High and Dry

CERTAIN things are guaranteed to make overlanders happy.

WiFi – especially if it actually works – hot showers, clean, flushing toilets, anywhere to charge something, alcohol and an agreed set of rules to Uno are pretty much constants.

But little has provoked as much excitement in the past few days as the altitude dropping below 3,000m and beyond.

We are still relatively high at not that far below 2,500m, but having spent most of the last few weeks at heights of up to around 5,000m, the difference is marked – not least by the increase in temperature which had us roasting in Argentina, just a day after shivering through the night at a Bolivian bush camp.

Have been pleasantly surprised by my ability to cope with the altitude – given a less than perfect record at higher ski resorts in the past – but it has come as a relief to drop down.

For starters, it is a lot easier to breath.

The first question checking in at hostels and hotels has not been about facilities or the WiFi, but what floor the room is on – climbing stairs at that altitude will leave you short of breath, so getting a ground floor bed is to be cherished.

Shortness of breath made it difficult for some to sleep while the altitude provoked the odd sniffle and lips have been cracking with each strained breath.

Any hope that the miles on the Inca Trek would help with walking uphill were quickly dismissed, many of the survivors (who go by the name of The Horny Llamas) finding ourselves blowing harder than any time on the trail.

There were plenty of coca leaves chewed, sucked and dunked in tea which some swore by to ease the altitude issues, a lot of which had to be ditched ahead of crossing into Argentina.

The crossing has brought a marked rise in temperatures, steak and wine, as well as marking our safe transit through Bolivia after a quick change of plans forced by the unrest which hit the country and large chunks of South America – Chile provides the next major concern.

When you left us, we were facing an extra day in the Peruvian town of Puno to assess the latest situation, only to be woken by a message that we were heading for the border that morning, sparking a mad rush to spend our last Bolivianos.

Not that we got that far, the newly-repaired drive shaft not making it out of Puno, forcing some hasty repairs and emergency traffic control.

Patched up, we eased through the border, sparking a new country truck party which continued on the terrace of our hotel in the lakeside town of Copacabana and sparked some pictures in our room windows which may not all be for public consumption.

Safely into Bolivia, the redrawn itinerary saw us heading past the capital La Paz (and a downhill bike ride down the world’s most dangerous road) and mining town Potosi with a long drive day to Uyuni on the banks of the world’s largest and highest salt flats.

Having set off in the dark and crossed a river, my view of the long drive day was a bird’s eye one from up in the cab alongside Will.

My role as driver’s mate consisted mainly of supplying the music, trying to get the top back on the jar of Sour Worms, collating the toll tickets and waving frantically out of the window as we turned right through the traffic on the outskirts of La Paz.

Fears of trouble en route were largely unfounded, bar one diversion around signs of a burned out roadblock and a diversion around a group of smiling, waving protestors.

Behind us in the truck, the cargo had been passing the lengthy trip with a few drinks and a moving game of beer pong, so the cab’s inhabitants set about catching up with a couple of bottles of red and sampling the wares at the hotel’s pizza restaurant run by a Boston Red Sox fan.

Very nice it all was too.

But you do not come fo Uyuni for pizza and wine. Well, not totally.

The big attraction is the salt flats where we spent the majority of the next two days, driving from stop to stop, photo opportunity to photo opportunity – largely clad in happy pants picked up at our first port of call.

It is a bizarre, flat, white world, whether seen from out on the flats, up a volcano which provided the background of our base for the night or Cactus Island. Still not sure how it got its name.

There were plenty of chances for some unique pictures, under the stars and then out on the flats playing with perspective with a variety of props ranging from toy dinosaurs to a can of Pringles and, perhaps inevitably, a bottle of Jagermeister.

Back off the salt, there was time for more pizza before heading for the next border via a long drive day and a bush camp.

An appropriate spot took some finding, but we seemed to have found the perfect place on a river bed before – right up until the point Spongebob listed to the left, profoundly stuck in what remained of the river.

Leaving the overloading rite of passage of getting unstuck until the morning, we set up camp around the stricken truck and marked Diwali with truck inhabitant Rakesh before heading to bed.

We were up early, woken partly by the sound of a digger from the nearby construction site carrying Danny and some help.

It so nearly worked, but Spongebob is a big beast and we needed a larger machine to drag him out, plus a little bit of landscaping to divert the river.

Help chugged slowly along the river bed and, a couple of pulls and a bit more digging later, we were out and heading for the border.

And all breathing a lot easier.

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