Unbelievable. One minute we were at sea level, looking up at mountains whose snow-line only began a few hundred metres up from the shoreline. Next minute (well ok, a couple of thousand kms travel up Argentina, as it turns out, but it was barely a second in geological time, and hardly more than a minute in Argentina Travel Time, which is of necessity very different from Anywhere Else Travel Time, because Argentina is so phenomenally BIG!), and now we're so high we genuinely struggle to breathe at rest. Forget doing anything vigorous like going camping. Although, naturally, camping was exactly what we most wanted to do.
Andeans call it "the Altiplano". The rest of us just call it extremely (puff) very (puff) bloody (puff, pause for breath) high! And then, when you get there, it's this extraordinary, surreal desert.
For us it all started rather gently. Our last campsite before heading up was a spectacular setting at the base of a mountain by a river, in which we gambolled innocently, entirely unaware of the fact that our next camping night would be a very different affair.
Bright and early next day we began climbing
|2,945 metres altitude|
And the scenery began changing....
|Salt flats on the altiplano|
We climbed some more......
Right up into the clouds (amongst which we rather bizarrely encountered one of the largest fields of sand dunes ever seen, whose dunes disappeared up into the sky at quite dizzying angles),
|Sand dunes at 3,000 metres plus|
And then we burst through the clouds out on to the altiplano proper, at an astonishing altitude of 4,560 m,
Where, although a brisk and refreshing wind blew constantly, it was at least sunny!
|Thank goodness for the sunshine!|
Lucky for us that the sun was shining, as it turned out we would stay up on the altiplano for quite some time. Since there is in fact rather a lot of it. And whichever direction you travel on it (we chose north, but it wouldn't have been very different if we'd chosen any other direction), it just keeps going.
Along the way we encountered great lakes of salt,
|Replenishing the salt cellar from the ominously named "Dead Man's Salt Flat" |
(across which we injudiciously drove...),
Large and unexpectedly tenacious cacti,
And then at some point, an entirely new country. Most of which resides exclusively on the altiplano.
Along the way we had some novel camping experiences. One night the wind blew so hard there was no chance at all of us erecting a tent. Thankfully a local took pity of us and offered us a room in his house, which he hadn't quite finished building yet.
|Our camp at the building site|
|A not un-scenic building-site, as it turned out........|
On another night, we had a puncture next to an old Incan ruin, which seemed a good spot to set up camp.
On this particular night we elected not to use a tent, but instead to sleep out under the stars (except, naturally, for the matriarch, who wisely chose relative warmth of tent over the romance of a star-lit sky).
|Our camp in an Inca ruin|
In the morning, Ben says "Dad, it must have got below freezing last night, mustn't it?!". "Oh no", I replied, breezily, "it can't have got that cold. If it had done, the water in the washing up bucket.." at which juncture I bent over to demonstrate my point "would have froz...", tailing off, "Aah. Well maybe it did freeze last night", I said, as extracted a lump of very solid ice from the bucket.
|The frozen water in the washing up bucket|
Sudden panic as to whether there was any antifreeze in the car's cooling system. We're a very long way indeed from anybody at all, and we don't want to find our car can't move because all the pipes have split. Thankfully there is antifreeze and all is well!
In Bolivia we got to visit the world's highest silver mine, where we donned the latest in fashionable garb for today's miner,
Indulged our much-suppressed Christmas shopping urges in some very colourful markets,
Saw several saints being taken out of their boxes for their annual jaunt around the village square,
|Saints go marching on.....|
And, best of all, got a sneak preview of 2015's Dakar rally route.
|Dad's Dakar fantasies that just won't disappear!|
We were rather sorry when finally we descended back down to normal altitudes, although it was very definitely a relief to be warm again.
|Basking in the sun next to an outpouring of volcanic pumice. Fantastic to be warm again!|
From the altiplano it was down into the rainforests and swamps of eastern Bolivia and the Brazilian Pantanal.
|Traffic jam on the backroads of Brazil|
|A sweaty stopover in the Pantanal|
And then, after several days of almost non-stop driving, we were back at Fazenda Iracambi, ancestral home of the Le Bs in Brazil. From where we have a couple of days to gather our wits before starting the loooong journey home in time for Christmas carols at Miombo Park. We can't wait!