Stuck in the middle with you
No roads. No signposts. Mountains and volcanoes are the only landmarks but, to an untrained eye, one blends into another and they all look the same.
The snow-white salt crust stretches far into the distance causing perspective to cease to exist. What you think is a speck of dirt turns out to be a shiny 4WD, speeding into the horizon. The people you think you see waving from the top of a rock formation are actually giant cacti, hundreds of years old, standing proud guard over the wilderness below.
On an overland journey across Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest and highest salt plain, we discover the consequences of its remoteness the hard way.
The start seems so carefree, compared to what's to come. We're setting off from Uyuni, a small dusty town of no particular consequence but one which is set to grow inconceivably in the next few years. Bolivia holds about 60 per cent of the world's lithium resources which are only just starting to be exploited. With the burgeoning mining industry, Uyuni is set to become the fastest growing city in Bolivia.
It's hard to believe as we wait at La Joya Andina Aueropuerto Internacional ("the joy of the Andes international airport"), a small terminal surrounded by dirt plains and distant mountains.
We land early in the morning and for a moment the airport is a hive of activity as tourists pick up their luggage and head off on organised tours, while groups of moustachioed miners check in for their departing flights. Soon we are the only group in the terminal, waiting for our guides to pick us up.
We amuse ourselves in the lone open store, which sells postcards, chocolates and "authentic" Ray Bans for 35 bolivianas (about $6), while the stereo system blasts Latin music and easy listening classics.
Before long our vehicle arrives. We're travelling with explora, a company specialising in travel to remote parts of South America, focusing on "an intense interaction with nature and local culture". Explora has lodges in Patagonia, Easter Island and Chile's Atacama desert, where we will eventually end up. Our journey is called a Travesia - a nomadic-style trip starting in Uyuni, travelling across the Salar, before crossing the border into Chile, and our final destination of San Pedro de Atacama.
Our guide, Alvaro, and driver, Felix, welcome us warmly and load our gear into a shiny eight-seater Ford with comfortable leather seats and polarised windows, perfect for spending long hours gazing out at the salt plains.
As we drive, Alvaro gives us tips for keeping healthy - we'll be at 3800 to 4200 metres above sea level for the next few days and although we've had time to acclimatise, altitude sickness can strike any time. He tells us to drink plenty of water, especially before bed, eat light meals, apply sunblock every two hours and always wear sunglasses, especially when walking on the salt plains where the sun reflects off the bright white surface.
But his main tip for making the most of the trip, he says, is to "have the will to enjoy. Nothing else".
As we drive, the plains appear in the distance like a mirage, reflecting light and patterns from the surrounding volcano ranges. The Salar de Uyuni covers an area of more than 10,000 square kilometres, and although it is the major transport route across the Bolivian Altiplano, there are no marked roads so it's easy to get lost. But, Alvaro assures us, Felix has lived and worked here so long "he knows exactly where to head".
These are words that will come back to haunt us later in the trip.
As the sun reaches its highest point, we get out of the car for our first walk on the salt plain. Felix drives into the distance to prepare lunch and we walk straight until we meet him.
The feeling of solitude is overwhelming - there is no sound apart from the scrunch of hiking boots on the salt crust and the occasional distant motor; no bird calls or animals - just us, the salt and the mountains.
It becomes impossible to judge distances and perspective; if you close your eyes and spin around a few times you can't be sure you're heading in the right direction once you open them again. It's a beautiful yet unforgiving landscape, with sunburn coming easy and the salt air causing eyes to sting.
The feeling of peace is overwhelming, however. No cellphone coverage, no other people, nothing but nothingness, as far as the eye can see.
As we approach the truck, Felix backs it up in a big reveal gesture - behind it he has set up a line of camp chairs and a lunch table full of antipasto treats, wine, beer and hot drinks, all laid out beautifully on a colourful woven Bolivian cloth. This will be his party trick for the rest of our journey - hiding behind the van to prepare one surprise after another - champagne at sunset, freshly thrown together crab salad another lunchtime.
We spend our afternoon walking on Isla Incahuasi (Incan Island), a cactus-covered rock formation that seems to appear out of nowhere and, strangely when we haven't seen a soul for hours, is full of other tourists.
After a short hike that puts our altitude-addled lungs to the test, we find our way to our first camp, Tahua, under the shadow of a 5000m-plus volcano, Tunupa.
The explora-owned camp is a collection of traditional stone, thatched-roof huts, adapted to suit the Travesia's needs. The three bedrooms have small but comfortable stretcher beds, there are three bathrooms with hot running water, plumbed toilets and showers, and a kitchen block with a communal table where we gather that evening for a hot meal prepared by Ortensia, Felix's wife, and Sulma, her assistant.
There is no electricity so we dine under gas lamps and sleep in layers of thermals. Temperatures can drop to minus-10 degrees Celsius at night, so getting out of toasty sleeping bags to go to the bathroom at first seems like an ordeal. But once I step outside and see the millions of stars lighting the clear night sky, I realise it's not so bad after all.
We rise W early to pack up and make our way to our second camp, Chituca. While our support vehicle containing Ortensia, Sulma and driver Oscar heads straight there, we stop to hike to the top of Isla del Pescado (Fish Island).
Unlike Isla Incahuasi, Fish Island is empty of other tourists. There are no walking tracks, instead we grab walking poles and follow in experienced hiker Alvaro's footsteps.
He's as nimble as a llama on the steep, rocky tracks; the rest of us huff and puff our way, the altitude making even the fittest among us gasp for breath. The 360-degree views at the top are outstanding, with the volcanoes in the distance and a tiny black speck - our van - far below.
Trying to ignore thoughts of what might happen if one of us slipped, we make our way gingerly back to level ground, where we're met by a hearty lunch expertly prepared again by Felix.
Packing up and driving on, Felix receives a call from Oscar. The young, less-experienced driver has become lost and ventured into a part of the Salar where the salt is slushy and unsafe. Our support crew trio are well and truly stuck. They are trying to dig out the truck but they need help.
Oscar's best guess at his location is "in the middle of the salt plain, in front of the volcano". Finding them will not be an easy task. Felix thinks he knows where they are but communication is difficult - the explora-provided satellite phone is temperamental at best and doesn't always connect.
We drive in circles for three hours until finally, with sunset only an hour away, we spot them. All hands are on deck for the rescue mission. We park our van a few hundred metres away in order not to get stuck ourselves and form a human chain transporting all the food, luggage and camp equipment from Oscar's truck onto ours.
But the gods are not smiling on us - by the time we have loaded up our van, the salt has started to melt around our tyres and we have also become bogged. Nightfall is quickly creeping up on us, bringing with it below freezing temperatures. It's a flurry of activity which tests the patience of everyone - some people dig out tyres while others unload the truck to make it lighter; we raid our discarded luggage and change into extra layers to beat the cold. But even in multiple thermals, down jackets, hats and gloves, it's bitterly cold and that truck just isn't moving. We achieve nothing, and emotions become fraught.
The realities of our situation encroach on me like the approaching darkness - the satellite phone, our only method of communication, isn't working. And even if it did, help is at least two hours away. If we stay outside on the plain overnight we will freeze; if someone becomes ill we have no way of helping them. With language barriers and Latin male pride at stake, there seems to be no clear contingency plan.
Anyone researching a trip to the Salar would see warnings that this happens to vehicles quite regularly - so why, on a trip with a high-end price tag, marketed at "active retirees", is there no feasible plan to get us out of here?
The frustration and the cold become too much so there is a change of tack - while some of us keep warm inside the van, a few hardy souls move back to the support vehicle and attempt to dig that out. Finally, after a lot of hard work and ingenuity, it gets freed and drives to more stable ground.
The human chain springs back into action and we load up its trailer and some of the group drive to the edge of the Salar, and unload, before Felix comes back to pick up the rest of us. This whole process has taken hours and it's now after 11pm and minus-5 degrees outside.
We huddle in the van and try to keep spirits up, sipping on the red wine supplies and eating cheese and crackers, sleeping bags tucked around our knees like pensioners on a picnic.
Finally the second van returns and we pack the rest of our gear then pile into the bench-seated Jeep and leave Oscar to spend the night in our comfortable, luxury van. The ordeal is far from over - it takes us an hour to find the others who are guarding our things, then all luggage and equipment must be packed onto the roof and into the trailer, like the highest stakes game of Tetris ever played.
Eventually we are all in and we sit, cramped and uncomfortable, travelling on bumpy dirt roads for two hours to reach the camp we should have arrived at by 5pm. It's now 2am and if we weren't all so exhausted we'd probably be furious.
SEEING THE FUNNY SIDE
Waking the next day from a surprisingly restful sleep, the events of the day before are still firmly on our minds but luckily, most of us are trying to focus on the funny side and the stories we'll be able to tell when we get home. "Remember that time we almost died on the Bolivian salt plains," we'll laugh drily.
The new campsite certainly helps - Chituca, which is 3800m above sea level, has the most beautiful outlook, a vista like our own private art gallery with one giant landscape painting on display, the colours changing with every movement of cloud and sun. We are forced to lose a day of our itinerary as Felix returns to free Oscar and our stranded van but we are all grateful for the opportunity to unwind.
We hike up the cactus-lined hills behind the camp, then return and sit silently in a line watching the sunset turn the volcanoes shades of orange and pink before the stars appear. We make a bonfire and drink Chilean wine, relaxing and laughing, our group strongly bonded after our "near-death" experience.
The journey is due to continue the next day - we will spend a gruelling 12 hours in the van travelling to the Chilean border and beyond to San Pedro de Atacama and a few nights of luxury and planned excursions at explora's lodge - horse riding, trekking, hot pools and flamingo watching at sunset.
But for now we are content to sit in one place, warmed by the fire, wines in hand and laughter in the air. Less than 24 hours previously, when the van looked like it would never be freed and I could feel the cold creeping into my bones, I remember thinking I would never want to return to Bolivia again.
But as time passes, certain memories fade while others stubbornly remain - the beauty of the salt plain, the fresh air, silence and solitude, and the camaraderie of strangers thrown together in a testing situation, coming out the other side the best of friends.
That's the thing about Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni. It's beautiful, frustrating, isolating and tests you to your limits. But above all else, it is completely and utterly unforgettable.
Stephanie Holmes travelled courtesy of LAN Airlines and explora.
Sunday Star Times