I’m in San Pedro de Atacama and the dry whirlwinds that
swirl around me almost sweep me up with their illuminated particles of dirt.
Stay here long enough and you begin to sweat dust, the colour of your skin
transforming to emulate the ochre tones of the scorched earth. This the last
Chilean town on the road north to Bolivia, stripped-back and slightly dishevelled,
perched precariously on the northern tip of Chile’s skinny silhouette. Tomorrow
we begin the wild yet frequently travelled journey across a barren land that
continues to successfully resist human settlement.
As the blood red sun crests over the horizon, the contours
of the landscape become imprinted into a crisp, pale blue sky. The minibus that
takes us to the border lurches and weaves over cavernous craters in the sand,
the heads of drowsy tourists bouncing in unison atop drooping shoulders. I’m
not sure if there’s paved road under all of this dust, or whether it’s just
been reclaimed by the desert, but the landscape is flat, stark, and dry, and as
the road approaches the border, the one-room checkpoint comes into view. After
a perfunctory glance at my passport, the border officials usher me on into the
weathered Land Cruiser that will be taking us across to Uyuni, Bolivia. Once
everyone is in, the car sputters to a start, and heaves forward, like a
reluctant and lethargic beast freshly roused from slumber.
It takes us three days to cross the salt flats, and each day is full with belief-defying terrain: absurdly technicolour mountains hover over rippling pools of mirage, the sky refracted into a thousand shades of blue. Vast, bird-filled lakes boast vibrant flocks of flamingos that take flight into the gusts of wild air. From behind the wheel, our guide has his eyes peeled for faint tracks in the muted and sun-bleached surface of the earth, signifying progress in the right direction.
The environment feels at once more alive and ruthless up here. The geysers coughing up steaming globs of their own composition, manifesting nature in the most unnatural colour incarnations. Your senses fall all over each other trying to grasp the incomprehensibly austere horizon. Red lakes, pink birds, and a cool slant of sky gives way to a vastness you could fall into: encircling, majestic, terrifying. It seems the sky itself has fallen to earth, the rigid terrain of the mountains surrendering to a soft silken curvature of dusty pink swirls, grey-blue tendrils, and bone-white salt crunching under each footfall. The earth, in turn, hurls itself in liquid bullets towards the sky, bursting violently upwards from stinking cavities in the ground. The flexible edges of earth and sky, liquid and dust, bird and air, draw the mind to the interconnected nature of our life on this planet. The way we move through it, the way it moves us, and the way it moves through us, speaks of a deeply ingrained capacity for awe. An awe that mobilises our love for the planet we inhabit.