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January 20th, 2014

We Watched the Sky Catch Fire

When an early start is worth the effort...

Not every group would take enthusiastically to their tour leader’s suggestion they get up at 4am to see the sun rise. Especially not on the Bolivian altiplano, near the Uyuni salt flats, 3,650 metres above sea level, where in winter months the temperature at night can plummet well below freezing. I would have to suggest it to the right kind of group, or face the prospect of a lie-in protest.

This group, however, seemed happy to trust my judgment, even if it meant frostbite and a lack of sleep. So when I suggested we leave our rustic dormitory accommodation in the remote village of Bellavista, where llamas and alpacas roamed among cacti, to see the sun rise over the Salt Flats, I met no opposition. We set our alarms.

Awake before my alarm, I went outside to help Walter, the Bolivian who drove our 4x4, to pile our luggage into the back of the jeep. His wife Rosemarie, our chef, was inside preparing breakfast – scrambled eggs on toast, bread and jam, and tea made from coca leaves which helped with the altitude. Walter and Rosemarie, with their dark, deep-set, weathered faces, were hardened against the harsh cold. I wasn’t, but looking at the blanket of stars sprinkled over the night sky, like them I didn’t feel it.

After a quick breakfast, me and the five people in my group squeezed into the jeep layered with thermals, gloves, woolly hats and gloves. Walter was at the wheel ready to go, Rosemarie huddled in the corner trying to keep warm. I coughed, and my icy white breath spread cloud-like through the air. The road out of Bellavista was too bumpy to allow any sleep. Even the llamas and alpacas, snoozing in the plains around us, seemed to be shivering like we were. Still no-one questioned the wisdom of the early start.

The Uyuni Salt Flat is the largest in the world at 10,582 square kms, four times larger than Luxembourg. Some 40,000 years ago, the area was part of Lake Minchin, a giant prehistoric lake. When the lake dried, it left behind two modern lakes, Poopó and Uru Uru, and two major salt deserts, Salar de Coipasa and the larger Uyuni, which contains 10 billion tons of salt. I still remember how, after my first visit, enjoying a tender llama steak and chips, the salt shaker in the restaurant in Uyuni, ironically, was empty.

As we neared the huge white mass, which can easily be mistaken for snow, ice, or clouds when seen from the window of a plane, the dawn began to break, a light blue turning red as the last stars died out. This revealed the salt flats to be covered in a thin layer of water from recent rains, which had the effect of reflecting these colours together with the snow capped Andean mountains, slowly illuminated by the approaching sun.

Walter drove the jeep onto the Salt Flats, careful not to skid on the water, which was partly frozen due to the cold. After I’d got my feet wet attempting to get out of the 4x4 to take a photo, we decided to stay inside, huddled together, to watch the sky catch fire.

As a tour leader, I am privileged to see stunning things on an almost daily basis. To this day, I have never seen anything more beautiful than the sunrise that morning at the salt flats.

The sky just shone; red, purple, orange, gold, blue, white; all reflecting symmetrically like a giant fiery butterfly, the Andes painting patterns on the sky’s wings. A few other jeeps clustered around ours, as if trying to keep warm. Out of the windows bleary-eyed travellers sat in awe as the sun came into view, igniting the day, and slowly beginning to warm the air.

Eventually the reds and purples faded and the sky returned towards its normal blue. The mountains were still reflected on the layer of water, looking eerily mysterious. As the battery died on one of my group’s camera, he said, “I’m glad we got up to see that.”

We all agreed, still shivering. As I told Walter to drive out into the middle of the salt flats, none of us felt tired.


By Pete Selman, Tour Leader.

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