Travel: Mixing with the salt of the earth

The desert lands of south-west Bolivia are remote and unearthly. Kerry McKibbin spent five days in a surreal landscape.

"Five hundred dollars and food not included? You want us to starve to death in the desert? Think of my mother, I beg of you," said the Israeli tourist.

For a good hour I had been convinced that I was the only tourist in town. Certainly, I had been the only traveller among the old men gathered at the main square, exchanging the evening's gossip under a watery sunset. As I'd ventured up the Avenida Ferroviaria, a bowler-hatted woman had stridden ahead of me, her coca-leaf wares wrapped in a pink, woven shawl, and her child waddling behind, tightly padded against the intense cold, his arm stretching up to hold the end of his mother's plait. Both were dwarfed by the statue of an armed railway worker which dominated the main street of Uyuni, the last outpost on the edge of the Bolivian desert, and the main base from which desert expeditions begin. Survival on such journeys requires two things: endurable companions and a driver with a compass in his head. As a solo traveller, I was on the lookout for both.

As I entered the tourist office, the other foreigner was bargaining hard: "OK. Three hundred dollars - but I'll find five more people." His eyes lit up as he saw me. "Four more people." One more Israeli, a Swiss and a French couple later, we'd secured a five-day round trip. A teachers' strike also provided us with Quintin, who, instead of delivering lessons on natural science, became our driver.

Early the next day, with pan-pipe music blaring, our four-wheel drive vehicle headed towards an intriguing strip of white salt that glimmered in the distance. We exchanged the usual introductory stories of tropical diseases suffered, while the desert crept upon us unexpectedly. Suddenly the vehicle skidded. We were driving across the flats of Salar de Uyuni. A blinding white sheet of tightly packed salt crystals, forming interlocking, octagonal tiles, stretched from one horizon to another. Only a faint, brown track where the salt crust had been worn by previous Jeep tyres indicated human intrusion. We were surprised, therefore, to encounter a commuter.

In front of us, a boy wearing a balaclava and sunglasses shovelled salt on to a pile, licking his finger and marking it with his initials. Quintin waved in recognition. The boy was one of the salt farmers who cycle daily from Colchani to work the 10 billion tonnes of salt for export to Brazil.

Apart from such commuters, the edge of the Salar boasted an hotel, also made of salt blocks. Here, guests sat on salt chairs around salt tables, admiring salt ornaments which already included a Christmas tree complete with baubles. Stopping for lunch, we played table football, trying to reassure ourselves that this was still the same planet we'd been inhabiting that morning. But the faraway Isla de Pescadores with its carpet of cacti continued to shimmer and float on the midday heat haze.

Back on the track, Jeeps from competing companies accelerated past us, throwing up clouds of dirt which coated my tongue with red, metallic- tasting dust. Brown, sloping hills rhythmically rose and fell to pan pipes while the French couple began to complain that the Swiss traveller's one cassette, Musica de los Andes, was becoming wearing.

Occasionally we would encounter sculptured erratics, desert versions of twisted, wind-blown trees. Small lakes would appear ahead, and rare James flamingos with shocking-pink wings took flight at the sound of our engine.

That evening, in the village of San Juan, I crept down the main dirt track to the church, my footsteps startlingly loud. No trees wave their branches here. No traffic passes. No birds sing. Untying the chicken wire at the gate, I passed graves with wooden crosses. Some were decorated with flowers; not all were named. Like the surrounding dwellings, the thatched church was made of adobe bricks. Its tower, no higher than 12ft, supported two pottery vases and a crucifix. From behind me the sun cast an orange light, and the purple shadows in the crevices of the mountains increased with the fading light. The church door was slightly ajar and in the beam of my torch I picked out a sack of skulls. Next to it was another containing leg bones; another with arms and spines. A distant cry intruded as women herded their llamas into stone pens, pulling their shawls tight as the sun finally went down.

Back at our communal room, the Swiss boy, suffering altitude sickness, had stuffed his mouth with coca leaves. Meanwhile the Israelis investigated the outhouses, and reported a lack of showers. At least we were to be saved the nightly terror which accompanies electrically-heated (and badly wired) Bolivian showers. In the darkness of the room, pan-pipe music played softly. "For God's sake!" came exasperated French hisses. I could see my breath in the moonlight. It was minus 20 degrees outside.

The desert defied my senses. Mirages held inverted reflections of hills; lagoons changed their colour as the winds blew. Laguna Colorada appeared red; Laguna Verde's grey mixed to blue and then to green as the temperature of its minerals rose. High at the Sol de Manana, 4,800 metres above sea level, the earth squealed scalding steam; sulphur clouds rose up, enveloping my companions whose silhouettes looked trapped against the early morning sun.

And in the midst of this wilderness, we encountered blasted check-points - one of them a camouflaged military camp where the Bolivian flag fluttered madly in the wind and two soldiers, who looked about 16, stood around in tattered uniforms. They allowed the Israelis, who had just finished their military service, to check out their rifles before receiving an angry dressing-down from their commander for handing over their weapons. Meekly, they checked our passports, lifted the road barrier and, returning to the jeep window, asked whether we had any sweets.

After five days and 870 kilometres, we returned in darkness to Uyuni. The town, we agreed, looked almost welcoming, and the prospect of a hot meal at El Rosedal was positively luxurious. As we ordered, Edith Piaf was playing in the background.

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