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  • Writer's pictureToby Elliott

The Quiet Road

Updated: Nov 15, 2019

The sandy streets were deserted. I rung the bell again. Still no response. I pedalled down the adjacent street. A little wrinkled old lady with a toothless grin stuck her head out from behind a door and called to me “Buen dia Casero. Que buscas?”. I let her know that I was looking for food, any food. She waved me into her little mud hut. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw one wall lined with shelving and an assortment of basic food. She was my saviour. Five minutes later my bags were full of pasta, cookies and chocolate and I rolled out of the town Quenta Chico. The previous day I’d successfully summited my first +6000M peak and my spirits were high, however my supplies had been dangerously low and every tienda in town had been closed.

The track I followed was flat and the morning air bitterly cold. I couldn't warm up. Coming across a broad stream I had to cross didn’t help matters. Shoes and socks removed, I used my front wheel to shatter the ice. Trousers rolled up and though the bone numbing water I waded. A steady incline took me to a great vantage point. I scoffed a few cookies and had a stare off with some llamas.

Dropping downhill I was cycling past the checkpoint to the Reserva Nacional Eduardo Avaroa. A guard came rushing out flagging me down. I stopped and showed him my ticket. His name was Hector and he seemed endlessly curious about my journey. When he heard I’d just been up Volcan Utruncu he bombarded me with another round of questions. It was all almost more than my shoddy Spanish could handle, but after 15 minutes we both parted ways with smiles on our faces. Hector had assured me my intended route was passable, but warned of bad road conditions - nothing new then I thought to myself.

At a crossroads I halted. Two choices lay before me. The left fork a more travelled road, perhaps easier and more direct towards Uyuni, or the right fork a selection of rocky jeep trails winding further into the depths of the altiplano. I sat in the shade behind a pile of rocks and gulped down water and cookies topped with dulce de leche. The decision was soon obvious and off I trailed deeper into the altiplano. The track was bumpy but rideable and the vista to the South was superb, looking back at Volcan Uturuncu I felt proud that less than 24 hours ago I had been standing on its summit, it all felt a bit surreal.

As Hector had predicted the track soon deteriorated, bouncing and weaving over big round boulders and slabs of razor sharp rock. I was terrified of slashing a tyre and took things slowly. On and on the track went, giving a sense of great remoteness. Instead of finding this unnerving I revelled in the solitude.

In the afternoon the winds picked up as I cooked a late lunch. I saw a laguna on my map and made a beeline towards it. Water was needed and fortunately it provided good drinking. Just a few more kilometres and I tucked in behind a natural rockwall, pitching my tent and enjoying the sunset before bed.

More kilometers along the rocky road joined me onto an unridden route my friend Taneli had previously mapped out. For a couple of hours I climbed a gradual incline, passing deserted farm huts and herds of vicunas, crossing some frozen streams where I washed my face in the refreshing water. On the other side of the pass I had some navigational troubles and started to doubt myself, but some cool headed thinking had me back on track. I zoomed past a guide with a couple of tourists, their puzzled expressions providing priceless entertainment.

A tiny village. I asked around for a shop, not much of a response. There was a bit of a weird vibe here so I didn’t hang around and instead pedalled hard for a few hours on the rolling road heading North. Although now lower in elevation the mountains started to bunch together and increasingly the road twisted and short, steep climbs became frequent. Late in the afternoon I found my energy levels severely lacking, I was bonking hard. I sat on the dusty bank at the roadside and boiled pasta. Felling more human I jumped back in the saddle to bomb a lovely downhill before leaving Tanelis route. A long flat gravel grind to the village of Relave finished the days cycling.

Entering the village a huge dog bounded up to me, pointy teeth barred, barking and growling. I normally shout down aggressive dogs, but this time I just hung around and talked calmly to the dog. Before I knew it he was my pal, following me around the quiet streets. People were happy here, lots of smiling faces and waves. A kind woman in colourful skirts opened her shop for me. She didn’t have any fruits or vegetables, but told me to wait shuffling off to the adjoining house. Moments later she reappeared with armfuls of tomatoes, onions, juicy mandarins and ripe bananas. I had a real feast for dinner camped just a few kilometres outside of the village.

Back on the road I climbed for some time before reaching an undulating ridge top road. The surrounding mountains were an earthy brown hue, peppered with green shrubs, as the sunlight dwindled the colour palette became more enchanting. A purple sky and grey storm clouds off to the East, it was a sublime and moody sight. I sat in my tent slurping a cup of steaming tea.

Being camped on a ridge top meant the sun radiated heat through my tent nice and early. I was on the road by 8am. Passing a small mud hut another aggressive dog charged me, this time the gentle approach didn’t work, I had to holler and shout so the dog kept its distance. But this mean mutt was persistent, as he snarled and growled the owner emerged calling his dog down. Gratefully I thanked the man. Large chunks off the road were missing - it appeared they had been washed away by flash floods. I had to divert around many sections of damaged road, lifting and hauling my bicycle.

I came to one portion when there was yet another gap in the road. This one appeared smaller and I chose to jump the ditch whist carrying my bike - bad idea. Taking a runup and with my heavy bike held tightly in both arms I launched off. I made it to the other side, but almost instantly the ground crumbled away from beneath me. Time slowed down and I fell. I found myself crumped at the bottom of the ditch, tangled under my steel bike. Luckily nothing wounded but my pride.

Soon I found myself riding through an area full of deep holes. It was an odd sight and I wondered what function they filled as these holes were clearly manmade. An excitable dog appeared from nowhere, he nuzzled my leg and I noticed he had a neckerchief. A shout of “Hola!!” startled me, a mans head emerged from one of the holes. It turned out he was out here mining for something, I didn’t quite understand what, but the whole scene was odd and reminded me of the book Holes by Louis Sachar.

Come afternoon I crested a long climb and entered the mining town of San Vincente. This was where American outlaws Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid met their end in a bloody shootout in 1908. Little remains to tell of this history save for a sign on the towns outskirts. I rolled up and down the grotty streets looking for a shop or some food. There wasn’t much, but I ducked into a little Casa De Comida just at the end of lunch service and managed to score a hearty chicken and potato soup. Other miners at my table were friendly and curious about my travels, in return they told me a little about life in this mining settlement. Belly full I waved goodbye to my new friends. On the way out of town I caught my reflection in a window and received quite the surprise. A haggard, sun blasted and bearded stranger stared back at me.

A few kilometres out of town and a dragons back style ridge stretched away before me. I was now on the final stretch towards Uyuni. After riding the rollercoaster ridge top I descended to the endless plains below. That night home was in a dried out riverbed. Come morning I optimistically thought I would reach Uyuni in just a few hours cycling. Progress was good, I sped along enjoying pedalling hard and really cranking out some kilometres on flat gravel roads. However, as the wind started to pick up and a dust cloud of biblical proportions blotted out the sun I knew it was going to be a lengthy slog.

Countless grains of sand jetted through the turbulent air and lacerated my exposed skin. I scrambled for extra layers, my buff and sunglasses. Protection donned, I pulled my hood tight, head down and pushed onwards . I ran sums over and over again - 65KM left, average speed of 7KM/H; it meant over 9 hours riding left! As the cloud of sand engulfed me and I pedalled deeper into the sandstorm my hopes of an easy day dissipated. Battling on for a few hours I popped out onto a paved highway, and thankfully passed the worst of the storm. Visibility increased and I watched as my speed on the cyclocomputer rose ever so slowly.

Slogging along the highway into a still pretty fierce headwind I glanced up, there was a figure on a bike shredding towards me, surfing the tailwind South. We met on the hard-shoulder. His name was Angel, a larger than life character from the USA with a heavily loaded tank of a bike to match. Wearing baggy jeans, sunglasses, skate shoes and a hoody he sparked up a cigarette whilst we spoke. We traded tales from the road, Angel informed me there was a Casa De Ciclista in Uyuni and shared its location. Apparently my good friend Nathan was currently resting up there. We took a selfie and I watched as Angel cruised his tailwind off into the distance.

I edged closer to town. Occasionally a car would honk in support. As Uyuni itself came into view more and more trash buffeted across the desert floor, it was a depressing sight. Nonetheless, I was overjoyed to reach the town and scoured the streets for the Casa De Ciclista. I spotted the sign - a penguin on a bicycle - and knocked on the door. A narrow passage opened onto a patio. It was a hive of activity; bikes everywhere, welding, people standing around sipping coffee, laughter filled the air and I was warmly greeted by Nathan and an overwhelming amount of smiling faces, firm handshakes and bear hugs - I was home.


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