Simon’s Thoughts On

Desert Solitude

About two months ago I descended from the Peruvian Andes down to the coast and started my »romance« with the desert. After almost 3.000 km I have reached La Serena, Chile a few days ago. Here is where Atacama, the World dries desert, ends. On average there is only 15mm of rainfall per year and there are some weather stations that have never received any rain. In some areas they were even unable to find any signs of life, not even bacteria.
On the outskirts thou, first signs of life do start to appear. So in the days approaching La Serena I have started to see more vegetation around me. Small shrubs and cactuses were gradually winning the battle with sand and rocks. My eyes are starting to get used to greenery.

Regardless how much I love deserts, I do have to admit that the past two months were tough. Desert is an extreme environment. Kilometres and kilometres of nothing, emptiness. The sun is already high in the sky at 8h and it doesn’t get weaker until about 19h. The wind picks up around noon and doesn’t rest until sunset or it keeps on howling into the night all the way until morning. And all the time without any possibility of running away from the elements. No shade, no shelter from the wind. All that you have is a bicycle and turning the pedals hoping you make it to a shade that can be 60-70 or even more kilometres away. A lonely house of a roadside inn which around here is called posada. A location where you can stock up on water, refresh yourself with a cold drink and treat your body with some rest in a shade. Providing of course the posada is open. But if you go into this adventure with some of my trademark brightness, then you leave the comfortable and cosy city environment of Antofagasta on January 1st and you make sure that you will go through the most empty stretch exactly when everything is closed for two days. I did stock up on water before leaving Antofagasta but the next day I made it to a posada that was closed. Normally in Chile only January 1st is a holiday, but this year the president of Chile probably knew that I will be wandering around so she made January 2nd also a holiday. How lucky am I?! This meant I could only use the shade of the posada. Surely welcome but it doesn’t quench my thirst. Fortunately there was a camp for workers building a new power line about 30km further ahead. There I was able fill up my water bag. One of the workers caught up with me on the road about an hour later and he gave me an extra bottle of water. Also Chileans proved to be a hospitable and friendly nation. The way they have been on many occasions in this month that I have spent in Chile. Sometimes I was given a cold drink somewhere beside the road when a car has stopped and waited for me to drag myself to it and they were able to give me a cold drink. Once it happened that a car was unable to stop so they just slowed down to throw a bottle of water into the desert. I have stopped, picked it up and drank it.

At the same time, this is an area of the clearest night skies. After the wind calms down, when the Sun is saying goodbye and with its last rays escorts the da into night, small lights start to light up on the sky. Usually this is the time when I have already finished my first dinner and with a cup of coffee in my hand, speechless, I watch the Universe and this magic transformation of light into dark. All the effort I have invested during the day to reach this magic place is gone, like it has never existed.
The show actually never stops, but at some point you find yourself surrounded by silence and the starry carpet. Its clearness and immensity have always enchanted me. And so I have, in moments of infinity, where Time and Space do not exists, often just sat there until my neck started to ache. At the same time I was there, anywhere in the World and nowhere all at the same time.

Most of my time I have spent in kilometres and kilometres of emptiness, solitude. The only sign of life were spars trucks and buses overtaking me. In their absence I’ve listened to the sound of silence, only a hushed buzzing of the tires being bitten by the tarmac. Nobody in sight, just me and Lou.
In all this solitude I never felt lonely. I just was and I was alone. Alone with my thoughts and feelings. Hours and hours “walking” through the remotest parts of your own consciousness (or thinking about more practical stuff like how to repair a big hole in your front pannier). There is no society that would force you to put on a mask that is more socially acceptable. The kind that slowly, bit by bit robs you of your own identity, of your own Being. No need for that and the immensity and roughness of the surroundings in a way also do not allow you to waist your energy on these kind of things. You just are the way you are and you have to accept yourself like that. Sometimes I like myself more, sometimes less, but all of this is Me.

Andres and I went our separate ways just before entering Antofagasta. I wanted to go into the city, nothing urgent, just profiting for a while the benefits of civilization like running water, supermarket and the option to connect with the World. This meant about 25km of a detour and also one not so nice climb on exiting the city. He wanted to avoid all this. After months and thousands of kilometres he had behind him, he felt that home is practically within reach (true, still about 2.000 km away, but at the same time so close). So close to home he did not want to make an unnecessary stop and additional kilometres and climbs. He stayed on the by-pass road and continued south towards his family and friends waiting for him in Argentina. I on the other hand turned off and descended into Antofagasta and only virtually connected myself with my family. But the goodbye was “Hasta la proxima vez!” (Until we meet again).

Not only the separation but also all the kilometres of emptiness, solitude, brought to the surface the sentiment of homesickness in me. I miss my family, friends, familiar surroundings, I have never denied that. The down side of travelling is that I’m not home with familiar, dear people. That I cannot have a cup of coffee on a balcony with my brother, that I cannot go to my mother for a lunch, that I cannot go for a beer (well, two since it’s never just one) with a friend.
Since a few months ago I have decided to prolong my wandering in South America for about a year, my reunion with my dear ones has been postponed for the same period of time. And this aspect of my otherwise brilliant plan of discovering what lies behind a corner is something I have never really liked. So in the kilometres of desert solitude I have decided that I’ll return home, temporarily, just for a visit. With the help of internet I managed to find an affordable plane ticket and with some help from my family I have also bought it and am now ready to return to Slovenia end of March to enjoy the springtime over there.
With this I’m officially announcing that from the end of March until mid-May I’m open for invitations for a cup of coffee, a beer or straight to a picnic. Just let me know where and when.

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon

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Camping According To Simon

Here I am in Chile, somewhere. It has been a few days since Andres and I have left Arica where we had a pleasure to be hosted by a friend of Andres, Fernando and even more so by his mother Alejandrina. For a few days we were back in civilization where water, hot water comes by turning a tap and there is no need to set up a tent every evening just to put it back down in the morning. And also when you crave for a cup of coffee, there is no need to first set up your camping stove. You simply go to the kitchen, turn a knob on the stove and the water is boiling. A welcome change after more than two weeks in the desert.
And here we are again in the desert. About a kilometre away from the main road, the noise of sporadic traffic almost does not make it to here. Here there is peace and quiet, solitude. Just the wind is our companion. Constant!

I have decided that this time around I will not write about current events, well at least for the most part. This time I will focus my thoughts on one constant of my wandering and that is camping. It has been almost 200 times I have set up and put down my current home and one could say that in the past year and a half my most current address was “Tent under stars 3”.
What new, up until now unwritten, can I write about camping. Well probably nothing, but I can put into these lines some of my thoughts on the subject and in doing so try to avoid reinventing the wheel.

For start the most obvious – To camp or to use some alternative?

There are plenty of alternatives, more so free ones. There are those that require internet access to use them. These are different so called hospitality portals like couchsurfing which is meant for all kinds of travellers. Or one that I prefer, warmshowers which is meant just for cycle touring. With the help of these portals the doors to homes of local people open up. There you receive hospitality, almost always a bed, occasionally a meal or two, surely almost a conversation and the possibility to meet different, interesting people.
Since internet access is not always available and the host on these portals are not in every single town or village you pass, there are other, more traditional options. They require you to come there, knock on the door and ask in person. These can be fire stations, Red Cross, schools, municipalities, stadiums, churches,… Options are abundant, all you need is some imagination and most of all you should not be afraid to knock on the door and ask. The results can be amazing, from a simple room or a garage where you make your bed on the floor, to a private room with air con, WiFi, shower and use of kitchen as was the case for me one night with Red Cross in Nicoya, Costa Rica. Up until now there has been so many of these kind of experience that I could write a small book about them.
Then there are not free alternatives such as all sorts of cheap hotels, hostels and similar establishments. As a rule of thumb I try to avoid them, my bank account being them main obstacle. Besides they can be so soulless, so empty and the four walls of a stuffy, cheap room can be stifling. But sometimes the body and mind deserve, even demand a hot shower, a bed and peace insde the four walls of a hotel room. This was the case in northern Peru when after several rainy days and three consecutive days of climbing up to the mountain pass four weary cyclists arrived in Celendin, a small town. Exhausted we searched for a cheap hotel where we treated ourselves to an invigorating shower, went outside to grab a bite and then dragged ourselves to our proper, warm bed. Yet there was something missing. What it was I have learned the next evening sitting in front of my tent. I had all my “kitchen” set up around me and was cooking dinner on my little stove. The ability to comfortably sit down in front of your tent, everything you need within reach and sipping your coffee under a starry sky, this freedom only comes with camping.

All in all I would have to say that most of the times I’m for camping. But since this can be more of a challenge in a town or when it’s cold or when it rains or when you simply need a shower and the ability to wash your clothes or maybe you just want company, in these cases alternatives are more than welcome.

mehappywithmykitchensetup
Me Happy With My Kitchen Set-up (Photo by: Andres Peters)

Wild camping or seeking permission?

OK, so I’ll camp. Next thing is how will I camp. There are two general options, one is wild camping and the other is to go and find a house where I can ask for permission to camp there. On the driveway, behind the house, on the yard, under some roof,… Again, many options.
Wild camping has it’s benefits such as there is nobody to bother you. With houses there are sometimes nosy kinds that in awe observe how you set up your tent, prepare your stove and cook yourself a dinner. Sometimes quite fun and without trouble you quench their curiosity but other times you just want your peace and quiet.
But when you are in the mood, it’s worth asking at a house. It can make camping easier in so many ways.
With house normally comes access to water so there is no need to carry extra weight (one litre of water equals one kilo).
Then there is greater sense of security if someone gave you permission to camp beforehand as opposed to hiding somewhere in the wild. I do sleep peacefully in both cases, it’s just that if I’m wild camping I tend to make sure my things are nicely packed inside my tent.
What makes camping next to a house more attractive are the occasional bonuses. These could be access to a shower, the ability to wash your clothes, sometimes WiFi, sometime invitation to a dinner/breakfast or even sleeping inside.
Occasionally you get to sleep in a less conventional option. The other day Andres and I were seeking shelter from the desert wind so we headed towards a property that seemed to have some abandoned houses on it. It turned out Roberto was living there. Obviously we were granted permission and in the end we ended up sleeping in an old, redesigned bus. We also had a shower and unlimited access to water in the middle of Atacama, the driest place on Earth.

Deciding on what option to take again comes down to your current inspiration. Or you might be “limited” by the offer since in more remote areas such as deserts or high mountains there aren’t always houses where you could ask for hospitality.

thebus
Atacama Bus

So we make it to the next item – Choosing a location

Now there is a topic I have read several posts about. From how it’s not really recommended to start searching for a hidden place in the middle of the day to how you have to pay attention to the inclination so that a potential nightly rain does not turn your tent into an aquarium. I would say you have to set up priorities and be capable to adapt to the environment.
It is highly unlikely it’s going to rain in the desert, however dry river beds are still ill-advised. You just never know. What you should absolutely take into account in the desert is the wind. It can create sand dunes inside your tent.
In rainy areas you will surely pay more attention to finding a roof above your head. It just the way it is!
I will always try to find a location where I will feel safe. This means I will try to avoid sleeping next to a road where anyone can see you.
There is something I haven’t, up until now, seen anywhere written down and that is access to toilet. Obviously it’s not going to be your normal toilet seat, but surely a place where in the morning you can peacefully squat and watch the nature while your intestines do their job. For me personally this is way up there on my priority list. But then again, everyone has his/her priority list set up according to their own taste.

Vista From My Toilet
Toilet Vista In The Mountains

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Toilet Vista In The Coastal Desert

Equipment

And now the equipment. A topic I could write several posts on and still not cover all the options. So I will not even try. What I will do is, I will write about what I use and why I use it.

Let’s start with the tent, surely a piece of equipment most linked to camping (thou not always needed since there are alternatives such as hammocks). Mine is Robens Raptor, colour green. I would never have thought, but the colour does matter. Fluorescent orange, incredibly useful when you are trying to find your way back to your tent in a blizzard is absolutely rubbish when you want to remain hidden between the trees.
Then there is size. My is a two (and some more) person tent. True, it’s big and for that a bit heavier than a ultralight one-person. But then again it doesn’t get cramped when I’m putting all my stuff inside and away from unwanted attention it might receive left outside. Only Lou doesn’t fit inside.
Robens Raptor is also freestanding. It means I can set it up even on concrete without using pegs or some other option just to keep it up.
Then there are two entrances that are longitudinal. Incredibly practical when you are putting your stuff inside and you do not have to crawl all over your sleeping bag just to reach something you forgot in the pocket next to where you lay your head.
And there are many, many more small things that transform it into a true villa on the road. Absolutely highly recommend.
I sleep in Robens Caucasus 600 goose down filled sleeping bag. With it’s temperature range from max. 13°C to the extreme of -27°C I was happy to have it from Canadian spring up to 4.500 meters high in the Peruvian Andes (and even in the surprisingly cold Atacama nights). Soft, warm and once packed small and doesn’t take up much space. And it’s light.
What also doesn’t take up much space and provides ample comfort is my Robens AirImpact 3,8 inflatable mattress. It makes sleeping much softer and provides insulation from sometimes very cold floor.
These are basics. Then there are wishes and desires. A big desire of mine is to have a hot meal and coffee. To make it a reality I use MSR Whisperlite camping stove. It works on normal petrol as well. Something that you can get anywhere unlike cartridges for gas stoves. Good luck finding them in the Peruvian Andes or Guatemalan jungle.

evening
Texas Sunset

sheltering
Sheltering in Massachusetts

Basically this is it. I did my best to keep it short. No way have I covered all, but then again I’m not writing a guidebook on camping. If the is a specific question you might have, do put it in the comments.

May 2017 be a year you go and follow or keep on following your Dreams!

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon