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Full Circle

Day 175: San Pedro de Atacama

Michael Palin - Full CircleA knock on the door wakens me at four. Assume it's a schoolgirl still looking for her room, but realize with pre-dawning horror that it's time to get up.

It's also dreadfully cold. As cold as I've been on the journey so far, Alaska included. Our plan today is to continue northwards into the Andes to try and reach El Tatio, the highest geyser field in the world. Locals tell us it has to be seen at dawn, when the steam is at its most spectacular. It is more than sixty miles away on a dirt road, which is why we find ourselves driving through the silent, cobbled streets of San Pedro at the unearthly hourof half-past four. In the silver-grey glow of the moonlight the old town looks surreal, like something that should still be in my dreams.

I take a slug of grappa from my Sheffield United hip-flask as we pursue the twin cones of light cast by the headlamps of our four-wheel drive. Our driver, trying to avoid the worst of the potholes, rolls the wheel back and forth so we enjoy a bracing combination of horizontal and vertical disorientation.

I have brought a new toy with me on this leg of the trip, a digital altimeter, and, straining to read it by torchlight, I can see that we have climbed beyond four thousand metres, which is over thirteen thousand feet. I become aware of my breathing, of having to think about a process I don't normally think about. (I noticed that lacing up my boots this morning had been an unusual effort.) There is just enough light in the sky now to pick out fantastical silhouettes of piled, coiled, congealed lava formations, all around us.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 175
  • Country/sea: Chile
  • Place: San Pedro de Atacama
  • Book page no: 230

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