Driving A TVR Chimaera Through Salt And Dirt In Pursuit Of A Cold Beer At The End Of The Earth
Photography by Alvaro Pinzón
Imagine you’ve driven across continents in a TVR Chimaera, crossing vast distance and sorting out everything from difficult border paperwork to spotty navigation aids. You’ve even checked Bolivia’s adorably named “Death Road” off the list without major problems just to be stopped on the most level terrain of the trip thus far.
The flooded salt flats of Bolivia stopped us in our tracks, the recent rain meaning that we could barely make it 20 meters into the vast Dali-esque space before realizing that a full crossing would be all but impossible with our ride of choice.
Ben Coombs, the owner of this well-traveled TVR, had dreamed of driving across the salt flats of Uyuni, and me? I’d always wanted to photography something set in the middle of this surreal space where sky and earth blend as one. It was a bit disappointing that our timing didn’t allow for the carefree drive across the flats that we’d hoped for, but what can you do in such a situation but find a solution? We sat in silence for a while, watching the 4x4s plowing around in the salty mush, knowing that our comparatively low-riding sports car could easily get stuck—also, a bunch of wet salt pressing up against the underside of a British car is not what you’d call a good method of chassis preservation.
A few locals offered to carry us across in their trucks, but we didn’t want to leave the TVR out of the fun, so we took a slight risk and decided to plan a route regardless of what the rain had made of the surface. So, we parked the car somewhere stable, put on our shoes, and started plotting a course on foot, finding the most solid ground we could. We trudged along the highest ground we could find, and it took quite a while to make it even one kilometer as we jumped and stomped in our rudimentary probing. We eventually decided on the F-it attitude, and Ben did some last-minute mad scientist engineering to the car—a plastic piece mounted behind the bumper to keep potential water out of the low air intake filter—and we set off to the astonishment of the off-roaders around us.
It was slow-going until we got few kilometers in, and then things solidified and we found ourselves in the kind of dreamscape landscape that renders one silent, spiritual. We got lost in time for a little while, and the practical concerns took a leave of absence that returned all too quickly once we decided to leave the flats. Our careful route to our location was forgotten amidst the uniformity of the location, and we entered a more than mild state of panic as we started to sink deeper and deeper as we picked our way back out again.
The car was soon covered in salt water, and the engine bay didn’t avoid this awful coating of car-killing slush. Then the car shut off. We popped the hood, braced ourselves for what we’d find, and then started the process of cleaning every connection we could in hopes of getting the engine fired again. Thankfully it did, and we made it back—slowly—to safety and firm ground. it was a memorable experience for both good and bad reasons, but Ben vowed to never submit a sports car to that kind of torture again, and on our way out we joked about starting a company that could prepare such cars for salt flat crossings, though I don’t think either of us would like to repeat the stressful experience in truth. We got lucky, plain and simple. We also had a little fun despite the worries!
Ambitious road trips are rife with literal forks in the road, and the following day we faced another one: should we take the shortest route to our next destination country (Chile), which would send us down a relatively unknown dirt road, or do we take the longer, significantly more paved path instead? Perhaps our near escape from the flats should have led to the more practical choice, but what does practical really mean in the context of driving thousands of kilometers through South America in a convertible two-seater?
So that’s how we set off down 223km of dirt road through the Bolivian desert; no gas stations, just sand, animals crossing, and not much else. Along our way we were frequently stopped by the failing fuel pump that was struggling and becoming disconnected more than a few times thanks to the spray of dirt coupled with the occasional sizable rock. Other than that though, the going was rather smooth, and we enjoyed the peace of being somewhere so remote as this.
After four hours of more or less meditative cruising with the occasional fuel pump-related interruption, we reached the Chilean border and endured the most rigorous inspection and paperwork process of the trip thus far. After much sitting and standing and small talk while the officials sorted out what we were doing and what we were driving, Ben and I eventually got back to forward motion and made it about half the way to the first major city stop in Calama. Before we reached the lights of the city though, we camped out under the stars of the Milky Way in the middle of the Atacama desert.
Chile went by quite quickly, and in the three days that followed our camping stop we did more than 2,000km on our way to the country’s capital, Santiago. Chile is known as one of the fastest growing and advancing countries in South America these days, and after all we’d seen on the way down here it really was in stark contrast; it was shocking to see how different this place was from its neighbors to the north and east; perfect roads for one thing. While we were there we had the good fortune of visiting a few museums, but we took off again soon enough, driving 1,000km to Osorno in a single day.
After Osorno we popped over the border to Argentina to visit the Alpine-type town of Bariloche. We were a little worried about bringing in a British car with British tags on the back of it, given the political tension aroused here by a few well-known Brits on a certain TV show… Thankfully we encountered no such issues!
Bariloche welcomed us with gorgeous landscapes in front of the beautiful Nahuel Huapi Lake the town is situated on, with the magnificent Patagonian mountains rising in the background.
I had to miss the next chapter of Ben’s trip, as I had to go north to Buenos Aires, but Ben continued more than 2,000km more to the southernmost pub on the planet that is located in Puerto Williams, pretty close to the Antarctic. Hence the “Pub to Pub” sticker on the side of the car.
A few weeks later we met again in Buenos Aires where we also met with my local friends, the owners of the restored Torino #2 that we featured in a previous article. It was a very pleasant evening with like-minded friends talking about two types of endurance machines—one that raced for 84 hours on the Nürburgring many decades ago, the other a road-registered British ‘vert that ran more than 25,000 miles in pursuit of a cold beer.