Posts Tagged ‘salt-flats’

Fear and loathing on the Altiplano

Pedalling across the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
My breath was a fog, wafting through the roseate light of morning. The temperature on my thermometer had slumped to minus 15° C (5° F) in the early hours and was stubbornly refusing to get much higher whilst my mind was violently and reluctantly dragged backwards to the European winter of 2010 when I set off from the UK amongst similar climes. I had crossed the border into Bolivia and every night I wore my wardrobe to ease the chill, every night the cold created a struggle to find sleep and every morning began with the task of melting solid ice to make coffee. I’ve spent weeks climbing above and dipping away from the 4000 metre mark but at 4500 metres up in Bolivia, by some mystery of meteorology, the temperature had taken another dive and I have returned to the snow zone. But now at least, I have company. 

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” 
 Jack Keruoac – On The Road

A new character enters my story – Nicky Gooch, a solo cyclist, a professional bike mechanic, a Brummie and a roman candle. We had met before in Patagonia and rode together for a few days in a gaggle of other bikers. After my time-consuming mini-disaster in San Pedro I had been over-taken by many of the cyclists I had passed further south. Nicky was a tall, straggly-haired biker with ginger stubble and a thick midlands accent. We decided to tackle the Lagunas route through Bolivia together and we made a good team. Nicky helped when I freaked out about the state of my bicycle, offering his mechanical skills or doling out reassuring advice. Equally when Nicky, a hypochondriac, developed chest pain I would remind him about all the beer, cigarettes and coffee he consumes and offer him an antacid. 

On our second afternoon in Bolivia a frigid wind gathered momentum until it’s howl was all-pervasive and it’s thrust marred our progress towards the 5000 metre high Paso de Sol de Manana (pass of the morning sun). By evening all we could do was push our bikes up the sandy track, unable to ride in the gale. Decisions were now shared and some of the usual burden of choice off my shoulders, that night our options were to backtrack fifteen laborious kilometres to shelter or just rough camp where we were, we agreed on the latter.

I shouted to Nicky: “it’s going to be a tough night!”. 
 “Good job we’re f***ing hard then!” Nicky yelled back.

I hoped he was right. The wind was firing across the wilds with the force of a water cannon. With no natural shelter around I began to fear my tent wouldn’t hold up to the punishment and as we built a small wall as a protective windbreak using some of the surrounding rocks, all I could think of was sheering tent poles and a crumpled mass of polyester encasing two shivering bodies. Finally, inside my tent I imagined I should be penning my final words to relatives like Captain Scott on his ill-fated journey to the South Pole These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale…”. Instead, at almost 5000 metres above sea level, in freezing, storm force gales, on the slopes of a remote Bolivian mountain, Nicky pulled out his laptop and we watched ‘Only fools and horses’, a dated British sitcom set in Peckham, South London.

In the freezing Bolivian mornings I started my day by yelling temperature updates to Nicky in the neighbouring tent. “Time to get up dude, it’s only minus ten”. And then a little later “Nicky, it’s minus nine, time to get moving!” During the day the temperature often remained below freezing and the frozen ice inside our water bottles never had the chance to thaw. Instead of flagging down one of the tourist-filled jeeps travelling through the region we decided to use Nicky’s stove to melt snow so that we could drink. For most of the day my face remained concealed by an ice encrusted Buff. The apples I had saved for lunch were frozen solid and my coca cola had become a Slush Puppy. On the day we passed a thermal pool I plunged into the welcome warmth in my boxer shorts, a day later my damp underwear had transformed into a solid, crumpled ball of ice and fabric.

Nicky on the Salar
Cooking up snow for a drink
Nicky pushing up another climb, a salt lake in the backdrop
Bolivia was a collection of rumours and I had only a few, nebulous expectations. I had seen some photos of the traditional garbs – women wearing bowler hats, adopted from the British and a traditional skirt called the pollera, a symbol of pride in being indigenous. I’d also heard enough to be worried about the bad roads and bad drivers though I knew that compared to Chile and Argentina, the price of almost everything would be lower.

Occasionally Bolivia rekindled memories of Africa, although on the surface it was a world away, there were some subtle reminders. Whilst there were plenty of shops, business had moved to the street, African-style. The smell of grilled goat’s meat from the roadside vendors drifted through the cities. Bolivia had the typical South American ratio of stray dogs to people (roughly 20000000 : 1) and the outskirts of every sizable town were guarded by the ugly twin bouncers of a litter-strewn wasteland and stinking sewage. The dogs nosed through both. Tragically Bolivia joins the ranks of one of the dirtiest countries on my route so far, alongside the other unfortunates of Syria and Albania. Rubbish has become a feature of the landscape and is as prevalent as the speeding lunatics in unroadworthy vehicles plying Bolivia’s main highways. But Bolivia is also full of the things I love most when I travel somewhere new – Bolivia is full of questions.  I tried to decipher strange scents on the street, the contents of the weird drinks brewed by the road and when I felt the eyes of locals taking me in, what they might be wondering. I’m enjoying Bolivia, because it keeps me guessing.

I hadn’t done much research on southern Bolivia before we set off so when we rolled over the apex of another hill and a surreal cherry-red lake revealed itself beneath mountains I had no idea I was looking at the famous Laguna Colorada, the Red Lagoon, but I was impressed nonetheless. The sanguine stain of the waters is derived from a type of algae which thrives there. Flamingos waded and dipped their crooked beaks into the red, one or two began their run up to flight, dead ones were scattered over the salt-stained banks. White islands of Borax dissected the red ripples and when jeeps circled the far shore, a vaporous haze kicked up and I felt I had entered a severe, nightmarish netherworld.

The surreal orange/red of Laguna Colorada
A flamingo takes off
And so another character arrives on the scene: Marta – Polish, a solo cyclist and another roman candle. She was also only the second lady I have seen riding solo over the last two and a half years. When we met in a tiny Bolivian highland village she was explaining to a local man that she was starving after cycling all day and that she needed meat… “so do you have a machine gun so I can hunt some llamas?” she asked him with a wink. I liked her immediately. That night Myself, Nicky and Marta all binged on wine, chocolate, rice and chips in the village before setting off in opposite directions, hardy Marta was travelling to the increasingly chilly South.

Next was the small town of Uyuni and Nicky and I decided on a day off. The night before our rest day we went out in search of fun and happened upon the aptly named Extreme Fun Pub, a place in which the cocktail menu consisted of…

Hasta la vista, llama
The sexy llama bitch
Orgasmo multiple de la llama
The llama’s sensual naval
Llama sperm (vodka, chocolate liquor de cafe and ???)
Llama Sutra

The drinks were served in ceramic model of a llama vagina. It was an alcoholic orgy and I think this particular photo of Nicky well illustrates just how obliterated we got…

I admit it, I was worried about cycling the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt lake. My expectations, like the geography of the Salar itself, were high. Ever since I had first glimpsed photos of cycle tourers, beaming and, I imagined, effortlessly gliding across the perfect white sea of salt, I had yearned to ride there, perhaps more than anywhere else on earth. Cyclists talked of “an unforgettable experience”, what if the riding the Salar didn’t live up to my mental version? What if it was disappointing? What if it was forgettable?

“Look, over there!” shouts Nicky, motioning to a thin belt of white to the West, wedged between the horizon and a featureless expanse of brown earth. My pulse quickens as I think about the fact that where the white begins, it doesn’t end for almost 170 km, the Salar has an area roughly the same as the island of Jamaica. Soon we reach a memorial plaque for the victims of an accident in 2008 in which two tourist jeeps collided. The most probable scenario is that both drivers were playing the “Iron Man,” travelling head to head and trying to be the last vehicle to deviate from the collision path. Both jeeps were travelling at over 100 km/hr and gasoline containers were attached to the vehicle’s fronts. Thirteen died in the crash and ensuing blaze. After finding out these gruesome details, my faith in Bolivian drivers plummeted yet again, and it had been already cruising towards rock bottom, fuelled by my experience on Bolivian roads so far.

Ten minutes later we reach the edge of a mirror – a shallow but vast pool of water perfectly reflecting the azure sky above, a couple of clouds are in a listless drift across the ground and sky. Within the water, snake-shaped mounds of white salt protrude and I guess we can pedal across without getting knee deep in brine. On the other side lies the reason for all the water here, conical piles of salt stretch out in rows, this is where they mine lithium, the Salar holds up to 60% of the world’s reserves. We set off, splashing through the salt water and meandering between the shimmering islands, occasionally stopping to heave our entrenched back tyres out of the sodden gunk beneath the water. A minute later blue gives way to an unending honeycomb of bright white salt and we ride along, unconfined, free, ignoring jeep trails and heading just ‘across’.

The endless, gleaming jigsaw of wonky hexagons (salt tiles) has to be one of the most impressive sites in the natural world, it’s a privilege to ride it and we can’t resist camping out on the Salar that night as well. Our timing is perfect, tonight a full moon rides the eastern horizon, illuminating the string of tourist jeeps returning to town, and with only a light breeze I can just detect the faint thrum of their working engines. Fiery and towering tropical cumulus bunch up in the northern sky, alight with the dregs of sunlight and the occasional flash of lightning. For a while we frame photos as the final beams of light are replaced by the white glow of the moon and night claims the Salar. Coldness ends our photography session and we set up camp.

The next day we ride west, our spirited zigzag leaving faint trails and branding the crust of salt as we try to avoid the small holes which penetrate the Salar, linking the surface to an underlying pool of brine. As we travel, a light crunch of the salt beneath our wheels and the soft whistle of the wind travel with us. In recent years a sport, you could say, a tradition, has grown amongst cyclists on the Salar – The Naked Ride-By. Crazy Guy On A Bike, the largest online community of cycle tourers in the world, is full of photos of naked bodies on bicycles on the famous white backdrop. Nicky and I weren’t about to let the opportunity pass. We shed our clothes and pedal along, tourist trucks in the distance may spot us but I was relying on the weird, hallucinogenic nature of the terrain to diffuse their fears.

“George, George… is that… a, a cyclist?”
“No darling, you’re seeing things.”
“It is George! And he’s naked!”
“Yes darling, whatever you say. Driver! My wife isn’t feeling well, can we go back now please?”

Here’s a short video, thanks to Nicky, and some stills…

Bolivia is tough. Travellers regularly suffer the country’s many challenges and extremes, they complain of cold, of altitude sickness, of diarrhoea. For me though, it was infertility that was starting to look like the most likely outcome, courtesy of Bolivia’s notoriously bad roads. The sandy, washboard-type road surface amounts to back to back speed bumps and it was a painful bounce through sweeping sandy-coloured plains of sun-torched grass on the Altiplano. Nicky’s theory went that “if you don’t have lumpy balls in Bolivia, you’re not riding hard enough”. It was on these roads that I inadvertently invented ‘The Bolivian Omelette”. Here’s the recipe –

Put four uncooked eggs into front pannier
Add eggs to a bag of grapes, hoping the grapes will act as mini shock absorbers
Cycle down any unpaved Bolivian road
Collect mix of grapes, runny egg and egg shell
Add llama meat
Fry it all up
Voilà – The Bolivian Omelette

Bolivians living up on the Altiplano have a reputation for being reserved and shy. I don’t have any photos of the colourful people we met en route, nobody would consent to their photos being taken. I try not to generalise and stereotype people, I’m sure there are plenty of gregarious Bolivians, but after travelling though so many countries it becomes difficult not to, and I reckon Bolivians do the same. I’ve cycled through at least three Bolivian villages, the inhabitants of which probably now believe that the majority of British men have matted facial hair, mayonnaise-stained clothes and own an overwhelmingly aroma of onion and feet.

Riding through the Bolivian villages we ran a gauntlet of barking, chasing dogs whilst locals looked on, inanimate, silent and so I figured, complicit in the chase. We sometimes sang “Ghost Town” by The Specials on the way in to these deserted villages, even those locals who own shops or hostels need to supplement their income by working in the fields so it was often impossible to buy basic supplies or find a bed until the evening.

Gradually the terrain flattened out, women worked the fields, brightly coloured shawls tight across their back supporting mystery loads. A few returned my waves, but not many. By six pm I had another companion, a dark shadow-cyclist, pushed into the rough to my right by the low sun. At breaks Nick and I shared tales from the road, we sang bad eighties rock ballads and sang badly to better eighties rock ballads, we did impressions of some of the frightfully posh and endearingly naive Gap Year students called Rupert or Tarquin we’ve met along the way. And then we made it to Ururo.

Social protest is the traditional way of gaining government attention in Bolivia and the day we entered Ururo coincided with a 72 hour strike by The Workers’ Union of Bolivia (COB) whilst the physicians and other health professionals were continuing their indefinite strike and daily demonstrations against changes in working conditions. The UK foreign office site stated:

“There are currently several ongoing social conflicts in Bolivia and blockades may occur along the main roads without notice. Due to the risk of violence, you should never try to cross a blockade.”

As we cycled out of Ururo we hit a sequence of these blockades but brazenly pushed past them, hoping that, as cyclists, we’d be immune to any violent outbursts. The banner clutching crowds had used upturned bicycles, rocks and pieces of wood to close the roads, on some routes they had even drilled up the tarmac and piled up the fractured asphalt and soil to stop traffic. People jeered. I asked a woman what it was all about and she launched into a tirade.

“We are doctors and nurses! We work eight hours a day for nothing! No money! No money! Nothing!”

I wished the protester “mucho suerte” and continued on. On Highway One, the main artery to La Paz, instead of the usual heavy traffic there was a swarm of jostling pedestrians. Grim, downtrodden faces watched us ride past and the scene made me think of an exodus of refugees departing a war torn city. The burnt metal remains of something scarred the tarmac, maybe a motorbike. Up ahead there was a larger mob and I became nervous, but as we wheeled our bikes through the hoard a ripple of applause built and cheering began, we sheepishly said thank you and smiled our appreciation. A few kilometres later a group of young soldiers, wearing even bleaker expressions than the protesters, stood vigil, rifles in hand. I gave them the same enthusiastic and over the top smile and wave I reserve for all men with guns and kept cycling. We had been warned that Highway One was busy and potentially a bit dangerous for cyclists but with the blockades in place we had the road almost all to ourselves.

Finally – La Paz, which can boast perhaps the most dramatic entrance to any city in the world. As we cycled through the slum district of El Alto, suddenly to our right, La Paz jumped out of the trees. Loose folds of city were awkwardly sprawled over the sides of several mountains. The shiny tin roofs of the houses glinted in the midday sun and we freewheeled into the mayhem of another enticing and animated South American city.

La Paz
After a 17 day ride with only one day off, La Paz was a welcome break, and because one day it would be nice to father children, I decided to take a whole week off Bolivia’s bumpy roads. Next I ride past Lake Titicaca and to Cusco in Peru to catch up with Tom, an old friend from my time in Liverpool, before visiting the famous Inca ruins at Machu Picchu and then rattling through the rest of Peru.

Finally here’s a couple of links… an article I wrote about a border crossing from Argentina to Chile in an online magazine called Sidetracked and an interview with a US based magazine called Sierra.

Waiting for flying idiots

I’m a complete idiot. Only idiots make mistakes like this.

The thought repeated itself as I moodily shuffled through Salta’s empty streets, cleats clipping the cobblestones, carrying two bike tyres. The part of Salta that wasn’t sleeping peacefully was on their way to or from church, because it was a SUNDAY, not a MONDAY as I assumed it must be. I couldn’t leave Salta without some bike parts and gas for my stove, items that are easy to find on any day of week in Salta, except SUNDAYS. And it was definitely a SUNDAY. That was clear, as clear as the fact that only nomadic, dreamy idiots who have been travelling for over two years make mistakes with the day of the week and end up staying an extra day when they should be en route to Chile.

So finally I escaped the clutches of the cosy city and I cruised up a cloudy gorge, Quebrada del Toro, to San Antonio, brimming with the same sense of nervous excitement that always builds when I know I’m about to leave civilisation behind, this time for around five days. But I was a little sad to leave Argentina behind, it’s the largest country I’ve travelled through so far and I have spent more days cycling here than any of it’s twenty nine predecessors on my route so far. So it’s lucky that it also happens to be one of my favourite. The landscape of the North is captivating and hugely varied, the people are helpful and friendly (although as a Brit I had to ignore the occasional whinging and muttering concerning the Falklands), the tourism industry is organised, the food is great and many small towns have free campsites for tired bikers like me. Plus there’s the girls… enough said.

Paso Sico – another venture above the 4000 metre mark. Paso Jama, a little further north is the paved and popular route into Chile, making Sico a kind of reclusive kid at school nobody wants to know. After a few days of lung crunching, leg breaking, lethargic ascent I arrived at the far flung and lonesome Chilean border post and wondered what the Chilean policemen could have done to get stranded out here, on the side of a mountain, two hundred kilometres from the next sizable town. I decided that at least one of the three men who worked out here had got a little too drunk at the Police Christmas party and said something inappropriate to a senior officer. They were ticking off the days they had left on the wall like prisoners in a jail cell. To brighten their spirits I told them how beautiful I thought it was up here in the mountains, but my comment was met with a derisive laugh that said “you want my job? Have it!”. They warned me of a monster that roamed around the mountains, a name I hadn’t heard for twelve years, the legendary Chupacabra. When I was last in Chile farmers told me tales of this mythical beast, a bit like the Beast of Bodmin or the Loch Ness Monster, which they blamed for disappearing livestock (Chupacabra literally means ‘goat sucker’). It was good to know that the Chupacabra was still alive and well, although if animals were going missing then I probably should be more worried about meeting a puma, the more likely culprit.

A Chupacabra
The battle for Sico really began when I left the Chilean police post and a steep climb and storm force headwind teamed up against me. In retaliation I enlisted the help of James Brown via my IPOD. Nothing can stop me and James. Sico soon relented. I could have reached San Pedro on my penultimate day in the mountains but I wanted one more night of quiet isolation before I hit gringo central. The next day I rose early and began my morning routine which has become full of strange rituals –

Check for scorpions hiding in my shoes
Put water bottles in the sun to melt the solid ice (its usually around minus five degrees C at night (23 F)
Curse when I eat porridge because I’m fed up with it but there’s no alternative

I’ve been around tourists a lot of late and I don’t really mind the questions. The trials and joys of a cycle tourer are intriguing to other travellers, and my answers to their questions have become fine-tuned and automatic, but perhaps in a year’s time I’ll resort to barefaced lies in order to avoid the predictable inquisition…

‘Hey are you travelling by bike?’
‘Ummm no. Definitely not. I don’t even like cycling.’
‘Isn’t that your bike?’
‘Oh that. No no. I’m just watching that for a friend.’
‘Is that Lycra you’re wearing?’
‘Errrr, yes. I always wear Lycra. I like how it feels against my skin.’
‘Wait a minute, isn’t that a spanner in your pocket?’
‘I’m just pleased to see you’

Somebody once told me that a burden of cycling around the world is that you will be expected to talk about it at every dinner party for the rest of your life. Fast forward thirty years, I can envisage the following scenario.

‘Hey everyone, this is Steve. Some years ago Steve cycled all the way around the world! He’s got some great stories. Go on, tell us a story Steve’

Shotgun to temple
Chh chh boooooom!
I ruin the dinner party

So to avoid brain landing in someones lemon sorbet thirty years from now I have devised a few alternative answers to those common questions, answers designed to stupefy, perplex, outrage and entertain. From now on I will be using these when anyone asks a question about my life on a bicycle, be it backpacker, journalist or curious local.

Why do you travel by bicycle?
It was part of a deal brokered by my defence team at the trial. My prison term was commuted to bicycle touring years. The judge, the prosecution and my victim’s family all agreed that five years of bicycle touring was a fair trade for twenty five to life in solitary. I went along with the plea bargain. Mostly, I wish I hadn’t.

Isn’t it dangerous?
Yes, it’s very dangerous. I wear full Kevlar body armour underneath my Lycra, I carry heavy arsenal in my rear panniers and I have a handlebar mounted flamethrower which I can discharge by tugging on a piece of brake cable.

What has been your favourite country so far?
England. I especially enjoyed the M25 ring road and the suburbs around Milton Keynes. To be honest, it’s all been a bit underwhelming since then.

What do you eat?
I live off the land. Most days I stop a few hours before sunset to collect nuts, berries and wild mushrooms and to trap field mice and hunt small game. In cities I live almost exclusively on deep fried confectionery.

How do you afford it?
People smuggling. I can just about fit a refugee in my rear pannier. But only small ones. After a few border runs it can be quite lucrative.

Where do you sleep?
I usually just lie down in a ditch or put the bike on autopilot and slump across the handlebars.

What do your family think?
I didn’t tell them. In our culture bicycle touring is shameful. They may have disowned me.

How many kilometres do you ride per day?
It depends on many things – the wind, the road, the hills and the quantity of amphetamines I managed to score from the last big town en route.

What type of bike do you have? How much did it cost?
Very little. I constructed it myself using common household items. The handlebar is half a broom handle, the frame is composed of central heating pipes welded together and the rims are hollowed out undersides of metal trash cans.

How much does your kit weigh?
Difficult to answer because I no longer work in kilograms. Like most cycle tourers the unit of weight I am most familiar with is the Packet Of Pasta (POP). My gear usually comes to around 68 POPs. More with a refugee on board.

Do you ever take lifts?
No. Although sometimes I give backies to tired motorists.

Don’t you get lonely?
No. I have Jake.
(which begs the question ‘and who’s Jake?’)

Oh you’ve not met Jake yet? He’s around here somewhere. Here he is, hi Jake!

(at this point I will produce a sock puppet and begin a conversation with Jake the Sock Puppet using a high pitched screechy voice for Jake)

How long have we been friends Jake?
Since you started cycling Steve
You’re my only friend aren’t you Jake
Yes I am

I will continue the pantomime until…

1. Someone asks another question or
2. Everyone slowly backs away from me and I am alone or
3. I feel a sharp stabbing sensation in one of my buttocks. A syringe wielding orderly has just dosed me with a potent dose of antipsychotic medication and I will soon be rendered unconscious. But at least I won’t have to answer any more questions.

How do you cross the oceans?

(I hate this one. Since teleporters have yet to be invented there aren’t that many options, are there? Perhaps it doesn’t deserve an answer, but to appease all the curious idiots out there…)

First I will politely ask Curious Idiot to bend over. Once in position I will insert the end of a bicycle pump and inflate, rapidly. Before 50 PSI the Curious Idiot should be airborne, at which point I will shout ‘Like that!’ in answer to their question (hence the title of this blog post). If the Curious Idiot isn’t a projectile then they probably have a massive hernia, better call the paramedics. No need to apologise though.

What will you do when you come home? Will you write a book?
No. I will walk a bit funny for a while and then marry my bicycle. Eventually I will probably shoot myself in the head at a dinner party when someone asks me a question about what I will do next. And then someone else will write a book about it.

If anyone is interested in the real answers, I have recently updated the FAQs on my website.

So here are some shots from Quebrada del Toro and Paso Sico –

Another milestone

Finally I made to San Pedro where I had to wait until I received a parcel from home containing essential bits of new kit for Bolivia, a parcel that still hasn’t arrived, a parcel that was left in a corner of the customs building in Santiago whilst everyone ignored it, a parcel that has been the bane of my life for the last two, boring, expensive, stir-crazy weeks. Whilst looking for a campsite in San Pedro I asked some street side hippies for direction. Just camp with us! came the invitation. OK. They had been working converting their home into something that I couldn’t quite tell yet, mainly because after five years ‘working’ on it they hadn’t got very far. They worked harder keeping the tourists and inhabitants of San Pedro stocked up with marijuana. Around mid-morning, after smoking vast quantities of weed, one of them would forget where they had left the joint and so they would usually abandon the days work on the house at this stage to find the missing drugs. Occasionally they would go to the nearby sand dunes to take LSD, a place called ‘Valle de la Muerte’ which translates as Death Valley, perhaps not the most sensible option if you plan to take potent mind altering chemicals. I tried, with limited success, to be as constructive as I could be in San Pedro – I wrote, pitched and submitted freelance travel features (a new line of work), I read several books, I visited the valley of the moon, even though I’d been there before and every country seems to have a valley of the moon, and I helped the hippies locate missing marijuana.

I realise that on the whole this has been quite a moany post, so on to a more optimistic future. Bolivia is next, a place that will undoubtedly contrast sharply with my experience of South America up until now, being as it is, one of the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America. I will cycle to and across the world’s largest, most famous and most photographed salt lake, The Salar De Uyuni and then make my way up to the capital La Paz from where I’ll send the next post. I can’t wait, even though thanks to a certain international courier, CALLED DHL, I have to. (Hence the title of this blog post).

Running down dunes in Death Valley, near San Pedro (there was no LSD involved, I promise)

The silence of the llamas

Paso Pircas Negras, 4200 m above sea level

“We can do this the easy way or the hard way Belinda. What’s it to be?”

It was a subdued response, I didn’t really expect an inanimate object like my bicycle to react fervidly when quizzed, but there was something in the curve of her handlebars and glint in her side mirror that made me suspect she was game for an adventure as well.“The hard way it is then Belinda”. Her silence was telling.

Villa Union to Tinogasta: The EASY way…

300 km up the now familiar route 40, probably with a couple of climbs but nothing to really test the quads. Mostly smooth tarmac, plenty of traffic, shops and places to find water. Three days of plain sailing.

Villa Union to Tinogasta: The HARD way…

A 800 km loop through the high Andes taking around two weeks. It would involve riding for over 200 km at an altitude of over 4000 metres, climbing two Andean passes on the way. The first, Paso Pircas Negras, is a remote crossing 160 km from the nearest town and open only 35 days of the year. The second, Paso San Francisco is the second highest pass between Chile and Argentina at 4767 metres and nudges up against the highest volcanoes on earth. Over two weeks I would climb more vertical metres than from sea level to the height of Mount Everest, and with no shops for 12 days I would be forced to carry a large amount of food. With every extra kilogram, every vertical metre promised to be an extra effort.

Signpost on approach to Paso Pircas Negras
(translation – danger of getting stranded in snow, danger of hypothermia, temperatures less than minus 15 degrees Celsius, no telephone signal, roads in a bad state due to snow, no shelters with facilities)
Spurred on by the concrete support of a bicycle which I have christened a girl’s name and talk with frequently I was heading once again into the high Andes, and this time riding higher than ever before. Unless Tescos or Wallmart had expanded their operations to include siting a store on top of one of the 6000 metre high volcanoes in the vicinity, I would need a lot of food, and that’s when I had entered the cyclist’s vicious circle – the more food I carried, the heavier my bike, the slower I go and the more food I need. In case you wondered, this is what 12 days of food for a hungry cyclist looks like…

17 kilograms of stodge
This is on top of my 20 kg bike, my 35 kg of gear and my 8 kg of water. A total of 80 kg verses a diminutive 70 kg of me. Too much, maybe, but some challenges of the road I can handle – brutal climbs, fierce weather, hours of boredom and weeks of solitude, but completely bland food has no place in my lifestyle. I look forward to cooking and eating, it’s the reward for putting up with the rest.

The details of the route were afforded me by the trailblazing and hardcore Pikes, a British couple who took a year a half to ride around South America, tackling some of the highest passes and toughest roads and then studiously collecting the details so that others could follow in their tyre marks. Check out their amazing website Andesbybike. This time I needed accurate information, if you regularly follow this blog you might remember that I got lost in the Andes several weeks ago, close to where the Uruguayan rugby team crash landed in a plane in 1972 and turned cannibal in order to survive, immortalised by the Hollywood film ‘Alive’. You may think that it’s a bit of a stretch to compare my situation to theirs, after all I hadn’t recently survived a high speed plane crash and I wasn’t combating the effects of hypothermia in thick snow, but at least they had a ready supply of food, even if it was the frozen corpses of their recently dead friends. I was down to my last packet of Super Noodles.

My first task was to get an exit stamp for Argentina in Vinchina, the last town for two weeks. At the Gendarmeria I was told that they only stamped people out Wednesday to Sunday, it was a Tuesday. I argued, debated and reasoned, stretching my Spanish to it’s limits. When told to return in three hours I came back in one. Sick of my pestering, the official finally relented and I had my stamp.

The symptoms started early. Too early. My ascent was rapid and my bike heavy enough for me to guess that some symptoms of altitude sickness were inevitable but on my third night, at a mere 3200 metres, I started to develop a headache, lethargy and breathlessness, tell-tale signs of Acute Mountain Sickness. Why some get altitude sickness and others don’t is an unfolding mystery and theories abound. Serious mountaineers reading this would probably scoff at anything less than 6000 metres but in terms of risk factors, I was sitting on a full house. Physical exertion – tick, rapid(ish) rate of ascent – tick, previous altitude sickness – tick, male sex – tick, someone who participates in regular physical activity – tick. To push on when so symptomatic is never a good idea so I decided to call it a day after a slow and laborious twenty kilometres and hold up in a mountain refuge where some kind soul had left two packets of biscuits for the next to scoff. A mountain guide came by a few hours later and told me that someone lived in the next refugio on my route, this person allegedly didn’t like visitors and I made a promise that I wouldn’t stay there.

28,000 km milestone
I’m one of the lucky few who can sleep through anything, especially after a day on the bike, but that night I was plagued by insomnia, my oxygen depleted unconscious mind deciding that sleep would only make things worse and over-riding my desire to get some. Day break was blurred by low hanging clouds. Feeling tired but slightly clearer mentally I packed up and started to pedal up towards the pass, my eyes often on the sky, weather changes fast here and it pays to watch for the warning signs. The world was now a pink, green and black one, the colours were smeared onto the hills, melting into one another like the swirling blend of gases in pictures of distant planets. Clouds often obstructed the sunlight so bright beams scanned the hills and reds and greens came to life momentarily and then faded sharply as the sunlight passed again. The breeze was light and so the soundscape of this strange world was almost a total silence but occasionally I jumped to the “mwa” of a guanaco, a relative of the llama, an alert call to the herd when I got too close after which they fled in a loping gallop across the rose scree. Then suddenly some movement in my rear view mirror. I squinted, nothing. I turned around, still nothing. I pedalled on. Minutes later I was sure I had seen something once again, it looked like the reflection of another cyclist behind me. I stopped and looked but couldn’t see anyone. Once I even shouted out, but to no avail. It seems slightly crazy to me now that I wondered why the cyclist in my mirror didn’t come over and say hello, why they were hiding from me in the hills. Crazy, because there never was another cyclist, just some weird artifact of a tired and oxygen deprived mind resting on a tired body, cycling a heavily loaded touring bike through the Andes.
Paso Pircas Negras

25th June 2012
Dear Doctor,

Regarding patient: Stephen P Fabes

Thank you for referring this patient

Clinical history –

Mr Fabes is a 31 year old cyclist from the UK who developed a rapid progression of symptoms in early 2012 which evolved from talking with himself in the initial stages to development of a delusional relationship with his bicycle, whom he referred to as “Belinda” and soon afterwards frank visual hallucinations.

Earlier this month Mr Fabes was taken into custody by the Argentine police after he was found dragging his bicycle through thick snow at over 6000 metres in the Andes Mountain Range. He was completely naked, suffering from hypothermia and covered in blood. Inside his panniers police found the dismembered carcass of what is believed to be a recently slaughtered llama. When questioned about this the patient is reported to have said “I was just fed up with pasta.”

The clinical picture is one compatible with the increasingly prevalent ‘Toured-Out Syndrome’ (or TOS) which is seen almost exclusively in long distance cycle tourers. An essential component of this condition is the naming and conversing with a bicycle although in severe cases patients have also been known to talk, and even develop friendships, with spanners, Allen keys and inner tubes. Other features of the syndrome include an unkempt appearance, an insatiable appetite, poor short term memory (especially concerning the date, people’s names and when they last changed their clothes) and various obsessions, the most common of which is the refusal to accept the value of everyday goods and foodstuffs which often manifests as compulsive bartering.

These patients typically take a long time to recover and to reintegrate into society. Indeed it is not uncommon after they return home for sufferers to be unable to sleep in their own bed but to instead create makeshift campsites in their back garden, cook goat’s meat over open fires and relate rambling stories of their travels to anyone who will listen. Interestingly prognosis in males is related to the density of nasal hair at the time of diagnosis, in females the length of armpit hair is a more useful prognostic indicator.

Treatment is usually supportive and involves weaning the patient off a pasta-based diet (abrupt withdrawal can be dangerous as can be seen in Mr Fabes’ case), encouraging better personal hygiene and hoping that the patient will eventually give some consideration to their personal appearance and to social norms, although sadly the latter is often not achievable. Counselling also has a role although group counselling sessions have proved to be counterproductive as the conversation tends to become dominated by the pros and cons of Rohloff Hubs and the different varieties of Schwalbe tyres.

If the patient ever recovers to the extent that they become employable then bicycles must never enter the daily routine, especially on the commute to work, as a patient may suffer an acute relapse. On occasion I have been called to deal with such cases to find the patient slumped by the side of a cycle lane, hundreds of miles from their place of work, covered in daily milk chocolate and surrounded by empty packets of Super Noodles. In another case a patient was detained in a branch of Sainsbury’s after attempting to barter for seventy five Yorkies, forty tie wraps, some electrical tape and twelve litres of cherry flavoured Fanta.

There are some that maintain that TOS is a ‘lifestyle’ and shouldn’t be medicalised. After spending many years treating and counselling these patients I wholly disagree. These individuals are more than just unbalanced, they have serious pathology that warrants immediate treatment.

I hope this clarifies the issue

Many thanks

Professor Jones

On with the story…

Up, up and up, past the snowy humps and creases of Cerro Veladero, to 4400 metres where I met the frozen Laguna Brava and a brief snow shower. After some technical problems with my bike I found myself at dusk outside the shelter the guide had warned me to stay clear of. On my way I had been trying to solve the mystery of who could live here, in this utterly remote, bitterly cold refuge, high in the Andes. I imagined it to be a hideous recluse, someone so ugly they had been shunned by humanity. I approached the refugio, mildly terrified and found it to be empty but then, on the edge of the desolate plain to the east, stood a red Andean fox, glistening in the golden light of dusk, inspecting me at a cautious distance. I realised my Spanish had failed once again. This must have been the tenent the guide had warned me about. Sorry mate, this place is mine tonight. But despite the absence of Frankenstein’s monster the refuge had a spooky quality that only deepened as I explored the inside. I found a miniature dolls head which had bafflingly been wedged into the rocks of the shelter, I shuddered as the wind howled around me. I explored the outside and as I peered into a pile of stones my eyes met a jaw bone, human, my eyes reluctantly took in the bigger picture and I found a skeleton gaping back at me. A few trinkets had been added to the makeshift grave, I could see now that’s what it was, the skeleton was still wearing a pair of trainers and scraps of clothing remained.

The next day, once again after little sleep, I made some more progress but then something strange happened. At around 4300 metres my vision suddenly blurred. I stopped and checked my vision in each eye. My right was fine but everything I could see through my left eye was indistinct and fuzzy. I have no idea what had caused this but after I descended to below 4000 it resolved. Any medical colleagues reading this please give suggestions!

Later that day I came across a temporary camp for some mine workers, population seven, they examined my tatty, sweat stained t-shirt and torn shorts, shrugged and invited me inside. So the night after I ventured sleep but failed, shivering and sick with altitude in a lonely mountain refuge next to some human remains I found myself sat amongst a band of cheery mine workers, fresh from a warm shower, eating roast chicken, drinking coca cola and watching satellite TV. Sometimes that’s just how it goes.
The descent

Pass number two, San Francisco. Acclimatised now the first ascent to 4300 metres was an easier one. I dropped down to a salt lake, Salar Maricunga, a field of white penetrated by tent shaped islands and rocky outcrops, on it’s edge stood a lonely warehouse which served as Chilean immigration. I got my exit stamp and slept peacefully inside the immigration building before climbing once again. 

On the way up a car stopped and the driver asked where I was going but I couldn’t remember my destination, I realised this was probably not a good sign. I’ve never passed out before but a few minutes after this was as close as I have ever been. A sudden dizziness preceded the tunnel vision, I stumbled off my bike and slumped against it in the dust, seconds before a black out. On the basis that I had spent almost a week at altitude and all of my other symptoms had faded away, and perhaps more significantly that I had stopped hallucinating cyclists in my side mirror, I decided to continue, but this time at a crawl. Fortunately the terrain flattened out at 4400 metres and by nightfall I had reached Laguna Verde, essentially a base camp for mountaineers taking on the surrounding volcanoes which consisted of two geodesic domes, a long drop, a batch of tents and some 4 by 4s in amongst some thermal pools. A group of Russian climbers were planning to ascend the nearby Ojos Del Salado, the highest volcano on earth and the second highest peak in South America. Some Chilean climbers and two German couples had been up and down some other surrounding cones, one of the Chileans was suffering with the altitude more than anyone else, he lay in the foetal position next to his tent.

After a better night’s sleep I nursed a mug of hot coffee and took in the unfolding early morning tableau. The first rays of light had illuminated the ridges on the far shore of the lake, creating jagged shadows which fell into the still water. Steam drifted ethereally from the termas over white rubble and ridges which contributed to the appearance of a lunar landscape. Amongst this the climbers were rummaging through rucksacks in beanies and bright puffy down jackets. The placid mood of the air, the sky and the lake contrasted to the exuberance of those amongst it, the Chilean climbers exchanged words and then hugs with the Russians, I guessed wishing each other good luck in their respective tongue. 

Salar Maricunga
Laguna verde

Altitude sickness isn’t a two way street and as I descended I was pondering the injustice of this. Surely once I’m acclimatised to the thinner air at altitude then there should be some happy effects of all this excess oxygen after I descend. I should feel suddenly clear-headed, energised, pumped up, buzzing with serotonin. But no, all I have to take down with me is the memory of brain splitting headaches, sleepless nights and a hypoxic hangover. But the descent was quite fun. From the rocky slopes of baron mountains, where winter snow is permanent and little vegetation can survive, I whistled through the Puna, a region of high elevation montane grassland which lies above the treeline at 3,200 – 3,500 metres elevation, and below the permanent snow line. A road sign warned “no moleste a la fauna”. I know it’s fairly obvious and innocent translation, but Spanish words have a funny way of sounding like English ones with a slightly different but related meaning, in this case I couldn’t help envisage an elderly, horny German tourist running naked through the Puna after a panic stricken llama. 

After 175 km, a descent of 2500 metres and with three hours of daylight left, I reached the town of Fiambala to discover that my plastic water bottles containing air from four and a half thousand metres up had crumpled under the new atmospheric pressure. Another sleepy town, another wait. Siesta is taken very seriously north of Mendoza and if you want  to buy food staking out the local supermarket until it reopens is all you can do. At 2 pm sharp metal grates are pulled over shop fronts and the streets empty as if some legal curfew has been enacted. Even the ten year olds on scooters which usually ply the streets of every Northern Argentinian town disappear. In some towns the buses stop running and campsites lock their gates and as I walk through the dead streets eyes watch me from house windows and I wonder if they are contemplating alerting the authorities about my refusal to heed the sacred Siesta. The only places that stay open are the ice cream parlours, a perfect base camp.

Then, finally, I was back on the conveyor belt of Route 40 which delivered me sweaty and tired into the peaceful charms of the The Santa Maria valley. It was a Sunday, the smell of grilled meat on asados wafted through the small villages and men reclined on their porches cradling bottles of local brew and just about summoning enough energy to manage a lacklustre wave as I past by. For one morning I cycled with Dirk, a Belgian biker. The difference between me and ‘The Holiday Biker’ has become extreme. There was a sheen to Dirk’s bright white panniers and neat cycling jersey. His bicycle was a picture of perfect health and it purred perfectly as he pedalled. We both produced maps to compare routes, his a brand new folded chart, mine a crumpled mess which had long since disintegrated into almost ten sections, each oil stained and most unreadable. My clothes were ripped and dirty. My handlebar grip looked as though a Samurai warrior has unleashed a furious attack on it. Someone observing this meeting might assume that Dirk had cycled straight out of a local bike shop whilst somewhere in the direction I had cycled from there had been some near apocalyptic event and I had just about managed to escape with my life.

Down the road to Cafayate more bike trouble was followed in predictable fashion by a sense of panic. I used to have the same approach to bicycles as my mum did with computers. My mum would press a single key on the keyboard with such deliberateness that 27 of the same letter would flash across the screen, the next five minutes would be a flustered hunt for ‘delete’. Luckily we have both improved. I think I have had well over my fair share of bad luck when it comes to bicycles but maybe fixing bikes and fixing people aren’t all that different – here are some striking similarities:

1. Prevention is better than cure
Stop smoking, lose weight, oil that chain, check that spoke tension.

2. Listen to your patient
Every medical student will have been subjected to the timeless medical adage, usually retold by a bald, bow tie wearing Professor… ´Listen to your patient and they will tell you the diagnosis´. Not literally of course, that would make doctors defunct, but the implication is that the clues are in the medical history, the same applies to bikes. When bikes make new and strange sounds it pays to investigate before it’s too late. When my bike makes a new sound I stress for about an hour and then put on my IPOD in the futile hope that Kool and the Gang will give me some inspiration.

3.  Hitting elderly patients with large spanners will not make them better, and may make them worse
I believe this is one of the first things they teach you at medical school. Apparently it also holds true for old bicycles.

4.  Leave it to the experts
Don’t ‘have a crack’ at the following if you are not 100% sure what you are doing – brain surgery, wheel building, coronary artery bypass grafts, bearing transplants.

5. If you can’t fix it / him / her, give up and move on to the next one
(just joking)

The Puna
Fiery tongues of sandstone light up the surroundings on my descent to Fiambala
Finally I embarked on a another loop, taking in the famous quebradas, or gorges, of Northern Argentina, South of Salta. The landscape was, well, I’ll let the photos do the talking…

Quebrada de las Conchas…

Quebrada de las Flechas…

Cuesta del Obispo and Los Cardones National Park…

I arrived into Salta and looked over at Belinda, but this time I didn’t bother to pose the question. Next up – Abra Del Acai – the highest pass in Argentina at 4972 metres above sea level, then the remote Paso Sico into Chile which involves various climbs to over 4000 metres and finally the rugged Lagunas Route into Bolivia and to the edge of the world’s largest and most famous salt lake, a place I have dreamt about biking for years – The Salar De Uyuni.

Paso San Francisco