In 2019 I spent four months riding in South America on a little 150CC Honda, this is one of a series of posts telling short stories from that trip.
When anyone asks the inevitable question – what was your favourite part of your trip in South America – it’s Uyuni which sticks in my mind more than anywhere else. I didn’t expect it to. I really only visited because I was in the area and it wasn’t a substantial detour; my expectation was that it would be filled with tourists in every imaginable form of off-road vehicle bombing about all over the place or, worse, organised tours taking cheesy photos playing with the perspective. Yuck.
I’ve always found that the moments, movies, experiences or people who really stand out in my memory are those which exceed your expectations. The salt flats were certainly one of these experiences, although not entirely for the very best of reasons.
I’d booked into a hotel in the town of Uyuni for a couple of nights; I needed a break from the tent and the price at the Onkel Wagon Inn was right. As was the company; the manager Chris was a proper geek and it was hugely enjoyable to release my inner nerd and talk Star Trek all evening. The next morning I was planning to head out to the salt flats but at breakfast found myself talking to Ranjana – a fellow Brit who was travelling on public transport. She’d been out to the flats but liked the idea of going again on a bike; I thought “why not”. Not like it’s hilly terrain out there – they call them “flats” for a reason and the little Honda had passenger pegs, unlike Lenore. We scrounged up a helmet in town and headed out carrying nothing but a backpack stuffed with some snacks and my tank bag containing my camera and whatever I usually throw in there. No need to give it too much thought, we’d be back before dark, right?
We took the road east around the flats and promptly arrived at the “usual” entrance to the flats at Colchani. Cautiously navigating the shallow salty water at the edge, occasionally cracking through the crust, we visited the flags, the Dakar statue – all the usual stuff. Where to next? I had no real idea but there was the blur of mountain and rumours of water to the north west. Navigation isn’t exactly hard; I pointed little Honda in the right direction and off we went. It’s easy to ride on the flats; once you have a little speed it’s smooth going and you very quickly find you are a long way away from anyone else – other vehicles become a dot on the horizon.
At the northern edge we found surface water and so an opportunity to take some of those typical “mirror” photographs so popular with nobody really. We also found a restaurant; the satiating effects of Chris’ gorgeous scrambled eggs in the morning had worn off so excitement set in. This was quickly dashed when we found they were closed. Ah well, we have snacks and we’ll be back in Uyuni in time for dinner, right?
Heading South from here seemed a slightly less travelled route; those vehicular dots on the horizon soon became nothing at all on the horizon – just the mountains at the edge and the islands we were heading for in the middle. Time to echo Ed March and countless others. Time for naked motorcycling on the flats. I’m Scottish, so in the interests of skin cancer prevention the gear was back on almost as quickly as it was pulled off. Once I had my clothes back on the view was back to it’s natural, otherworldly, awe inspiring self. It really is a remarkable place to be; it’s silent as the grave. You can see further than you’ve ever seen before, but all you can see is brilliant white earth and blue cloudless skies. I struggle to find the words to describe it; I can’t say I truly liked it – I’ve always preferred mountains. But the memories stay with me as a recollection of somewhere exceptional.
Onward we rode; in a straight line, in a curvy line, in whatever line we liked – towards the islands in the centre. After all, the flats are pretty large and we were getting hungry – we wanted to be back by dinner, right? The Islands were swamped with tourists and the area around them was like the parking round the back of the local 4×4 club. Onwards then, the sun is setting soon and there’s meant to be a fine view over the flats from the road built into it at the southern end as day turns to night. There’s quite a lot of surface water down here, but nothing I can’t handle – we’ll watch the sun go down and have ourselves a late dinner, right?
Sometimes I really do wonder if I should be allowed to wander the world with two wheels. The water was getting up to the wheel spindles and wake was ticking the engine. Ranjana was getting worried; she’d been here before and remembered a warning from her tour guide that it can get pretty deep. I wasn’t worried. I’m an experienced traveller. I’m a rally rider. I’ve got this. I don’t need to follow where those 4×4 drivers who come out here every day are going, I can just go in a straight line. Those 4-wheeled fools are just not man enough for a motorcycle, right? The fact that directly in front of me there are no more crystals of salt sticking up out of the water surely doesn’t mean anything. Right?
Thirty meters from the road I plunged deep into the water. My headlight was pretending to be a periscope. Then came the loose salty sand; it turned into a submarine. My engine was swiftly switched off; it was still running but I didn’t know where the air intake on this thing was – it was a new bike and the first 4 services were all included in the price; I’d never even taken the seat off. Sure, it looks like a proper enduro but lets face facts – it’s really an enduro styled city runabout. The intake could have been anywhere. I could have been drawing water in. I was lucky; the intake is right at the back under the passenger seat and at this point – perched on the back – Ranjana’s shapely bottom was still dry. Therefore my engine was still running on 10W40 rather than H20.
Nobody’s bottom stayed dry for long. Thirty meters is an extremely long way to haul a motorcycle that’s stuck in dense saltwater and silty sand. With an angry woman’s eyes burning into the back of your head with all the “told you so” intensity you would expect. The small army of tourists looking on from the road above and pointing it’s longer still. With no help from anyone else we made it out and the bike didn’t start.
After deftly deflecting more than a few annoyed comments with something along the lines of “it’ll be fine, I know what I am doing, I can fix it” I got to work. Of course I brought an extensive toolkit with me; an experienced traveller is always prepared for the unexpected. But an unplanned pillion can result in a reduction of your luggage carrying capacity; the tool roll was at the hotel. All I had was my Leatherman; but if McGuyver could get out of a terrorist holding cell with just a paperclip then damn it I can get out of this with situation with a multitool.
Seat off. “Oh, cool, there’s the air intake” said I. “It’s dry, so no water got into the engine, that’s good.” said I. Tourists in the area are torn between watching us and photographing the sunset. Ranjana seems to be torn between the sunset and murdering me. I can’t blame her. I remember that YouTube people who know what they’re doing also make sure there is no water in the exhaust. We perform a giant manual wheelie; a little water trickles out but nothing significant. Still not starting. I start worrying. Back to the basics; fuel, spark.
No water got in and the oil looks good. Spark I can check, just need to get the plug out. Pop quiz friends – how do you get a spark plug out with just a Leatherman? The answer is that you can’t, but by this point one of the tour guides had come over to offer help and he had a real toolkit. Plug out, dried the cap, tested against earth – definitely sparking; easy to tell as the sun has pretty much set by now. Every cloud…
Still not starting. Fuel. Carburettors; easy to maintain and repair – or so says everyone who picks them over fuel injection for travel. Maybe they are – but I have never worked on one before. Sure, I understand how it works – basically. Sadly the practical application of that knowledge is sorely lacking. Much head scratching ensued; many things poked and prodded. My companion was increasingly concerned. I had no idea what I was doing. Fortunately someone on the scene did – the good manners of the well prepared tour guide eventually expired; he reached down and undid the drain plug of the carb. Saltwater flowed out, then fuel. The little Honda started first time. The essence of my manhood flowed out, never to return.
It’s dark and it’s getting colder but there isn’t that far to go to Uyuni. We’ll be back for a late dinner, right?
Where the main, east, access road is fine tourist-grade tarmac the southern road seems aimed at the mining trucks. That means loose rocks, that means washboard. On Lenore I’d just get the speed up and ride it out. On a glorified scooter with a passenger that’s not an option. After a while we reached a fork in the road, left took us home – a long way home. Right took us to the village of Colcha K. Its the kind of place which has two lines written about it on Wikipedia; there’s not much there and with no data connection I had was no way to tell if we’d find a place to stay. No way I could safely make it to Uyuni that night, it was cold and I was exhausted. We were low on fuel, we’d flushed quite a lot through the carb to get things going again. I insisted on going right. It turns out that I made the right call; we found a very strange little hotel for the night. We had a dinner of under-fried chips standing around the local chip hut; the only eatery with tables was long since closed. Someone even lent us a mobile with service to let Chris know that we would not be back.
We collapsed into bed. Ranjana’s admittedly righteous fury began to subside. In the morning after a lovely not shower and a delicious not breakfast we found good old fuel-in-a-coke-bottle at the village shop. Getting home was hell; endless washboard roads, dusty trucks and a couple of mining outposts. With no suspension travel and no speed due to carrying a passenger the bike was taking a pounding – my hands were somehow simultaneously numb and in absolute agony. At each junction I prayed for tarmac; there was none. It took us until well after midday to get back to Uyuni where I let my poor, brave, long-suffering companion to return to the hotel and liberty from travelling with a fool like me.
I took the bike to one of the many pressure washing places in town who make a living cleaning up tourist vehicles that have been out on the flats. Mr Pressure Washer managed to flood the carb with his enthusiastic approach; I didn’t mind. I was an expert now. Little Honda was ok, none the worse for it’s salt bath – although in dire need of new head bearings. We had both survived and gained a story to tell. Chris had saved our rooms for another night and didn’t charge a penny – I taught him how to poach eggs. Ranjana and I had pizza that evening, said our goodbyes and continued our journeys the next morning.