The Splendour of Nature
Leaving Vallenar, I headed north, through the southern reaches of the Atacama Desert. It is a stunning area, if you like deserts, as I do. Such beauty - it's almost unbelievable.
Barren, arid, remote, sandy, rocky mountains, dry - it is all these, and more. Soaring sandy hills and mountains, scrubby plants occasionally, endless barren plains of nothingness. There are no animals to be seen, although in a couple of areas, there are "Deer, Caution" signs.
Some time in the past (2001, I think) there were flooding rains through this entire district, and the ground is now a patchwork of vast mudpans, the surface layers cracked and curled in the dry, excessive heat. There is no moisture here, generally, so the heat is clear and very dry.
Along the way, I saw quite a few graveyards, reminders of the grim area of nitrate mining. These graveyards are out in the middle of nowhere, generally just a mass of rusting crosses, with little else in the way of memorialising the departed. The extreme heat has mummified a number of those interred here, and the sweeping winds have uncovered some of the remains, perfectly mummified.
I didn't go close to the graves, as they are some considerable distance from the road, and I didn't want to leave the bike sitting there alone, so I didn't get a chance to check out the few headstones, but I believe a lot are of young children, as young as 5 and 6, who were worked to their deaths in the nitrate mines in the early years of this century, when Chile was the world's major supplier of nitrate.
In the 30s and 40s, the mines were abandoned, as Germany had invented the synthetic form of nitrate - for use in their bombs, amongst other things. There are still some buildings remaining near the mine sites, in various states of disrepair. They were generally of adobe, and over the years have deteriorated badly.
So there is still a lot to look at, in this land of nothingness. There is the National Park, green with forests of small, shrunken trees along a dry watercourse. These trees have been planted by man, as they are in very straight rows, too straight for nature to have produced.
There are very few towns, as such, scattered aross this area, usually just a service station/restaurant with a few small dwellings every couple of hundred km. It's a pretty lonely place, not one to run out of fuel in, so I tended to refuel at every opportunity, not that there were too many opportunities.
About 70km before arriving at the midpoint of the desert is the famous sculpture "The Hand in the Desert", made by students of the Chile University. I turned off the highway and went in for a closer look this time, having merely stopped on the road to take a photo on the way south in December. Here I caught up with a German couple I'd met in Ushuaia, Martin and Gaby, who had also called in to take the obligatory photo. So we all took each other's photo, then rode on together the remaining 70km into the city of Antofagasto. Here in this city of 230,000 people and endless one-way streets, we spent almost 2 hours, riding around and around, trying to find a vacancy in a hotel or hostal. I couldn't remember the name of the hotel in which I'd stayed previously, so couldn't ask anyone for directions. Eventually, Martin managed to locate a room for us all, within walking distance of several restaurants, where we had a good Chinese buffet dinner before retiring, tired after the long hot day in the desert.
We parted company after riding about 90km the next morning, as Martin and Gaby were heading further east to San Pedro de Atacama in the centre of the desert while I was still heading north, to arrive in Arica for the night's stopover.
At the northern end of the desert is the major city of Arica, but for the last 150km before arriving there, I was treated to some of the most spectacular scenery you'd want to see. Desert canyons, glowing in the late afternoon light, a multitude of colours and hues, light and shade. Every twist of the high, curving and winding road produced yet another glorious vista. Most of the time, the road was high up above the canyons, but occasionally it wound down and down to the valley floor, before snaking it's way to the top of the mountains again. It was certainly an interesting ride, in such beautiful scenery, finishing in the coolness of evening's waning sunlight, and the colourful sunset tinging the surrounding mountains.
I'd recently begun stopping on the edge of the pavement to take photos when there wasn't much traffic, as people kept asking me for more photos on the website. It's often dangerous to go off onto the berm, as it is uneven and rocky, and I didn't want to drop the bike, hence the pavement stops. But how many times could I stop, when every corner brought another marvel? I played leapfrog with a couple of Argentinian bikers I'd met at the lunch/refuel stop out in the desert, as they also were intermittently stopping to take photos, and although we didn't ride together as such we kept passing each other.
Arriving in Arica, we all pulled in to the same service station to refuel, then said our goodbyes as we separated to find our accommodation for the night. For me, this was a nice cabana, so after a quick snack from the main house, it was off to sleep after another long hot day in the beautiful Atacama Desert.