Archive | desert

Salt, sky and sand on a 4×4 trip through Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

My introduction to Bolivia couldn’t have been more dramatic: a border crossing from Chile at over 4000 metres above sea level in the freezing early morning with the giant Licancabur Volcano looming in the background, followed by three days of offroading in a Land Cruiser through some of the most beautiful and unusual landscapes I’ve ever seen.

After a breakfast of sandwiches and mint tea in a tiny hut next to the tiny hut of the Bolivian border post, my boyfriend and I crammed into a dusty Land Cruiser (where neither the heater nor the odometer worked) with four strangers, no seatbelts and a Bolivian driver who looked about 16 and spoke no English.

It doesn’t sound like a recipe for travel success, but it was. Jorge turned out to be an excellent driver and the friend-making in the car happened in a mix of English, French and Spanish. The next three days were spent on a grande aventure cruising through Bolivia’s Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, stopping to look at a spectacular sequence turquoise and white lagoons, driving through a terracotta desert strewn with ancient volcanic rocks like the background of a Salvador Dali painting, swimming in 36-degree hot springs at 4800 metres above sea level in a bitingly cold wind, photographing a field of geysers and a solidified field of lava that looked like brownie mixture as a volcano smoked on the horizon. We spotted one lone fox, tiny flocks of vicuñas and llamas and pink ribbons of flamingoes on a lagoon the colour of dark rust. People posed for photographs on a lonely train track through the nothingness of the desert when suddenly a tiny one-carriage train appeared on the horizon and whizzed past.

We slept in simple refugios – one at about 4500 metres, where I woke up many times in the night gasping for breath – and a salt hotel, where the walls, floor and tables were lickable, ate a lot of potatoes and fried eggs and chewed coca leaves for the altitude.

On the last day we woke up at 4am and packed up our car under a sky thick with stars and drove out to Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat (the same size as Lebanon), to watch the sun rise over the hexagonal puzzle shapes of the thick salt crust. In the early dawn light we explored Isla Incahuasi, an island of giant cactuses so surreal and beautiful it stunned almost everyone into silent contemplation. As the sun turned the salt flat a blinding white, Jorge drove us fast straight across the salt flat blasting his favourite tune “Me gusta bailar” as a German girl on top the car next to us took off her top and held on to the roof racks as her blonde hair whipped behind her.


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How to do a 4×4 trip through Bolivia’s southwest and Salar de Uyuni

There are a number of tour operators offering 4×4 trips in Land Cruisers through Bolivia, either from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile or from the dusty town of Uyuni in Bolivia. There have been some really bad reports about the cheaper tours regarding things like drivers drinking, so it’s not worth it to skimp on cost. The trips are either three days or four days, and you can either do a one-way route or a circular route, back to San Pedro or Uyuni. You can book private tours but these are pretty expensive. Most people opt for joining in with a group. If you can, make some friends before you do the trip, and share a car with them. My boyfriend and I were lucky – we had a great group in our car, and we were travelling in convoy with two other cars filled with a friendly bunch of people from around the world.

After doing a lot of research, I decided to go with Cordillera Traveller. The communication from their office was pretty bad before the trip (like not telling us we needed to bring our own water), but other than that the trip was great. We had an amazing driver, Jorge, who at first looked worryingly young, but turned out to be a great driver, knowledgeable guide and fun guy. Our month of Spanish lessons definitely came in handy – he, nor any of the other drivers, spoke no English.

Our two-night three-day trip from San Pedro to Uyuni cost $180, which included accommodation – one night in a basic hostel where we shared a six-bed room, and one night in a salt hotel where we had double or triple rooms – and meals. The food wasn’t fantastic (especially for vegetarians) but with the high altitude, I hardly felt hungry. If you eat a lot take snacks with you!

You are at very high altitudes for most of the trip. Make sure you acclimatise for a few days by staying in a fairly high place (such as San Pedro) before doing the 4×4 trip. Most of our group had headaches – including me, despite taking aspirins and altitude sickness pills. Chewing coca leaves and drinking coca tea was actually the only thing that helped. It’s also incredibly dry, so bring a large tube of lip ice and lots of moisturiser.

I felt saddened to see so much toilet paper at the “bano naturales” where people had gone to the loo behind bushes and on rocks. Please take your toilet paper with you! Each day there are dozens of people doing this trip, and if everyone leaves toilet paper behind each time they make a natural wee, the most beautiful places on the route will look like the outskirts of Uyuni – a trash wasteland.

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Life on the edge in the Atacama Desert

El Tatio Geyser field, Atacama Desert, Chile

“This is where all life came from”. The Chilean version of David Attenborough, our guide Gonzalez Cruz, peered into a hole the size of a truck tyre, out of which spewed forth boiling sulfuric steam. I assumed he wasn’t referring to the eggs some other guides were boiling in the ferociously bubbling water a few metres away from us.

More dramatically, he was talking about the origins of life on Earth, 3.5 billion years ago, in volcanic geysers under the ocean, while huge geysers erupted all around us in the freezing dawn air. We were at the El Tatio geyser field in Chile’s Atacama Desert, at 4320 metres above sea level. It felt appropriate to think about the beginning of existence in a place where the boundary between life and death is so fragile. The Atacama is one of the driest places in the world – some regions have not received rain for thousands of years. It’s very high, very sunny and very cold, and is surrounded by volcanoes that occasionally erupt. It’s a harsh place to survive.

It’s also surreally, spectacularly beautiful. When you think of a desert you probably imagine a vast monotonously sandy landscape that looks pretty much the same. The Atacama is startling in its variety, and the geysers are just one of the scenic highlights. Smoking volcanoes loom on the horizon, rippled sand dunes melt into the rocky steep sides of the Andes mountains, tiny green oases of villages with pomegranate and fig trees dot the terracotta blanket of sand, turquoise salt lagoons and deep navy thermal pools proved cooling relief from the intense dryness and a salt flat that looks like a huge bed of dead coral is home to flocks of candy-pink flamingoes. And then there’s Moon Valley, an apricot-coloured canyon covered in crunchy salt crystals, with rocks that crackle in the late afternoon like the sound of rain on a tin roof. I could have spent weeks there, but only had four days of immersion into this desert world, which I spent hiking, mountain biking, swimming in cold lagoons and hot springs, horse riding over dunes and star gazing – the Atacama’s night skies are awash with stars.

I’d never been anywhere like the Atacama before, but the other-worldly landscapes looked so strangely familiar. A quick Google search revealed that the desert has been used as a location for filming scenes on Mars. So it wasn’t just me who made lunar comparisons.

The Atacama’s connection with outer space doesn’t just extend to acting as a backdrop for movies, however.  One hundred and fifty kilometres to the south of where we stood under the steam of El Tatio’s geysers is the world’s biggest radio telescope. ALMA has been fully operational for just over a year as an international partnership between the US, Canada, East Asia, Europe and Chile. On a high, remote plateau sixty-six radio antennas are pointed up at the heavens to capture radio waves from the dark parts of the universe, to allow researchers to see where the first galaxies were formed, but more excitingly, to find out whether there are other solar systems that have the conditions to support life.

As we contemplated the beginnings of Earth’s organisms, astrophysicists and astronomers were searching for life on other planets. There, in the Atacama, the circle of life felt complete.


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Llama and Licancabur Volcano

How to get to the Atacama Desert

Most people fly to Calama in Chile from Santiago, and drive 174 kilometres to stay in San Pedro de Atacama, the main tourist village in the desert, which is a great base for all the hiking, geyser-spotting and volcano climbing in the area.

I’d been in Argentina for two months, and was in the northwestern city of Salta, so I travelled overland to the Atacama from there. Salta is Argentina’s new emerging destination – a charming colonial town where the empanada was invented, traditional folklore music is played in bars every night, and the main tourist sight is the preserved bodies of three children sacrificed by the Incans on top of a volcano 500 years ago. I stayed at the lovely boutique hotel Kkala, where the 10 rooms are named after national parks around Salta, balconies overlook the city and a sunny pool deck beckons in the afternoons.

From Salta I took an 11-hour overnight Andesmar bus to San Pedro de Atacama. I’d read that it was one of South America’s most beautiful and scenic bus trips, but there was only the overnight option on the day I wanted to travel, so I settled for watching Argentina’s dramatic mountains by silvery moonlight instead. Waking up at dawn to the spectacular vista of the Atacama Desert unfurling outside – terracotta sand, volcanoes, the occasional lake and salt flat – made up for missing out on the nighttime views. I did the highest border crossing of my life – 4300 metres – where my hands and feet tingled, I felt woozy and Chilean border policeman told me not to wait in the immigration queue and go and lie down in the bus instead.

Kkala boutique hotel, Salta

Kkala boutique hotel in Salta

The view from the Salta-San Pedro bus ride in the early morning.

The view from the Salta-San Pedro bus ride in the early morning.

Where to stay in the Atacama Desert

I stayed at explora Atacama, an amazing lodge located just outside the village of San Pedro de Atacama. I loved the ultra-modern architecture, the healthy food (I could have eaten the ceviche every day), the fabulous swimming pools to cool off in during hot afternoons, and the friendly staff but the highlight was definitely the focus on activities. The lodge has a philosophy that you should spend more time out of your hotel room than in it (which makes sense, seeing as you don’t travel all the way to the Atacama to lie on your bed all day), so they have 50 different activities to choose from. You either pick a full day activity or two half-day ones. It was hard to choose what to do, but the guides recommended the best choices based on your fitness and acclimatisation level (some activities, like climbing to the tops of volcanoes, require that you spend several days getting used to San Pedro’s height of 2500 metres above sea level). My activities included a mountain bike ride to Laguna Cejar, a hike through Moon Valley, riding the lodge’s beautiful Anglo-Arabian horses, sunset on the salt flat and the dawn drive up to the geysers (and the swim in the hot springs afterwards). The lodge even has its own observatory, where you can stargaze with an astronomer.

You can book explora Atacama through the Mantis Collection.

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AfrikaBurn 2014: The Trickster

AfrikaBurn 2014

This year was my third AfrikaBurn and as always, I feel like it was a psychedelic dream that will take me weeks to process. I had too many crazy, beautiful experiences and encounters to put into words in just one blog (I feel like I could write a book about my five days in the desert).

AfrikaBurn 2014

I discussed the meaning of free will with some strangers in a wig wam made of actual wigs, received a postcard from a friend asking me to get married in a mass purple wedding delivered to my campsite by a Burning Mail crew member, got given away to be married by an American guy who’d become my adopted uncle, watched one of the best sunsets of my life over a Karoo horizon so beautiful it looked like a Photoshop-enhanced photo, was taught to play “Scar Tissue” on the ukelele in three minutes by a man wearing colourful underwear and a headscarf, drank whisky in a field of LED-lit mushrooms, volunteered in the heat of the day to hug AfrikBurn virgins as they arrived at the gate and DJed in a gold outfit in a yellow bus called Judy.

AfrikaBurn 2014

I sat in the dark of the desert for hours waiting for the the giant Subterrafuge cones to burn (which didn’t happen because of the wind) and met a Texan guy called Daddy Long Legs wearing a Spongebob Squarepants hat who told one of the best stories I’ve ever heard, shot hundreds of photos just of the golden hour at sunset when the dust and light made the landscape of AfrikaBurn look like a mystical city on a faraway planet in Star Wars, lost my friends for hours and found them again in an apocalyptic dust storm in the early morning at a tiny dance floor in the middle of nowhere presided over by the most unlikely looking DJ, and had a Japanese man in monk’s robes give me some origami as a gift just before I got in the car to go home.

Burn for Amy4

I made new friends, loved old friends even more and felt like I learned something new about myself and life with each day that passed. I had expectations of this year based on the previous two Burns I’d been to, but I realised that you can’t expect anything from AfrikaBurn (or from life, for that matter).

There were some challenges and problems that came with more people at AfrikaBurn this year, but I feel like that mind-blowing magic was still there – the result of thousands of people coming together in the middle-of-nowhere desert and creating something beautiful out of nothing.

AfrikaBurn 2014

I find AfrikaBurn much easier to portray in images than in words, and it’s my favourite event to photograph. I’ve put up some of my favourite photos here.


AfrikaBurn 2014 in photos

Subterrafuge, AfrikaBurn 2014

The dust is settling in the Tankwa Karoo as another AfrikaBurn has drawn to close. For a week, 9000 people turned a farm in the middle of nowhere in the Northern Cape into a temporary town – a surreal world of art, music, dress up and performances. When you’re there you have to keep reminding yourself that you’re not in a dream, and when you’ve returned to the “real” world it’s even harder to realise that it all actually happened: all the crazy costumes and unexpected dance floors and spontaneous gifting and the sea of neon and flashing LEDs lighting up the desert sky at night.

I took as many photos as I could to try and capture some of AfrikaBurn’s transient magic.


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Why Orange River rafting was my best holiday ever

I’ve been wanting to go rafting on the Orange River for years but somehow had never got round to it. At the end of last year I got a big group of friends together and we drove up to Namibia from Cape Town the day after Christmas and then ended up having the best holiday ever.

I think there’s a difference between travelling and going on holiday. When you travel you go to new places and have constant stimulation and want to try everything and see as much as possible. I usually get up early in the morning and spend the whole day walking in a city or driving around somewhere, exploring as much as I can. I’m constantly photographing and taking notes and thinking about the place I’m in, and planning the stories I’m going to write. By the end of it I feel like I could do with a holiday to relax.

Rafting on the Orange River is not travel like that. It’s a holiday in the proper sense of the word. All you have to do is get yourself up to Namibia – an easy drive from Cape Town and the most chilled border crossing ever – and then all you have to worry about after that is not capsizing and keeping your cooler box shut so that your beers stay cold. If you’re on a catered trip, your river guides cook all meals for you – all you need to bring is snacks and drinks.

After spending our first night at base camp, we packed up our canoes and began our 90-kilometre paddle down the river past desert sand dunes, craggy mountains (my favourite was the sharp peak known as the Witch’s Hat), the occasional troop of barking baboons. The concept of time became irrelevant – the rhythm of life was one of floating, paddling, swimming, drinking beer, eating lunch, drinking more beer and then setting up camp each night on the banks of the river, sleeping under a sky speckled with a mind-bogglingly-large amount of stars.

The best moments of the trip were when we jumped out of our canoes, strapped our life jackets on like nappies, held our boats together and floated downstream. When I start to feel stressed now that I’m back in the city, I take my mind back to those moments, when time seemed to stand still.

I never once thought about my real life back home, or work or the year ahead or anything else that was potentially stressful. I think it was as a result of a combination of not caring about time, going into a zen-like headspace while paddling for awhile without anyone speaking, being surrounded by my favourite kind of landscape (barren, deserty and without people), feeling connected to natural rhythms and sleeping under the stars.

If you’re not into camping or being hot (it was about 45 degrees each day we were there), or roughing it (you go to the toilet out in the desert with a stick and a brown paper bag) then this is probably not a good holiday option for you. But if you love being outside (and don’t mind a bit of sun) and being away from people and civilisation, then it can’t get better than Orange River rafting.


How to do an Orange River rafting trip

There are a number of operators (on both the South African and Namibian sides of the border) who offer guided trips along the river, ranging from one day to several days. I can recommend Amanzi Trails – one of the most affordable options, with friendly guides and hearty meals. Other operators include Gravity Adventures, Felix Unite and Bundi.

You can opt to self-cater but you don’t pay much more to have all your meals catered for you, and going for the catered option does mean that you don’t have to worry about a thing other than keeping your drinks cold.


All photos are by my talented friend Gabrielle Guy.


AfrikaBurn 2013

Afrikaburn 2013 "Reflection"

The sun was slowly setting over the vast Karoo horizon, turning the sky from apricot-orange to fuschia-purple as I danced with thousands of costumed people to music streaming from a purple bus and a mobile pirate ship. A massive gyrating skeleton towered over us while our feet kicked up clouds of dust from the cracked desert floor. Day turned into night and all around us Tankwa Town lit up in pulsating rainbow-coloured LED lights underneath a blanket of stars in a sky so big you can see the curvature of the Earth.

This was Saturday at AfrikaBurn, the biggest night of the annual festival in the Karoo desert near Cape Town. A few hours later we gathered together again to watch artworks built just for the festival go up in flames in beautifully primal ceremonies.

As the organisers say, ‘For those that have been no explanation is necessary, for those that haven’t none is possible.’ It’s hard to put AfrikaBurn into words. It defies a simple definition. It’s not a trance party or music festival or a gathering of hippies. It’s a temporary surreal world built by everyone who makes the long trek into the middle of nowhere. Each year, for six days, a town is constructed in the Tankwa Karoo where money means nothing and 6500 festival-goers create their own magic: there are amazing artworks, performances, bands, DJs, dance floors, yoga classes, swimming pools, pop-up cocktail bars, pancake stands, a post office and many more interactive experiences, all for free. Once the festival is over, everything is packed up and there’s no trace left to indicate that anything happened

I’d been to AfrikaBurn last year for the first time, not knowing what to expect, and was completely overwhelmed by it. This year was no different. Even though I had an idea of what was in store, it still blew my mind.

I watched an incredibly beautiful burning performance set to ethereal music, where animal structures were set on fire and manipulated like puppets, got absorbed by 3D glasses in a holographic tunnel of lights, drank chilli vodka out of a pink plastic penis attached to a motorbike, learnt to shower with a 500ml water bottle, ran screaming into the night with my cape flowing behind me, hugged strangers, made new friends, bonded with old friends, got lost in the dark of the Binnekring and stumbled upon artworks I could never find again and danced for five days straight (next to a mobile cocktail bar pumping out music at sunset, inside a string of LED lights in the middle of nowhere, on top of the purple bus, underneath a wooden man with glowing red eyes, inside the Miniscule of Sound – a tiny dance floor inside a shiny cardboard box with a mirror ball warmed by a flamethrower, under lasers that looked like the Northern Lights, next to a cheese grater and on top of a moving purple snail. I got a message from the universe inside a crunchie, a grape ice lolly on a hot afternoon from a small boy, a handmade pouch filled with seeds to plant bonsai, an ice cold beer from a medieval soldier out in the desert and red wine from a cart playing electro music at sunset.

We survived dust storms, extreme heat and dryness, chillingly cold nights and no running water and created a town with no hierarchy and no point other than the temporary experience. AfrikaBurn allows you to completely let go – whether that means getting naked or wearing a bizarre costume or dancing the funky chicken. That everyone subscribes to the ethos of the festival and in their own way participates makes me feel optimistic about the potential for society to improve. It’s uplifting, inspiring and changes your perspective more than anything else can.

I returned home with dust-encrusted dreadlocked hair, an incredibly sore body and a bag full of gifts I will treasure, already planning my costumes and contributions for next year, thinking about how I can incorporate a bit of the magic, generosity and community spirit of AfrikaBurn into the ‘real’ world.


The lowdown on AfrikaBurn

‘AfrikaBurn is the spectacular result of the creative expression of a community of volunteers who, once a year, gather in the Tankwa Karoo to create a temporary city of art, theme camps, costume, music and performance.’

AfrikaBurn started in 2007, when it had less than 1000 people. It’s grown radically – last year it had 5300 and in 2013 6500 tickets were sold. It takes place on Stonehenge farm in the middle of nowhere (on the longest stretch of road in South Africa without petrol stations or nearby assistance), 300 kilometres north of Cape Town near Ceres in the Northern Cape’s semi-desert Tankwa Karoo. It’s South Africa’s version of the Burning Man festival in Nevada, USA.

Tankwa Town, the name of the AfrikaBurn space, is structured in a giant circle, with art works in the middle (the Binnekring) and the theme camps on its circumference, with the camping area behind them (the Buitekring). There are road names on a map and street signs to help you find your way home (and set up a camping spot in advance if you’re staying with a big group). There are toilets (the good ol’ portapotties, and long drops), roads, medics and not much else in terms of facilities. There’s nothing for sale so you need to bring your own water, food and any other provisions.

Tickets this year were on a tiered system, starting from R400 and going up to R800. The idea is that you pay for the ticket you can afford. If you can’t pay R400 then you can apply for a low-income ticket (the aim is to make the event inclusive and accessible to everyone). The money from ticket sales goes towards running the festival and funding artworks (AfrikaBurn is a not-for-profit company). In 2013 tickets sold out fast. If you’re planning to go to the festival in 2014, buy your tickets as they go on sale (this year the most expensive tickets went on sale first, in November).

A lot of people think that AfrikaBurn is some kind of giant bartering market, where you swap a beer for a back massage. It’s not like this at all. It’s a decommodified space, where nothing commercial (except the sale of ice) takes place (you even need to cover up obvious logos or branding on your vehicles). There’s a gift economy, where gifts are given unconditionally, without an expectation of a similar gift in return. This is probably my favourite thing about AfrikaBurn – the selfless and magical gifting that happens all the time, whether it’s egg rolls being given out to hungover burners Saturday morning, hearty soup shared out for dinner, or mojitos and shots of Jagermeister from a mobile bar.

AfrikaBurn’s central tenet is participation. There are no organised bands or DJs or entertainment and the festival doesn’t happen without involvement from festival goers. You can participate by organising a theme camp (this can be anything from a dance floor or a massage centre to the ‘Land of Soft Things’ – an area filled with giant couches and cushions), or a mutant vehicle (creatively converted and decorated cars, buses and trucks which drive people around the Binnekring), making an art installation or just by dressing up in a crazy costume. The amazing thing is that it seems like almost everyone does participate and puts on some incredible music, art and interactive experiences.