Tupiza, Triathlons, and Tyre Changes
Tupiza lay at the end of another shabby bus journey, highlighted by pick-axe assisted tyre changes, and unknown tinkering with the chassis, but did serve to introduce us to Ed and Nicky, future jeepmates. Tupiza is not much of a town but is set in a rainbow-rock landscape, where tourism is on the increase, as an alternative to the more popular (but pig-ugly) Uyuni. As yet, though, there are few concessions to tourists - finding AA batteries or a postcard, amongst the chicken feet and sacks of coca leaves, is an adventure in itself.
The main reason to be in Tupiza is to explore the Bolivian badlands around Butch and Sundance´s last stand (they were real, although bicycle-riding and raindrop-singing may be more than a bit apocryphal). Nowadays, you can partake in a triathlon of mountain-biking, 4*4-ing and horse-riding, to such places as the Puerto del Diablo or the Valle del Machos (if git-big phallic bits of rock are your bag).
Tupiza is also the starting point for a 4-day 4*4 jeep trek to the Salar de Uyuni, and we teamed up with Ed and Nicky to brave one into the wilderness. The trip was nearly cut short before it had begun when, the night before, our driver (Milton the Magnificent) led us out to see the damage done to the jeep´s rear by a drunk, off-duty policeman´s truck. "No problem" he said - words which we came to trust absolutely but, at the time, raised more than a sceptical eyebrow. A large dent, covering the petrol cap, breaking rear lights, and sealing shut one door, hardly inspired confidence for being self-sufficient in the middle of nowhere for 4 days.
However, with Milton dealing with the worst of the damage before we even awoke on the day of departure, we fearfully set off, pausing to pick up ace-cook Jessica en route, the car´s roof piled high with our rucksacks, gas canisters, litres of water and, oh yes, enough petrol to turn the trip into Chariots of Fire. His repairs were put to the test within 10 minutes when the "road" became a rocky river bed, before heading steeply and crumblily into the hills above Tupiza....Everything held. Round 1 to Milton.
Over the course of the first day, our confidence grew in Milton, as we caught up with jeep after jeep, despite our late start, and he leapt out eagerly each time to lend assistance, always with the right tool, part or technique to get them moving again. Punctures, overheating radiators, or even bent suspension rods were "no problem" to the mobile mechanic. Round 2 to Milton.
As we were now in mud-hut country, the accommodation was basic, with the first 2 nights spent within breeze-block walls, roofed with rice sacks, and beds built of concrete slabs and cardboard, a thin mattress balanced on top. However, we were to find that the only thing to surpass Milton´s ability to carry out desert repairs, was Jessica´s cooking, where fabulous meals were somehow conjured up on a 2 ring stove, often in the dark. A 50p bottle of Bolivia´s finest red kept the 4 of us up laughing until the generators packed in, plunging us into the dark night, lit by unfamiliar stars.
The next day was April Fools Day, and it was our turn to break down. The first thing to go was all the bolts on the left-rear wheel, caught just in time before we parted company with it. A rapid redistribution of bolts saw us through to one tyre shredding, and then the spare! Finally, the front-left brake went! "No problem", said Milton, I can brake with the engine. Round 3 and victory to Milton.
Amidst all the car chaos, we boggled at the Dali desert (an eery landscape very like the melting clock painting), oohed and aahed at stinky-pinky flamingoes, and went camera-happy at the arsenic-green lake, hot springs, and bubbling mud and geysers at 5000m in the snow. The 3rd day saw thousands of flamingoes, bright pink from the algae they eat, in the rust-red Laguna Colorado, the Arbol de Piedra - which appears as a petrified tree but is actually rock carved by the wind - and a smouldering volcano, with the world´s highest lagoon nestled in its crater, before we arrived at the salt hotel, right on the edge of the Salar - literally a hotel made out of salt.
The last day, we were up early to catch the sunrise over the Salar, which isthe world's largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometres. In the middle, aside from some shimmers on the horizon of the tallest hills, all that can be seen is a huge expanse of white. The Salar is estimated to contain around 10 billion tons of salt. In the wet season, it is covered in a thin layer of water, and, due to its large size, that smooth reflectivity makes the Salar de Uyuni ideal for the testing and calibration of remote sensing instruments on orbiting satellites. To us, it made a great place for the driver and all the passengers to get on the roof of the moving jeep while it sped across the gleaming plain into the sunrise.
Finally, a big thank you to Milton and Jessica for a great trip, and to Ed and Nicky for making it such a great laugh. We were so lucky to be teamed up with you, and not The Predator, Swiss Bint, MC Hammer or The Mid-Life-Crisis-Meditator.