Rally of the Incas 2016
November 13 - December 9, 2016
NOVEMBER 28, 2016
Salta to San Pedro de Atacama
Touching the Void
According to Jon Krakauer, the way to Everest is not a yellow brick road, but we can attest to the fact that the way to Chile is well worth the effort as today we soared with the condors and drove high into the thin air of the Altiplano. Truly we travelled a landscape of superlatives, from Salta which sits at an altitude of 1196 m we topped out at more than 4,500 m.
As we've seen recently the mornings can give a false impression of what's coming for the rest of the day and today was no different. We started out under grey skies and heavy drizzle and the first regularity through El Disconicidos, a mining area alongside an alluvial stream, was blanketed in thick fog. The route climbed along the wide flat valley, through another forest of cacti clinging precariously to the sides of scree slopes past patches of grass and small stands of cypress trees.
A long easy climb on really good tarmac followed this section and some began to wonder how hard this high altitude stuff really was. Our twin Sherpanis, Shanahan and Grimsmo had struck out early with oxygen supplies and as crews arrived at the viewpoint of Abram Blanca at a mere 4102 m they were busy checking the ‘sats’ levels of anyone who’d stop long enough for them to get the finger probe on.
At the Time Control in Los Cobres which followed soon after, the proprietor of the cafe had a high plateau meal on offer for us and with sandwiches and pastries to fuel the inner man, everyone was in high spirits. The Rally Organisers had also laid on fuel for the cars that they’d need for the long uphill pull that was coming next.
The fog was but a distant memory now and all around us was dusty and piercingly bright. The tarmac road ended soon enough and as the Rally progressed along the 255 km to the border, via the RN 51 and the impressive 4560 m Alto Chorillo pass, the unique landscape of the altiplano with its vast size and characteristics began to appear. Largely the route was uninhabited save for a few mining settlements so we had the way to ourselves as it threaded past massive salt marshes such as the Ralar del Rincom, and tracks which led to abandoned mud buildings and then onwards to …… wherever.
Life was obviously difficult to sustain here although we did see vicuña and guanaco and perhaps a few llama and alpaca as well which are kept as pack animals and for their meat and wool.
The road was hard for the cars too. Dominique Vanity and Daniel Spadini’s 1966 Citroen DS21 lost an exhaust and then several fuel pumps early on in the day. Andy Inskip and Tony Jones, sweeps extraordinaire, were never far away though and, as usual made sure that they arrived safely at the night halt. Erik van Droogenbroek now travelling with his wife in the red Ford Mustang kept losing power in the thin air despite the best efforts of Jamie Turner and Bob Harrod. Ronald Vetters and Ann Puts, towing heroes of yesterday, unbelievably suffered two punctures on their rental 4x4. As usual though an ERA truck was quickly on hand to help replace one tyre and to plug the other one.
By the time we reached the border post at 3800 m it had already been a pretty full day for some and thanks to the good offices of Charlie Neal from CARS UK and Lucas, our incomparable Spanish fixer who both spent the day at this small and isolated outpost, the whole crossing took no more than half an hour.
Erik van Droogenbroek and Ronald Vetters swapped cars here, the former went into the rental car while the latter took on the Mustang to see if they could understand what was causing the lack of power issues while Jamie Turner and Bob Harrod tailed them / towed them until the road pointed itself downwards.
Len and Layne Treeter had broken axle on their Cowboy Cadillac (a Chevrolet Impala) but had heroically repaired it themselves despite the conditions and, as an ERA Hilux rolled up alongside, the only help that was required was to repack the ample trunk of this beast of a car. Len is a veteran of Peking to Paris and the Road to Mandalay and knows this car inside out while Layne is a pro snowboarder and as such knows all about being high.
Geographically at least it was downhill all the way from here and both cars and crews began to breathe a little easier. By early evening, the scenery was at its best and the scene was pretty much picture perfect with a flock of flamingoes on Laguna Taiyato being the icing on the cake and we were beginning to feel that we were on the home run and mentally made plans for dinner tonight and the rest day tomorrow.
Richard Everingham and Seonaid Beningfield however will be looking for a fuel pump before they do anything as their 1953 Bentley R Type finished what had been a magnificent day on the end of a rope.
The hotel this evening is truly fabulous, small, discreet with an impressive location and with a great car washing service. With ostrich on the menu and a well stocked bar, the Atacama is making the rally feel well at home.