Sunday, February 28, 2010

Uyuni to San Pedro De Atacama, the Race to the Dakar


Our last two days in Bolivia would turn out to be the most physically demanding of the trip for me, the road from Uyuni to San Pedro De Atacama would save us two days travelling and we figured it would enable us to see one of the legs of the Dakar Rally as it made its way South back into Argentina.

Leaving Uyuni.

We finally left Uyuni around lunch time after Chris, Melissa Ingo and Cecilia had done their trip to the Salar, the road conditions soon deteriorated to gravel (ripio) and corrugations.

Chris showing how its's done.
 Ride fast enough and your wheels don't get a chance to drop into the corrugations.

The lack of weight (no Sue) made BOB a lot easier to handle, I had decided to leave the fully loaded panniers on the bike to keep the weight off the front wheel on the sandy sections but there's no getting away from the fact that at the speed I ride, the corrugation is tough on the arms and wrists. I certainly had no intention of racing and even though it was seven months ago, the memory of the crash in Alaska reminded me of the danger of being over confident on a bike of this size.

Easy does it.

We soon headed off into the wilderness and due to the varying skills of the riders in the group we ended up riding in pairs or in groups of three with the slower ones at the back being followed by Jose and the girls in the 4X4. Occasionally Chris would disappear into the desert on one of his motocross forays.  Chris is probably the most capable rider in these conditions having ridden motocross bikes all his life but the GS is no lightweight and after nearly crashing miles off the road he returned sheepishly to rejoin the group at a more sensible pace.
If you're riding in a group and you have an 'off ' then there's always someone to help pick you and the bike up, if you come off and you're on your own in the middle of nowhere then it jeopardizes yourself and the group as a whole so once we laid down some ground rules everyone was fine.

The first major hiccup of the day was when Ingo's rear shock blew, on normal roads it would have been like sitting on a 'pogo stick' but would have been rideable, on these roads it was going to take all his effort to keep the rear wheel on the ground and would slow him down considerably.

The second delay was shortly after lunch, Richard and I had been riding ahead of the group and normally we would stop and let everyone catch up but this time after 15 minutes no one showed. We turned around and went back to find  the 4X4 jacked up and Jose and helper changing a flat tyre.

The girls of course offered moral support.
And looked beautiful doing it...
We've done it fellas!

Shortly after that the road/track turned 'shitty', that's a technical term for potholes, deep gravel and sand, with the odd river crossing thrown in for good measure.

Anyone who's ridden a big bike on this stuff will know what it feels like to see miles of it in front of you. 

Always looks easy in the photo..

Doing the same thing in motion.

I'm no expert in the sand but have developed a technique I'm happy with for traversing the bad sections, stand on the pegs, keep the weight as far back as possible and open the throttle until the back wheel grips and then try and maintain that speed. It's not pretty and you don't look like a pro rider but you do stay upright longer and at 25-30 miles an hour maximum can still make headway. Fortunately very few vehicles travel between Uyuni and San Pedro so for most of the time you can use the whole width of the road and pick what looks like the best line, every so often a 4X4 tour vehicle would race past creating clouds of dust. The downside to less traffic is you could be waiting a long time for help if you crash or break down.
All of us seemed to be handling the sand reasonably well, the odd wobble here and there but no falls. This was about to change as the depth of sand increased and the track wound up the mountain becoming gradually narrower.  

The sand now was 'over the boots' deep.

As I came round a corner the rest of the group ahead were in the process of helping Gino and his bike off the deck, he had looked the most unsteady of the group in the rough stuff and the deep sand had got the better of him. Gino is Venezuelan/Italian and has the Latin American mentality when it comes to riding or driving, 'open the throttle sit back and hang on', for the most part he gets away with it (unless the front tyre blows out!) but on gravel and sand it's a recipe for disaster. As well as not being 100% after the crash coming to Potosi, he insists on sitting down instead of standing on the pegs which gives you a better view of the road ahead and allows more control of the bike. 

Falling down on a big bike at more than 40kph is going to cause some damage even on soft sand, in Gino's case it was the offside pannier to start with.

I foolishly tried to negotiate a path through the bikes and when forced to stop I put my foot down only for it to sink into the sand and promptly fell over.....very clever!

BOB reckons it was entirely my fault.
Upright again.
We had blocked the road for over half an hour and fortunately nothing came along from either direction.

We only managed to get a couple of kilometers before Gino came off again, this time at slow speed and as Richard tried to get past him, Johannes took the only decent bit of road which forced Richard off the bike and into the sand.
Richard's bike 'parked' on the soft shoulder.

Once we dropped off the high ground the sand turned back to gravel and we tried to make good time to our overnight stop at Villamar, Gino would fall another four times and got to the point where he was physically and mentally exhausted. He was quite prepared to climb into the support vehicle and leave his bike in the desert overnight, we managed to convince him otherwise and coaxed him the rest of the way 

I'm the little dot on the horizon.
He's spent too long in the sun!
Closing in.
"Hello folks".
At this point I had stopped for a break to let the tail enders catch up, thinking to myself  I'd ridden really well today when this little shit on a 125cc came hurtling past doing 50mph....on the gravel....on street tyres....with three 25litres drums strapped on his back.....Clever Bastard!

As we approached the village we were stopped by locals and told the river crossing was too deep and rocky for the bikes but we could use a 'bridge' further downstream, after having a look to be sure we couldn't get through the deep bit we opted for the bridge.  

Doesn't look too bad from here.
I see the track but no bridge.
Oh! that 'bridge'.

Johannes the mad 'traffic controller'.
The hostel ? was very basic, no food and very little hot water but at least we had a bed for the night.
There's a pot of gold out there somewhere.
It was all smiles as we sat down to eat but it had been a grueling day for everyone, the altitude and effort involved in covering all those miles on bad roads would ensure we slept well.
This was the last shot of the day before bedding down for the night.

Early morning call at 6am and on th bikes at 7:30, there was frost on the bike seats when I went out first thing this morning but by the time we'd had a coffee, things were beginning to warm up.

Packing to leave in the morning sun.
" Ready when you are".
Slightly better road conditions to start the day, some windy sections through the hills with hard packed gravel.
BOB on the Altiplano casting morning shadows.

This was easy going for everyone except Ingo on his bust rear shock.

Alpaca with hair accessories.

A couple of amused locals.

Taking a rest in the sand.
Sue and Johannes.

Around this point the road surface turned to 'bulldust' which has the same consistency as talcum powder, it's impossible to ride through without creating clouds of dust which covers everything and gets everywhere including your lungs. We made sure we kept a reasonable distance between riders to avoid breathing in all the dust from the bikes in front.

Laguna Colorada in the distance.

The other real problem with bulldust is it provides no grip or traction for either the front or rear wheel so as soon as you hit a deep patch of the stuff you lose all control unless you're riding at walking pace. Unfortunately Richard was going slightly faster than that when his front wheel dropped into a really bad bit, we knew something had happened up ahead by the unusually large cloud of dust hanging over the road. When we got there the dust had settled and Richard's bike was resting on top of the berm at the edge of the road and Richard was busy taking snapshots of the event.

Crap parking by the Aussie.
Richard had the good sense to take this shot before we arrived, as you can see we took some fabulous photos over the two days but this one has to be my favourite!

Richard, like Chris has been riding bikes for years and is a very capable rider but after a fall like this it takes a while to get your confidence back. In Richard's case he didn't have time before dropping the bike again.

Awww Crap!

In the photo above near the dust cloud you can just see the shack that serves as the National Park entry building, when we pulled up, the Park Officials (loose term!) tried to charge us 5 times the normal amount to enter the park, they probably figured the rich 'Gringos' on expensive bikes could afford the price. We were having none of it and they weren't backing down, so after arguing for half an hour we fired up the bikes and rode round the barrier into the park without paying. We were now 'on the run' and fully expected to be chased or stopped further down the road...we weren't.

Laguna Colorada panorama.

Laguna Colorada (Red Lagoon) is a shallow salt lake in the southwest of the Altiplano of Bolivia, within Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve and close to the border with Chile. The lake contains borax islands, whose white color contrasts nicely with the reddish color of its waters, which is caused by red sediments and pigmentation of some algae. The lake is home to thousands of  James's Flamingos, as well as a few Andean and Chilean flamingos (they were all pink so who knows?)

We never get tired of looking at the photos we took of the lake but we we've been there and you probably haven't so here's just a few to give you an idea of the beauty of the place.

Isn't she pretty?

We spent half an hour taking photos at the Laguna and then set off for the border.
As crazy as it sounds it wasn't all bad like this photo above, there were long stretches of hard packed dirt and gravel where you could maintain speeds of 80 or 90kph.
But mostly it was stuff like this. Here we are picking up Gino again. He was now falling less and had finally got the hang of standing on the footpegs, most of the falls today would be at  slow speed. 
Desolate with a capital 'D'.
What do these vicunas live on?, there was no sign of vegetation for most of the day.

This area of Southwestern Bolivia is known as the Dali desert, after the painter Salvador Dali. The surrealist master once visited the Bolivian deserts and salt flats, which inspired him in many of his paintings. The wind and sand has sculpted the rocks into weird shapes and the whole area has the look of a Martian landscape,  the surrounding hills are marbled with reds, greys, yellows and blues and if I hadn't had to keep my eyes firmly on the track I could have really enjoyed the views. And whilst we're on with the surrealism theme here's a surreal joke, Question: What's red and invisible? answer: No tomatoes!

I wasn't about to hike closer to get a better look at the rocks.
You can see where Dali got his inspiration from with views like this.
I bet Dali didn't have to ride through this on a F*$^%ing motrocycle!
BOB wasn't impressed with all this surreal bunk!
BOB like 'lines', straight lines.
Stunning colours.
Leaving the Dali desert we reached the highest altitude anywhere on this trip, quite impressive when you consider the base camp at Mount Everest is less than 200 meters higher and we'd been riding around this height for almost a day.
Chris's altimeter watch needed recalibrating it should have read 16,544 feet.

More surreal landscape
Another favourite of mine.
Johannes cooling off at Aguas Calliente.

The next two hours would be spent being shaken to pieces on the sand and corrugations I am suitably impressed with the way BOB has taken this kind of a pounding over hundreds of kilometers. With the exception of a loose screw on the windshield nothing else had vibrated free or fallen off, I on the other hand felt like most of my major bones had had a reshuffle.  

Richard and I had ridden ahead of the main group so had plenty of time to stop and take photos, I suppose to the untrained eye all these panorama shots look the same. 

The Aduana for Bolivia is literally in the middle of nowhere, one guy in an office takes your temporary vehicle import permit and that's it. No Central American officialdom, no delays, no power cuts, Great.

At 5020 meters it's one of the highest Customs posts in the world, I think we were all feeling the effects of altitude and took advantage of the break to recharge our batteries.
The big advantage to fuel injection is not having to worry about the bikes running rich (too much petrol) at altitude.

This is the Border post out of Bolivia, the Chilean buildings are another 40 kilometers through no man's land.
A last look back towards Bolivia.
This was supposed to signal the start of a first world country, unfortunately it comes with third world service.
No man's land.

When we finally reached the road to San Pedro De Atacama we all breathed a sigh of relief with lots of kissing of tarmac, the two days had been strenuous for the riders and equally hard for the girls sat in the 4X4.
Would we do it again? without a doubt, would we do it on our own, two up with all our luggage? Hell no! 

Car coming!
Stuff it!

When we finally arrived at the Chilean Border Melissa had to negotiate with the border officials to let Jose across long enough for him to take the girls and all the luggage to a hotel, he then had to return to Bolivia and drive to the entrance with the National Park where he would spend the night before the ride back to Uyuni. The luggage was also scanned and some bags were opened but fortunately the last remaining stick of dynamite was missed. (why are we still carrying dynamite you ask?)

The Chilean border.

By the time we found a hotel and everybody got checked in it was after 9pm, San Pedro was a shock to the wallet after Bolivia and over the next few weeks we would come to miss the 'cheap as chips' prices. 

First meal in Chile...Ouch!

So what's Bolivia like? Visually it's a stunning country, it has varied landscapes from snow capped mountains to jungle on the edge of the Amazon. The Salar De Uyuni was magical and the two day ride out of Uyuni to San Pedro was one of the highlights of the trip, Bolivia is very much a case of 'what you see is what you get' there is no pretentiousness about it, you don't generally get overcharged  but you do have to endure the lack of quality service or in some cases a complete lack of service!. Your money goes a long way, certainly longer than your patience. When we left the Country we felt glad to be out of it, but within a couple of days in Chile we were ready to turn round and go back....