Salt and Sand

Bolivia certainly saved the best until last in terms of landscape but the worst in terms of roads. I feel I’ve been tossed around like a ragdoll on over 380kms of sandy washboard tracks but at least there has been something to admire with giant salt flats and a Wild Western looking desert making their home in this harsh and remote corner of the country.

I can’t say much about Ruta 4 which cuts a direct line from La Paz to the city of Oruro in Bolivia’s western plains. It was flat, cold and properly dangerous from heavy traffic on a narrow, badly surfaced road. In Oruro though I had reason to be excited as I would meet up with Tauru and Christi from the US who are riding their tandem bicycle on an Argentina-Alaska route to raise awareness for the blind. The reason they do this is first hand as Tauru has a hereditary disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa and Christi has been diagnosed with Myopia. Both conditions mean severe challenges to sight when navigating and cycling over 17,000 miles but even through the difficulties they’ve tackled half a continent and some of the toughest conditions en route. For the first time in weeks, it was nice to swap stories and share a few rare dark beers with some other cyclists after a long day’s pedalling.

This week also saw washboard jump straight to number 2 in the list of most hated cycling frustrations – right after the dreaded headwind. From Challapata – a strange little town surely inspiring a Stephen King novel – until Tupiza where I now write, it was complete and constant rotten washboard surface – mostly sand and rocks clumped into bumps that jolted bones and bike throughout the day. Words just can’t describe the nastiness of that vengeful sand! Occasionally I would be granted a smooth shoulder on the few downhill sections only for seconds later the familiar ‘thump, thump, thump’ to return whereby I would maniacally curse SW Bolivian roads and pick my water bottles up which lay strewn 20 yards behind me.

To say it was all toil and trouble would be an overstatement though as this was one of the quietest roads I’ve ever travelled with little more than 10 cars passing daily and an entire landscape empty and devoid of human habitation. It was so quiet that on Saturday last after lunch I fell asleep by the side of the road at a dried stream crossing with my legs stretched out into the lane and not surprised at all to wake an hour later with a complete and twiddling set of ten toes. Camping spots were in true abundance too… old abandoned houses, creek beds, funny looking rocky outcrops and vast sandy plains to pitch on. With a regular gusty evening wind, the rocky protrusion became the most suitable and in a pretty high tech change for proceedings I managed to watch High Fidelity on the laptop one of the nights (but maybe 10th time on the trip) and in due course began deciding upon the Top 5 countries, Top 5 Mountain Climbs, Top 5 Hot Showers until I feel asleep in the chilly air.

So, after 3 days and 200kms of rough riding you can imagine the joy at seeing the largest Salt Flat on the planet – Salar de Uyuni – stretched out in the distance and punctuated by absolutely nothing at all. After pasting the last of the sun cream to my face and buying a pair of cheap sunnies in Colchani I pedalled with a frantic energy onto the white salt, tearing clothes off when far enough away from surely sensitive eyes inside passing tour jeeps after inspiration from the boys at Revolution Cycle. The immediate alien nature of the Salar is striking. Pure white, cracked salt spread out as far as the eye can see with only the haze of a distant mountain breaking the view. Without all the tourists, this must be a very lonely place indeed. However, I saw it as prime terrain to mess around and remove the remainder of my clothes, attempt to dance, cartwheel and play football with a pair of rolled up gloves. Maybe it was the salt, the bright lights of reflection or accelerating sunstroke but getting naked seemed the most appropriate thing to do.

And so with just 95kms and a day’s cycling left to Argentina, I’m about to meet the expectations of the 350South tagline. Bolivia seems if it has passed by in an instant and I’ll be sorry to leave cheap food and accommodation, local markets, fiestas, a very different way of life and quality of living. From what I hear, Argentina brings with it good roads, supermarkets, more cars, great steak, hot shower water and a distinctly European feel the further I travel south. I think I’m about to have a very new experience on this last 5,000km and 2 months of journeying.

Road to the Salar from 350South on Vimeo.

While I’ve been having fun on the Salar, a very important development in the lives of Irish Family Carer’s took place at home a few weeks ago. The Government released The National Carer’s Strategy, a much welcomed plan to support Irish Carers’ vital role in care provision for those most needing it in our society. Recognising Carers as the backbone of this provision is a huge step and we hope over the next 3 to 4 years the health and well-being of Carers will improve and lives will again be truly empowered. You can read more about The National Carer’s Strategy here.

Total miles/km: 13,842mi/22,278km

Current location: Tupiza, Bolivia

2 Responses to “Salt and Sand”

  1. Buff3y says:

    I’m glad to see that 490south has come out with a video at last. I see that there is a great example of the genre at sans the nudity (which is, of course, just wrong on X number of different levels).

    • Ian says:

      490South shall demonstrate more heroic efforts through video as the train moves along Buffer… might even have a second go at the nudity, the crowd went wild!

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