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Washboard and salt take their toll

Toronto photographer Greg Vaccher is taking six months to ride his BMW 800GS from the Alaskan Arctic Ocean to the southern tip of South America's Tierra del Fuego. Wheels is publishing his account of the journey each month as he progresses south. Today, Bolivia.

Published May 10, 2012
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Toronto photographer Greg Vaccher is taking six months to ride his BMW 800GS from the Alaskan Arctic Ocean to the southern tip of South America’s Tierra del Fuego. Wheels is publishing his account of the journey each month as he progresses south. Today, Bolivia.

LAGUANA, BOLIVIA—Dark morning clouds hid the sun yesterday and removed the warm colours from the yellow hillside shrubs near Potosi. At nearly 4,000 metres high, and with the temperature at just 9 degrees C, I turned on my heated grips and wore a face mask to ride through the deep, cool valleys.

An hour after leaving the city, my gas warning light lit up. I’d assumed there would be a gas station along the way. There wasn’t.

With such little gas in the tank, my motorcycle struggled to run in the thin air, and began to sputter on the uphill stretches. I thought I was safe when I crested a rise and rode into the small town of Ticatica, but there was no gas station. The local woman who normally sells gasoline had only empty, rusty drums.

I gave up. It was time to start walking.

I parked the bike behind the woman’s house and stuck my thumb out into the road, for the 80-kilometre journey to the next large town. Eventually, a dump truck driver named Lucas pulled over — he could only drive me part of the way, but I was grateful to be out of the heat, with a comfortable seat and an elevated view of the dry, red, rocky landscape.

The ride only lasted 15 minutes, but Lucas told me about some road workers up ahead who might part with some of their gasoline. When I walked up to them, I was astonished that they agreed to sell some of their generator fuel. I asked for four litres, but they could only give me just under two, which they sold me for $1.50. I walked away with a half full canister of gasoline, back to Ticatica.

Two men offered me a lift in their rusty pickup truck, saving some time, but I returned during the afternoon siesta and had to wake the woman holding my motorcycle, to unlock the gates to her rear yard.

Even with the two litres of fuel, though, the low-gas warning light stayed lit. I rode tucked tight behind the windscreen to conserve fuel — I was lucky to make it to Uyuni on two wheels instead of by foot.

This morning, with a full tank of fuel and a spare canister of gas, I set off through an open desert of blowing, soft sand toward the blinding white salt flats of Salar Del Uyuni. The washboard gravel road out of town gave a stern warning for the terrain to come.

The road soon faded at the flats to a featureless white path of damp and crunchy salt. The quivering horizon that cut the blue sky from my white riding surface stayed distant. I rode for hours, standing in top gear, without thought or feeling and without change. I veered left and right for minutes at a time, just for fun, at speeds over 100 km/h. I could ride however I pleased, without speed limits, traffic signs or borders.

Eventually, though, the warm sun and airborne salt began to wear me down and turned my face dry and red, and the bike’s engine white. It seemed wise to leave Salar Del Uyuni before I got lost or grew too hot.

But the so-called main road on my map was really a series of washboard sand paths, spread over a dry, open landscape. The loose surface made the bike tough to control and my lack of experience riding through sand quickly showed itself when I fell, face first, into the soft surface — not just once, but four times.

By early evening, I’d decided to camp instead of looking for a hotel, so I carried on through a small, remote town. This was a mistake. The path faded even further and split in multiple directions, making me nervous about riding alone through the harsh, windy terrain. After a while, I began looking for shelter in the landscape of fragile, pastel-coloured volcanoes and dark mountains.

A collection of sand-coloured blocks appeared far in the distance. I rode toward them, hoping for people to be there. The abandoned shelters seemed lifeless, without windows and with locked doors. I parked my motorcycle to explore the eerie compound on foot and found a strange set of concrete spherical structures built behind a high wall.

Then I saw a young man walking into one of the shelters. I was peeking cautiously into the dark room when three men in camouflage gear appeared. They started questioning me in Spanish, obviously curious about the motorcycle. They seemed friendly, and I asked if I could camp for the night within their scary compound, leaving unnoticed in the morning.

Which is how I’ve come to be sleeping in a concrete shelter at an army post apparently near a town called Laguana.

I offered them the only thing I could: a grateful handshake and some re-enactments on how my motorcycle became so dented and scratched.

Now it’s cold again and I’m staring at a sky of camouflaged figurines, ready to dream of once again riding a paved surface.

Follow Greg Vaccher’s progress and see more photographs at www.gregvaccher.com.

The washboard gravel road out of town gave a stern warning for the terrain to come.

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