One advert that you'll never encounter in Northern Chile; "Wanted", Tumble Drier Sales Person". They might be sending coals to Newcastle and fridges to the Inuit, but there's no way that a tumble drier can compete with a clothes line on the roof of an Arican hostel. I'm asked if I've just put out our washing and then immediately advised to go and bring it back down again. As it will be dry by now. Slight exaggeration. But only just.
As every dhobi wallah knows, the sun bleaches, the wind dries. The Atacama has both, the latter in rather more profusion than a cyclist might appreciate. The sun comes with the daylight, the wind with a precision of a timepiece. From sun up until onces, the cool air flows down from the mountains, coming out of the nor'east with hints of glacial cold. At 11 o'clock precisely a few dust devils will approach from the sou'west, a racing attack. The wind will preform a perfect pirouette, a pendulum swing through half a compass in a matter of momments. An utterly un-Latino punctuality, very predictable, very Atacaman.
Atacama, the driest place in the world. Some parts have never experienced rain, in others the last time it drizzled it made world news. Yet don't get the idea that it's dawn to dusk sunshine, despite the local authority's claim to be the "City of Eternal Sun". I'm told they can expect just four days of cloud cover annually. Yet for those who might suffer a Seasonally Affective Disorder, the advice is to just drive ten miles inland, to a vast, clear skyscape. Maybe they exaggerate, as we caught one quarter of that cloud claim leaving town. The next night we sat high above a temperature inversion that blanketed both city and coast, that raised the odds to fifty percent of that fabled total. On the third night, again sleeping in the open, under the myriad stars and meteor showers, we woke to very damp, condensated bivi-bags. Nights are cold, the sky clear, convection ratios are high. We are but two alien blots of water cocooned in a meager breathable membrane. You can feel rather small in a place like the Atacama.
And yet there is no vegetation, no evidence of natural life. The land is a soft tone of roseate pink that complements the dust blue sky. Early morning light casts shadows that delineate the ripple ribbed contours, etch out the transient dry river beds and offer contrasts that are soon washed out by the fast climbing sun and the approaching flat light. The Candelabra cacti, in their narrow contoured corridor, come and go as we speed down through their domain. Their scarcity close to the road a testament to their collectability. Darker patches apparently at a distance, that suggest cropping or scrub, suddenly turn out to be much closer and are just a cluster of broken rocks. That which suggests lying water turns out to be salt pan. As with the saltlands so with these sandscapes, the perspectives are contorted by the want of reference and lack of scale.
South of Arica , for three hundred kilometres, these coastal hills fall straight to the ocean, there's no reason, no room for a road; nobody lives here. So it takes to the upper ground. Only there's two deep valleys, that suddenly appear before us. Their rims lost in the general clutter of rollicking ground. The road tips over the lip and drops. A view, a model tractor working on the valley floor, a twenty-five kilometre descent that logic suggests will have to be replicated on the other side. Potential for tedium, if it wasn't for the miraculous transformation in the canyon bottom. A lineal verdant strip a few metres wide. The Andean ranges are two hundred kilometres to the east, they feed the rios with enough melt water to allow them to cross the desert with sufficient flow to sustain a small farming industry. Rice, olives, tomatoes, onions, herbs.
Literally a line in the sand, the instant boundary between desert and life. A brain-eye green comfort blanket that takes moments to cross and will stay on our side as we take an afternoon to climb back out of it's presence. Rivers of life that will be sacrificed at the altar to agriculture. Most will have struggled over that aridity only to be captured and enslaved, many will not make the short dash to freedom and the open sea.
My advice for potential dryer sales people....stick to flogging bottled water, I'm sure it's the coming fashion.
Enough advice, enough hypocrisy; I've had a life in that agro-industry. My shirt's dry up on the roof of the aptly named "Sunny Days Hostel" and it's time to chop a salad. Basil, onion and tomato.