Wednesday 18 June 2014

Day 41: All The World's A Geyser

El Tatio Geysers... blimey!
Who needs an alarm clock when a fleet of backpacker buses can do the job?  Our plan for today was to camp near the El Tatio geysers, knowing that most of the tours from San Pedro visit them at dawn.  Right on cue, Guy heard the growl of buses across the desert and shook me awake (brave man).  We packed up our tent with frozen fingers (there were no balmy -5 degree temperatures to enjoy on this occasion), bundled into the truck, and followed the hordes to El Tatio.  When we got there, a square kilometre of ground was steaming like a giant pizza newly taken from the oven - with the pop of boiling cheese and all - and the sun backlighting the fumes.  Wow.

A couple of hours and a memory-card full of photos later, we headed across to the warm springs to bathe amidst the sulphur and get clean after a couple of days in the desert.  A few people were boiling eggs in the inlet of hot water feeding the pool (unfortunately we had just cooked ours the boring way, on a stove).  A few well-turned out backpackers sat in the pool in their bikinis looking fully human (unlike us): well, they would just have to cope with a couple of grizzly unshaven campers sharing their abode.  We took the plunge, only to find that Mr Mantle had not done the greatest of jobs on the heating front; the water wasn't up to the standards of a good hot bath.  But if we lounged near the egg-cooker inlet then we could have a hot back and cold front, which averages out pretty nicely.  It was actually quite pleasant, lying back in the water, watching hundreds of geysers smoking avidly, feeling the cold air on our faces.  Getting out of the pool, into said air, was less pleasant, but needs must.

In the afternoon we drove to a tiny village clinging to the sides of a river.  Its inhabitants relied for survival on the produce of some terraced fields by the water side.  The strip of green looked narrow and fragile surrounded by miles of yellow-brown.  Good luck with their apple-growing!

At this point we still had one day to spare before returning our trusty four-wheeled home to Calama.  We had already visited all the places on our wish list so what should we do with the spare day?  Well, Volcan Lascar seemed to have stopped belching and we knew guided trips had ventured there in the last few days.  It must be time to give it another shot.

We drove south to the volcano, then turned off onto a 40km four-wheel drive track.  If we broke down up here, we had a long long walk ahead of us to get help.  The wind clearly sensed that we were in need of reassurance and kindly started blowing a hoolie; we struggled to keep our tent earthbound.  It was too cold and windy to light the stove so we had to rely on avocados for dinner (did I mention that I like them?).  Then we settled down for a night in down jackets as well as sleeping bags.  It was grim.

Every other night in the desert had been cold but stunning, canopied with shooting stars.  But this campsite was cold and miserable, star-less, comfort-less, made for hatching plans of escape.  The wind blew through the mesh window in our tent all night and covered our sleeping bags in dust.  By morning, my red bag and Guy's black one had both turned brown.  At dawn we peeped out to find that the sun had done a runner in the night.  Lascar hid in clouds that (for once) were not of its own making.  So did the rest of the desert.  Snow dusted the higher slopes.  Time to get out of here.  Back to San Pedro again!

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