Silence is something of a rarity. Even in the quietest moments you will hear the distant traffic, a neighbour’s television, people talking, the hum of the fridge, dogs barking, birds, insects… Absolute silence is a myth.
Or so I thought.
A and I had stopped at San Pedro de Atacama for a few days.It’s a tiny town in the middle of the Atacama Desert, a tiny town where everything is the colour of sand. From the streets forged from pale clay, to the low buildings, to the shadeless plaza; everything was sandy and sun-baked.
A and I hired bikes to explore the Valle de La Luna, national park which has become a tourist attraction for it’s otherworldly sand and rock formations. We set off in the mid-morning sun; the desert sky was cloudless and the day was already warm. After a quick trip to an ancient fort, we headed to the valley. It was 16km out of town and not particularly easy in that heat.
We left the town, found the main highway, and pedalled for several kilometres. In all directions the desert landscape stretched into eternity; vast, flat and barren. Puffing, panting and sweating profusely (or at least I was) we arrived at the park entrance where we were handed a map of the park circuit and where – to my horror – we learned that the first rock formations were another 5kms away.
Soon enough, we arrived at the first point on the map. The previously unimpressive landscape was now much more interesting. Here the dirty brown sand had been replaced by pale, misshapen rock formations. The canyon – of sorts – had been carved by an ancient river and the path it left was narrow and winding. There were tunnels, bridges, caves and dead-ends, all forged from the same pale, pock-marked rocks. It wasn’t a stretch to see why they named this place Valley of the Moon.
We pedalled on past vast sand dunes, canyons and more rock formations and eventually we stopped for our desert picnic lunch. I was a long way behind A, and as I approached he told me that he had heard my bike tyres on the road – clearly – from more than 100m away.
“It was the only sound for miles around. I can’t believe how clear it was,” he said. “Sit still, and listen.”
I did. I heard nothing by my own breathing. So I held my breath. And there it was.
No distant cars, no televisions, no humming appliances, no chirping birds, no barking dogs, no buzzing insects, no wind rustling the trees. There was nothing, not a single sound. If I didn’t know better, I could have sworn I was wearing ear plugs. It was strange looking at such a vast landscape in front of me, and hearing nothing. It just didn’t seem possible.
I shut my eyes, held my breath again and listened more. The silence became oppressive – claustrophobic almost. It weighed down on me, demanding to be broken. Eventually it was my own heartbeat that broke the silence for me; when I concentrated it was the only thing I could hear out there. The absolute silence was eerie. A landscape without noise just doesn’t seem right. But then it was also a strange kind of wonderful to sit and contemplate the sound of silence.
After our picnic lunch we turned our bikes around and rode back to the town. On the way we rode past sand dunes, their massive slopes pristine and unmarked. The child in me longed to hurl myself from the top of dune and roll all the way down, flinging sand in every direction. The adult in me just paused at the dunes, looked forlornly at them, and rode home.
However my chance to fling myself from the top of dune came soon enough. The next day in fact. We signed ourselves up for an afternoon of sandboarding in Valle de le Muerte. I prayed that the name – Valley of Death – wasn’t actually an ominous sign. (Actually we later found out that the locals had named it Valle de la Marte – Valley of Mars – but the name had been misunderstood by the Spanish. Valley of Mars makes far more sense, the rocks and dunes here are a reddish colour.)
Out in the desert, at the foot of the dunes, we were assigned our boards. They were just snowboards, minus the boots, but heavily waxed on the underside. The basics of sandboarding were also fairly similar to snowboarding, though turning was tricky. We trudged to the top of the dune – which was actually hard work – and strapped ourselves in.
“He can!” I volunteered for A.
“Okay, you can go first.”
After a false start, A glided down the dune easily, expertly balanced. He may as well have been teaching the class. I watched a few more people go before me, taking note of how you had to be careful not to dig the edge of the board into the sand.
My turn. I shuffled to the edge, stood, balanced and pushed off. I began slowly, then picked up speed, adjusting my weight to keep my board from digging into the sand. Faster, faster, faster. I was nailing it!
And then, well who knows exactly what happened, but I absolutely stacked it. I ended up flipping myself over, cartwheeling – arms, legs, board – down the dune. When you do this snowboarding, you get snow everywhere. The same applies to sandboarding but unlike snow, sand does not melt away.
I had sand in my eyes, up my nose, in my ears. I am fairly sure I ate some sand too. It was through my hair, down my shorts, in my bra and…lets just say I got sand in places.
The stunt must have been impressive, because before I had even sat up I heard the shouts of “Are you okay??” from more than one direction. Even A looked a little concerned, which is saying something because he is very used to seeing me fall over.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I called, while somewhat sheepishly shuffling myself and the board to the bottom of the dune. “That was good stack,” A said. Just as well the sand is also soft. We went down the dune a few more times, and eventually I did get the hang of it. It really was fantastic fun.
Late in the day our instructor took us out to a viewpoint in the desert, a place to watch the sunset. As the sun sank, the previously unremarkable dunes turned all shades of pink and gold.
As the sun set even lower he decided to show us some of his photographic abilities. This one is still my favourite.
You can’t see our faces, but let me assure you there is a smile plastered across mine. The Atacama Desert may not look like much, but there is plenty of joy – and beauty – to be found among the quietness of it’s dunes.