The White Nothingness

Date: 4th October – 8th October 2012

Where: Uyuni – Isla Incahuasi camp – Colcha K – San Juan

Distance: 5530 to 5652 miles

When we arrive in Uyuni we make a bigger list than normal of things to do before leaving for the twelve days of relative isolation. Bikes are cleaned, things are fixed, contraptions made, panniers patched up, yet more photo DVDs are posted and an awful lot of food is bought. The only thing we fail to do is clean inside Geoff’s camera, hence a lot of these photos in this blog appear panoramic…really, they are cropped to remove the rogue hair that sneaked inside the lens.

Some of our cycling friends from La Paz are in Uyuni as well, and we all enjoy a pizza the night before. With two of these, Emilien and Xinhan, we have agree to meet up en route and share the trials and tribulations of the desolate corner of South-West Bolivia we plan to cycle directly after the Salar.

Early the next morning, the harsh reality of dirt roads hits us. We’ve cycled all the way from Cusco in Peru, but predominantly, this has been on tarmac. A 20km sandy, washboard road tests our reflexes and bumps our bones all the way to Colchani and the turn-off for the entrance to the Salar.

Ten days of food supplies…now all we have to do is fit it on the bikes!

Ready to go, panniers bulging

Sandy hell on the road to Colchani

5km to go!

5km more and we are perched on the edge of the world’s largest salt flat. It is so flat, we can’t even see our destination for the night: the small Isla Incahuasi, 80km across the white desert. The going is smooth to begin with, but soon becomes increasingly tough as bumps and headwind increase, and daylight runs out. We see the island at last when 30km away, but don’t arrive for another three hours, by which time it is dark. Exhausted, we cook our meal and collapse into bed. In a bad attempt at comic timing, Geoff’s e-coli returns in the night. Luckily we are carrying some emergency medication just in case. Neither of us sleep much, resulting in a late start.

Entering the salt flats. The jeeps soon disappeared into the nothingness before us

Crystalline structures of salt tile the ground in places

Smooth roads with only occasional holey traps lead us ever further from normality

At last the island appears as a darker speck on the horizon

The shadows lengthen as we feel increasingly alone

Riding into the sunset, the island seems no closer

Salarian sunset

Now, we have to escape mind-blowing monotony of the Salar…and we thought Mexico’s Yucatan was flat! Neither of us are enjoying it too much, but slowly we appreciate the experience we are having and stop to take some of the obligatory bizarre photographs it is possible to create. Finally we leave the Salar via a causeway of good dirt. The story rapidly changes when it touches the mainland again as the usual suspects pop up again: headwind, sand, washboard. The road to Colcha K, where we can refill our water bottles, is long and tough. Once more we find ourselves still cycling as the sun goes down. At some point Geoff loses the Ortleib folding bucket we’ve been loving. This time there could be no return to look for it. Tonight, we finish the day by pushing our 60kg bikes in the pitch black dark, up a sandy hill and round the corner to the village, arriving at 8pm, our longest and hardest day by far. We are lucky in the town to find chicken and chips and a perfect hostal.

Geoff feeling better in the morning on Isla Incahuasi

Spot the Sarah!

Enjoying the view of white nothingness on top of Isla Incahuasi

Tracks across the Salar look like waves

Salar silliness

Leaving the Salar at last

The road to Colcha K. Three hours before sunset, and seemingly the same view three hours later!

We rise early, but spend about 3 hours thoroughly washing the bikes of all the salt. It is 10:30 by the time we leave and we go hell for leather to reach Emilien and Xinhan by noon in San Juan, 30km away. The ripio (dirt) is good at last, and we’re only an hour and a half late. They have already decided to stay the night in a reasonably priced hotel made of salt, and we cannot possibly disagree. Exhausted, we easily relax away the afternoon and evening, resting ourselves for the projected ten days of hellish riding, but beautiful scenery that awaits us South of here.

Reflecting on the Salar, we are both glad we went. It was an experience that pushed us, not just physically, but mentally, and we’re proud to have done it on bikes.

We do however have one piece of news that will keep us smiling deep inside as we head off into the mountains…we have a return date to the UK! We return to Dover on the 13th April 2013 after a sixteen day cruise from Sao Paulo in Brazil. From here we plan on cycling via Southampton and Oxford back to Stratford-on-Avon/Coventry. If anyone wishes to join us for some of this time on the bikes then let us know! We’ll be cycling pretty slow, and will post an itinerary of the route as soon as we plan it. We hope to see some of you on the road!

Which way to go? (Answer: they are all washboard hell, so take your pick!)

Alternatively, use some of the splendid maps on offer by the side of the road!

A handshake with Emilien indicates the start of a new phase of the journey

6 responses to “The White Nothingness”

  1. John Hodgkins says :

    You will deserve that cruise. At least you will arrive back clean!!!

    • Geoff says :

      It won’t take long to get dirty again I assure you! Sounds like there will be enough rain in Patagonia to make us pretty clean anyway! Thanks to you and Pam for suggesting the cruise in the first place!

  2. Phyllis Wigham says :

    Hia Both
    Such strangeness, the green fields of England will seem so different. I love reading about your experiences.
    Martin is retiring end October, we might be free to join you if the temptation of NZ fails and if two old fogies are acceptable?
    Love Phyllis and Martin

    • Geoff says :

      Hey Phyllis and Martin, of course you can come and join us. I think I may have persuaded my parents to come along too for the last few legs. Congratulations to Martin on retiring, wind down slowly, and have a great retirement!
      Will let you know when plans progress,

  3. Alison Parker says :

    Hey, keep me posted on your return plan!

    • Geoff says :

      Will do Alison…next blog post if all goes to plan (which it rarely does on this trip…got to replace my rear derailleur tomorrow!)

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