Kayaking Earth's Driest Desert—Expedition Report

Jon Bowermaster
for National Geographic News
January 6, 2004

It wasn't until a late afternoon in November, paddling in stiff surf just off the coast of northern Chile that it dawned on me that my expedition into the dry desert of the Altiplano—dragging 15-foot- long (4.5-meter-long) kayaks behind—might be a little quixotic.

This was more than just a search for paddle-able lakes. The goal of our team of international explorers was to seek out the most valuable of all resources—water—in a part of the world known as the driest spot on Earth. Our real mission was to explore how man has managed to live, and work, in places where there has never been a drop of recorded rain. And people have lived in this part of the western hemisphere more than 10,000 years.

Using kayaks as both transportation and one-of-a-kind floating ambassadors is something I've done on several continents, from the Aleutian Islands to Vietnam and the heart of the South Pacific. As I fought the currents off Antofagasta, dry desert hills rising just in front of me—we would ultimately climb from sea level to nearly 20,000 feet (6,100 meters) during six weeks of exploration—I didn't regret bringing the kayaks. I just hoped we'd find lakes high in the desert with enough water to float them.

I would not be disappointed. As part of my long-term Oceans 8 project—using sea kayaks to explore the world's most remote seas and the people who depend on them—exploring the Altiplano by searching for water turned out to be a perfect combination. The just-concluded expedition (November 1 to December 15) was funded by the National Geographic Expeditions Council and National Geographic Adventure magazine (click here for photos and dispatches) and took us to little-seen parts of the driest desert on the planet, where we successfully managed to find water. Not always in great abundance, but in many locations, including some of the most beautiful mountain lakes I've seen.

From the coast we climbed high into the desert, spending most of six weeks above 13,000 feet (3,960 meters), making big circuits through northern Chile, northern Argentina, and southern Bolivia. Pulling kayaks behind us using a unique harness system I "invented" in my backyard in New York's Catskills, we successfully tracked down water in a variety of forms: High, mineral-rich lakes; trickles of Andean rivers; and reservoirs built to accommodate the multitude of mines (silver, gold, copper, borax, salt, and more) that are the economic lifeblood of the region.

While our days were dusty and cold, visited by strong winds that ceased for only a few hours early each morning, they were linked as much by the long history of water in the Altiplano, as by the reality that everywhere we traveled was once underwater.

The dry salt beds and lakes we traversed were, two million years ago, covered by the ocean. Over tens of thousands of years as the high, long ridges of the Andes rose up, volcanically, the ocean was pushed westward, its deep valleys filling with ash, lava, and rock. As recently as 12,000 years ago sizable lakes covered these Andean plains. Thick salt beds, marine coral, and fossils of sea life mixed in with the desert sand were the most visible evidence of those times.

We were six—from the United States, England, New Zealand, and Chile. Along the route we found local guides to point us towards big lakes that weren't always on the maps, as well as low-lying swamps, beautiful river valleys, and dry lakebeds. Sometimes even our guides were surprised; a two-year drought has made the region more dry than usual.

Our route led us from the Pacific Ocean off northern Chile to the top of Volcan Licancabur, the 19,652-foot (5,990-meter) Bolivian peak that overlooks much of the Altiplano. Highlights were abundant: Putting our kayaks on several mountain lakes in northern Chile, for example, where we set personal records for highest paddle (14,200 feet/4,330 meters), shallowest paddle (12 inches/30 centimeters) and saltiest paddle—all on Lago Tuyaco, where a strong afternoon wind covered us and our boats with a thick crust of salt.

In the northwest corner of Argentina, Lago Vilama was even higher, windier, and shallower—though it covered 10 square miles (26 square kilometers), at its deepest it was just 6 inches (15 centimeters). We ended up pulling our kayaks across it, unable to paddle.

The most eye-opening experiences were visiting several varied mining operations. In Potosi, Bolivia, we went 1,500 feet (457 meters) below the Earth, into what was once the world's largest silver mine. Near Colchani, Bolivia, we spent two days with salt miners—raking, drying, packaging salt taken from the world's largest salt lake, Salar de Uyuni (120 miles by 40 miles/190 kilometers by 60 kilometers).

The salt workers made about three dollars (U.S.) a day; by comparison, at Chuquicamata, Chile, we saw the world's largest copper mine, which generates $25 million a day in copper and provides some of the best-paying jobs in South America.

Continued on Next Page >>


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