Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The Atacama Desert

El Tatio Geyser fields
I couldn't feel my hands. My feet too, were going numb and my legs were tingling. I briefly looked up at the stunning display of stars above me before tucking my head back down and resealing any draughty spots! It was cold! It was 5.30am and I was riding on the back of a KTM 990 Adventure, on a mission to pay an early morning visit to El Tatio (The Grandfather). 

El Tatio is one of the highest Geyser fields in the world at 4320 meters and it's worth catching at first light while it's still cold. The difference in temperatures between the air and the water creates the most spectacular display. This is what we were told and it seemed we were willing to bet our fingertips on it! 

Mathieu was in control of our ride for the day. Rhonda's headlights are still not working and this mission was going to need light. After some debate we decided there was nothing else for it but to go two up on the 100km of dark and cold winding roads to see what was promised to be a spectacular sight.

Some of the damage at Chanaral
I had left Mathieu in Santiago just over a week ago along with Claire. Once again we had intended taking different roads on our own missions. Mathieu was heading for the Moto GP in Argentina and Claire was staying in Santiago while I wandered further north along the coast and towards the flood areas. There were different reports filtering down the road on the extent of the damage and whether roads were passable or not. I had no idea what to expect. It wasn't long before I came across the devastating results of the worst flooding in the regions history.  An area normally considered to be one of the driest places in the world.

Chanaral and Taltal seemed to have endured the worst of it with many lives being lost. Both towns had been clearing up for the last two weeks but there was still so much to do. The roads in between were mostly damaged and washed away and so I picked my way carefully along with the many truckers who all seemed to work to keep an eye on me. They moved out of the way to let me through and they beeped and waved every time I stopped or they stopped.  We were all sharing the road and watching out for each other. There was a real sense of community in the face of this natural destruction around us.
KTM v soft sand. Sand wins!

By the time I got to Antofagasta, Mathieu had caught up with me again. His plans scuppered as many of the passes in to Argentina were closed. With little choice remaining, he too, found himself travelling up the coast and in to the Atacama. At first I wasn't sure I wanted the company. I'd been enjoying the last few days of solitude on these long desert roads. However, I was happy to ride in to San Pedro with him and we could see how it went from there. The beauty of riding solo is that you don't have to make excuses if you want to go your own way. You can meet people, have mini adventures together and then just take a different road! It's a given! I like that! 

Having company turned out to be just the right thing for San Pedro de Atacama. It was a playground with the promise of untold adventures to be had on two wheels. Having a riding buddy gave us the confidence to venture off the beaten tracks and see how far we could get in to the dunes before one or both of us got stuck! The KTM Adventure is a great bike but it's a beast to get out of a rut. Even a 250cc like Rhonda can feel pretty heavy when you're battling soft sand and desert heat! Together though, we could take on anything! 

Greetings! We mean you no harm!
The geysers were well worth the long cold ride up to 4320 meters and the ride back down in the daylight was spectacular! We kept having to stop just to take it all in. Slowly we worked our way back down to the heat of the lower altitudes, stripped off our layers as quickly as possible and packed our things ready to hit the road again. Our plan was to head towards the Argentinean border and find a nice spot to camp on route. The plan however, failed. 

I took the lead out of town on route 27 but it wasn't long before Rhonda was struggling to maintain our speed.  The temperature was dropping again and I realised that we were actually riding at over 4500 feet. The climb up had been so gradual that it hadn't occurred to us until our lungs started feeling tight and the bikes started loosing power. Both human and machine working harder to get the required amount of air. We stopped at the snow line and got as many layers as we could back on again. From one extreme to the next TWICE in just a few hours. The wind was bitterly cold but the riding was phenomenal. Every corner we turned led to another breathtaking view. 

We considered a couple of places for a campsite but the truth of it was that it was just too cold and with nothing to burn we would have endured rather than enjoyed. Once the sun went down we would be left with the icy wind and subzero temperatures! Instead we decided to carry on to the border and see if we could get a bit closer to sea level before the day was out. 

4500 feet. Heading for the Argentinian border
The border was at 4000 meters and still very cold. Darkness loomed and Rhonda still has no lights. By now the cold had got to me and it was made worse by the tiredness. We had not stopped since 5am. I was shaking and I needed a hot shower or a fire to get warm again. Still in good spirits, we rode on in the hope that we could make it to the next town of Susques before nightfall. There we hoped to find a hostel. Anything as long as it had heat! As we rode on the light changed to a dusky pink. The soil and the rock faces around us changed to beautiful green and pink pastel colours. Despite the cold and threat of darkness, I could not help but take it all in and enjoy the view! I was running out of words to describe the beauty. The last few days could not have given us more. 

Reaching the snow line
Darkness fell and Mathieu took the lead. I would ride as close as I could to him and just follow his
lights. It was now pitch black and all I could do was focus on his taillight. We had no choice but to ride on now. Luckily the road was extremely quiet (maybe 4 cars in all) but all I could see now was a red dot ahead and so it felt a little disorientating at times. I just hoped I didn't lose him on one of the bends. We rode in total darkness for around 30Km before reaching Susques. This is when my headlights decided to start working again! I had light for the last 300 yards! 

We found a very cheap and very basic room for the night. It had all we needed. A couple of beds and a hot shower! Bliss! We used our sleeping bags as blankets and fell asleep listening to a podcast about the British education system! This had been how Mathieu had learnt English and it turns out we both loved a voice to go to sleep to (I'm normally a Radio 4 to go to sleep to kind of girl)

The next morning we woke with dreadful headaches and stuffy noses. I felt sick and threw up straight after our homemade breakfast of Avocado, bread and cheese! It had been a long day yesterday with extreme temperature and altitude changes. We were still at 3,500 meters and so put it down to these factors. 

 Although our plan had been to ride together to Salta, that morning we both felt we wanted to do different things.  I saw no reason to head for a big city and so turned Rhonda a little further North towards Tilcara. Mathieu decided there was a road to be ridden south of Salta. We split the rations of water and said our goodbyes once more. "Adios Amigo! See you in Bolivia!" 

The 100 miles between Susques and Tilcara saw me dropping 1,500 meters down another breathtaking valley full of switchbacks and unforgettable scenery! I took my time and let it all sink in. On arrival I found myself in a great little place called Waira Hostel. It's run by a fellow biker who gave me a good deal on a room to myself with parking just outside my door for Rhonda. Once parked up he handed me my key and a large bottle of beer! "Bikers together" he said. "Enjoy". 

I love being a biker! 

Twisites all the way to Tilcara
The Atacama Desert has to be up there for me in list of most beautiful places in the world. It's actually up there with Antarctica. You couldn't get more different yet the irony is that they both made me throw up! One with seasickness and one with altitude sickness! 

Originally I'd planned to miss this region altogether. You've seen one desert you've seen them all right? WRONG! If it's not already on your bucket list of places to visit on your motorbike  then get said list out of the draw, dust it off and write in capital letters at the top - RIDE THE ATACAMA DESERT! Trust me on this one! In the meantime - please enjoy the pictures and live it vicariously from wherever you are with my pleasure. 

The KTM and the hippie get a steam clean!

Rhonda NOT STUCK! 

Fun in the sun

Riding buddies

The Atacama

1 comment:

  1. Great photo's and report, thanks, Pete.