4:30 am start the next day. Pitch black, and -10 degrees outside. The creeks and marshes of the altiplano were frozen solid. All of us, at some stage in our lives, had driven through our fair share of swollen creeks in big four wheel drives. Driving through the same creeks when they were solid ice was a new experience. The ice necessitated a different approach. First, you had to go very slow, much slower than you might expect. If you hit the ice fast there was every chance you might go spearing off into the creek. Then, you needed to gauge if you were likely to break the ice. If so you had to then worry about a razor sharp shard slashing a tyre and leaving you stranded. As the first of the various Landcruisers (and they were all Landcruisers) to get away that morning we were the icebreakers.
Truly strange for the bunch of us Australians. The landscape out the windows was typical desert landscape, at times very similar to the Australian centre, but then...a frozen creek?! Snow on the mountains just a couple hundred metres above you?!
We pulled up for breakfast at the checkpoint guarding the
entry into the Eduardo Abaroa National Park, chatting briefly with the army gents manning the place. A nice breakfast, it did give the other tour companies a chance to catch up, but this wasn't to be helped. Any time you rock up to a stop on the tour there are at least one or two other Landcruisers there, but that was certainly better than a tourbus or two.
Looking out over the desert was simply spectacular as we made a stop at Laguna Celeste. Far below a convoy of 3 Landcruisers was racing across the desert, heading straight towards a snow capped peak of more than 6000 metres. No vegetation could be seen, save for the occasional hardy Andean grasses that provided food for the wild vicuña
– a camelid, relative of the llama. Plumes of dust churned from the tyres of the four wheel drives, putting one immediately in mind of the Dakar race. I commented as such to Piter, who told me that there was, in fact, a campaign to include some Bolivian stages in the Chile/Argentina race. Providing they kept it away from sensitive areas, I can't think of a more spectacular stage.
after a good 8 hours of driving, we stayed at a place that seemed to be set up just for the tour agencies. It was like a large hostel, with a big kitchen for the different companies' cooks to use, and different rooms for the drivers and tourists to sleep in. Each tour company rents out the rooms they need for their customers from the town. No showers, but there were toilets. Being friendly Australians we automatically helped Lucy in the kitchen and Piter with the loading and unloading of the car. Our help in the kitchen caused a bit of a fuss, apparently – Lucy was quite impressed, and very happy to make a point of relaxing in front of the other cooks as they cleaned up after their groups.
It was more than a little disappointing to watch a large group (maybe 10 people) next to us offer no help whatsoever after finishing their dinner and leaving quite a mess. A group of mixed nationalities, some Australian, I think it was simply that they were young and inconsiderate. Sure, they paid for the trip and the service, but....they didn't pay much. We were probably most disappointed in
the young Aussies – as Australians you should feel a bit awkward that someone is waiting on you. The group at the next table seemed to be unaware of their cook's existence, let alone provide a thank you.
We started late the next morning – 7am. Piter was quiet as we loaded up the car. In fact, all the drivers and cooks seemed a bit subdued. There was less buzz and banter around the cars. Lucy gave us the reason – apparently a driver had been killed yesterday in the tour area. We found out later what had transpired. On a straight stretch of the international road, at 8pm, a drunk driver had swerved in front of a tour Landcruiser carrying a tourist to the Chilean border. The tour driver was killed, and the tourist seriously injured. The drunk driver – a young woman with a child – was injured also. We made a stop at the site of the accident and Piter got out to say a prayer and leave a bit of an offering at the side of the road – the driver had been a good friend.
As the day wore on the mood brightened.
We played some Australian music, then Lucy bribed a guard with a pancake when we forgot our tickets for the next part of the national park. The look on his face was priceless.
It could almost have been central Australia, I thought to myself as I gazed out the window – the low foothills in the distance, flat dust, Landcruiser barrelling along a dirt road, red dust billowing, saltbush in the foreground. Then a stupid feeding llama stuck its stupid head up to gawk as we drove by. Stupid llama. Ruined it for everyone. Except Klaire. Who chuckled. A lot.
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