After a longer break in Salta, we finally continue: we start riding to the Atacama Desert. There are exactly two passes to get there: One over only asphalt which is a bit longer, and one that leads over a gravel road. We decide for the gravel, cause gravel can be fun. But what we mistakenly classify as 550 km “easy riding” becomes a challenge. South America always keeps surprises for us.
But There Was Still Something with the Bike…
Exactly. We had problems with our cooling water, which we lost mysteriously. And we’ve invested a lot of time in dismantling the tiger and subsequent tests. However, we could not find a weak point in the system until today. The water does not appear to be on the outside (hoses, cooling lid, containers – all good), neither inside – nothing appears to be in the oil of the engine. So, it remains questionable where the water disappears. However, through some test rides, we figured out that this problem only occurs at the height, i.e. 3500 metres and higher. There, we were able to calm down the overheated engine with additional water.
An Unplanned Adventure
But back to our trip: clueless, we start moving towards the Chilean border. At first, it’s a biker’s dream which turns gradually to a more so-so road. We say goodbye to the asphalt and tootle along the gravel.
Then, we turn into a little side road where we get a first impression for the rest of the track: deep sand causes us to swing from right to left, left to right, and back until we finally fall completely to the right. After all, we fall pretty soft. I get the camera out quickly. Now, there’s finally a chance to shoot a funny memento.
After that, we ride higher up the pass until we reach 4560 meters. The sun up here has no mercy, the wind pushes into our faces. Just when I ask Moe for a break because I’m tired (also an appearance of height), we turn around the next corner and land straight in a deep hole of sand. Boom – once again we’re on the ground. But this time, it’s not so funny: I feel a terrible pain in my foot. I scream loud: “my foot, my foot, I’m stuck”. Moe helps me to pull it out from underneath the motorcycle. While I try to walk again, three men are coming to us. They help us lifting the tiger.
Is This Really a Pass?
We’re going on. Or better, we keep crawling. Because from now on, the “road” gets more and more horrible. One sand hole chases another, and it’s impossible to avoid all of them. Consequently, our mood is getting worse.
The problem of falling is mostly not the fall itself, but rather the loss of confidence. I can feel that Moe rides more insecure now. And I am too, preparing myself in front of every sand hole that we could fall right again. This is straining.
Moe is forced to ride into the next sand hole. When we’re almost falling again while trying to get out, I’m jumping off the motorcycle in panic. I tell Moe that I can’t do this anymore. I’d rather get off the bike at these critical passages than lying down again. I’m too scared to fall again on my already hurt foot. While I’m walking ahead, I just hear a “Nickiii” behind me and when I turn around, the motorcycle is on the side again. That can’t be true.
The Nerves Are on the Edge
I really regret that we decided for this pass. Furiously, I throw my gloves and the helmet in the sand. At this height, lifting the motorcycle out of the sand is terribly exhausting.
We go on as we have to continue. The desert up here may be impressive, but we do not realize too much of it. Because the concentration is always on the five meters of road ahead of us. And nowhere else. Not to pay attention for a second could mean another fall.
You might think I could enjoy this ride and glance at the distance – after all, I don’t have the handlebars in my hand. But it’s not like that when you’re sitting on a bike together. If Moe’s nervous, I’m nervous too. And reversed. If we fall, we both fall.
At the end of the day, we are sincerely doubting whether we should take the lagunas route if we are fighting that much already here. The adventurous route in South Bolivia would have been our next goal. But it is certain that the slopes along the numerous colourful lagoons won’t be less sandy. So, we have to overthink that again…
The Fun Goes On
After a night in the tent at 4000 meters, we continue the next day with the joyful realization that we only have half-time: another 70 kilometers are waiting for us.
We take it slow, have a lot of breaks. But the mood is still bad. Since yesterday, Moe is complaining about a resounding headache which won’t even slacken with the chewing of coca leaves (which are known to ease the symptoms of the altitude). We have experienced many – also sandy -roads on this journey but we’ve never had to fight so hard for every kilometer.
I’m sorry I can’t replace Moe on this track. The tiger is too high and too heavy. I’m too inexperienced. It’s impossible for me to hold the motorcycle in the sand. Even for Moe, this is a hell of an act of strength.
I can’t help telling Moe that he’s shouldn’t go straight through the sand holes. It makes me so nervous. Even if avoiding them is going to cost us more time and may also lead to a fall. I just got to a point where I get in panic every time Moe rides towards the next sand hole. It’s not a simple thing to be a pillion on such a critical terrain.
Sure, I’m not the one who’s doing the physical performance here. But if you consider the mental component, it is – at least for me – much more difficult to be the pillion than riding myself. Because if I have the handlebars in my hand, I’m in control. I can ride where I see the best lane and react actively to every situation than being so subjected. Everyone knows the feeling when driving a car. How many times have I wanted to just get out of the car or sit myself in the driver’s seat, because the driver was going too fast into the curves, drove too close to others, or rarely looked at the road. Well, Moe certainly doesn’t belong to the irresponsible kind of riders. But the state of this “road” causes similar anxiety in me.
Now that I’m interfering in Moe’s riding, it drives him up the wall. It only irritates him more. To get us through this safely does cost a lot of concentration. “Ride yourself, if you can do better”, he calls me mad while he is stepping off the bike. He’s so angry with me now that he doesn’t want to go any further.
I think it’s unfair that he reproaches me. I wish I could ride the tiger here myself… normally, I would never interfer, but we’re sitting on this fucking motorcycle together, and that’s why we both have to feel comfortable with this. Period.
Ten minutes of silence. Then Moe gets back on the bike. I promise not to upset him anymore because it’s just making everything even more dangerous. Subject is closed. Up here, we are in a state of exception.
To make matters worse, three mini-enduros are riding past us. Well, for them it’s so easy. Sometimes, we wish to have two of such little motorcycles, too. But just sometimes.
When a group of Portuguese tourists at the Chilean border reveals that we reach asphalt in only ten kilometres, the mood is finally getting better. What a release.
An Oasis in the Desert
We arrive in San Pedro. The little tourist town is located in the middle of the Atacama Desert. Contrary to our expectations, it’s really nice here.
Still, we’re just staying for a short time to stock up water and food. Then we leave again and go to a canyon where we pitch up our tent for the next two days. Just the right thing to relax after the strenous ride. A small river running through the canyon created a beautiful oasis in the desert. And now we’re almost all alone.
Landing on the Moon
Then we go back to San Pedro where we change our means of transport to explore the spectacular area around. The Valle de la Luna (“Moon Valley”) is actually making us feel like on another planet. It’s just amazing what our diverse planet has to offer. Simply awesome!
While Moe travels to Santiago to run errands (thanks again to Gesa!), I visit the Quebrada del Diablo (“Devil’s gorge”).
Since the Atacama Desert is a very popular place among travellers, it does not take long until we meet other motorcyclists. The story of the brazilians Pepy, Leonardo, Edinei, and Jonathan is particularly beautiful, because they declare us after only five minutes as members of their club Las Papas do Asfalto (“the potatoes of the alphalt”). This name also fits very well to us 😉 ! During their two weeks of vacation they travel through Brazil, Argentina, and Chile in a record time. Our task is now to bring the flag of the Papas a little further around the world…