CHILE'S ATACAMA DESERT
BY: MICHNUS OLIVIER - PIKI PIKI OVERLAND
For the umpteenth time, Elsebie and I kick our side stands out, and as quick as possible run over to our Aussie friends to help them out from under one of their bulldust covered bikes. As the fine dust powder cloud drifts away, we see both husband and wife went down, again. They are completely covered with dust, not trying to clean themselves off anymore. The strain and stress of constantly falling on the treacherous dirt track is getting to them. Numb expressions on their dirty faces. Running over to their BMWs I was thinking to myself, how the hell did we get ourselves into such shit?
We are riding at 4000m (13000ft) altitude, it is cold, and there is a fresh brisk wind blowing over the valley nothingness. Picking up bikes wears you down quite quickly. Do it at altitude and it wears you down on the first attempt. To add spice to this day, there was still 200km to go until what we thought would be a road that would be better than the track we are on. We have just started the day and already they have face-planted a couple of times. And you know as Murphy will have it, most of the time stuff just gets worse. A few times they have been pinned down by the bikes and we had to get the bikes of off them. Overall, as the morning got on, the talking got less, and the ritual continued; pick up the bike, make sure they are okay, ride the bike out of the bad pieces, and let them take it from there. Offering some moral support, we kept telling them to just take it easy and that they do not have to worry we are behind them. Just try not to break the bike or bones, because then we are really fucked!
Just a few days prior a border official from Chile met us in a small village and told us to take extra care as the roads are in very poor condition. When, and that is a very thin ‘when’, the heavens open on the Atacama, the place turns into a mud bath and the roads are destroyed. It takes very little rain to wreck the roads. He mentioned the section we were planning to ride was in bad shape with bulldust covering the tracks and you cannot the see the tracks. He mentioned a few weeks prior, a German on a big rental BMW GS had an accident there and lay next to the road with no shade or protection for 16 hours before SPOT rescue was able to get a team to him.
Well, I know how we got ourselves into this level of shit. Again, like always, it is a teachable moment and something that turns these odysseys into such unforgettable memories. More about that later.
We entered Chile from Peru. We turned left from the coast and rode 172km (106mi) straight up to 4000m (13000ft) altitude into the corner Chile and Bolivia. The plan for the Atacama was to ride as much offroad and dirt tracks as possible, but also see some of the sights. Importantly, we wanted to meet up with friends in the middle of the desert for some star gazing. Our route idea was to hug the Chile/Bolivia border and visit a 17km (10mi) long salt Lake, the only reference of which we could find is Monumento Natural Salar de Surire. The Atacama Desert is part of the Altiplano in Bolivia and Argentina, not just in Chile. Stretching over a 1600km (995mi) strip of land west of the Andes Mountains, the Atacama covers an area of 105,000km² (41,000mi²), which increases to 128,000km² (49,000mi²) if the massively sized lower slopes of the Andes are included.
Turning off from the main road between Chile and Bolivia, we overnighted in a small village to stock up on fuel. We had to carry additional fuel for this route. We found in most small places you stand queued to get fuel from drums. These are the routes we spend considerable time to research, and they are mostly the significantly lesser trotted routes. It is all offroad and being self-sustainable is a must. Stocked with food and fuel, the next day we set out to the camp site at the salt lake.
One loyalty card features of our luxury stay at the salt flat was having underfloor heating. Right next to the lake is a hot water spring with scorching hot water. We pitched our tents behind a small salt block wall for protection against the wind. Due to the ground heat, our tents and sleeping mats were toasty inside. The hot spring streams onto the salt lake and is home to plenty of flamingos and vicunas. Close to our tent a few flamboyances of flamingos waded through the muddy waters of the spring. The Atacama Desert has three species of flamingo (James, Chilean and Andean) and they are resilient creatures that have adapted to some of the harshest conditions, and able to tolerate boiling spring water. They even have special glands behind their eyes, allowing them to drink and process salt water, and their tough skins prevent them from turning into a flamingo camp casserole.
The nights got bloody cold and late afternoons the wind would blow the snot sideways out our noses. The term ‘cold desert’ seems oxymoronic, thinking of desert being cold is not what comes to mind.
Apart from being the driest non-polar desert on the planet, the Atacama is also the world’s largest fog desert, as weird as that might be. This is when fog drip supplies the majority of moisture to animals and plants living in a desert.
We set out from the salt Lake early in the morning, and this is where the dirt road handed our dear friends their own asses. The entire route that day was probably the worst washboard, bike-breaker tracks we have ever ridden. Keeping a constant speed we try to allow the bike to float over the washboard but not too fast to get out of shape. It was slow going and we had to stop often to let the shocks cool down and wait for the feeling in our numb tingling hands to return. Eventually late in the evening we rode into a one-horse town with a bare back basic hotel.
Over the course of a few days, we rode incredible tracks with mind-bending beautiful landscapes. It is no wonder NASA tested life-detecting tech in the Atacama Desert to determine if it would work on Mars. It is a weirdly beautiful place, with the Andes Mountains and the Chilean Coastal Range on its sides. The terrain creates a blockage of moisture, making the Atacama Desert a kind of death zone for vegetation, depriving the land of water and nutrients. This is the closest you can get to feeling like a space adventurer without begging SpaceX for a Mars trip, to visit the Atacama. The rich, orange sand, pinkish hues before sunsets and seemingly endless mountain range gives an otherworldly experience that probably cannot be found anywhere else on our planet.
We rendezvous with a couple of American riders at a stargazing farm. There are a few camp sites scattered around the place. The area is apparently a certified dark zone, meaning there is little to no light pollution. Where we camped at the salt lake and other places were just as dark for sure, so this farm is just closer for normal tourists to reach.
Some nights it was just too bloody cold to get out of the tent to shoot Milky Way photos. Nevertheless, imagine the clearest, most unpolluted night skies, with zero clouds in the sky. Meteor showers and the Milky Way dazzling so brightly that it will overcome spiritual hippies and move them into a new way of life. I am no expert on this, but I was told that the Atacama desert clearly shows the southern hemisphere’s most renowned constellations, like the Tarantula Nebula, the Southern Cross and the Large Magellanic Cloud.
During the afternoon, copious amounts of beer and moonshine (Peruvian Piscos) made the rounds between us six intrepid overlanders. The Australian couple was able to relax and laugh about their ordeal and took the banter in good spirit. It is incredible how like-minded people can click and become friends in the space of hours. Mesmerizing stories were shared, the good, the bad and the ugly, living like nomads on motorcycles for months and years on end. We stayed up til 4am the next morning, laying in a massive round dug out pit in the ground where it was easy to gaze up into the heavens, with a small fire in the middle to keep everyone warm.
Going back to our teachable moments: In foreign countries on extended trips, meeting overlanders to travel some parts of a route together is always a very nice support, especially for some companionship.
Nevertheless, companionship comes with some responsibilities. It is a one for all and all for one type of scenario. If and when stuff goes wrong, everyone is in it to help get the group out again. From previous experiences we are weary to travel with overlanders whose bikes or cars are in a near-death condition. That shit box will become someone else’s problem to fix and retrieve, and obviously no one can be that heartless to leave a fellow traveler stranded.
The other aspect is skill levels. Also with previous experiences we have learned many riders overestimate their abilities and skills. It is important to be honest about riding skills. Sure, riding skills can be very subjective, but there is a way to let other riders know how comfortable one is on offroad tracks. Add to that the deception of social media with folks on Dakar replicas, or an overloaded quarter-ton behemoth to tour on based on the advise from people that have never left their own county.
Eventually that evening sitting around the camp fire sharing a bottle of moonshine, everyone was happily teasing and chatting away on why our Aussie friends struggled so much. The couple had little dirt road skills, and they were told by forum and social media experts to use motorcycles too big for them, as well as what and how to pack. With their limited skills they underestimated the terrain and roads. It left them fighting overweight bikes on roads way above their abilities. They avoided many cool places to ride due to the weight and terrain difficulty. With better skill levels they would have probably been in a better situation handling big overweight bikes and limited many of their injuries.
An overweight big bike is no one’s friend to start with, especially offroad, no matter the skill level. When riding in your own backyard, no problem, you can just summon a buddy to come fetch you. When you’re riding in another country however, in places where there’s very little going, traversing roads where distances are measured in hours instead of miles, skills and knowledge are the things keeping you alive.
I am not at all sharing this to be preachy or better knowing, let me make that clear. With social media and that influencer pressure, it is easy to get sucked into not thinking clearly or knowing what might ruin the trip of a lifetime.
Through all this, with an open mind, and a healthy dose of adventure sense and spirit, these challenging moments that our friends endured are what form unforgettable memories to treasure for life. Besides, along the way, through difficulty, you also make friends for life. None of us could’ve dreamed to experience the Atacama desert in such a way. We decided to spend a few days on the Atacama coast before we all head off in our own different directions.
About: Michnus, GenX’er born and bred South African product. Known on PikiPikioverland as the tyre fixer. Not known to follow or believe his own advice however he loves to share stories and inspiration with others. Michnus and his better half, Elsebie, left South Africa 13 years ago on an initial 6 month planned motorcycle trip up to Europe through Africa. Sold mom and the family pets, hit the road exploring on a semi-permanent basis to this day.