|Photo by Ralph Junghanns|
|Climbing & more climbing...|
A crisis between India and Pakistan stopped the original plan to climb Kardung Leh, the highest passable pass in the world (5,600m), so what adventure could possibly compare?
In Bolivia, an acquaintance of ours offers downhill trips. But Kiwis simply don't just bike DOWN! One has to climb significantly first!! Therefore, from the beach of Arica in the north of Chile we would cross the Atacama Desert (the driest desert in the world), ride up to the Bolivian border at 4,610m, which would then lead us to the Altiplano basin and ultimately La Paz (4,000m).
Twelve Kiwis, two Poms, two Germans and an Aussie, the latter a little depressed after the All Blacks had beaten the Wallabies overnight, assemble bikes and set off across the Baritt desert. Only 31 °C in the shade (who said a maximum of 15!?). We can only see a piste of gravel and sand - nothing else but sand. Water consumption soars. The altimeter is climbing remorselessly. During our lunch on the "moon" we try a game of pétanque with some stones that were lying around. It had to be the biggest field of pétanque in the world. But we don't have a rake with us!
At about 5pm we set up camp in the desert. Despite five to seven litres of water per person we are all dried out and completely bushed. Quite a significant first day with 2500 metres of altitude over 90 kms! Thankfully, our Bolivian cooking team spoil us with a very good meal.
We decide to shorten the second day and after 60kms we arrive at a small oasis (3,160m). However, the desire for a well-known sugar drink made us continue for another 3kms to a nearby farming village. We knock on Maria's wooden door. "Buenos días, Coca Cola, por favor?" María had two litres of pineapple juice and some fresh bread. The only bottle of pineapple juice is soon circling around dirty, thirsty and colourful mountain bikers sitting in Maria's kitchen.
The air grows progressively thinner and the breathing heavier as each day passes. Colours range from clay to pink to blue. We see llamas, goats, donkeys and horses as the journey takes us through ancient pre-Inca terraces, remote villages, and past borax and sulphur mines. The area is beyond belief. Absolutely fabulous!
After another night in the tent, we reach the historical village of Parinacota (4,130m), with its prominent church, thatched roofs and sitting beneath the perfect icy and snowy peak of the Parinacota volcano (6,342m). After consultation with the villagers we refrain from camping and rent beds in the village instead. The previous week it had been minus 30 degrees! At this altitude, sleep is patchy.
After riding up to 4,500m the next day, we descend to the Chilean border. Chris, our relaxed broker who worked in New York, had sat in the van a lot each day, but had tears in his eyes after being the first to the border! Afterwards, we have to climb again in a no-man's-land full of mines between Chile and Bolivia. It is so cold that the lake on the border is half-frozen, sadly trapping flamingos in the ice.
A steep downhill ride with a top speed of 96kmh leads us to the Bolivian border. The customs officers aren't quite able to believe the strange sight before their eyes. The Andes have been traversed. We have reached the Altiplano.
We spend the evening at the foot of the 6,180m high volcano Sagaina, warmed in the hot springs. Some of us make the mistake of hanging the wet gear on the line. Five minutes later everything is stiff. We have to cut the wire lines with a Leatherman to avoid damaging our clothes. We choose to spend another night in cabins.
Over the next two days, we cross the red and beige plateau with its endless straights. Denis, a farmer from Nelson, is a very special bloke. His friends, who have known him for more than 25 years, say he has never in his life used one single cuss word, has never been unfriendly and has always been very complaisant.
We are cruising and Denis spots a little boy pushing his bike. Both tires are flat.
"Hey Ralph, can we help that boy?"
"We' d need a 15 spanner, which unfortunately I don't have."
But Denis doesn't give up that easily! He asks the other bikers and Steffen from the former Democratic Republic of Germany, of course, has a suitable tool. Both tires off and new mountain bike tubes are put on. They are a bit too small, but Denis thinks they are better than none. The chain is also put right and tightened. After one hour, the small boy still doesn't know what is happening to him today. Steffen suggests that it could be that this boy has never cycled before in his life, but he laughs and waddles away with a huge smile. Christmas in the midst of July!
In a nearby village we found, at last, the first phone to ring international destinations. Although the queue is long, the gringo with his helmet can go first. The brown curious faces of the villagers press their noses against the window as I phone home.
We had to wait four hours in the hot sun for the van, which would whisk us into La Paz and a comfortable hotel, but it was not a struggle any more for our sunburnt faces. We had made it!
We spend a day in vibrant La Paz, a city of amazing contrasts and one other on Lake Titicaca, which looks like a huge ocean (8,301 square kilometres and the world's highest navigable lake at 3820 metres).
After our well-earned rest we meet Alistair, a Kiwi from Wellington who is owns "Gravity," an outfitter that offers awesome downhill rides in La Paz.
This time, no one has anything against the bus-ride up the 5,345m high Chacaltaya, the world's highest developed ski-field. The road - some may ask what road? - became rougher and rougher, narrower and narrower, the abysses deeper and deeper and the speed of the old bus definitely not slower! The first snow on the gravel piste caused some of the bikers to turn the same colour. The bus sloped dangerously towards the precipice below and I made the driver stop. Robin was sure, "We're all going to die." With relieved hearts, twelve pale faces refrain from the last 350 metres.
Go, go, go!! We need six hours for 65km. Who would have thought that downhill riding could be this exciting?! We marvel at the ski-slope and take in the spectacular views of Illimani, Mururata and Huayna Potosí, before an exhilarating descent commences along snow-bordered gravel roads, walking trails and mining roads to the valley floor far, far below. We then descend more gradually along a river (which at one stage turns pink!), through villages and alongside grazing llamas and alpacas. From the extreme surroundings of snow and ice, down to the humid rain forest and jungle. In the valley there are Indians standing next to giant banana shrubs. The scenic and ecological variety is an incredible contrast and very difficult to believe. At the finish, Al offers a beer - tasty and well earned. A thrilling challenge and a whole lot of fun.
We had found a worthy alternative to Kardung Leh. In all an adventure never to be forgotten!
About the Author - Ralph Junghanns offers, together with his wife, cycling tours in New Zealand and additionally guides one or two tours overseas each year. Further tours in the programme are: Mountain biking the Ho Chi Ming Trail in Vietnam, through the oldest desert in Namibia, and a family tour through Patagonia.