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Truck Day

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An inescapable feature of any overland expedition is, unsurprisingly, overland travel. On our 3½ month stint with Hot Rock, we would travel from Ushuaia at the continent’s southern tip, 55° south, to Quito at the equator. The distance from one climbing area to another can be huge, and the roads are not always good. Compared to some of the journeys we’d done, the 1200km drive from La Serena to Socaire was mild.

But as we awoke on 26th December, with sore heads after the Christmas Day festivities, the thought of the two truck days ahead of us filled us with dread. Our only consolation was that Fi and Wayne had given up on the idea of leaving at 6am to try and do the whole trip in one day. We had the unusual truck day luxury of a 10am start.

No-one was in great shape after the excess of the day before, but some were more ragged than others. The worst afflicted chose to protect themselves and the group by travelling in the sin bin. Here, in the relative privacy afforded by the 3-seat compartment in the side of the truck, they could moan, groan and puke into their basin without disturbing anyone else.

The truck was quiet that morning. People dozed, gazed abstractedly out the window or read their books. A grotty feeling pervaded, and cups of tea were clearly needed. Some may say that trying to boil a kettle in the back of a moving truck is folly, and that priming a petrol stove while bumping along an unpaved road verges on madness. Releasing a teaspoonful of petrol into the bowl, setting it alight and waiting for the foot-high flames to subside before switching the flow of fuel back on is, some argue, risky enough on solid ground. Perhaps the fact that a stove had exploded a few days previously while camping in the mountains lends a little support to this notion, but as the MSR stove burst into life with the sound of a jet engine, few raised their heads from their books.

The tea took its natural toll, and before long people needed to pee. Someone leaned out the back of the truck and waved until Fi caught sight of them in her mirror. Travel through the endless empty wastes of Patagonia had soon destroyed any inhibitions we had about going to the toilet in the open. With not a shrub for miles, there was no way to preserve a shred of modesty.

As we pulled over to the side of the Pan American Highway, there was nowhere to hide. Undaunted, the boys lined up on one side of the road while the girls squatted white-bottomed on the other. Passing trucks beeped their horns in entertainment at the sight, but we were long past caring. Smokers puffed vigorously on their cigarettes, trying to get as much consumed as possible before we were all hustled back on to the truck to set off again.

As the day wore on, some perked up. A game of cards began in one corner, some music was put on and the truck office hummed into life. With so much time spent camping, electricity becomes a rarity. Competition for the four plug sockets can be intense on truck days, with filmmaker Mel editing her footage, webgeeks Caelen, Barbara, Gary and Duncan typing away on their laptops and everyone trying to charge their digital cameras, walkmans and various other gadgets.

As evening drew in we began to look out for somewhere to camp for the night. Some faint tracks could be seen leading off to the left, and with a jolt the truck left the road and followed them behind a small rise. We ground to a halt and piled out. Stopping late in the evening, everyone’s first priority is dinner, and the whole process of setting up for the cook team has become very streamlined. The tables are set up, the fire started and kitchen unloaded in moments, and there’s rarely a shortage of willing hands to help scrub and chop.

After dinner, as the last of the light faded from the sky, the night grew cooler and we gathered around the fire and gazed at the stars in the perfectly clear, dry desert sky above. This was a southern hemisphere sky, filled with unknown constellations. With no moisture in the air to obscure our view, no light from population centres draining the brightness from the sky, I thought I could start to learn the southern sky. But on really starry nights it can be harder, not easier, to recognise constellations. With so much there, the patterns are no longer distinctive, lost within a huge mass of stars that draw no discernible picture.

The wake up call came in the dark, at 5.45am. This was a more typical start to a truck day - everyone rushing to pack the tents up before breakfast, forcing down breakfast hours before you have an appetite, trying in vain to empty your bowels. Your digestion always knows when it's truck day, and clamps up until you find a more congenial situation.

By 7am we were on the road again. Half the truck was soon compensating for the early start, with lolling heads and drooping jaws. It was going to be a long day. At 2pm we arrived in the coastal city of Antofagasta. It’s not charming place, but it held two big attractions for us - a big supermarket to stock up on food, and a Bridgestone dealer to stock up on truck tyres. Purchases made, we hit the road again at 4pm. We had 3600m to climb to Socaire, and knew nothing about the quality of the road ahead.

The road was a surprise - the normal route to San Pedro and thence to Socaire goes north and then doubles back, but we’d heard of a short cut. The direct route was a private road across the Atacama salt flat, belonging to the salt mining company. It was astonishingly good, and astoundingly scenic. We rolled back the truck’s convertible roof, donned our sunglasses and admired the view.

The road may have been good, but it was still a hell of a climb. The sun was sinking by the time we neared the end of the private road. A mining official spotted us as we tried to find our way out, and half-heartedly suggested that as we were not supposed to use the road we should go back the way we came. Fi had no intention of retracing the previous 3 hours drive, and overruled him decisively. Even with the short cut, we still had another two hours to go.

At 9pm we reached our camp. In the dark we had trouble getting our bearings, or even to finding a flat patch of ground to pitch our tents. Everyone was exhausted, grumpy, hungry and breathless from the altitude, but consoled at least by the thought that we weren’t facing yet another truck day tomorrow.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Photograph of people asleep on truck - Chile travelogues
Picture of the truck sinbin - Chile travelogues

Asleep on the truck

The sin bin
Photograph of the Atacama salt flat - Chile travelogues
Picture of Atacama salt flat - Chile travelogues
Approaching the salt flat

Nowhere to pee in private
Badger's truck dance movie - you need Quicktime