For those in the know: Tocopilla ~ Iquique. Ruta 1CH. (Date: December 20th~22nd).
Morbid fascination or just a piece of unfinished business?
Last December, we were travelling slowly south down the Pacific Coast, our intentions were then to head over to Argentina by way of Paso Jama. Essentially our tour for this year, only backwards. However the Navigator decided to interview a pothole and a surveyor's post in an under-construction motorway outside Iquique, northern Chile. The impediments won, she ended up in hospital. So this year we've been finishing this piece of business. In reverse.
Deliberately in reverse. With the Navigator then released from her 'Clinica Luxe', elbow pinned, arm slung, we retreated to Santiago. Which gave us ample time to observe the prevailing wind from the luxury of a fully cama bus. Not difficult as this is a flag waving country as every roadside shrine, every second beach front hut, every other house has a taut-drawn, shivering, gale-shredded flag. They're all pointing north. Like an admonishing finger, there's a message, a warning. This year we take the hint. We play by nature's rules. Although she has extracted some payment, for to attain this southerly position we've fought our way over stretches with names like 'Dead Indian Plain', 'Plain of Mirages' and 'Barrier of Sands'.
There has to be something utterly incongruous about a desert and an ocean meeting. Places so diametrically opposite. One wet the other dry, yet joined in the general imagination and at first sight, as barren empty spaces. Yet the interface between these two worlds is busy, noisy, smelly. Thousands of Dusky seagulls are doing what gulls are meant to do, gyrating in massive flocks off the coast, diving, fishing, courting, then guano streaking the rocky outcrops. Not dumpster raking nor squabbling on an Edinburgh's Morningside roof. Yet their roosts are low odour compared with the Pelicans. If there is a downside to cycling with the assist of a southerly wind, it's the fact that we're on the landward carriageway. I need to cross over to check out the next possible smell, noise or view. It doesn't take many visits to the other side to identify a pelican roost. Week-Old, Ripe-Fishy. A most improbable bird, its mechanical equivalent in my imagination being the flying boat. Neither has any right to become airborne. Yet they are the most elegant of graceful fliers. Neck tucked in, bill stowed away, they fly with an economy of ease. A long string, a single skene of birds are flying south, garnering the up-draft from the breaking wave. And when that collapses in an explosion of surf, effortlessly drift over to the next one.
If the gull and the pelican is the fisherman on the coast, then the vulture is the ' bag-lady'. Diabolical redhead in a cloak of black. In the cool hours before the thermals arise, she shuffles along the wrack line, desultorily turning over that same desiccated shuttlecock of bones and feathers, that same dead, picked-over carcase that she's turned over several times before. Procrastinating. Waiting for the assist of convectional air, when she can be transformed from sinistral knave into aerial acrobat. Now she cruises the cliff's line, the shore's line, the dregs line. Total mistress of her universe.
We travel north, round, over and on one occasion, through, a continual succession of headlands. Each succeeding one a vague outline, their bases on occasions smeared in salt spray. It's a flat light, soft focus landscape. When the parent rock is grey, the impression is of dirt, filth and grubbiness, yet when those coastal mountains turn volcanic red the scape turns cleaner, brighter, nicer. Such are our prejudices against the grime colours. (Potatoes grown on the Dunbar red soils always commanded a premium over the 'blacks' of Tranent). The ocean is sending in a rolling progression of breakers that form eddies of spume, surf flowing into whorls like weather maps. Only this is a mono-clime, a place of near permanent sunshine. The peculiarity of continual high pressure inland, ensures a near continuous summer down at sea level. It's how a desert is made. The nearest we come to rainfall is when, early one morning we get a spatter of drops. Dampness has condensated on the tamarisk tree above our tent, our very own cloud forest, a sparrow flies in and precipitates a shower. Ten drops; I should name them individually.
This route is squeezed on to the coast. Those coastal mountains come right down to the water. In places there is no flat land, it's then that we have to climb over or through the buttresses of headlands. Rock stacks sit on the ocean's edge, always plastered in a stench of bird guano. Gleaming white daggers set against a too-blue ocean. One headland protects a sheltered bay, open decked fishing boats are tethered at anchor. A 'caleta', a collection of wooden houses sprout up on stilts. Much of the cladded wood looks fresh, there's the hammer of nails, the rasp of a power saw. Still recovering from the tsunami of last April. A man's pushing a harvested barrow of kelp along the road. Heaps of variously graded seaweeds dry on the sand dune's slopes. An economy based on DiY weekender homes, a bit of fishing, a bit of alginate harvesting and a full time job elsewhere.
Late afternoon comes and the search for a camp spot. Simplicity. Just pull over, rollout the bivvies and fall asleep. Finding the perfect spot takes a few moments longer, if only because there are so many to choose from. Tonight's is a granite rock ledge a metre above the high tideline, populated by territorially aggressive lizards. We're rewarded with a sun setting into water, patrolling pelicans, vocal gulls and the soporific crump of detonating breakers. In the morning, we discover that we've just slept in the 'Devil's Mouth'. It's fun to tempt fate, to prove, if only to ourselves, that this two day ride is a classic, worthy of making it one of the main features for this year's trip.
As we arrive back in Iquique, back at that same campground, outside of which the Navigator crashed last year, the #18 collectivo is waiting at its terminus. The destination board says......'Hospital'. So maybe there's been a bit more morbid fascination than we would have intended. The irony isn't wasted on us. So to ward off any bad karma, I suggest we gather up all the discarded surveyors' posts from the now completed road, and have a solstice bonfire. To entice the sun to return for another year. This, in the land of near perpetual sunshine.