Friday, 30 September 2011

Day 226: The Sadness of Potosi (11/09/2011)

Life presents some hard choices.

An extra half hour in bed or a plateful of the best pancakes in South America.

Fortunately there is often a third way.

We made the 8am departure but at a price. Maple syrup oozed from my pockets and pooled in my seat for the rest of the day.

The drive to Potosi was much like every other day for the last two weeks. Plunging ravines, towering cliffs, endless plateaux, lamas, isolated villages, steep winding roads and dust, dust and more dust. One day South America will blow into the sea in one enormous cloud.

At 2pm we rolled into the highest city in the world at a nose-bleeding altitude.

At 4,100m the atmosphere contains only 50% of the oxygen at sea level. Stand up too quickly and you get your own private firework display. Walk up the stairs and prepare for the lights to go out.

Potosi is one of a very long list of places that so nearly made it big but failed at the last hurdle. Founded on the basis of its silver deposits in the 15th century, it went on to produce so much wealth that it was said that Potosi could have built a bridge of silver to Madrid. 

The city's mines bankrolled the Spanish expansion in South America but so rich were the deposits that local labour could not support the demand.

What followed is the darkest and unfinished chapter in Spanish history.

Slaves from Africa and South America were forced to work the mines in conditions that largely prevail today. Unknown millions died. The human cost rivals the Holocaust and the Russian purges, but is largely unknown today.

This is the story of one town but was repeated endlessly across the new Spanish territories.

The mines are mostly worked out but co-operatives still dig.

The life expectancy of today’s miner is under ten years from first going underground.

Day 225: The Bolivian Salt Flats (10/09/2011)

About 25km outside the small Bolivian town of Uyuni lies a natural wonder that provides the region with its largest export and its largest import.

The export is salt and the import is tourists.

The salt flats at Salas are a vast expanse of dry lake bed covered in a 10m thick crust of blindingly white salt for as far as the eye can see.

Cameron was forbidden from the adventure, ostensibly because of her weight but probably because the corrosion would eventually break her back. Three elderly Toyota 4x4 Land Cruisers arrived at Hotel Tonito at 9am and seven of us clambered into each, Bert folding his long legs into the back seat while I luxuriated in the front.

After a further 25km we pulled into the small village of Salas on the shores of the once massive lake. Everyone made the statutory purchase of something made of al paca wool before we climbed back into the trucks for a mind-bending journey across the salt. We passed a series of hotels constructed entirely from salt and gangs of men slinging shovel after shovel, twelve feet above their heads into a waiting trailer.

We stopped at enormous piles of salt scraped from the surface and admired the perfect reflections of the surrounding mountains cast in the pools of aquamarine water which form in the trenches that dot the production areas.

We drove for an hour in convoy with the other 4x4’s as our driver Johnny held the needle at a steady 80kmph. Occasionally he pulled level so we could take pictures of the other vehicles, for no other reason than to give our pictures some perspective. Without this, any sense of scale is lost in the endless and featureless backdrop.

Eventually we reached Cactus Island, a strange eruption of life in the dead expanse. Perhaps an island in the old lake, the rock protrudes 25m above the surface of the flats and has become an oasis. Birds nest in the proliferating cactus. Dogs sleep away the day in the shade of the few buildings that have been built. A pair of llamas roam the island and venture a safe distance onto the salt, curious of the tourist intrusion but nervous at any approach

After lunch we did the thing which has made the salt flats famous.

Armed with two plastic dinosaurs, one Buzz Lightyear, a bottle of wine and a toy truck, we lay on our stomachs, setting about the business of composing our own personal masterpieces. The salt crystals dug into our knees and soaked into our clothes as we lay, craning our necks to achieve the perfect shot.

The flatness and lack of features lend themselves perfectly to photographs that play with the lack of perspective. With careful positioning of both the camera and the subject, giant dinosaurs appear to be chasing tiny humans, tourists sit happily atop coke bottles and friends stand crowded inside upturned hats.

These and countless other pictures, limited only by the imagination, festoon the walls of every hotel and restaurant in Uyuni and a quick search of the internet will reveal a million other variations on the theme.

A half day on the flats passed in a blink of an eye and before we knew it, Johnny was revving his engine and signalling us to return for the drive home. Frighteningly, one truck broke down. With two others to help there was no danger but the flats are as big as Switzerland.

We passed walkers and cyclists far from land. Lost on the salt flats, death is inevitable.

We arrived home safely, to more pizza and another night in the Extreme Fun Bar. A scruffy German and a hairy Ecuadorian tangoed expertly in the smoky bar before we had to leave. We were locked out at 1am and shame-facedly tiptoed in passed Chris’s sleepy-eyed wife who let us in.

Was it a good day?

It depends on your perspective.

Day 225: Graveyard Shift (10/09/2011)

Just outside Uyuni is a graveyard.

There are no crosses.

No priest came calling for souls of the departed.

The corpses lie, slowly decaying in the desert wind.

The story started one hundred and fifty years ago when the town of Uyuni was a thriving metropolis-in-waiting, refining and exporting the largest quantity of salt in South America at a time when the commodity had not long since ceased to be a King’s Ransom.

To support the trade, a massive railway infrastructure evolved with its epicentre at UIyuni railway station.

The bottom fell out of the salt industry slowly during the early 20th century leaving Uyuni as high and dry as the salt flats that surround it. Left in the wake of the receding tide of wealth was the railway that was no longer needed.

The graveyard is home to the rusting hulks of hundreds of turn-of-the-century locomotives and wagons. Rivet welded steam boilers rest on wheels, axle-deep in the encroaching sands that blow in of the Altiplano.

We wandered amongst the dead and climbed into the cabs, long since stripped of anything useful. The century-old cinders from their last journeys still sit in the fire boxes. The place is full of melancholy for a lost time of prosperity.

And wonder at the industrial power that today’s one horse town could once muster.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Day 224: Miss Pancakes? (09/09/2011)

We arrived in Uyuni in the late afternoon where Dave had booked us into the Hotel Tonito.

Chris the proprietor, was a mild mannered Bostonian who had come to town with his Bolivian wife to be nearer to her parents. He had turned what some would see as an insuperable cultural obstacle into a lucrative business opportunity and had opened and then expanded the best traveller’s hotel this side of the Andes.

The rooms were clean and comfortable and the breakfasts deserved Michellin stars. Light fluffy pancakes with maple syrup, sausage patties shipped in by a friend from La Paz, fresh eggs with yolks the colour of turmeric and a never ending flow of excellent organic Bolivian coffee kept us loitering around the cafeteria door long before and after he had stopped serving.

Carolyn caused ructions when she was the only one to book onto a mine tour in Potosi. It would not have mattered but for the fact that the tour time, eight hours drive away, meant that we had to start out early the next morning to get her there...


It wasn't going to happen.

Carolyn died mysteriously in the night.

The pancakes were lovely.

We had been playing a game of catch up with the truck kitty since Buenos Aires and after finally finding a Casas De Cambio and an ATM that both offered dollars and was willing to dispense them, we paid up in full and for the first time in 4,000km left Ivan able to balance the kitty accounts with the final instalment of nearly $12,000 that would house, feed and water us over the 21 days on the road.

Chris’s breakfasts were not the limit of his stomach pleasing culinary prowess.

Pizzas the size of tractor tyres rolled out of the tiny Bolivian production line at the back of the kitchen with reassuring regularity and after sharing seven hectares of spicy chicken with Bert and Vanessa, we prevailed upon our travelling companions to construct a robust wagon to haul our distended forms around the corner to Extreme Fun Bar where Dave had promised an interesting drinking experience.

The wagon construction proved unnecessary as Chris had recently hosted 105 actors and crew who had been filming the new movie ‘Blackthorn’ on the salt flats nearby. Sam Sheppard headed a cast telling a different tale of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The wagon that they used in the movie, plus a number of other props found their way into Chris’s establishment and he was happy to put it at our disposal providing we brought it back.

It is only a matter of time before he opens a new hotel in San Pedro and gives the small town the western movie treatment that it is so badly waiting for.

Extreme Fun Bar was little more than an opportunity to get recklessly drunk at high altitude. Dave played both sides of the fence when he brought a lethal cocktail of spirits to the table with the warning that anyone who consumed more than 3 units at this height would probably die.

He promptly imbibed deeply and at length as an warning or an encouragement - I am not sure which.

He did indeed die instantly, the moment the third unit passed his lips but we resolved to strap him to the bumper and take him with us in the hope that some miracle would ressurect him. Thankfully his corpse heard this and he perked up sufficiently to drink some more and drive for eight hours the next day.

What a guy!

What followed was a bawdy series of mystery drinks served in a collection of drinking vessels, in a more or less anatomically accurate representation of male and female genitalia. There are a series of career ending photographs just waiting to be uploaded to Facebook.

I know.

I took them.

Day 224: Flowers in the Desert (09/09/2011)

The further north we went, the more llamas we saw.

There have been no sheep or cows for 2,000km and even the llama struggles to gain purchase in most of the wild land we have negotiated since leaving Argentina.

Crossing another plateau, we all rushed to the driver’s side for a magical twenty seconds as Cameron startled a Rhea who ran at 50kmph alongside the truck. Eventually it peeled off into the scrub, no doubt concluding that it was not going to out run the orange and white beast that roared alongside it.

Braulio guided us to Valle de Las Rocas in the mid-morning and we stopped to walk amongst the wind-worn stone stacks that rise from the dusty plain. A mere 25,000 years ago, lava flowed here. Most has been submerged by the sand or eroded by the forces of nature but Las Rocas holds out against the onslaught like a fortress and within its walls an oasis of wildlife prospers.

A strange green plant grows from the nooks and crannies, like a giant moss but as hard as rock. It bleeds sticky evergreen resin when damaged and grows at the rate of a centimetre per year. The specimen Braulio showed us was at least 300 years old, a fact that some of the crew seemed to overlook as they clambered over it for photos, and picked at its surface to make it bleed.

Chinchillas, like large rabbits with long tails, dozed on rocks in the sun and seemed refreshingly disinterested as we crept closer for photos. They took to an apple that was left on a ledge and only scampered away to their rocky holes as we got too close with the clicking of shutters and the whirring of lens drives.

The rocks have eroded into whatever shape your imagination choses to see. Braulio pointed out kings with crowns and giant chess pieces. Unarguably there was an Easter Island monolith.

Maybe there was a horse, over-endowed with a terrible priapic inheritance - but no one else could see that.

After another hour on the road, we parked up by a small lagoon for lunch with some more flamingos. They took off as soon as we climbed down from the truck, their pink wings reflecting perfectly off the mirror clear surface of the water, while seagulls wheeled about them, a thousand kilometres from the nearest beach.

Pausing only for the chance to photograph the whole team on top of the truck, we pressed on and soon left the lagoons and entered a dry desert area that stretched to the mountains on all sides.

Pylons were the only thing to have changed in 10,000 years and as the afternoon heat rose, mirages appeared in the near distance, lifting the mountains until they balanced precariously on single stalks of rock or hovered completely above the distant horizon on a sea of shimmering mercury.

The road through the desert was elevated on a small embankment but had collapsed in areas, forcing us onto the sand. We left a huge plume of dust that rose high into the air and saw the clouds of other trucks long before we head the rumble of their approaching engines.

At one of our two hourly ‘rest stops’ the perennial privacy issue raised its head again. The girls cried foul as there was no cover in the middle of the barren, flat expanse. The boys set to, unconcerned by the lack of anything to conceal their ablutions.

The girls looked on, arms crossed, and complained about the lack of privacy, as they watched the boys water the desert flora.


Day 224: Cold Shower (09/09/2011)

We arrived in Vilemar late in the evening and it was already dark.

We parked the truck and unloaded our bags into what Dave described as simple accommodation. The rooms were on the basic side of rustic but the shower wasn't as sophisticated  as this and struggled to piddle cold water. The boiler and gas bottle which powered it, complete with a tangle of piping, sat inconveniently close to the falling water and I just couldn't shake the feeling that it - the water supply or the gas bottle - could go off at any minute.

After three days without a shower, I shivered under the flow, periodically breaking the accumulating icicles off the faucet, and then dried in the sub-zero corridor while the remaining water on my still dripping body debated whether to evaporate or freeze. 

After breaking the ice in the bowl, I had a shave that would have been less painful if I had used a blow-torch - that being how may face felt for eight hours after the bleeding stopped. 

I would like to say that I emerged refreshed.

But I didn't.

We slept surprisingly well under mountains of bedding. It was hard to rise into the morning chill at 6am for the drive to Uyuni, but not because we were reluctant to leave the warm nest we had spent eight hours making.

The blankets weighed so much that, combined with the altitude, they conspired to squeeze the breath out of us as we slept.

That, and the drowsy llama that emerged from between the blankets as we made the bed in the morning.

Cameron’s water tanks had frozen in the night and only after two hours on the road did she relinquish the first drops into our parched mouths.

The altitude sickness sufferers rose better, if not fully recovered, but at least had the comfort of knowing that we were dropping from 3,950m to 3,663m by nightfall.

As we left town, even Vilemar with less than 100 residents, exhibited the inequalities we have seen elsewhere. The valley was full of rough built mud brick houses with roofs made of corrugated iron.

On the hillside above the small village was a new and infinitely more expensive building with a pan tile roof and double glazing; the walls were made from prefabricated panels.

The impression was of a single, well-to-do villager who lived alone on the sunny uplands, and a whole village who did not.

Day 223: Dali Llama (08/09/2011)

An hour after the colourful lakes, the surreal nature of the landscape was taken to a more literal level when we reached the Dali Desert, a plain of sand dotted with strange stone protrusions that the artist saw and used as the inspiration for some of his most famous paintings.

By lunch time, the relentless shaking of the truck was becoming hypnotic and we had all descended into a trance while the Martian landscape passed by and Cameron shed components behind her.

After hours without seeing an animal, plant or sign of human life, we rounded a bend in the road and came upon the Polques thermal pools.

A large salt marsh extended into the distance where llama cropped the sparse heath grass that proliferated around the shallow lagoon and strange melting clock faces oozed around them. A small collection of yellow tin roofed buildings huddled in the lea of the hillside and a pool steamed in the cold air as hot water welled up from the plain.

Cyclists appeared in the distance, pumping head down into the prevailing wind. A series of sulphuric acid lorries passed, trailing a dust cloud visible from miles away.

The truck stopped and the brave dived into the 35 degree water while lunch was set up. They emerged and were shivering within seconds as they raced to dry and dress before the wind whipped the warmth from their skin.

The two bob toilets were clean and fresh and seemed a better choice that the 50 bob fine for going native. The signs prohibiting any release into the wild were an earthy Anglo-Saxon reminder that Polques was the haunt of English speaking tourists and the occasional truck driver.

We climbed further during the afternoon until we reached the summit where Cameron obtained her Bolivian vehicle passport. Whether it was entirely necessary to make her sweat up to an altitude of 5020m and park in the dusty approaches to a lonely Baric Acid factory is matter for debate.

However, the view was worth the climb and no one could resist the photo opportunity presented by the crisp white altitude sign painted on the wall of the factory office.

For those suffering from the altitude, the factory stop was the tipping point. This was the worst that they were going to feel but a few had descended into a catatonic state, one step away from needing oxygen.

The rest of the day was downhill and offered the prospect of some relief.

Before we stopped for the night at the remote mountain village of Vilemar, we bounced across the volcanic landscape and into a valley of geysers and steam vents that had blasted away all life and had brought a myriad of colours to the surface. Red, grey and brown mud bubbled in deep cauldrons. Steam filled the wind with clouds of sulphur and we dived for lens protectors as we were covered in a thin layer of this highly corrosive discharge.

Cameron disappeared in the billowing fog as we followed Bruilo across thin bridges formed between the competing mudpools. Dave dived into the mist for the photographers and our straggling line was reduced to grey silhouettes as the wind pulled the clouds across the barren horizon.

The track in and out of the valley was worse than anything we had encountered before and as Cameron laboured up the slope, the back wheels hit a stray boulder. She leapt bodily and spent an agonising moment on two wheels while we were scattered throughout the cab, our possessions skittering across the floor.

She righted herself and pressed on down the hill to Vilemar at a respectable 3,950m above sea level.

The upturned bus that we passed in the roadside ravine emphatically answered the question that the boulder had posed.

Day 223: Little Green Men (08/09/2011)

If San Pedro was gun-slinger’s town then the landscape taking us from Chile to the Bolivian border was a sub-zero version of Death Valley.

Reaching the Chilean border within half an hour of leaving the campsite, we joined a queue of trucks and car transporters, buses and vans, each weighing up the merits of staying warm in their seats against getting an early place in the queue for passport exit stamps.

We opted for the latter and stood shivering for thirty minutes, waiting for the office to open. When it did, our gamble failed spectacularly as the border official announced that he would process the crowd according to the order of the vehicle queue rather than the passenger one.

The ignominy of being overtaken in the queue by a Peruvian ballet troupe was unbearable, until boredom finally prompted them to a few spontaneous pas-de-deux in the dusty road, as much to stay warm as for our entertainment.

Sharif saw the opportunity and seized it with both hands.

Rummaging in his ruck-sack, out came a crumpled tutu and some dusty ballet shoes. In seconds, the rouge was applied, his shaggy hair was tied back and the dishevilled over-lander was transformed into....

...Well, its hard to say really.

Something between a swan and a drag act.

What followed was a performance of sheer fantasy - a marriage of Teutonic efficiency with Peruvian elan against a backdrop of Bolivian chaos.

Some may say that it never happened and that it was just the musings of a fevered mind having spent too long in the oxygen deprived wilderness.

An hour and forty five minutes and three standing ovations after we joined the queue, the bouquets were handed over and our passports were stamped. We rolled across the Chilean border into the empty triangle between Argentina, Bolivia and Chile having rifled the local kiosk of crisps and biscuits for the journey.

The milky coffee was a purchase too far and it slopped over our feet as we left the tarmac and re-joined the familiar dirt track that was to be home for the next 50km.

We climbed further and further until satellites passed below us.

By 4,500m, the sickness had claimed five serious cases and a pall descended over the truck as pale faces and sunken eyes began to multiply.

Just to be clear, 4,500m is around 16,000 feet. Only 5% of climbers will ever exceed that altitude without booking an in-flight meal.

Dave and Iban conferred.

There was nothing to do but press on and like an indiscriminate plague, some succumbed while their neighbours inexplicably escaped symptom free. We became an inverted community of haves and have not’s.

Only the deprived were rewarded.

The rest looked shrunken and distinctly green.

We ploughed on through the No Man’s Land between the three adjoining countries and finally, after leaving the road from time to time to avoid the retreating snow drifts, we arrived at the Bolivian border. There was a single storey grey building, a dirt track and a rusting yellow barrier. The border was marked by a six inch ditch cut through the rock field. There was no fanfare; only cursory check of passports and a quick wave through to spare everyone the biting wind that tore between the purple mountains.

All for the cost of 21 Bolivianas (or Bobs) - about two pounds.

The border area is hostile. There are no plants, animals or flowing water. It is a bare, desolate place, devoid of anything but rock, snow and a little air. The plains are littered with boulders and the mountains loom overhead in brooding shades of brown and red.

Cameron rattled across the high plateau until we reached the Avaroa National Park where we picked up Braulio, a local guide who we needed to navigate our way across the desert that lay ahead.

There are no roads for hundreds of kilometres.

What followed was a kaleidoscope of natural colour. The mountains around us were like lopsided sponge cakes, full of orange and yellow strata, iced with snow and surrounded by collapsing scree slopes. Rounding a bend we parked on an elevated plateau and gazed down onto Laguna Blanca, the first of three colourful lakes. The Calcium Carbonate that lines the lake bed creates a surreal body of white water that contrasts in a monochrome with the black sand and rocks that surround it.

Further down the track was Laguna Verde, a green lake, poisoned by minerals and unable to support life either in its waters or on its banks. Cairns had been erected by visitors over the decades and the shoreline was dotted with a forest of rock piles in varying sizes and states of collapse. The green was a translucent shade of corroding copper.

Twenty kilometres ahead lay Laguna Colorada, home to Bolivia’s pink flamingos who feed and absorb their colour from the red algae filled waters in the shadow of the Licanbur Volcano, still active but temporarily dormant.

It is no coincidence that this hostile, volcanic terrain was chosen by NASA as the best place for training astronauts and testing equipment in a near Martian atmosphere.

And anyway, by now the truck was full of little green men.

Day 222: Cowboys and Aliens (07/09/2011)

San Pedro looks menacing in the darkness.

In the day-time it is a different place and looks more like a western film set that a Chilean tourist haunt. Consisting of little more than two high streets that bi-sect at a dusty cross-road in the middle of town, we were more surprised to see Lycra clad cyclists emerging from  the shop fronts than Lee Van-Cleef squaring up to Clint Eastwood, to the strains of a spaghetti western.

The saloon doors did not swing open and a card-cheat did not fall into the street clutching a fatal shot to the gut but the single storey, adobe plastered street fronts only needed a  few horses tethered to the rail to complete the effect.

We wandered the streets for five minutes, eyeing up the Jack Wolfskin outlets and the North Face concessions before rolling into La Estaka for a post breakfast coffee and cake.

The sun eased across the sky and lunch-time arrived as we chatted with Sharif about his life in Munich and his extended family in Cairo. The fire was lit as the afternoon chill descended and it wasn’t until the 4.30pm that we finally emerged into the watery afternoon sunlight to board the truck for the ten minute drive to the near side of the solar system.

San Pedro has one stand out feature and that is the Moon Valley. The desolate terrain that brought us here was trumped by the moonscape that causes you, instinctively, to breathe a little deeper in case the atmosphere suddenly makes for the exit.

It is a place where you would not be surprised to round a bluff and find a spaceship waiting to launch.

Cameron parked in a crater and we climbed the steep ridge line for the sunset. Dave dived weightlessly for photos and Ivan took a contingent along the Miramar ridge line for a view of the salmon pink clouds and distant mountains that burned in the setting sun light.

As darkness fell, we tramped back to the truck through the pink sunlit canyon before returning to town. La Estaka beckoned again and we enjoyed crepes with chicken and mushrooms, washed down with a Cristal beer.

Last night was sub-zero and the water bottle had frozen along with my feet.

Tonight I was determined to avoid frost-bite and so subjecting the broken zip to the full force of my fingers, I bent it out of shape. However, the tent was shut and the elements remained securely excluded.

We froze again as the temperature dropped far below zero.

Day 221: Salta to San Pedro (06/09/2011)

Over the top we went and began the long descent into the valley on the far side. Cameron’s air brakes demanded constant pumping to avoid overheating as we wound down the tail of the snake, leaving the multi-colole ured rock faces of the southern side for the red sand of the north.

Entering the plain, we stopped for lunch behind some old, long-since abandoned mud brick houses. The roofs were gone but the walls were stout and performed well as a wind-break. The gale sand blasted all who ventured out from behind their protection. The ground was dry and cracked and the sand drifted up against the walls and swirled around Cameron’s wheels as we pulled back onto the highway that had reappeared since the mountains temporarily gave way to the plain.

After many hours bucking and bouncing along the tracks and roads we reached the Argentinian border. Stopping at the last YPF petrol station to spend the last of our ‘Argies’ as they had affectionately come to be known, we trundled to the low rise border post, 50km from the nearest settlement of any size. The wind held the flags rigid, without a flap. The border office was serious and we sat in regimented silence awaiting the exit stamp before going on to the Chilean border.

Instead of a 100m dash to the Chilean side, we entered a surreal triangle of no man’s land, stretching 50km in all directions to Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. The official explanation for its size is to do with disputed territorial claims but in reality it is more to do with who has to foot the bill for re-surfacing the roads that criss-cross this empty and desolate quarter.

That is not to say that it is featureless. The land is scored with canyons and cliffs and at this time of year, the receding drifts of snow still make the road impassable in places, more often subliming into jagged spikes that point skyward on the direction of the prevailing wind. Lakes dot the terrain and the ever present grasses cling to the arid soil.

After passing a series of up-turned lorries on the road-side we made for the final climb to the Chilean border crossing point. We were thumbed down by a Chilean military vehicle that had broken down in what should have been the de-militarised zone.

Cameron shuddered and groaned as she hauled the truck up the incline and she de-coupled at the top, leaving the soldiers to cruise down the hill to the check-point. Before they left, they handed us a bottle of rum; essential military issue for patrolling the cold Bolivian desert for marauding Argentines in search of some desolate wasteland to conquer.

Reaching the Chilean end of the no-man’s-land, the reception could not have been different. The Chilean’s have one concern and one concern only; to preserve their wine trade. To do this, they scour every vehicle entering the country for any means of transmitting infection. Cameron underwent the ignominy of an internal search. Despite Dave and Ivan’s best efforts and Argentinian orange found its way across the border. The SAG border guards turned a blind eye but searched our bags with extra zeal.

San Pedro is a border town and, when we arrived in the darkness, looked foreboding and unwelcoming. The campsite was situated down dark, unlit back streets which Dave struggled to negotiate Cameron along. Cars parked on the side of the road survived unscathed but low hanging branches snapped and scrapped along Cameron’s sides.

We ate from the promociones menu with Vanessa and Bert at a welcoming restaurant on the high street with good food and a warming fire pit before heading back to the camp site as the chill was setting in.

The tent was already knee deep in dust by the time we climbed into our sleeping bag on account of broken zip that let the elements in and the heat out.

At least we  didn't wake to a river of sewage from the leaking cess-pit.

Like some.

Day 221: Top Gear (06/09/2011)

As one accustomed to sloping out bed as late as possible, one 5am start is a rude slap in the face.

A succession of them, particularly after a bad night’s sleep, is a mild form of torture where you get breakfast between beatings. But when the choice is between missing a few hours of sleep and making your own way across the most inhospitable landscape in South America, the options soon come into very sharp focus. It’s like the surface of the moon.

Only with less air.

We left the colonial charm and comfort of Salta and within half an hour where bouncing down a dirt track to the unaltering landscape that we had to cross for the next week. Northern Argentina and Southern Chile and Bolivia are dominated by an inhospitable hinterland occupied only by scrub, Lamas, local madmen and lakes the colour of spilt paint.

Oh, and mountains.

The area is vast and almost exclusively unpopulated. We drove for hours without seeing another car or any signs of habitation. Occasionally there was an attempt at cultivation but this had failed and all that was left were the wind-blown furrows of futile labour. By the water there were deer in twos and threes and sometimes a hardy flock of Llama or Al Paca eked out sustenance from the barely nutritious heath grass that is the only success story in the thousand kilometres ahead of us.

We climbed and climbed with ears popping periodically. Dave hinted at altitude sickness but was keen not to tell us too much as its effects are commonly regarded as being magnified by knowing about the symptoms in advance of contracting them.

As we hit 2,500m he spelled it out. Headaches, nausea and breathlessness may affect any of us at any time, even the seasoned altitude travellers. Oxygen was stored behind the rear seats in the event of an emergency but hospital was a possibility. When up in the mountains there was no help and those who developed the condition would have to tough it out until we reached Uyuni, three days hence.

As we hit 3,000m, the first headaches began to appear and by 3,500m, we stopped periodically in the shadow of giant escarpments, looking for all the world like out-sized termite mounds.

As we gawped at the natural wonder, the people retching behind the back bumper never even looked up.

We wound up a spectacular road.

You could almost hear the cries of the Top Gear Locations Director as Clarkson subjected him to ritual disembowelment live on air for missing this one from the supercar road-test. Back and forth the road turned, doubling back on itself time and again like the coils of an angry snake.

As we reached the upper section buses crawled far below us like steel and glass ants, glinting in the sunshine. Above us, lorries appeared from behind the bluffs and the wind carried down the sound of their engines screeching as they inched up the incline at little more than walking pace.

Ivan was at the wheel and overtook one after another, while we held our breath, praying that everyone coming down the hill was exercising a similar degree of caution as those coming up. The precipice beckoned and if we had come off worst in a collision, the truck would not have stopped cartwheeling for 2000m of vertical drop.

The seatbelt talk that Dave gave us bat the outset seemed academic at this point.

I jumped out from time to time to video the truck grinding its way up the hills and round the turns, regretting it only when, panting and breathless I jogged the short distance to climb aboard, the thinness of the air burning my lungs and making my eyes water like an astringent.

Finally we reached the top and parked up by the 4,170m marker.

Andean types in ponchos and big hats, craned their necks into their collars while the cold wind whipped over the top of the enclosures they had erected from stones and tarpaulin. They carved small stone medallions for three Argentinian pesos but didn’t seem to get enough custom to make it worth their while.

We all paused for photos at the marker and scurried back to the truck to escape the biting gale, the nausea abating temporarily for some, in the face of the chilling blast that funnelled up the mountain gorge.

Day 220: Salta City (05/09/2011)

After a good sleep we woke with batteries recharged and a beautiful day ahead of us.

We were up earlier than all apart from Dave who was breakfasting alone. He had just received his new travel contract and we toyed with the idea of following him east, over coffee and Medialunes or mini sweet croissant.

Breakfast over, we made up for lost time with the available internet connection and updated everything that we could before venturing out into the late morning warmth.

After a brief walk around Placa 9th July, it was lunch and we sat in the sunshine at City Café on the square, waving at fellow Drag-Truckers who were doing the same thing, and fending off pigeons. The lady at the next table was overwhelmed by a flock of them and it took a swipe or two with the menu to dislodge the flying free-loaders.

Salta was a delicious return to the normality of city life after time in the wilderness.

The beds were comfortable and the air was warm. Salta boasts the oldest public building in Argentina on the square, together with a host of elegant Spanish hotels and a theatre, all in the colonial style, wrapped around a green park with a pretty band stand and an equestrian statue that would have been at home in an Italian piazza.

The highlight of the square is another Inglesi Catedral dating from the 19th century. The exterior is wedding cake white with twin towers and a dome. The interior is an explosion of red velvet and golden ornamentation that makes the most outrageous Catholic Church in the UK they look more than a little drab. Incense and incantations floated on the air as worshippers thronged to the Rosary.

When the sun set, the Cathedral was lit spectacularly, reflecting in the toweringly inappropriate glass and steel office block next door that clearly paid the right price to the authorities for planning permission, under the special exception permitted by suitcases of cash delivered in the night time.

In the afternoon we caught the Teleferic to the summit of San Bernado and drunk coffee as the hard-core runners ground their way up the hill and the free-wheeling cyclists undid all their hard work. We walked down in the sunshine along the winding road, pausing only to dive out of the way of a careering cyclist who hit a hump and bounced out of his saddle before face-planting into the road surface. He lay still while he undertook his internal damage assessment while I walked to help him up.

Afterwards, Clare said that she saw it as an elaborate distraction to relieve me of the camera that was dangling around my neck.

As I reached the prostrate cyclist he was up and on his way, with a firm grip on the camera strap. After a brief struggle and some girlish flapping off the arms in his general direction, he was on his bike and heading down the hill, unrewarded for his spectacular crash stunt.

Clare had been right all along.

The tea-leaves will try anything to rob you. Distraction is the key to enabling their talented fingers to explore for the whereabouts of your valuables, however carefully they are concealed.

They will squirt you will foul smelling liquid or crowd you in the market to lift your wallet. Favourite is planting something on you as a pretext for an allegation of theft. False police roam the streets demanding to see valuables. Old ladies with babies are the worst as they have both the equipment to lower your guard and the experience to exploit any moment of weakness.

By evening we were perched in the Van Gogh Bar eating empanadas when Bert and Vanessa filed in, saw us and doubled the empanada order.

As we were up early for another 13 hour odyssey to San Pedro in Chile, we retired early again for the 5am wake up call.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Day 219: Paddling to Salta (04/09/2011)

Waking only when the resident flock of ducks attacked the tent for some reason, we emerged into the bright warm morning sunshine just in time for breakfast.

Today was about white water and after a leisurely paddle in the river we attended the safety briefing, donned the attractive orange safety gear and pushed off into the fast flowing current.

The augers were not good as we narrowly avoided a drowned cow at the first bend, bloated and stiff, its legs pointing in the air as if in a warning as to the perils that lay ahead.

But venture on we did and after 25 minutes of simulating the dreaded flip, rehearsing mouth to mouth and trying to use the defibrulator without electrocuting the wrong person, we ventured into the first of nine rapids.

Martine survived hanging upside down on the zip line yesterday and steered our boat.

He had clearly studied at the International School of Madness and belowed the same inspirational lines that Captain Jack had done so in Thailand.

The High Fives were the same as was the sadistic tendency to drown us at every opportunity.

The water was higher than expected and the blue inflatable bucked and reared as we slid over rocks and nose-dived into boiling cauldrons of water, flinging us bodily against our restraints and threatening to tip us into the foaming maelstrom at any minute.

We paused only to watch the boats behind make the same mistakes as we had done and two hours later we were falling unceremoniously into the cold water to swim the last 400m to the landing point. Emerging bedraggled and smiling from ear to ear, the old Mercedes bus picked us up and took us up the steep and winding river-side road that lead back to the centre.

The pictures taken by the resident camera man, perched on every good vantage point along the way were played back in the office with pulse racing tracks from AC/DC and we were sold.

As soon as we were dry, we hit the road again, this time headed for Salta City and the colonial charm of its well preserved heritage. It was a few hours in which we began to ache from our exertions but after checking into the Elena Residencial, a quick snooze turned into a twelve hour sleep with no dinner.

We needed it.

Day 218: Zip-Line (03/09/2011)

The description was zip-lining but there was little more to go on such as where, when and how?

Or possibly, why?

All became clear as we were being strapped into our harnesses and issued with gloves and hard hats. Alex and Carolyn made up the three who were doing nine lines. We hopped on board a charmingly antique Mercedes bus from circa 1930 and ground up the mountain to the drop off with Nahim and Martine, our guides.

When we got there, there was no sign of zip-wires or anything else but a dirt track and an impossibly steep climb. Nahim pointed upwards and set off up the near vertical slope like a scalded goat after the vaguest of gestures that suggested we should follow him. At first we thought it was a joke until Martine jabbed us from behind and urged us up the slope.

When I say slope, I mean cliff face.

Alex and I looked at each other. He raised an eyebrow and off we set, clambering hand over hand and pressing ourselves to the incline. At first it was fun, then mildly concerning and then it became scary as we ascended 80m and then found ourselves on a 3 foot wide mountain path with cliff face on one side and a sheer 80m drop on the other.

Then someone put an insurpassable boulder in the path ahead of us but Martine shrugged in away that suggested that there was no way back.

Alex declared vertigo and Carolyn sore calves. I stayed quiet, concentrating instead on not looking down and keeping a firm grip on anything that the rock face offered by way of security. Gradually the path widened and after the trouser darkening drops receded, we found ourself at the first jump point only to face trouser darkening fear once again.

The line spanned a vertical 80m drop between two cliff faces.

The technique transpired to be very different to the pedestrian experience at Go-Ape in the UK. There were no brakes and no easy landings. Instead we learned that we would career down the line until a signal from Martine at which time we were expected to grab the steel cable with both hands while it fizzed past at 50kmph and squeeze until we came to a halt. Failure to do so would result in a violent introduction to the rock face beyond the finishing point.

For a moment we all stood silent contemplating the reality that there was no way down but by zip. Alex seized the bull by the horns and pushed me to the front and so it was that with a firm push from Nahim I left the security of firm ground and picked up speed with nothing below me but certain death.

And then it was over. I squeezed the line with both hands and miraculously they did not instantly disappear in a spray of blood, bone and tissue. I slowed and squeezed and slowed again until I made an almost gentle landing at Martine’s feet on the far cliff top.

Alex followed and Carolyn was not far behind. The duck was broken, we had lived to tell the tale and the remaining eight lines were going to be pure fun. The hardest thing that remained to do was to trek up the goat tracks to the next launch point.

Nahim and Martine made a virtue of defying all the safety rules and hanging upside down as they screamed for 600m across the valley above the river, and back again. Somewhere Martine’s wallet fell from his pocket as he hung upside down, and we watched it tumble end over end into the abyss. 

He seemed unperturbed.

Nahim made an art of never braking until it seemed he would be mashed on the waiting rock face but he never was and the bad example was set. Soon we were following suit with all but the upside down thing.

We crossed the river on 500m lines, 50m above the churning water, wondering whether it was deep enough to break our fall, but knowing all along that departing from the line at any point was guaranteed to end in a mangle of lifeless limbs, diced on sharp rocks just beneath the surface.

The remainder of the experience was a blur of whoops and screams as we learned to pick up speed and brake later and later, concentrating less and less on the line and more on the fantastic scenery that was whistling by beneath and around us.

And then it was over.

Exhilarated and exhausted we decamped to the bar as the four liners departed. We didn’t see them again until they flew into the campsite on the final overhead wire as excited as we had been an hour before.

Retiring to the bar to compare notes, the sun went down and a warm wind funnelled down the valley as the barbeque was being lit. The expert chef had logs falling into embers within 30 minutes of lighting them and there was no five hour wait for the furnace to cool sufficiently to get within 20m of it without asbestos trousers.

After eating a never ending supply of meat with a few token pieces of greenery, we were led like lambs to the slaughter by Bert when he removed Boonanza from his bag and introduced us to the world of Belgian bean based card games.

Soon I will unleash Fuzzy Duck and he will be mine.

All mine.

Day 218: Cafayete to Salta Rafting (03/09/2011)

The barbeque fire from last night was still burning when we woke and with a few bits of kindling, soon burst into life to keep us warm while we were having breakfast.

The truck was loaded and we drove into Cafayete town, leaving Dave to catch up on a few emails using the precious internet access that always seems to be intermittent, either because it doesn’t exist or is switched on the day that we arrive.

Cameron dropped us in Placa San Martin and to ward of the morning chill we sat with Shay and Alex and had Café con Leche in a café on the corner of the square. Half a dozen stray dogs roam this piece of turf but did nothing more than cruise curiously by as we hugged our cups for warmth.

The sun rose gradually and the heat picked up by the time the truck came back with Dave. Climbing on board, we set off for the adrenalin activities planned for the afternoon and tomorrow morning.

Our destination was Salta Rafting, not to be confused with Salta city, some 200km away but where coincidentally, they did have a shop and where we would be going in a couple of days’ time.

We spent a few hours on the highway with a few U-turns and a stop for food and then peeled off onto a minor road that passed through a few villages in a largely agricultural area. Eventually we descended along a river which soon became a large lake which we skirted for an hour.

Gradually it became more developed and boats started to appear in inlets that were forming along the water’s edge. Attractive houses soon followed and before long we reached a narrow strait through which the lake flowed and we crossed over a substantial concrete bridge, high enough to let sailing boats pass underneath.

The final few kilometres became increasingly bumpy as we got closer to the rafting centre until Cameron was choking on the dust that her tyres were throwing up from the rough track which wound steeply down to the centre.

We were greeted by three excited golden Labradors as we stepped down from the truck and then by a friendly red headed Argentine who took us in hand and sorted out our activities for the next two days. We put up the tent despite the absence of poles and spent the night praying that the calm weather would continue and that the tent would not collapse on us in the night.

The river ran by the camp site and as soon as the tents were up we walked down to the fast flowing water and waded in. It was freezing so we climbed straight back out again apart from Dave who was washed downstream in the current and over the waterfall.

We fished him out of the plunge pool and stitched him back together.

He soon recovered and we returned to the campsite to kit up for this afternoon’s excitement.

Day 217: Firestarter (02/09/2011)

Morning in TDV was cold and clear.

After breakfast we raided the high street for as much meat as the beleaguered Carnicare could provide, sparking a run on the local meat market.

We struggled back to the truck under the weight of various Lomo, Vasilo and Chorizo cuts of beef. Ivan recommended not less than 800g of meat to do the evening’s planned barbeque justice.

Enough meat made it back to the truck that Cameron had to tow a freezer wagon to make way for the Frankenstein of animal parts that we had accumulated. An unlucky lightning strike on the road to Cafayete would have resurrected an infernal beast - part cow, part pig – to roam the landscape searching for its creator.

After lunch and 300kms we had left the cold weather behind us and arrived in a temperate wine growing region of which Cafayete was the regional centre.

As the kilometres passed the layers came off until the back of the truck looked like a Chinese laundry.

The vines appeared suddenly.

After miles of featureless scrub and dry savannah, a field appeared and in it were rows and rows of neatly ordered vines, bare and fruitless in the depths of the Argentinian winter that was currently a balmy, bright and sunny 25c.

Time was pressing and the Nini Winery was threatening to start its final wine tasting of the day without us. Dave pushed the needle to the red line.

As we screeched to a halt in a cloud of tyre smoke, twenty thirsty people jumped down from the truck and laced up their drinking shoes as they ran to the entrance. After conceding that the two things cannot be done simultaneously, the pile of twisted limbs was hurriedly untangled and we queued in a disorderly fashion for the ten pesos ticket.

There was none of Kevin's cheese this time but it didn’t matter as Nini’s improbably busty guide provided a perfunctory tour of the production vats and cellars followed by the nod that permitted us to dive headlong and fully clothed into the tasting pool - sorry, session. 

Merlot followed Cab Sav and local desert wines rounded it all off.

Tour over and tongues slightly thickened, the more desperate scoured the town for the free tour up the road while the pyromaniacs amongst us took Cameron to the Cafayete municipal campsite and set about lighting a fire that would feature more steaks than Dracula’s bad dream.

The wood was unloaded from the truck’s back cage and the camp site scoured for kindling. The fire was built and only awaited a flame as we turned the truck upside down to find the elusive smoker’s lighter that we had been relying on to light the canteen every day for the last two weeks.

It was nowhere to be seen.

Dave rubbed some rocks together but failed to raise a spark.

Bert, a fireman who should have known better, doused his shoes in petrol but failed to focus the sun's dying rays sufficiently through Vanessa's glasses to raise a flame.

Ivan constructed an elaborate bow and sharpened a kindling stick but only succeeded in trying himself in knots that Dave had to cut him out of.

Sharif whacked his head repeatedly on the ground but no one really knew whether this was to start a fire or just for kicks.

Eventually the lighter appeared from an anonymous pocket and the conflagration was unleashed. The only problem was that we needed embers to cook on and the fire was hours away from providing them. Patiently we fanned and stoked the flames with a piece of pipe work that Dave wrenched out of the engine and slowly but surely the raging flames died and the true heat of the coals started to burn through – which is when we discovered our second problem.

We had burnt so much wood that the embers were too hot to get close to.

Ivan waved at the pyre with a shovel which promptly melted, leaving him with a smoking handle and no eyebrows. The trees around the campsite began to wilt. The sky was dark with smoke and Bert shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot as the local fire brigade turned up, threw their hands up in disgust and left again, shouting something about water not being enough.

Eventually at 10pm, five hours after the first flame was applied to the wood pile, we were able to get close enough to scrape off some embers and load Frank, piece by piece, onto the grille.

The first steaks vaporised instantly but with a little patience and after lifting the grille several metres above the heat, we found a happy medium that enabled the meat to be grilled with tent poles by Nic and Elliott, standing on Cameron's roof.

The sausages came and went followed by the Lomo and Vasilo cuts but, resisting all attempts to cook it,  was the Chorizo. Closer to a joint of beef for twenty than a meal for three, Ivan, Dave and Alex wrestled the carcass onto the grill and subjected it to temperatures greater than the surface of the sun, but to no appreciable effect. Eventually accepting defeat, they took to shaving the surface layers off and ate these while the interior felt its first whiff of flame.

By 3am with the heat finally receding, they had carved the mountain of meat down to a respectable hillock. They patted their protruding stomachs and crawled off to sleep off the experiment while the remainder was bagged for the next day’s lunch for us - and the whole population of Cafayete.

The dogs that had waited patiently were rewarded with the biggest slabs of beef they had ever seen. They wolfed it down and three choked. Only the quick thinking Leon who had already performed the Heimlich manoeuvre twice on Dave, saved them and they limped off into the gloom, bested by the remnants that the men had left behind.

Somewhere in the darkness, the God of Cows took bitter note and planned a grim revenge.