Huacachina: sand boarding and dune buggies!

Trip Start Feb 07, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Monday, September 17, 2007

We left Nasca on a bus to Ica, an area we initially weren't sure about visiting, due to the earthquake (that measured 8.0) on August 15th. There is a lot of evidence of the destruction, though an amazing amount has already been rebuilt. We head out of town in a taxi to to the small oasis village of Huacachina, which is situated on a small (fairly stagnant) lagoon located at the base of the mammoth sand dunes that completely encircle it. It's a mad little place with more dune buggies than locals. It's very quiet at the moment in the aftermath of the earthquake, but hopefully things will pick up for the operators as soon as people realise that everything is up and running. We're staying at a great place called El Huacachinero, a little bit of luxury here in Peru! : (I think this site is being worked on at the moment)
This place is so close to the dunes that the sand is flowing through the back gate. There's also a pool, a bar and some resident parrots to play with in the garden.
Despite an early morning mist the next day, Tim takes a walk up the massive backyard sand dune in the morning. Meanwhile I get acquainted with one of the extremely entertaining parrots. We have an absurd noise making competition and when the bird gets tired of that, it has a fine time chewing my pony tail.
Tim reports back that there's great views from the top of the dune. By the time we get around to heading up the dune together the sun is blazing and the sand is scorching. We quickly backtrack to put on sandals, which make it more difficult to scale the steep surface, but will hopefully reduce toe burn. We finally make it to the top and the views are fantastic, with sand dunes in one direction for as far as you can see. We have our first go at sandboarding (Tim's brought a board up with him). The bindings aren't great for standing up (just shitty velcro straps), but you can see the results of Tim's first tobogganing attempts in the footage, which was pretty hilarious on the long steep drop to the hostel (note my chuckling as he speeds out of control and crashes in a flurry of sand). I leap my way to the bottom and do indeed have burnt tootsies, which I promptly cool off in the pool while Tim splashes around. This is followed by a few hours of intense poolside relaxation in preparation for our dune buggy and sand boarding expedition, which is obviously scheduled for cooler sand conditions at 4pm.

Tim is disappointed when we're picked up in a shitty old orange 12 seater dune buggy. He had been staring longingly at the hostel's famous V8 'green buggy' since we arrived. We're joined on our trip by a few Canadian guys and a couple of English girls. Our driver crosses himself with a mad glint in his eye as we venture onto the sand. As we scream up the first dunes we are left in no doubt that our driver is a little ... well, loco. We're being tailed by another orange buggy (obviously our driver's partner), but for some reason our guy is doing all the risky maneuvers while the other vehicle takes the safer routes (avoiding precipitous drops, and roll-inducing bumps). Meanwhile the responses from our fellow passengers vary between screams of terror, demands for more speed, murmurings about the safety of the ragged seatbelts (the fact that they belted at one point between your legs did raise the question of castration), whoops of joy as we got air and a debate about the sanity of our driver. We came to the conclusion that, yes, the driver has to be the maddest in town and, no, the roll bars aren't going to offer us much protection if the inevitable happened. The dunes themselves are singularly beautiful, particularly the ridges, sharp as fish fins, pushed up by the force of the wind.

Of course this is no time for contemplation - we're too busy bringing noise, pollution and unsightly tyre tracks to this scene of great beauty. We stop occasionally between heart-stopping dips and jumps for photos. The real motivation for stopping is so Mr Crazy can top up his radiator with water. The radiator has a hole in it and as I am sitting in the front next to the driver I spend the whole drive getting sprayed in the face as the water spills into the fan. This combined with endless whippings of sand and improbably high speeds makes for an impromptu and extremely vigorous facial.

We soon stop at the top of the first sand boarding dunes. The idea is that you do the sand boarding standing (just like snow boarding), though most could only make it a few metres before tipping in slow motion into the sand (because of a combination of the shitty bindings and the amount of friction). There is only one guy who is great at it and actually gets some speed up. The other ways down are head first lying on your stomach, or sitting on the board. The first three dunes are pretty small and uneventful. The good thing about having the dune buggy with you is that you don't have to walk back up the dune after you've got to the bottom, instead the car takes you back to the top minus any wasted energy. I try the sitting method to start with, then the head first method (great for getting mouthfuls of sand as you WHOOP your way down!). As the trip goes on we hit bigger and better dunes, giving us a chance to perfect our techniques. I soon discover another problem with the boards - sharp uncovered bolts sticking up below the bindings - fine if you're standing, but not so great when you're in close contact with the board, as i find out when I skin my knuckles early on in the fun.

We eventually arrive at the the final series of three dunes, which are progressively steeper. The force with which I hit the bottom of the first one causes me to slide across the bolts on the board, ripping my trousers and my bum cheek in the process. The sand is also pretty swift in giving you friction burns, as I also found out. Ow! Undeterred and somewhat caught up in the moment, I continue down the second dune, narrowly avoiding a crash with someone at the bottom. By now I am quite keen on the sitting technique - having already ripped the seat of my pants it seems the most logical position to maintain. However, it doesn't completely escape my attention that on the bigger dunes you pick up incredible speeds in this position, flying past others who have come to a stop much earlier.

At the last humongous dune I watch from the top as most other people zig zag slowly down in the standing position. I even let Tim put extra wax on my board for an extra thrilling ride. A few brave souls go head first, including Tim. I am last down as I don't want to crash into anyone. I push off the ridge of the dune holding onto the lip of the board at the back - figuring I can slow myself down a bit with my hands. Before I know it I am absolutely hurtling down the slope at the most uncontrollable speed. I'm going so fast that my hands, attempting to break at the back of the board, start to burn from the friction. I recall wondering how my sickeningly fast descent is going to end when I hit a bump and feel the most almighty tumbling sensation and finally land with a heavy thump flat on my back. The force of the fall is so great that it has torn off my sunglasses and bandanna. I'm not sure if I lost consciousness, though Tim, as he ran up the dune with another guy, thinks I did. All I remember is a few hazy moments and a really strong sense of deja vu that I have had this exact accident before, perhaps in a dream....

I soon realise by Tim's reaction ('Don't move!'), that I have in fact had a fairly spectacular accident. Tim had watched the whole thing from the bottom of the dune, at first impressed with my high speeds, then horrified as I chartwheeled in a flurry of limbs, my board shooting past me to the base of the dune. I experience that inevitably long and heart stopping moment as I scan my body for serious injuries. I feel like someone with a hammer the size of a mini cooper has smashed my head and neck into my body (like that game at the fair where you have to hammer the goffers into the ground). When my head finally stops spinning Tim makes me blow my nose, where about half a kilo of sand is lodged where my nostrils used to be. Tim finally gets me up and I limp the short way to the bottom of the dune (I nearly made it!). I soon realise that those damn bolts have got me one more time, gouging a line of skin off my left shin. My is head throbbing and my neck and left shoulder are aching as I haul myself back to the dune buggy.

It's funny what you can gauge by other people's reactions. Mr Crazy's mad grin has been replaced by a decidedly bemused look - so my spectacular mishap obviously made an impact on him (and I reckon he sees a fair few dune casualties)! However, as he revs the buggy into action the maniacal grin once again spreads across his face as he begins his finale of dangerous driving.
As the sun sets he absolutely canes down the dunes, somehow getting enormous amounts of air between us and the sand. It feel like we're back in that lurching Cessna, not what I need in my delicate and painful state. Even Tim is gob smacked at the recklessness of this guy's driving (somewhat ironic considering his track record). . Next thing we know, he pulls the buggy over indicating that he's out of fuel. We all think this is part of the act until he waves down the other vehicle and is soon sucking up fuel out of the fuel tank to put  into ours!!

Somehow, we miraculously make it back to Huacachina vaguely in one piece. According to Tim I was the firm winner of the dubious double award of highest speed/best stack of the day. To his great disappointment, he didn't capture my misadventure on film so you'll have to make do with footage of his more minor stacks (though he did manage to rip his shirt and hurt his shoulder too). I have to say that it is, in fact, the best stack I've ever had and I woke up the next day feeling like... well, feeling like I'd hurtled uncontrollably down an enormous sand dune. As well as the skinned knuckles/bum cheek/shin and numerous friction burns, I have strained about every existing muscle in my neck and my left shoulder, have a bruised left foot, and feel like 40% of my skull has suffered from a very high impact (ie. something like a fairly large sand dune whacking me over the head). I'd say it is akin to being run over by a steam roller! In the following days various orifices of my body shed enough sand to build a respectably sized sand castle. I may have slight brain damage from the experience, but it was bloody good fun. My only recommendation is to avoid the sitting position on the big dunes...
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