03.13.09

Salt Plains – Day Four

Posted in Bolivia at 9:25 pm by Jackson Lee

Driving in the darkness, like seamen searching for land a-ho, we strained our eyes for the first sign of sunrise. The full moon helped mask the slow progress of the brightening sky, but soon, the worlds largest salt flat welcomed dawn and the mysterious splashing noise of the wheels was explained by the water reflection of the sky.

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Covering 10,582 km², and bear in mind that 7.0 million Hong Kongese live in an area of 1,104 km² whie 7.4 million Israelis live in an area of 22,072 km², Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. Formed some 40,000 years ago when a giant lake dried, it is widely considered by motorheads to be the coolest place in the world to break land speed records. At 3,650 meters , the Salar is near the crest of the Andes – yup, it is almost as high as New Zealands tallest peak – Mount Cook (3754 meters).

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The Salar’s 10 meter thickness is revamped each wet season leaving an extremely hard and smooth surface. Combined with general Bolivian madess, these ingredients helped propel our truck hysterically fast across the white morning landscape.

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‘The Magic of Dawn’ is captured here by famed Bolivian supermodel Juan Jackson De Lee.

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Take it from me, outside of the Swedish porn industry, you are not going to find a better place to take photos than dawn on the Salar de Uyuni. In a moment of excellence, Derek and I offer our salute to the rising Bolivia sun.

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The Salar is estimated to contain 10 billion tons of salt, of which less than 25,000 tons is mined annually – at this rate, Mcdonalds will have more chain-stores than the world has salt shackers before the Salar is salt-dry (can anyone add another ‘Salt’ to this sentence?). In addition to tourism, the Salar acts as a major Bolivian transport route and is the breeding ground for three South American flamingo species (every November): the Chilean, James’s and Andean flamingo.

(Note – The “cracked-mud” surface in the photo below is formed from thicker layers of water drying).

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Scattered across the Salar are ‘Islands‘ of earth which rise above the level of the Salar. At breakneck speed, we quickly reach the island of Inkawasi (Quechua, meaning “Inca house”) for breakfast and a wonder around the ancient cacti. The island;s gigantic cacti (Trichocereus pasacana) grow over 5 meters and live for over 500 years.

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Following breakfast, we took adventage of the Salars famous depth confusion – caused by the constant white background (much like blue screening in movies) distorting depth perception – to have fun with our Camera’s.

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On a sad note – a few years back the driver of a tour group got drunk – which is common in Bolivia – one drunk driver lost the keys to the car resulting in 12 tourists being stuck on the salt flat for 2 extra days. The soluation was to allow one of the Japanese passengers to drive. The confusing environment of the Salar resulted in two trucks colliding and killing all 12 passengers. There is a small tribute on the salt plain (see photo below). I don’t have enough blog space to recount half the stories I’ve heard about drunk Bolivia driving.

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As mentioned previously, mining is not common on the Salar which interestingly holds half of the world’s reserves of lithium, a metal used in high energy density lithium batteries (cameras). There is currently no mining plant and the Bolivian government doesn’t want exploitation by foreign corporations, thus the valuable mineral lies un-utilised for now.

Leaving the Island we pass by small hand run mining operations on our way final destination – the town of Uyuni.

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Few countries in the world have the terrain which southwestern Bolivia had shown me over the last few days. Having been in South Ameria for almost 2 months, I was finally getting into the spirit of being an adventurer.

Pictured are our guides at the end of the trip. The next day they had another 1100 km trip with a fresh group of tourists.

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Next stop the infamous mining city of Potosi