered in dust and grime. Me and John especially appreciated the food: we’d left Mongu with four loaves of bread, but along the way one of them had got soaked in petrol and the other was eaten by an elephant, so we’d not exactly eaten lavishly since then. And my caffeine cravings were at last eased by glorious, fabulous, real coffee. Being back on the beaten path was not entirely disappointing.
Train to Adelaide
Into the Atacama
I got a bus from Santiago to Antofagasta, 1100km north and sandwiched between the Atacama Desert and the Pacific Ocean. During the evening, at a stop somewhere in Chile’s wine-growing country, a man got on the bus selling small cakes, and I tried to buy a couple, but I didn’t quite catch what the price was and tried to pay with a note that was ridiculously too large for the transaction. He didn’t even try to explain – he just snatched back his cakes, threw my note back at me and stormed off the bus. Luckily, a friendly girl sat across the aisle from me shared her cakes with me, and told me that trying to pay for 50 peso cakes with a 5,000 peso note was not a good thing to do.
We stopped at La Serena at midnight, and then I slept until dawn. When I woke, it was like I was in a bus on the surface of the moon – we were in the Atacama. Not a single living thing could be seen in the harsh grey rocky desert, and we were surrounded by brown hills which looked like lumps of plasticine dropped from a great height. I thought I was dreaming when I saw a giant hand reaching up from the desert, a little way away from the road, but it turned out to be La Mano del Desierto, a sculpture by Mario Irarrázabal. We continued up the Inter-American Highway to Antofagasta, and it seemed strange to me that, nominally at least, this was the same road I’d travelled on five years ago in Central America. The misty mountains of Guatemala seemed like a very long way from this arid place.
By 10am we were in Antofagasta, and my first mission was to get coffee. Inexplicably for a South American bus, they’d only served tea for breakfast, and so I set off under the tropical sun to the nearest cafe. Unfortunately, they served me a cup of undrinkable filth, so I went to the next cafe where I got a better one. A third cup at the next cafe along was better still, and now I was ready to look around. I spent the day strolling around the pleasant streets before getting a bus deep into the desert to Calama, a spectacular journey in the late evening sun. I arrived in Calama at 10pm, and set off briskly for the centre of town, which was about a mile from the bus station. Very quickly I remembered that the road here from the coast had climbed precipitously, and I was now 2,400m above sea level. Gasping for breath, I walked slowly into town.
Calama is a mining town and it has a slightly rough feel to it. Apparently since the Spanish colonisation, 400 years ago, it has rained once, and that was in 1972. The aridity and altitude gave me an unquenchable thirst, and I also gave a lot of business to ice cream sellers around town while I was there. I’d wanted to go and see the copper mine at Chuquicamata, where Che Guevara and Alberto Granado had seen the foreign exploitation of Chile’s natural resources in 1952, but I’d arrived on a Friday and there were no tours over the weekend. So I just spent a day relaxing in the unforgiving sunshine, watching life on the main drag and buying occasional viciously cold cokes and amazing cakes from a friendly cafe over the road from my hotel.
I stocked up on more cakes from the cafe across the road before leaving Calama to go to San Pedro de Atacama. The bus journey took us through some forbidding Atacama scenery, rocky canyons and exposed plains and barely a speck of green in sight, and it seemed amazing to me that people could make a journey like this, through some of the harshest terrain in the world, by bus. My fellow passengers were mostly locals and I looked around at them, feeling some kind of envy that they lived in this remarkable place.
I arrived in San Pedro in the early afternoon, and the sun beat down on the low whitewashed buildings which glared fiercely. I found a hostel and checked in, and wandered around the tiny village, quickly exploring more or less all of it. It was clearly a town that lived off tourism, but it didn’t seem as in-your-face about it as El Calafate or Pucón had been. El Calafate seemed to be built with wealthy visitors in mind, while Pucón was a middle-class Chilean sort of place, but San Pedro was definitely about backpackers. It made for a sociable time but I never much like places where local culture has been overwhelmed by outsiders. It’s the central problem of travel really – I want to visit amazing places and see spectacular things, but I don’t really want anyone else to.
I hired a bike in San Pedro, and spent a day exploring the surrounding desert. Fortunately I got a sensible machine, far more realistic a proposition than the contraption I’d hired in Puerto Madryn and definitely up to the task of cycling in the driest place on the planet. I started by heading north to the Pukará de Quitor, an impressive hilltop fort which was the site of a last stand during the Spanish conquest. The views from here over the desert showed what an anomaly San Pedro is, with trees and vegetation in an otherwise unremitting sea of light brown.
Further north, I spent a while in the Quebrada del Diablo, a twisting narrow canyon that cuts deep into the hills. I don’t know how far I went down it – I started by cycling but before too long the floor of the canyon was too rough to make that worthwhile, so I locked up the bike and went on by foot. It was an amazing place – just hot sand, orange rocks and blue skies, and if I stood still and held my breath the silence was total. It was obvious that water had rushed violently through here at some point, but extremely hard to believe that could ever happen in the arid heat of the middle of the day.
After the Quebrada, I headed a little bit further down the road to what was allegedly the Inca ruins of Catarpe. But either I didn’t go to the right place, or Catarpe is really rubbish – there seemed to be nothing at all to see except a stone wall which could have been built yesterday. It was now far too hot to realistically explore any more, so I headed back to San Pedro for lunch. I’d taken plenty of water and drunk pints and pints, but still I’d almost lost my voice thanks to the extreme dryness. I found a shop selling ice cream in San Pedro and decided that for health reasons I should buy some. One portion left me feeling only partially restored, but a second had me feeling like doing more cycling, and as the afternoon heat gradually receded, I set out for the Valle de la Luna, an area of rock formations 17km south of San Pedro, to catch the sunset there.
This was far less fun than the morning’s cycling had been. Earlier, there hadn’t been even a breath to disturb the hot stillness, but now in the late afternoon a wind had sprung up from the west, and it was getting stronger by the second. Although it was much cooler than it had been, the wind was hot, and it felt like I was cycling into a hairdryer as I slowly pedalled down the tarmac toward the valley. The scenery was stunning, barren beyond belief and with towering volcanoes fringing the horizon, but I was beginning to get angry with the wind. After a few kilometres the tarmac stopped and I was on a sandy track, with the wind still blowing right at me, and every time I stopped for a second to catch my breath, the wind seemed to drop to nothing, only to start up again with renewed ferocity when I pushed off. At times I even struggled to cycle downhill. I cycled on in a furious rage, cursing the desert and the wind and thinking I could have been sat on an air-conditioned tour bus which would have cost me less than my bike hire had.
But eventually the valley appeared, and as soon as I wasn’t cycling any more I enjoyed the cycling I’d just done. The valley looked alive in the blazing evening light, and I scrambled up the sides to get stunning views over the surroundings, with Volcán Licancábur standing solemnly over everything. After the Sun had set the light quickly began to fade, and I set off for the return cycle. This was massively more fun, and with the wind behind me it took me barely half an hour to get back to San Pedro. By the end of the journey it was almost dark except for the light of the full moon, and I felt pretty pleased with 50 kilometres of cycling in the world’s driest desert.
In an ideal world, after a day of cycling in the desert I’d have had a lie-in to recover. But I’d booked myself onto a trip to El Tatio, northern Chile’s most famous geyser field, and for reasons I really can’t begin to understand, these geysers only erupt for a couple of hours after sunrise. This meant that seeing them required a 4am start. My guide book said that the lights of San Pedro were off between midnight and dawn, so I thought I might see some good skies, but they’ve obviously got some better electricity since the book was published, and I waited for my minibus under a lit streetlight. The bus arrived shortly after 4, and we drove off into the night. After about half an hour we stopped to have a look at the sky, and it was absolutely stunning. It was absolutely filled with stars, and the Milky Way blazed overhead.
I dozed during the rest of the journey. The air was getting thinner and colder, and even though I’d been at about 2000m above sea level for almost a week, the sudden rush to over 4,000m was quite taxing. As dawn began to break, we were passing through the village of Machuca, and half an hour before dawn we were at the geysers. The temperature outside was almost -10°C, and we were on a plain 4,300m above sea level, surrounded by mountains a few hundred metres high, with steam rising all around and a deep velvet blue sky overhead.
I set off to explore straight away. The ground was frosty in places but hot in others. Having seen geysers in Iceland, at first I thought these ones were not too impressive. The most powerful was only throwing water up a couple of metres, compared to Iceland’s finest, Strokkur, which jetted out columns of water up to 15 metres tall. And all of these geysers were in almost constant eruption, rather than the occasional jets from Strokkur. But these were more impressive in their own way, especially because they covered such a large area. And the biting cold of the Altiplano dawn meant that each droplet of water left a trail of steam behind it, and everything was wreathed in mist.
As soon as the Sun came up, I liked El Tatio more. The warmth was tangible and the light on the geysers was impressive. Also fun was the breakfast provided by the people I’d come with – they put a box of eggs in one hot pool, and a carton of chocolate-flavoured milk in another, and within a few minutes we were eating delicious soft-boiled eggs and drinking hot chocolate. But we had to explore quickly now, because the geysers would stop erupting within an hour or so. Overhead, the interplay of sunlight and ice particles was creating a circumzenithal arc, a fairly rare sight.
It was quite eerie when the geysers began to die down at about 8am. It seemed like someone was turning off the heat, and that perhaps the whole thing was somehow artificial, generated only for the tourists. By 9am only a few wisps of steam still rose into the warming morning, and it was time to head back down to San Pedro. I was starting to feel the effects of the altitude now, and was glad to be descending again. We drove to Machuca and stopped there for lunch. It’s a spectacular place, a tiny village lost in the brown Atacama, but with a glowing white church to make it stand out. They were selling empanadas at a fairly extortionate price, but it was clearly a poor village and I didn’t begrudge them this revenue source. Besides, by now my head felt like it was about to explode any minute, and I was hardly able to convert from Chilean pesos into pounds anyway.
We drove for a long while on a plain about 4000m above sea level, spotting herds of vicuña well camouflaged in the brown background. As we began to descend, we got a puncture, and stopped for about half an hour to fix it, which seemed like forever given my pounding high-altitude headache. I was incredibly relieved to get back to the relatively dense atmosphere of San Pedro at 3pm, and spent the afternoon recovering lazily.
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.