Paulo headed north and George went east, while I was headed for Chile. The Laguna route was my first choice, but everybody I asked told me it was very hard: lots of deep sand and corrugations as well as being very remote. Much to my shame, I bottled it. As I was riding alone, there was no guarantee of help if I were to get into trouble, so I took the main "road" to the border at Ollague. While not tarmacked, it wasn't too bad on the Bolivian side, following the edge of the salt flats before climbing up to a range of volcanoes strung along the border with Chile.
This was a very remote border, not even the usual money changers; once again, I was the only person crossing at the time. I had to go searching for the officials on both sides to get the bike and myself stamped out of Bolivia and into Chile. A cursory bag search by a bored Chilean official and I was off. The road started badly and got worse as it followed the edge of a Laguna: corrugations and sand (the very conditions I was trying to avoid!). I was aiming for the town of Calama, but if the road was this bad all the way, it looked like I'd be camping that night. But as the road climbed away from the Laguna, a perfect newly sealed road greeted me. Another Laguna and a high plain (where the road went bad again), before dropping out of the altiplano to the Atacama desert. Strong winds fought to push the bike over in this bleak landscape. As Calama got nearer, conditions improved and I stopped to fill the tank. A choice of 3 grades of petrol (in Bolivia, the only choice is petrol or diesel) and no arguments. I tried a hotel, but they took one look at me, covered in dust from the ride, and decided they were full. There was still a couple of hours of daylight left, so I decided to ride the 60 or so miles to San Pedro de Atacama; a tourist town where it should be easier to get a bed. The road ran straight into the Atacama, climbing over a pass before dropping into more desert with a stunning backdrop of volcanoes; looking especially spectacular in the light from the lowering sun.
I could only find a dorm bed for the first night; not ideal, but it'd been a long day and I just needed somewhere to rest my head.
San Pedro de Atacama: back in backpacker central, everything overpriced, from the food to the accommodation. Its setting is spectacular, and the town is pretty enough, but I wasn't keen. A place to rest up for a couple of days before heading south into the "real" Chile. But, my bike won't start. The engine fires, then immediately dies; all the obvious things that could be wrong are OK. Fortunately this happens in a town and not in the middle of nowhere, so I get hold of a mechanic who looks at the bike; scratches his chin; tries what I've already tried and says he will come back at 7pm to take the bike to his workshop. That was the last I saw of him. I was feeling really low, fearing that this could be a show stopper (I'd had a quote from a bike shop in Santiago of £1000, JUST to transport the bike to the capital). I needed a drink. I awoke in the early hours with a flash of inspiration: maybe, just maybe the side-stand switch was malfunctioning. That would prevent the bike from starting if the side-stand was down. I couldn't test my theory for a few hours so as not to wake the other guests in the small hotel I was in; but I couldn't sleep either. Eventually, unable to stand the suspense, I put up the side-stand and pushed the starter. Success!! I could ride and escape from San Pedro de Atacama. So happy! The emotional highs and lows of overland biking; a real rollercoaster ride.
So, I hit the road towards Antofagasta, through the utterly barren Atacama, passing only the occasional mine. Hot, dry and dusty; but I was happy, I was riding. Dropping to sea level again after weeks on the high altiplano; breathing becoming easier. Antofagasta was an OK city; refreshingly non-touristy after San Pedro. But only a one night stop before continuing the journey south.