A steady climb south from Antofagasta (the tropic of Capricorn now behind me) – up beyond 2000m. The wind varies in direction and strength, pace of progress varying with it.

On the way up, I passed El Mano del Desierto – an impressive concrete sculpture of a human hand reaching out (or sinking into?) the desert floor. I chatted to a Brasiliano couple- themselves on a long motorcycle trip. They were suprised that I was cycling across such a lonely place by myself..
Just then, a landrover discovery with British plates barrelled up from the highway – Naomi leaning out and shouting my name. I haven’t seen Naomi for 23 years; little has changed it seems, as back then I was also often to be seen cycling around wearing a silly hat (albeit in a rather different dusty and warm place)

A journey is made by all the many encounters along the way- bizarre and wonderful to bump into someone I actually knew in the midst of the Atacama’s sterile vastness.
Naomi & Liam headed north, bound for Peru and Bolivia – theirs is another story.

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The spaces between water sources thus far haven’t been too large- the biggest has been a little more than 100km. On the way I passed both a pedestrian (who was glad to learn of more closely spaced posadas in front) and a gentleman selling ice cream from a polystyrene icebox. At least one of my photos bears more than a passing resemblance to the surface of Mars- I’m told that NASA’s rovers were indeed tested not far away.

The effects of the dryness are certainly exacerbated by the altitude- my experiences climbing higher than that were no doubt of great help. Fine dust invades everything- one of my brake pistons and the cylinders of both my stove pump and bicycle pump failed as the dust scoured out all the grease. (The latter two were easily fixable – I’ll need to find a good bike shop to get my rear brake back in working order)
This is one of the driest parts of the Atacama- some of the hillsides bear the marks of water having flowed at some point- but most don’t.

I turned of Ruta 5 at Las Bombas after a long and gradual descent back to almost sea level- along a hard packed dirt road into the Pan de Azucar national park. (So named for the shape of a close by island, home to a colony of penguins). The road descends to the coast along a river valley-no water on the surface, but a reasonable amount of vegetation on the surface providing a welcome change from the bleakness of the desert.

I arrived in a picturesque fishing village shortly before sunset- introducing myself to a French couple camped nearby by misjudging the sand yet again and clattering to the ground in less than dignified fashion. I welcomed the new year with Muriel and Jerome – they kindly shared their wine and shellfish with weary and bruised cyclist.
I awoke to the first sunrise of 2014 in my hammock- a quieter Hogmanay than usual, but not so bad at all.

I rejoined route 5 at Chañaral – the road follows the coast again as far as Caldera before turning sharply inland again for Copiapó. I was well stocked with food and water, so opted to turn south and bypass the town.

Proceeding south, a little water is evident- scrubby plants and cacti, but no longer restricted to the lowest ground. As if to remind me that we’re not out of the desert just yet, a dust storm blew up- visibility reduced to around 100m, and progress remaining possible mostly as the wind was mercifully at my back.

Vallenar lies in another river valley- this is by far the lushest place I’ve been in Chile, and is a product of the different topography of the mountains east of here. Further north, almost all of the plentiful rain that falls flows downhill to the east into Bolivia or Argentina, but here is relatively verdant- a pleasant place to recover and attend to the urgent issue of laundry.

It’s only 650km to Santiago- I don’t know if I’ll actually go there, but I’m on my way southward once again.

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