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.

39 Comments

  1. I am glad you are doing well. I can imagine that the logistics of your trek would be significant given the cultural and language barriers. I lived in Malaysia for three years with the RAAF and found tasks that were routine in Australia were sometimes difficult whilst complicated matters can be done quite easily. It is reassuring to hear about the generosity of the local inhabitants. I worked with the Chileans in East Timor based at Comoro Airfield in Dilli and the ones I worked with were pretty easy going. Stay safe, stay strong and good luck.

    • Yes that seems to be my experience too – there’s always some barrier, but I’m getting better at picking the battles and finding help when I need it. Some stories about your RAFF days would be pretty interesting, I bet!

  2. honestly, you can plan up the wahzoo and then some wally pinches the post truck and you have to move to Plan B. how you have kept your chin up and gotten on with the task is an inspiration to everyone (including this grumpy old fart) who read your reports. take care of yourself during this time while I move some $’s over to my PayPal account for Wombat’s upkeep (and a brew for you). cheers

    • Hahaha… can you imagine some people have the impression I’m just winging it! Thanks heaps for the $’s… it’s a good push to get the next one done!!

  3. Lucy, thanks for taking the time to write this. We love your Instagram posts but it’s also great to read about your amazing adventures in more detail. We hope you’re back on the trail before too long!

    • Thanks so much!! Yes some good friends of mine help me with the writing – mostly for editing but especially for the assumptions I make that people know what I’m talking about when sometimes I need to put in a bit more background info.

  4. what a wonderful expedition, something I would never be brave enough to do on my own. I’ve got the world map spread out on my kitchen bench to get a better a visual of where you started and where your heading. Hope it’s not too long before you can continue your journey. Stay healthy, stay safe and I really look forward to following the remainder of your expedition.

    • Thanks so much!! Yes maps are fun. I want to get a big one on my wall so I can better see how far I’ve come!

  5. Truly inspiring. I often tell my teenage daughters about you and get then to read your blogs.
    Personally, after reading your stories I just say, wow! and then go to google maps.

    • That’s great!! I’m really pleased to hear there are other people out there looking at maps as much as me!

  6. Lucy you are an absolute marvel to be so focussed! Very proud of you. I had no idea this trip was to be such an adventure when I was your kayak safety buddy on the Murray River.
    Regards,
    Stu

    • Yeah, I have to say most people don’t get it until they’ve been following for a while and have read about some of the calamities.

  7. Absolutely amazing Lucy! I’m in awe that you got through it (but not shocked or surprised).

    • Thanks Joy! I definitely had a few days of being on the brink of quitting… but you’ll hear about that in the next one.

  8. In total awe of what you have achieved. Have told my Alaskan dog mushing friend to look out for you and Wombat while you walk though town. Looking forward for your next update

    • That’s awesome – I’ll need all their good tips as I head up towards the tundra!

  9. Hi Lucy, it was great to get an update from you in lengthy form. My daughter Claire (who is now living in Ireland) and I (living in Melbourne) have been following you from the beginning of your amazing journey. What you have achieved thus far has been an extraordinary and fascinating for us to follow your feat requiring incredible endurance especially through the desert regions, and I am blown away by your courage, resilience and such wonderful stories.. and I love, love, love Wombat! Stay safe and well and hope you can return to complete your journey in the near future.

  10. Thanks for the update! Hope you’re enjoying a bit of downtime with the family and friends, while planning the next leg of your adventure. Bet your mum is glad to have you home . We’ve been missing the Wombat spam!!

    • We really are enjoying each other’s company!! It’s also a real luxury to have all this planning time AND be able to squeeze in a few micro adventures.

  11. You are an inspiration Lucy,I have enjoyed reading your descriptive adventures , you are so brave,I wish you well.

    • Thanks Sue!! Hopefully I’ll have more published over the coming weeks. I have some catching up to do!!!

  12. Lucy = legend. Looking forward to many more tales from your adventures.

    • … with complements like this, I might have to write them faster!! Thanks Gazman.

  13. What an update! Looking forward to updating Mum on your desert adventure and reading the next instalment. Hope you are well and enjoying this time with family and friends that has unexpectedly changed your adventure plans.

    • Thanks Tiffa! Yes, we’re all well and looking forward to a year of side adventures!!

      • Eek. It’s been a while since you’ve updated so really hoping you and Wombat are okay. This separation must be hard on you both. Am off to do a paypal transfer for you as I’m sure you are facing all sorts of unexpected expenses with this unexpected extended pause. Thinking of you and wishing you good health.

  14. Good to finally get an update….. Glad you are safe and are currently home waiting out this dreadful virus

    • Yeah me too! I am looking forward to getting back but I won’t go till it’s safe and a good time to go weather wise… because walking through the wet season wouldn’t be super fun.

  15. It was an honor to share the start of your trek with you Lucy. An admiration that you’ve made it all the way to Colombia. It’ll be a privilege to share some of the North American portion with you when you get here!

  16. Just extraordinary lucy. Its easy to see a picture but the words paint the picture better and the vast expanses you took on. Its a different mindset to the nay sayers where the impossible is broken down and managed in sections and one step at a time. Its more amazing than i percieved so the summary is beneficial.
    I always got into music most the time walking solo helping deal with lack of company a lot and giving a soundtrack to the adventures i can still recall.
    Be good to see you back out there. It feels most of that moonscape challenge is behind you. Sign me up for the book or doco copy. Hope its back on soon but i guess much you can plan in the meantime. Good luck and go hard

    • Thanks Dunc – Yes I had a music list especially for the desert and have become hooked on audiobooks. There’s nothing like another persons story to distract me from mine when it’s become arduous. It’s great to have you following along.

  17. Wow challenges galore! Your resilience to overcome them is awe inspiring. when are you able to return to pick up where you left off? Wishing you the very best of luck from Wales

  18. your a gutsy lady..wife and i have also enjoyed adventurous life .at sea sailing.. love the inland too…in 70”s now enjoying whats left..love your story..aaand wombat..shal contribute later.

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