As I near the edge of Salar de Uyuni a small building takes shape around which a cluster of Land Cruisers and a gabble of tourists loiter. There is something satisfying materialising as if out of know where, first a pea sized dot on the horizon which slowly takes the form of a cyclist. The tourists are all stood in clusters taking photos and laughing at the results. Every person to visit Bolivia comes here to get the photo. As I stiffly remove myself from the frame a few tourists give a quizzical glance of where the hell did you come from? Before hopping back in the air conditioned 4×4.
I need to get off my high bicycle, there is nothing wrong with being just a tourist, I’m just a tourist (apparently a self important one). I’ve even been here before and laughed at my own amusing photos. There is no break in horizon or the surface here, the stark white salt and the perfect blue sky mean that you can make it seem like you are, I don’t know, being squashed by a gigantic foot or spilling out of a coke can; the can is placed close to the lens and the model at a distance looks minute in comparison.
A picure paints a thousand words.
To reach the point where I dismounted my high bike on the edge of Bolivia’s iconic salt flat Salar de Uyuni and the largest in the world I cycled from La Paz in an uneventful journey to reach the salty shores. But over the course of two days I would cross the lesser known but equally salty Salar de Coipasa and the big one Salar de Uyuni. Together they take up an area of 11,388 square kilometres and comprise of an estimated 10 billion tonnes of salt beneath which sit reservoirs of lithium rich brine.
It looks like snow, it smells like snow, you would even get salt blindness on account of the snow like albedo but it tastes nothing like it and it is in fact it is odourless, that nostalgic whiff of the salty sea you get when going on holiday to Blackpool is in fact ocean dwelling bacteria. This salt flat is by all accounts a hostile environment void of almost all life, few bacteria can even call it home.
As I start out across Coipasa I quickly discover that I wont be breaking any land speed records, it is slow going. At times it is smooth and I make good time, that is until the salt becomes saturated and turns to slush. Other patches are slick like black ice and I’m at risk of toppling. Or hidden beneath a thin crust of salt are pot holes which compress the spine as I unexpectedly jerk over them; I’m just holding my breath ready for a pond sixed chasm which will engulf me whole. The line of alpaca quietly crossing this expanse don’t seem to be having the difficulties which I am subjected to.
Fortunately salt flat day two is more successful. Salar de Uyuni.
There isnt a sound not even a chirp of a bird or the squeak of a mouse, nor is there any man women or child, building or even a sign post, hell for once there isnt even any litter. Its at times like these that I feel a real sense of satisfaction in the fact that even today in our over populated world you can still find yourself in great wildernesses free of humankind. I’m truly alone, solitude at its best. Stop and there is complete and utter silence, its just you, your breath and the beat of your heart.
Salar de Uyuni was a different kettle of fish….as I make my way onto the salt it creaks and crunches like fresh pisted snow after a cold night. I follow no road just a rough bearing towards Isla Incahuasi, a cactus strewn island at its centre; making dead reckonings to estimate my course across this sea of salt. I crunch my way across a lattice of honey comb ridges in the surface making a rhythmic bumping as I go.
Despite the desert like appearance there is water here though, beneath the surface. Occasionally a hole will reveal crystal clear saline water, I plunge an arm and am chilled up to the armpit without reaching the bottom; perhaps I’m luck some salt monster didn’t pull me beneath. God knows how deep it is. This makes it seem like l’m a ice roads trucker on just a few thin inches of supporting salt.
Perspective is distorted out here, with nothing to break the horizon judging distance is impossible. On a flat surface such as this of the sea, the curvature of the earth means that you can only physically see approximately a mere 5km, that’s it! So as I approach Incahuasi at first just its peak can be seen floating above the horizon at a great distance; a watery mirage makes it appear as if to be floating in mid air. Its a big bloody island so it is a long bloody time before its base fills the watery void and comes into view and even then it seems to take an inordinate amount of time to reach the reprieve of soil.
This trick of the salty void and its deception of perspective, means that it is difficult to judge distances; islands slowly grow, first black shapes on the horizon before forming browns and soft yellows as these draw slowly nearer. Occasionally a vehicle might skirt into view appearing as if it a toy car moving of its own accord. Times seems to slow or my progress seems to regress and the monotony of the featureless salt‐scape is mentally exhausting; occasional bouts of bone shaking roughness do its best to be physically tiring to boot, as my wrists and undercarriage take the brunt of vibrations.
But its not all bad by any means; it is truly breath taking and unworldly, nature is full of surprises. It is truly amazing, the shear isolation, the barrenness, the beauty. As the hours pass by with no distraction I nod in and out of a meditative state, taken back to old memories, faces and music only to be brought round by the occasional sight of black ant like masses moving along the horizon following some sort of trail; vehicles just on the edge of the horizon so that they are out of focus. And eventfully the gabble of tiny tourists begins to take shape little peas at first before taking tourist form, I mean, human form.