Continuing from Uyuni Salt flat from part one…..
Read the continuing story from the town of Uyuni where I'd previously returned defeated - and tired - in the previous chapter Bolivia Part One, after an unsuccessful search for fuel in Bolivia's altiplano.* Now I try again, riding 700km in the south-west corner of Bolivia on its famous, popular and remote Lagunas Route.* But the fuel issues weren't over as I rode and continued on my way round Bolivia via ghost towns and endless high passes and volcanic lakes to finally leave the altiplano heading to geologically stupendous Tupiza in search of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid!*
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Valle de RocasThe wind charges through like rushing ghosts and the red rock reaches out of the ocean of sand like hands and waves fighting against the tide.* The tent, for once, is cosily placed, embraced and shielded by one of these tall red waves of rock, out of ghostly reach.
I turn off the stove and pour the hot water on a tea bag before turning to my book.* A lizard scurries along the course sand and I look up to see him curl between the cooling stove and a warm rock.* His skin is the colour of pebbles and he looks back to me with innocent black eyes as with his quick forked tongue he tastes the air.* It tastes of tea and feet.* I move for my hot cup of sweet tea and he scurry-scurries away to back from where he came.** I turn back to my book and before reaching the very same line on the page, he is there again…..and then again, always the same spot.
“You’re a brave fella, aren’t you…..curious at least….hey, you’re not coming in my tent are you?”
Considering this perhaps, the lizard looks for a while longer, before this time courageously scampering quickly around and behind the tent, out of sight.* He must be going home, for the sun is beginning to set.* I think about reading the same sentence in my book for the umpteenth time, but with the temperature dropping, so too is the wind; time to go off and get some photos.
Walking, I watch as the rock turns deeper and deeper orange and the sky morphs into a huge and spotless dome of violet.* I take pictures of the colourful waves of rock as the shadows rise up from the ground and the world vanishes for the night.
When I return to the tent, the light-show over, I can’t seem to settle my mind enough to relax and read; perhaps it’s the stone claw hanging over my tent waiting to fall and maul me.* But no, it’s not that.* I’m camping in the Valle de Rocas, the first point along the “Ruta de las Lagunas.”* It is a somewhat remote route running south-west on the 4000m high altiplano
away from the town of Uyuni and its impeccable salt-flat to the border of Chile.* I can’t really convince myself how long the route is, 400km or 700km….all those little twists in the map’s lines.* And, though remote, it is well used; in some areas by mining trucks going to Chile but mainly by numerous 4x4 tour groups, having the effect – I was to find - of making it not quite so remote after all.* There are villages too, though these are few, far apart and quite small, or otherwise outposts set up mainly to serve the tour groups at key spots.* I’d been lucky to speak with someone in Uyuni during my time there, a man who works in the national park which contains the lagoons and of course the “route” itself.** This meant I knew the best route, according to him at least, and importantly where I could get fuel.
Even so, the first and most secure point for fuel, San Cristobal, just 85km from Uyuni and which actually boasts a service station, was out of fuel.* After a long search there, a friendly
, knocking tentatively on doors, telephone calls, and a lengthy walk, I managed to secure two cola bottles full of fuel (4 litres/1 gallon).* And so the reason for my restlessness; did I have the fuel to get me to the next point, Quetena Chico?* A small village according to the map, no service station, “bolsa negra”
(black bag) only and so; would they even have fuel?
First two days on the Lagunas Route
As the temperature cools I bundle myself up amongst the sleeping bag, sat on airbed and surrounded by my familiar heaps of paraphernalia.* No amount of staring at the map and gauging distances with finger, thumb and screwed-up face can soothe my fears.* How much fuel have I used anyway?* With the wind having dropped I can now safely add the final two litre cola bottle of fuel into the tank.* I heave myself from the tent and pick up the now dusty bottle, looking at it forlornly in the last of the day’s light.* All this worry for a liquid, so important, what will we do when we run out of it for good?* It’s then I notice that the fuel is full of….spermy bits!* Little translucent white bits floating around languidly from top to bottom.* I take the cap off, knowing the reason already, the little rubber seal within the cap, great to keep the fizz in one’s coke, but obviously: not solvent proof.* On the bright side it isn’t sperm, but the rubber has dissolved into a slimy gunk, now floating within the fuel.* With some panic-stricken thinking I cut another bottle in half for a funnel and filter the fuel through the only thing that comes to mind: my old helmet bag.* Luckily it seems to work, though for safety’s sake I let the bottle stand overnight for any fine solids to settle in the bottom.
Not a solvent proof lid seal!
Filtering the fuel through the helmet bag!
The fuel looks as fine and clear as the crystal cool-blue morning and so I add it to the tank, which takes on its reassuring fullness once again, as hoped.* This means my calculations, even at altitude seem to be accurate so far and confidence is restored.
I unfold my tattered map of Bolivia which shows the road continuing west from camp before turning left and south - not too far from the border with Chile –towards the lakes.* But after an hour or so riding I reach a line of parked-up trucks with the road still continuing west; I’ve made a mistake, I’ve missed the turn-off.* A friendly Bolivian border official comes trotting over the dry arid land and asks me where I’m going.* He confirms my error and points me back to where the turning was, where I’ve just come from, “Yeah, I saw it!* I just didn’t think it was the one!” I say, recalling the only turn–off along the road.* He smiles back as if to say “bad luck, but don’t worry, you won’t run out of fuel.”* Still, it’s a long 30km back, and so I’m down 60km of vital fuel.*
What little time I don’t spend cursing myself on the 30km return, I spend re-doing maths; juggling fuel quantities and distances; can I still reach Quetena?* My guesswork has it that at sea level I could do 440km, going very slow and with an absolutely brimming tank.* Here, considering the altitude considerably less, perhaps 350km.* But whilst these and more numbers swirl around my head, I still don’t really know how far it is anyway, so it’s elementary, and with all the worry I’m missing the scenery.
It’s a great relief to finally return to the missed junction, turning off between two tall dark volcanoes, the 5858m Caquella and 4903m Chulluncani, and though still cursing my mistake I am now at least making headway south.* It’s a nice track too, rising up to the shoulder between these two volcanoes but, wanting to conserve fuel, I try to maintain a barely open throttle.* However, this steep rise has me wincing as I must twist the grip, rev the engine and encourage the low-powered and thirsty mule uphill.
Very tame flamingos along the lagunas route
Dropping down from the crest, through a broad sandy section littered with squirming 4x4 tracks, two cyclists push their way doggedly upwards towards me.* I pass them some way off to the right as the tail of the bike squirms through the sand.* For me now it’s downhill at least and a little farther on and I reach the first lagoon; a deep shadowy blue teeming with big-beaked and plump flamingos.* I step off the bike next to one of many 4x4s and get talking with one of the drivers and accompanying guides.
”How’s your group,” I ask, ”nice people?”*
”Yup, pretty good I think…” he says looking to his guide for confirmation, who nods as she bites into an apple, “it's only the first day.* Five Germans, over there…”* he adds pointing through dust raised by other vehicles which are turning up and disgorging stiff-limbed tourists left and right.
”There’s a lot of tourists….,” I say, “it’s like Cusco.”
”Ha!* Always!….You’ve been to Cusco?”
”Yeah!* That place is llenisimo
with gringos!* But it’s really nice!”
“So, you’ve been to Machu Picchu?”
”No, actually….it’s very expensive, and anyway…here’s more my sort of thing!”
”It’s beautiful no?!* Hey, want an apple?”*
“Ooh, yeah, thanks….actually,” I say staring up at his roof rack, “you don’t have any spare fuel do you?* It’s just, I missed the turn back there and might be a bit short.”
”Yeah, sure…how much do you need?” He pops the bonnet on his Toyota Landcruiser and very kindly fills my two coke bottles from its fuel pump.* His group return and - seeing the car’s bonnet up - get a bit testy with the driver, fearing something is wrong with the car.* The driver quickly shuts the bonnet and says “adios”, leaving me to do more maths in the dust.
A Buddhist Koan.....without the enlightenment!However I calculate it, I can at the very least make my first planned camp at Laguna Colorado, and so for today I should have no worries.* That said, it is about 180km away, and together with the 60km detour and my lackadaisical moto, it will mean a long day, if I can get there at all.* I leave my unanswered riddles scratched into the dust to push on, skirting around and above this lake onto a plateau and following the seemingly endless chain of the volcanic Andes bursting out of the ground on my right, ever south.* The route fans out here as the landscape opens up and the 4x4s look for dust-free air and smooth untouched earth.* I see one or two of the 4x4s flying along the horizon far off to my right and left, as if going for the land-speed record sending up dust, and yet hardly moving at all until, all of a sudden, they are gone.*
All these trails actually make the place look a bit abused.* I often think about the damage I’m doing by travelling, living.* When I camp in the desert especially and see the patch where the tent has been I feel sorry.* Around it; perhaps bits of toothpaste and cooking residues, somewhere a toilet and always footprints. I hate to see my footprints, hundreds it seems, in just one night.* I’m quite a clean camper but my presence is obvious.* Nature is powerful, but the desert is weaker and will take years before those and these marks are smoothed over.
They’re not smooth now.* Criss-crossing over the rough and corrugated landscape, and I’d been warned about the sand here, but have encountered only a little.* I find the bike terrible on these corrugations.* Sometimes if the wind is behind or if it’s a tiny downhill gradient I can fly along at full-speed and hardly feel them, but the other way around and it is like trying to ride over railway girders and the bike just stops.* Riding out from Uyuni on my way here to my first camp, I could ride full speed; 80-90kmh, whereas - if you remember from Chapter 1 of Bolivia - I nearly drove myself insane trying to ride to
Uyuni on the very same road, at* about 40kmh.* Here it seems worse still, I can hardly get going at all and I toss my fuel conservation strategy aside like Bolivian litter and instead grab some throttle.* The corrugations cost me a gear, down to fourth, the altitude another, the wind - which is directly against - one more, and any upward incline at least one more; I’m in minus first!* I actually spend most of the day in first and second gear, the engine screaming and my inner voice too.
The landscape is generally flat or gently undulating, and whilst any sort of gradient uphill here means running in first gear, a downhill has hardly any effect at all and I’m still stuck in second gear.* Sometimes, if I race the engine to the point where I can feel my teeth vibrating against the underside of my brain, I can possibly get into third gear, but only momentarily as I frustratingly hear the engine fading, before angrily having to kick back down to wide-open-second, and never up to fourth.* It’s incredible.* It’s interminable!* The wind doesn’t seem that bad; not fast but it just ‘thick’ as if riding through glue.* I can’t imagine how it must be for the cyclists, the true heroes here, miserable perhaps mind you, or so it appears.
I’d started early this morning in an attempt to miss the increasing winds of the afternoons, but my 60km detour has scuppered that.* Part of the problem, mentally at least, is the huge visibility in this massive landscape, meaning that I feel as if I am barely making headway!* I am
barely making headway!* 30km/h.* I think about asking a bicyclist to swap, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about fuel!* It is however, a glorious landscape but sadly I am not enjoying this as much as I should.* I wonder if it is because of the bike, or myself; my impatience, or if the area isn’t as good as I’d somehow expected?* Or are the 4x4s and tourists distracting and detracting from it all, too many humans perhaps, the great consumers leaving me only footprints or tyre-marks.
One of the numerous beautiful lakes....and a 4x4!
Second gear folks.....
It’s late in the afternoon and with my mind fixed on reaching Laguna Colorado to camp I haven’t thought about food.* At a particularly stupendous black-red sweep of land I decide to stop and eat, slumping down on to the ground behind the bike. The wind though, ever present, quickly dries my bread to dust in my hand.* I eat only half a piece and with a sigh toss the rest into the top-box and push on again.* I hope I’m close.* Not far away and I enter the national park boundaries and here the trails funnel down into one track and, well used, become smoother.* Finally, summiting a sweeping rise Laguna Colorado comes into view, my planned camp-spot, and what a sight!* An expansive puddle of wine-red lake and salt in a volcanic bowl!
Adjacent to the lake is the entrance to the national park and I am a bit dismayed to find that it costs 150Bs($22) to enter (compared to 15Bs in Peru for a national park).* I’m given a seat in the office as tour-groups come and go for tickets.* One of the guides, having seen me pass-by earlier, asks me why I didn’t stop for the Rock Tree, one of the famous sights along the route.* “Ahh!* I thought I’d seen it in the Valle de Rocas!….* Meh,” I groan dejected, ”it’s just a rock….”* The guide laughs, but I sure don’t, and I’m disappointed as I can’t go back for lack of fuel.* My rock tree was not nearly as good I later learnt.
NOT the rock tree!!!
I top up my water-bag amongst the wood shacks, that are hotels, before riding away from the entrance hut up to the viewpoint of the lake.* As I go I wonder where I might camp as, despite the fee, I’m not allowed to at the lake and curse the effort of the day trying to reach here and the good camp opportunities passed….Soon forgotten, I move onto concentrate how best to capture this fabulous lake in a photo.* I stand at the top of the viewpoint upon pale boulders worn smooth by feet and look out over the lake before snapping away a few shots.* But, for some reason my attempts all come out blue!* 4x4s turn up, as I stare at my camera in dismay, people debouch, take a picture doubtless oozing full of red, maybe a smiley pose or two, cheesy grins to go with the smooth wine lake, and then leave, one 4x4 after the other.* I notice now the dilapidated tourist village of shacks over there, even more 4x4s over there, and the bright colours of outdoor gear dotting the landscape shuffling about here and there….and my pictures are blue.* I’m starting to feel blue!* Well, not exactly, but I’ve felt better, I’ve felt happier, I’ve seen lakes, not red ones but wet ones, nice lakes, blue, yellow, salty, flamingos, volcanoes….but alone, really alone, in unspoilt landscapes and for all these things they seemed so much the better.* At least that’s what I assume it is.* Or, is it me?* Or is it the place?* I’m a bit worried.* I hope I’m not “travelled out”.* I’d have to find out.
I ride all the way around the lake, north, south, east, west…blue, blue, blue….BLUE!* God damn, GOD DAMN!* said Beatrix Kiddo.* Obviously the red bacteria that cause the colour are camera shy!* Still, it’s approaching 6pm, time to find camp.* I scan the vast landscape and notice a canyon cutting into the flatness a few kilometres off, a deepening gash heading towards the volcanoes.* The road seems to pass nearby and I should be able to ride into it and get out of the strong cold wind.
A green-backed vizcacha (chinchilla) darts up the smooth fractured rock as I ride up along the sandy base of the canyon and then push a little farther to a large ice fissure.* Surely the creek is the campers favourite, a fine spot and respite from the wind.
A fine camp to end Day Two
Whilst nights are chilly the sun rises almost vertically and in no time at all has replaced the dry chill with searing heat.* The canyon’s walls however mean a good chance to rest in shade and recoup after the long day prior and I spend a good part of the morning reading.* When I finally ride out and on to the road I notice that the lake looks red already, and more red than yesterday, contradicting what the guides had told me, that it was only red in the late afternoon.* I hum and haw before deciding to throw caution to the altiplano’s already potent wind and burn a little fuel in hopes of getting a red photo….alas, I end up with caution all over my trousers in a smelly yellow stain, it was only red from afar and I wasted fuel pointlessly.* Lakes.
I soon forget it as I ride up the hill beyond camp, riding slowly up the burnt-orange hill.* A solo bicyclist frantically spins the granny-gear, he gives a jovial wave as I pass, met with my chilly gloved thumb.** Farther on I meet two mining trucks bound for Chile and thence Europe, and I follow in their choking dust-cloud, before managing to slip past them on my way to the “Sol de Mañana” geyser.* I was told that the best time to see the geyser is at 5am when the sun is just about to pop-up, hence the name “Morning Sun”.* I’m not sure if this is because it is more active at this hour or simply looks better in the sunrise.* An agreeable hour however it is not, and I saunter on over at a more languid 12:30pm.*
Here the trail winds between steaming holes, bubbling mud-pots and sulphurous smells, and of course more 4x4s.* Some of the tourists come over to talk, friendly fellows all, but meetings are momentary, terrified as the people are of being abandoned in the altiplano by their 4x4’s eager drivers.* I ask them how they are enjoying it, in hopes of finding out an answer to my fears from yesterday; if it’s just me, or the place.* The consensus seems to be a shrug accompanied by a “mwehh”, one tells me, “laguna Verde was all right…” and one girl seems to be having a bad time of her group who all know each other and get drunk together each night….without her.* Maybe it’s not just me after all though it’s hard to say as often their questions, answers and converse are usually brief and cut off mid-sent…..
And punctuated by a cloud of dust!
Once the dust settles I trundle off and find that actually the riding is nicer today, perhaps as today’s distance is much less.* It is smoother and less windy too as well as the ever present and awe inspiring volcanoes, huge landscapes and even more lagoons to see.* First up is Salty Lagoon, then on the way to White Lagoon sprouting out of the dune fine sands are the impressive Salvador Dali Rocks, named after the Spanish surrealist painter, though for why I know not!* Then, just beyond Laguna Blanca is the piece de resistance
….Laguna Verde.** I can’t wait for this one.* But I’m afraid I’ll have to as I now run out of fuel.* Ahhh nuts.* It means I’ve managed a pathetic 270km on a brimming tank, 22.5km/l.* This would never have happened with the almighty Rudolf.* Or even a BigMoneyWaster 1200GS.
There were several reasons I originally chose to ride a 125cc bike.* The main points all reaching towards the same goal; cost.* Cost of bike, cost of spares, cost of shipping, cost of carnet and cost of fuel.* Whilst the bike is reasonable and provides other benefits I hadn’t considered, the engine’s high fuel consumption together with high-wear on ancillary parts means I’ve lost two of the main benefits.* Luckily ancillary parts are cheap here but I use at least 30% more fuel with this bike compared to the Yamaha, and often as much as 50% more!* But even then the total cost of this extra fuel equates to perhaps several hundred GBP (or $) for the whole of South America.* The big loss then, is fuel-tank range.* Old Rodney could run 150km on it’s 3litre reserve alone, this bike has managed less than double that on a full tank, and this time managed a pitiful 5km on reserve.
Still, I have about 400ml of petrol (gas) in my cooking-stove bottle, and one benefit of even this benzene-burner is that it will run on a little puddle…just not for long at 22.5km/l.* I pour in the vital dregs and consider how many times the little red Primus bottle has gotten me out of trouble.* This time though, it could be a few kilometres too far for man and machine and even then only to a refuge.* From there it is a further 80km to the village of Quetena where I hope to fill up the tank completely.* It’s only 10km back to the refuge now and downhill too.* Even so I ride very slowly, watching the trip-metre tick by, 100m, 100m, 100m…100m less to walk.
Better (clearly fantastic) riding, day 3
Thankfully I make it and pull into the refuge as the bike conks out.* There’s a bicycle parked up outside and as well a solitary 4x4.* The bicyclist is nowhere to be seen but the driver of the 4x4 is hard at work repairing a puncture in a wheel’s inner tube.* It seems he’s out of patches which means that I can help out with those (as I have them in abundance) and luckily he can help me out with fuel (which I don’t).* The driver’s accompanying guide also helps us both out with juice to drink and biscuits.* Another 4litres of fuel, meaning my provisional calculations in Uyuni were pretty dire, that’s 8 litres extra on top of the 18litres I’d planned for…only 45% off.* What can I say, I’m optimistic.* Now, using my recently obtained knowledge, I should hopefully have about a 90km range.* This means that I have about 10km to spare on my way to Quetena.* However, I use most of this looking for a wind-free camp-spot and I’m forced to take a non wind-free spot next to an old salt mill, itself hidden from the main route behind a bluff, next to the Laguna Salada.* It’s late again as I set up, the sky turning to a luxurious swirl of purple and orange marble as the sun sets and I look for boulders to anchor the tent.* I walk around the old salt mill and poke my nose in here and there in the last of the day’s light before returning to and collapsing in the tent.* I quickly tuck myself in the sleeping bag to get it warmed up before the night gets too cold, cook, eat and lie back to sleep with a warm belly.
Lagunas Route, Day 3:
Days 4, 5 and 6, Click to view map
Rather than follow the somewhat more regular return loop back to Uyuni, or continue south to Chile, I had already decided to continue from the lagoons in an easterly direction, on the still popular route but back towards the heart of Bolivia.* The first stop of course is via a turn-off for Quetena Chico for fuel, water and food supplies.*
Immediately, away from the main north-south route and onto the quieter east-west route to Quetena, I feel much happier, or perhaps at least, more at peace.* I find I get caught up in the humdrum and pace of others around me and so, with the frenetic pace and constant coming and going of the 4x4s, I was trying, subconsciously of course, to keep up.* Or I was otherwise being disturbed by them in a small way, enough to stop me sitting and enjoying, or perhaps just thinking and concentrating.* I prefer to, indeed need to, strip away everything, no clutter, no time limit, no goals, no TV, no internet, no mobile phones, no noise….and no (or few) people.* I’m easily distracted, and we strive often for more, more, more, we all know it, that’s no insight, and maybe we should be striving for less.* Maybe it’s just me, unable to resist the pull of the internet or TV, other people and conversation, bad food and
, having to have it forcibly taken away to be free of it, to be free.* But, I feel lucky to have had this small insight of not having these and other things available, to be rid of them, and want only to maintain that clearness and simplicity.* But I’m still unsure if these are the real reasons for my earlier disquiet along the route.* Who knows what presses the button that says “Happiness”?
This road does surely does.* First up, after leaving camp I cross the small salt flat that edges up on Laguna Salada, by a road nestled between ploughed shoulders of white salt.* Rising up from here then, on to a gritty desert plateau where there are more lovely lakes to be seen – oddly one never tires.* There are even one or two houses now too, people farming the salt and just one or two 4x4s, the drivers wave now as I pass by, a good sign anywhere.* Otherwise I am alone again, with the exception of the flamingos, ever present, though now they fly away when I approach, as opposed to the busier lakes where they stayed put, but this makes for spectacular photos especially with my adept usage of the Canon (ahhh, but for an SLR):