The Salt Flats and the South West Circuit.

Before we left Prague the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia was one of the destinations on our trip I was most looking forward to. I’d marvelled at other travellers descriptions and photos of the perfectly flat plain filled with sparkling hexagonal crystal white salt tiles.

In Sucre we’d met our fellow overlanders Michael and Natasha (Swiss Land rover drivers) and Max and Tanya with their young children Clara and Robert (German Bremach drivers) again and as we were all heading to the salt flats on the same time we asked if we could join up with them. Steve’s main concern was that we’d break through the salt crust, this can be a real issue at different times of the year. We’d heard some horror stories about other overlanders breaking through and being stuck in up to the axles. It is so remote that it would be a major headache to get help if you couldn’t get yourself out. We met up with them in the dusty town of Uyuni just a few kilometres from the flats, ready for the next day. As we were wandering around town we saw a camper van we recognised well, it was the Tioga our French friends Carine, Andreas and family had been travelling in. This time though it had a new family in it, the French family are sadly heading home soon and they’d sold it a few days before to an Austrian family. We introduced ourselves to Christophe, Astrid, Eo and Linus, as they were also heading onto the flats the next day we decided to go all together.

Not wanting to sleep on the street in town we tried to head the short distance out of town to the “train cemetery” in convoy in the dark after excellent pizza. We couldn’t find the right dusty desert track, so parked up in a circle for the night. We awoke to find ourselves in the middle of a rubbish dump in the desert but quite close to the cemetery. It is where Bolivian Railways has dumped a whole load of rusting steam trains. We drove over and both adults and children alike had great fun playing on the old trains.

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After getting the undersides of the four vehicles sprayed with a thin layer of oil to protect them from the salt we headed north towards the flats. Luckily as it was in the middle of the dry season the salt was hard and easy to drive on. There are lots of land cruisers that come out onto the flats as part of tours, so you could see their tracks which made it easier to stay on the thicker parts. The day was cloudy and overcast and as the edges of the flats are more brown coloured. I was initially a little underwhelmed, where was the sparkling crystals I had dreamt of seeing. After a look round an abandoned salt hotel, we drove to Isla Incahuasi and parked up for the night. Lots of the tours visit the islands during the day but it was beautifully quiet at night. I awoke early to see a perfectly clear sky lit up by a full moon, it was stunning.
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As the sun rose and the sky turned azure blue, the Salar de Uyuni lived up to its reputation of being one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

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We drove further into the Salar to Isla Pescador, where almost no one visits and parked up for in a beautiful spot. Not too close to the island though, as that is where the salt is thinnest. The six children spent most of the day “mining” for salt in shallow caves on the edge of the islands. We all joined together to celebrate Natasha’s birthday with fondu and cake before the sun set and the temperature dropped to an icy minus 5°C.

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The white background of the flats gives a perfect background to take lots of silly photos playing with the lack of perspective.

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The so named South-west circuit of Bolivia is just outside the Salar and is known as one of the most spectacular drives in South America but the going is really tough. We waved goodbye to the Austrians as the Tioga isn’t made for off-road driving. Remote, wiggling between high volcanos the rough sandy track passes flamingo studded lakes and weird shaped rock forms. The “roads” were some of the worst we’ve come across, with rocky patches, sand and Steve’s personal favourite: bone shaking corrugations that rattled the truck so hard it seemed remarkable that it was in one piece when we stop. Most of it was though high altitude flat valleys but there were quite a few climbs an narrow, rock strewn paths. All of this between 4000 and 5000m high.

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Late afternoon the shaking all got too much for the truck and we heard an almighty melodic rattle from the engine. Straight away we recognised the sound, it was the left disc brake cover that had sheared all 3 of its attachment points and was now rattling free in a frenetic dance under the truck. The right hand side one had done exactly the same thing outside Panama City. In Panama we found a garage that could remake the three points. Here miles from anywhere that wasn’t an option but it isn’t essential but not ideal on rough roads. With Max and Michael’s extra muscle and experience Steve was able to remove the front wheel, take off the offending part and put the wheel back on in just 30 minutes. Unfortunately this time when it came off it had severed a cable. Luckily it was only a sensor cable so the truck can still drive ok. We parked up for the night underneath a volcano that marked the Chilean-Bolivian border, each vehicle carefully angled to catch the morning sun’s rays on the diesel tanks and to minimise the affect of the gale force winds. We tucked warm up inside once the sun had set for another freezing cold night.

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SONY DSCIt looks harmless enough but those little ridges shook the truck and us almost to bits.

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It was 11 o’clock the next morning before we could get all the vehicles started and get back on the road. The cold had frozen the diesel in the Bremach’s tank and the lack of oxygen at the high altitude makes it difficult for all the engines to start. Without a cloud in the sky, the high altitude scrubby desert was every colour from yellow, orange to brown. Although virtually uninhabited there were lots of horribly corrugated crisscrossing tracks through all the valleys from the land cruiser tours. The views kept on getting better and better though, as we stopped for lunch beside a salt crusted lake filled with flamingos. We arrived in time for sunset at the look out over Laguna Colorado. It was another freezing night on the small hill above the lake, it went down to minus 13°C at our highest camp yet of 4325m. We couldn’t get any of the vehicles started before 11.30 the next morning, even with boiling water under the diesel filters. It gave us time for a walk along the lake, admiring its frozen edge.

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We picked up an unwanted travelling companion on the bad road: “the knock”. Amongst the other horrendous noises coming from the truck as we shook our way along, this particular one sounded very ominous. The other overlanders were making their way to Chile, so the South-west circuit was on their route. For us though, as we are planning on going to Paraguay next, it was a scenic detour. Weighing up all the pros and cons at lunch we decided to head eastwards to Tupiza missing out the last two lakes on the circuit, which would have been a whole days extra driving. We sadly waved goodbye to the others and headed off. 15 minutes later a new swishing noise joined the cacophony, a puncture. Each of our tyres weigh 120kg and our spares are mounted high on the back, not an easy task to change. We were very thankful when the others pulled up behind us a little while later and helped us change and remount the tyre. The wind was bitingly cold, blowing dust in all our eyes. It took us 1.30 hours even with help.

Setting off again we decided to drive until we were below 4000m, to give the truck a chance to start the morning. We jiggled along at barely 30km/hr on the remote desolate track. By 8pm we were still no lower than 4200m, so we decided to call it a night at the turning for Tupiza. It is only the second time we have used our massive spotlights on the top of the truck.

We had parked just next to the entrance to the Reserva National de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, so while we were waiting for the sun to warm the engine. Steve went off and asked about the road to Tupiza. It didn’t sound good, rough and over many mountains with no where near to get the flat tyre fixed. The quickest way would to be to return to Uyuni, half of which would be on a better dirt road and then go to Tupiza, a 200km further drive also on a dirt road. Even though Uyuni and Tupiza were roughly equidistant from where we were parked. It was a two day hard drive to Tupiza either way but at least we could hopefully get somethings fixed in Uyuni. Thankfully the engine started at 9am but it was lunchtime before we hit the better dirt road, the track was relentlessly terrible right up to the last metre. The smoother dirt road into Uyuni felt very good.

Although the roads on the South-west circuit were absolutely atrocious, the scenery was magnificent. Let’s just hope there was no lasting damage to the truck and we can get everything fixed in Uyuni.

3 thoughts on “The Salt Flats and the South West Circuit.

  1. I love, love, love the photos. This too is on our bucket list ever since I read 360 degree longitude. The pictures make it look even more stunning. Sorry to hear that the relentless shaking has done some damage. Hope it is a quick fix when you get to Tupiza!

    • Thanks Kerri. Ill have to have a look at 360 longitude. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get the truck fixed in Uyuni, so we’ve taken a detour over the border to Chile. We are getting two new shock absorbers fitted as I type. Hope you are enjoying SE Asia. Gilly

  2. You achieved it and sounds as good as you had hoped but so glad you had the others with you! Hope truck sorted out soon. Miles and Georgie’s wedding here today in Dubrovnik, so all Pillows join in sending much love.

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