Monday, 16 February 2015

Moments in Atacama Time: Lomas.

The Atacama desert, the driest place in the world. Some parts have recorded no rainfall. Ever. Which is why we wake up this morning to a soaking wet tent, and I've donned full waterproofs for only the second time. I even heard a few spatters of raindrops through the night. Such a wonderfully novel concept, for this trip is fast developing into our driest ever. We break camp, yet despite my best efforts, the tent gathers half a desert's worth of sticky sand. Now more emery paper than flysheet.That novelty lasts only as far as the road verge; visibility is reduced to two lorry-lengths and given some of the more bizarre driving feats we've witnessed of late, the prospects are somewhat daunting.

We need not have worried. That thick, wet clag seems to have instilled a degree of fearful respect. Cars driving on their hazards elect to follow behind the protection of an articulated lorry hauling twenty-four tonnes of dried garlic cloves. Nobody is overtaking around blind bends, undertaking on shoulders, risktaking as stimulants. I'm amazed. Perhaps they're taking their inspiration from one tailgate inscription that I managed to read, " My speed is controlled by God". Yet one thing hasn't changed. That non-visibility, now verging on nil, yet somehow every lorry and collectivo that passes can still sense our presence and they still manage to hammer a blast of sonics through my frazzled brain. This once, I should be grateful as it suggests that they are using that particularly Peruvian sense and are aware of our presence. Nature or Nurture; are Peruvians born with, or do they learn this seventh sense, this Pavlovian reaction? The utter need to blast on horns.

There's nothing unusual in these conditions. We're moving towards the coast, down through a 'zona de neblina', a cloud zone, a 'lomas'. The cold Humbolt current flows north out of the Antarctic, chilling the costal ocean, clouds are created, it's these that drift onshore and are held on the coastal ranges. With this climatic feature there is a given. We will drop down, out of the murk as we decend to the Pacific shoreline.

Dropping out of a special space, for the vegetation is highly specialised, adapted to harvesting all their sustenance out of these fogs. Last night when we pushed our bikes into a secluded valley between two dunes, the plants were drab grey spikes, this morning they have been transformed into life. Beads of moisture edge their serrated leaves, such that at first I wondered if we had had an air frost. It felt cold enough. Now their colours are greener, brighter and red flowers are just starting to emerge. Tenacious survivors, yet their future is perilous. These fragile lomas are under threat from grazing and altering climate patterns.

The respite of horn blast is short lived. The road drops quickly, we have another 'fast runout', down through rock cuts, fast sweeps around bends, free flow. The oncoming traffic moves from vague cutouts to solid substance, to colours and the happy return of interesting driving feats. Those special plants are lost, back into the pastels and soft focus of desertscapes. Back down to the sea and the driest place.