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April 22, 2005
Jody writes:

See our Salar de Uyuni pictures.

Amy and I left the Chilean desert town of San Pedro a week ago to catch what I'd dubbed The Gringo Bus. It was the only English-speaking Bolivian salt lake tour and carried 13 people - unlike the Land Rover tours that crammed six people in. The main reason we chose the gringo bus was because it was the only tour that carried oxygen to help counter altitude sickness. Little did we know how much we'd need it.

"We climb from 2,800metres to 4,500metres in one hour," our driver warned in Spanish. The acceptable safe level of ascent is only 300metres per day. If we were going to get sick then we'd surely know about it pretty fast.

The Bolivia border control was effortless, despite warnings from our guidebook. "Border officials are likely to give smartly dressed travellers an easier passage," it advised. Are jeans acceptable, I thought. Should I wear a tie? Perhaps I looked particularly dapper that day because the officers couldn't have been friendlier, singing 'Royal Britannia' when one noticed my British passport.

Upon reaching 4,500metres, I jumped off the bus for breakfast, momentarilly losing my balance as the first signs of a lack of oxygen kicked in. I chugged down three cups of coca tea (the local remedy for altitude problems) and felt fine for the rest of the day up until we visited some geysers at 5,000metres. It was nothing special so I bounded back on the bus... and then it hit me. I felt breathless and sick and was given oxygen to pick me up again. What followed was pure hell until we reached a lower altitude the next day.

When we booked the trip we were warned that two out of every 10 people become seriously ill at altitude. Well that was Amy and me.

Arriving at camp, 4,300metres up, I went straight to bed. Amy was feeling ok, so she went for a walk around a lake. Bad idea! She launched her leg straight through the salty crust of the lake and upon return, exhausted herself trying to dry her boot. That's the strange thing about being at a high altitude - even the simplest task becomes a tiring trial.

Our night was spent gasping for breath, taking the occasional blast of oxygen and - as for Amy - spitting sick into a plastic bag. We were lucky that an Australian doctor we met in San Pedro called Kalpna was travelling with us on the tour. Amy dragged her out of bed at 2am when I couldn't sleep because my heart was racing so fast. We were also shivering from the bitter cold - the Andes aren't known as a hot destination.

Several hours later, I dropped off to sleep, dreaming of how nice it would be to beam ourselves back to a Thai beach - fresh sea air and baking sunshine. I hoped we'd fair better at a lower altitude the next day.

Amy writes:

Unfortunately, the second day also passed in a bit of a blur.

At least the guide didn't lie to us. "We still have to go up a little way, then we go down to 3700m and we stay at that", she announced as we dragged ourselves onto the bus that morning.

What we didn't know until later, was that the 'little way' was back up to 5,000metres although that didn't really matter at the time. We were so weak, we took it in turns to get off the bus to take pictures.

At one point, at the famous 'stone tree', Jody got back on the bus and then five minutes later, couldn't remember having got off and had to check the pictures on the camera for proof! See? It really was that bad...

Thankfully by the third day - the climax of our trip and the highlight as we reached the 'Salar de Uyuni' - we were both feeling more human again. Jody was even talking and the others had stopped refering to us as 'the sick group'.

The Salar de Uyuni is a 10,000km square lake of salt. It's not a lake in the conventional sense of the word, you'd have to dig down through six metres of salt to find water.

When we drove through it, water on parts of the thick salt crust surface was ankle-deep, proven by our group's insistance to paddle barefoot. It was like treading on ice! And the salt crust was painfully hard to walk on. I thought the others were exagerating as I struggled to get out of my boots but then I felt my toes start to freeze. Yelling threats at Jody to hurry up and take the bloody picture, the only reason you can't see the pain on my face is because we had to wear sunglasses to counter what is known as 'salt blindness'.

It is unbelievably bright, harsher in some respects than staring at the sun but what a view! A brilliant white plain as far as the eye can see, with snow-capped mountains on the horizon. Half an hour's drive in, another weird spectacle. An island, full of cacti suddenly comes into view. Fish Island, as it is known, is an oasis in the desert. We puffed our way up to the top of it (the altitude making it's appearence felt for the final time) to survey the view. No-one really knows why cacti grow there but they are giant! Some of the cacti are thought to be over 1,000 years old and still growing.

Later, we got some time to run about on the salt and noticed the vast numbers of people taking their clothes off for naked or near-naked photos! Still not sure what that was all about but a group of topless girls did get a lot of attention. Jody and I thankfully kept our clothes on.

On the way out, we visited a hotel made of salt where we were forced to buy over-priced chocolate on the door to gain entrance. A bizarre photo-op ensued of Jody lounging in various chairs/beds made of the stuff and me licking the wall. I know that salt is bad for you, but when surrounded by miles of the stuff, a tiny bit can't hurt.

posted at 7:10 PM | link

4 Comments:

  • Oh you poor guys. I was so ill on the trip too with grade 10 flu and altitude sickness. But it's just... about worth it because it's such a beautiful place.
    Luv
    Emily
    X

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:55 PM  

  • Wow, I see I've missed a heck of alot.
    It seems to be up and down on the coolness of the place with you guys rofl...
    Amy, LOVE your hair dark!

    I'm so sorry I've missed so much - been real busy... never online lol.

    That salt plain just looks like thick snow... it's totally metal!

    Stay safe, love u guys!
    Yes jody, love u too :p *mwah* rofl.
    Ciao x

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Jody and Amy have finished their 10 month adventure around the world, that began Nov 2, 2004, and ended Sep 2, 2005. They're back home in London now, doing normal things, like going to work and drinking tap water. You can see a map of what was their planned route, but we didn't quite follow it.
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