24 February 2000

A Journey to Bolivia and Chile

Cuesta del Diablo (Chile)
24th February 2000
18:00

Tonight our camp lies at 4000 metres (13123 feet). We are 1360 metres above the Salar De Atacama which can be seen as an extensive flat area to the south. Altitude sickness begins at this altitude and I certainly feel that the efforts of cycling combined with our quick ascent, was causative in my hypoxic outburst as we snailed upward all day. My emotions were of tears and frustration, my head throbbed and all my physical efforts produced a forward pace of only 4.50 kilometres per hour. Gasping for air and hyperventilating with one's mouth ajar, is in it self, an anxiety producing feeling that I dont wish to experience again. I cant believe that a bicycle could go that slow but I am strangely reassured that at this height there is thirty percent less air. In front of me is a dry creek bed and the country about me is reminiscent of the rock wallaby country of Terrapin Springs in the Northern Flinders Ranges.

Azufrera Sacial
25th February 2000
14:00


The effects of altitude have become so bad that, here at 4200 metres, (13776 feet) where I have been asleep for an hour, my pulse is racing at one hundred, my skin and lips are dry and even though we have had adequate water and my urine is clear, I just want to guzzle all of our water. The breeze is cooling but each breath is dry and parching and my pounding head etches away at my joy. The landscape is a flat plain of cushion plants and spinifex type grasses, which give an illusion of greenness and moistness. There is no water in the waterways although they lead upward to the snow-capped range about 600 metres (1968 feet) above us. The hope of cool snow-melt water is a false one. A walk to the nearby hills is a most inviting thought but every effort is hypnotic & slowed down. My body just wants to sleep. When the waves of nausea and vagueness struck, a prudent measure of a quick descent was undertaken. We spun down the mountain at a furious pace back to Rio Puritana with its lovely creek, pampas grass and thicker air. All my bad physical feelings magically abated.



PHOTO: MOON VALLEY NEAR SAN PEDRO AT CORDERILLA DE LA SAL.
26th February 2000, Saturday
San Pedro De Atacama


The Florida Hotel has a really nice courtyard for weary cyclists to sit and ponder. Its surrounded by rooms mostly hired to Chilean holiday makers, with the occasional Gringo from Europe. I feel comfortable here and relaxed in the mid-afternoon sun with the snow capped peaks draped like lace across the eastern sky. Volcan Putana 5890 metres (19319 feet) with its symmetric conical peak, lies near where we had last camped having not quite reached the high point of the road. From here with my lungs full of the tenacious air, the beauty of the Puna (highlands above three thousand metres) is a tranquil and relaxing experience.
The streets of San Pedro are dirt and the homes mudbrick with the occasional straw roof. The dogs of San Pedro are many and lay lazily upon the ground, the infrequent one with war wounds engraved upon its snout! Like the people most things are easy going.
Landscapes shape people. If one were to hold Australia at Cape York and imaginatively stretch it from Melbourne you would have the long brown land of Chile. Most of the people hug the rich blue coast, where an endless succession of Bondi Beaches, weave from headland to headland. Unlike Australia, the outback is only eighty kilometres inland, where the archetype Gaucho upon his horse, adorned in broad brimmed hat and colourful poncho can be found. Beyond there to the Andes Mountains lie the borders with Bolivia. The Mediterranean climate has influenced the food but mostly being an arid climate, Chileans indulge in meaty food similar to the traditional rural Australian. The surf scene and the 4WD drive fraternity are quite obvious, Chileans being very outdoor people. The men of this country are heavy drinkers and perhaps their Spanish colonial history makes them free in their feelings. When saddened they demonstrate it and their happiness on the other hand can be almost musical. A man and his family, whom we met five days previous, greeted us with mucho gusto like long lost relatives and hugged us in the street. The warmth of this was uplifting.


Vulcan Paruna (near San Pedro)
1st March 2000

We woke to a clear sky with a hint of brown desert dust partly occluding our view of Vulcan San Pedro (5334 metre) and other snow capped ranges lying toward the sunrise. We camped upon a flat plain resembling the Australian gibber but lacking the wind polished redness of the outback. The cycling is slow on the Puna but the soroche has not affected us even at 3600 metres (11808 feet). The rare car passes by shaking the hollow volcanic ground. San Pedro Estacion is a ghost town with fifteen ruined adobe dwellings, a community hall and even a church. Most of its inhabitants lay in the cemetery, there being only one permanent resident as evidenced by the cosy image of a wood fire chimney. The railway passes here but the Estacion de San Pedros heyday is now long gone.
Old lava flows are distinct having long ago spewed their magma across the barren earth.

Excerpt from encyclopaedia Britannica:- _________________________________________________
Desierto de Atacama: cool, arid region in northern Chile, 600 to 700 miles (1,000 to 1,100 km) long from north to south. Its limits are not exact, but it lies mainly within Antofagasta and Atacama administrative regions. The Atacama Desert forms part of the arid Pacific shoreline of South America. Dry subsidence created by the South Pacific high-pressure cell makes the desert one of the driest regions in the world. Along the coast the aridity is also the consequence of the Peru (Humboldt) Current that brings cold water from the Antarctic, causing a thermal inversion--cold air at the surface of the ocean and stable, warmer air higher up. This condition produces fog and stratus clouds but no rain. Heavy rains fall in Iquique or Antofagasta only two to four times a century.


Salar De Ascotan (Chile)
1st March 2000
18:00


After miles of uphill we reached the highest point of Pasar Ascotan fronter where an army camp check post with boom gate blocked our path onward. A man of no words responded with no words to my enquiry "viaje de bicyclettas a Ollague es posible?" He merely waved us onward. Two large Alsations fortunately on chains, barked an aggressive farewell. From there the road wound down to the salar whereupon I sit. In front of me is a majestic volcano its crater full of snow and perhaps rising 2044 metres above the lake. On its lower flanks is an old lava flow deposit looking like the arched back of a whale. The wind is howling at my ankles. Salt deposits, looking like lime, are at my feet and short spiky plants lawn green in colour lay close to the ground. Very brackish water trickles by and I have already seen a large water bird and alpacas running very fast in the distance. Again I look at my legs. Animal excrement similar to rabbit droppings is evident. The powerful wind is propelling a dust storm into and then up the flanks of the mountain. Cumulus clouds ring the summits of the other peaks, the bright whiteness seamless with the snow. The juxtaposition of regions is fascinating. Were camped on a salt pan and yet at least two days of climbing would be needed to reach the summits of the nearby icy mountains. I can feel the waves of tiredness seemingly in sympathy with the gusts of wind, which sound as familiar as waves crashing upon the beach.





Salar De Carcote
2nd March 2000
11:20

With the excitement of the stalking hunter I was able to approach two Vicuna to within one hundred metres, which confirmed that the shrill birdlike sound was in fact their call. Compared to the Arabian camel the gallop is smooth, the body remaining still, relative to their legs which do large gentle strides. They are cautious but also curious and vaguely giraffe like. Even as I write they continue to observe me, standing still on the thinly vegetated and stony plain.
As we continued my rear derailleur had collapsed so glumly I walked, backtracking to locate its jockey cog and various other parts. Fortunately with some adaptation the mongoose became serviceable, taking us through a small pass to Estacion Carcote. Here lies a large salt pan of the same name surrounded by volcanoes, including one whose sulphurous scent permeates the air. We are both excited as our border to Bolivia is only eighteen kilometres away. Volcano Allege has a smaller cinder cone which lies upon the salt pan, its blackness contrasted by the light brown of the salt lake.


Ollague (Chile)
2nd March 2000
3636 metres (11820 feet)
17:30

From the rise at the base of Volcano Allege my first view of this town depressed me. It appeared to contain perhaps forty dwellings with most unoccupied. The wind howling across the salar gives the town that desolate feel. My first view was much like that of Lyndhurst in outback South Australia, a scattered habitation laying in a depression in the arid surrounds. I spoke broken spanish with an older Indian man who was born here and quite proud of his race without any hint of arrogance. He said that the main problem in the town is that the children have no teachers and even the small children hand dig sulphur from the ground to support their families. The railway that we have mostly followed passes through the settlement having more rail lines than people!
There is no mention of this locale in the Lonely Planet guide and the women from the Municipad de Ollague said that few Gringos come here. The lovely girl in the general store none-the-less does currency trading at a good rate, this being the only concession to a fledgling tourism industry. This is a really isolated outpost and our government boletta for our habitacion was a foolscap page in typed lettering! From our door you can see the trappings of nationalism in the form of the very lonely Bolivian checkpost. There is no town per se on the other side and I would like to believe that they would be welcome in Ollague.
This town is of linear design with a hotch potch of abandoned adobe dwellings, modern transportables and others made of river pebble conglomerations. The church is mudbrick with a mud/daub roof and other than the railway station is the only interesting structure. The railway platform looks like any other British derived one, with the familiar black and white place names that adorn many others around the world. There is only one passenger train per week and as I sheltered from the afternoon sun I imagined I was at home waiting for the train, this relaxed me greatly and after a good feed and wash I am now enjoying the remoteness of my surrounds.

BOLIVIA
_____________________
Illaipena (on the railway line)
3rd March 2000
18:05

Our border crossing into Bolivia was uneventful, the young stern border policeman dressed in a daffy duck tee shirt couldnt be taken seriously although we presented ourselves with formality.
Crossing the boom gate at Chiguana army barracks was a different matter. The soldier boy armed with a big gun and a Gameboy computer toy took his job seriously everytime a 4WD group arrived at least one half dozen soldiers would frantically run to their posts. Guards with rifles would position themselves upon the railway line and passports would be investigated and many questions asked. The camp looks like a Mash unit with netting over the gun domes and a mud brick wall surrounding all. The boy soldier gave us vague directions and I thanked him with a handshake that took him by surprise. He tried to recompose himself by acting in a way that suited his role. A brief glimpse of his holed sneakers hinted at the isolation and poverty of this army squad.


Uyuni town
5th March 2000
14:00

Our crossing of the southern boundary of the Grand Salar Uyuni was at times a frustration of sticky salt and claggy clay and of cycling in a hypnotic state. The outpost of Tambillo was quite interesting. A lone stone hut in the middle of this saline desert, a barking dog and a herd of llamas. No people were in sight, this being ˜bueinos tardes" when every sensible Latin American is having a siesta and only el gringos locos are peddling in the heat!
Nearby were dome stone huts with sunken rectangular chambers where obvious firing of the local soft rock had occurred, making the surface a polished pitch of significant hardness. I can only casually speculate of what had been extracted from the rock.
As it eventuated the railway line was the best surface to ride upon and along the way we met a Bolivian tourer of sorts; astride a Chinese Phoenix bicycle with yet another barking dog. His gear was a mish-mash of tied up bags and his bicycle pump was an old fashioned type with tee handle, a lumen of two inches and was at least three feet long. An analogy to this would be to find a solitary Australian Aboriginal on the Ghan line in Australia.
As we approached the town we literally cycled through the furnace cavity of an old steam train, past the graveyard of old trains and through the garbage dump, where children and elderly people could be seen dissecting the rubbish amongst the smell of decaying flesh. Once we arrived upon the wide boulevardes and caught sight of women in traditional bowler hats and their brightly coloured scarves I soon felt at home. In a broad sense the place reminded me of China. I had a feeling that Uyuni would be a place to relax.
Many hours later the Carnivale festival was underway with brightly coloured costumes; including Batman capes; with people dancing, throwing water balloons and sprayfoaming anyone in view. The band played a melody line sparse in notes but with a changing tempo to give variation. Latin American brass bands always sound off-key but the crowd none the less became histrionic at times.
This town has market street stalls and a daunting array of foods. One woman was frying naan type breads, her shop being four walls of cardboard. Every one is happy here but for the weary cyclist too much frivolity is tiring. Im sitting in my room with the doors and windows facing into a private verandah,adorned with a number of geranium pots and giving our abode a welcome homely feel. And yes! That brass band is still playing that familiar tune.


Near Olleria village
Around 8th March 2000
17:55


Our day started switch-backing our way up from Uyuni to the Cord de Chi Chas mountain range where moody clouds threatened rain and the sight of Salar de Uyuni shone silver, like a distant ocean. After days of heat, our first day of bitterly cold wind and an altitude of perhaps 4400 metres, our legs performed sluggishly but with all our warm attire we mostly kept reasonably warm. My mouth wasnt parched and dust didnt irritate my throat for the first time upon this journey and that alone would have made a perfect day. Eventually we descended, only slightly, to a high altitude heathland with small running streams, wild alpacas and donkeys. I even sighted a bird looking like an Australian waterbird called a stilt. At one village an advanced system of irrigation consisting of stone walls and channels fed fields of grain crops (maize?) and a green herbage vaguely like laksa. Most of the dwellings are small mudbrick structures in small groups with a common domed oven. Most of them appeared vacant but the presence of chickens and Bolivian barking dogs hinted at a form of domesticity. One woman observed me freewheeling toward her and with strong intent entered her home, then discreetly closed the door. The Amyara Indians resisted the Incas and the Spanish conquistidors. Today they maintain their culture against a backdrop of modern Bolivian society.
A woman herding up her alpacas waved nervously and continued walking as if to keep warm in the cooling sunset. The area is semi-arid and isolated. In a way their shyness of strangers has preserved the culture.
We are camped between two villages on a grassy bank with a small creek trickling by. Clay coloured cliffs lay on the other bank. In ancient times one could imagine that giants rampantly shaped this land. The rock is folded and at times tilts nearly skyward. Verdant leaching of copper and the colours of sulphur and iron oxides paint a pleasing landscape. Indians of the area are often alone just sitting, apparently nowhere, and for no reason. Occasionally the colour laden Potosi bus with pictures of Christ and coloured rosary beads swaying from the mirror, will pass by hinting that urban life is never really far.


Chaquilla
9th March 2000
18:30
This country is quite variable in its landscapes and the positioning of micro-climates is fascinating to me. The early part of the day was spent cork-screwing up to a steep range near Rio Castillo past canyons full of invigorating flowing water to a height where, quite surprisingly, large cacti dotted the steep slopes. Prior to this, at the village of Chaquiri the road rose above the settlement, whereupon looking downward we could see gayly dressed people dancing in pairs and our noisy culprit the drum striker, whose detuned drums had sounded the night air. Further onward the valley opened up, with the Indian canal system supporting lush crops including corn,greens and grain crops. From the head of the valley yellow poppy like flowers contrasted with the clay colours of rock. Climbing out of this valley into yet another, we arrived at a largish village surrounded by good sized mesas and cacti upon the slopes. We were both exhausted by then, with Michaels giardia infection sapping away his desire to eat. Eventually the local bus arrived loaded to the gunnels with Gringos of all types. I said hola! to one guy and as he uttered his first syllable I quickly ascertained that he was an Australian. I bellowed out the best giddaye mate! that I could and it seemed to mildly surprise him. He was on a bus journey as a break from his cycle tour of Chile. He is only one of three Aussies that wed met and he plied us with cooked eggs, bananas, apples and corn. My eyes just lit up and I was so thankful.




No sooner had he reboarded his bus and our pleasant interlude had ceased. The village itself could only offer lollies, biscuits and dry bread. Perhaps as a response to needing the familiar, I downed a sugary coca-cola which offset my lassitude. The children came begging and an old lady in traditional dress waved a big stick at them giving the sternest look but smiling at us as she performed her show. One old lady beckoned us to talk to her and shook my hand. It was the blackest hand Id ever seen but her friendliness was so enjoyable. She joked about the loads on our bicycles. She just talked and talked. Our little understanding of South American Spanish was of no avail as she nattered in the local Aymara Indian dialect.
Near the cattle and mixed farming town of Chaquilla is a beautiful rain soaked valley greened all the way to the whitish hills. A semi-permanent pondage reflected to perfection a symmetrical hill and although only finger deep it contained two separate flocks of pink flamingos. I had taken my glasses off due to the misty rain, yet even so I could make out the splashes of pink in the distance. They were easily approached but eventually took to the air, making sounds somewhat familiar to that of a mallard duck. White hills, green water, verdant grasses and an
over all Grey hue made the pink of their plumage almost extraordinary. The landscape was similar to a water color with subtle hues created by the moisture laden air. As we rose above Tequila, the landscape changed quickly to that of sand dune country with spinifex style grasses and the soft eroded clays forming washouts below pinkish rocks. The result looking like the stalks of a cauliflower. Its raining softly and secretly I wish it to stop. We are camped near a large washout and my thoughts are a little anxious. What if there is a flashflood?
Are we safe? The only thing between us and the elements are two thin layers of nylon and taffetta. Tiredness comes over me like ocean waves and then breaks away, leaving me thinking of our arrival to Potosi in the morning.


Sucre
12th March 2000


Our time in Potosi was an enjoyable one merely wandering the streets and enjoying the familiar aspects of town life. At 4090 metres (13415 feet) its the highest city in the world and lays upon the flanks of Cerro Ricco. Our transit into the town was uphill all the way to the hotel door via the rundown outskirts, where the children play in the garbage and the toxic waters of the river. Once in the centre there are majestic buildings that glorify a colonial past and food stalls in the market areas serving the most delicious meat stews. One could easily be in an Italian town but the presence of Indians hawking their food on street corners offers a stark contrast between the two cultures.
The main square slopes towards Cerro Ricco, the uphill walk working the lungs and light-headed sensations being a constant companion.
It took one hour to find a cycle route out of town, having been directed by a policeman to a very muddy track that meandered its way past pigs feeding upon the excrement and waste of society. Once beyond the rubbish tip we enjoyed a day of bitumen road, the first in Bolivia, with fast descents and wonderful rocky hills. Eventually we reached a high plain of farmland, its flatness stretching forever, the clouds laying at our horizon strongly indicating switchbacks and the rapid descents to come.
After a night camped amongst the thorny trees and sharp cacti my guardia infection returned. The offensive egg breath evident with my final distance to Sucre punctuated by severe diahorrea episodes and a strong desire to simply go home! Not even the cheerful children calling out gringo! could even allay my depression. Strangely, the sight of two fully and well kitted racing cyclists spurred me onward to the outskirts of town. Perhaps I wanted to show off and to give a good impression? They waved with that Latino fervour, not knowing that I had reached the limits of my physical ability. Again, this being Bolivia, the ride to the town centre was uphill all the way to the friendly Hostal Charcas.


Sucre at the market
13th March 2000
12:00


Obtaining change in Bolivia is an exercise in patience. The rotund Indian woman hypnotically beating egg whites shrugged when offered a 10Bs note ($A3.00). it passed between her and the next stall holder who sighed when needing to raid her supply of coin. They looked quite smart in their blue surgical headgear and aprons. A young boy is throwing potatoes at an Indian woman and as we sit at the long ago waterless fountain, we find that were in the crossfire as the toothless and obviously psychotic woman shakes hands. I feign retaliation, the young boy laughing and showing mock fear.
Large sacks of potatoes and onions lay in front of a juice stall providing carrot, banana, apple and mango shakes. An infant child with lank shiny black hair is eating a banana of the concrete floor his mother attired in a pink, blue and aqua shawl and selling various foods from two sacks upon the ground. A marauding dog sniffs his way through the crowd taking it slowly as siesta nears.
A village woman attired in an Akubra type hat and long plaits sits upon the hot concrete arranging her bright red roma tomatoes, onions and chillies in a geometric manner. Her arms are folded prayer like and she is unconcerned about making a sale. There is no hard sell in Bolivia, there is no passionate calling out nor competition just simply the hum of people and the sound of tinny cassette radios.
Amongst all this a trendy Indian boy marches by in his Michigan University shirt parading past the chicken carcasses and various mammalian entrails. There is no scent of spices although paprika, cumin and turmeric abound.
A woman throwing faecal coloured water at my feet briefly nauseates me. Upstairs beyond the beggars and the shoe shine men, the food hall abounds with wonderful foods. As I sip my potato and pasta soup a sign above reads: conserva la higiene,
My healthy soup made better by being served by a smiling and interactive woman.


10 km north of Aquille
15th March 2000, Wednesday


Conceptually, within the time frame of one human lifetime, it is difficult to comprehend that South America and Australia once formed part of a super continent called Gonwanaland. The concave Chilean coast probably fitted the convexity of Australias East Coast. Perhaps Arica and Cairns aligned closely like the border towns of adjacent countries?
Our journey over many days has followed the Rio Chico river valley; Chuquisaca region; past the most beautiful pink sandstone cliffs whose steep bedding planes have resulted in numerous rock falls which blocked the only road. The river below has been muddy, very wide and swiftly flowing at about ten knots. In parts, particularly beyond Puente Arche with its impressive arch bridge (it no longer takes traffic flow), the forest is Sri Lanka like with two canopies of trees and a multiversity of bird calls. Upon the ground are occasional large cacti to remind us that we are in Latin America. Occasional large eucalyptus, also compete for space in this unusual forest mix. Along the fringes of the river, repeated motifs in the colours of palm trees, corn and cattle feeding endlessly passed by us below the road. Farmhouses, goats, donkeys and muddy pigs lined our route and frequent small villages made concerns about supplies unnecessary. The pink sandstone and the waxy green-ness of the trees made for dramatic hues against the blue sky. The morphology of the hills had a certain primal jagged-ness. Whilst resting for a water stop and closely perusing my nearby enviroment some thing familiar struck my senses. No, it wasnt a rock wallaby although the land, in its broadest sense could have been the Northern Flinders Ranges. It was not a monkey although the nature of the woodland could have hinted at such. Thoughts of Tasmanias Western Arthur Ranges also came to mind. On the steep slopes plants eking out their existence had the appearance of Pandanus. Perhaps Hobart once land bridged with Santiago? Hints of Gonwanaland abound. With the crickets echoing their phased sounds and the echoes of human voices nearby, I have one question: were there ever cacti in Australias East lands?


Totora ˜Colonial Restaurant"
16th March 2000
16:00



I am sitting here exhausted, after having bucket washed away the road grime. Theres no mains water and this fascinating colonial town dated 1876 has been left to rundown since probably the turn of the last century. The streets are unrideable due to the large cobblestones. From the large doorway with its two heavy swinging doors, I can see a double storey apartment, its walls originally white peeling away to the cement with a neglected patchiness. The balcony has wrought iron motifs consisting of simple figure eights and the others have turned wood. The tiled roofs are old and weathered but upon closer inspection, are overlaying older ones. The eaves extend upon thin beams which project out from mudbricks having the proportions and texture of a spent matchstick.
Our bedroom is a very large shared upper level dormitory with the ceiling falling inward and large cracks dominate the supporting walls. This town is separate from the tourist trail with local people staring transfixed at us in total silence. Others make furtive glances but once we jovially call out buenos tardes! their anxiety washes away like water.
Our cycle journey today was a constant uphill of 40 kilometres and to encourage us onward the truck drivers waved enthusiastically; one of them throwing fruit from his cabin. Climbing the stairs was my final energetic act of the day. Each step is bordered by hardwood nailed into position and as I walked upon them I felt a sense of old world and imagined this town in its heyday. The last ray of sun is emanating from behind the hill upon which the cornfields dip, their cobs being giants compared to those at home. From my balcony table I am alone and happy looking at the kids laughing in the street, the cocoa leaves drying on the footpath and the tired field workers returning home.


Incallajta (Inca ruins)
17th March 2000
Friday 18:25


Its almost exactly 2000km into our South American sojourn and we have spent the afternoon following a stony track up to the headwaters of the Rio Machajmarka. The valley is very green, the steep rounded hills displaying occasional copses of pine. The waters are clear and fast, filling the sunset air with their roar. Our tentsite is opposite the mid fifteenth century ruins which are covered in creepers and shrub growth with access involving wading across the moderate current. The grassed confluence is the location by which herdsmen round up their sheep and cattle, one bull larger than our tent nosed our campsite home with a rather nervous Michael inside.
The people keep their distance and yet seem unconcerned by our presence. One tribal girl grabbed my arm playfully, her breath smelling of chicha and her actions disinhibited. As they come down the hill path sometimes the younger herdsmen hide behind a tree motionless and simply staring. A quick wave to unmask them and acknowledge them, easily breaks the empass and their daily rituals then carry on as usual.
The outer walls of Emperor Tupac Yupanquis fort (1460's) lays on the edge of a vertical ravine, the inner courtyard separated by a two metre footpath. The inner dwelling is approximately 27 footsteps wide and its length is double that of a perfect rectangle. There is no mortar, only large stones becoming smaller toward the upper structure. At regular intervals are indents, which were probably used for storage. Above us on the 45° slope a party of three men, not to mention their donkeys, are unloading large bags of seed ready to plant in the ploughed fields. This Inca settlement is the greatest distance achieved by them in their eastbound journeys. Only one hundred years later the Spanish invaded. History and civilisation seems to have stopped in this tight misty valley.
As I look above I realise that the high field is animal ploughed, something the original campesinos had never done. The horse was a European import. Perhaps 600 years ago men carried their loads upon their backs up these very slopes, a pre- Inca and pre-Spanish hidden valley?
Our onward journey was imperceptibly uphill reaching 3650 metres on a day when the sun seemed like a cold distant star and we could almost reach and touch the broody clouds. My concerns of water seemed unfounded with fast flowing streams vibrating with the metallic sounds of infinitesimal small bells the sounds of frogs hinting at safe water. UNESCO has rehabilitated many villages, signs declaring agua potable?
suggest pure water. Strangely, in a climate as this with adequate rainfall the use of Australian rainwater tanks would seem desirable.


Caracollo
22nd March 2000
20:00 hrs.


The two days gone by have involved 50 km of continuous climbing to an unexpected altitude of 4500 metres. La Paz when discussed at Antonfagasta (Chile) was our goal and often we had discussed issues of high altitude acclimatisation. The reality now, since we have returned to the Altiplano is that this city lies in fact below us! I have vomited and coughed my way here since Cochambamba at times reaching the limits of my physical endurance. Yet my spirits have remained positive, our passage through misty mountain passes and hailstorms has been inspiring. Last night was the highest that we have ever camped high on a mountain pass looking down upon the Cochambamba Range and although having travelled 70km in the early part of the day we could still sight this large city laying below in the warm valley.
A German motorcyclist passed us by and immediately I recognised his European plates, he'll be back I suggested to my brother. Not long thereafter we had the billy boiling and sharing a café normal in the form of Nescafe instant! Astride his Honda 650, Klaus had journeyed from Patagonia and on previous tours had travelled North Africa. Like many Teutonics he was quite bloff (blonde and lofty) and as a person very gentle in his manner. His English, like many Northern Europeans, was clear and a delight to listen to. I have often felt an affinity with our motorcycle counterparts and as tacitly implied by him, this was the reason for him stopping. Although we only shared the usual travel tales; which on face value are boring; the enjoyment that was mutually experienced goes beyond mere words. With an expressive wave of the hand he overtook us on one of the long ascents of the day.
This road is the main route to La Paz and the tour buses continually pass us. Local villagers stand on the verge with their American style baseball caps outstretched and people throw them food from the flotas, a form of social welfare in a country which has no government safety net.
The sounds of children happily singing in the village schools heartened me greatly, particularly a group of fifteen who chased us attempting to sit astride my slowly moving bicycle. They were so full of exuberance that I needed to call out basta por favor! their joy making my cycle ride impossible.


Huila Kota Pass 4440 metres
30th March 2000
1620hrs.


One of the joys of trekking is problem solving. We have walked from the beautiful colonial town of Sorata to a possible elevation of 4440 metres, just below a high pass with the alluring name of Huila Kota. The sun to the west has been dulled to the brightness of the moon by the build up of drifting mist. The cold air and the pristine waters make the area seem untouched. Buttresses of gaunt rock surround us as if prepared to advance, our only escape being the pastures of the high valley toward the sunset. The comunidad of Lakhathiya lays there with the Amamaras crops and the herds of alpaca and donkeys. Hardy alpine grasses sparsely carpet the ground giving my footsteps a dull thud and softening my stride. The language of water can be heard everywhere from the feint echoes of a high waterfall to the babble it makes as it strikes creek pebbles. Cumulus clouds rise quickly from below our campsite tumbling slowly and crashing like pearly surf. Once committed to walking the high pass we would have been too high to camp and therefore forced to find lower ground. Could we have beaten the fog and continued onward with the anxiety of being disorientated in the mist? It seems that to have stopped early amongst the alpacas was a choice well made.


Huila Kota
31st March
1010 hrs.


The scree slopes up to this pass were reasonably steep and the pretty ice crystals catching the morning light reminded me of my very cool toes. Michael was first to the top, his cries of joy sounding orgasmic. I simply cried with joy when I viewed the massif of ice and snow perhaps a mere 300 metres above us.
I sit on a saddle of jagged ice wedged rock looking into a green billiard smooth valley with a lazily meandering creek dividing it. Rising from the creek and far below me is a hill of 4509 metres. On all points of the compass are white clouds perhaps one kilometre below where I sit. Above is the bright blue sky and the sun beginning to warm my toes. During the night the clouds seem to sink into the ground forming the flaky ice upon our tent and revealing a zenith of stars so bright that they seem within human grasp. The celestial bodies have not seemed so since our cycle journey to Outback Beltana perhaps ten years ago.


Near Cumbre Sarani
1st April
20:30 hrs.


Through the haunting mist we climbed the mountain pass to 4600 metres; this being almost the highest I have ever been; occasionally gaining brief taunting glimpses of jagged mountains high above us. Each of my steps was purposeful and slow. When I imagine people climbing the highest mountains in the world I cant imagine how they can achieve such a goal.
Not far from the final descent I could just see the familiar profile of a Bolivian bowler hat, finally to realise that a local woman was sitting crouched watching her sheep and knitting in the 10° temperature. Several minutes later two local hiking guides stopped to chat, briefly halting their day walk of thirty kilometres. They were attired in the obligatory baseball caps, thin trousers and basic waist length jackets. They probably wondered why we were dressed like Eskimos and carrying such weighty backpacks. We shared scroggin with them and had such hearty conversation. It was really good to meet like-minded locals.
In the villages children would run out of their school classes, attired in their white smocks and greet us with smiles and hollers only to ask for food or money. Even children who are obviously not hungry do this as the expectation is that Gringos will always have gifts. The look of a truly starving and desperate child is a situation that I can never overlook and I will always provide food.
The village of Cocoya lies in a glacial valley, its marshy flat floor and U shaped valley being almost the template for the lowlands in the sorata region. On all sides waterfalls spilled from the high flanks and filling the snaking river. The waters around this area have an unusual light blue tint, which perhaps is a copper sulphate or related chemical. Other than that the water is wonderfully drinkable provided that no village is upstream. Strangely, water collected from the gushing waterfalls is perfectly clear. These fast flowing rivers even have white sandy beaches and the constant roar of water reminds me of the Australian surf. Looking down through the mists at one of these rivers is a vignette within my memory that cannot be forgotten. My first sighting of the Rio Cocoya made no sense. From a high vantage point it appeared to flow uphill along its wide verdant valley. This is probably an illusion where ones horizon as sensed by the ear canal alters whilst walking downhill for hours on end. It was truly a panorama that I will never forget.
At the Cocoya village store we met a most affable middle aged woman who gave us free access to her shop. It was stacked with granolas, biscuits, breads, the Bolivian standard of canned sardines and even packet soups! We shopped well, receiving a bill probably one third less than in tourist areas. Even with the language limitations we even managed to clown around and joke with her. Once outside I reached for my pockets, the local children staring as if expecting a free gift.
The night air has cleared as I write and Orion lies on his side as if he had fallen dropping his sword but in an unfamiliar orientation just above the inky black profile of the mountains. The suggestion made is perhaps that rest would be the best thing to do.


PHOTO: HIGH ALTITUDE VALLEY DURING OUR EXTENDED HIKE NEAR SORATA.
Laguna Carizal
2nd April 16:10 hr.
As I look up the valley, the huge dome of the nameless mountain looms high above Paso Calzada at 5048 metres, now looking innocuous in the very cool afternoon. Being at that height slows life to single footsteps. I have never been there before and our failed hike to the beginnings of the glacier brought on hints of sorache. I find myself camped instead at the edge of a moderate sized blue lake sitting upon a tessellated rock scoured in a lattice like fashion by old glaciers. The very edge of the glacier, with some imagination, looks like an advancing amoeba engulfing the scree slopes below it. Blocks of rock the size of my lounge room have been wedged apart by expanding ice, giving a strange sense of scale. The small lumpy crevasses upon the amoeba like surfaces look to be a short walk away but here in Bolivia nothing is what it seems. Perhaps I could walk there but my journey would possibly be one and a half-hours?
The first pinkish rays of sunlight upon the glacier shine vibrantly upon the sharp peaks almost glowing warm. It is the brightest pink that I have ever seen and against the backdrop of white purity, it seemed unreal and unnatural. The glacier had metaphorically visited us during our sleep, the first delicate snowflakes skirting the tent at three in the morning and within the hour we needed to clear the tent of wind formed ice sheets. It was certainly subzero outside and by sunrise the landscape had been metamorphosed into one of white, from horizon to horizon, the occasional rock striation cutting through, giving the higher slope the appearance of the moon Europa.
Walking on the ice is extremely tentative, the only choice being to stride in the deeper pockets of snow. To the west, puffy white cumulus clouds are billowing upward and as they lie a thousand metres below, they appear to be a continuation of the frosty valley. The first birds are twittering and darting about on the lead grey pondage nearby. The footprints of many ducks can be seen and I have observed at least four other large aviarian species.



PHOTO: A SMALL LAKE NEAR LAGUNA SANFRANCISCO

Sanfrancisco Lake
3rd April 14:30
At this very moment I am high on the western flanks of Laguna San Francisco being shadowed by two young Aymara guys who are trying to extort money from us and have followed us for perhaps one and a half kilometers. One of them has been casually kicking rocks down slope toward Michael and the other has been totally silent. The leader displays none of the usual Bolivian friendliness and wont even shake my hand. I feel anxious and scared, yet at the same time I want to threaten them. Both parties are playing the waiting game. Part of this writing is to make them bored and to ascertain my feelings, which are rapidly becoming queasy.
Our initial meeting was whilst eating lunch and we had happily shared food with them, their voluminous eating indicating they were quite hungry. We tried to humour them, then to ignore them and in desperation we walked directly up the final mountain pass, with little zig zagging and hoping they would tire. They demanded comida but we said no to money, only providing them with sardina and pane. As they ate we continued vertically to the pass and they never followed again.
In retrospect they were probably in their mid twenties, about our size but definitely hostile in their dispositions. Our cajouling and politeness averted any justification for violence on their part. They were obviously herders, although attired in Nike teeshirts and matching baseball caps; the rope around the smaller mans waist being a strong suggestion of this. one could not be sure that they didnt have knives to cut that rope! Perhaps a firm hasta nunca or a kick in the bum would have had them scampering away quicker than an alpaca?


Residencial Sorata
5th April
17:25


Its close to sunset. This low valley is very warm and the ducks are quite raucous in the courtyard garden. Long purple flowers attract honey eaters which occasionally feed in the garden. If Im lucky enough and patient then I may see one. Butterflies of many colours are common in these lowlands. Yet high on the mountains many caterpillars, looking very inert, exist below the snowline waiting for a metamorphosis that may not come. Summer is over and Bolivias cold dry winter may expunge them. My first vision of Llampu, with its pointed upstretched fingers cupping the ice of its several glaciers was total wonderment but also finality. The walk of perhaps one hundred kilometres in six days was over and like the butterflies we needed to retreat to the warm valley about 2 kilometres below. Our monotonous trudge through the slippery gravel and various thorny bushes was difficult and at times despairing. Bolivia as I have said many times can surprise. Exhausted and thirsty we chanced upon a road blockade built of rocks and planks only two kilometres from the village of Sorata.
It was commandeered by women and men and fortunately in our hungry state also by a timid ice cream boy. We were not allowed to pass as this week long protest was anti government and demands for village funds seemed to be the main theme. A crowd of twice the dozen closed in on us and much questioning ensued. You didnt drive did you?Who drove you here? Not prepared to break their picket line I joked that we would sleep here on the road and convinced them that we would not go any further. Most of them laughed at us but only one man seemed hostile. Eventually a stern but agreeable man allowed us into the Cominidad with interrogations continuing all the way to the towns boom gate where a lone but friendly policeman held his post, presumably to protect the town from the anti government radicals.
So, as I write to the sounds of crickets it seems that we are stranded in this wonderful little cominidad for at least two more days. Sorata vaguely looks like a southern European village having a central square with hedges and cast iron fencing. On all sides are alfresco restaurants run by various foreigners, the most impressive being Hermans, who busily runs the pizza bar. His taste in the musical side of life is mid 70's experimental rock with a Teutonic slant. The band Gong sound vaguely a hybrid of traditional Japanese and Kraftwerk! A French Canadian runs our hotel and theres even an Italian managing a restaurant of his own cuisine. The mountains can be appreciated from the hotels garden even though the residenciales balconies surround it on all sides.
Allegedly the Campesino strike is throughout the La Paz province as a response to governmental corruption. Twenty billion dollars in road funding had disappeared with no record resulting in the IMF suspending aid. Nearby at Coricolla is the most dangerous road in the world where ten tourists died falling three hundred metres down to a canyon several weeks ago. Rumours abound that rich drug barons who are in disagreement with the nations coca policy are simply using the indigenous people for their own gain and funding the demonstrations. Today we met a Melbourne cross-country skier who informed us that world petroleum prices had inflated over the last month. We travel in a media vacuum not knowing anything of home and understanding little of the local scenario. Perhaps when I get home, Australia may have forged ahead into a new century having discarded John Howards back to the fifties dream.


Sorata
April 6th
18:10


I feel that something is wrong. People began nervously shutting up their shops about half an hour ago and locking the doors to their homes and peering from their balconies. Even the hotel owner has locked both the inner and outer doors. From the town square about twenty protesters with flags and herdmans ropes are marching and chanting. Louis our hotel manager has requested that we dont look over the balcony, dont want to attract attention. He has begun locking the internal doors of this huge German mansion. With all this flurry I am somewhat anxious as Michael went walking about an hour ago. Upon his return he informed me that the town square gathering had been orderly and good natured, like the 20,000 who had marched through La Paz about one week ago. Even coca leaves were being handed out in large amounts in an almost celebratory manner.
This time no armoured police with riot shields were there to control the crowds. After a pleasant dinner and red wine it seems that this was the revolution not to be. Its now the tenth hour of the night and the only sounds are those of raucous teenagers playing soccer in the streets and the echoes of barking canines. None of the other travellers have any information to provide. There are only rumours that the road embargo will last another week and the hotel owner declaring that military control could be the next option. The lack of information is frustrating. Perhaps the buses will run in the morrow and the normal hustle and activity of people will begin again? Perhaps Herman the German, who was one of the first to board up his shop will be selling pizza and his tasty coffee again? One can only surmise and take this situation hour by hour. Sorata is a beautiful place to be and such locations are even better on ones own terms. There is a trace of rain; perhaps a good overnight wash may deter the road closures?


SOUND RECORDING (transcript)
Atacama Desert
22nd February (Tuesday)

"This place is really quite amazing, weve spent the last two days cycling across the Atacama Desert which actually lies quite high in altitude the climbing has been imperceptible, probably a 1% gradient; today here I am on the Altiplano! We can see clouds for the first time, even seen lizards, even a few shrub yeah! signs of life at this altitude some kids in the street [Calama] stole our topographic maps, so quite literally we are flying blind at the moment. From where I am I can see the volcano Lincancabur and that lies at 5916 meters. Its a typical really sharp cone shape elevation above the plain. Weve just passed through the Barros de Arana. I think Arana means spider, thats our high point for the day and Michael estimates were somewhere between 3000 and 3200 metres and the air up here is really dry…Ive a hacking cough but fuck I feel really good, mind you I didnt feel so half an hour ago because we had spent sixty kilometres climbing uphill even though its been gradual(yeah!) Its the middle of the day Ive got the sun behind me, I can see this volcano pointing upward, I can see the snow on its summit coming down like fingers, fingers of snow and further off to the east I can see the Andes mountains proper. I can see the snow capped peaks Ah! This is just amazing. Its just like travelling in Australia but the huge difference has been that the Atacama Desert has got no vegetation what so ever and no animals, we havent even seen ants, we havent seen insects theres been nothing but brown dirt and bread bun hills, no water, the occasional whirly-whirly, you could almost imagine you are in the outback of Australia but trust me this is much much more barren, its just incredible."


9TH April Sorata 01:00
Im quite bored and tiring of this one week revolution. After twenty four hours of confinement in the Hotel Sorata we decided on masse to go for a freedom walk and ended our wanderings at the spiderbar run by Richard the Londoner. We spent our time prior to this barricaded in the hotel noting that the owner had filled buckets with river stones as a defence against the rampant crowds that had marched in the town square banging against the doors of our hotel. Herman the German had become very irrational and during the Campesino meeting had fired a gun into the air and was subsequently bashed by the crowd. Otherwise, walking in the square would suggest that there is no civil unrest occurring whatsoever. Yet a state of siege has been declared by the government. All is very quiet on this rain soaked night. Eight of the local policemen are also interned in this hotel seeking their safehaven from the indigenous people. The army may arrive tomorrow but as the hotel manager Louis would say nothing is certain in Bolivia.
A night in the bar being taunted by Jimmy the Scotsman playing twelve bar blues and copious imbibing on my part has made me feel like I could walk all the way to the capital of La Paz tonight! This is of course pure folly. A telephone call from Rodney and a night with Marco and Anna has made me desire the comforts of home even more. I am very attracted to her and enjoyed her support when I cried during Jimmies rendition of Waltzing Matilda. He also played great blues pieces which I vamped along with on the Zampona.
When one truly looks across the village centre, it is very evident that every dwelling has permanent boarding upon all their windows. Paradoxically, during siesta the shops leave their doors open, usually with a half cotside barricade, effective at keeping only Bolivian canines away.
The sun will rise soon and with the clarity of the night sky the glowing ice of Cerro Illampu should be visible from the town square in the morning. The alcoholic owner of the other Gringo hotel prepared his defences in the form of Molotov cocktails and had even considered electrifying his front door with mains power!


12th April Sorata! 21:30
PHOTO TAKEN HUILA KOTA 30/03/2000 DURING GLACIAL HIKE.





Tomorrow would have been my flight home but this being our eleventh day of confinement to Sorata Rescidentiale and with the Campesino road blocks continuing, this is not to be so. Six soldiers were murdered in Achacachi, one having been dragged out of intensive care and knifed then castrated. A fourteen year old boy was stabbed and his body shown on national television. The Campesinos claim that he was on his knees begging for his life as the police shot him in the heart. Only today a female student was shot during student demonstrations and as I spoke with Tanya Grubic from the embassy she could see the tear gas exploding in the street exclaiming Oh its just a usual student type demonstration. Some locals had been aggressive toward us near the northern roadblock, one madman swinging a rubber hose and shouting obvious obscenity at us. Strangely, four British cyclists arrived today having bribed their way into Sorata. Unlike home, the television news is graphic and the camera shots of bodies are lengthy. For the first time in my life these are images that are real and relevant, yet life in Sorata is quiet to the extreme and the boredom total. Today we found a path that bypasses the blockade to the wonderful Illampu cafe, managed by a German. Beyond that we walked as a large group through a badlands valley following the surging waters of a river, free and blue and most picturesque.
I felt a freedom today as Peter and I jogged up a mountain to savour the view. He is an Australian cyclist whos nickname Yahoo derives from the movie Young Einstein. This man is a born again comedian with an expressive almost facial contortionist ability. People are passing their days mostly playing cards, writing diaries, internetting or eating and reading books. The campesinos are numbering about fifty on the high road, we as a large group having seen them, with binoculars, from an old observation hill. The happiness of the group is evident with lots of laughter and fun. The town is eerily quiet with no disturbance for four days and our large group of foreigners able to wander the town freely. The shops are open without the previous key blockaders threatening them with closure. As I sit here it seems as though the revolution is perhaps an unreality.


16th April Torino Hotel (La Paz) 21:40
La Paz the city is built within a crater one kilometre high and seems surreal after our fourteen days of confinement. Travellers of all nationalities have congregated here, this being the end of the rain season with the promise of clear skies and the beginning of the climbing season. The internet cafés are spilling over with westerners and the din of progressive rock and seventies drum solos can be heard in the Gringos styled restaurants. La Paz in other ways seems no different, the police remain armed as usual, casually holding their weapons. One soldier rested the barrel of his gun downward upon his foot!The traffic is unfriendly and noisy with the continuous sounding of air horns and pedestrians weaving precariously between vehicles. This being Lent and the Jewish Passover explains the presence of huge numbers of Israelis pounding the cobbles and Aymara people selling palm leaves and Catholic trinkets such as plastic rosary beads and mass engineered crucifixes. Due to the Campesino blockades there is a curfew after two in the morning.
I just heard a gunshot but the distant traffic continues to hum giving me some kind of reassurance. Most of the Gringos seem unaware and jaunt along amongst the Artesana shops. Few of us experienced the Blockades directly. Steven and Lindy of Sydney were caught between road blocks in a small town for a week and survived on the charity of locals for that time. Their delay was spent with older North Americans who were eventually airlifted by helicopter provided by the USA. This Australian couple were left behind alone subsequently hitch-hiking out several days ago. I cannot cease my ruminations in regard to the injustice of this weird scenario. Bolivia is a landlocked country whose border bisects Lake Titicaca and has a border navy patrol consisting of maybe five gunboats. Our extrication from “Recidentiale Sorata� was in a naval military police truck crammed full with perhaps thirty people. It was hot and dusty with little air, made worse by the puncturing of someone’s camping gas bottle. The second truck had helmeted soldiers adorned with tear gas, smoke bombs and automatic rifles.
As we inched our way up to the Altiplano the air became refreshingly cool. Several days ago we had tramped to the summit of an old Inca viewpoint and with binoculars could see approximately fifty Campesinos on the high road near Sorata. As we reached that locale the reality of our situation came into sharp relief. Huge rocks and scree from dynamite blasts littered the road. Soldiers with rifles aimed at the high cliffs marched into advance positions whilst the trucks needled their way across ditches and boulders. We all walked behind both enjoying the high adventure but also thinking of the less desirable potential. The Camina to La Paz was a combination of dug trenches and stones extending our journey to a time of six hours. Shards of glass also littered the road.
In the cold of post sunset we were without ceremony left at the crater rim at El Alto. In the dark and in our tiredness we all waved down taxis to be scattered like dust to various Habitacions throughout this intriguing city. The sudden separation without goodbyes was sad but inevitable. A Chinese proverb states that illness is caused by anger, jealously and attachment. I have enjoyed the company of my fellow travellers but the time comes to let go but treasure those memories. When or if we cross their paths again there will be a common understanding, a bond shared by few travellers.
PHOTO OF OTHER EUROPEANS TRAPPED IN SORATA DURING THE CAMPESINO UPRISING IN BOLIVA, TAKEN AROUND 12TH APRIL 2000."YAHOO", CENTRE FRONT IN GREEN SHIRT IS AN AUSTRALIAN NOW LIVING IN AUSTRIA AND CONTINUES TO HIKE AND CYCLE THE WORLD. SEE "LETTER FROM AUSTRIA".


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