We ride on a bumpy dirt road as the sand becomes whiter and harder. A little later everything is white. In front of us lies an immense plain, as flat as the Netherlands, where you can look infinitely far. We are on the edge of the salt flats and are both smiling. We have been dreaming a long time about this, we can finally cycle in the sky. "Where are we going?" Zoë asks. On the horizon you can see a few mountains, but for the rest it is impossible to navigate. A few black dots are probably cars, but it is unclear which way they go. There are no official roads and no signposts, but there are different routes made by the jeeps. Zoë takes her compass and sets the course on the northwest. ’Shall we?' she says excitedly when she chooses a route that goes in the right direction. Here we go, the first meters on the white salt crust. The first meters there are a few small puddles of water and the salt is a little soft, but soon we cycle on a hard surface and everything is white around us. It feels like we are cycling over a frozen lake with a layer of snow. We can only laugh and feel the excitement in our bodies.
'And now?' Zoë asks. ‘I have no idea where the road is', Olivier says as he searches for a route. But everything looks white as far as we can see and it is impossible to find a road. 'We are a bit lost' says Olivier. 'You wanted to get off the road' Zoë says a little irritated. 'There must be a better route, but let's go back to the previous road'. After we passed the Dakar statue we took, in our opinion, the main route to the cactus island. Soon the salt changed into a coarse structure where we barely cycled on walking pace. 'Good surface said the route on the internet’ Olivier says disappointed. 'Well, in eight years a lot can change' Zoë smiles, bobbing quietly over the salt tiles.
'We do not reach the island today,' Olivier shouts 'shall we camp here on the salt flat?'. 'Let's test whether we get the tent pegs in the ground,' Zoë says, picking a nice piece of salt for the night. There is no lack of space on this vast plain. The salt flats of Uyuni have an area of more than 10,000 square meters, a third of Belgium. Olivier has been carrying a large stone since this morning to hammer the pegs into the salt. The salt is so hard that it appears a concrete floor, but we get the pegs a few centimeters in it, just enough to set up the tent. 'What a place' Olivier smiles. 'Unlikely, so vast that it is here'.
'I have to pee' Zoë says at four o'clock in the morning. Olivier turns around and looks at the thermometer of the odometer. '-7 degrees'. "I'll keep it up for a few hours. It is so cold, and all the cold seems to come from bellow ‘ Zoë shivers. The salt flats consist of a thick salt crust, with water underneath, so actually we sleep on a large frozen lake. 'Tonight we put a lot of clothes under the sleeping mats' Zoë says while she crawls out of her sleeping bag in the morning. The sun is already shining on the tent and the day is warming quickly. We forget the cold when we unzip the tent. We are a small dot in an infinite white plain. Maybe ten other people slept on the salt flats this night, but they were impossible to see. The water in our bottles is frozen, the bananas are black from the cold and the bread is good for frisbee. We pack the bags on the bike when Zoë her rim is on the ground. "Brrr, not here," Olivier sighs.
The island seems to be five minutes by bike, but it is twenty kilometers away. Distances are impossible to estimate and if Zoë cycles further when Olivier stops to take off his gloves, she is a small dot in the distance. The cactus island is one of the tourist highlights. After that there is only one big trail to follow and we cycle almost all day alone in heaven. The structure of the salt flat changes several times. Sometimes they are flat octagonal tiles, and later there are deep grooves between the salt tiles. 'We still have to make the naked picture' says Zoë who is already trembling at the thought of the cold. A little later we sit naked on the bike while the timer of the camera counts for ten seconds. "Not good, again" Olivier laughs. Nobody can ever see us, and if there is a jeep, we hear it from ten kilometers away. You do not find a tree to go to the toilet, but any salt tile is a possible toilet. It is a funny contradiction, there is no shelter anywhere, but nevertheless there is an infinite amount of privacy.
The second salt flat, the Salar de Coipasa, is much less known. In twenty-four hours we see one other car. These salt flat is less firm than that of Uyuni and much wetter. In the beginning we tried to avoid the small puddles with water, but in the end all of the salt flat is suddenly under water. There is no other option than slowly cycling through the water until we reach the edge. Getting off is not an option because we actually cycle through a lake that is ten centimeters deep. 'Poor bicycles' says Zoë 'they deserve a very good cleaning tomorrow'. Our bikes, shoes and legs get a lot of salt on them. We slept for the third time on the salt flats and it seemed colder than the nights before. The cold is exhausting and we started tired on the last day. The salt sometimes resembles loose sand and several times we push the bikes through a deep layer of gunk. "Here are bicycle tracks," Zoë says. 'Ha, there are more crazy people who have taken this route’ Olivier laughs.
After five days on the salt flats we reach the mainland. The village of Sabaya is almost extinct. 'Where is everyone?' Zoë asks. ’There is a festival in the next village' says an old woman with a black bowler hat. 'We have to go there!' Zoë laughs. The next morning we scrub the salt of the bikes for three hours before we cycle to the next village. When we approach Huachacalla, we hear the music in the distance. We cycle into the village and see men and women dressed in beautiful clothes. During two hours we ask for a place to sleep, but every free room is full. Finally, two hours begging for help, the police help us with a small room above the public toilets. It is a Christian party, but there is not much to notice. A big parade with fanfares echoes through the streets, while women with six layers of skirts graceful circles on the music. There are three large stages, with an huge amount of beer crates. The ladies and gentlemen, dressed up so elegantly, walk together. It is a special contrast, where we, as the only westerners in outdoor clothes, completely are left out. At six o'clock in the morning the brass band reverberates through the streets again. Suddenly the Western cyclist stands out and we get high fives everywhere as we pass through the fanfare. A man with a big trumpet offers Olivier a glass of beer. 'Our fuel is water' Olivier smiles, while the man looks surprised and drinks the glass himself.