Friday, 2 August 2013

Adventure Jeep Tour Across the Bolivian Altiplano: Day Two

The Lurid Lakes and Fancy Flamingos of the Altiplano

After the delicate operation of refuelling the jeep, which consisted of Julio standing on its roof and sucking on a pipe which ran from the fuel barrel into the tank, we set off into the semi-arid desert landscape of the high altiplano. Carefully crossing the railway tracks running from Uyuni to the border with Argentina, the parallel lines of which tailed away into a point far in the distance, we were soon passing brooding snow capped volcanoes in vivid shades of ochre, sulphur, vermillion, magenta and burnt sienna, picked out boldly against the deepest blue sky imaginable.

The jeep lurched this way and that to the tune of some very dubious 1980s disco music, as it sped at what seemed like breakneck speed across the dirt tracks of the Chuguana Desert. Every so often, a large rig would speed past creating a huge vortex of choking dust. Sensing our nervousness, Julio threw his head back and laughed, accelerating deliberately as if to show that he was totally in control. Doubtless he knew the terrain well, but I had seen him quietly checking one of the front tyres on more than one occasion; a blow out here did not bear thinking about…

We stopped to witness the splendour of Ollagüe, an active stratovolcano on the border with Chile, for the time being a slumbering giant emitting only small puffs of smoke and ash that drifted languidly away across an unblemished blue sky. Then onward, our jeep racing others to be the first up a rocky road leading to a plateau, where the next amazing part of the tour unfolds: a series of stunning lakes, home to some of the rarest flamingos in the world.

The first encountered is Laguna Cañapa, an unimaginably serene and beautiful spot. Here, flocks of James’ Flamingos lift their long legs gracefully as they feed on the algae contained in the shallow water, their pink bodies piercing the reflections cast by the surrounding snow crested mountains in the vivid blue water. As they lowered their heads to feed, they seemed to be kissing themselves, emitting a low cackling sound that must equate in flamingo-speak to an expression of unbridled happiness. I watched as one came into land, bearing the distinctive black feathers on the underside of its wings, before beginning a graceful dance across the water as it touched down. So tranquil was this place, I could have stayed there for hours watching these beautiful birds once thought to be extinct.

The next lake, Laguna Hedionda, lived up to its name alright, as it means ‘stinking’ in Spanish. It reeked of sulphur and the flamingos trudged heavily through the sludgy waters close to its shore. If you forget the smell and concentrate on the scenery, you won’t be disappointed as the place is picture postcard pretty. A swathe of sandy coloured ground cuts through the turquoise lake fringed by yellow reeds, behind which rise the purple-brown slopes of yet more snow-capped volcanoes.

After a hearty lunch of chicken, potato and pasta, we pressed on, passing the milky-green Laguna Honda and on to a vast, empty plain scoured by dust devils. We then ascended a rocky quebrada, following its sinuous route, at times a broad flat plain filled with deep deposits of yellow sand, at others a deep gorge surrounded by huge precariously perched boulders. Beyond lay the Desert of Sololi, a vast expanse of orange-red sand which looked for all the world like the surface of Mars, where herds of wild vicuñas graze on the sparsest of vegetation and the rocky outcrops at its extremity harbour populations of viscachas. A cross like something between a giant rodent and a rabbit, these cute furry creatures the size of a cat put on quite a display for us, hoping that Julio would throw them some bread, which he duly did.

It stands alone, the Árbol de Piedra, a bizarre rock formation rising from the surrounding sandy desert, looking for all the world like a stunted, petrified tree. A photographic treat, it was formed by the erosive action of the relentless winds that howl across the Altiplano. As we sped on, Julio inserted yet more coca leaves into his mouth, carefully nibbling each one down to the stalk before packing it between his teeth and cheek. The bag of aromatic leaves was passed between us. What the heck! I took my share of the pale green leaves and a pinch of ilucta (a substance made from the ashes of the quinoa plant that is used to break down the alkaloids in the leaves) and chewed contentedly until my tongue gave out a tingling numb sensation. In its natural form the humble coca leaf is no more harmful than coffee and has been used by the indigenous people of the Andes from time out of mind for all manner of things, including staving off altitude sickness.

Indeed, we were rising ever higher in the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa and that coca was welcome! Named after a colonel killed during the late-nineteenth century War of the Pacific in which Bolivia lost its entire coastline to Chile, an event that still collectively traumatises the nation, the reserve is doing its landlocked best to assuage that loss. There might be no Océano Pacífico, but Bolivia has the Laguna Colorada. This incredible lake which starts out blue and fades to blood red is mottled with brilliant white islands of borax, and is home to yet more flamingos: Andean, James and Chilean to be precise, pink dots that stud its mineral rich surface. The wind was bitterly cold by now and by nightfall it must have been well below freezing.

We stayed in a rather grim single storey accommodation block in a dormitory that accommodated the six of us in uncomfortable metal framed beds with thin mattresses.  After that experience, I truly understand the meaning of the words, ‘chilled to the bone’. Unable to sleep, Martin and I, dressed in our extreme mountaineering down jackets and alpaca hats, snuck outside for a look at the night sky: incredible, infinite, misty with stars, including the constellations of Scorpio and Sagittarius and the Magellanic Clouds, none of which can be seen from the northern hemisphere. Beneath this heavenly mantle, I suddenly felt very small indeed and, overwhelmed by a sense of my own mortality, I quickly turned tail for our accommodation block. 

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