ruthroad-1192The vineyards, tobacco fields and smallholdings that flourish in the lee of the Andes from Mendoza north to the Bolivian border are anomalies. Most draw their water from glacier melt and mountain streams, some funnelled into channels originally excavated by the Incas, at the southern extreme of their domain. The sound of these fast-flowing culverts, or the sight of children splashing around in them, is a touch of grace. In the rain shadow of the Andes, this 3,000km strip of land would otherwise be desert – and the vast majority of it is. Desert that feels familiar to us from our travels in the USA, and yet very different. 

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Long, bare mountain ridges flank overheated plains. Earth’s structure is exposed, wide-spaced thorn scrub and the occasional tree doing little to soften the stark geological forms of steep canyons, serrated ranges and multi-coloured mineral excrescences. The road goes over – and sometimes under – endless flash-flood channels. Most are dry, but we’ve grown used to splashing through six inches of water the day after rain while bulldozers clear silt, rocks and trees pressure-washed down from the mountains. The plants are different from those of the deserts of the southwestern USA, but the ecological niches they fill are not: the aromatic spiky shrub (jarilla); the multi-armed giant cactus (cardon); the deep-rooted, tenacious shade tree (algarrobo). 

 


 

cloud-1280This is high summer. At lower altitudes, the temperature reaches somewhere around 38°C by the early afternoon, and it stays there, pulsating, until the early evening. The sky starts its day blue and cloudless. By 10.30am, cotton-ball clouds graze the mountain tops; by 4.30pm, they’ve boiled up into malevolent masses that may go quietly into the night or may rise up into perfect anvil thunder heads gravid with hail. Sometimes, the storm never reaches the ground but plays itself out in an almighty, herniated cloud. On a motor-powered road trip, this would be scenic and sublime. On a human-powered road trip, this is scenic, sublime and sometimes terrifying. 

Deserts are car-scale. The long, uninhabited distances are easily traversed; the elemental landscapes unfold at cinematic speed. You are the star of your own road movie. On a bicycle, going no faster than your dragonfly escorts, the vastness is greater and more personal. We react differently to this. Will is exhilarated by the direct immersion. Ruth relishes the beauty of the desert floor, the defiant adaptations of the plants and the geometry of their competition, and the interplay between rock and water, but feels vulnerable – to thirst, lightning, insignificance.

 


 

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We’re soon to cross the Argentinian puna (high desert) into Chile’s Atacama. Fifty of the 200 mountains that the Incas worshipped as living gods are found in the puna: unearthly volcanic forms so remote and hostile that many are unclimbed, at least by modern man. In 1999, climbers found the hauntingly well-preserved bodies of three young Inca sacrifice victims, including a boy of about seven who was sent on his way with a spare pair of sandals and a coat to grow into, on the 6,739m-summit of Volcan Llullaillaco. They had been frozen for 500 years, temperatures never having exceeded zero. 

We’re crossing on a tarmac pass, and it’s summer, and there’s a service station near the top with a motel and (apparently) Wi-Fi, so we don’t plan on being victims of the ice, though it will still be a tough trip and the weather may yet play a part. And then we’ll be in the driest desert in the world, so at least Ruth can stop worrying about lightning. 

from Purmamarca, JY, Argentina