If I said the word ‘sand’, what types of thoughts does that elicit in you? Thinking about the beach already, aren’t you. Sipping a Corona, listening to the waves crash in, drunk on oxygen filling your lungs, sitting there with your girl, both of your toes buried deep in the warm sand. Normally when I think of sand, that’s what I think of too.
But in southwest Bolivia, sand takes on a different meaning. It became an obstacle by which a motorbike wheel must be navigated through. It was to be done with no Corona, alone, and while unable to breathe in a frigidity that only 13,000 feet above sea level provides. Bolivia, you have such a beauty and a harshness with nothing in between. I don’t know how else to describe you.
Southwest Bolivia has a national park called the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve. It certainly looks beautiful from the pictures I’ve seen. Flamingos inhabiting it’s lagoons, natural rock sculptures and picturesque mountains making up the landscape. I’ve heard it’s impressive. That said, I’ve also heard that the road that goes through it is very sandy. This was such a shame, as I have no experience riding motorbikes through sand. I’d tried to find other people that may be riding through the area, but with no luck. If I was going to do it, I’d have to do it alone.
The road through the national park reaches altitudes up around 15,000 feet. This seemed a bad place to learn to ride in sand, so I decided against it. This decision was tough, but was justified by me, to myself, as my reason to come back. Doing it alone would be too dangerous. I’m not superman, and dropping this heavy bike on my leg could be a real disaster. I made the decision against it, and that was final. But as I sit here three months later and write this, I regret this decision wholeheartedly.
Leaving Uyuni, there were two gravel roads out of town. They were just a stone’s throw from one of Uyuni’s three gas stations. I stood there staring at them from the gas pump while a guy at the station filled up my tank and spare gas can. It truly was a crossroads. One went to Chile by means of the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, the other to the southern Bolivian town of Tupiza. Both paths trailed off into the distance much further than than the eye could see. I wanted to see the national reserve, but instead I took what I thought would be the safe route.
The road through the national reserve to Chile was sandy, I had a lot of good information about that road. But, I really had no idea what condition the road to Tupiza was in. My determination that it would be easier and safer was based on looking at a map. This route was denoted on the map as being the same quality as the nicely paved road that I took from Potosi into Uyuni. Boy was the map wrong. This route turned out to have patches of sand strewn throughout it, the longest and muddiest river crossing of the entire trip, and endless miles of washboard bumps in the road, the vibration of which can literally knock your vision out of whack!
The road started out easy enough though, an occasional small sandy patch here and there. The endless washboard surface was really the only tough thing to deal with.
But about an hour or so after the crossroads, I ran into a sandy patch that took me down. I must have been asleep at the handlebars, because it was marked with red flags that didn’t catch my attention.
These red flags should have been a red flag
I had the helmet camera operating on the time lapse feature at the time snapping a shot every couple seconds. So, I can’t forget about this fall.
Here’s a shot of my head on it’s way to the ground.
We were both just vertical a minute ago.
Falling over in the middle of nowhere really gets the adrenaline pumping. But even with all the adrenaline going, I didn’t have the strength to pick up the bike by myself at this altitude. It’s absolutely amazing the way the high altitudes zap your strength. Fortunately, there were three road workers sitting on the side of the road. They came over to help me pick it up.
Funny how help shows up when you need it…even when you’re in the middle of nowhere. Things work out, they always do…you really start to believe it after taking a trip like this.
So we got the machine upright.
Thanks for the help buddy
The bike started back up, so off I went. There were more sandy patches that were far longer and far worse than this one, but I’d learned my lesson from the fall. I was on high alert from that point on, spotting the sandy sections well in advance of hitting them, and taking great caution to pass through. There was an inordinate amount of cursing going on in the helmet, as this road couldn’t have been much worse than the road through the national reserve that I had wanted so badly to take. When I approached a river crossing that was certainly the deepest, muddiest river crossing of the trip, I nearly blew my lid. I didn’t stop to find the best place to cross or even to turn on the camera. Just picked a line, gunned the throttle, and powered though with anger. Now that I’m sitting at home writing this, it’s easy to say that I should have turned back to Uyuni, spent the night, and taken the road to Chile the next day. But at the time I was squirreling the bike through that muddy river bed, backtracking didn’t seem like the right thing to do. Life on the road was wearing me out, and I wanted to go home.
So I rode on and on, admiring the Bolivian countryside
And on and on
Just me and my shadow
Parts of the countryside here had quite a unique look. Sometimes I was pretty sure a teradactyl was going to swoop down, grab me with its talons, and eat me for dinner.
It was well into the night before I arrived in Tupiza. The lingering sunset I saw while riding on this road was one of the most interesting I’ve seen in all my life. There were horizontal layers of white, green and purple. I really should have stopped for pictures with the good camera, but I didn’t. The washboard surface continued to be relentless, even as darkness fell around me. As I got closer to the city of Tupiza, I also had dogs chasing me again. I never saw any of them in the darkness, but I could hear them barking at my ankles as I rode along.
There’s a few days on this trip I’ll never forget. This particular day tested me, and will always be burned vividly into my memory.