9th – 12th March
Sajama to Turco, Uyuni
Total distance – 501km
Originally I wrote this blog as a part of the previous blog, but then realised it was a bit too big, so I have cut it to make two blogs.
There was always a risk that we could not cross the Chile border and I had already researched an alternative route, staying within the Bolivian border.
The plan was to take a series of small roads to Sabaya village, about 164km from Sajama, then cut through the salt pans to reach Uyuni. Rolando had driven the route before and we agreed it was feasible.
Toby was still suffering from from his digestive tract infection and we spent the morning in Sajama at the health centre where he could be properly diagnosed and treated. He was already feeling better when we set off on our next adventure, mid-afternoon. I hoped to get four hours of solid riding in.
Crossing the 10km line of trucks waiting to cross the border one more time, I turned south, passing the base of Acotango before descending a couple of hundred metres and into a vast plain, surrounded by mountains. I was really enjoying winding through a network of rough tracks, passing small holdings and hamlets. The team stopped to take a time-lapse scene (which takes time) and I continued.
As is normal at this time of year, thunderstorms seem to roll in during the afternoons. This afternoon was no exception. The sky ahead of me turned black and bolts of lightening flashed across the sky. All around I could see cloud bursts. I was alone, partly admiring nature’s beauty, but increasingly worried as the storm approached. There was nothing I could do except ride into the storm.
As the lightning bolts felt very close and the hail and rain struck, I stopped and crouched as low as possible (which is what you are meant to do if caught in an electrical storm). I was quite scared for a while there, but then got back on the saddle and continued. Eventually the team caught me and then the vehicle got a puncture. I continued alone for another half hour, the rain setting in and the tracks now resembled more of a quagmire. It was really tough cycling and I was getting cold.
Arriving at a fork in the road and decided to wait for the team. We needed shelter, none was around and I couldn’t afford to lose the team. Rolando had changed the tyre in super-quick time and I didn’t have to wait more then 10 minutes. There was a village nearby, but between us and the village was a river too deep and fast-flowing for the vehicle to cross safely. Then we came across a military unit on patrol, on the lookout for narcotics and smugglers. They stopped us from going any further saying that all the rivers in the region, in this season, were not negotiable by car (or bike). They seemed friendly, but concerned and we could see they were protecting us. In the end, we had to turn back and ended up staying back in Sajama with good food and a roof over our heads. I had done 62km but we were back to where we started the day.
We needed to reach Uyuni in time for Reza to then catch a flight out of there to La Paz and from there to the UK. Originally I had flights booked from Iquique, but now that route was not possible. The short route via Sabaya was off the cards. The only other option was to take a much longer way around.
I set off in good time from the Sajama turn off, heading east along the RN4, the main road, for 85km. In the meantime, Rolando and the team drove to Tambo Quemado to get both tyres fixed (the spare tyre was also flat in the morning).
It was pretty plain sailing along the main highway. Regularly passed by big trucks, I was struck by yet another hail storm and more rain. The highlight of this route was an incredible canyon. The road tracked through the gorges for about 15km.
Turning off the highway I took a short cut via the town of Curahuara de Curaugas on a spectacular dirt road toward Turco, 45km away. I hadn’t considered just how difficult this road would be, Before leaving the town, Rolando confirmed with a local that the main river crossing would be passable at the moment.
It took me the next two and a half hours to cover 18km! It was a rugged mountain range, but so spectacular with several stream crossings (requiring me to carry the bike), and ancient lava flows sculptured by the weather into endless forms.
The track was eroded, very steep out of the valleys (10%+ gradients) and all large stones in many places. On the mountainsides I often spotted ancient stonework, most likely built by the Tiawanakans or Incas. It was a filmmaker’s paradise.
I was feeling cold and exhausted by the end of the day, when the team reunited. We settled on an idyllic camp spot beside a stream. However, I wasn’t in good shape. Initially I thought I was just tired and forced down as much food as I could. But when I settled into my tent, the stomach began to curdle and I vomited violently three times during the night. Diarrhoea followed and in the morning, we concluded that I had contracted the same Giardia strain as Toby. I was empty and struggled to eat – even dry bread.
I just needed to cycle just 25km to Turco, a reasonably-sized town where we hoped I could get medical attention. It was a struggle, but I took my time and fortunately the track was less mountainous.
Arriving at the medical centre, I was completely drained. The staff were very kind, but it was an eye-opener to see how few resources the centre had – a filthy pillow, no toilet paper, etc. The doctor assessed me thoroughly. I had lost 5kg (as had Toby!) and was obviously not replacing my daily intake requirements of calories and water. He put me on a drip for three hours to help fast track my recovery and set me on a course of antibiotics. At least the needle for the infusion came out of a packet so it must have been sterile.
Having lost two days – the false start where we had to turn back, and this day, there was no chance of me cycling to Uyuni in time for Reza’s departure from the expedition, especially in my current state. To use our time with Reza, the producer, more efficiently, and to give me time to recover, we drove to Uyuni (6 hours) and are spending two days here, filming the sights, including the world famous salt pan. We will then return to Turco and continue the cycle journey. We have an interesting new plan, resuming from Turco, closely tracking Lake Poopo to reach Uyuni.