San Juan is the last town before the desert proper. Town is a generous word. A few blocks of one story buildings, and some beleaguered farm equipment. We buy emergency Pringles from the shop and drive into the northern Atacama desert.
This place of huge spaces plays tricks with you. Low ridges, and in the background, always distant volcanoes, and there's nothing to help you judge scale. We slowly rise off the end of the great salt, and cross the metre gauge mineral railway, still in use, but quiet today, a Sunday. A tall three-cratered volcano, Volcana de Chiguana, overhangs the crossing, rising abruptly. At least that's the name our guide calls it. I write down all the names he gives me for the volcanoes, and later check them on the internet. There's no correlation. Are they local names or was he making it up? It doesn't matter. I'll stick with his names. Sulphur colours, yellow and white mark the craters in stripes of ejection. Deeper into the desert we drive. The volcanoes are huge, but don't overlap, bottoming out as distinct undisguised pimples onto the wide nicotine-yellow plain. The lava flows are so thick and dense, they've barely flowed from the crater, and mound up, fat fingers across the land. Stiff, viscous, it got here by collapsing at the front, in solidified blocks, allowing barely moving chunks to ooze through. From my childhood obsession with volcanoes, I believe this to be because deep under the subduction zone, the sinking plate is melted in fractions, the lava this far under the Andes lacking in silicon, is consequently thick, adhesive, explosive. The landscape wears the scars of violence. It's a brutal, obnoxious textbook, a giant brail text of knowledge and puzzles to be solved.
We drive through the gaps between the volcanoes in the yellow dusted flatness. The cones rise up, razor sharp, too young to have been rounded yet, steepening to arrogant points. Unfettered by plants or anything to give perspective. But they must be big cones. The valley floor is 4000m above sea level, the best of the cones rising to 6000m. A silent sulphur mine is the only man-made thing for miles. Lava flows hundreds of meters tall, abrupt ended, blocking the flow of the landscape. The worthy Toyota crawls up horrid edges, spraying dust. It's slow going. We stop to view Volcana de Olluwi. It's a terrifying sight. The top has a vast lava dome hanging off the side, jetting steam in clouds. A great eruption waiting to happen. The valley floor is full of pyroclastic deposits, the dust and rocks left by that most destructive of eruption, where uncorked, a wall of hot gas and rocks glide over the surface, fed by exposed lava. They can go for miles, and nothing stands in their path. Pompeii famously succumbed to one. Here, where it's not lava, it's pyroclastic deposits. The volcanoes are now so close together that these deposits could have come from any direction. There's no plants at all now, and it's a complete volcanic desert. Dust and rocks competing for the upper hand.
As we get further up the valley, another volcano comes to dominates the scene, Volcana de Canapa. The top third is simply missing, a cone broken, spilled out into our valley in a huge eruption and landslide. Miles down the valley, a town sized jumble of rocks, surfed by the remains of a lava plug the size of a town hall, marks where the giant landslide ended. This must have been a collosal eruption. The scale of the collapse reminds me of the famous Mt St Helens eruption, worth a google if you've not seen it. I wonder when this eruption took place. The lack of plantlife makes it hard for me to estimate the age of the rocks. It seems an impossibly ancient landscape, bitter, crumbling rocks, lifeless, ash underfoot, but it is one of the most modern landscapes on earth. Everything we see is measured in thousands of years. Yesterday in geological terms.
This great collapse has created a wall that holds back a huge lagoon. Sturdy pink flamingos are present in a number that makes a mockery of the bleak, abominated, infinite landscape. We take lunch in the shelter of a wall of congealed lava blocks. Fluffy animals come out. They're tame, and look like giant rabbits. Called Vizcachas, It's clear that the guides cultivate these creatures for our benefit! We can feed them greenery, and they bounce away into secret gaps between the lava chunks. A big old one watches from above throughout. Just as we paid for the salt-island yesterday, this is our toll for visiting their home. They're amusingly out of place, as this desert is otherwise so lifeless and arid that it surely shouldn't be producing giant cute rabbits that take broccoli from your open hand.
I lose count, there are so many pustulant cones growing from this landscape. Llamas are here too. What the hell does everything eat? We pass more lagoons, more flows, more lava, the further we travel, the more desolate it gets, as even the colour drains away to just leave mute brick browns and grey.
It's a landscape so dramatic, so emotionally demanding, that we're forced to return to our truck and read, just to clear the mind. I am part way through a recommendation; J.B. Priestley's 'English Journey',
"I remember arriving at the very end of the earth, where the land appeared to have been uprooted by a giant pig and where there were cottages so small and odd that they must have been built for gnomes, and this end of the earth was called 'Gornal' and there the women, returning home from the brickworks, wore shawls and caps.", and suddenly I didn't feel so far from home. I wonder what our implacable guide and driver would make of the Black Country.
Our guide is called Moises, and in the depths of this endless wrecked acreage, he remains singularly unperturbed, with a gentle smile. He has a home made dreamcatcher hanging from the rear view mirror, made out of soldering wire. He speaks in un-nuanced, clear Spanish, that even I can broadly understand. When he meets a wagon coming the other way, he just holds his ground and smiles until they give up and move out of the way, defused. Like the landscape, he too is totally ageless. I suspect in his thirties, but who knows?
His stereo plays upbeat Bolivian music. I compliment it. Encouraged, this CD remains on repeat for the next 2 days. We get familiar with it, knowing exactly when to cry 'Bolivia!', as most tracks on this album finish with just such a good old-fashioned patriotic shout. Moises does not change gear if he can possibly help it, knowing, as I do, the value of a gearbox. I suspect his Toyota is the most expensive thing he owns, ahead of his house. Across the top of the windscreen is his personal motif, 'Dios Me Guia' and below in smaller lettering 'Moises Me Conduce' - God guides me, Moises drives me. His steering wheel is nearly upside down when going straight, and when the sun and the dust make the going hard, he opens his door and drives with his head out. When we're out, busy looking at stuff, he sometimes dives under his car and emerges some minutes later, with a piece of broken metal, or a handful of old wire, shaking his head sadly. I like him. He works very hard, and is excellent, gentle company.
Our progress to the South is punctuated by the emergence of many more salty lagoons, each with a colour of its own, vivid green, or the bright orange of an MCC tie run to one alarming shade. We arrive at the hostel, and also the end of the world. At 4500m above sea level, it is in the shallow bottom of an immensely broad valley of broken rocks and dust and absolutely nothing else. Not a plant grows here, for it is too high, too dry, too poor. The light is the saving grace here, pastel shades beyond count, every ten minutes into the late afternoon, the palette is refreshed and deepened. Just sitting and watching the light evolve is a huge and simple pleasure. The hostel is brownwashed walls, austere rooms, 6 beds barely fitting in each, under a tiny floundering bulb. There's a small communal dining hallway, where we watch the last pastel shades drain to ink and forsake us, away over the horizon. The daughters of the proprietors appear and sing us songs before sending the cap round. It's cynical, but we're generous. What a place to grow up, 50 miles from the next cluster of buildings, in a place so lifeless and broad.
I practice my fiddle in the growing night, and realise that my regular breathing patterns won't cut it, and I gulp extra breaths to force the bow across the strings. I write weird dry tunes, and record them for later, unable to judge if they're any good or not. This is the most remote place I have ever been. I had the foresight to bring a couple of beers with me, and I drink them slowly, whilst writing my notes up. One by one, everyone goes to bed, with the proprietor showing me the light switches so I can shut the place down. I write for another hour in utter calm, so alone. It is the latest I can ever remember it feeling, like I stayed up all night and morning never came. I check my watch. 8.30pm.
Come the morning, we're up at 4.30am. The dry has got to us all, and there's a chorus of sneezing in our dorm. I sit up, and with unusual wit for first thing in the morning exclaim; "That's the first time I've been woken by a 21 gun salute!" In common with what I reckon are my best jokes, this is met with silent stares.
There's no light yet, but there is Nescafe and hot water, plus bread and jam. We're not hungry, but we eat anyway and load the mighty Toyota up in the last of the night. We're going higher. Another hour of bumping along in the dark, and we're at 5000m in the crater of an active volcano. The light has arrived, and illuminates the most alien of scenes. Steam pours from yellowing holes, with a gushing we can't shout over. Mud pots boil, we stand by them, tired and too high, vaguely aware that a slip means death. Sulphur stinks, the ground lectures incomprehensibly and endlessly at us. No health and safety here, just the Earth at her most tactile, pulling at our legs, whispering in our ears, wafting her sulphorous perfume. We drive away. Somehow, Ben gets hold of some tins of pissy lager, and we drink them, despite the early hour. Our Toyota heads for the Chilean border to drop our two Chilean friends off, and we pick up two French tourists, and begin the impossibly long journey back to Uyuni.
A world incomprehensible to us, another week at work for Moises.