Fleeting Friendships


The lower refuge, Andino or Universidad de Atacama (5200m), came into view as a yellow dot. This is another shipping container contributed by Anglo-American Mines company of South Africa. There were various vehicles, and about seven people by it. They stared at me as I approached and inspected a nameless cross on a grave. The French were climbing, the Chileans were the driver and the mechanic of a mean offroad truck (Mercedes Unimog), assisting the American geophysicist. I was delighted to speak some French and English. In fact, after six days of seclusion I would have settled for any language. They told me about the French cyclist that was to do a route similar to that I had planned from San Pedro de Atacama to Salar de Uyuni, but they did not know his schedule. I accepted the 12-kilometer ride back, since I had already walked up this way. I was in bliss eating fresh apples and nectarines as the truck passed through gullies, rocks, and rough bends with gentle swings in its massive suspension system.

After soup and chicken at the hospitable carabineros station, we accepted a visit to Laguna Verde, where the driver lounged in the thermal bath cabin for two hours. I walked the intricate coast, inspecting pools of various algae, insects, and salt formations.

Later, we drove to the data acquisition set-up on the bluff by the station.

Pampa de Barrancas Blancas


Geophysicist Eric Kendrick was measuring tectonic plate movement from Arica to Santiago. A disk-shaped Global Positioning System antenna crowned a tripod, and its wires led to a tent loaded with sophisticated equipment. The data will pinpoint the position on Earth, to the nearest centimeter, of the survey marker disk. The team will return here in a year, and take a second measurement to determine the drift of the South American plate. Eric took various compass bearings and photos, then they dismantled and packed the entire set-up. I'll be looking for the report in The Journal of Geophysical Research.

Back at the station, the men from the Chilean Department of Agriculture treated me to a feast. When I told them I was planning to sleep on the ping-pong table board in the cold garage, they invited me in the new cabin, heated with a wood stove. The "wood" burned was actually large dried yareta clumps collected on the San Francisco pass. They expected running hot water and fluorescent lights soon, but for now we carried our water and resorted to flashlights and candles.

March 3: When I was ready to continue cycling, some of the crew were away helping an overturned jeep. As they returned my passport, I was grateful that no one bothered me about the food importation regulations. The Argentine military had pulled my leg about that last week.

They had also fooled me about the road being good and hard—it turned out bumpy and sandy. Dozens of huge mountains filled the utterly desolate landscape of the Puna de Atacama. I pushed against the howling wind, as the track went up and down gullies, and established my cycling altitude record at 4600 meters. My lungs were aching, and I had to wear my sealed glacier goggles to shield from the dusty wind. I could only manage 29 kilometers for the day under these conditions.

The wind thrashed at the tent as I attempted to erect it in open desert. The whole thing overturned and came crashing upside down before rocks could be secured. A fiberglass pole section of the central hoop split halfway down its length, but to my relief, it did not sever. The anabatic (uphill) wind subsided in the evening, as the air cooled, shrunk and eased back to lowlands. That night the moon delicately illuminated the monumental Tres Cruces (6749m, 6533m, and 6035m)

March 4: I applied a spiral of steel wire with medical tape to the ailing tent pole. The front cycle bags also needed reinforcements since their plastic frame cracked. I often had to get off the bike and push it up steep hills, through thick sand, or both. Going down 300 meters to the Río Lamas valley, I almost didn't need brakes on that sand. Salar de Maricunga, a 15-kilometer-long salt flat, appeared as a bright white plain, but unfortunately it was not on my route.

I spotted a green trace with a silver thread running through it—a stream! I can take a bath! I biked down the sandy slope and found a beautiful wind-sheltered canyon. A wild cat dashed off. Grasses abounded. I visited exquisite eroded rock formations at dusk, and caught up writing my log by candlelight.

March 5: I crossed odd patches of ultrafine beige dust 15 centimeters deep in the track. They didn't cause much friction, but raised billows of dust all over the bike. The Azimut 360 pickups were the only ones I saw all day. Approaching Laguna Santa Rosa, I was delighted to behold my first sighting of guanacos but they scurried away. They are south american cousins to camels, as are llamas, alpacas and vicuñas.

My hands remained numb from the vibrations of the bike's handlebars as I planted the tent stakes in the short grass along the shore. I rushed supper and bundling up to explore before dark. From a hill, I saw that half the lake was salt flat. I snacked on potato chips while admiring about 10 flamingos. Bird tracks were imprinted on the squishy white clay along the shore of the salt flat. I walked enchanted across the flat. On the other side, I discovered strange polygons one to two meters in diameter, arranged like a honeycomb .

Laguna Santa Rosa


March 6: A half-centimeter layer of ice had formed on the lake, so I collected it for fresh water. It was surprisingly good, for something that had frozen from very salty and putrid water. The rocky track continued up switchbacks, over Maricunga pass with 80-kilometer-per-hour wind at the top, and down into an impressive canyon.

A motorcyclist was coming up the track.

Jurgen Cingia German motorcyclist


By the amount of luggage he was carrying, this was no afternoon cruise. A sketch of the Atacama Desert garnished one of two huge aluminum boxes, several plastic containers dangled from straps, and a two-meter bamboo pole stuck out. Jim (Jürgen) Cingia from Germany was on his second one-year ride across South America. He was planning to climb Ojos del Salado, so I gave him information. It was great speaking to another adventurer. He had been to some places I planned to visit.

Near a shack further on, I collected water from a tiny trickle, using the lid of the bottle filled about 40 times per liter. A puppy was jumping up my leg until I sprayed him. Back to hospitable altitude, a fox came to investigate camp and an owl hooted in the canyon come darkness.

March 7: In an adjacent valley, the humid bottom sustained four-meter-tall elegant grass bunches. Downhill all day in the Paipote canyon with beautiful tints of pink and yellowish rocks of endless geological variety.

I ate rehydrated grapes in an abandoned dwelling. The walls were made from straw-reenforced mud, and the roof was corrugated tin. Old magazine clippings were pinned on the wall: a bubble-shaped drawing of a woman stroking the back seat of an early 50's American car, a picture of an ocean beach, a weird motorized cart, a scene of Haiti, and a drawing of father and son fishing. I imagined the dreaming young person stuck in this remote canyon, putting together this collage.

Below 2750 meters, I was assaulted by a horsefly infestation. They are extremely agile and can follow the bike even against the strong uphill wind, biting especially on the knuckles. However; they have slow reflexes, so I slapped over 50 of them. The vibrations from the calamina track (wavy like a corrugated galvanized zinc roof) were getting ridiculous. The helmet pounded on the sunglasses, which dug into the bridge of my nose. The plastic frame of the front panniers broke at several points. The rings unscrewed from the headset and the bottom bracket bearings. All aluminum equipment made black gummy marks on everything it rubbed against. My brain became numb. A rock simultaneously slashed two holes in the rear inner tube. It was all worth it for a fantastic camp by green shrubs in a sharp "S" in the deep canyon, with a full moon that night.

March 8: I revengefully enjoyed watching tiny ants drag away the horseflies that I had slapped.

I was surprised when the Paipote stream with its greenery disappeared; it must have gone underground. I had not stocked much water, because it seemed it would go on all the way to the Pacific. The map showed a town further, so I would fill up there. When I arrived at where La Puerta should have been, it was a sterile valley. No trace appeared of any civilization ever settling here. Why the heck does the map have a dot here? I was contemplating a thirsty evening unless I could force 50 kilometers to Chulo. At least the horseflies were gone! My worries were over when I encountered a road improvement crew. In addition to all the water I wanted, they treated me to a two-plate feast and food to go. They informed me that a nearby gold mine is productive because of Canadian expertise.

The smooth road that had just been graded felt very peculiar. Although it was a pleasure to ride it, I hoped they would not pave the route all the way to Fiambala, spoiling the adventure and isolation for future intrepid explorers.

Several spotless pickups passed. Some gorgeous plants garnished the arid soil, but their flowers were all closed up.

March 9: Birds sang among the 10-meter-high rocks. The flowers were in full bloom in the morning.

Atacama Desert Flowers


They would have to close in the blazing afternoon or face shriveling.

Signs of civilization appeared: crackling electric towers, a railroad, then wow!... pavement! then mineral processing industries, garbage, a real river, lush trees, and a town (Paipote). What a shock! I had survived my expedition in the Puna de Atacama despite dire warnings of mountains named after death, poisonous beetles and streams, and tire-shredding volcanic rocks. I had escaped the penitentes abyss, endured scant air, vicious ultraviolet rays, sandblasting wind, brain-jarring washboards, and vanishing streams.

In Copiapó, I located Residencial Rocio that Jürgen had recommended.

Copiapo Residencial Rocio


It is handsome with 12 rooms around a tiled court, whose center is graced with trees and ornamental plants. The roof of the court is loosely woven straw. The owner's kids roam around crying or staring. A rooster crows all day, then a owl takes over, hooting the entire night shift. The owner seemed such an avid collector of bank notes that I contributed a CAN$2 bill, but I later learned that his collection was more like a gimmick for making extra cash; he requests notes that he certainly already has. Two Montrealers were staying in the opposite room. Stéphane Bordeleau was cycling a year from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina in a racing bike. Brigitte Lefebvre was following him in a new car carrying all the gear, preparing meals, and writing newspaper reports for their sponsor. Our style was worlds apart, so we were not drawn to each another.

After shopping to replace items that had died in the ordeal, I enjoyed chicken and french fries in the magnificent plaza with gardens and tropical trees. I would be eating like mad over the next few days, responding to an instinct to replenish my emaciated body. I was hopelessly behind schedule, so I located a travel agency and resigned to changing my airline ticket date to three weeks later to May 4th.

I returned to the residencial and surprise: here comes Jim saying "I had no luck."—and meaning it. His lip was badly bruised from some piece of steel that clobbered him when he helped the carabineros start their diesel electric generator. His clothes were covered in mud from squirming up to photograph flamingos at Laguna del Negro Francisco.

It felt odd to sleep in a real bed.

March 10: Jim and I compared equipment and we were amazed at the similarity, right down to many identical brands. We both keep a journal, collect rocks, and are map fanatics. The difference is that he had traveled years across the Americas, because he "doesn't feel good at home." He laid out his tent in the residencial court to show me the elegant painting he made made on it.

I ran around town getting boxes, then wired and taped them to ship the trailer and the mountaineering gear to the Federación de Andinismo in Santiago, where I would retrieve them in two months. In the middle of the night I woke up with the runs so urgent that I didn't make it to the bathroom.

March 11: The box on the trailer wobbled like crazy as I cycled to the airport. The ride back was a breeze, being released from that load, but which had permitted two phenomenal climbs. Vast grape vine plantations thrived on this plain, and would contribute to Chile's fast-growing wine exports.

Back in Copiapó, we visited the famous mineralogical museum. It houses 3000 specimens from all over the globe, in neat glass cases, with perfectly organized categories by dominant element, from lithium to uranium. The incredible variety of substances, crystalline configurations, and colors, simultaneously invoke industrial exploitation, science, and the artistic inclination of the creator of nature.

March 12: I planned to take buses 800 kilometers to Calama, but they were all booked for a week, so I headed to a truck weighing station. The carabineros secured me a lift on a large flatbed. I tied the bike and hopped in the high cab. We passed impressive rocks with pockets and holes, which I would have liked to explore. The truck was only going to Caldera.

I biked on a sandy track to Bahia Inglesa (English bay) on the Pacific, where some people walked slowly along the shore. On this calm and warm beach, I saw no reason to put up the tent. I laid the sleeping bag on the tent fly and attempted to watch the sunset on the Pacific Ocean. It was my third disappointment as it slipped behind a peninsula. The other attempts had been hampered by rocks in Uculet, British Columbia after I biked the Rockies in 1984, and by clouds in Quintay on this January 7th. I paid a visit so many times to the latrine in the night that I just kept the hole in the sand uncovered.

March 13: My hitchhiking lift was a young man driving a new pickup. He was following his boss to Antofagasta. This part of the Pan-American highway featured mostly dry low mountains for hours on end. What a pleasant surprise when he put on Jean-Michel Jarre synthesizer music—my favorite. Then he offered to share a marijuana joint with me, but at the 140-kilometer-per hour speed we were going, I wanted him to keep his mind on the road. I declined, so he didn't light up.

We passed vestiges of nitrate mines in flat valleys. These are relics of an enterprise which collapsed when industrial nations began to satisfy their own need for fertilizer and explosives by making synthetic nitrates. Chile's nitrate deposits are unique on this planet and prove that the Atacama desert has been arid for at least 50,000,000 years. Salt spray with nitrate-rich plankton from the Pacific was blown in and accumulated over eons. The rare sprinkles of rain merely leeched the very soluble nitrate salts to a few meters under the surface, leaving the less soluble chloride salts on top.

A flash flood had washed away the road to Antofagasta, along with houses and 120 people, last June, 1992. All that remained for three kilometers was a battered dirt track. The coast, however, was tidy, with modern buildings and a military base. Enormous ships were docked at the port. This city stands in testimony to man's ability to tame an inhospitable desert coast. Hotel Carlos V accepted to admit my bike after I was refused at two others. In the evening, I gazed at city lights reaching high up the hills.

March 14: I passed crowded fish markets along the coast, then ascended back to the highway. A 50-year-old couple gave me the final ride to Calama in the open bed of their pickup. We gradually ascended a wide, empty valley in the Atacama desert.

Antofagasta's life-line followed alongside for the entire 200 kilometers. Political graffiti was scrawled over this water pipe along most of its length. The extraordinary story of the course of this water is that it originates from distant streams on the other side of the Andes, where it seeps into ancient river channels, that have continued flowing despite being buried under more than a thousand meters of volcanic flows. Río Loa cuts through the desert collecting the centuries-old water springing from the hillsides. Pipelines tap the precious water at Calama, where the folks who granted me the lift arrived home.

I biked just beyond town, then entered Quebrada San Salvador, a 10-meter-deep dried river canyon. It was peculiar to ride the winding trench on a natural surface as hard and smooth as a good road. I adopted the quebrada bed as my bed for the night. This concealed the tent very well, but I hoped no flash flood would wash me away. The chances were slim enough at around once every seven years.

March 15: While watching distant snow-capped volcanos, I pedaled up 500 meters to Chuquicamata. Huge mounds of mine tailings tower over the town. I went up a gully in the beige hills until it curved, so I could camp out of view from the buildings below.

March 16: I was writing postcards while waiting for the tour of the famous Chuquicamata copper mine, when a British guy came to talk to me. Nigel Breeze, 26 from Manchester, England was cycling a year in South America, starting in Río de Janeiro. We watched the movie about the mine, then boarded the recent model bus to the gigantic open pit copper mine, four kilometers by two kilometers, and 520 meters deep.

Chuquicamata copper mine


Dozens of enormous trucks with 3.4-meter-high tires spiraled up the dusty pit. They say the pit is the largest man-made hole on Earth, but they must not have heard of the Bingham mine in Utah, 800 meters deep. I collected samples of the turquoise colored ore. Next, we entered a huge refining building where droplets of molten copper sparked out of infernal ovens. The glowing metal was then poured into slabs.

After the tour, we met another cyclist at a restaurant.

Cyclists at Chuquicamata


What is it about this town? He was a 60-year-old Frenchman doing a three-year world tour—and his bike looked like it. I thought my expedition was something! He complained that the Chileans are not as hospitable as the New Zealanders. Nigel's next leg was to Ollagüe then Uyuni, Bolivia. When I saw he only had a racing bike and no tent, I said good luck, knowing that route to be notoriously terrible. We each went our separate ways on the three roads out of town.

Back in Calama, I stocked up for the 130-kilometer ride to San Pedro de Atacama, across the most arid stretch of the Atacama desert. No rain has fallen in about 20 years, rendering it the driest in the world. Not a brook nor a single shack exists along the way. I filled all my bottles to the brim, including a two-liter bottle strapped on a front pannier, for a total of nine liters. The Atacama's aridity is the result of a freak combination of desiccating effects: the cold Peru (or Humboldt) ocean current flowing up the Pacific coast from Antarctica, inhibits the air from the tropics, although moist, from ever lifting high enough to condense, and any humidity coming in from the east is effectively soaked up as it swings over the formidable Andes.

The municipal dump just out of Calama consists of unburied heaps of nauseating and smoldering trash arranged so that the wind can efficiently scatter the detritus over the desert. The dispersal performance of the scheme was six kilometers—so far. Good work, guys. I fled to adjacent uncontaminated dunes for camp.

March 17: I had to waste precious water cleaning another shitty accident. I ran into an American team doing exploratory drilling in the area. No, they had not detected any rich deposits, or maybe that was none of my business.

When I spotted a tiny green plant, I didn't want it to exist, because it spoiled the concept of absolute desert. It had managed to subsist by extracting traces of humidity solely from the air.

I was eating chocolate on the side of the road when another lonely cyclist appeared. He approached excitedly in solidarity in this bleak land. Jürgen Langensteiner from Austria was on a one-year sponsored tour. He had separated from his two partners weeks ago because they were too slow. We descended 1000 meters on a rocky track through captivating hills of the Cordillera de Domeyko. Jürgen was fascinated by the experience of camping in such exquisite but inhospitable terrain. My tent, food, water and apricot liquor were enough for both of us.

March 18: In Valley de la Luna (valley of the moon), we explored three-meter-tall rock spires covered with jumbled flat transparent gypsum crystals.

Valley de la Luna


Rock cliffs exposed wavy stratifications. I was sad to not see the stunning formations clearly, because I had removed one contact lens due to an eye infection. It was 12 hours of one-eyed crying and pain. The eye was hypersensitive to light, so I wore my glacier goggles. Jürgen was delighted to bike such a fascinating route and he shot many marvels with his fancy camera. We emerged on a plain and spotted an oasis.

Half the people in the earthen streets of San Pedro de Atacama are gringos. Agencies offer tours to Verde salt lake, Atacama salt pan, and Tatio geysers. We took Residencial Florida, then proceeded to shop for an 11 day expedition in Sud Lipez of the Potosí department—the most remote part of Bolivia.

Jürgen had not only decided to follow me, he also talked me into climbing Volcán Licancábur (5921m) on the border with Chile's El Loa province. He was incredulous at the quantity of food required for such a journey. When I saw he had only taken packs of spaghetti, I recommended cereals, rice, lentils, soya flakes, nuts, chips, dried fruits, oil, sugar, soup packages and flavor crystals, all weighed on my pocket scale, not to mention candles, shampoo, toilet paper, fuel, etc.

Washing clothes took forever; the tap only gave a tiny trickle of hard water that refuses to lather. The usual residencial features were present: crying children and a screaming bird; this one was a green parakeet.

Next we visited the archaeological museum with famous "Miss Chile," a 4000-year-old dried up woman. Her skull is exposed through tears in the skin. I couldn't help but thinking: "This is what happens when you run out of water in the Atacama." The museum houses a splendid collection of Atacameño artifacts. I also enjoyed the building's octagonal architecture.

Again Jim ran into me. He was in town with, Werner and Mätz, also German motorcyclists. Jürgen knew them all too, having met them in Santiago. Most gringos on extended trips in South America eventually bump into one another. We partied to candlelight after 10:00 p.m., when the whole town's electricity is shut off.