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Nick Sanders Pan Am Blog 05

The Road to Uyuni in Bolivia
The road across the mountains from the Bolivian border at Villazon to Uyuni is without doubt one of the top three most exciting rides in the world. The 210kms from Tupiza to this small Bolivian town, made world famous by the adjacent salt lake, the Salar de Uyuni, is a twisting tale of heroic motoring not to be attempted by the timorous. This is a road that forms the metal of a great rider, a route that has few equals and the stories that creep out are really the stuff of heros.

At the Bolivian border, Danny – he’s the big guy from Australia, going out with Becs, riding with his dad Brian, all going back to Oz. This route for this family is a bonding exercise and very important to the Clagues of Melbourne. For one person to ride the Americas is a fine thing, for a family to complete it, is beyond memorable, but unbeknown to us all as we stood in line in the sunshine enjoying the excitement of entering such an unusual country, for the Clagues it will end in disaster.

The riders are still queuing for their entry visa and Danny has a low oxygen saturation of 87% from normal. If this saturation falls further, the drug Acetazolimide will be administered by our project doc to help the body work at lower levels of oxygen more efficiently. There are several drugs that can also be used but if these fail then the final line of defence is the male impotency drug Viagra. This revolutionary pill which facilitates increased blood flow in the corpus spongiosum of the penis also has some benefits for altitude sickness. No one knows why it works but what is known is that it can promote irritability and sometimes violent behaviour. In Danny’s case, being a big lad, if he turned nasty with a raging headache and hard on, God only knows what would happen if you were stuck in a lift or boys dormitory after he popped a pill, but quickly moving on once again, the queue to enter Bolivia, has halved.

We have now moved from the Argentine section of the border and into Bolivia proper. Little old ladies, wearing their aprons and strange bowler hats, are half the size of what you’d expect a normal human being to be. They hobble around bemused used to their life lived about 8000 ft. At these altitudes and above, the rarity of the oxygen content in the air forces people here to adapt in curious ways. The most obvious variant being bandy legs weighed down by barrel chests holding up enlarged heart and lungs.

In the land of the small – ie, here in Bolivia, I feel tall. It is a rare but pleasant feeling to look across the street without anyone’s heads getting in the way. Later that evening I overheard American Paul talking about someone he knew hiring a midget strippers in Vegas. Perhaps a perfect occupation for a Bolivian woman, it was suggested by someone else, and by the time we got to stand-up blow jobs, I thought time once again to quickly move on.

The road to Uyuni was a single lane track, which was in part rippled and gravelled with occasional smooth sections, which wound and stretched across a landscape that took me to some primordial world. Geomorphic strata had clearly been compressed and pushed with the colour of copper and iron squeezed in between. The road wound and dropped and sashayed with such magnificence I was reminded at how beautiful it is to ride my bike in such a place. Hour after hour turned from a bright breezy day into twilight and then night. The rippled surface turned to sand and more gravel and as I rode steadily I caught up with rider after rider until I was leading the tail end of a small posse when on the desert plane at 9000 ft on the alto-plano 30 kms before Uyuni, a rider was lying on the ground. The wind was swirling sand, Danny was panicking and Becs was in tears. Brian’s V-Strom was standing still and under a red plastic mac I presumed Brian was seriously hurt or dead. “It’s my dad,” said Danny, “he’s hurt his eye, a bungee sprung into it.” Brian it transpired had taken a tumble as had Danny before him and so as to right the bike they had to take off the luggage. Whilst re-fastening his tank bag, a bungee hit Brian in the cornea splattering his face with blood.  Earlier American Paul had been pushed off the road by a truck after which the trailer snapped in half. Jim was back somewhere trying to fix the trailer so quickly I told Danny to ride Brian as pillion, leave Becs with Richard the train driver after which he would come back for his bike in a taxi. It was organised chaos but it was happening. In a moment all is well, then around the corner in the wind and the cold, the bad road and the dark at altitude in one of the most inhospitable landscapes on earth, we had to deal with disaster. And we did. Tomorrow will be another day.

Cone shaped volcanoes were dotted near and far and here on the ‘ring of fire’ one of the summits was smoking, making the air smell of sulphur.