Monthly Archives: December 2016

Thomas Covenant – the Unbeliever

For those of you keenly awaiting my blog posts on Easter Island and Antarctica – they are coming, I promise!  

The delay has been caused by my absolute immersion in the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – the Unbeliever, the final installment of a fantasy series written by Stephen Donaldson.

I have always loved the Thomas Covenant books – ever since reading the First Chronicles probably 25 years ago.   They are unusual in that they tend to polarise fantasy readers – you either love them or you hate them (most fantasy is fairly innocuous) – and while I admit that the lead characters (Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery) can be very, very unlikable/annoying at times, the characters that help them throughout their journeys are incredible!   Donaldson forgoes the usual dwarves, elves etc of regular fantasy and creates completely new characters to populate his world.  There is not a single one that is not interesting, and most of them are downright awesome!

I actually read the first 3 books of this Last Chronicles a few years ago … before I realised that there was a 4th book – one he hadn’t finished at the time!   That book was released in 2013 and one of the few concrete plans I made for this year of travel was that I was going to start from Book 1 of the First Chronicles and read all the way through the 10 books.

I re-read the first Chronicles back in April (for the 3rd time) and really enjoyed diving back into the world Donaldson creates, reuniting with Saltheart Foamfollower (a Giant) and Bannor (a Haruchai) in particular.   For me, the Haruchai are the most awesome characters ever written, and is it just me or does George R. R. Martin’s characters, “the Unsullied”, seem to harken after the Haruchai (at least in the TV series, I haven’t read the books).

1st Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

After a break of a few months, I re-read the Second Chronicles (for the 2nd time) in August, and again was totally taken by how cool the Haruchai (Brinn, Cail, Ceer, Hergrom) are.  

2nd Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

I started the Final Chronicles at the end of my month in Santiago doing nothing, and spent every spare second on Easter Island and La Silla reading (I took a break for 2 weeks while I was in Antarctica – too much else going on).   There I really fell in love with Stave – yes, yet another Haruchai.   He has a “Maximus Decimus Meridius” moment at the end of the first book which sealed him as my favourite character of all time.   I think Donaldson perfected his writing of the Haruchai in this last series – so many awesome moments with this race!

Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

There is actually a 4th book – The Last Dark – as well

So now I’m feeling bereft – and want to immediately start reading them again 🙁   For me, this fantasy series is waaaaay better than Lord of the Rings (I know, sacrilegious), though I acknowledge that there are similarities between at least the First Chronicles and Tolkien’s epic.

If you like fantasy and have not yet read these books – I cannot recommend them highly enough.   You may fall into the camp of those that hate them – they are very dark after all – but you should definitely give them a go at least.  Acknowledge that Thomas Covenant is very unlikable (at least initially – this will be cemented in the first book in a particular scene that you will recognise as soon as you read it) and read past it – you won’t be disappointed!


p.s.  Although I don’t read a lot of Sci-Fi, Donaldson’s 5-book “Gap Cycle” series is also an incredible, unputdownable epic that I really enjoyed.   And his “Mordant’s Need” 2-book series is also awesome.  I guess I’m just a huge Donaldson fan 🙂   

Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia – Part 4

Final day of the trip was only a short one for me, given I was crossing over into Chile.  That being said, it started bloody early so we could get to the Sol de Mañana Geysers for the sunrise. This is when they are at their best, and it really is worth getting up early and freezing your arse off to experience!

Sol de Mañana Geysers - Eduardo Avaroa Nature Reserve - Bolivia

There are two main geyser fields with plenty of boiling mud,

Sol de Mañana Geysers - Eduardo Avaroa Nature Reserve - Bolivia

and hot water that steams in the very cold temperatures at 4800m at sunrise.

Sol de Mañana Geysers - Eduardo Avaroa Nature Reserve - Bolivia

And of course the geysers – both small


and large


And when the sun breaks the horizon – it is truly spectacular!

Sol de Mañana Geysers - Eduardo Avaroa Nature Reserve - Bolivia

Just up the road we stopped off at the Polques hot springs for about an hour.  To give you an idea of how much tourism has increased, here is the lineup of cars at this one spot (and it wasn’t peak season yet!)  Back in 2001, we only saw about 2 other cars in the whole 4 days!     

Polques hot springs parking lot - Eduardo Avaroa Nature Reserve - Bolivia

Decided to not join the 100 or so people in the hot spring itself (it isn’t that big to be honest) and headed off to the Salvador Dalí desert.   This place is stunning, marred only by those bloody tracks from cars that don’t stick to the marked roads.  Of course they could have been made many, many years ago … but still.   Grrrrrrrrrr…..

Salvador Dali Desert - Eduardo Avaroa Nature Reserve

Then we started heading towards the Licancabur Volcano and the Chilean border, stopping off at Laguna Blanca

Laguna Blanco - Eduardo Avaroa Nature Reserve

and Laguna Verde

Laguna Verde - Eduardo Avaroa Nature Reserve

both of which don’t have anywhere near as much water in them as they used to.

At that point, I transferred to a minivan that would take me across to San Pedro de Atacama, while others in the group made the ~7hr trip back to the town of Uyuni itself.

Overall, it was a good trip.  But I have to admit that it was not as spectacular as the first time I went.  I think this was for 2 reasons:

  1. there really is something incredibly special about the Salar full of water and the surreal experience you get with that
  2. the increase in tourism and the fact that you were almost never alone and were restricted in where you could go was difficult to come to terms with.  Totally get why it happens, but really appreciated the remoteness the first time I went. 

Recommendation:  If you are in Bolivia, you have to do this trip.  There is a reason why it is so popular – and that is because it is absolutely spectacular!   Though I think that if I were to visit this area for a third time – I’d definitely drive myself.  There is so much to see and you are quite restricted on an organised tour.  Salty Desert Aventours were a great outfit – wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them.

Time:  You can do trips from 1 – 4 days leaving from Uyuni – most people do the standard 3-day trip.  Those trips that leave from Tupiza can be up to 6 days.

Cost:  We paid 1200 Bolivianos (USD$175) each for the trip, which included accommodation, meals and driver/spanish speaking guide.  In addition, we each had to pay 30Bs (USD$4.50) for Incahuasi Island entrance,  20 Bs (USD$3) for the Galaxy Caves, 150Bs (USD$22) for entrance to the Eduardo Avaroa Nature Reserve, and 50Bs (USD$7) for the transfer to San Pedro de Atacama.

Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia – Part 3

While we spent the first 2 days of the tour exploring the Salar itself and being blinded by its incredible whiteness, the last 2 days were actually spent south of the Salar visiting incredible lakes and marveling at the altiplano landscapes that I love so much.  This part of the world really is incredibly beautiful!  

Lone vicuña - Bolivian Altiplano

Vicuña in the Bolivian Altiplano. I love these landscapes!

We were going to drive straight through Julaca until I realised that I’d passed through here back in 2001 and I took this amazing picture of a railway water pump with massive icicles hanging off of it.   No icicles this day – but I had to get out and  take a piccy 🙂

Julaca - Bolivian Altiplano

We passed by some amazing bofadels 

Bofadel - Bolivian Altiplano

all of which had llamas grazing.

Bofadel with Llamas - Bolivian Altiplano

The first lake was a little off the beaten path and most tours don’t go there so we ended up having it all to ourselves 🙂

Black lake - Bolivia Altiplano

It was quite close to the active Ollagüe volcano that sits on the border with Chile.   My most touch-and-go travel moment to date was my encounter with 6 men with guns as I was driving alone on the Chilean side of the border out to the town of Ollagüe that sits at the base of this volcano.    It was all good once I realised they were Chilean narcotics police, but when they first blocked my way and got out of the car with their guns drawn – I was panicking to put it mildly!   Apparently the policeman at the checkpoint about 20km from the border thought me driving to the border for lunch was suspicious activity so called them out to intercept me on my way back…

Volcan Ollagüe - Bolivian side

The active Volcan Ollagüe

Lunch was at another lake – Laguna Hedionda – and once again we decided to avoid the other tourists and instead pulled up at a different part of the lake shore.   Very much prefer to have just our little group for lunch, as well as our flamingo companions 🙂

Laguna Hedionda - Bolivian Altiplano

Called in at the famous “Arbol de Piedra” (Stone Tree), but the site has been very much ruined by tourism unfortunately.   Lots of tracks between the stone formations, and what bright spark thought painting a massive “baños” sign on one of the most picturesque formations was a good idea?  It was quite clear where the toilets were, and, unfortunately, they were some of the most disgusting toilets I’ve encountered in 10 months 🙁  None of us were willing to brave them!

Site of the Arbol de Piedra - Bolivian Altiplano

Last stop for the day was Laguna Colorada, which, as the name suggests, is a very vibrantly coloured lake in the Eduardo Avaroa Nature Reserve.  The pink colour is caused by the cyanophyte algae in the lake, and it is an absolute haven for the 3 types of flamingo found in the Salar de Uyuni / Bolivian altiplano region – the Chilean Flamingo, Andean Flamingo and the James Flamingo.

Laguna Colorada - Eduardo Avaroa Nature Reserve - Bolivia

When I visited this area last time, we actually stopped on the other side of the lake, not this side.  And one of the most noticeable changes since 2001 is that there are now a lot more restrictions on where you can and cannot drive/walk.  For example – in order to protect the flamingos, you cannot walk down to the lake from this viewpoint.  This is absolutely necessary of course given the massive growth in the number of tourists visiting, but it’s always a disappointment when you’ve visited somewhere 15 years ago and had free reign, but are now severely restricted in what you can do.   Have a similar frustration when visiting San Pedro de Atacama these days.   I remember back in the good old days…. 

Still – it is an absolutely gorgeous setting and loved sitting there soaking in the view 🙂  

Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia – Part 2

Day 2 of our trip through the Salar de Uyuni had us exploring the Tunupa Volcano.   This was the bit that turned the regular 3-day trip into a 4-day trip and I was super-keen to get out and do a bit of walking again.

We first of all visited the mummies of Coquesa – with a short tour by a local guide who was actually very difficult to understand.  These mummies date to around 700 AD and have been preserved by the cold, dry climate.

Coquisa Cementery - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Then we headed up on a short hike (not difficult at all) to the two viewpoints on the Tunapa volcano.   Actually – there is a higher mirador as well, but you needed a specialised guide for that one.

Tunupa Volcano - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

From these viewpoints you get an amazing view out over the Salar, and a decent idea for how big it actually is.  It is absolutely enormous!  And to be honest, the photos don’t do it justice!

View from Tunupa Volcano - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Of course, you also get an amazing view of the super-colourful Tunupa volcano.  In my opinion – this was much more impressive and colourful than the Rainbow Mountain outside of Cusco in Peru.  And I didn’t have to get up at 3am to do it!

Tunupa Volcano - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

From there we headed south across the Salar towards Incahuasi Island but, rather than joining all the other million tourists having lunch at the island, we decided to have lunch out in the middle of nowhere on the salt flat.  A much better idea 🙂

Lunch - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Lunch on the Salar – served out of the back of our 4WD

There was also a point as we were driving along where the heat haze made some reflections that vaguely approximated the awesome reflections that are possible when the lake is full of water.  I had to jump out and take a picture of the “floating island”, even though it was not a patch on what I’d seen in 2001.

Floating Island - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

We ended up with 2.5 hours to explore Incahuasi Island, which is famous for its large amount of enormous cacti (Trichocereus pasacana according to Wikipedia).

Incahuasi Island - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Given the island is pretty small, this is actually a lot of time.  So I headed up the main track to the top of the island and then did a bit of a choose-my-own-adventure to try to find a place where I couldn’t hear the impromptu concert put on by a visiting school band, and could sit in silence and contemplate the landscape.  Eventually found it on the far side of the island, well off the beaten path and in an area that was full of fossilised algae and coral.

Fossilised Coral and algae - Incahuasi Island - Salar de Uyuni -Bolivia

From there we headed across to the western side of the Salar and, just before leaving the salt flat, stopped and waited to watch one last sunset across the Salar.   Cold thanks to the wind that was howling a gale, but absolutely stunning!

Sunset - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Stayed in another Salt Hotel this night in the small town of Aguaquiza, and headed out to the Galaxy Cave as a night excursion.  To be honest, this was a little underwhelming – the cave is very small though I do admit the structures in the cave were the most delicate I’d ever seen.   What was fantastic was how excited the guy who found them was about showing them to us and to relate the tale of their discovery 🙂

Cuerva de Galaxias (Galaxy Cave) - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Very delicate structures in the Cuerva de Galaxias. Can you spot the elephant in the top image?

He then took us to another cave that was full of ancient tombs.   Nothing in them (all looted long ago) but really quite impressive the sheer number of them in this one small place.

Tombs near Aguaquiza - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Then it was up onto a platform to freeze to death while looking at the stars.  Unfortunately, it was fairly cloudy so this wasn’t exactly the success it could have been, and I admit I became an impromptu guide as I pointed out various constellations to the group, and expounded the virtues of visiting SpaceObs in San Pedro de Atacama if they were heading that way.

Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia – Part 1

Ask me what are the top 3 things I’ve ever seen in my life up until now and I’ll tell you:

  1. a total solar eclipse (from Ceduna in 2002)
  2. Comet Hyakutake (from Siding Springs Observatory in 1996)
  3. the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia when it was full of water (May 2001)

This last was a 4 day trip I did with 5 other astronomer friends out of San Pedro de Atacama, back in the days when this was a relatively unexplored part of the world and few travelers knew about it.    

I remember it being absolutely freezing (we all made a pact to not shower for the 4 days because the facilities were very basic and there was no hot water) and that I had never, ever seen anything like the perfect reflections we experienced there.   My strongest memory is looking out the front windscreen of the car as we were driving towards an island, and not being able to see a horizon line.  At all!  The sky was absolutely clear, the “road” was so smooth, and the reflection was so perfect, that it felt more like we were in the cockpit of an aeroplane flying towards a perfectly symmetrical island floating in the sky.  I will never forget that totally surreal feeling!

One of the few concrete plans I made for my trip this year was that I was going to re-visit the Salar de Uyuni and cross the border from Bolivia into Chile via that route.   I was really curious to see the Salar when it was dry and, given it is such a beautiful area, I was keen to revisit it now that I’m a better photographer 🙂

Turns out, these days, every man and their dog offers trips to the Salar de Uyuni.   However, given that most do 3 day trips, I of course, wanted to do something a little different so managed to round up some other travelers to get the requisite 4 person minimum to arrange a 4 day tour with Salty Desert Adventures.    I actually wanted to do the 5 day from Tupiza – but the timing just didn’t quite work for me.  Oh well, next time 🙂

We started out from Uyuni at 10am to first visit the “train graveyard” just outside of town.  It was OK – but it was crawling (literally) with people, and 10:30am is not the best time of day for photography…

Train Graveyard - Uyuni - Bolivia

From there we headed out towards the Salar itself, stopping waaaay too long at Colchane to see if we could be tempted to buy the standard tourist trinkets and have a quick demonstration (literally 3 minutes) of how they process the salt.  Essentially, they shovel it onto a large BBQ, light a fire underneath to dry it out, add iodine to it, and then package it up into plastic bags which are sealed by a rather over-the-top flame coming directly out of a gas bottle!

Salt Processing - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Next stop was a place where they were actually “mining” (though “collecting” might be more accurate) the salt crystals.   Salt that has been previously lifted was piled into small mounds, and this was being loaded into a truck when we visited. Unfortunately all work stopped and everyone (except the dog) disappeared when we showed up.

Salt collection - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Next up was the salt museum with the massive Dakar monument (and a Toyota Hilux monument) made out of salt in front of it.  Yes – since they moved the Dakar rally to South America – it come through this part of Bolivia on several occasions.  

Dakar Monument - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

The salt museum used to be the really fancy (and only) salt Hotel back in 2001, but it had to abandon operations when the government decreed that their could be no hotels on the Salar itself.  It is certainly a lot more worn than I remember it being and is now used as a lunch shelter for all the tour groups with some more salt statues inside and out.

Salt Museum - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

After lunch we visited a different part of the Salar where the salt cap was thicker and they extract the salt bricks that are used to construct the now large numbers of salt hotels in the area.

Mining salt blocks - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

And then spent a few hours in an area that was completely untrammeled and pristine with the large hexagon formations that are so typical of the Salar when it is dry.   These are formed by Rayleigh–Bénard convection as the water that falls during the rainy season evaporates.

Classic formations - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

It was an awesome place to sit quietly and just contemplate.  

Contemplation - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Though my companions were busy creating perspective photos in the background 🙂

Perspective photos on the Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Perspective photos. OK – so I joined in this one 🙂 Thanks to Kimberley for this pic!

One of my pet peeves in places like this (and the Atacama desert in general) is that people drive off tracks that are already formed to create new ones – and for no good reason.   These tracks tend to remain for a long time, given there is not much around to erase them, and they mar the otherwise beautiful landscape.   My feeling is that if there is a track already there, you should be trying to follow it as closely as possible so that the landscape remains pristine.  

Keep to the already formed tracks! - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Follow the already formed tracks! Don’t make your own for no good reason!

The end of the first day saw us arrive at the small town of Coqueza which sits at the base of the Tunupa Volcano.  After an afternoon tea of, well, tea, along with too many biscuits, I headed off to watch the sunset on the Salar and found lots of flamingo friends 🙂

Flamingos - Coqueza - Salar de Uyuni - Bolivia

Sunset with flamingo friends

Absolutely stunning!