Trip Start Aug 03, 2010
152Trip End Feb 01, 2012
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We entered from the town of Colchani on the eastern edge where salt is scraped from the surface into pyramid-shaped piles to dry, later the piles are shoveled into trucks and brought to a processing/packaging plant - 20,000 tons are harvested annually. We drove slow and careful as to not kick up too much salt onto the chassis (salt speeds up the oxidation process, rust not good for cars).
I had a hard time getting over the sensation that we were driving on a frozen lake, actually I didn’t get over it… I kept calling it ice and hoping big, heavy Rover wouldn’t break through. Somewhat disconcerting were small, watery holes about the size of my fist in some. We could see down through them about a foot into the dark depths, making it look even more like a thick sheet of ice. There were just a few big enough for a person to jump into, of course we avoided driving over them, worse than a pothole. Some of the holes had salt crystals forming and floating on the surface that looked like shiny, little gemstones.
Our first destination was Volcan Tunupa and the small communities that lie at it’s base, it was an easy landmark on the northern horizon that we headed toward. Unlike normal driving, there wasn’t a need to pay close attention because there’s nothing to run into for miles and miles and miles… we even played a game of Scrabble, why not? For hours all we needed to do was be sure Rover didn’t stray from the course, when it got late, we stopped and camped. The high-altitude (all of this is over 13,000 feet above sea level) has a way of producing hot days (intense sun) and freezing nights. The wind blew any lingering daytime heat away and we bundled up in multiple layers, pulled out all of our sleeping bags and blankets. We were pretty cozy once we were all tucked in.
We headed for a tiny spec on the horizon that was Isla Pescado (Fish Island) to camp. As the island grew larger the sky got darker, we drove into the night without headlights (for the sheer thrill of it). The starlight was enough to keep our direction and know there was nothing in the way. When we arrived it was eerily quiet (no wind, no crickets, no trickling stream, no highway in the distance). We wondered if there was any life on the island beside us. The absolute silence made the darkness seem darker and made the stars stand out like I’d never seen them before. The big dipper was upside down, low on the horizon, as if on a drying rack after washing. The Southern Cross stood out against the Milky Way, almost solid it was so thick with stars, below it was a milky oval about the size of Orions belt that we think was another galaxy – neato!
In the morning we explored the island, about a square kilometer. There were small shrubs, brown grasses, cactus and rock that was covered in ancient coral from when it was all underwater millions of years ago. It was hard to imagine little fish living and eating off this coral reef that’s so much like a desert now. We also saw life, little birds and prints and pellets, looking to belong to a rodent of some sort. Later, Steve (ol’ eagle eye) spotted a rare/endangered viscacha (looks like a long-tailed rabbit).
We drove over to the island of Incahuasi, one of the tour destinations, there were dozens of Land Cruisers and people out on the salt taking the obligatory miniature/giant pictures. The island has a restaurant, picnic tables made of salt and marked trails up to the top with amazing views (everywhere on the salar has amazing views).
The day was perfect, blue skies and no wind. Since we didn’t have a visual marker for where we were headed, we just drove south and followed a nice set of tracks heading the right direction, it looked like enough people had driven on it to declare it a "road". The tracks got difficult to follow when we reached some water, but it was only an inch deep, we’d driven through that before. We used the compass to be sure we kept heading south. After a while the water got deeper, 3 inches for a while, then 6 inches, eventually it was almost a foot deep… Steve used the gps function on the satellite phone and plotted our position on a map (my almost-eagle-scout fella knows how to do these things) but it didn’t seem to line up with the peninsula we could see in the distance.
Around sunset a man on a motorcycle came out (motorcycle was light-weight enough to stay on the surface of the salt), he spotted us from Atulcha, the community we saw on the shore. He made sure we had food and bedding to keep us from freezing in the night and informed us that this road was only used when it was dry. One of the reasons we spent 2 months in Bolivia was to wait for the dry season on the salar, and this was it, April through December (late May seemed like it would be dry, but apparently not this year). We watched his return to shore, he took a long way around, it took him over ½ hour.
Here is where you have the advantage… you get to keep reading to find out what happened next, we had the whole night to wonder.
Since Rover was sitting at a 30 degree angle, sleeping up top in our cozy bed wasn’t an option. We got our sleeping bags and curled up on the seats which aren’t exactly comfortable after hours of driving, let alone for sleeping a whole night. We read Tim Cahill, our favorite travel/adventure writer, late into the night. One story involved him getting 3 flat tires in as many days, he paraphrased Wordsworth and said “An adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquility.” How appropriate.
In the morning, Steve put on his coveralls prepared for the mess he had to make, grateful that the wind wasn’t blowing, he scooped out the water that had collected in Rovers mud hole (salt water freezes at a lower temperature, so luckily the water wasn’t frozen, but it meant he was scooping water that was colder than 32 degrees F). He dug around the wheel, axel and fuel tank to release it from the thick, sticky mud - the type of mud that makes heavy platform shoes after taking just a few steps in it. Now free, he was able to wrap a strap around just the wheel and jack it up (an idea he came up with during his sleepless night), then he was able to get the traction mats entirely under the tire. With fingers crossed, he started Rover, let the engine warm up a little, now was not the time to stall, then drove on out of the hole… such relief!
Steve said “Now it’s an adventure.” I reminded him that we weren’t quite in a position of tranquility yet. We slowly and carefully backed out, staying in the same churned up, muddy tracks for a few kilometers (because they were more solid than anywhere else) 'til we reached solid salt, the foot of corrosive salt water over it didn’t seem to matter anymore and being careful to avoid splashing was pointless now.
We drove back to Phia Phia Island to lick our wounds, so to speak. We used the big salty puddles to wash the sticky mud from the shovel, jack, anchor, Steve’s coveralls, and the track mats (which double as our bed) and finished just in time for the setting sun to dry them. We made our bed and slept for 10 hours. In the morning, we followed well-worn tracks back the way we came in 4 days earlier, back to Uyuni for a hot shower.