Blond and dumb, lives with her mum.
This time, my extreme enthusiasm for the desert breaks me. We spend all day exploring Humberstone, the glorious rusting wreck of a saltpetre mining town, closed and abandoned 50 years ago. Sunburnt, sand whipped and exhausted I finally leave after a seven hour expedition through every inch of the site and drag myself to the car. As I flop in to the passenger seat I notice a dull pain in the small of my back which I ignore but which, by that evening, will render me incapable of removing my own trousers. I don’t know it now but my love of this gorgeous, crumbling, haunting place will have me twisting and shuffling about in pain all the way back to London in three weeks time. Even there sometimes I will squeak suddenly as a sudden spasm of pain reaches up my spine and although it hurts, it will make me think fondly of this day.
David opts to stay back in Iquique and have a day off and recover once and for all from his Bolivian stomach bug so, at half past eight in the morning we wave him goodbye and set off to pick up our little hire car. This being the land of the four by four , the nippy, little Peugeot we have asked for isn’t available and instead we are proudly shown a blistering red, monolithic pick-up truck and told that this is sort of like a little Peugeot only much better. We stand there nodding at it for a while and then agree that yes, if you squint enough it does indeed look a bit like a little Peugeot.
Despite its supposed brawn, the pickup is unfortunately rather out of shape and struggles asthmatically up the slightest of inclines. The hench looking tyres, built like Inca cities, are also woefully inadequate and we find ourselves questioning the ingenuity of the design of this car whilst we skid precariously on corners or on the smallest quantity of sand. The thirty mile journey across the scrappy desert outside Iquique ends in the dust blown car park with the pickup ticking and gasping for breath and we wonder if we will make it all the way to our next destination, San Pedro De Atacama some 500km south east of here.
Fortunately, the desert roads are decidedly untaxing, the main cause of accident here being boredom and occasional napping. The wrecked out, abandoned cars and abundant shrines I counted during our previous ride down these roads are testament to this but the bimbo pickup makes it so long as we don’t pick up the pace too much or go around any corners.
We have given ourselves a few days to complete the journey from one side of the desert to the other and are stopping in an unprepossessing city called Calama on the way. There are only limited hubs here offering hostelry to passing travellers and Calama, ecstatically, offers a featureless conference hotel with two bedroom suites at affordable prices. Perhaps the average person would be a little under excited by the prospect of a blank walled, vacant eyed business hotel decorated by corporate drones but we are buzzing. After a long series of saggy, tiny beds in rooms carpeted in concrete with creatures in the plug hole, the idea of snap tight sheets, gleaming bathtubs and personality free laminate floors is rather thrilling.
We arrive late in the afternoon after a long day of bumping down side roads with the pure, bleached sunshine bouncing off the angry, red pickup bonnet in to our faces. Suzie and David peer out over the luggage which is stacked on their laps and squashed in to every available space. Uncomfortable about leaving all their worldly possessions in the open back of the truck, they decided to endure the discomfort afforded by being built upon. Jamie and I sit them in the back and pile the ever expanding luggage on top of them until they are part of the structure of a rucksack fortress. Now we can only see their eyes but David ensures we can hear them by announcing that he can feel a song coming on. Jamie groans and shakes the steering wheel a little desperately but David clears his throat and begins.
I’ll tell a tale of a jealous male and a maid of sweet sixteen
She was blond and dumb and she lived with her Mum
On the edge of Bethnal Green
She worked all week for a rich old Greek
Her old man was on the dole
Says Jamie and grips the steering wheel hard.
And her one delight on a Friday night
Was to have a bit of rock and roll.
Sings David melodically, heedless of Jamie’s distress.
Oh god, please stop.
Cries Jamie. David pauses and Jamie sighs in relief.
To my rit-fal-lah, to my itty-fal-lal
To my itty-bitty-fal-dal day!
Sings David again and Jamie droops visibly in his seat. I put my hand on his arm in sympathy but truth be told, I am enjoying the song. I enjoy the song right up until the end when David takes a minute break then quietly announces he can feel another song coming on at which point I begin to feel some of Jamie’s anxiety.
Auspiciously the road soon becomes too bumpy for singing and David falls quiet and looks out the window at the shimmering landscape beyond the wheezing pickup. Drab, dust coated, water starved trees itch in the sunlight and as far as we can see, are only bare, arid mountains and sand. The potholed road supposedly leads to La Noria, an abandoned mining town mildly famous for its cemetery of uncovered graves, gaping skeletons and stories of the walking dead. We looked for it last time but could find no trace of it and couldn’t have managed this dilapidated road on the weighty, tarmac loving Robin. This time I catch a flash of green sign announcing the small town and shout that we must go there tout suite so Jamie carefully manoeuvres the nervy pickup round the sharp corner with a jaunty skid and we trundle in to the unknown.
The biscuit coloured track leads on and on in to the countryside. We begin to wonder if we have perhaps made a mistake, followed the wrong track or imagined the road sign. Eventually a water plant appears and a large, lumpy brown dog bounds out in eight different directions towards me. He is clearly not used to having a lot of attention and wees a little in the dust each time he is fussed. I leave him and his trails of piddle to the others and approach the gate doubtfully to stare in at the compound. It is completely empty but for humming machinery and a few palm trees. I ring on the doorbell which, rather alarmingly raises a low wail not unlike an air raid siren across the entire plant. It sounds a lot more important and loud than I had anticipated and a few moments later and when a man in shorts and a puzzled expression on his face appears. Feeling embarrassed, I shout across to him to speed things up.
Hello! Which way is La Noria?
He shouts back.
La Noria, where is it?
He points further up the road we are already driving down and stares at me. It is not unlike the feeling I imagine accompanies that of meeting a fellow survivor in an apocalypse. He has come out of a house so he must live here and perhaps we are the only humans he has seen in some time.
I shout and he stares at me some more then at his dog which is busy creating a Jackson Pollock in the dirt and must be whistled back in. We drive on, the road circling around the back of the compound where the dog reappears from under the back fence to dance in joy at the sight of us. We slow down to avoid running it over then leave it in a cloud of dust looking bereft.
Eventually, a long way in to the desert, structures start to appear amongst the broken red rocks and we realise we must be closing in. In the far distance I spot a working mine with filthy machinery, blinking lights and signs of activity. Next to that are the unmistakable shapes of ruined, abandoned miners houses and knackered machinery.
I point excitedly and then out the right of the truck in the distance, a completely separate set of matching ruins. The first set in the distance turn out to be inaccessible, blocked off by the working mining company and remain tantalisingly mysterious. I know there are several abandoned oficinas in this area and who knows which is La Noria but we decide to explore the broken wreck to our right with Indiana Jones type excitement at the prospect of falling on to a skeleton.
Jamie and I set off, leaving Suzie and David to untangle themselves from the fortress, and follow a winding, sun-baked set of tracks flanked by deep, deep holes in the cracked earth. The purpose of the holes is unclear but they dot the surrounding landscape like measles. We peer down them, finding nothing at the bottom but the odd piece of scabrous metal and, occasionally, an old saucepan. The yellow earth is burnt and exhausted looking and increasingly littered with artefacts from the old town as we grow closer. Leather work boots, large and small, lie at intervals, the split black leather turned peppermint green after years of exposure to mining deposits and the sun. A rusty enamel mug decorated with flowers lies in a shallow depression and I pick it up and empty it out, enjoying the sound of the dust tinkling back to the ground.
The place is utterly, utterly silent but for the low singing of the wind and the sounds of our feet crunching on the salted earth. The air smells of sulphur, saltpetre, copper, the tang of bleached rock richly laced with minerals. It’s quite lovely, it smells like adventure and I sniff and sniff, trying to lock the scent in my mind. Rows of roofless, crumbling houses grin to the left and in front of us and Jamie disappears inside them to explore. I turn and squint in the direction we have come to see Suzie and David picking their way across the rough tracks and bending to retrieve two horseshoes we left for them in the path then I head up to investigate the old mining works.
Soon I am standing at the top of a mound of dirt and mining spoils staring out over the landscape. Suzie, David and Jamie are tiny against the great expanse of furrowed desert. I wave and receive toy waves in return before they return to picking up interesting objects from the dirt. Up here are crumbled concrete cylinders, rusting loops of wire, shaggy scraps of fan belt and a plethora of other remains but no cemetery so I wander back down to explore the perimeter of the small, sad town. Unlike Humberstone in all its jaunty, semi preserved glory, this place is completely desolate, all but razed to the ground by decades of abandonment. It feels like a place to be quiet in, to reflect a little. Conditions in many of these abandoned towns were extremely harsh and the miners and their families lived hard lives and worked long hours. I toe a tiny leather shoe out of the path and imagine the small child it must have belonged to, perhaps still alive. Do they think back to their childhoods with a shudder or was it just like any other?
says Jamie, interrupting my thoughts. He has appeared bedside me clutching a variety of beautiful, rusted enamel pots and pans which he holds out proudly to show me.
We found you some things.
He says and allows me to select a pile to take with us. These lovely, softly coloured objects will rot away to a pile of orange dust if we leave them here but we are essentially stealing Chilean heritage so we hesitate, turning over the problem in our minds before opting, slightly guiltily, to take the pile and rescue them from oblivion. There doesn’t seem to have been a visitor here in a long, long time and so the decision comes based on the fact that nobody is ever going to see these objects unless we clean them up and use them. So we hide them thoroughly in case a raging historian suddenly appears on the empty horizon and drive away wondering if we have done the right thing.
The cemetery never appears though I explored the town thoroughly and gaze out of the window raptly looking for any signs of it. Later, when we are home in the UK, I search online for the place but turn up nothing. I check photos of the little green sign saying ‘La Noria’, I follow the road on Google maps, past the water plan, check for a dog shaped speck, and track the road right up to our parking spot. I find the town we stopped in and five or six others dotted around it all with names like San Antonio and San Pedro. Eventually I find a website with a map marked with a green pointer and there, not two miles from where we explored, La Noria Cemetery, a sad, barely visited little patch of ground walled in and dotted with graves. I try to be glad we missed it and tell myself it would have been voyeuristic to go there but I am disappointed to see how close we were. I wanted to see the place and to gaze down at the inhabitants of these wretched towns. I wanted to thank my good fortune to be born in York, to be raised on mud pies and radio four and didn’t have to be one of them but alas, my ghoulish curiosity feels distinctly unsated.
Of course this is all an adventure yet to be had as I sit waiting for Suzie in the Humberstone carpark tentatively poking the muscles in my back and feeling the painful knots and hot ache in my spine. Jamie sits beside me looking pale and ill. He has spent the whole day uncomfortably asleep in the car having contracted some minor, stomach clenching plague and is now looking forward to an evening in bed having waited so patiently for his mother and I to finish our epic exploration. Suzie, who has loved every single moment of the day, has vanished on the assurance that she would definitely only be five minutes popping to the loo. Twenty five minutes later she finally appears from one of the nearby buildings randomly snapping photos at anything that crosses her path.
Sorry I was just looking in the museum!
She says not very guiltily whilst climbing in to the car.
Oh but that was just wonderful! Better than Macchu Picchu!
She breathes ecstatically and I turn round to agree.
That’s just what I thought! We knew you’d like it!
And it is decided there and then that we will return for a final trip tomorrow when Jamie and David are feeling better.
And so it is the next day that I find myself perched in the shade looking out in to Humberstone’s sundrenched main square sucking on the most heavenly coconut ice lolly to date. Jamie and I have had a second zip around the neighbouring ex mining town of Santa Laura to re-admire the graceful wooden structures that form the most interesting parts of what remains there. The huge, arcing edifices are soft and damp to the touch, aged woolly by the tiny amounts of salty fog carried in the air from the sea. The shadows zebra stripe the floor and I take sepia photos of Jamie vanishing in to the dark. We spend two hours there, wandering through these huge, empty buildings, feeling the intense crackle of the sun when we step out and blinking away white blindness.
I need a lolly.
I finally announce. Jamie agrees.
Time flies when you explore these fascinating nuggets of history but it’s hot, hard work and we have spotted a freezer full of ice lollies over at the little shop in Humberstone. We drive over, betting money on how long we will have to wait before David and Suzie reappear from amongst the ruins, flash our tickets at the lady in the wooden shack at the entrance and make for the shop.
Jamie chooses mango and I go for my favourite, coconut. We have had paletas on many occasions during this trip but these ones look particularly special. Perfect and opaque and each wearing an eye-catching paper jacket of the sort completely disallowed now in the UK. I know we are onto a good thing. I settle on one of the little metal seats outside, pull off the paper sleeve and take a bite. It is rich and thick and sweet, full of coconut milk and chewy shreds of coconut gathered around the bottom where the fruit has floated to the top of the mold. The texture is like no other, soft and yielding but with a distinct nubby bite to it that is almost as addictive as the taste.
Jamie appears from the shop holding his lolly and spots Suzie and David strolling past at the top of the street. He takes off after them, convinced that if he doesn’t gather them up now, we will never see them again and so I sit with my lolly for a moment enjoying the chilly, sweet mouthfuls and watching a chattering family as they disappear in to the old theatre. Frost rimed, sugary coconut, pale blaring sun and the sound of the wind in the branches of the few scrubby trees clinging on to life in the square. For a minute, it is sublime then the lolly starts to drip down my hand in the heat and I stand and follow Jamie, slurping the drips from my knuckles as I go.
1 can of coconut milk
100ml whole milk
50ml double cream
1/2 a can of condensed milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
40g dessicated coconut (the larger the shred the better)
Blend the coconut milk, milk, cream, condensed milk, salt, and vanilla extract in a blender until smooth. Stir shredded coconut into the milk mixture. Pour into ice lolly molds or, if you don’t have any, in to plastic cups with a stick leaning in the mixture. Don’t fill the cups or you will never make it through the whole lolly! Freeze until firm, about 4 hours.