It’s 4am in the Atacama Desert, and my Californian mate Pat and I are sitting in the back of a jeep belonging to the Carabineros, the police force of Chile. The emptiest black of night engulfs us from all sides, expect for a high ridge in front which is illuminated by the headlights of the jeep. For a reason I’ll explain shortly we need to get over the ridge, but the only road we can see is the one that towers over us now, an uneven, loose, unbelievably steep path of dirt. In my mind it would be suicidal to attempt it, but the two Carabineros in front don’t share my anxiety. Before there is time to process what´s happening we surge forward into the incline, but only make it a few metres up before our momentum is killed and we roll back down. The Carabineros talk to each other in Spanish, I guess about what the next option is, before putting the jeep in reverse. A wave of relief, they are going to try and find another way around and I won´t die rolling down the cliff-like face with my new police buddies. We reverse only a metre before lurching to a halt; turns out they were just engaging the four wheel drive. We take off like an aeroplane, hurtling towards the mother of all roads. We hit the point we failed last time, and miraculously just keep on going. I clench my fists and inhale my testies as the jeep bounces up towards the sky, we are basically vertical. Somehow the beast of the jeep takes us all the way to the top, and I ponder how in the fuck I am in this ridiculous situation.
About 14 hours earlier our own jeep had driven past the same slope on our quest to find a meteor crater out in the desert. There were six of us crammed into our five seater jeep, three girls, three guys, fellow travelers who’d all agreed to hire a couple of jeeps and boost around the Atacama desert. One of the jeeps was returned the previous day and this was our last hurrah with this one. I had a bus ticket to Peru booked for that night and the others had one to Argentina the following morning. We had been driving for a couple of hours when it first occurred to myself the situation we were in. We were way out in the desert, no one knew what we were doing, and we had a very limited supply of water. Not to mention we were hungover from a night drinking under the stars. The jeep had done us well so far but if for whatever reason it decided not to cooperate, we were more than a little screwed. I’m sure everyone had pondered this reality, but it was unspoken. The roads were still okay, Owen was driving like a pro and if we had been driving this long, logic dictates the crater shouldn´t be too far away, despite our directions consisting of a French webpage and coordinates on an Iphone’s GPS.
When we arrived at the ridge with Satans driveway we managed to find a much more pleasant route over, however once we were over the terrain became more rocky and unforgiving, The niggling thought that we should call it quits and turn around became more active with every corner as we craned our necks without spotting the crator. Personally I didn’t want to be the downbuzz who gets us to stop only to find out later the crator was around the next bend, but that mentality became harder to justify the further we get from civilization.
Inevitably, the truck got stuck, in a small sandy dip carved into the road, if you can call it a road at this point. With some desperate manpower, we get the truck out straight away, but it shook us a little, and we agreed to abandon our little adventure – the jeeps had to be returned in a few hours anyway,
I don’t quite remember how the jeep came to be stuck the second time on the next bend, but I remember it being worse. I remember the feeling of dread and fear and adrenaline all mixed together in an overpowering cocktail that bubbled under the desert heat. It fueled some intense physical effort that actually freed the jeep, but with nowhere really for it to go in the sandy rock-covered canyon we were in, it ended up stuck again between a sand ridge and a boulder. Mentally I was preparing myself for our only real option out of this predicament, but for the moment we weren’t giving up. We were possessed, trying for two hours relentlessly to free the jeep. I was carrying a cold and every five minutes of sand shoveling and boulder hauling was causing me to dry retch, a sip of the limited water we had my only relief.
Eventually, and with only a couple of hours of daylight left, the decision had to be made, a couple of us had to hike out of the desert for help. We divided up the water and clothing and Pat and I set off. We had a target, Pat’s GPS showed a town 16km away – much closer than I thought!
The first hour and a bit I felt like Bear Grylls. We were jogging over vast hills of volcanic rock, before descending into a deep canyon, which wasn’t nearly as fun as it sounds, especially in jandels/flip flops, the only footwear I had on me. It was extremely steep and everywhere you put your foot down, the loose rocks and boulders would give out underneath you. We had to be extremely cautious as we navigated our way down, one foot wrong could have spelled disaster, the canyon floor being probably 15 metres below. Our hearts were pounding so hard by the time we got to the bottom that we took a couple of minutes to settle our nerves. It was the only time we rested for the next six hours.
Our strategy was walk for a bit then jog for a bit. We wanted to get down off the rough terrain of the ridge before the sun went down, and we managed that. We were doing well, conserving our water and making good ground. As the sun went down and our torch came on we saw lights in the far distance which roughly matched where our savior town should be. Following Pats directions we hit a dirt road like expected, and followed that in the direction of the lights, thinking we were on the home stretch. It was a stretch all right, one hell of a stretch, turning out to be the hardest and longest part of the journey, both mentally and physically. At one point we must have been following the road in a perfectly straight path for two hours straight in the dark, not one new visual element to entertain us in that time. We saw random lights buzzing around the desert, thinking they were cars or houses and trying to wave them down when they were probably hours of walking away. Some lights maintained their position to the side of us no matter how long we walked. At one point we doubted we would even reach the lights ahead of us, in the vast lonely darkness of the nocturnal desert the distances of these lights proved impossible to guess. We were stuck in a dream, walking on a dirt treadmill towards these heavenly lights that never came closer even after hours of walking.
Up until that point adrenaline had been fueling us, I was so focused on the present moment and getting out of our sandy prison that looking back the whole adventure seems a blur. We must have had been walking for five hours non stop and the legs were really struggling. It felt like I had been punched repeatedly in every muscle and someone had snapped a plank of wood across my hips. The knees were wobbling, and for the last three hours we must have said “we´re almost there” a dozen times. The knowledge that we had to get to our friends before the sun came up, out of fear that their water would run out or Owen, being the badass Irishman he is, would try to hike out of the desert in the morning maintained our drive not to stop.
Finally, we hit some civilization, and old construction yard. The lights were really close now. They got brighter and brighter until we almost felt like we could shout out to them, the outline of a massive building becoming clear. Thinking we were moments away from help, we scaled an inclined wall only to find a huge reservoir of water on the other side. Cursing what seemed like our final test of endurance, we had to walk to the side of the reservoir and go around, only to hit another even bigger body of water after that. We were close though, and Pat began blowing his whistle and we waved our torches. We could see lights moving and hear machinery, and when we finally did reach the building, the huge mounds of white that surrounded it identified it as some kind of salt refinery. We entered the complex and saw a solo gigantic bulldozer, crashing into a hill of salt before dumping it 30 metres away. We stalked it, being careful to get out of its path as it seemed it was hard for the driver to see us. We positioned ourselves to the side and as it reversed, the driver saw us. He had a USA flag bandanna wrapped over the lower half of his face, allowing us to see perfectly his eyeballs as they popped out of his skull.
He got down and passed us off to another worker who then gave us to the night manager. I knew little Spanish so Pat did the explaining, and once it was clear we were getting helped, we both collapsed onto the pile of salt yelling swear words of victory into the night. We later worked out that we had walked for about six hours and 40km without stopping, that initial 16km walk pointed to a town that didn’t properly exist.
The manager called the Carabineros for us, gave us some food and drink, and let us wait in the staff room. Even after twenty minutes of rest, my muscles and joints had shut down. I was hobbling over my ankle and every part of my legs was screaming hate at me. To make it worse all the salt on the factory floor had found it’s way into the cuts on my hands and feet, so they were stinging too. At least we got a wooden bench to sleep on in the staff room while we waited three hours for the nearest Carabineros to come to us. I can’t say it was pleasant, but it was the least of our worries; it was hard to relax knowing our mates were still out in the desert, not knowing if we would be back. I learned later that they had a guardian sweet-talker in the form of a bottle of Vodka to ease their nerves.
Eventually the Carabineros came and we spent two hours in the dark searching for the road the jeep was on, before defeating that horrendous slope of a path. Several bends and a couple of wrong turns later, with the sun coming up, we spotted Owen clambering over some rocks, the jeep behind him. Everyone was doing okay and we had two badass Carabineros here to help us – SUCCESS!
The first two hours of that morning were spent following the instructions of the Chilean cops as they tried to free our jeep. They were aggressive and accurate in their execution, even colliding the two jeeps together at one point. But they’re ´get stuck in´ approach (no pun intended) was exactly what was needed, and eventually, on about the sixth or seventh attempt, our jeep was out, using their own vehicle to tow it. This was meet with cheers and applause from us. Yes in the process it had it’s paint scratched and tire punctured, but it was out. Changing that tire used the last little gasp of energy we had left in us. The Carabineros even drove it out of the difficult section of the path for us. They were amazing. Our stupidity had cost them hours of their morning, but they behaved quite literally like our heroes without a hint of attitude and even the odd cheeky smile. We could not thank them enough – it was an incredible show of kindness to some idiotic travelers and I hope that the praise we gave them portrayed that.
With that, we drove back to San Pedro for a hot shower and a meal. The shower was amazing but the meal was shit, suppose that was karma for being stupid Gringos.