From time to time I had quietly wondered how nothing has really gone wrong on our trip so far. Most, if not majority, of this can be attributed to Carl’s amazing planning skills. He knows how to plan, how to foresee possible issues, how to prepare. I just sail along and try to pick up some breadcrumbs of knowledge to be able to deal with situations on trips I want to tackle in the future. Trips on my own, I mean.
Anyway. When we left Iquique, our plans were to head east to Bolivia, to ride the Laguna route – something Carl would enjoy, knowing it is an off-road ride. I was openly dreading it, but having had experience with some bad roads, like Tupiza to Uyuni, I thought I will deal with it all just fine. Little did I know, we will never make it to Bolivia.
As we were travelling down yet another road in the middle of desert, steadily gaining some altitude (we were traveling from sea level up to 4000m height again), I was thinking about a future blog post and doing some statistics in my head. (Does this mean I am becoming like a real blogger when I have ideas for future posts? Uh, I just want to keep this thing going. Blogging is fun, even if I really don’t know what I am doing and if anyone is reading this at all. Anyway, again.) I was thinking how proud I am that we have never really fallen from our bike or gotten in any incidents and how, truly, I can trust Carl with my life and know that I will be safe no matter what. Now, looking back at the trail of my thoughts, I think it was me who jinxed all the bad stuff that happened with us. Apparently at the same time, Carl noticed that the mileage indicator on the bike showed 666. Go figure.
More than halfway through our trip to some little town called Ollague, we arrived in a place called Collahuasi to be told that we cannot go any further on the nice tarmac road, but have to turn off on a nasty looking dirt road to get to Ollague. Here it began.
At first it was just a badly corrugated road. So corrugated, we had to go super slowly, but still our insides and everything on the outside was shaking violently. To make matters worse, I had a really bad abdominal pain and the shaking did not help it at all. After half an hour of misery, the road started getting sandy. Sand is the worst thing ever when riding with a heavy bike and a pillion on the back. It can make the steering go out of control, so has to be ridden very carefully. For all the carefulness, sometimes shit just happens and so it happened with us – on a turn, we lost the control and next moment we hit the ground with a big thud. Of course, I don’t know a thing about falling gracefully or properly to protect vital organs or anything, so I just landed on the ground like a big sack of potatoes and hurt my hips and left arm. Carl bruised his nose (I really don’t know how, wearing a helmet and all sorts!). There was no time to think about bruises, because we had a heavy task in hand – lifting the 150kg bike with all our luggage on it. Trust me, it is a hard task. A task we had to repeat for God knows how many times as from our unfortunate fall, we started falling and getting stuck in the soft sand a lot.
Then we realised we have taken the wrong turn somewhere as our GPS device suddenly switched from showing 20 miles remaining to Ollague to 41 miles. What the hell? And we were moving possibly at 5 miles per hour with our falling and getting stuck at every corner. I exploded in my usual burst of anger, feeling like it is all Carl’s fault for going the wrong way (I am really not the best girlfriend in these matters). He just told me I can get a bus next time. It was starting to get late, we were in the middle of nowhere, with no cars seen for last few hours, since we turned off the tarmac road and we were shouting at each other. Not good.
We started to consider camping somewhere, seeing that sunset is not far and we are not getting anywhere. We were getting sweaty, tired and hungry. The foreseeable future did not look bright. Yes, we did have camping gear, but we had only few packs of some quick cook noodles and about 500ml of water. Noodles would probably take most of the water, but what about drinking, forget such basics as washing our hands or brushing our teeth. We haven’t had any lunch either, I had just gobbled three 70kcal cereal bars earlier that did not give me any energy at all. Carl had nothing.
Besides our tiny ration of food, we were at altitude of 4000m. It is not recommended to ascend more than 500m in a day if you are over 2500m. We just did 1500m in few hours. Altitude sickness posed a real threat and with no water, it just made matters worse. Also we were not quite sure how long would it take us to get somewhere the next day. We decided to track back to Collahuasi and go back to Iquique, fearing that the road to Bolivia might hold more nasty surprises and our bags and bike were already damaged – the right mirror snapped off, one of the break levers was broken and one of our extra fuel containers was all smashed. Our luggage on the right side was furiously rubbing against the tire and we were fearing it might set on fire what with all the fuel canisters strapped around the bike (we need to carry a lot of fuel just for situations like this).
With our tent set up, we cooked the noodles with a tiny bit of water left which I left for Carl, because I rarely drink any water for some odd reason, but he always has to stay hydrated. We huddled together in the tent, as the darkness started spreading around and chatted about our experiences of the day, when Carl started complaining that he feels very cold. I was alarmed straight away as we have really good duck down sleeping bags meant for up to -15 degrees Celsius and usually we are boiling in them no matter how cold it is outside. Next thing, he got up quickly, jumped out of the tent and I could hear him throwing up violently. What if he was suffering from the altitude sickness? I was seriously worried. We zipped our bags together, so I could give him some warmth, but various terrible thoughts kept going through my head. I thought of all the stories of people not knowing about the altitude sickness, going to sleep and then never waking up. I thought about the conversations we had with other travellers about how this is not to be taken lightly and if experiencing any symptoms, a person should descend immediately. I couldn’t help it – tears came streaming down my face in a terrifying thought that I could loose him. Yes, I know, so dramatic. But lying there in the dark, not knowing what was going on and not knowing what the next day will bring was just too much. I could not sleep for most of the night, feeling scared and with aching sides. Around midnight I started craving water and juice. All I could think about was liquid passing my lips. And maybe a nice biscuit as well.
We woke up only around 8am, feeling rather weak and apprehensive. We still had 30 miles to get to the tarmac road and we already knew how terrible the dirt road is, now all we had to do was to retrace our steps from the previous day. We packed our bags and divided our last mouthful of water. Who knew how long it would take us to get any water again. What we did know was the fact, we did not have enough petrol to get to the nearest petrol station more than 100 miles away. We would just have to sit on the side of the road and hope for some help.
We went slowly, careful not to fall again and waste our time trying to get the bike up. It took almost three slow hours to get back to the tarmac, with the hot sun blazing on us. Somewhere along the way we ate the remaining two low calorie cereal bars we had with us, which kind of cheered us up. Once we reached Collahuasi, we stopped near the only building on the side of the road – Carabineros de Chile, or police. Carl walked in in hopes of some water and, bless them, they immediately gave us a 1.5 l bottle of water which we emptied halfway straight away, pure joy. Now it was just about 3 hours to Iquique. Still no food.
The nearest petrol station was about 40 miles from Iquique, in Pozo Almonte. We were only 11 miles away from the place when even our last petrol came to an end. What a joke. Just as we were about to stop, we noticed a group of barn buildings on the side of the road and with a nod to each other, we turned into the driveway, encouraged by seeing an old car parked by a house. Surely they would have some extra petrol. Carl walked in to be greeted only by a little girl, but straight away her mother appeared from the other side of the road. As well, as we could in our broken Spanish, we tried to explain that we need 1 – 2 litres of petrol. Straight away, no questions asked, the lady pointed to the old car. The petrol was there, we just had to find a way to get it out. She supplied a hose and Carl tried the age old method of sucking it out, but it just ended up with him breathing in fumes and coughing. There was no way we could get that petrol. It felt very awkward. The lady tried to do it herself, but still no luck. We were just trying to say that it is fine, we will get back on the road and try to catch someone driving past when she told us to wait, because her husband is coming home. The husband in question arrived in 5 minutes, and after a little chat with his wife, again, no questions asked, got back in his car and drove off. His wife signalled to us to wait again, because he had gone to get some petrol for us. We felt really bad for these people putting so much effort in to help us and we could only say ‘Thank You’ with our limited language. Soon enough the husband was back, holding a canister in his hands with a victorious smile on his face. Carl tried to offer him some money, but the couple just would not have it, smiling and waving our money away. All we could do, was mutter heartfelt thanks, fill up the tank and go.
In 5 minutes we were in the petrol station. By now it was 4pm and finally we could have all the food, water and juice we wanted. It felt so strange to be back surrounded by people, being back to normal. It felt like last night with all it’s scary moments never happened.
I feel that this situation reminded both of us how much human kindness there is in the world and how it gets things moving. Yes, we did get in a bad situation, but there were people who helped us without a question, without expecting anything back, they helped because that is the human thing to do. Faith in humanity restored. Also, the fact is, you can be as prepared as anything, but things can go wrong at any time. We are back in Iquique now, re-planning our route. We certainly won’t be going to Bolivia again and will never attempt to toy with being at altitude, lesson learned.