Chuquicamata is a long way




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San Pedro de Atacama 28.07.02

Officina de Chacabuco - Chuquicamata 138.92 km

It's been a tolerable night. This extra matress makes the night not comfortable but bearable. It's 5 a.m. but I have had my 8 hours, so I'm just waiting for the sunrise, so I can get on.
11 degr. inside, so it's been a warm night. It's not darker than I can distinguish most things, but to write or look at my watch I need light. Yesterday I crossed a minor mountain ridge and entered a plateau with no outlet to the sea. That's what the days incidents tell. But at sunrise the wind starts blowing and the dish washing feel colder than the other day when it was -6 degr.
It's hard to take down the tent because of the wind. In the lack of other helpers I get use of some rocks - and succeed. The direction of the wind has changed and I'm not doing a fair speed, but within short the wind lowers and the heat comes back like yesterday. The altimeter says 1490 m at 11 o'clock which tells about an inclining landscape. That there's no outlet to the sea can be seen from these countless 'officina's. A 'officina' seems to be an extraction spot, that's been abandoned. It's salt that has been extracted, the water has gathered in the lowest parts, has evaporated and the salt's been left. Maybe it rained more often then, probably, it's been huge quantities as information one place tells: From 1912-13 extraction of 50.000 tonnes a year. When the mine was empty the town was abandoned and what's left are those ghost towns or 'officina's. In some cases real town with churchyard and all.

If it says "officina" in the map....'s not a usual town

I arrive at Sierra Gorda at 12 and have a look at the watch, is it time for 'buena dia' or 'buena tardes'? The hand is just past, so it's the latter. But none of the two small shops by the name 'supermercado' have bananas. I didn't want to brings them all the way from Antofagasta yesterday, now I have none. I have to make due of chocolate as a snack.
Sierra Gorda lies at the entrance to a new plateau, that looks even more bare and desserted than the last one. There isn't much more than one street, but there has to be a town hall, I guess, the name of the town is the same as for the entire county in which are only two town, which I've now both seen. The rest are 'minas' or 'plantas'. In the mines the minerals are excavated, while they in the plants are premanufactured.
That has been seen for some time by the truck transports: 'Acido Sulfurico - Pericoloso'. The trains on the railway track that has followed the road are bringing the same. It's stopped a bit outside Sierra Gorda, in the middle of nowhere. The only building to be seen is one of these tanks up in the air on long legs, but a tank truck leaving gives the explanation: here the sulphur acid is being reloaded to trucks.
The road seems to be going on forever towards the foot of a distant mountain. First I estimate the distance to 30 km, but after the first 5 I reestimate to 20 km. I wish there were a bus shelter shadowing the burning sun, so I can write a little, but there's nothing to be seen except bare land. Eventually appears a "lay-by". It's two barrels for trash and a third one that in some way keeps two small trees alive. They are not leaving much shadow but behind the watertank I manage to squeeze myself down to the gravel and have some "air".
The last hour has been hard. We're inclining steadily, the head wind comes and goes and the landscape don't offer much variation at this speed. A mobile derrick was one. Scattered around the area gatherings of sacks shows where they've been drilling. A huge white water reservoir and some high voltage wires, that's all there is to it. The only positive is that my estimate of the distance seems to fit. I've done 21 km and the mountains are at my level now. But I'm not sure for there are still mountains in the background, but they "grew up" while I climbed the gradient. I've had to stand up with the bike between my legs, nothing to put it up against and no shadow.

A meeting in the dessert The sulphur acid train


I need some lunch. Don't feel like tuna. Takes too long too. I remember the blackberry marmelade. But where? As sent from heaven appears one of these chapels at the roadside. For once of a reasonable size. Maybe some shadow?
It's built from three coherent walls. Two meters high. The outer ones each form an angle of 120 degr. to the middle wall and in these angles are to diminutive benches. When I sit down on the left one and squeeze against the wall I'm in the shadows. The wall also protect me from the wind and on top of the white painted steel tube cross the flag is straightened out! In your death your giving shadow and shelter. I too will now remember thee, León.
More gradients with 11 km/h, that's not what I looked forward to today. I feel like I'm crawling, after a gradient the wind comes from the side and using my slanting body as a sail, I end up in the big gear again. Only to meet another gradient. More crawling, but now I have to be near to the top and then - at my next step comes the reward. Which makes all the efforts worth it. Both yesterday and today. Out of the mist in the distance rise two huge snowcapped  twin vulcanos. And to the right a somewhat lower ridge and then another twin peak, a lower ridge and a more spiky top while the rest disappears to the south. If it wasn't because I'd already lost my breath on the gradient I would havee now.
Now I can only gape at it. This is not to be photographed, it can't be put on paper. In this dream view is all the hard work of the day hidden, every step every effort. This I'll never forget.
After this enliven moment I roll on. The road seems to go straight but actually it climbs a bit more so I reach 2240 m. At a moment there is a deep roar from an explosion to the left, and when I look in that direction, the smoke cloud is already hanging above the spot. It has been spreading in the 10-15 seconds that went by before the sound reached me. Within long Calama can be seen in the distance and from the former km statements I reckon 8 km. Much to my surprise comes a sign saying 17 km. What's been in my mind the whole day has been not only to reach Calama, but also do the 16 km, which is the further distance to Chuquicamata, because the tour starts at 8.30 from somewhere in town. Chuquicamata isn't just a mine, it's also a town.
In the end the road declines and I force my speed. If I shall do 33 km before 6 p.m. I have to be quick. As usual the shoulder getss worse and worse as we get nearer to the town. It has been bad today and there are big holes between it and the road for long stretches, so it's hard to get forwards and backwards. As there's not much traffic I roll in the road and move right whenever someone is coming from behind.
Close to Calama I nearly have an acccident. For the moment I carry one of the new bags in front. That's bad. They must be intended for the back for they are hanging too low, with the result that they can be lifted off by a high edge.
Besides the rubber band that should keep them fastened has been fixed 3 times, but if the bag is lifted off it will break. That hasn't happend yet but I've removed it without much difference.
When a big lorry suddenly appears without me hearing it I turn right down in a pothole where the bag comes off and slides along the road, but without interfering with the bike. Now I should be warned and I was - but. When I get to the entrance for Calama, the road to Chuqui turns off and a motorway starts just like expected from the map. 8 km to Chuqui I am soon told by a sign. Great, I'll soon be there. But a little later something happens to the road, from 2 lanes and a shoulder in each direction, comes now 1 lane and a shoulder that is nearly not existing in each direction. A car turns up from behind and probably as a result of a long days tirering work I misjudge the situation and go right into a pothole I should NOT have entered. The bag comes off, falls to the ground, hits the right pedal which means that the bikes total weight including me tumbles to the left. Exactly what happens I don't remember. I think I bring my leg down because I have a notion of ALMOST making it, but only almost. The bike and I go down to the asphalt where I push off with my left hand and hammer down my right one, wounds the knee like hell and lie there.
The car that made me turn must have passed the same moment for there's no danger at all and I only stumble to the edge of the road. I try to get up but it hurts and I lie down a while. A car in the opposite direction stops to see what's happened, but I wave it on and get to my feet. When I have raised the bike and with bleeding finger and hurting knee want to go on there is an unknown sound and when I have the bike positioned against something I realize the disaster. One of the hooks on the left rear pannier is simply broken.
I move it around until it's possible to go on with only one hook and this way I sneak on afraid that the other hook will break too. If the road was bad before it now turns indescribable. There is no doubt I can't go on the road. For 2 km I sneak along in the gravel, having to drag the bike for some parts. Then I reach the road that must be the motorway in the map to Chuqui. But how was I to know about this, well maybe if I still had my Lonely Planet Chile but... And if I still had my front panniers it wouldn't have.... a.s.o. Had I gone through Calama which would have been easier... a.s.o. Well, done is done. Go on. Now the road is at least fine.
I go towards Chuqui. The road inclines. At a long distance I see some buildings below some piles. That must be the town. I can within long, and it's 6 p.m., see some red lights up to the left. It looks like street lights. It's far away. When I've gone for I don't know how long, I realize that thats' where I'm going. It's damned long to go. And steep. It grows dark and I turn on the rear light. For the next hour I do nothing but fight my way upwards in smaller and smaller gear. I stop to fill spare water to the bottles and swallow a block of chocolate. I felt exhausted and dehydrated, now I'm also injured and it gets steeper and steeper. The lights don't seem to get nearer. All distance statements must have been false. Maybe the ring road was 8 km, so I now have started the 16 last? Never before have I on this trip set my teeth to this extent. Last time I can distinguish the altimeter it says 2440 m, the highest point until now. Afterwards I can't recall much from this hour but at last the lights have come to a distance of maybe 500 m's. I havee to change to a smaller gear once again, it must be the smallest, I don't know. And in this way I end up rolling in beneath the orange street lights and stop to evaluate the situation. I'VE DONE IT. Before I've done anything a 'carabinero' comes to me. He has a shelter in the middle between the lanes. If I'm going on the tour tomorrow? Yes. There are no lodges in town. No residenciales, no hotels. Nothing. What to do? My head is empty. Empty for words. Especially spanish ones. I point at the tent and say. 'carpa pero oscuro', which I think means: tent but dark. Where and how can I rise my tent? When I've put myself together and am going to ask for a place he's had an idea. At the right of the road is a small eight-edged police house. He'll have to call... A moment later all is OK. I can sleep there. There's electrical light, linoleum floor and a sort of stone table at 3 sides. It's around 16 m2. There's room for the bike too. Further there's a toilet and a sink, but no bulb, but what are my lights for? His namee is Jorge. I beat happy his shoulder and thanks him a lot. Later I walk to him with a cup of coffee and my last block of chocolate that has melted a little but that doesn't matter.
He returns the cup but none of the chocolate, sorry, I'd been looking forward to it.
I have already figured out several rescue plans. Vaude isn't Vaude for nothing. In this situation the whole handle including locking mechanism can be replaced, but that will havee to wait for my return home, so I have to use another.
Now it's time for bed. It's 9.10 p.m. and the altimeter is at 2635 m.
Then I'm in the sleeping bag. Jorge's successor thinks that the bike can stay while I'm on the tour tomorrow. He'll tell the next one. Goodnight. The police is watching over me.