Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On the Trail of Butch and Sundance

Before I tell you about that, I'd just like to say I have added a couple more observations to the end of the last post, so feel free to check that one again, its free after all!

And now, to Bolivia! And not without a fair amount of trepidation, I have to admit. The same nerves I have got every time we have gone into a new country so far, and this time the principal worries were the roads and the rain, it being the rainy season, by all accounts. That said, we had been assured by the Canadian couple on the BMW we met in Mendoza that the roads would be no worse than anything we had encountered so far, not that that helped calm my nerves a great deal.
Anyhow, we crossed the border at La Quiaca early in the morning, and threaded our way through the streets of Villazon, past the crazy shouting man and up the main drag and out of town. Straight into a churned up, bulldozer-strewn stretch of sandy "road". Perfect. Fortunately, we picked our way through the road construction work, and onto a reasonable enough unsealed road that took us the 100km or so to Tupiza, the largest town in "Butch and Sundance's Last Stand" area of the country. The road had its share of sand mixed in with gravel, but no deep and difficult patches. The main problem was the corrugations, which were extreme and almost permanent, making for a bone-shaking ride for most of the way. It was, in all other respects, a very enjoyable ride though, and the last part as we approached Tupiza was genuinely spectacular, with more crazy rock formations and impressive scenery.
Unfortunately, it turned out that San Vicente, the actual mining village that Butch and Sundance finally caught the Big Stage Coach to the Sky, was (a) tiny, (2) quite a long way off our route, (iii) didn't actually have anything to show for their efforts, not even identifiable graves and (d) didn't have any petrol to refill on the way. Not to mention the road, if we were even able to find it, was the smallest possible standard marked on the map, suggesting extremely poor quality. So, we made a decision: we would take the road to Uyuni and the salt plains, and when we got to the turning to San Vicente, if we recognised it, we would detour down it a bit to assess its quality and decide if it was worth the risk and extra time.
So, off we went. In the wrong direction, initially, as the diversion sign pointed down a road that actually took us to the front line of the road construction, causing us to turn around, and eventually take the right road. Up to the first un-marked crossroads. Fortunately, we stopped here to find someone to ask, which gave me time to notice that the mysterious squeak I had been hearing was not, as I thought, coming from the front end, but actually from the back, where my luggage frame had broken at the same weld I'd had fixed in Brasil. Why? Because I had lost a securing bolt due to the shake down we had endured on the way in. So we turned round, went back to town and found a welder to fix it and a bolt shop to buy replacement bolts and spares for the next time it would happen. This all took us to midday, by which time I was reluctant to go on, as I suspected it would rain before we got to Uyuni (the word on the street is that however sunny it is, it rains some time mid-afternoon, just as it had done yesterday). This threat of rain, I felt, would put me under pressure to go faster than I wanted to, so I begged woosseyness and we decided to stay in Tupiza one more night.
This gave us a chance to modify our plan and pay homage to a rather old video of the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid movie, a welcome repeat viewing for me, and a first for Rich, so frankly, very necessary.
Next day, we found our way out of town without a hitch, but completely failed to spot the road to San Vicente, as none of the junctions we met had a sign to anywhere on them, and at nearly every one we had to stop and wait for a passing vehicle to point us in the right direction. More corrugations, but a fantastic, mountainous first 100km, up over 4000m again, and then a much less pleasant sandy second half, though mostly thin sand on a hard under surface, so not too bad. The only event on the journey of any note was my third bee-sting incident, and this time it was very serious indeed, and certainly no laughing matter. We had stopped for a piece of cake, a drink and a pee, and I had just completed the last of these, when I got the nasty feeling I had committed the cardinal schoolboy error of getting caught up in the zip. But wait, I hadn't even pulled the zip up yet, so why the very sharp pain in a very delicate place?? A quick and slightly panicky look revealed a very surprised bee escaping from my pants, and a small stinger left behind in my old fella! Quick as a flash, I picked the stinger out, and hopped around in a lot of pain, while Rich helped by taking a picture. He commented later that I had been lucky it was only one sting, and I pointed out that he was the lucky one, as if it had been worse, he might have had to suck out the poison! Still, despite these high jinx, the 210km took 6 hours, and we stumbled into Uyuni to a very unprepossessing sight of vast amounts of rubbish blown about the desert just outside of town. In fairness to Uyuni, this is not unusual in SA, as many smaller towns only have uncovered landfills for dumping rubbish, and lots of wind, so the end result, though unattractive to look at and smell, is sadly inevitable.
So Uyuni, then. Famous for its massive Salar plain, with freaky mirages, distorted perspective and seemingly endless space. We had a night to recover from the ride in, then a relaxed morning preparing food etc, considering it was only 20km to the salt, and with no shade we didn't want to have to spend the whole day out there before we camped. We found our way out to the plains, and straight away couldn't fail to notice what a weird and wonderful place it was. We stopped briefly at one of the hotels made of salt, near the "edge", then drove for about 100km in a vaguely straight line to the volcano out in the middle somewhere. The salt was very hard, so easy to drive on, and with no obstacles to crash into and no road to run off, it allowed for some interesting on-the-move photo opportunities. The volcano eventually grew larger, although the distance was very hard to judge. When we arrived, it was surprising to see grassy areas all round the "island", with stone walls, grazing llamas, and flamingoes. We pitched our tents, took some crazy photos, and enjoyed the sunset, before settling in for an early and somewhat chilly night.
Next morning, we packed up slowly due to the altitude (about 3500m), took some more whacky photos, and drove off to one of the other islands for a quick look, before heading back to Uyuni and thoroughly cleaning the salt off the bikes.
And that is where I am now. While Rich wiles away the afternoon asleep, I'm have popped out to try and upload photos and update you, but sadly this has been quick and easy, but the photos have been very slow indeed. I can only hope that Potosi has faster internet that Uyuni, or I am going to get very behind with my photos!
A final first impression of Bolivia? I like it. OK, the roads are crap, but the people we have met so far have all been friendly and smiley, despite being easily the poorest folks we have met so far. They also speak a much clearer form of Spanish - slower and better pronounced. That doesn't mean I can understand more of it, mind you, but I can at least tell where one word ends and the next begins now, so maybe that will help!
Well, watch out for bees, and start getting out the decorations for Chrimbo. Our next task is to find some to decorate the bikes with. Til then, chin chin.

1 comment:

ed said...

That'll teach you to tie flowers in your hair...