Like all deserts, the Salar de Uyuni is disorientating for the first few kilometres of driving. You ponder if it is wise to deviate from the wheel tracks ahead, and then you just think – ‘Aah, what the hell’ – heave the wheel to the left and head out into that great white expanse. At 12,000 square kilometres the Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. The salar lies at 3,650 metres and contains around 50% of the world’s reserves of lithium.
We enter the salar from the north, in the shadow of Tunupa volcano, and punch the coordinates for Pescado Island, some 40 kilometres distant. Whilst at this time of the year the salt crust is solid, it’s important to watch out for soft patches, particularly round the rim of the salar. To get stuck out here would most likely necessitate a long walk to find assistance. Driving at a speed of 70 kph we soon reach Pescado Island, where we drive ‘ashore’ and make camp. Pescado Island is deserted, only the tyre tracks and old fires of previous campers.
When driving on the salar there is an alarming tendency for your car to shrink the minute you step away from it. As you can see in the next photo, our three tonne truck now sits comfortably in the palm of my hand. Pretty freaky!
When the sun drops the temperature plummets. Night time is the real killer out here. By six o’clock you’re wearing all the clothes you possess. By eight o’clock you’re wearing them in bed. The next morning, having partially thawed out in what little heat the sun gives, we head west to Cactus Island, a popular destination with the tourist groups.
After three days of sub-zero temperatures it takes a while for our water pipes to finally shed the ice they’ve accumulated. However, the ice has now dislodged the calc in the system, which blocks the tap to our non-potable water supply. We manage to cure it with a combination of juju and improbable practices. So, should you ever suffer a similar fate with your tap, here’s how you unblock it:
Step 1: Turn the tap on and off whilst getting increasingly annoyed with the lack of flow, at the same time mentally constructing a poisonous letter to the manufacturers of said tap concerning the uselessness of their product. Wait 60 seconds to calm down.
Step 2: Fitter number one (Christine) removes the neck of the tap, mutters the odd profanity, grabs a kebab skewer and waggles it in the orifice. A light stabbing action is an advantage. Wait 30 seconds.
Step 3: Fitter number two (James) replaces the neck of the tap and places his lips around it, forming a tight seal. Blow until red dots swim before your eyes and your ears pop. Wait 30 seconds (whilst holding on to the basin to steady yourself).
Step 4: Turn on the tap and grin inanely at the renewed flow of water. Listen out for the pump, which should now be singing like a canary.