Thursday, 1 April 2010

Let Me Tell You A Heart Warming Tale

Whilst Tim was away in New York for his brother's wedding, we headed on a detour south to the Bolivian salt-flats (Saltar de Uyuni). These, we were informed, were a must see. A classic tourist attraction, a number of agencies run trips from La Paz where tourists are bused south and hooked up with 4x4 tour operators in Uyuni who take them across the flats. We had a chat with one of these agencies to try to figure out their programs and the routes they take. Several routes dissecting the flats are mapped out and allow their traversing in various directions. We decided to head straight for the salt-flats, hitting them at the northern shore, rather than going to Uyuni on the east side first; a road less travelled, but what could go wrong?

Finally out of La Paz (possibly in the top 5 worst places on Earth by my book - the others include the centre of the Earth and a Kaiser Chiefs concert) we were able to enjoy some of Bolivia's amazing scenery. The approach to the flats took us through vast open spaces where the light is so bright you have to squint when wearing sunglasses, past huge meteor craters which hold blood-red waters, to eerily grey places as from some netherworld or post-apocalyptic vision, to valleys resembling good old Wales! As we made our way to the shores of the flats we picked our way past a volcano through deserted villages along bolder strewn tracks. Just as light was fading, from the crest of the pass, we were presented with the unforgettable and truly unbelievable sight of the Saltar's vast whiteness.

Darkness saw us reach our day's destination; the small village of Tagua. From here, the map told us, several routes spread out across the flats. We had planned to head out onto the flats to camp for the night. So that was what we did. The Baroness soon came to an abrupt stop and sat, up to her axles, in salt frosted mud. This was not good.

We tried to free the car and even after emptying it of all out kit (including the fridge!), letting down the tyres a little, digging and inserting the sandboards, we couldn't get it out. To add insult to injury, four local teenagers turned up on their push-bikes and asked "why did we get it stuck?". They then happily exclaimed that they would pick the car up and move it. It's a big car we pointed out. "No problem". Then to our utter amazement, they proceeded to show us an ingenious method for getting a car out of such a pickle. Using large rocks they gathered from somewhere out in the darkness, they created a firm base from which to jack-up the wheels (not the car), individually. They then dug under the wheels and inserted the sandboards and more rocks. Soon the wheels had something solid to grip. Although the car was still sitting on its underbelly, it was worth a shot. It worked! Reversing out of her near-grave Barry bounced back into life. We retraced our steps and set her on firm ground. The kids then told us that the way onto the flats was at the next village along. Turns out the map was wrong. There were two gateways onto the flats in the area; elsewhere the flats are quite soft around the edges. We turned in for the night incredibly relieved that the show would go on.

The following day, in our search for a safe route onto and across the salty wasteland, we stumbled upon a small museum curated by a rather cheerful man who gave us a guided tour. I'm not sure how many people had visited his museum since he told us most of his village had left and they never saw many tourists. This later predicament he was keen to see change. We're not sure what he had done so far to effect such a change although we suspected he had probably taken the usual Bolivian approach of just hoping; accurate maps and the use of clear signs would be a step in the right direction. Anyway, the museum was composed of two parts. One contained pots, grinding stones and stuffed animals. The other was a garden in which he had gathered rocks which looked like other things. Where those things didn't look quite enough like the things he thought they should, he doctored them. The garden also contained two human skeletons in a small rock tomb.

After our tour we were pointed in the direction of the entrance to the Saltar and off we went. What an utterly bizarre experience! The Saltar is huge (a good 3 hour drive across its width) and perfectly flat and the sensation of driving across it is not unlike flying through space as depicted in the likes of Star Wars; everything is coming towards you but you never seem to get anywhere.

The hard, crusted surface is covered in an irregular salt lattice (presumably from the evaporation process) which crunches under the wheels. Something else that crunches is the front left hub of your Landcruiser if you forget to take it out of 4-wheel-drive on the hard, crusted surface of the salt-flats. It's called 'wind-up', it's technical (email Tom for a full explanation if you have problems sleeping), and something's got to give.

The front left hub, possibly because it had had bearing problems before, was the weak link - it broke. We managed to get the car to Uyuni (after stopping off at Cactus Island) where a mechanic disassembled the hub by attacking it with various implements including an angle-grinder and installed a new one.

The garage kindly allowed us to do some of our own running repairs and servicing in their yard so we were off running about town trying to find various hardwear and auto-part shops. Again, Bolivia, signs (especially on the front of your shops) would be really useful; hiding your business is not good business. Finally, with Barry in an altogether better state (including a good clean) we headed back towards La Paz to find the third amigo.


Dad Baz said...

Obviously no H and S in Boliva, what about axle stand! What a relief!

Dad Baz said...

I like the matchbox toy!

Greg said...

Close one chaps, glad you got out of there alright. Your photos of the salt flats are fantastic by the way! Good skills! :-) Enjoy!

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