This is the story of a lonely walk across the largest salt desert in the world - Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia - by Mateusz Waligóra
“Can you see that mountain on the horizon? It’s Tunupa. According to the legend, she was a woman who married Kusku. But he abandoned her for another, Kusina. While breast-feeding their son, Tunupa started to cry. Her tears mixed with milk and formed Salar. Simple, isn’t it?”
Alfredo has been living on Incahuasi island, in the middle of the greatest salt flat in the world, for 26 years now. To him, as well as to other Almara people, this place will always be called Salar de Tunupa. Full of mysticism, rich in legends and traditional beliefs, does not leave a soul untouched. Maybe that’s why I’ve been here two times now. On the other day, when I was leaving the little town of Llica, the natives where standing at the thresholds of their stone huts, drawn by the uncommon view of a Gringo pulling a cart. It was beyond their understanding that anyone is willing to cross Salar de Uyuni on foot. To me, it was a beginning of a great adventure set to end in the town of Colchani after merely one hundred seventy kilometres and approximately ten days. The goal? To cross the world’s biggest salt flat alone. Pulling all the equipment on a cart behind me?—?with no help. What for? In times when all decisions are preceded by the inevitable question: “Is it worth?”, thinking of the purpose of my venture made literally no sense. The vision of the limitless plane of salt merging with incredibly blue sky was all that mattered to me. So little and yet so much.
In the morning on the third day, I was greeted by the Sun. Its rays helped me warm up my hands, numb from the cold, and light the camping stove. After a few spoonfuls of sweet tea I dare to unzip the sleeping bag. The night was cold, thin layer of frost covers the flysheet. Having had a few spoons of muesli with milk, I put shoes on my frozen feet and pack my gear consisting of a warm, downy sleeping bag that protects me from the cold even when the temperature drops to -40 degrees Celsius, a hurricane-proof tent, some food and six ten-litre bags filled with water. There is no way to draw water from any source in the Bolivian Salar de Uyuni. That’s why I pull all my things stacked on a specially designed cart. It’s wheels have extremely wide tires?—?the same that I’d used on the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia.
It was in the Antipodes, where I got the bug for desert crossing. It’s the permanent silence, undisturbed peace. And that is what Salar de Uyumi is. When the wind doesn’t bother me, the silence is absolute. The only sound breaking it is the salt crunching under my feet. Music to my ears. When you travel on foot, steps seem to set this dull rhythm, aggravated by dozens of thoughts squirming in your head and the march ultimately becomes meditation. From dawn to dusk. Day after day.
Four days after the departure from Llica I arrive to the Incahuasi island, where I’m greeted by its first settler?—?Alfredo. He tells me the local legend. This small rocky island in the middle of a great sea of salt was once a tip of a volcano. It is overgrown by hundreds of cacti, some of them old enough to remember the Christianization of Poland. A truly UNIQUE view unfolds from the top of the island. I’ve seen salt flats in many different parts of the world?—?in Australia, Chile, Argentina. But the vastness of this place overshadows them all. Along with lakes Titicaca and Poopo, Salar de Uyuni is a remainder of a gigantic Pleistocene lake, Lake Ballivian. It’s one of the flattest areas in the world, with the altitude variation of barely 41 centimetres, what makes it ideal for calibrating GPS devices. During the Bolivian summer it’s covered by a thin layer of water and becomes the biggest natural mirror on Earth. An illusion of the horizon blurring and fading between two endless blue planes may once and forever redefine the meaning of ‘INCREDIBLE’ for those who have the chance to witness it.
Salar may also be deceptive. I took on the risk at the very start?—?whatever I may encounter, I have to face it alone. The is no escape route and there is a lot that can happen. Even in the winter, when the weather seems stable, it can turn on you within a few hours. Theoretically, there is little chance of a snow storm?—?a perfect killer?—?like in 2002, when a couple of dead cyclists were found on Salar. In case of the weather braking, there are no landscape elements that can provide shelter. From a safe spectator I may, within seconds, find myself in the middle of the this great battle between wind and snow.
Having that scenario in mind as well as all the other thoughts I can’t shake off makes it even more difficult to walk. I start to appreciate the peace surrounding me, free from all the burden of the regular day. That peace of mind, when nobody tries to pitch you no ‘bs’ like “you need to buy a new TV”, or “this dietary supplement will make you healthy and happy like no other”. My only supplement is the morning pain pill and it does not make me happy. Besides:
“The best things in life are for free. Free of charge! Don’t you know that? Then your heart must be tainted black”. (Eldo - Miasto Slonca)
One evening I find sizable cracks in the layer of salt filled with water. Albeit irrationally, I start to feel a bit worried. The salt crust under may feet is at least several-metre thick. If it can bear the load of racing ORVs it can bear my tent. And even though the logic seems to be the best advisor, I perform every single hammer hit on the head of a steel nail?—?the only thing that can go through the concrete hard salt and peg my tent to the ground?—?with greatest caution. At night, despite the sharp frost, I step outside. The view of the Milky Way tearing apart the deep blackness of the sky makes me forget about the fear. I take photos. I feel happy.
On the next day I notice on the horizon a line of off-roaders stuffed with tourists. They pose the greatest threat to me, especially when I’m camping. Bolivian drivers don’t care much about safety on and off road, which leads to many tragedies. Seven years ago, Salar de Uyuni made all headlines in Israel and Japan. Eleven citizens of those countries had been killed in a head-on collision of two off-roaders. It was not the first time, when the desert silence was broken by gas tank explosions and sounds of cars crashing. But has that in any way changed the way excursions to Salar are organised? No. The authorities of the independent city of Uyuni set up a memorial pedestal, but meanwhile, 10 billion of salt remain the silent witness of dramatic events. The sounds of camera shutters and car windows rolled down snap me out of meditation. One of many tourist groups decides to take photos of me with their phones. No “hello”. Not a single word. What a nonsense.
“I’d like to believe, that somebody still cares, that the world is more than Starbucks coffee and iPhones”. (Eldo - Rybalci)
I find the last two days of marching the hardest. And it’s not about the lips dried and cracked by scorching sun nor the blisters on my feet. Even the altitude of my journey, exceeding 3,500 metres, is not a problem. Not merely several days ago I stood at the top of a six-thousander, I am more than well acclimatised. The other end of Salar, getting closer. That is the problem. There will always be a special bond between me and deserts. I only wonder, if it’s possible to:
“Travel without destination, to get there as late as possible, or even... not to get there at all”.
I believe it is.