Watching the YouTube film of my Latin American trip opened the floodgates again.
There are still so many moments that remain clearly imprinted on my memory, almost forty years later: sailing to the Galapagos Islands on a cargo steamer, driving down out of the Andes into Amazonia in the rainy season, trying to change money in a Santiago back street a few months before the fall of the Allende government, being arrested in La Paz, hitching a lift with an opera-singing Peruvian madman, being handed a loaded revolver in a car in Guatemala and so on.
Much of our itinerary (though not all of what happened on it) is now routine for a gap year traveller, but it certainly wasn’t then, in 1973. We felt like the first European tourists ever to have set foot in some of the places where we ended up. The means of transport, rugged three-ton ex-army trucks, had a lot to do with it and never more so than when we crossed over from Chile into Bolivia. There are a couple of minutes on the film of what followed, but that really doesn’t begin to do justice to the experience.
The border was at a breathless 11,000 feet above sea-level, somewhere inland from Antofagasta, a town where it never rains, at the northern end of the Chilean Atacama desert. The Chilean side of the border crossing was manned but not the Bolivian side. We had to find our way to the town of Uyuni, we were told, where we would get our passports stamped. This proved a lot less easy than it sounded.
At the border the metalled surface stopped abruptly. Beyond, a railway line and a tracery of vague dirt tracks disappeared into the distance, but there was nothing in the arid, mountainous landscape remotely resembling a road. The only map we’d managed to get hold of was Russian, I don’t know why. Uyuni was marked on it, but it was over 100 miles distant, there was what looked like a vast lake in the way, and there were no discernible features either on the map or in the landscape by which we could navigate.
It took us two days to get there – two days of driving sometimes in circles, sometimes through dusty baked-mud villages that from a distance resembled clumps of large boulders, sometimes through swamps of mud or sand, but mostly through the absolute emptiness of the altiplano, the high-altitude plateau of the central Andes.
On the second day we had what still rates as one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. The lake marked on the map turned out to be the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. Half the size of Yorkshire, it’s a vast expanse of milky white water, a few inches deep, lying on a thick crust of salt at 12,000 feet above sea-level.
We had picked up a local guide and had been skirting the salar for some time when, to our astonishment, he directed us out onto a short, rough causeway. We watched, hearts in mouths, as the lead truck bumped along the causeway and then down into the water. The crust did not give way. The truck rolled forward, picked up speed and we followed. Soon we were bowling along at a steady 20 miles an hour on a surface as smooth as a billiards table, the lead truck kicking up a fine salt spray that coated us from head to foot.
It took three-and-a-half hours to cross the salar, a distance of 70 miles. In the thin air the sun burned down and the sky was brilliantly blue. Around us the salt was blindingly white. After a while the hills behind us dwindled to nothing. Then the horizon started to melt as a thin haze of cloud settled and met the water, and we found ourselves gliding through a surreal, uniformly milky world in which it was impossible to determine where land ended and sky began. In the middle of this, distant shapes came to life and floated upwards. It was a huge flock of scarlet flamingos. Later, a semi-circle of volcanoes began to materialise out of the haze.
Today, trips to the Salar de Uyuni are on every off-piste travel company’s itinerary. Recent photographs show squadrons of landrovers parked at one of the weird volcanic islands that rise out of the salt. I don’t doubt that these travellers marvel at the place just as we did, but I can’t help feeling a little sorry for them, and sorrier still for the desecrated salar.
When we stumbled across it we had no idea of its existence. It seemed to us like a pristine wilderness. In 70 miles we saw nothing but a solitary man on a bicycle. We had no idea that when the causeway ended, the lead truck wouldn’t simply vanish through the crust, no idea how long it would take us to cross; and certainly no idea that we would spend the best part of three hours in this extraordinary saline limbo, literally suspended between heaven and earth. It was almost as if, for a short while, we’d left the planet.