MINI Road Trip Day Six: We rise into the Andes

Mini Countryman
Blackball Media

Six days into our epic voyage across Argentina and I was beginning to get complacent with the stop-and-stare scenery - then South America went and hit me with the reset-the-expectations button.
Today we've tackled our biggest distance yet in our MINI Countrymans - some 500km on a variety of blacktop and broken roads - starting out from camp at bloodshot-eye o'clock.

Yesterday we finally caught up with the Dakar - and its proximity was evident all through the night. The first bikes took off from the service area just after 3am. I know that because I heard them...

That was soon forgotten as we headed north out of Chilecito into the Catamarca region of north west Argentina, tackling the same route as the Dakar competitors.

We stopped and joined in with the locals - it would have been rude not to - becoming road-side fans for 30 glorious minutes as wave after wave of rally competitors tore past.

The teams were on a 300km road section of day four, bisecting our path for the final time. But hearing them pass, feeling the engines rattle our still digesting breakfasts - even at the road legal speeds they were restricted to - was special, really truly something else.

Before long we were back on our own mini Dakar-style dusty, broken roads. As we rounded the village of Tinogasta we began to climb on rubbled roads, a glorious valley stretching out behind us like a wave. It was just the foot of the Andes, a mere line in the sand marking what was to come.

Every time we stop I can't fail to crack a smile at our little MINI that's karted us all the way here. Remember, these cars are completely standard - bar the roof rack - and are even tackling the rough stuff on completely standard road tyres. The toil of the last few off-road days is beginning to take its toll now, though. We've lost seven tyres in total on the 15 cars that are taking part.

As we pushed further north, the landscape opened up to reveal stop-in-your-tracks sights. We stopped eight times on a stretch of just 30km, simply to take it all in. The views are so big, so special, so unusual to someone who lives in built-up Hampshire, that it took a while for my brain to compute; my internal graphics processor simply couldn't keep up.

The Andes are incredibly beautiful. Multicoloured, sharp, dramatic - they're like it's all been painted on to the horizon in 4K. I can't help but feel like I'm in the Truman Show and will bump into the edge of the set at any moment. It's that unreal.

MINI Road Trip: Day Six
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MINI Road Trip Day Six: We rise into the Andes

Even the travel photographers riding with us can't believe their eyes - and they've seen it all. "Everything from now on, it's pointless," said one of the Italians. "Those sights, that beauty will not be beaten."

I can't help but agree.

For huge distances, for hours at a time, we saw no one on the road; our MINI convoy spread out like marbles across a giant kitchen floor. Just donkeys and horses punctuated the mileage.

As we rose high into the mountains, heads became light and dizziness set in. Not great when you're at the wheel. We stopped by a giant sand dune, whipped into shape by the winds of time and took stock. Well, as best as we could.

We were yet to rise to our highest point of the day, though - some 3,998 metres - and it was here where things really started to go wrong. Vision went soft at the edges, my speech slurred as the altitude sickness began to kick in. An aspirin and a bottle of water eased the pain for the last few miles.

We've now reached tonight's base in Antofagasta - around 3,300 metres above sea level, nestled at the gateway to some of the highest peaks of the Andes. Tomorrow we head up even further into the atmosphere - and if the way I'm feeling now is anything to go by, chances are I might not be running as well as our MINI.

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