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Published: August 4th 2015
Distance driven today: 207 miles / 333 km
Cumulative distance driven: 12,272 miles / 19,750 km
Today’s trip: Ururo to Uyuni, Bolivia
Involuntary gravel road driven: about 50 miles / 80 km
Most difficult road *ever* driven: yes, definitely
It’s an all too familiar story. We set out to ride a short distance, through what looks to be an easy road, and end up with a total adventure. Obviously, it happened again, but this time it was a true adventure of an unprecedented level, involving a physical and mental challenge like nothing Zoe and I have ever done before. Our goal today was to ride to Uyuni in southern Bolivia to do the one and only thing that people go there to do. We wanted to see the Uyuni salt flat, which is the world's largest by any measurement The savage beauty of this vast salt desert, at an altitude of almost 4,000 m/ 13,000 feet makes it one of South America's most awe-inspiring sights.
Apart from its interesting geological history, the Uyuni salt flat is also a center of various adventure tours, while it also constitutes a vital economic source for the otherwise rather
poor Bolivia. Salar de Uyuni, which is the name of the salt flat, is estimated to contain over 10 billion tons of salt. That should be enough to put on a few portions of French fries for sure. The Salar de Uyuni has a salt crust that is up to two meters (6 ft) thick at places. Under the salt crust, there is Lithium concentrated in the brine. In fact this salt flatbed contains an estimated 9 million tons of lithium, which is about 43% of the world’s lithium reserves. .
Our last stop before getting to Uyuni was the small town of Challapata on the Bolivian Altiplano, i.e. the high altitude mountain plateau. Before we left Challapata, we noticed giant billboards for the 2014 Paris-Dakar rally along the town. It was obvious that this must have been a huge event for a rather small and rural town. The Paris Dakar rally is an annual extreme off-road endurance race that takes drivers of cars, motorcycles and trucks through some of the most challenging terrain on the planet for two weeks at the beginning of each year. The rally used to start in Paris and took drivers through northwestern Africa
to the capital of Senegal Dakar. Due to security concerns and political instability in many of the North African countries, this extreme rally has now been moved permanently to Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. Last year the world’s most extreme endurance drivers passed through the Uyuni salt bed and Challapata. In retrospect, we should have understood that the roads around here were neither paved nor were they easy to ride on if they were deemed to be ‘suitable’ for the world’s most extreme endurance rally…
Just to be on the safe side, we asked locals an umpteenth time whether the last remaining 150 km / 90 miles from Challapata to Uyuni where paved. They all gave an affirmative answer. Just 20 km / 12 miles into the road toward Uyuni the surface suddenly turned into a nasty gravel road. However, we could see that there was a brand new road under construction, running parallel with dirt road. We asked some of the construction workers and we were told that it was only a short stretch that wasn’t paved. And so we continued driving, waiting for the pavement to replace the dirt road. The condition of the road got only worse
and as we continue as a snail’s pace, we started to get mentally challenged about what to do. Should we backtrack and lose over half a day, or should we continue and hope that the road, which incidentally is listed as a major secondary road on the map (!?!), would turn into pavement? All along we could see the new road being constructed, but without it being opened for traffic yet and without there being any access to get on to it, we were forced to ride the detour road which was in a really poor condition.
The worst part of driving along this detour road was the long/sudden stretches of sand. This powdery substance could be up to 10 cm / 4 inches deep, making it practically impossible to drive through. This is especially true when driving on a heavy motorcycle. It was like attempting to drive on a thick layer of flower, i.e. impossible to maintain balance, difficult to get any traction, and very challenging to keep a stable course. For hours, we would hit these long stretches of soft sand along the detour road (which went on for over 100km / 60 miles), and Zoe would
have to get off the bike, walk through the sandy part, while I tried to slowly drive the bike through. The mental and physical effort was like nothing that I have ever experienced before, and I now know why the organizers of the world’s toughest endurance rally chose this area for last year’s completion.
The soft sandy and powdery surface would show up suddenly, leaving me no time to react and slow down. Several times Zoe and I felt the bike drift in all kinds of directions, helplessly waiting for it to go down in to the soft sand. But somehow I managed to maintain the bike upright, despite the 450 kg / 1,000 pounds of total weight. However, when we came to a spot where the construction workers had sprayed water on the surface of the detour road, in order to minimize the enormous dust clouds that would follow the passage of a vehicle, we run out of luck. The muddy sand, on top of the underlying hard gravel, was as slippery as ice. Even though we were driving literally at walking speed, I felt the bike disappearing underneath me, and suddenly both Zoe and I were sitting
in thick mud pool. Despite the massive weight of the fully loaded bike, now resting on its side on the protective guards around the frame, Zoe and I managed to lift it up in the very first attempt, despite the muddy ground we were standing on. None us got hurt by the way.
The worst part was not the physical and mental effort it took to continue riding a total of 100km / 60 miles under these conditions, but rather the fact that the detour gravel road we were driving on, would occasionally intersect with several other dirt roads without any signs or other cars to follow. Under the extremely strong sun at the 4,000m / 13,000 feet Altiplano, and no information indicating which direction to drive, it was often impossible to know which of the many dirt roads to take. At several times we got lost and had to backtrack, only to find even worse sand patches. By the time we finally hit asphalt again, Zoe and I were delirious with joy. Never before had tarmac felt so good to see and ride on. By the time we finally got to Uyuni we were both dead
tired after having driven on the most difficult and demanding road we have ever experienced. In summary, it is fair to day that we came to Uyuni to experience the hard salt crust, but found soft sand instead.
Tot: 1.617s; Tpl: 0.02s; cc: 11; qc: 57; dbt: 0.0141s; 1; m:saturn w:www (22.214.171.124); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.4mb