Touring cycling in 2020 is not the same. Thanks to COVID-19 much of the world has closed its borders, and few countries as extreme as Australia. Australians are not allowed to leave the country without an exemption from the Government, and most of the state borders are closed. Yearning for my favourite landscapes of bleak nothingness, this year I am staying close to home. This year I’ll be exploring the back blocks of outback New South Wales.

I have put together a rough itinerary based on a few things I have found in the internet. All comments and suggestions are welcome.

  • Aussievelo. Like the Eurovelo long-distance cycle touring network, I found a naissant Australian version of it. I am planning to follow Aussievelo 4 from Sydney to Adelaide as far as Broken Hill.
  • Lake Mungo and the Great Wall of China. Surreal desert rock formations.
  • Menindee Lakes: Visited by famous Australian explorers Burke and Wills.
  • Red Hill Hotel: While googling outback NSW I found this hotel that’s not a hotel in a secret location. Let’s see if I can find it.
  • Cameron Corner: To top-left corner of NSW, where it borders South Australia and Queensland. There’s a little pub in Queensland there.
  • The Cut Line: As remote as it gets in NSW – a dirt track through endless nothingness. Perfect!
  • Bourke: Never been there. Hearing the name brings up images of the outback.
Desert shadow

Desert shadow


If I were to describe my last cycling trip in one word, the word would be ‘tough’. If allowed a few more words, I would add, ‘but beautiful and rewarding’. Here are a few more words of my three week cycle in Chile and Bolivia.

 

Starting in Antofagasta on the coast in Chile, I crossed the Atacama Desert to San Pedro de Atacama. I passed into Bolivia and rode (and pushed) my bike along the Ruta de Lagunas before ending on the Salar de Uyuni – the famous high altitude salt pan in Bolivia.

The Atacama Desert is an incredible moonscape of sand and rock. The rolling landscape is punctuated with rocky mounds poking out from the sand. The earth (and cyclists) are scorched by the sun hanging in the ever cloudless skies.

Atacama Desert

Atacama Desert

The 200km traverse of the desert from Baquedano to Peine saw me pass solitary trees marking the passing away of loved ones, eat lunch in the shade of mine buildings and road signs, and cross the vast salt expanse of Salar de Atacama. It was then an easy amble to San Pedro de Atacama where I spent a few days on an acclimatisation trip to get ready for the tough high-altitude road ‘Ruta de Lagunas’ in south-eastern Bolivia.

The Ruta de Lagunas was tough. Deep sand and a constant gale force headwind meant that I pushed my bike a lot of the way. There were moments I just stopped and hung my head over my handlebars in despair. In the elements you can feel the force of mother nature, and you feel so small and insignificant.

Ruta de Lagunas

Ruta de Lagunas

I camped some of the time and lived it up in luxury when I could. One evening I sat inside with my ‘gourmet meal’ in front of me looking out through the glass panoramic windows out over the inhospitable terrain.

I saw windswept sandy plains, bright pink lakes swarming with feeding flamingos and volcanos lining the horizon. I was sprinkled with snow, buffeted with horizontal sleet and blasted with the eternal headwind. I had a meal with a fox and with big Bolivian rabbits called viscachas.

The goal of my trip was to cycle on the Salar de Uyuni – a massive salt pan on the high altitude plains. Well, it wasn’t meant to be – kind of. Worn down by the struggle, by the time I got there I was exhausted, had diahorrea and didn’t believe I could make it across to the island in the middle of the lake through the soft salt and headwind. My bike trip kind of fizzled out at the lake’s edge. I joined a jeep tour across the lake. I did, however, get the chance to honour the age-old tradition amongst cyclists of taking a nude shot on the lake.

Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni

The trip was challenging and well worth the effort. I love bleak landscapes away from people and my route through Chile and Bolivia certainly provided that.


Well, I had to be in La Paz on Sunday evening anyway. I could extend the bike trip a day or two, but it’d be along a busy main road. I was bussing it today all the way to La Paz.

It was an uneventful trip. I now have a week here sorting out damaged passports and bicycle packing, and so I hereby officially close the Chile and Bolivia cycling blog.

Hasta Luego.


I hadn’t thought to even try, but, there they were, only 50 metres away from us and their jeep, taking the naked on the Salar pic. So, I picked up the nerve and did the same.

The standard Salar photo op

The standard Salar photo op

I was there because of Federico and his group of Spanish tourists. Yesterday’s wind and mushy salt (and rumbly stomach) had left me dejected. Was I going to cross the Salar, and how? He offered me a spot in their jeep, and a way off the other side. I had a lovely time with my new friends. We left before dawn and saw the sunrise on Isla Incahuasi in the middle of the Salar.

Isla Incahuasi

Isla Incahuasi

Isla Incahuasi

Isla Incahuasi

We even played around with the drone a bit.

I was dropped off in Salinas – a town on the other side. Normally it’s a pretty sleepy place, but with Uyuni blocked, all the tourists were here looking for buses. I eventually got a minibus to take me away from obscurity and back to the main road with things like cake. And internet.

Salinas

Salinas


With the winds blowing with all their howling might into my face, and discovering the surface of the Salar is like a churned up sandpit, I returned to whence I had come.

Bike on the Salar

Bike on the Salar

I tried to cycle north to the island in the middle of the dry salt lake but gave up after thinking I couldn’t make it through all this slushy salt by sunset. I tried cycling east to Uyuni but worse slushy conditions prevailed in that direction. Anyway, there’s a massive general strike in Uyuni and I couldn’t catch a bus from there to La Paz anyway as I had originally planned.

Back I went to Colcha K. Passing jeeps suggested I go to a hotel I didn’t realise was open (it’s under construction) in Colcha K and ask if anyone is going north to a place called Salinas.

Part of the way back I caught a bus that was passing.

I didn't feel like cycling

I didn’t feel like cycling

Getting all the details right in Spanish is difficult.

I found a lovely group of Spanish tourists that let me go with them tomorrow to the island in the middle of the lake. I can try to get another lift there. Apparently the salt is as soft leaving the salar as it is entering it, so I really should try to get a lift from the island if I can.

The lovely group of Spanish tourists

The lovely group of Spanish tourists

The salar was meant to be the highlight of the trip, but after all this eternal headwind since entering Bolivia, bad roads, word of strikes that would stuff my plans up, and now my short experience on the salar, I’m really over cycling just for the moment. I just want to talk to my boyfriend and father and relax a bit. No more headwinds or soft sand or salt.

Day 16. 0km. Colcha K

Posted: September 19, 2019 in Bolivia, Cycling
Tags: , ,

There was a pounding on my door.

‘Is the second bed in your room free?’

I had been pulled from my deep sleep. It was the early hours of the morning.

‘It’s occupied,’ came a voice from afar – the owner of the hostel.

Thank God for that!

Today, outside, was Carnival with people dressed in extravagant outfits and the brass bands roaming the streets playing drunkenly out of key. Inside, I was recovering, in a half sleep or listening to my audio book on full volume to hear it above the brass band.

I don’t have any photos from outside. I wasn’t in the mood. I just wanted to stay rugged up and warm to get rid of this gastric problem.


All I could think of was a bed to sleep in immediately as I crawled the last kilometres to Colcha K. My body needed a rest and it was going to take one for it.

On the way to Colcha K

On the way to Colcha K

Neither Jason (the other cyclist) or I slept well. For the first time I wasn’t hungry at breakfast and had to force some calories down. Cycling along the easy road with no wind, I just felt flat. The aim was to power on today to the edge of the Salar and across to the island in tbe middle. Jason didn’t see it happening and wanted to go to Uyuni first. At the turn off to the Salar we split up. He headed directly towards Uyuni planning to stop early at a big town for a rest. I headed towards Colcha K and the Salar, planning to stop early too and start much closer to the Salar tomorrow.

Jason and I

Jason and I

It was 15km to Colcha K from the turnoff on a good road surface. The road for the last 5km wasn’t as good, but still should have been very easy in the grand scheme of things.

All I could think of was a bed. The town was uphill a bit and the hotels that were meant to exist were always just a bit further. One hotel I couldn’t find, another was full. A young boy took me to a hidden guesthouse and the owner welcomed me in for the grand sum of $5.

I put the bike in the room and went straight to sleep (at noon), and I still really haven’t left the bed and it’s 5pm.

Sleep

Sleep

This is how I feel after a long time at altitude. I was thinking I was going to be immune this time. In India, I just stopped for a day’s rest before Lachuna La, drinking lots of rehydration salts. In Tajikistan I felt like this at Karakol too. My body spoke and I listened. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.


‘Are you the other cyclist?’

We talked for hours as we wandered around the sandswept ghost town of San Juan, checking the tiny shops with their bare shelves, and sharing stories and plans.

The ghost town of San Juan

The ghost town of San Juan

Today was an intense day. Dominated by the wind, today also had some hail and sand storms for good measure. And the descent to the plain involved a fair amount of pushing through soft sand.

Pushing downhill

Pushing downhill

The wind was fierce. A headwind. It was blasting diagonally into my face as I inched forward across salt plains towards Chiguana. I alternated from rugging up as I was pelted with a blast of rain, and basking in the (windy) sun. The light games made for some amazing photos of the bike in an endless expanse of salt.

Bike on the expanse of salt

Bike on the expanse of salt

Bike on the expanse of salt

Bike on the expanse of salt

After a lunch break from the wind in the abandoned train station in Chiguana, I continued my battle into the wind. I needed energy to cycle the 30km to San Juan in this wind, so I put on the earphones and listened to Infected Mushroom. The fast music didn’t match the crawling forward. At one point I just stopped in the gale and danced to the music in front of the bike.

Dancing into the wind

Dancing into the wind

Pushing on, the dances became more frequent, letting pieces of clothing stand to attention in the wind.

Dancing into the wind

Dancing into the wind

Dancing into the wind

Dancing into the wind

Mind games with the wind

Mind games with the wind

Then the road veered a bit to the right, and the wind changed direction ever so slightly, and I had a tail wind. The music still pumping, I increased from 6km/h to 30 and laughed with joy. This is what it is all about. There are tough times, but the wind is with you sometimes too, and here I am, catapulting through this incredible lunar landscape. I felt I had the power of gods, I felt honoured, and so very very happy.

Tail wind

Tail wind

Then, 5km from San Juan, the road veered to the left, and I hit deep sand with corrigations. And the true sandstorm took hold. I pushed my bike into the town as the sand was howling down the abandoned streets.

Sand storm

Sand storm

Ghost town of San Juan

Ghost town of San Juan

My plan was to stock up with food, get a SIM card, contact the outside world, and cycle across the salt flats and on to Oruro without visiting the tourist town of Uyuni. The food pickings were slim and very expensive. There was no internet in the whole town and certainly no SIM cards. Now as stocked up as possible, I’m going go bed not knowing where I’ll go tomorrow. In essence, it’ll be which ever direction the wind is blowing with my new cycling partner Jason.


HEADWIND!

Headwind

Headwind

The light morning headwind grew in ferocity as I climbed slowly from the lake over a little pass before the main road.

Leaving the Lagunas

Leaving the Lagunas

Interesting sign

Interesting sign

By the time I pulled in to a little shop on the main road it was blowing an absolute gale. As I was inside having a nice chorizo sausage, it started to hail – horizontal hail.

I left the main road shortly after my chorizo stop onto a sandy track. There was nothing to it. Just like my day leaving Laguna Colorada, I pushed the bike forward a bit, and then stopped and caught my breath. Slowly but surely I made it this way over the last little pass before the end town of the Ruta de Lagunas – San Juan..

Then, suddenly, the sun came out and the wind changed direction. At some point it was even a tailwind.

Heading over the last little pass

Heading over the last little pass

Going downhill with a tailwind was lovely. The road was, however, very broken up, sandy and rocky, so a fast descent wasn’t happening.

The way down

The way down

The way down

The way down

My plan was to make it down the pass and make it to a military base for the night. Again, erring on the side of caution, I stopped at a nice little stone wall windbreak half way down and watched a beautiful sunset as I cooked and ate dinner.

My little camp spot

My little camp spot


‘Have you got snow chains?’ asked the guide.

‘I’m on my bike,’ I replied.

She nodded. ‘It’s going to snow.’

A tiny dusting of snow

A tiny dusting of snow

Today, although the weather looked threatening, the road was mostly firm, I had a tailwind, and I was going downhill. The wind makes so much difference. With the wind at my back I could push on through the soft sandy corrigations. It felt like skiing as I slid down the road over the high pass, banking around the curves as the rocky pebbles sprayed to the side.

The snow in the sun

The snow in the sun

On the way to Laguna Hedionda

On the way to Laguna Hedionda

I left at 7 to allow enough time to get to my destination at Laguna Hedionda. Rather than crawling along at 5km/h, I was flying along, rarely going below 10, and sometimes over 20km/h. I never knew what the weather was going to do. I had a little sleet storm for a little stretch with headwind. The pellets of sleet were like pins on my face.

I arrived at the Ecolodge de Flamincos at Laguna Hedionda at lunch time. It can be a luxurious hotel with prices around USD150 upwards, but they have a ‘refugio’ section for USD9. They welcomed me in and cooked me a calorific lunch (after me asking if the dinner was gourmet but small portions like last night).

Ecolodge de Flamingos

Ecolodge de Flamingos

The lodge is perched on the lake, and you can walk right up to the flamingos. I stood on the lake shore for a long time, still, watching the flamingos just metres away poking their heads in the mud and walking around.

Flamingos

Flamingos