16th - 17th November 2003 cont'd
All we needed to do before leaving Uyuni was change our remaining Bolivianos into Chilean Pesos, fill the Weasel and two spare jerry cans with diesel, get our Bolivian exit stamp from immigration (which gave us four days to get out of the country), and get the Carnet stamped by customs. We were better off getting the paperwork done in Uyuni, as the border crossing we were taking into Chile (Hito Cajón/San Pedro) was often unmanned and there was no customs office there.
We changed most of our money - we needed to keep back some for diesel plus 30 Bolivianos each for the Reserva Eduarda Avaroa entrance fee and 8 Bolivianos each for the entrance fee at Inca Huasi, where we were hoping to camp for the night on the salt flats. The immigration stamp was no problem and cost 15 Bolivianos each (just over £1). Getting the carnet signed however was a problem. When we went to the Aduana office on the edge of town it was closed and had been all morning, as we were informed by two men who had been waiting outside for a quite a while for the office to open. That meant no carnet stamp. But at least we could prove we had left the country with the vehicle when it got stamped into Chile. Last thing to do was fill up with diesel. There are only two gas stations in Uyuni. The first had run out of both petrol and diesel and weren't expecting a delivery until 2pm (it was then about 12pm). There was no way we could head out on the flats without filling up as we estimated that we needed about 110 litres to be on the safe side and currently we only had 50 litres in the Weasel - there would be no more fuel for the next four days. So we went off to find the other gas station. They had also run out of both diesel and petrol. We had no choice but to hang around until 2pm with the rest of the tour company jeeps waiting to fill up as well.
After whiling away some time catching up on emails, we headed back to the gas stations at 2pm, only to be told that although the petrol had arrived, they were still out of diesel - the delivery was now expected at 3pm. If not at 3pm, definitely today? Yes. So we headed back into town and took the opportunity to get the Weasel washed and the oil changed before heading out on the flats. They kept on talking about "fume gas", we didn't have the faintest idea what they were on about. It turns out they spray the whole chassis with a WD40 type mixture to help protect against the effects of the salt.
By the time the Weasel was ready, the diesel had arrived and we were on our way - four hours later than planned. The good news though was that that meant we were completely on our own - the tour jeeps all take petrol and were well on their way; there was no chance of our crossing their paths.
We had about 2 hours left of daylight which gave us enough time to get to Inca Huasi on the salt flats to camp up for the night. As we neared the turn off onto the slat flats at Colchani we hit a toll booth and had to pay 10 Bolivianos. Luckily we had allowed for a few extra Bolivianos in case of unforeseen expenses such as these. Then onto the flats themselves.
The entry to the salt flats is pretty well marked, you just follow the track, but once you get onto the firm salt, tracks zoom off in all directions. The tracks are effectively two streaks of dirt on the white salt left by the wheels of the trucks and 4x4s. Dotted around the salt pan entry are small "stacks" made by the locals to harvest the salt.
There were a number of tracks heading off parallel to each other that were following the bearing we were after. Having driven along one of them it started to veer too far South and we realised we were not heading in the right direction for Inca Huasi. We could have just corrected our course and made our own track, but why leave another set of tracks across the clean salt? So we retraced our steps for 10 minutes and took a less defined track to the north east of our original path. This track was the right one and headed out past the Salt Hotel, made entirely of salt blocks, including the beds. A quick stop for a photo and we were on our way, conscious of the sun setting before we made it to Inca Huasi.
As the sun sank lower we zoomed across the salt flats passing strange hexagonal shapes in the salt, eventually reaching Inca Huasi, a cactus covered island. Arriving there just as the sun was about to set, we were directed by the islands's warden to camp on the eastern side - good news as the wind was howling like mad from the west and we hoped to get some shelter behind the island. But no sooner was the tent up than the wind veered around and was hitting us full on. We were in for a rough night!
But in spite of the wind, it was a fantastic experience to camp out all alone on the flats, especially after the sun had set as a huge lightning storm began all along the eastern horizon. It lit up the sky like some far distant battle and the storms were still raging when we dragged ourselves off to bed 2 hours later.
In the morning Ed climbed to the top of the island, scaring viscachas all the way. On the top is a great view out over the salt flats to the distant mountains and the tracks made by vehicles heading west to Chile could be easily seen, as were the tracks that we wanted to follow south.
Porridge for breakfast and off we went making good time to the causeway, which lead us through the soft salt/mud at the edge of the salar until we hit firm ground.