20 February 2014


The desert is in my thoughts.

Arid nature: the barchan dune; the thorny devil.
Desert culture: the West, the Outback, Islam.

That house where Levon Helm lives in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.
The tombs of Ereth-Akbe.
Walt, burying his money.
I still haven’t seen Lawrence of Arabia.

The desert in Bolivia is vastly sublime. We crossed the border from Chile near San Pedro de Atacama, seven of us in a Landcruiser, strung into a dusty line with five or six other vehicles. It was like being on Mars. Huge plains and mountains, dry and red, baked under the blue sky, disintegrating under radiation. We were the only thing moving or living.

Then, around a foothill of Mount Juriques, we come to a salt lake, Laguna Verde: out into cold wind, thin air and harsh sunlight. Pale turquoise water laps powdery white sand underfoot. The sand coarsens; gains colour, ascending to umber mountains.

Later that day there are thin geysers, blown away in the wind, but which still leave the phantom stink of sulphur in your clothes. Cracks filled with boiling mud. Old volcanoes surround people and vehicle. Further on the mountains fall away into the distance. Plains of sand and gravel lead to the Siloli Desert where immense rocks have been scoured to sculpture by the wind. I climb their flanks, quickly breathless in the thin air.

That night I leave the others and walk alone up a small valley carved by a stream. It is freezing and the wind is everywhere. Eventually I find a draw and sit in silence. The little plants in the streambed huddle in silt. The upper slopes of the immense mountain that stands, thrumming, a short way across the plain are still lit by the setting sun. How can snow survive up there?

On the final day we reach the Salar de Uyuni. Prehistoric lakes have evaporated, leaving 50,000 cubic kilometres of salt behind. The spirit has flown but the body remains. It has rained two days before and huge, shallow puddles stretch to the horizon, bisected by the wake of our wheels, reflecting the world. Satellites calibrate themselves around us. Cold seeps through my shoes and salt crunches as I walk. Somewhere the Bolivians are extracting lithium for our mobile phones, but as we leave I see a man sleeping, propped against one of many small piles he has erected amidst the rain-summoned ghost of the dead lakes.

Most of me wants to swap my life for his; remain here and be eaten by the desert.