Friday, 29 November 2013

Salt Pans and Other Worlds.


When the brain-eye sees what the brain-calculator can't compute, it reaches for the default button and the next known, manageable image. Or so it would appear. Coincidentally, we both try to use the correct term, only for in moments of forgetfulness to revert back. Eventually giving up entirely. Which makes for an embarrassing moment when talking with one person back in town, when we say that "we've been out on the ice".

Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt flat. It's vast. It's flat. It's dichromatic. The raw statistics give an area of 12,000 square kilometres (4,630 sq mi) or the less than helpful ... 'size of the Lebanon'. Top to bottom it's Aberdeen to Edinburgh, across: North Berwick to the Mull of Kintyre. The remnant of the much larger and prehistoric Lago Minchin, that covered much of Southern Bolivia four hundred centuries ago. Today it's the deposit for a local salt industry and half the world's supply of lithium.

Anticipations and expectations are kindled by the posters outside every tour operators' booth between La Paz and Cochabamba, Tupiza and Sucre. A photo-shopped sky of improbable blue, a foreground of burnt-out, overexposed white, a gringo posing' foot raised to stamp on a miniaturised human friend. The obligatory perspective photograph from a hot spot on the SA travellers' trail. Written accounts use words like 'other worldliness', 'bizarre', 'geographical marvel' and with a covering of water, 'the world's largest mirror'. It's been a place on our wish list for some time and this will be our second attempt. We were thwarted last December by the onset of the wet season, so making it yet another piece of unfinished business. It did afford some beautiful pictures, but no access to the interior.

The technophobic Chronicler is under an assault and battery from the Apple Brain. These gizmos know where they are, ergo so should I. It's a sad admission, but this is the first trip where a Silva compass hasn't been an integral part of our kit. In truth most of the jeeps are all heading in the same direction, you only have to watch out for the next one hurtling across the saltscape, and then follow in a similar direction.

Slowly the dun brown of the mainland recedes behind, it's only in front that little changes. You start to concentrate on the expanse immediately around about. The crunch under my tyres, the rumble of the rough surface, the spangles of reflected crystal light. The glacier tan on the underside of your nose. The sudden potholes of blue water with delicate salt crusts forming on their surfaces. Squinting through dark sunglasses.

The eye sees, but the hard disc mis-computes, and yet I know this world. It's called cycling on a frozen Scottish loch, over a rough crud of refrozen snow. Still, there are the misquotes. The lack of slip-slide and the rock hard surface in twenty degree heat. Or the sastrugi of filigree that etch out the hexagonal tesselae, shapes that resemble distressed chicken wire. Still, there's not enough erroneous information to remove that abiding sensation of winter ice.