Surviving the Desert: Pt 1The approach: My strategies & fears

Why oh Why?

Before entering the Atacama Desert, I described it as being the most expansive and arid place on earth, with a whole science behind why it’s so inhospitable – but no real explanation as to why I didn’t choose a more friendly route.

It was a film induced romance. I wanted to walk through open landscapes, experience deep moments of solitude and the joy of seeing people again after long stretches of thought provoking silence.

But the solitude became apocalyptic – so desperate I became for human contact, I began drawing out conversations in a way that brushed against lunacy… just so I could spend more time with people. And unlike the promises of the movies, my most profound change from this experience was the colour of my hair.

In spite of all this, I was determined to give it a go for experiences good and bad, and undiscouraged by the difficulties I knew would be waiting ahead.

Background: I’m an Aussie attempting to become the first woman to walk the length of the Americas. It bugged me that in the 37 years since it was first achieved, about 3 people have completed it, but no women: So I began. 

Three years on, I have walked the length of Chile, through its desert, continuing along the Incan trails of Peru and Ecuador.

Last time we spoke: I forged my way through a mountainous area of Chile by reassuring myself that it was better than Peru would be. My strength and endurance picked up dramatically and days became easier and faster… so I found a dog to accompany me, we named him Wombat, and I chucked him into a cart and headed for the desert with more weight and responsibility than ever before.

Currently I am up to Colombia and have returned home to wait out the COVID-19 pandemic. And so my stories continue...

Welcome to the driest place on earth

The Atacama Desert is the only true desert to receive less precipitation than the polar deserts. The ground is so dry, it’s comparable to the surface on Mars and for this reason, scientists use it as a test site for space exploration, and filmmakers shoot there for its out of world appearance.

Online it’s described as a 1000 km strip which is a gross underestimation. When measured from the official road markers, the desert extends to almost 3000 km, which is about the length of Australia (between Adelaide and Darwin), or Mexico, or India.

My trail plan (for tech minded people)

My trail through the desert started in the northern sector of Chile in a town called La Serena. From there I would continue almost all the way along the coast to Lima Peru before turning inland and ascending ancient Incan trails to emerge out of the desert, into the highlands of the Andes.

Desert trail from La Serena in the south up until turning in towards the highlands of the Andes.

Through the Chilean half I followed a mix of the Pan-American Highway, its disbanded networks, and a few faded bike tracks. These pass occasional towns, and three satellite cities that I used as milestones. They were called Antofagasta (at 850 km), Iquique (1270 km), and Arica (1570 km into the desert).

On the Peruvian side I had planned to move into the mountains early (via Tacna), but unforseen visa logistics forced me to continue along the coastline until Pisco (2600 km), which was an additional 1030 km through the desert.

The longest stretch between resupplies was 230 km which also included a 2400m hill climb. This is the equivalent of climbing Australia’s tallest mountain… if you started from Canberra… and had dropped a nuke between the two.

My fears

Nukes aside, what worried me the most was whether one of these towns had been abandoned, or remained populated enough to have a shop where I could buy food.

I had already faced this problem numerous times throughout my expedition, especially in the remote areas of Patagonia. In these cases my supplies would have run out before reaching the next town – but the generosity of strangers (who stopped regularly to insist on giving me food and hot tea) had me continue unscathed.

I imagined the desert would be similar, and so I had planned on being off road and self sufficient wherever possible.

Accepting the risk of food shortages was easy since they had already become part and parcel of the journey, but despite both places having pronounced remoteness, Patagonia is famed for its hiking… deserts are not. This means any declarations to hike through them are met with contempt (unless you’re Tim Cope). Even though the logistics were more or less the same in both regions, the more I explained the details to some people, the more stressed out they became and told me not to do it… because I’d die. Obviously.

The fear’s of others

It’s too dangerous. You’ll hate it. You’ll have to skip that section. It’s not like the rest of Chile. People aren’t trustworthy.

The most notable threat to those concerned was not the inhospitable elements of the desert, but its inhabitants (specifically, the prostitute-hiring miners) and the gauntlet of landmines left behind from the war. This was then followed by concerns I would freeze to death during the cold desert nights… in summer.

In hindsight, this was all laughable especially given how few people I saw, how kind everyone was, and how much of a crazy lady I became, so desperate to have a conversation with anyone who happened to cross my path. The other concerns were non-events.

That said, I had also been told about abandoned villages where corpses became mummified from the sun and could be seen falling out of their tombs, and this was in fact, true.

That aside, the closer I came to entering the desert, the more attention I paid to the warnings. Especially to the towns I should be wary of. 

I’d turn back if I were you

Do you remember in The Wizard of Oz when they arrived at the haunted forest to a warning sign? The deluge of emotions in this scene was how I felt by the time I arrived to the outskirts of the desert. Despite my capabilities (and more practical footwear), my inner monologue was as though it was narrated by Dorothy’s companions taking turns to give their opinions on whether it was safe. 

I was excited to set off in a new landscape, but in the background was a barrage of discouragement. These criticisms were hard to ignore, demanding justifications and interruptions throughout the crossing, when what I needed was focus, pragmatism and persistence. 

But no one (least of all me) likes an “I told you so”, especially from people who hover in the wings waiting for an opportunity… and so, a shadow had fallen over my experience – the influence of which I thought I’d overcome, but clearly I have a long way to go. 

The final hurdle

I began preparing for the desert about a year earlier because there were a lot of unknowns that needed to be covered: distances, temperatures – hot and cold, safety, contingencies, isolation… all that.

I mapped out the trail and worked out what equipment I needed. Based on distance alone, it was obvious that I wouldn’t be able to go off-road as much as I had hoped, or be able to carry enough water in my pack.

I estimated that I would need to carry 40L during the most challenging stretch, and with additional provisions this raised my pack weight to 80+ kg. I would either need to organise resupply caches along the way, which have failed me in the past, hire a support team, which had also proven to be unreliable, or procure a cart.

The most attractive option was the cart. I needed something strong enough to carry the load that could also handle off road stretches. Something balanced well enough not to topple me over if the weight shifted, and that wouldn’t run away from me if left unattended. I also needed an option that could withstand the harshness of the desert, wouldn’t have a punctured tire every other week, and that I could pull apart easily so that I wouldn’t be stranded if I had an obstacle to climb over, or down into.

I had been researching for some time, and hadn’t found any options with a high enough load capacity. Most carts have a 40kg limit, which was only about 10kg more than my current pack weight. While worrying about the solution and how I was going to freight it to Chile, I received an email from Kai, who is the owner of Monowalker. 

At the time I thought a monowalker might be a hiking pole with a tripod function (which would be awesome), but Kai was offering all the solutions I had been looking for, in a single correspondence. 

The solution

Not only did Kai make a one wheel hiking trailer, with a high load capacity, that was designed to be off road, ergonomical, and stable… he also happened to be the sponsor of a science team who at that moment, were conducting experiments in the Atacama Desert, AND… were scheduled to return to Europe via Santiago, which I was rapidly approaching.

“They would be able to leave the newer version of one of their hiking trailers behind for you to pick up on your way through, should you like?”

My reply was of the same calibre of any professional adventure who oozes survival, sophistication and profoundness: 

YES.I.WOULD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I was extremely relieved, and ecstatic to have my first ever logistics issue solve itself. All I had to do was walk to it.

This is not a paid ad... but since Kai came into my life at the right moment, saving me a ton of headaches, and financial haemorrhage from buying an expensive, non-solution that (in hindsight) would have left me stranded searching for repairs in the middle of nowhere, I’ll say this: 

The functionality was exceptional. If you like hiking, have back issues (or children), or would like to be able to hike with less strain and carry more stuff in more comfort, with less effort, here is a link to his website where you can check out the design and how it works. 

For the record: I used a second-hand wheel, over 4000 km, went off road a lot, and only had one puncture which was towards the end, when the kevlar tire was well and truly worn... It was a fallen spike clump from a tree cactus that got it in the end.

Thanks Kai! - believers like you are the people who have made my journey possible!

Kai also sent me some panniers and a bag for the mainframe to help my gear stay protected from the sun, and to make packing life infinitely easier. 

…Until the Chilean postal system played interference.

I arrived in Santiago ready to set up the cart and head out. But the first consignment “went missing”, so with insurance, Kai sent another package that I would have to wait for. 

A month later, the postal truck arrived outside my accommodation, and before the postie could deliver the bags, a carjacker stole the entire truck and all of its contents, including my bags – which I’d paid a hefty tax to receive! 

So I headed back out on the trail anyway, using my backpack on the cart as a substitute. My plan was to use the remaining distance before the desert to test out the Monowalker system, because once I was in the desert, maintenance and repairs would become infinitely more difficult to resolve, and I needed to make sure the cart would work appropriately for the trails ahead.

A few weeks later, without experiencing a single problem, I returned to Santiago to wait for the parcels. With time on my hands I began looking into rescuing a dog which I had wanted to do for some time. I had factored in additional provisions for a dog when I originally calculated the cart’s load requirements, and with Kai’s design, I had room to spare. For the first time during the expedition, I felt equipped to take on the additional responsibility. 

Long story short, this is where Wombat joined the journey. Once our equipment was ready, we returned to La Serena to begin The Descent into the Desert (up next).

To be continued…


How can you help?

1) Shout me a coffee 

I’ve returned home due to COVID. Any donation via my PayPal kitty will raise funds for Wombat’s boarding while we’re apart, and help me get back to him when it’s time to continue our journey.

❗️PLEASE BE AWARE – Contributions are made in $USD (I can’t change it). Any mishaps, shoot me an email!

In the meantime I’ll be working on my skills to move into a vlogging format on YouTube to add more visuals into the stories you see here.

2) Luggage mules 

This will be off the cards for some time but if you’re planning a trip to Central America after I’ve recommenced, please let me know.

3,4,5) Gossip

The more people who know about us, the more chances of sponsorship (oh pleaaaaase phone companies!!!), and the more likely we are to finish in comfort. Please talk about us and have your friends join us through the community pages.

MOST IMPORTANTLY

I love having you with me. It’s no longer possible to respond to emails and one-on-one updates, but I read all of them, and appreciate you – if it wasn’t for the community, I wouldn’t be here.

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