Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Sajama National Park at 5,000m, Bolivia

Sajama National Park

Mountains across the border in Chile

The next morning, we started out in a hire car for Sajama National Park. It was a 4x4 estate with considerably less space than the Bird Bolivia 4x4 people carrier, so we left as much luggage as possible in La Paz to make room for food and utensils. From La Paz we drove south and then south west along the altiplano, high in the Andes. Here the puna landscape was flat and desolate. We stopped at a lake for breakfast and saw many puna species, Mountain Caracara, Andean Goose, Crested Duck, Chilean Flamingo, Puna Ibis, Puna Plover, Puna Canastero, Andean Negrito, Black Siskin and Andean Swallow.

It was midday by the time we reached Sajama National Park, at 5,000m. It was cold and the air felt decidedly thin. The ice covered peak of the volcano sat beside us, at 6542m. Here, we could see the mountains of Chile across the expansive border.

At 5,000m it was hard to breathe and walk and we all felt headachy. After lunch, we all had a cup of coca leaf tea to help with the altitude. We expected some homemade stewed variety, but instead were offered shop bought individually wrapped tea bags, along with the cinnamon tea. We felt not particular effect from this and so joined Herman and Sandro in chewing coca leaf as we birded. I felt no obvious effect (no dizziness or buzz) but was able to walk along much more easily than that morning at 100m lower. Birdgirl was a little chattier, but was less hyper than she would have been after a bar of chocolate or a fizzy drink.

More coca tea?

As soon as the sun set, the temperature fell to well below freezing. With no heating or double glazing, it felt cold. We were staying at Tomorapa Lodge, run by three communities, and were served up delicious and warming food. We were celebrating Birdgirl’s 2500thbird on her world list, Chilean Flamingo, our 600th bird for the trip and Sandro’s 1000th bird for his Bolivian list. Birdgirl and Sandro huddled in front of the lovely fire in the dining room. After dinner, Herman had a surprise for Birdgirl, as they brought out a huge bowl of popcorn, her face lit up! He was her favourite driver, ever.

Our beds had three blankets and a bedspread on each. The water was icy cold and so any more than washing our hands and splashing our faces was out of order (and it seems not even this for Birdgirl!). Chris and I decided to share my slightly larger bed and piled the extra blankets onto Birdgirl’s bed. She could hardly move with her 8 blankets! We all went to bed with our thermals and many layers on and actually felt pretty warm, until we had to get out of bed the next morning. Sandro suffered the most with the cold and altitude, his genetic make-up was definitely for the lowlands.

We left the lodge the next morning at 6.15am for a ½ hour drive to an isolated lake, next to some border patrol soldiers. Here they were looking for cars being smuggled from Chile and petrol being smuggled out of Bolivia. As we pulled up, Herman jumped out into the freezing cold to look under the bonnet. I could see steam rising out of the engine and it did not look good. Chris went to add his input to the discussion and returned to say that the fan belt was broken. Great I thought, only a fan belt, surely we can get one of those pretty easily. But we were in the middle of nowhere. Coffee, tea and hot chocolate were very welcome in the freezing cold before the search for Lesser Rhea began. Herman tried to pop some popcorn, but it was too cold for them to pop. It was definitely time for a Snickers Bar, even if rock solid from being frozen.

A couple of hours later, we were heading off to walk around the lake and Herman had found a temporary solution with his shoe lace (after trying a whole host of things out including Chris’ belt and our camera bag strap). Herman had also been on the phone non stop and another vehicle was coming from La Paz with a new fan belt. We birded until lunchtime, walking on mainly flat ground the whole time, but without the coca leaves it was much tougher. Herman drove us back to the lodge, with a stop half way to replace a now broken shoe lace with the other.

After lunch and some essential coca tea, we headed off birding leaving Herman to wait for this stage replacement vehicle, as the Ford fan belt had to be ordered from the US. The owner was coming with a large supply of alternative fan belts which he was going to use and change every 5km all the way back to La Paz.

We saw some really specialist birds here including White-Faced and Puna Ibis, Golden-Spotted Ground-Dove, Puna, Creamy-Breasted and Cordilleran Canastero, Puna and Rufous-Banded Miner, Cream-Winged Cinclodes, Bright-Rumped Yellow-Finch, Taczanowski’s Ground-Tyrant, Lesser Rhea, Chilean Flamingo, Giant Coot, Least Seedsnipe and Cinnamon-Bellied Ground-Tyrant. Unfortunately we only heard Diadamed Sandpiper-Plover, one of our key targets.

It was a relief to get back to the lodge to find a new 4x4 waiting for us and that we weren’t going to be stuck in Sajama for longer! Sandro was suffering by now despite the tablets and coca tea.

Looks like an interesting feather

The old church next to the lodge


Looking back towards the lodge

From the church tower

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