After two years of frustrated stagnation, a frustrated and easily convinced Tibet Fonteyne found himself and two friends Didier and Alex smashing their way around South America. Some days were easy, some days rough but Bolivia proved to be the toughest of them all.
The driver spoke precisely, gesturing towards a map. “Esta ruta is muy peligroso. Mucha arena, muchas piedras…no es recomendable para ir en moto.”
I nodded thoughtfully, Tibet smiled. “Pero esta ruta es mas belissima, si?”
Brushing off the professional off-road driver’s concerns about the perils of our planned route, we moved on to the subject of gasoline. “Donde podemos comprar gasolina?”
“In San Cristobal. Despues, no hay nada.”
We exchanged looks. Five hundred kilometers of allegedly perilous desert, with no gas stations. After a few more minutes of conversation where we failed to arrange a fuel drop (the drivers didn’t know when they’d next be returning to the desert), we left the tour operator office and strode back down the hot, dusty main boulevard of Uyuni.
“So what are we saying about that, then?”
Alex, Tibet and I had just achieved our goal of riding three cheap Chinese dirt bikes from the North of Peru down to and across the famous Bolivian salt flats of Uyuni. Our second goal, though, was to ride through the legendary Eduardo Avaroa Nature Reserve in the southern tip of the country, along a route that challenges even experienced riders on real adventure bikes. Our 250cc XR250 clones had proved to be very temperamental in the last month, so we were feeling a little tense at the prospect of taking them across this remote, sandy replica of Mars on Earth.
Whenever we spend a night in a town of any reasonable size, we like to have dinner at the #1 rated restaurant on TripAdvisor — it makes a nice change from the dinners of instant noodles and rum we eat out in the field. More often than not, the restaurant turns out to be a pizzeria, which it did that night. The food was excellent, but stories aren’t about food. The guy at the table next to us had an impressive camera, so we struck up a conversation with him. His name was Joe, and he was in Bolivia shooting a documentary.
Joe was cool, and very interested in our trip. Within twenty minutes, we’d moved over to his table and had roped his driver, Marcos, into the conversation. We brought out a map and Marcos started to divulge information about routes through the Nature Reserve.
“There are two main routes through. On this one, you will go through the valley of the rocks, which is very beautiful, and the road is quite good.”
“And what about over here?”
“It is very difficult. There is a pass which is very famous among the drivers, they call it the “Toom-Toom Pass” because the car goes ‘toom! toom!’. And you will have to go through the desert, where you will not see a road, just thousands of 4×4 tracks in the sand.”
“Which way is more beautiful?”
“The difficult one.”
That settled that. We finished up our dinner, and went out in the dark to Marcos’s Toyota Land Cruiser, out of which we sketchily copied his GPS waypoints in the manner of an illicit drug deal. Without much prompting, he also offered to drop 40 litres of fuel for us at the park ranger station. What a guy.
The next day, Tibet and I found a mechanic to fix various ailments on our bikes, while Alex went out and procured 40 litres of jerry cans, filled them with gasoline, poorly secured them onto his bike, and dropped them all over the road while riding around the town. Eventually, we met up with Marcos, handed over the gasoline, packed up the bikes, and headed for the desert. The adventure began.
The intercom crackles to life, and Alex’s concerned voice is transmitted to my helmet. “I think this is our left, guys.”
We look out over the sea of rocks, carved up by a few 4×4 tracks. “Are you sure?”
“The GPS waypoint is right here, and that looks like a pass between the hills.”
The sun is setting. “We probably have twenty minutes before it’s pitch black.”
“Well we’d better get moving then, haven’t we?”
Predictably, within twenty minutes, it’s pitch black. Unpredictably, we discover that Tibet’s headlight has almost completely stopped working. Tires skidding over the loose rocks, fighting to keep the bikes upright, we navigate the famously difficult Toom-Toom Pass by the light of the moon. The three amigos, once again nailing it in their inimitable style.
An hour later, and the Toom-Toom Pass is well behind us. The moonlit landscape is being traversed via deep 4×4 ruts in the sand and the outlines of massive peaks in the distance prompt us to speculate that we’re missing some spectacular scenery. Temperatures are plummeting — our altitude is above 4,000 meters. We cross another pass, round a bend, and a lake opens up in front of us. Alex wants to continue, but I and headlightless Tibet disagree, and it is thus agreed to set up camp for the night. Those instant noodles aren’t going to eat themselves.
Ordinarily, when one purchases camping equipment, one tests it out before ascending to the Andean Altiplano and expecting it to keep one alive overnight. Having had all of my camping equipment stolen a week ago and been forced to purchase an entire new set of gear at a mall in Chile, I had not had that luxury. I proceed to set up my shelter with the trepidation that comes with the knowledge that my life is completely in the care of a few pieces of equipment that I’d never tested, whose brand I’d never heard of and whose names produce very few relevant results when searched on the internet.
“Think the salt lake will moderate the temperatures overnight?”
“If I start dying of cold, can I come and snuggle up in one of your guys’ tents?”
And with that, we bid each other good night.
I wake up before dawn, surprisingly warm and relieved to be alive. I grab the camera and leave the tent. Everything outside — the salt lake, the water bottles, all of my contact lenses — is either covered in ice or frozen solid. My Camelbak, kept inside the tent, has also frozen. A night on the Altiplano is not something to be taken lightly.
The other two get up eventually, and we compare notes over a breakfast of crackers and jam. Against all odds, it’s determined that my Chilean gear has kept me the warmest of the three — Alex woke up with ice on top of his sleeping bag! For anyone in a similar pickle, I can now confidently recommend the Doite T. Norgay 1 tent, and the Doite Fusion 600 sleeping bag.
When riding in sand, one expects the wheels to occasionally slide around. This, among other things, makes riding in sand difficult — and the softer the sand, the harder it is to maintain control. The addition of hundreds of ruts, carved by the passage of tourist-bearing 4x4s, adds an additional dimension to the complexity — if the bike initiates a slide while trapped in a rut, the front wheel digs into the sandy wall. Only a combination of quick reactions, a burst of throttle and the grace of the Adventure Motorcycling Gods can prevent the bike from flipping and ejecting its rider into the air. The sand is a lot less soft when you’re thrown onto it.
The morning treats us to the softest, ruttiest sand I’d ever experienced. We all crash our bikes.
The bikes hit the ground so many times that we lose count of how many times we have to pick them up. At this altitude, it’s a two-man job, followed by a short breathing break and the bonus challenge of starting the bikes in the sand. The bikes are so down on power up here that the slightest bit of sand under the wheels is enough to bog down the rear wheel and stall the engine. Wheelspin is a problem we wish we had to deal with. Trial and error teaches us the only way to start — waddling forward while pushing the bikes with all our might, revving high, and slipping the clutch enough to almost guarantee their rapid demise. Progress is slow and the only thing preventing the moods from souring is the view. The shockingly beautiful view.
Eventually, it’s been a while since I’ve crashed and my velocity has increased with my confidence. Just as my internal monologue has started to really sing my praises, the front wheel digs into the wall of a rut, I fail to save it and the bike flies onto its side. A routine crash, except for the landing — my aluminium pannier lands directly on my leg, thus violently throwing the couple hundred kilos of bike and luggage against my bone. I hear a loud crack and fear the worst, but the Adventure Motorcycling Gods have granted me a small bit of fortune — my steel luggage rack has broken instead of my leg. Alex helps me pick up the bike, the rack is reinforced with zip ties and we keep going.
Un-keen to repeat the experience, I develop a new technique for dealing with the sea of parallel ruts — pick a direction, left or right, and then work your way to that side of the sea by crossing the ruts at a 45 degree angle. As the front end rises on the crests and crashes into the troughs while the entire bike slides around in the sand, it feels more like sailing than motorcycling. After a few hundred meters of lateral movement across the ruts, pure soft virgin sand is reached. The bike wants to sink into the sand, so maximum throttle must be applied at all times, and without any ruts to guide the wheels, the rear is constantly sliding left and right. Crucially, however, provided that the major rocks and clumps of camel grass are avoided, there’s plenty of room to slide with confidence and control. Before long, my mood has done a 180, I’m narrating my manoeuvres over the intercom by referring to myself as “Drift King”, and the other two join me out in the unblemished sand.
We spread out over the expanse, gleefully carving our individual paths through the deserted landscape, converging occasionally to tackle the intermittent rocky pass.
“How’s everyone doing back there?” asks Tibet, as the team attempts to cross a particularly difficult one.
“Nailing it!” I pant back, struggling to remain upright as my wheels spin and skid laterally, absorbing massive bumps, pinning the throttle and praying that my bike has the power to make it up the hill.
Thirty seconds later, the pass has been traversed.
“Piece of piss”, I report.
“Me nailgun’s running out of nails!” responds Alex.
It was a good day. Some highlights:
- Meeting Damien, a French cyclist on his second traverse of the desert. We stopped to give him a litre of water and he told us how he was about to have to push his bike through 50 kilometres of sand. Crazy man.
- Arriving at Laguna Colorada in the early evening to find that Marcos has successfully delivered our gasoline to the park ranger’s station, and instructed the rangers to pass it on to the three scruffy bearded motorcyclists.
- Finding a hostel, checking in, and becoming the life of the party as we regaled the other guests with tales of our travels.
The next day was even better. Freed from the danger of the ruts, we were able to take our time, floating through the landscape, admiring the flamingos in the lagoons and being awestruck by the the surreal alien ranges. Never in my life had I seen such boldly, unapologetically coloured works of nature.
We lunched next to a hot spring and took a long, relaxing dip to help treat our sore, bruised muscles. Then, back on the road — to the Desierto Salvador Dali, naming inspired by the landscapes of the surrealist artist. We were forced to pull over for a while just to stare out in silence at the final pass of the day, winding through the layers of red, orange, yellow and white.
After the pass, Laguna Verde appeared, along with a lengthy debate about which route we should take around it. Tibet favoured the more difficult route, correctly reasoning that the angle of the sun would wash the green out of any photos we took on the direct route. Alex and I voted for the direct route, pointing out that our day of dawdling, swimming and admiring views had put our plan to cross the Chilean border that day in serious jeopardy. Democracy won, and all of our photos of the lake ended up predictably washed out. We did, however, make it to the border before it closed, albeit late enough to be chided by the lazy Chilean customs agent for arriving at such a ridiculous hour (approximately 6PM).
Having myself motorcycled from San Francisco to Chile over the past 6 months, I’ve seen some incredibly beautiful sights. Those three days in Bolivia with Alex and Tibet, however — riding, struggling, from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama, were in a league of their own. It was a true trip of extremes — extreme cold, extreme UVs, extreme difficulty, extreme beauty — that I will remember for the rest of my life.