theSALT

A piece I wrote for a storytelling competition a few months back. Unsuccessful in the competition, but I like it anyway.

thesalt-1

My lust for adventure was conceived in the summer of 2009.

I had been studying abroad in Canada, and an eager outdoors club and girlfriend were coupled with that enthusiasm which seems to amplify with every kilometre ventured out front door, away from familiarity.

The girlfriend didn’t last, however, and I found myself hitchhiking from the most easterly point in Canada to the most westerly.

On the way through the Rocky Mountains I learned of bicycle touring.

If I had known it at the time then it took a few more summers for the idea to truly blossom, years later I found myself cycling down the west coast of New Zealand and I knew that I’d found my format. I rediscovered something I’d first learned hitchhiking all those summers ago, the endless capacity of human empathy and the boundless opportunities that come from brief interactions by the side of the road – the experience was even more profound when I was on my bike. I suppose there’s something about having the capacity to move ones self, however slowly, which brings out the inner philanthropist in every person.

All this is to say I’d known what I’d wanted for years, but it took a while for me to get there.

In October 2015 I quit my job, and packed my belongings into four panniers. It was only after looking at the leftovers in a nearly vacant room that I realised my life had been heading this way for a while, the belongings left scattered about were mainly backpacks and adventure magazines, a few books. Everything else had been sold along the way to fund short lived and long remembered trips out of the city and away from Australia to do what I really wanted.

I began at the bottom of South America and battled the Patagonian winds whistling around Torres del Paine and El Chalten, I cursed as I pushed up sandy hills and lay foetal sheltered by large rocks through the afternoon, waiting for the brief respite I needed to put my tent up. I became an old hat at finding unconventional sleeping places and sought to never have to put the tent up if possible. I found abandoned houses, spooky observatories and bus stations to sleep in where I could put myself down on the floor. None of it was particularly difficult.

I hadn’t taken easy routes through Argentina and Chile, the Andes are a cruel beast on a good day, but leaving the relative comfort of the Southern countries, Bolivia readily reared an ugly head early on to show me where the balance of power lay. It was crossing the famous salt flats that the country undid me.

The route I planned was well worn in the bicycle touring community, crossing Salar de Uyuni and hoping for favourable winds for the long haul to the other side. There was no shade; actually it was more like there were 2 suns. The first beating me overhead and another cruelly delivering an uppercut reflected off the salt below. I became lost in the steady crunch of salt under wheel and the occasional tourist jeep 15 or 20 kilometre’s away that disappeared into the horizon as slowly as it appeared. Distance was incalculable. What looked near was far and if I dared believe something was far it was further. I laboured through 30 kilometre’s of sand after the great salt flat and camped in a small Aymara village before I ventured onto the smaller and less intimidating Salar de Coipasa.

Approaching the salt I met a world walker. These guys always get my full admiration, essentially doing what all the bicycle tourists are doing but with some sort of wagon to do the hauling. He had what looked like a radio flyer piled high with overflowing dry bags and sported old school aviation goggles strapped tightly to his face.

Quick advice was to skip the main track and to plow straight towards the salt as soon as I found a beaten path heading in the right direction. Ordinary people might dismiss the advice of a twitchy Frenchman with goggles, dragging a radio flyer, but in the middle of nowhere I was, of course, no different, opting for bicycle over cart. I headed straight to the salt.

The Salar at its edges held hidden secrets, what was disguised as good hard pack was in fact only a few millimetre’s of soft salt over drying mud bogs. Consulting my maps I decided I probably had a few kilometres of pushing ahead, and I guessed that the surface would improve as I approached what the map indicated as the start of the salt flat. I thought it was a fair assumption. For almost 200 kilometre’s on Salar de Uyuni the salt was as hard as a paved road.

I trudged along, half dragging half pushing the bike, stopping occasionally to use a stick to dig wet mud out from the frame so I could continue further. I hit a point of mental no-return, where I’d put so much effort in already that I became certain it was easier to keep plodding along than it was to turn back.

After a full day and almost 30 kilometre’s of pushing I finally reached thick salt, the catch was that only the upper crust was solid, and an inch of water sat below. Perhaps not a problem on foot, but my bike held 20 kilograms of gear, all directed to the ground through 2 narrow slithers of tyre not 2 inches wide. It was impossible to ride. The pushing all day had exhausted my water supply, not carrying so much since I anticipated a short day with a lot of riding.

In the distance was a car, stationary on the flat. I altered course slightly and headed towards it, hoping to find someone with a supply of water, or failing that, space to take my bike and I and somewhere to find it. On the salt there aren’t other options, with any rainfall quickly becoming saline.

The car was a chassis, burnt out and abandoned. Similarly my hopes burned out as I lay down beside the heap of destroyed metal, on the correct side to be shaded by the sharp morning sun. I fell asleep, too exhausted to put food in my mouth. I woke up hour’s later and rigged pots and pans to collect water from an approaching storm, mockingly the storm changed course and never approached.

It was 3am when I woke up, rested and able to think more acutely I quickly took a bearing and headed towards what I hoped was the large Island on the Salar. As the sun rose I saw a lone motorcycle riding a secant line somewhere near me. I yelled out and like to think my parched voice was the reason I couldn’t get his attention, the reality was he was maybe 3 kilometre’s away, and I was delirious.

At 11am I finally approached the island and beelined for what I thought was a farm on the deserted side of the outcrop. There was no farm, only the trailing’s of one that was abandoned many years ago. I lay in the shade of my bike and worked up the energy to go searching for a well that I guessed might exist on the abandoned outpost – there was no well. A group of curious llama’s herded together and curiously stepped in unison towards me, grunting occasionally like the wildlife cast of West Side Story.

Sweaty and defeated, I realised only I could help myself, and set off for one last push in search of water. I found it on another farm 10 kilometres further around the island. I saw the quinoa plantations before I saw the buildings, and I rolled my ankle continually as I stumbled up the long driveway in search of someone to speak to. I discovered water in 3 litre Pepsi bottles and didn’t ask for permission as I lay down and dripped slightly saline water down my throat. After a litre I continued up the hill to try and find the owner.

All I found was a dog, dying in the heat under a truck and with rotting food in a bowl nearby. Laying down under the truck with him to escape the heat I wondered to myself which of us looked direr. I took more water and drank slowly as I nursed myself back from dehydration. Everything was rosier, I was hungry but I felt more like myself. It was another 2 hours before I felt I could continue on bike.

The final 15 kilometre’s were easy by comparison, the salt surface improved but more importantly I was carrying water again. The sun was finishing its shallow arch back to horizon and the temperature dropped as I rolled into a small village and found an elderly woman anxious to cook me fries. She opened up a small local school for me and told me to sleep there.

I would have, in that instance passed out immediately, except that every local child in the village had received word of me and came to challenge me to sunset basketball.

Mustering up whatever I had left in me I played until the sun disappeared and their parents came searching, they’d reminded me why I’m doing this in the first place – human interaction, and, at least that day, type 3 fun.

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