next stage of the expedition took us to Oruro and Potosi, two of the six largest
cities in Bolivia, and to one of the world's worst roads.
the beginning the road goes out across the Altiplano leaving behind the sand dunes
of Oruro (three hundred miles inland, with snow-covered mountains gleaming behind
the South Altiplano and only there, thriving in the cold, dry climate, gros the
tola bush, which resembles - and smells like - a tiny cyprusess. It is
the only fuel of the Altiplano, there being almost no trees. The intense green
of its foliage gives a false idea of vegetation. In between the bushes is dead
gravelly soil which bears nothing else.
is always fascination in driving across the Altiplano. The road sweeps away to
the horizon, quite straight, and as the horizon rolls back, so the road rolls
on - there is always more of it; at each side the land is equally flat, and equally
endless, and above, the blue sky curves away to the clouds that fringe the distant
is vast; an approaching vehicle will take countless minutes to arrive. It is impossible
to judge distances. But it never seems monotonous - perhaps because of the nature
of the roads.
is the dry season - for which we should be thankful. The roads must be all but
impassable in the wet. But the legacy of the mud remains in the form of deep ruts
and rough piles of sharp edged earth.
course, there is no question of driving on one side of the road only, one picks
one's way - here, there, and all over the place - frequently leaving the 'road'
altogether if the going seems better at the side. (And running the risk of getting
caught in the deceptive smoothness which generally means softness).
went on, I suppose, for about 40 or 50 miles, and it took over four hours. There
were occasional Indian villages, flat huts made of earth bricks and as effectively
camouflaged into their background as the Turkish hill villages.
we reached the town of Challapata. This is the junction for the road south to
Chile, but we were to turn east over the Cordillera Oriental, into the Province
we had a well-earned cup of coffee; and accumulated a passenger. Bolivian coffee
is extraordinarily good, so perhaps we were mellowed, but in any case it would
have been hard to resist this story - particularly as we were only five in the
cars. Roger, our business manager, being temporarily detained in La Paz.
proprietress of the café interceded with us on behalf of this poor little
Indian, who seemed at the time to be carrying little. The story was in a jumbled
form, but, clearly, there had been an accident many miles down the road to Potosi,
and this man's wife had been killed or injured. He was trying to get to here.
There would be no transport that day, could we take him?
had only intended to drive a further 30 or 40 kilometres that night, before looking
for a camping place, since in an hour or so, it would be dark; and this place
was 120 kilometres away. However, it was obvious that we must take him.
is pleasant to record that our good turn was repaid. We discovered next morning
that we had left behind a camera; one car drove back the five hour trip to Challapata
and found that the proprietress had kept it for us.
passenger was a Kechwa Indian, [Quechua] so small and still that his presence
in the cab was hardly noticeable. We established quite early that he spoke a little
Spanish, but the Indians are not garrulous with strangers and he was in no mood
now began to climb into the mountains. Vegetation of a poor kind began to appear.
This is llama country; they are unique to this part of the world, and one would
swear they knew it.
look like a cross between a camel and a goat, standing around five-foot six inches
high, of which two feet is neck. This makes them about as tall as their Indian
herdsmen; they look at the world from a human being's angle and do not seem very
impressed with what they see.
have all the dignity and self-importance so infuriating in the camel, but this
is compensated by their extraordinary air of intelligence. They have Alsatian
ears, constantly erect and vigilant, and their heads move from side to side, not
smoothly, but in short sharp movements; nothing escapes them.
is in great contrast to their lords and masters, who are somnolent in appearance
and lethargic, being bundled up in blankets and ponchos, and generally seeming
dumpy and ungainly. The llama carries his own fur coat of course, and magnificently
long and thick it grows.
serve the Indian for wool and meat - most of which he sells - also with dung for
fuel, manure and building material. They are also pack animals, being as surefooted
as goats, in spite of their size and weight.
the days of the Spanish conquest it was the llama trains, bells ringing, that
brought the unavailing ransom of gold bars over the hills for Atahualpa, the last
Inca.) Incidentally concerning the rumour of llamas spitting at their foes; we
have not yet found any confirmation of this.
Indian was becoming more communicative. Suddenly he burst out and told us his
story. It was his wife, he said, the wagon had had an accident, and she had hurt
her head very badly; his daughter had been killed. He did not think his wife would
it grew dark and we ploughed over the bad road, his sobs became louder. Then he
cried out "It is here!"
turned a corner and saw the truck, righted now, but it had obviously careered
off the road, scattered a pile of large boulders and turned over. The cab was
very badly damaged.
was unloaded, but the common practice is to pile the back high with cargo and
sit the passengers on top; in the event of an accident they might be thrown many
yards and could have little chance of survival. On such bad roads these truck/buses
must be responsible for many serious accidents.
drove on in grim silence the poor man gradually subsiding: "What will happen
if my woman dies?" he had cried.
in total darkness, we came to a small village. This was the place either where
his daughter's body had been taken, or where his wife was lying, we never discovered
which. Our offers of medical aid seemed to mean nothing to him, he hurried off
from house to house until we lost him in the night.
we pushed on a little further and made camp at 11 o'clock. The altitude must have
been about 17,000 feet; it was very cold. We pitched our tents and got water from
a neighbouring stream; all we needed was a couple of sticks to rub together! But
two sticks are exceedingly difficult to find in the Andes, so we made do with
the more prosaic petrol stove.
the morning we had to tackle that road again. And it got worse. It was built on
clay - red clay, very picturesque, with green vegetation on the hills, but by
no means strong enough to carry heavy traffic.
we won through the clay country we came upon rock. Literally, we drove on it,
the road being in layers like a flight of steps.
surroundings had been uninspiring - upland fell country of common type. The only
interest had been in the sudden addiction to dry-stone walling, reminiscent of
the Lake Country.
now the scenery was truly mountainous. We must have reached 18,000 feet and were
on a par with the rows and rows of mountain ranges that stretched away into the
were many great cliffs of basaltic rock hanging like curtains, formed by ages-old
volcanic outpourings; and the valleys in between were probably up to 2,000 feet
deep. Around us - and above! - were enormous boulders, roughly spherical and over
20 feet tall, some of which were used as back walls for peasant huts.
all this precipitous grandeur, small fields had been carved out of the hillsides
and were obviously very fertile - after the fashion of broken up volcanic sediment.
This was much more our idea of Andean scenery, but it made concentration on the
road more difficult.
this point we drove down into Potosi, which has always been an important centre
for mining in Bolivia. Here we were lucky. Returning to our car, we found standing
beside it, the director of the United Nations base where we were to stay. So there
would be no more searching for the right road.
only difficulty was in keeping up with him. He drove a small Citroen at vast (and
often dangerous) speed, but had the excuse of wishing to get home before dark
since he had no lights! Unfortunately this proved impossible, and for the last
hour we drove on one set - ours.
road was much smoother and wider (or this manoeuvre would have been impossible),
but was covered in soft gravel and permanently hung about with a five-foot cloud
in our Gipsy six yards behind and slightly to one side, in order to throw our
headlights past his little car, we became the blind ones. At speed up to to 30
miles an hour with the atmosphere yellow and fog-like, and with the necessity
of maintaining equal speed with a car of much lower power, this was an interesting
exercise in driving - but not one to be recommended at the end of a tiring day.
got absolutely everywhere. I suppose it was no worse than the Middle East, but
it was certainly no better. We arrived at our destination with the old familiar
feeling of needing lots of water quickly; only to be met with the old familiar
answer "The pump's out of action."