Thursday, 15 January 2015

Sleeping With the Atacama.

For those in the know: Iquique ~ Arica (Chile), 26th - 27th December.

Weather so predictable, it could become tedious. Every single day starts with sunrise and some high cloud that clears to a warm, rising hot sun. The long shadows are momentary, the light flattens out quickly. Now we have a period of calm. Not to be wasted, for by three o'clock the wind starts. Add another half hour and it's fierce. It's always westerly. All very predictable. The trick is to work within these parameters. Dawn starts, avoiding afternoon valleys descents, getting hunkered down when things get interesting.

Certain roads acquire reputations, both good or bad. Bolivia's Death Road was, and on occasions can still be, a killer. Although now the title is more a marketing tool for the gringo trail. "Did you do the Salar, the Lagunas, the Death Road?" is a refrain we've oft been asked. Other roads get a more subtle reputation, mostly amongst the long distancers and the 'enders'. Iquique to Arica is one such. Mention to a local your intentions, they will raise eyebrows and gleefully tell you how the road goes all the way down to the river, and then straight back up again. Thrice. The total accumulated height could be greater than some Andean crossings. An atlas gives little indication of the route's topography; it's when you round that bend and the signage breaks the news that you're in for a bit of hard work. Now you know what you're going to be doing for the rest of the morning. Three hours up, a short flat then an hour of freewheeling. Down to the next river's bridge. Repeat. Repeat.

Those rivers, at this time of year, don't even come with the blessing of clear running water, but they do come with shrubbery. Beautiful glare and wind shade pepper trees. Which have long arching branches that can come right back down to the ground. And with a bit of judicious gardening, it's possible to prune a cave structure under the largest. We do. A natural howff, fit for our tent and an afternoon away from the attrition of weather. For another night, we opted for the pleasures afforded by height. Spreading our bivvi bags behind a clutch of giant boulders that had been scoured out when the road was constructed. The advantage this time is the immediate and considerable temperature drop with nightfall, and a night of retained potential energy.

If there is a down side to Atacama camping, it's the litter. It's too dry for anything to rot. Shredding grit, sand blasting and sun bleaching are more effective. The wind simply gathers it up and any available bush, ditch or cundy will naturally riddle it out. Our pepper tree is the obvious winnowing sift. Eventually that wind dies with the sun, leaving the the night to an all-consuming silence that's only broken by the rustling of unknown rodents in the drifts of desiccated leaves. Rise in the night, open the flysheet and a grateful cool air invades, tinctured with the clean, fresh antiseptic taint of those trees.

It's an incongruous reaction that I hear for these rolling hills. It's also that difference of understanding between the cyclist and the non-cyclist. The latter will happily tell you that 'mountainous' South Island (NZ) is more arduous than 'hilly' North Island (NZ). When the cyclist knows differently. Last year we traveled inland, supposedly flat, Uruguay. Never managing to cross the thousand foot contour, in just two days we gathered enough metres to cross the Andean Cristo Redentor pass, twice. Like these, this PanAmericana is hilly country.

The antithesis to these climbs stems more from ego than their actual distaste. We all, no matter how strong a denial, have egos that require pampering; we all like our tummies to be rubbed. When asked what way we came, we extol the high Andean passes, so to impress the questioner with our supposed 'adventurer' credentials. Whilst, of course assuming a dismissive, unassuming demeanor. Yet these coastal routes are requiring of just as much respect, as much effort, only they lie on major trunk routes, which relegates them to mere commuter's highways. Yet I rather enjoy these aberrations, its a perverse form of pleasure. It's the second time in little over a year that we've passed this way. We could have 'bussed it', but it's fun to prove that a road always looks and feels different in the opposite direction. We get a new aerial perspective on Iquique, the city that is overshadowed by a giant sand dune, as we have the very outside edge of the road this time. A similar situation, whilst on the long descent into Cuyo. The view that lies on my peripheral vision is disconcerting; it's almost an avian's view of hilltops and deep gullies, of inter locking spurs and geography lessons. All feel and appear to be underneath me. A sensation of dislocation and vertigo. Yet constant concentration is required to front, the buffeting wind and the drifts of sand, the scattered rockfalls and that view, all competing together for attention.

The weather of tomorrow will repeat of today. The road of tomorrow will repeat of today. Predictable. But these can never be tedious. For there will be the melon seller around the next corner, and the tree frog who will croak in the night. There'll be the giant soda-glyph awaiting the Dakar Rally and then sitting in an 'hospedaje', hearing the incongruous sound of 'Scotland the Brave', played on a 'kazoo'.