2 December 2013

The Salt Flats

31st Oct - 3rd November

This is something which is hard to describe in words - a trip through the salt flats is a massively visual experience and something which words will fail to describe. Thankfully I have a lot of pictures - no really, lots. Hundreds. They are awaiting processing and now that I have my laptop with me I'll be working my way through them.

I spent 4 days travelling from Tupiza to Uyuni, travelling with Tupiza Tours, a tour company which comes recommended by Footprint and by Gil, who I suspect found reference to them in there. For what it's worth, I'd recommend them too.

Tupiza isn't the normal route across the salt flats - the normal route starts in Uyuni and has various end-points from there including San Pedro de Atacama, which is where I wanted to end-up. The advantage of starting in Tupiza is that you get to see parts of the area which you can't if you do the Utuni to San Pedro route and they are well worth seeing - stunning - well worth the detoured route of Potosi to Tupiza to Uyuni to San Pedro (via Calama).

The tour itself is via off-road vehicle, where almost every operator uses Toyota Landcruisers; there were a few Nissan's, but the vast majority were Landcruisers. No surprises there.

The normal setup with Tupiza Tours is that a vehicle has 1 driver & guide, 1 cook and 4 passengers - which is another reason for using them / starting in Tupiza; tours from Uyuni often have 6 passengers in a truck and that would be a uncomfortably tight. Our Landcruiser didn't have a cook as there were two vehicles leaving from the Tupiza Tours at the same time, so we shared cooks and had a 5th passenger in our vehicle.

The days reminded me of my time in Daisy and Archie - hours upon hours of driving through stunning scenery, where there is nothing else to do but sit back and marvel at the sights. Heaven.

The sights themselves can only really be experienced by seeing them, which I'd encourage everyone who is anywhere near Bolivia to do. Until then I've got a lot of pictures to process, including on one of the best, if not the best, sunsets I've ever seen, and one which we only saw because the Landcruiser got upset due to the altitude (about 4000m, if memory serves).

One of common issues discussed on the likes of Trip Advisor for salt flats tours is the quality of the vehicle - there are plenty of companies out there with poor vehicles and (very) dodgy drivers - there are plenty of stories about drunken drivers.
Tupiza Tours has a good reputation, in part due to its vehicles, but no mechanical system is perfect and no matter now much maintenance goes into the vehicles they will sometimes go wrong (see Daisy for details). And on our first day out of Tupiza our (nameless) vehicle had a few issues - she'd conk-out, run very slowly, not manage to get up hills and generally wasn't a happy bunny.

The inevitable happened and our vehicle broke down. Our driver, the driver of the other Tupiza Tours vehicle and, in part because we were blocking the road and no one could get past, the drivers from other tour companies helped to fix our Cruiser. The other part to the drivers from other companies helping is that it is what you do out in the salt flats and as you overland elsewhere in the world, especially in remote parts (e.g. Mongolia) - you help those you find in trouble, as one day it could be you. Pay it forwards, in advance.

After about an hour we were on the move again, where, unsurprisingly, we broke down again a whopping 1300m later, which had taken us 10+ min to drive - there is a reason behind the total lack of surprise in the breakdown. We blocked the road again, got a group fix again and didn't lose too much more time.

At the third break-down (again, not very far later) the driver from our Cruiser had each of the 5 passengers from his vehicle find a seat in the 5 other Landcruisers we kept blocking - we were all heading for the same place, so at least this way we'd get there. Interestingly *all* of our luggage, which in the case of all of us was *everything* we were travelling with, was still on the roof of the increasingly unhappy Landcruiser.

We had been driving for about 30 min in our other cars when we stopped for a quick picture stop - a lagoon, if memory serves. During the drive we'd lost sight of the Landcruiser with our stuff on it, which was interesting, so I had no expectation of seeing it for a while.
Stepping out of the vehicle to take a few snaps and the cold hit me. The others from my original vehicle had been saying how cold it was getting, but I was still happy in my shirt; stepping out of the vehicle I was "hitching" a ride with and the wind hit me and stole all my body heat. The desert is cold when it wants to be, especially when at ~4000m, and it wanted me to be cold - and I was. Very - chattering teeth and the works.

To my utter surprise "my" Landcruiser turned up a couple of min later, with all my lovely warm clothing - I may have broken a record for how quickly you can put on a warm jacket. I got lucky, as otherwise I'd be stuck without any warm clothing in an increasingly cold desert - not good.
(Side note: if you want a really good down jacket and don't want to pay £lots for it - I highly recommend Alpkit's Filo jacket - seriously warm, amazing value and have kept me warm on some *cold* days at serious altitude. Their sleeping bags are great too - it is what I took through Central Asia.)

It turns out that, as with humans, sometimes the altitude gets the better of the vehicles, even if normally OK. The thing just started working properly, for no apparently good reason.

Continuing the rest of the journey in "my" vehicle, collecting the others as we passed their borrowed vehicles, the sun began to set. Cue what is one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen.

I have no words to describe it and you will all have to wait for the pictures - just imagine an amazing sunset in the desert and it was better than that. Had the Landcruiser not broken down we would have been as the hostel for the night and missed the views.

In the words introduced to me by Mark (of many hats) in Uzbek - Good Luck. Bad Luck. Only time will tell.

The rest of the journey is one that I'll try and tell in pictures.