Plan A: To vacate Uyuni in Bolivia via 237 miles on routes 5, 701, skirting around lagunas Pasto Grande, Capina and Colorada, through the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna, by-passing Laguna Verde to eventually cross the border into northern Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama. Why the need to re-enter Chile for the nth time? It seemed silly to venture any further north when we’d made November plans in the southern most aspect of South America again.
Appreciating that only around 10 per cent of roads are paved in Bolivia, acknowledging there is only one road rule in the country: There are no road rules as well as knowing little and less about the true road conditions, we jumped straight onto the online forums and ascertained the consensus of our desired route to be a long six-day road that was “slow-going but not technical”. I was on board with that – vamoose, lets go!
With food, fuel and water provisions seen to, we set off in the highest of spirits interlaced with a determination to ‘see it through’. Around five days allocated, lets keep the pace nice and easy. Canadian KLR rider Matt, Jason and I were happy with slow going but not technical. Sand I could do in smallish, thin-ish quantities, a little gnarly ground here and there – no problema. The morning’s ride was hard-going but we were fresh. Full of beans. We departed shortly after the sun’s first smile: encountered more sand in a greater thickness than we’d anticipated, some rocky terrain, climbed over rugged hilly sections and whether Matt’s presence influenced my riding – I guess it did – inspired me to forge ahead with increasing confidence. It was still a touch technical, for me anyway.
A culmination of my experience to date, the group dynamic of positive influence beaming my way and Pearl’s unremitting ability turned every step into an adventure. I looked upon my comfort zone from afar and observed a gulf between where I’d been the day previous and where I was now, flying through space over thick sand! I didn’t want to overthink it, I’d painfully recoil to ‘Captain Slow’ status if I did. Jason remarked how amazingly well I was doing, told me “I am so proud of you right now Lisa, you are just getting on with it and this is not easy, not even for me!” I let the glory of victory consume Pearl and part of me in that moment. Every nerve in my body demanded that I rise and charge headlong over the sand; I blinked sweat out of my eyes and freed some more potential from Pearl. We’d always set out for an adventure – this was an adventure and a half. Immense even.
Inside a morning, I’d endured three spectacular crashes in the sand; banged my head twice and bashed my wrist into Pearl’s handlebar. I was barging past my limits with a hungry gusto to prove I could ride better than ever, pushing my luck in the bargain. Back soaked with sweat, water beaded on my skin before trickling down the lines of pain. I was left with a thumping headache, throbbing wrist and a pair of pumped forearms. If not altogether unscathed I was in one piece at least, could ride on although my energy reserves nosedived soon after a late lunch. We were getting sand dunes more than we bargained for – beach size. I looked at what lay ahead with a simmering loathing – unridable sand burying our wheel arches a foot deep in the unforgiving stuff. What was just about doable in the morning, with fatigue setting in post three crashes up at considerable altitude, our adventure started to turn sour. Did it cross anyone’s radar to turn back at that point? Sadly no, we had come too far and had tipped the point of no return. Time to implement an unscheduled Plan B.
Clinging onto scraps of strength combined with a fear of really hurting myself in a remote place was like a serpent forever coiling and uncoiling inside me – forever striking, biting and filling my insides with poison. That, coupled with spasmodic thoughts of mortality compelled a stubbornness to manifest itself that refused to play any further part in martyrdom. I became ridiculously ‘risk averse’ and lost every shred of confidence in the process. With waning physical power to hand, I entered an irreversible state of task-loaded tiredness. My fill of crashes and the wrench of dragging Pearl through sand at over 4,500 metres simply blocked any further incentive to get up on my foot pegs, only – in my mind’s eye – to then royally ‘lose it’ at some point from the aforementioned variables at play, and twist, sprain or break something. I was making life very onerous for myself at such agonisingly slow speed but my pain threshold could take no more. The strain had begun to seep into my neck, shoulders and back, legs, forearms and fingers. I was reluctantly pressed on by two men, stronger than me – what else could we do?
Despite the hours of back-breaking tribulation afflicted by the sand, I should have felt euphoria upon descending the The Stone Tree. Exhaustion, however, marred any potential euphoric feeling and consequently the beauty of The Stone Tree. My breathing was rapid and hard, my heartbeat pulsing in my ears. An awareness of where I was, was not altogether lost on me but it was acutely difficult to appreciate the moment. Physical suffering outweighed any accomplishment in reaching what lay before us. The effort we’d sustained was like quarrying stone beneath a blazing sun, hour after hour just to see another lump of stone shaped like a tree. I was so tired, it just hurt. It was easier to sit down, feign a small smile and think no thoughts in the shade. Revelation wasn’t always fun, revelation became pain. I closed my eyes – plagued by an aching hollowness, the lingering living nightmare and bruise of regret. The day was far from over.
A new surge of fear drove me forward; up at 4,500 metres what if we were headed into a survival situation? Borne out of worry, Jason shot me looks that bordered on the murderous, his calls down the helmet’s intercom like thunder over a distant and baron land. Under stress and strain and deadline, the harsh bite of his words stung me, “Come on Lisa, I need you to come on! Plea-se Lisa. JUST COME ON! NOW! NOWW!” My acid-laced response might have been the droning of insects for all the attention he paid.
A burning sensation lay heavily in my gut, “NO! I CAN’T! Please, leave me alone!” I bristled. Engulfed in heavy fatigue edged me closer towards falling into an abyss of total inactivity. I bit my lip, a sinking sensation folding around my hammering heart and under dire duress kept going. Ul-tra slowly. Sighing wearily without relief, I rode on sand like it was the first day of my riding career. No skill, no clue, no courage. Not a car, building or person for miles. Nothing had prepared me for this battle with my body that washed through me atop of my mental anguish. I felt as harangued as I did haunted by the situation but dug deeper than ever before to keep a hair’s breadth inside the group dynamic’s request of ‘carrying on’. Resuming the riding took every personal resource and all the internal grit I could muster. Just where in seven hells do you two stubborn buggers want to reach before the black of night will consume us whole? The sky like my mood was darkening deeply.
Matt’s military experience kicked in flawlessly. His eyes still gleamed with brightness and danced with an internal light. He compelled me to remember the feeling I’d harnessed so well from the morning, flying over the sand like a hovercraft on water. Must you be so cursedly pragmatic, man? I knew he wasn’t going to give up lightly and wanted desperately to kill some more clock on the move. Although Matt puissantly persuaded me otherwise, I was still remiss not to have demanded we stop sooner; my continued silence and the chert-hard look in my eyes indicated I was anything but placated. His thoughtful blue eyes were taking the measure of my own despite his heartfelt attempt at ameliorating my situation. I pursed my lips, biting off the harsh comments leaping to my lips.
It was as though my soul was twining around itself, frightened, frozen in place – trying to sort my churning emotions. I felt as impotent as a brick and watched on with a kind of mute horror. I just hung there on a precipice of indecision, knotting my mind around the problem. I ground the heels of my palms into my eyes, twisting them to scrub traitorous tears from my face as they dripped in liquid misery. My ears burned with self-humiliation.
With frown lines that had begun to eat into my forehead, I asked plaintively, “How much further, Matt? I CAN’T carry on much longer.”
“Just to the lake, over there – you can see it – it’s not far, at all. I promise.”
My eyes narrowed, “Mmmn”, I said in a breathy exhale and the smallest of sand churned in my wake. I could see Laguna Colorada but perceptions were dangerous without anything in sight for scale. My expectations had been mismanaged all afternoon, wavering on the receiving end of “Lisa, the road really improves up here, it goes to gravel and rock again. Come on, just a bit further…” Yes, for about a tenth of a mile then we’ll be back to bike-swallowing sand. This endeavour was too wearing on my thinly frayed hopes – I all but collapsed in a heap. I was beyond use to anyone or anything.
Eight senseless miles on and from the north blew a bitter wind that sucked the heat from our bones, sending it whimpering away toward the lake. Fighting against some group deliberation, we finally stopped with 20 minutes of rapidly fading light. Fortuitous as it was. Blackness soon entered as a trespasser, unwanted and unwelcome. The stars – always unassuming and consistent in their stance – wove patterns of white across the midnight black sky, while a sliver of moon hung just above the eastern horizon. Wind howled over each of us, poking cold fingers through any traces of exposed skin.
We erected the tent in pitch, clawing at the black belly of the night. I consumed a cold meal, pushing food past my teeth with no appetite whatsoever and by 9pm, every muscle in my body vibrated like a stretched cord. The darkness gulped me down. The wind made a rustling whistle as it blew around our fabric and pegged saviour, clamped down by sizeable rocks for support. Gusts shook the tent, shaking the outer-walls roughly. It wasn’t a night to be out. Temperatures dropped to around -10 degrees Celsius. Reports later revealed that it was closer to -22 that night and I believed it. Matt had no camping gear so as honorable Brits, Jason and I helped to layer the lad with every spare item of clothing available and ungrudgingly ‘spooned’ our new friend with all the body warmth we had.
Ghostly fingers of breeze stirred the awakening morning air. By sunrise a crude layer of ice had formed on the inner tent roof and sides of the porch area. We awoke all puffing white and as the condensation with our body heat started to warm, droplets began to rain down on us inside the tent. All our consumables were frozen solid. After a sluggish start over a gloopy can of peaches and claggy can of sardines, the day proved to be another ludicrously long one; bodies already worn out from the day before. Admittedly, the riding was not quite as treacherous. We had planned as many days it required to ride us out of the nightmare, endured oodles of aggravating sand but a slightly higher concentration of ripio – loose gravel made the never-ending journey a trifle more tolerable. The smallest boon at least. After detouring to the migration and customs offices tucked off the beaten track in Bolivia – miraculously – we legally made our way into San Pedro de Atacama by evening fall. We three were royally ruined.
Was our two-wheeled slog worth the route we took to take in a few pretty lakes and The Stone Tree? Sadly and honestly, no. I agreed with Jason that had the terrain been half as challenging, we would not have taken it. Minus Matt, we would have long turned back; the prolonged paved road via Potosi should have won over but without the luxury of hindsight, we did what we all thought best at the time. Leagues beyond my skill level, I was as swollen as I was spent, felt utterly broken and bruised. Wow, what a way to go!
Two days later, we’d caught up on some restorative sleep, allowed our bodies to engage in the healing process and refuelled with many riojas and a few feasts. It never takes long to bounce back and we still smile incredulously as to what we did. Thank goodness for the power of a third person because on our own, I would not have fared half as well for even half as long. I owed Matt a world of debt or a world of pain…I can’t decide. Either way, I could only wonder if the peoples’ descriptions of the road conditions on the forums had been accurate; probably if at the time of their travel the tracks had been freshly graded. I, however, would forever put Bolivia’s 701 section heading to northern Chile into black repute.
Our intensely short stint in Bolivia had been blindingly beautiful to brutal. A contrast that could not have been starker. A terrific whirl of emotions – joy at our success, shocking amazement at what we’d endured as a trio and pride in Pearl – swirled within me like mixing floodwaters. I erred on the side of wistful but still allowed myself to smile with an oily satisfaction.