Friday, January 19, 2007

Bolivia, Bolivia, have ye any roads?

Last night we filled up the bikes and the spare 10L plastic canisters I'd bought in anticipation of the lack of fuel during the first stretch of Bolivia. Naturally the spare cannisters turned out not to be exactly fuel-proof and started leaking over my back seat. This meant we had to carry them inside our panniers which required a bit of reorganising the luggage to fit them in. We had planned to get away sharp the next morning however my bike decided to throw a fuel leak of its own and meant I had to quickly pull off my luggage and the tank. It turned out to be coming from the tank's overflow but there was nothing I could really do so we just got packed up and left SPDA. We took the road heading towards the Bolivian border and got to the turn off which was a dirt track. We stopped for some photos and to re-check the luggage when we noticed a rather large oil leak coming from Michelles KLR. After a quick look, we found the source of the problem. As we were putting the bike back together in the dark last night, we must have forgotten to tighten the cam chain tensioner and oil was now pouring out-oops. So much for that early start then.

After very little Zen and the second bit of Motorcycle Maintenance that morning, we resumed our route towards the border which turned out to be a few buildings in the middle of nowhere. All the jeep tours stop here and after bumping into our dutch friends from the hostel again and getting our passports stamped, we were now in Bolivia! The border guard mentioned something about an aduana, whatever that is and a fee for the national park which we had to cross to go north. The first stop was Lagua Verde, a lake in the south of the park. We set off on the track around the south of the lake which is when I started to feel the effects of altitude sickness, something I had heard would be a problem but hadn´t experienced to date. I had stomach cramps, headache and nausia in addition to being out of breath. We made it round the lake which was a rather stunning green as the name suggests and back to the park office. Michelle mentioned my ailments to a guard who gave us a bag of coca leaves which seemed to help when chewed though its a bit of an aquired taste.

The ride north, once we'd actually found the right track, was quite stunning. We rode through huge wide valleys, up and down hills and past lagunas filled with pink flamingoes though the bastards never sit still long enough for me to get a decent photo of them. The weather was interesting too, as lightening storms were clearly visible in the distance although somehow we managed to stay dry. Later in the day, we were coming down a hillside where we could see Lago Colorado, a place where were had been told we could camp by the german couple we'd met who'd been all over Bolivia.

At the bottom of the hill, the track split up in to dozens of tracks and ran westwards along the southern side of the lake. We were heading for the west side of the lake which was quite some distance away and the tracks were proving to be harder than we thought, we were only managing 10mph in first with both feet on the ground. Michelle´s bike went over a few times but luckily nothing too serious, it was just really hard work as our bikes are just so heavy. Deep sand and gravel tracks were the order of the day, which have been carved by the tour jeeps, though there is no particular route, they just criss-cross over a huge area. Bolivia, it should be rememberd, has approximately only 5% paved roads. Somehow, about 8pm, we made it to where the jeeps were heading, a ramshackle collection of single storey buildings on the west side of the lake and lo and behold, we bumped into Andreas and Kristina, our German pals on the Africa Twin. There was a huge sense of relief when we discovered there was a hostal of sorts and we could share their dorm. The place was run by a group of women all dressed in the traditional Bolivian outfit of colourful fabrics and for reasons only known to them, bowler hats several sizes too small. It turned out that dinner was included, so rather than having to get our stove out, we were presented with tasty soup and spag bol- landing on our feet again!

That night though, I found I woke around 2 or 3am with the feeling that I was suffocating. I felt I could hardly breathe and it turned out I wasn´t alone. Andreas was also suffering altitude sickness but after a couple of strong American painkillers, I managed to get back to sleep.

The following day, after a quite frankly poor breakfast of powdered nescafe and dry bread, the four of us set off for Villa Arica, a small town about halfway to Uyuni. And it took 2.5hours to cover just 24 miles as we could only travel in first gear with both feet on the ground. Christ it was hard work as it was our favorite mix of deep sand and gravel and for the first time, I saw Andreas drop his bike, something that anoyingly doesn´t happen as often as we drop ours! The scenery was great again though and we stopped fro lunch by a remote rocky outcrop which turned out to be covered in loo roll as the jeeps seem to stop here for breaks. We asked one of the drivers the route which seemed to correspond to track on my GPS so we headed onwards.

At some point in the afternoon, it started to sleat and hail so I stopped to pull out my thermal jacket lining and winter gloves but got soaked in the process as there was no shelter anywhere. My tee-shirt got wet as did my jacket and lining while my hands became so cold I couldn´t do up my helmet strap. Cold and wet, I proceeded to follow the track. I won´t bore you with the details but this was the second time in my life I´ve come close to getting hypothermia on a bike. The last time was when me and my mate James took an ill-prepared trip up the Alps and our non-waterproof gear got totally soaked at 2500m. This time, we had rain, sleat, hail, thunder and rather close fork lightening at 4700m- turned out nice again eh?

At the top of one of the hills, I was shivering waiting for Michelle who was behind me when a jeep full of warm tourists stopped next to me. The tourists jumped out and started taking photos of me and giving me the thumbs up. One was standing in front of me when Michelle caught up so I just revved the bike and rode straight at him and he had to jump out the way. I wasn´t really in the mood you understand.

Somehow, the track eventually ran alongside the ´main road´which we had to cross a gap in a dilapidated stone wall to get to. It was pretty good compacted gravel and the sign said only 25kms to Villa Alota- I was off like a shot. I somehow managed to get there about 20 minutes before the others and got some accommodation sorted out with a much needed hot shower.

The next moring, I found out the old woman who ran the hostal had some gas (sorry, I´m starting to sound American) for sale. So my morning started with a quick suck on a clear plastic pipe to syphon 15L of questionable quality fuel from one dirty container to a couple of smaller dirty containers. We paid 25BS per 5 Litres each, a bit higher than the gas stations but then there aren´t too many of those to choose from up here. So after a bit of breakfast at the hostal, we headed off for a fairly uneventful, if somewhat corregated ride to Uyuni.

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