Thursday, 18 December 2008

Bolivia - An unearthly playground - an encounter with a Devil

Some days the towns just seem to roll into the same town. The suprise sometimes isnt there. Potosi, Bolivia wiped that slate clean. Dan, mike and myself rolled into the town after dark, after face stinging hail had rained down on us as we climbed to just over 4000 metres again to reach potosi. We had past vast plains where the horizon held small , what looked liked floating islands, with rounded bases. Bolivia offers illusions constantly, especialy after hours in the seat transfixing on vanishing points. This was the day i had my first argument with the bike. The black hail clouds were gaining on me in my rear view mirror. i was getting anxious and cold. the usual engine choke came with the altitude , which slowed me down , letting those clouds catch up. at 4000rpm, the bike was spluttering violently, more than usual. long straight roads came . i felt like i was riding backwards, rocking, as the engine splutters chucked me forwards, back. That was it ! after 3 hours of this i jumped off and used very harsh language, with my knees bent and my face an inch from the carburator. All seemed rational and fair enough at the time. with the flat of my foot i hoofed the bikes tank 3 times. mike turns round and comes back to see why this idiot is loosing his voice with his head up an engine. I calm down after he laughs at me and says " just ring its neck". that works i keep the throttle wide open. the road starts to twist, slowing me down , not needing to go over 4000rpm. the ride becomes pleasant as the hail comes and goes. Potosi is a scene from pirates of the caribbean. rich in pastels, iron works and colonial masterpieces. i love it and want a house just like their houses here..... potosi is on the map because of Cerro Rico. The rich mountain. as day comes you see this mound overlooking the town. Its a shell of of mountain now. they have scraped its sides thin and dug catacoombs through its belly. silver from this sad spectacle has kept the world, especialy europe rich for nearly 500 years. They say an Incan found the place. he then mentioned it to the spanish around 1545. they walked over mile after mile to eventually see this gleaming , sparkling mountain, shimmerimg silver in the sunlight. So since then, the plundering hasnt stopped. In spanish there is still a saying, valer un potosí, "to be worth a potosí" (that is, "a fortune"). Today the mines are still open. i had to go see. This was the most moved i have ever been at the life of others . i didnt really know what to expect. maybe a cart would take us around the inner tracks, all being safe. maybe the workers would all be smiling and enjoying there passtime. Maybe mining is all advanced and machines do all the work as the boys oversee and chat. Myself and the tour group are all laughing at our ridiculous outfits we have to wear. The smiles drop as we enter. no cart to guide us. a man named jaime is our guide. we crawl and walk , crawl and walk . i bang my head loads. one of the girls on the tour is struggling. we chomp on coca leaves. it helps. . . this place is brutal. it is hell on earth for these workers. they dont live long. everything toxic is down there at 40 degrees celcius. holes a cat would struggle to get through are their doorways. The young, middle teens do all the hard labour like pushing the rock filled carts up and down tiny tunnels for 15 hours a day. the older you get the lighter the labour. i get thrown into pushing a cart, with a worker. i push for 2 minutes not uphill or down, but level surface. With the altitude stilll giving me short breath anyway and the pushing i collapse . impossible. They say zinc is mostly found now here, silver is scarse. Profits from zinc have now colapsed. these boys spend there life in this gateway to hell, finding small amounts of something thats not worth anything. They greet us respecfully. we give them coca leaves and coca cola. I leave there in silence, until jaime , our guide lights a stick of dynomite. runs down the hill side like a chubby charlie chaplin and disapears in a sonic boom and burst of smoke.

entering the mine. about 5 feet high.

crawling into somewhere else in the mine. i had to tell myself its ok, when the sensation of confined space and heat kicked in.

meet the devil. The miners feed him coca leaves , booze and smokes to please him so he keeps them safe.

we feed him leaves and smokes to keep us safe.

this grafter entered the mine at 3 in the morning. it was noon when we met him. he is tapping away , creating holes for the dynomite. no electric tools for him. this area was very very tight and confined in the heart of the hill. all sides of this place lay at strange angles. He had smiles and jokes for us. when his face turned from us i saw it drop. this place got to me. i hope from my heart he finds whats needed to get him out of there.

more uncomplaining grafting.

all the particles get in your body after 10 minutes here.

jaime and the dynomite. a very loud boom. the valley echo for ages and the shake stops after a while. Jaime is around 50 years old i guess. he worked the mines for years then became a guide. hes a lucky one. he is very passionate about the boys welfare in the mine. we spoke of the uk mines and mrs thatcher.

2 nights in potosi we leave. its slashing down. the roads turn to my dreaded mud slide. As we ride out following a locals directions , up the hill. A bike with hard panniers turns up. 2 germans, a couple. martina and didi from bavaria. martina has been on the road 7 years, with her Suzuki DR650. Didi is her boyfriend visiting from germany for 2 months. They are heading to Uyuni in southernish Bolivia also. We chat and realise we are heading wrong. we turn and slide down the hill side together. the road to uyuni is gravel. bolivia only has 25 percent paved roads. its a great days ride. we decend into sunshine. the road isnt that hard for limited off road experience. a few shocks as the sand tries to bite. we stop after a small time. this yellow truck pulls up. 2 more germans driving around this magical continent. they have to be in there 6ts this couple in the van. Uyuni gets close as the day disapears. famous for the salar de uyuni. the largest salt desert on earth. 25 times bigger than bonneville. famous for more illusions. famous for loosing people and messing up motorcycles. martina has ridden it before. the town of uyuni is there on a vast plateau . a dusty yellow town of wide sand streets . hostels everywhere. 4 x 4 tours of the salt tiendas everywhere. 2 nights here, and a day checking the salar is ok to ride. rumours have been flying around that the the salt has 10 inchs of water covering it. not a good idea to ride it then. turns out to be rubbish. there is a few puddles on the outer rimm, but inside its fine. infact its the best surface i have ridden on since the states. the plan is to head west on the salt, then at the middle head south . there are so many tour cars racing this expanse of white that they leave vague tracks to follow. its not as hard as i had belivied. there are mountains around the edges so there is always a land mark to sort of recognise where ya are. the sensation of not moving but the landscape moving under me keeps shocking me into slowing right down. we get lost. wheres the middle ? the sun helps. its falling westwards. we find one of the bizzare islands that are scattered around this desert of white. An hour before, just a tiny blob on a shimmering horizon. large cactus fill these dark dusty islands. we camp. it gets below freezing at night. the moon is the closest it has been to earth in a long time. the night is silver under the moon. even the tent is lit up inside all night. we munch on tuna spaghetti. martina names our island isle de atun. next day we find our way. the salar is hard to ride off, as we have been spoiled with the flat unpotholed surface. straight into deep sand and loose gravel. This the route that most motorcyclist dread apparently. i have been hearing this way to the chilean frontier is unpassable by bike. i was always told not to take it. we took it. they were right. the next 5 days were the hardest riding and tolorence of weather, camping, low food and water, that i have ever known. the road went upto close of 5000 metres. the first day we didnt see even one car. sometimes an adobe house would appear. 2 people would come out looking suprised and direct us to the next sand pit rock filled landscape they call a road. these are not roads. they are the mountains. some vague tracks are sometimes there, just like the salar , but the majority of the way was sand fields, deep. impossible to get any speed up. the sand takes the font wheel sliding either left or right, never in the direction you need. like skating on one foot as a bigginer. corrugated, washboard tracks go on relentlessly for hours. if you dont know what thats like, go find some road works, ask the cango drill worker to lend you his drill for 6 hours. place the drill in a dustbin thats set in stone. sit on the drill and turn it on. dont fall off and get someone to vary the speed on the drill. lashing cross winds, pushing you off line into deeper stuff. i crashed 6 times in 5 days. dan 7, mike 4. martina and didi amazingly didnt drop once. 2 up on a loaded dr. i am still going on at them about how they didnt go gumbs down in the dirt. turns out didi is an ex motocross rider. hes ridden over the blooming sahara. his advice kept me a little sane. eyes forward, knees strong on the tank and throttle hard. i cant throttle hard in deep sand, i just fall off. but the beauty of bailing in the sand is that its rare that it hurts. sand just gets everywhere. at nights we would rush to find solace from the wind and stick the tents up. more spaghetti de atun and fried cheese. water getting scarse. a sip every fall off basicaly. for some reason when i loose control of the bike in the sand i do a cat like scarper off the bike. seems like a good idea though coz i havent been trapped under the thing ever. mikes swearing he will never go off road again. i agree, after the last scare. one day bad the next resonable, with some sort of confidence. i used to hate riding large loose rocks. now i dont mind. they are a relief after so much sand. i realised i have to shout "come on siggs" in my lid, throttle the life out of the bike and just smack over anything in my way. it works, i make the brow of the hill. after 2 days it all seems unreal. the constant hardship. i wonder why anyone would find pleasure from this. the pleasure i know now, comes in the evening when all are around the baby camp stove starving, filthy and knackered, laughing and feeling some sort of good inside. well, and relief from surviving. Also, if you dont go this way you dont go to the top of the world and see this incredible place that bolvia is. this place is above the plateau. it is all colours. lime green glowing lakes. pink lakes, how can a lake be bright pink ? those caramel volcanoes are never ending. smokes weeps from hill sides. i realise im riding in the mouth of a huge volcanoe. the sunset is indescribable. there is no sound when the wind drops in the evenings. the silence almost hurts the brain. llamas, vicuna are everywhere. sometimes a 4 x 4 passes with happy travellers snapping photos of us suffering idiots. i cant believe we didnt end up fighting each other at some points. the stress went way up in the clouds. as i have mentioned., bolivia is not of this world. the sun drops at 7, blinding the eyes . you cant see where you are going, you are riding on deep stuff again. edges on either side taking you to an end im sure . the wind is freezing. 10 miles in 4 hours somedays. its only 600kms to the border and somesort of civilisation. 5 days. all wonderful hell and hard work. that was the hardest things i have ever experienced. we land in san pedro de atacama. 2000metres down. the bike has all power back. im sweating in this desert star wars type town. its perfect after all that. layed back. resturants with fires in the middle, ambiance on the stereos, colourfull fabric shops curb the sand streets, where the tourist all smile and feel great. expensive, baking hot . no cash point that feeds a visa card. im trapped here till the cashpoint machine has been fed more pesos. oh well !

bolivia altiplano. i watched this old lady carry the load for miles. then look at me then dump it and walk off into the hills.

train cemetery, uyuni. i love bolivian tourist atractions. there is never a suited man grabbing money for tickets and it all seems so unofficial. the sun dropped through these strong old rusty engines. a magic place.

home for a night on the salar. these islands are soft dirt and cactus. they jump out from horizons after sensations of not going anywhere when i knew i was doing at least 50mph. very strange.

salar de uyuni

tent up on the salar. a chance to wear the new scarf

riding the salar was incredible. like no other ride before.

this kid turns up as im sweating and breathing like a dying pig after trying to get to grips with deep sand. he just blasted across any terrain on an old 125cc chinese, with his dog that wasnt even strapped to the bike.

the deep stuff

camping again , where i dont know.

no people. no cars. nothing

gumbs down in the sand mike.

sand fields . the hardest of all to ride for me

looking for and begging for tarmac and sanity.

stumbled onto this tiny deserted village up and away from the world. atmospheric and weird

the edge of the salar

deep sand strikes again. dan

getting ready to ride the loose rocks uphill.

i lost it half way up the rock hill. didnt let the bike drop. i was in a rage and the adrenaline helped keep the bike up.

"come on siggs" !!! rawwwwwwwwwwwwwwww ! like a lion to the top. it does help to get stupid up here !


the camp is always better in the mornings. the wind has gone and the smell of fryed cheese gets the smiles up and the balls for the days ride going.

weeping volcano

more rock riding.


dont know what these birds are called. they gave a real show of liking each other.

martina has just knocked up a tasty breakfast

more jaw dropping gorgeous lakes in the sky

coming out of yet another sand field. relieved at keeping the tyres down

epic riding in the altiplano

dont know what she is either. the size of a cat. something to do with squirrells and rabbits i recon. she stayed staring at us for ages, then bounced of double fast up vertical rocks.

a day draws top an end

the middle of nowhere. strange rocks that look like they where part of something long ago to me.

more weird rock

a tussle of 3 species

touching higher in the sky

riding in the mouth of a volcano. it took me a while to realise

leaving bolivia high in the altiplano. chile is my 2nd to last country to visit. dont let this end

barriers up, bye bye magic bolivia !

click to ride the salar de uyuni


Pieter-Jan said...

Hi Simon,

Really enjoyed this story - may I mention you are COMPLETELY MAD to cross the salar on a motorbike !? My god, it was even really enduring in a 4X4 !!! Respect ! :-)


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