It has been three months since I last wrote a story here. This is not because I had no time or because I no longer cared about updating my story. I’ve been trying to write this story for weeks, but I had to many excuses not to start and the times I did start I got stuck within a few minutes. I guess this is not an easy story to write. But here it is, now you can enjoy the story of when my engine did BOOM and gave me my biggest challenge yet.
This is not a good place to be stuck… It’s empty… Perfectly flat and white until the horizon and cloudless blue from there up… The only thing I can see is my red van next to me and a few mountains, hundreds of kilometers away… It’s quiet… No wind, no animals, no people, no cars. I only hear some water running somewhere.
A few minutes ago I was driving happily across the vast emptiness of the Salar the Uyuni. After three freezing nights and scorching days on the salt plains it was time to leave and head to Chile and the easier roads. The Salar is big, very big. It is the biggest salt plain in the world covering more than ten thousand square kilometers. And around this immense field of white reflecting dried up salt there is some normal desert, just to make sure nobody wants to be here. Last night I bush camped near one of the few “islands”, small hills of volcanic rock filled with cacti. When I started driving this morning everything seemed fine. Even though the temperatures dropped below -15 degrees last night, the van started without major issues. But after about an hour of easy cruising my engine went from a happy hum to the awful sound pebbles in a blender. I stopped the engine and opened the hood. Everything looks fine, but I’m sure everything is wrong. I start again and the terrible noises come back. When I try to drive the van moves, but only barely. I stop again and look at the engine. This is when I hear the water running. Since I always have oil problems I first check my oil. That’s weird… the level seems to be coming up. When I look closer I see little red dots in the oil, that look suspiciously like my cooling liquid. I open the coolant container and I see the level drop. This is bad, very bad. I check the GPS. I’m 50 km from any road, 80 km from any town with a mechanic. Both are way too far to walk. My phone has zero service. Time for a backup plan: I can walk either 30 km ahead to the defunct salt hotel (which now houses a restaurant and a little shop) or 15 km back to the big island in the middle of the Salar which has a little ranger station on it. The 15 km should be doable in a couple of hours. I pack plenty of water and food, lock the car and start walking. The island isn’t actually visible but hiding behind the horizon so I’ll have to walk on my GPS. It looks like it is going to be a long day. How the hell did I get here?
How I did I manage to get stuck here?
Only three days ago I finally managed to get back in the proper travel mode. Ever since entering Bolivia stuff had been going wrong. Problems with customs, police, my van and almost all of my electronics. But Potosi and especially the silver mine visit were fascinating. I was really looking forward to what I was sure was going to be one of the highlights of my trip: the Salar de Uyuni. And to make things even better: after the Salar I would head into Chile which would mean great roads and no more highlands. Now driving Latin American cities is never much fun: loads of traffic, terrible drivers, too many narrow one way streets and no signs. Potosi was no exception to that. Getting into Potosi had already been a big pain with barely enough space to drive and no space to quickly stop and look at the map. Now when I was trying to get out there was some kind of big street festival going on. This meant all the main streets are blocked and only the alleys are passable. There are no detour signs and asking the police how to exit the city did not help either. The only thing they could tell me was that it wasn’t through this street. I had guessed that already when I noticed the Ferris wheel blocking the street. It takes me about an hour to get out of town but then I’m rewarded with some beautiful highland driving. Even though I’m at over 4000 m there is no snow, but there are canyons, llamas, alpacas and amazing views around every corner. It clearly is fiesta season because all the main roads in Uyuni are blocked too, making the “campsite” (a dirty parking lot) inaccessible. It’s early enough to drive some more so I buy plenty of food and water and head to the Salar. Driving the Salar is ridiculous. It’s like a ten thousand square kilometer flat slab of concrete. There’s nobody there and no landmarks to see so you just have to drive on your GPS compass. After a quick stop at the Dakar monument I drive the last 45 km to the main “island” where I try to find a spot which will give me morning sun on the engine and protects me from the winds that just started. The wind in the evening makes it too cold to be outside when the sun starts setting. But once the sun is down I have to go out again. These are the most amazing stars I’ve ever seen in my life. The moon is still down and there are no villages anywhere near me. This is one of the clearest skies you can get in the whole world. I have to take pictures of this, but it is so cold that I have to run around while I’m waiting. I do not have a thermometer here but when I look up the temperature on the internet weeks later, it is telling me that with the wind chill it was minus 25. When the moon comes up I go to bed in my sleeping bag under my blanket, but surprisingly I’m not cold at all.
The Joys of the Salar de Uyuni
I wasn’t planning to stay more than one night on the Salar, but the night wasn’t as bad as I had expected and it is amazingly beautiful here. So I spend another two full days zigzagging across the Salar. During the days I spend half my time exploring the islands and half the time driving to the middle of the emptiness and just sit there. The islands consist of a combination of volcanic rock and petrified corals. They are filled with cacti that are up six meters tall but only grow about a centimeter per year. The peaks of the islands can reach up to 200 m above the salt plain, climbing such a pile of loose volcanic rocks at over 3500 m altitude isn’t easy but the views from the top are amazing. When I’m not exploring an island I drive to the middle of an open stretch of salt plains. Nothing but white until the horizon. These are great spots for funny perspective pictures or just read a book or make lunch. The driving from spot to spot is so much fun. At some point I realize I’m doing 100 km/h and my hands hadn’t touched the wheel in about a minute because I was doing the drum solo of a song that was playing. This place is so amazing and nothing like anything I’ve ever seen. And it’s so big I would easily be 24 hours between seeing another car. The three days flew by in no time. At the end of every afternoon I would park next to another island. I would spend some time exploring it and looking for a good spot to watch the sun set. After sunset it was waiting for the darkness to settle in and enjoy the unspoiled milky way and shooting stars.
The Great Escape
So that’s how I ended up in the middle of nowhere with a broken van. Actually I was pretty lucky getting stuck there. The spot I camped the night before was another 80 km away from civilization and I hadn’t seen a single car between arriving and leaving that spot. It’s funny how this way of travelling makes you handle drama better. If this would have happened in my first few months I would have definitely freaked out (which I did back then, about way smaller problems) and I’m not sure how I would have made it out. Now I thought: well, I’m not hurt, my van did not burn down or explode, it’s early, I’ve got plenty of food and water and since I already drove 80 km today I’m now in the part that actually has some traffic, so let’s go! It’s time to work! After about 45 minutes of walking I see a jeep appear on the horizon. I try to flag them down but they keep driving. When I keep waving at them and run after them, they turn around and stop. They hadn’t stopped because I looked so happy and was smiling, I must have just been hiking there, until they realized where I was hiking and decided that did not make any sense. The jeep was filled with four Portuguese girls on a private tour with a driver. They were happy to try to tow me. Once we reached my van I realized I did not have a towing strap and neither did the tour jeep. We improvised something from the rope I had in my van and if we would start slowly (me pushing the van to a start and then jumping in) they could tow me. The problem was breaking and accelerating. The ropes clearly weren’t strong enough and snapped every time the driver braked and sped up again. Luckily it is the big, empty and flat Salar so that did not happen too often. Still it happened about four times in half an hour and that only got us 10 km further. This was not going to work, so I asked them if I could drive with them to Uyuni instead and look for a tow truck there. Luckily they were OK with that. Of course they were still on a tour and this being 4 Portuguese girls, the funny perspective pictures and the ugly souvenir shopping took hours. I’m not complaining, just saying it didn’t help for my stress levels. Some hours later the driver drops me off at a mechanic. Luckily the mechanic is willing to tow me right away. I get into the car with him and his three friends and we head back to the Salar. Quite soon the atmosphere turns weird and they pull out a bottle of liquor. The mechanic and his friends start drinking. I don’t like this at all, but we’re already on the emptiness of the Salar so there is not really anything I can do and before we get to my van they have already finished two bottles. We start towing my van, but about halfway back he stops. He says the van was further than I said it was and he wants more money and I have to pay now. Otherwise he will leave me here on the Salar. I talk him down quite a bit but it is still a ridiculous amount of money for a 80 km tow. Too tired and stressed to do anything else I get my emergency cash and pay him. Eight hours after breaking down I have made it to town with my van. I can sleep in my van at the workshop, but of course I can’t really sleep. Some research points me to a blown head gasket. I fall asleep convinced this will be the end of my trip.