Bolivia biking

Crewroom brand ambassador, Ness Knight, has just returned from Bolivia. Ness tells us all about her trip here…

There is a reason I keep myself open to spontaneity in life, and this time it brought me one of the most surreal experiences in one of the most diverse locations on the planet, Bolivia. It also brought me an incredible new friendship that will last a lifetime. A few weeks back I received an invite from explorer Laura Bingham to come out to Bolivia and cycle south from Lake Titicaca, via La paz and down to the Salt Flats in Uyuni. It took all of about, oh, 5 seconds or so for me to go with my gut instinct and say a hearty yes and put the wheels in motion to make this adventure happen. Laura started her expedition in Manta, Ecuador by the Pacific Ocean and will finish in Buenos Aires, tucked into the edge of the South Atlantic Ocean.

The mission for our leg together was simple; get 600km from the north to the south of Bolivia by bike, with no money. None whatsoever. Not being able to reply on cash for food and accommodation took us to some strange overnight spots and saw us finding food in very odd places (more on that in a bit), but more importantly it forces you to connect with local people in a way you would not normally if you travel a continent or country simply as a tourist. I have been to Bolivia previously in 2008 and traversed it’s dusty, majestic landscapes extensively, but this expedition allowed me to see a side of the country I simply did not access before; the day to day, real, lives of this vibrant people, and their warmth and selflessness when it comes to helping others, even when they themselves are living below the breadline. Laura has proved time and again along her cycle route from Ecuador something I already believe in and have seen across the globe; that people are innately good. That one human will help another human in need when it comes down to it. Are there a few bad eggs out there? Of course! But their numbers are dwarfed by the overwhelming mass of good people. It’s just that we don’t see this good side much in the media and on the news, but it thrives in every corner of our planet.

Laura and I met up in La Paz, seeing each other face-to-face for the first time ever. It was a bit like going for a first date, with nerves and butterflies going berserk for both of us. It’s an odd thing feeling like best mates after reels of conversations on Whatsapp during the weeks prior, but never having actually met each other! Nerves settled quickly, though, after our first day cycling together realising that we are so alike in mindset. And truly, nothing beats the camaraderie and bonding that comes off the back of cycling or running outdoors with new people. You inevitably end up talking about life, aspirations and outlooks, no doubt hatching great plans with your newfound friends. If you have ever thought about joining a running or cycling club/group but felt intimidated by trying something so new, don’t be. It’s such a social and welcoming place!

Laura and I found a mutual appreciation for testing our endurance limits and so decided to double her usual daily mileage. Up at high altitude this nearly pushed me over the edge as panted and gasped for air, much to the amusement of Laura who made it all look a little too effortless for my liking! But lucky for me, endurance is mostly about mind set, not super athleticism. Each day I grew stronger physically, and was once again privilege to watch how easy our body adapts and deals with a new environment and tough routine.

We camped in some quirky places along the way, with the first night spent wedged into the corner of a petrol station. Little did we know this quiet spot would turn into a mass gathering of trucks and busses through the night! Needless to say the following day was spent trying not to fall asleep in the saddle. My morning was perked up quite a bit by a brilliant find by Laura. She skidded to a halt in front of me and we backed up a few meters as she pointed to a heaped mass of rotting oranges on the side of the road. By this time I we were feeling the hunger pangs from surviving on so few calories, dropped our bikes and legged it over to the yellow pile in search of a handful of edible pieces of fruit. I can honestly say that aching hunger takes away all feelings of embarrassment at rummaging through rotten mounds of food whilst the locals look at you baffled by the ‘loco Gringo’s’. You’ll eat almost anything you can get your hands on when extreme hunger sets in!

We pushed on late into the second eve and just when the darkness of nightfall fell around us we found a little church on a back street in the city of Oruro, where the most incredible woman cooked us a hot meal and let us sleep inside, tucked safely away from the uncertainty and edginess of wandering big city streets at night with a lot of gear.

The following evening Laura got a flat as the sun was setting so we pulled over and camped behind a graveyard, watching the sun sink away. I loved this spot in a valley between the mountains, as the night sky just lit up with billions of stars. There wasn’t an ounce of light pollution, and we sat together watching the stars sharing a can of tuna Laura had found previously on the roadside (well, I was not sure it was tuna exactly and am sure I found a piece of what looked like spinal bone in it, but hey-ho it’s an adventure, right!?) on crackers. Not the most substantial meal but we laughed into the night and shared stories, hopes and dreams. These moments of shared memories are what make adventures so rich and vibrant.

The next day we entered the desert region, and barely saw a single car or truck. The first signs of the salt flats were evident now, setting off mirages that distorted our horizon and sense of distance. We camped under a bridge that night facing the setting sun, and were woken the next morning by a Llama shepherd’s dog alerting the entire world of our existence. The sudden end to his tirade of aggressive barking could only mean one thing. He was off to gather more troops – our cue to pack up and hit the road.

Our final night was spent on the edges of the Uyuni salt flats, where Laura managed to bag us what now takes the number one spot on my weirdest locations to camp list. We followed our new friend to a rickety old tin warehouse, where the door was yanked open reluctantly with a loud groan. We couldn’t believe it, but that evening we were going to be sleeping in a small salt factory. The chap owned a company that hauled huge blocks of salt out of the salt flats 5km down the road. It was such a surreal place to sleep, surrounded by the curious eyes of the children who worked the factory. This was the real Bolivia, and Laura resolved to come back the next day and film the story of these kids, getting under the skin of the harsh conditions they grow up in to try survive, and ultimately thrive.

It has been a journey filled with the unexpected around every corner, and one I will be forever grateful to Laura for letting me experience with her. Follow her journey and give drop her messages of support as she nears the finish line of a truly jaw-dropping expedition to traverse South America with no money.

Ness Knight, Explorer and Endurance Athlete

Twitter: @Ness_Knight

Instagram: Ness_Knight

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