In July of 1999, at the instigation of Mr. Rock Currier, who wanted a sea container (8 tons) of crystallized native sulfur for his wholesale mineral business in California, I set off for the remote El Desierto sulfur mine in Bolivia to check on the progress of our specimen-mining project.
VISITING THE SITE
El Desierto is one of about sixty sulfur deposits in Bolivia, all located on the chain of volcanoes that forms the Western Andes cordillera along the border between Bolivia and Chile. At most of these deposits, the native sulfur is massive, occurring as the cementing agent in volcanic ash, but in three deposits, including Desierto, good crystals of sulfur are found.
El Desierto is two days' drive from civilization (i.e. my home town of Cochabamba) across the southern Altiplano, the dry high-altitude plains (over 13,000 feet) that cover much of southwestern Bolivia. July is winter here and night-time temperatures can drop to -20[degrees]C (-4[degrees]F). So I loaded my much-abused four-wheel-drive vehicle inside and out with sleeping bags, extra blankets, food, water, cans of gasoline, and a Bolivian friend who is adept at keeping jeeps alive under conditions not anticipated by the manufacturer.
He knew all sorts of useful local tricks, like covering the car engine with blankets at night, and urinating into the brake fluid receptacle to keep the brakes working after we ran out of brake fluid. On the first night we pulled into the dust-blown town of Sevaruyo, which looks remarkably like a trading post in a post-apocalyptic nuclear holocaust film, but it does boast the only hotel for a hundred miles around. Even at $1.50 per bed in the large communal sleeping room it was overpriced: candlelight only, no toilet, and my pillow felt greasy and smelled of hair cream (I don't use hair cream). In the wee hours of the morning we were awakened by a horde of smugglers stomping groggily into "our" room, looking for a place to rest after their freezing overnight drive on rough, unmapped tracks coming from Chile.
On the second day out the scenery became even more desolate. The hundreds of kilometers of volcanic mountains made the landscape appear more and more like Mars the further we drove. We encountered very few human beings, only a handful of farmers who grow quinoa (a fine-grained cereal grown locally), and smugglers. We met only one vehicle all day, a truck carrying yareta firewood, the only burnable plant which can survive the intense ultraviolet radiation and the temperature extremes in this area.
By late afternoon we reached the northern shores of the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat, three million acres of absolutely flat, blinding white salt stretching to the horizon. At only 12,000 feet above sea level, the Salar De Uyuni is the lowest part of the Altiplano. It also happens to be by far the best "highway" in the Republic of Bolivia, made by nature and not by the Servicio Nacional de Caminos. Driving into the Salar...