I sound like Darth Vader.
That’s all I can think as I’m sitting here in the middle of the back seat of our jeep, leaning over the centre console that contains the clear plastic oxygen mask I’m clutching to my face. The sound of my ragged breathing mingling with the strung out Bolivian pop coming from the radio. I can faintly hear my brother giggling at my bad luck beside me.
We’d been rambling through Bolivia’s Altiplano on a three-day discovery of the region’s snow-capped mountains, volcanoes, mind-bending salt flats and lakes. Things had started off fine as we bounced through the desert in our 4×4, but at 3,750 metres (12,300 feet) above sea level, I guess it was only a matter of time before the altitude caught up with someone. And it just so happened to be me. A mild morning headache swelled into a constant aching lethargy by noon, and then stomach pains. Somewhere in my groggy mind I reasoned that if my body wasn’t getting enough oxygen, I could just solve the problem by simply breathing more. That makes sense, doesn’t it? Science, right?
As anyone with a brother will know, you’ll never admit to a weakness unless you absolutely have to. It was an embarrassing defeat when I eventually asked our leader for a double shot of oxygen. I could feel my brother’s smug grin boring into the back of my head. The jeep stopped, out came the tubes and bottles, and here I am with a cup on my face.
Surprisingly, it only took four deep breaths to feel normal again, but the oxygen rush seemed to have kick-started something else. Suddenly I felt nauseous, and before I knew it my car door was open and I was making a dash to the bushes to be sick.
I’ll spare you the details of what happened next: it ain’t glamorous. But the truth is, when I look back it’s something I barely think about. Only the day before we had woken up at the crack of dawn and driven to the foot of Cerro Polques for a sunrise dip in the desert’s natural thermal spas. Shaking off the frigid morning temperatures, we soaked in the water and watched through the thermal steam as the sun steadily rose. After towelling off, we trekked over a volcanic hillside bubbling with geysers and gurgling mud pools, an unreal experience that felt like walking on the surface of Mars.
The day before that, we’d stepped right into a Salvador Dali painting at Arbol de Piedra. The site of a single rock tree rising out of the dust, as twisted and surreal as any of the late artist’s work. Naturally, we decided to plank in front of it (because, 2013). The locals claim the desert inspired much of Dali’s work, and out on this stunningly desolate plain it’s easy to see the connection. Here, we explored fields of jagged red boulders belched out from the earth’s core thousands of years ago, and passed colour-shifting lakes, stained pink by flocking flamboyances of flamingos.
At sunset we pulled into an isolated mud cabin, built by the national park authorities at the top of a plateau. The sky burned scarlet as our tight-knit group toasted each other with plastic cups filled with wine, and when the temperatures plunged below zero we crawled into our sleeping bags for a freezing night. Without any electricity or mod-cons like heaters, the only way to keep warm was with layers – two thin doonas, a sleeping bag, thermals, socks and a beanie. A kind old Bolivian grandmother came around before lights out and neatly tucked a hot water bottle beneath my feet. Even now, it’s still probably one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had.
Then there was the iconic salt flats. A place that seemed to stretch out to infinity, and where the laws of physics just didn’t matter anymore; where you could stand side by side with your buddies and fight a giant Transformer, dance your way out of a colossal can of Pringles, or pretend to be driving a shoe.
All of these memories swam through my head in a nostalgic stream as I finished my business in the bushes and slowly, sheepishly, walked back to the jeep to regroup with my tour. That’s when my brother leaned his head out the window and stole the shot at the top of the page, as evidence of my time with altitude sickness.
I’ll never live it down, but why would I want to when it was just one part of such an incredible experience?
Experience Bolivia’s mind-bending Altiplano and make tracks to Uyuni on one of Intrepid’s small-group tours.
All images C/O Justin Meneguzzi.