Thursday, June 30, 2011

Slam Dunk

Dry Dusty towns

We left the vast sparkly whiteness of the salt flats, destined for Oruro, a dusty brown mining town of 250 000 at 3700 m above sea level. En route, we passed through several small towns, invariably ramshackle affairs with dirt roads and earth-coloured adobe buildings in various states of decrepitude, some with a small brown town plaza but few other signs of public life and little movement or colour. Everything was the same dull grey-brown as everything else and the towns seemed almost deserted, melting into the desert that surrounded them.

We noted with surprise that the first town we passed through had a basketball court in the centre - an odd addition to a town that lacked any other discernbile services. As we drove on, town after town each presented us with a shiny new basketball court, pristine and, as far as we could tell, unused. I later pointed to one of the courts and asked a local if basketball was popular in Bolivia - it seemed odd for a nation of people who would be dwarfed by the average Australian 12 year old - he shook his head, "no", he said, "everyone plays soccer"...

Camping above the basketball court

We hit Oruro in the afternoon and it was bedlam - colourful, busy, bedlam. Pimped out minibuses with bling hanging from the mirrors trundled through, horns bleeping, while women with long black braids wearing bowler hats perched atop their heads sold all manner of items from brightly coloured blankets by the side of the road. We wound our way through the bustling town to the climbing area near the mine and ended up camping on a small exposed platform directly behind the inevitable basketball court.

We were adopted by three sisters who lived, with their ninos and their two brothers, across the road from the basketball court. They were so sweet and generous, inviting us back to their small living room afternoon after morning after afternoon, plying us with Bolivian treats and enthusiastically accepting our clumsy manglings of their native tongue - they were something special...amigas para siempre.

Oruro town

In fact, the entire under-18 population of the town embraced us, with an ever-increasing number of kids gathering around the smelly gringoes in the big red truck. Each afternoon, kids would drift up to the truck, the braver ones trying out their English and venturing to the doorway of the truck, while the timid types stood apart, jostled each other and giggled. The friendship was solidified with an intense high-altitude soccer match where a bunch of panting gringoes were trounched by a gaggle of 4 foot tall youngsters. The game was played, naturally, on the basketball court.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Salar de Uyuni

The Bolivian Salt Flats or Salar de Uyuni as they are know are a huge expanse of salt at 3600 metes above sea level. In this part of Bolivia, it's desert dry and what moisture that drains into this basen brings the salt, which builds to a depth of 120 metres. We had hired a guide to direct us accross the salt flats as there are no marked roads, only tracks leading in many directions.

We drove into the salar west of Uyuni, which we had arrived at the previous afternoon in the middle of a dust storm. The wind toyed with all the plastic rubbish lying around the town and the dust brought the visibiltiy down to 100 metres. By late afternnon the storm had blow itself out and we watched the sunset from the local train grave yard.

Most of the Salar is rock hard salt, but with some soft muddy patches around the edges. Getting on and off the Salar is the tricky bit and that's where our guide was invaluable. We drove onto the Salar where the local Bolivians are mining the salt flats for table salt. Our guide said they extract 10,000 tonnes per year. However what they take is replenished each year from the network of underground streams running under the salt flats.

We proceeded onto the salt flats proper where the horizon dropped away to pure white salt disappearing for 100km ahead of us. Racing accross the salt flats it was the smoothest ride we have had on the enitre trip. The salt is mostly dead flat, but with some sections having a hexigonal pattern. Also there are round sections where water has bubbled up from below.

We lunched on a cactus-filled island in the middle of the salt flats. With salt surrouning the island, it was like we were docking a ship where we arrived. From the crest of the island it looked like it was surrounded by the sea.

We headed north where a huge volcano marked the northern border of the salt flats. For an hour the volcano never seemed to approach as we raced over the salt. Finally we could see a thin ribbon of water glinting in the sunlight which marked the edge of the lake. The water was 100 meters wide, through which was a vague road which we needed to stay on to avoid the soft mud. We plowed through the salt water to beach the truck for the night at the base of the volcano.  
See the video for more insights.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bouldering at 4000 meters in Tuzgle Argentina Video

The climb up from the plains at 2600 meters to 4200 meters could be done in a single drive day. However we would be suffering from altitude sickness if we climbed that quickly. So we set up camp on a dusty and cold football field at 3000 meters. It must have been the coldest night we have spent so far as everything froze in our tents. Even the inside of the insulated truck had icicles dripping from windows due to the exhalations of the HotRockers who took the soft option to sleep in the truck.

The early sunshine soon had us warmed as we drove up over 4000 meters. All of the small creek crossings we passed over were frozen to some extent. As we crossed each stream, the ice would crack under the huge weight of the truck. We arrives breathess on the high plateau under the watchfull eye of the Tuzgle Volcano that climbed up another kilometer to over 5600 meters.

The camp was in a dusty canyon with a small stream running through it. Luckily this stream never froze overnight and we suspected it must be fed by a hot spring as all the other streams in the area were always frozen in the mornings, like all our water bottles.

See the video for the bouldering action in this undeveloped canyon.