Upon registering Pearl’s mileage clock 10,000 miles, without conscious volition I stopped seeing our trip as an extended holiday. This had now become a way of life for us. The honeymoon period wasn’t altogether over, it was simply the start of a new chapter having learnt the basic ropes of two wheeled travel. Namely journeying into the unknown and coping with all its capricious twists and turns – coming out the other end all the richer for it.
So far, South America was adorned by many pleasurable experiences mingled with the odd misadventure thrown in for good measure. We were able to carry all we needed on the back of two motorcycles, which wonderfully excluded all those unnecessary societal burdens. I’m done with those. My new mantra naturally emerged: to wring out as much fun from life in the most gutsy, earthy, rollicking, lip-licking way. Philosopher Alan Watts said exactly that – let go and be hung up on nothing and I would add, by nobody. We felt free.
The 50 mile ride from San Pedro de Atacama took us north longitudinally in ascent to the Antofagasta region. The sky was an animated arrangement of clouds straight from an episode opening of The Simpsons. En route to El Tatio, we were ungrudgingly slowed by a herd of goats consuming the width of the road. Watching the mature ones amble and kids toddling along bum-to-bum, my heart went out to commuters back home in murderous bumper-to-bumper traffic. Straggling behind a frisky band of bearded goats was my kind of traffic jam.
In eventually skirting around the herd we blasted through our first ford; my lower half got drenched. The splash Pearl and I had created soaked my legs trickling into the top my boots. Over-zealous sprays and wet feet forgotten, we were favoured with clusters of vicuña dotted on the mountainous plains – a wild relative of the llama, supposedly valued for its fine silky wool. Like the llama, vicuña are a lot less skittish than the similar looking but larger guanaco. It gave us a moment to marvel at them in the altiplano Andean pastures against a brilliant blue sky backdrop.
Pearl may’ve been crying out for some much needed attention but with everything else going on around me, I’d neglected to notice that a battery connection had become loose. I spent the remaining four miles towards our destination in anxiety of presaging disaster. Cue the rider involuntarily lurching and spotting someone’s resistance to ride, Pearl was not a happy soul. Ordinarily, I would have sought instant roadside assistance from my marvellous mechanic, Jason, only arm’s length away at my constant beck and call. But with only four miles to go, I gently and slowly coaxed Pearl over the day’s most unforgiving stretch of the coarsest corrugations, relentless ruts and up hill sandy struggles. She neither thanked me nor denied me; Pearl was forever my perfect riding companion. I owed everything to her and of course Jason’s prerequisite knowledge of what makes Pearl tick.
Back at serious elevation we rocked up at El Tatio, a geothermic basin. Pearl had out-performed herself on the high tableland’s tough terrain. Jason rapidly remedied her ailments giving us both peace of mind. Trying my utmost to shun the fatigue, dodge the dizziness and other bothersome symptoms of altitude, we surveyed our surroundings. “Oh look!” I said, pointing to four grey foxes advancing on reddish legs that were long staring at us if not any potential meals at hand. We were in geyser seventh heaven, thanks to the frozen underground rivers making contact with sizzling hot rocks.
I tentatively asked a member of the Tatio Mallku Society whose job it was to administer the natural heritage – a woman in charge of patrolling the activity around such fragile ground – if we might sleep in her stone floored office. She responded warmly by offering to accommodate our request for a negligible fee. This lady was in the winter of her days, she seemed obliging so I also inquired if there might be a hot shower nearby. She smiled knowingly, pointed a mile down the hill and kindly explained, “There is hot spring.” I laughed heartily at the self-evidence all around me and mentally applauded the utilisation of natural resources. Without toiletries in tow, we headed straight there for a cat lick and dip. By late afternoon, the ambient temperature had to be in single figures but what the heck, the pool was steaming away at a ‘Come to daddy’ 40 degrees Celsius.
Before reaching the hot spring, we took the time to recce the place. Fumaroles bubbled all over the geyser field, plumes of scalding hot water gushed upwards and arresting towers of steam rose from the rocks making a spectacular sight. Especially so, as we watchfully weaved through on the bikes. Towers of boiling steam were intensely striking early morning at the crack of sparrows, contrasting with the air temperature of -12 degrees and shrouding Jason amongst a sea of other bodies in an eggy stench of fetid vapours. I was content to give that one a miss despite being well-informed that typical temperatures started at around -20 first thing. Lucky Jason! At 4,320 metres above sea level, we were gazing on the world’s highest geysers. I had forgotten to bring my ‘boil in the bag’ rice, I’d just have to plunge myself in instead.
By dusk tourists were disappearing leaving the hot spring serenely still, just for us. My heart was racing and I found it difficult to slow my resting pulse; acclimatisation was strenuous work-in-progress I mused. My mind for some reason was behaving like a monkey, jabbering up and down continuously. Mindful? I’d had a gutful of my mind, it was all but at boiling point. The hot spring soothed and settled me. Its hot surface water caressed my neck, my body remained lukewarm below the waterline but once my toes gently disturbed the sand on the bottom, it got ‘feet hopping’ hot again. It stopped the compulsive musings compounded by the head-banging at elevation and emptied all thought from the hinterland of my mind. In leaving the 300 circus rings of my mental faculty alone, it quietened itself – like the tourist turbulent muddy pool upon our arrival; when left undisturbed sooner or later stopped rippling.
Clocks used to rule my weekdays; I couldn’t remember when I last possessed a sharp sense of time. As we reluctantly peeled out from the hot spring, our exit rudely brought home where we were: in desert-dropping temperatures post the last smile of sunset. I’d taken two minutes to dress that was two minutes too long. The hot aches in my hands came on with a vengeance – I never knew blood being beckoned back to one’s fingers could be such agony. My world vanished in a red roar of pain. On came that inexplicable feminine ability to produce tears without appearing to cry, face fixed in a frown. Ouch! The night was growing perilously cold and in a cloudless sky, a full moon floated fat and white as a snowball. After a fitful sleep the sun started to rise, it was good to see the light summoning the day from the dragging darkness of the night.
I surfaced like a bear roused from hibernation, lethargically coming out of my cocoon. Our one day sojourn in El Tatio extended into an unplanned second day. The afternoon saw us race back toward the geysers; there were over 500 of the thermal manifestations. A lot of them boiling away at 86 degrees Celsius, less than a kettle’s boiling point at sea level due to the altitude. How the bacteria survives in such scorching waters, I’ll never know. We stuck our fingers in as many bubbling mud pools, perpetual spouters, steamy waterholes and hot springs as we dared. With the Andean gulls soaring and not a soul in sight, Jason boldly sneaked a skinny dip as we basked in another tranquil bathe together.
Carelessly, we’d almost run our provisions dry. As I was about to prepare our only evening meal of porridge and powdered milk – making a mental note to restock the ‘rainy day’ dry shelf goods – the lady whose stone cold office we were camping out in, mercifully took pity on us. She urgently ushered me towards the staff kitchen with her arm sympathetically around my shoulder. Hoping she couldn’t hear my stomach growl, she gave us a simple square meal. After a 20 hour fast, it had to be about the tastiest spaghetti and sauce with a pannier-bruised avocado we’d ever chowed down. A befitting depiction of our two day stopover in El Tatio? A toe-tingling sizzler!