Caught short on the Bolivian salt flats

Salt flats are a place of ethereal, eerie beauty. They can stretch as far as the eye can see, until the white ground intersects the blue sky on the very horizon. The largest in the world can be found in Salar de Uyuni, in Southwest Bolivia. Here, at over 3600m above sea level can be found a plateau of extraordinary flatness, with the gradient of the land varying by only a metre. In 2015 I travelled to this harsh, windswept landscape in order to snap some amusing photos with the use of perspective. Whilst I was there, however, my bowels very nearly played a nasty trick on me.

Day 1

We began our journey at the nearby town of Salar De Uyuni. We were collected  in a battered 4 x 4, which had clearly been traversing the rugged terrain for a number of years. Instead of driving directly to the salt flats, we were first taken to another famous site,  Salar De Uyuni’s abandoned train graveyard. Here, on an Andean Plateau, can be found Victorain-era British steam engines, slowly being devoured by the wind and elements. They have lain there, quietly mouldering since the start of the 20th century. Their valuable metallic parts were stolen long ago now all that remained were their shells, which are gradually being corroded by the salty winds. Along with steam engines, another notable invention of the Victorian era was the flushing toilet, by Sir Thomas Crapper. It was a sign, an ominous sign.

That afternoon we arrived at the Salt flats in proper. We leapt out of the 4 x 4’s and immediately amused ourselves by taking a range of photographs. As the land was so flat, it was easy to place a small object at the start of the photo and make it appear much larger than it actually was. We repeated this a number of times. As I sat on a beer can, I was blissfully unaware that I would soon be  dreaming of being perched on a white, porcelain toilet.

Our accommodation that evening was a one story communal building. Our tour group sat around cheerily eating dinner. I found the beef stew to be particularly delicious and went on to have second and third helpings. A fateful decision, as it turned out. That night I went to bed blissfully.

Day 2

I awoke with a start and made an Olympic style sprint for the bathroom. Through the door I could hear the stifled giggles of my roommates, who had not cared very much for the beef stew. Not to worry. With some complacency, I reached into my wash bag and reached for my most valuable travel companion; a packet of Imodium. To my upmost horror it was empty. A frantic plea to the rest of my tour group yielded no results either. We were now a 7 hour drive from our destination.

Miserably, I sat in the aged land rover listening to a Smith’s album and trying to think about absolutely anything but my bowels. For the first two hours, this was an excellent tactic. However, closer to lunch time I made the mistake of eating an inoffensive cheese sandwich.  That synched it. My stomach began to growl ominously. With every rattle of the suspension, my resolve weakened. To my upmost surprise, the first thing to give out was the car, not my bowels. With an exasperated grinding sound coming from the engine, our 4 x 4 slewed to a halt. There was a dismal silence in the car, briefly punctuated by the howling of the wind coming from outside. Our tour guides heroically laboured to fix the engine. I tried not to bother them at first, as whilst they seemed adept at fixing a two cylinder engine I was not so confident they could do the same for my bowels. After a while I could bare it no longer and ventured out of the car, making a plea in my best pigeon Spanish for the bathroom. With a wry laugh and a friendly shrug my guide took pity on me and imparted his sage advice.

“Find a friendly rock”.

Crouched alongside the car, with the wind howling, I surveyed the landscape. The sky was an azure blue but the temperature was around 10 degrees below zero, plus wind chill. Around 50 metres away, I spotted a ‘friendly’ looking rock and ran over to it. Once I was strategically positioned behind it I tried to relax. The rock itself was covered in intricate swirls, no doubt the result of hundreds of years of wind erosion. The aforementioned wind, meanwhile had not relented. In fact, it was now driving a mixture of salt and sand particles against my pasty white ass with a vengeance. I winced and daydreamed of a comfortable seat and light yet informative toilet literature. But there was none to be found here. After burying my contribution to the salt flats in a shallow trench I got back into the car and sat back down. A short silence followed, but then miraculously, the engine started again. We continued on our journey.