"Are you feeling strange?" asks photographer Paul Harmer. I am. And so is he. Tingling limbs, light-headedness, shortness of breath -- Harmer thinks he's having a panic attack, while I fret absurdly about deep-vein thrombosis. This is not a good place to have either affliction. We may be sitting in comfort aboard an air-conditioned Mini Cooper S Countryman, but we're also climbing a dirt road deep in the heart of Chile's Atacama Desert, miles from the nearest doctor. But then it dawns on our travel-blunted brains: this is altitude sickness. We're closing on a peak topping 13,000 feet, around the altitude at which oxygen masks drop in the cabins of unpressurized aircraft.
We've climbed too fast for our less-than-pristine bodies to acclimate. Harmer confirms this by virtually collapsing (in slightly comedic style) while attempting a photograph of our car's ascent. So what are we doing in a Mini in Chile-and why? Answering the first part of this question is easier than the second. We're heading north, up the long, narrow strip of land that is Chile, starting in the capital city of Santiago, which lies near the country's center, and on to Arica, just south of Peru. Our journey will take us through the Atacama Desert and deep into wild, eye-widening scenery on roads that would challenge any car.
Why? Because we want to test this all-wheel-drive Countryman in extreme conditions while exploring the distant echo of one of the more extraordinary chapters in the original Mini's history. Among the many countries in which the Mini was assembled -- Australia, Italy, Spain, and South Africa included -- perhaps the most unlikely location was Chile, more specifically Arica. What was unusual about the Chilean Mini was that it was made not from steel but from fiberglass. There were good and ingenious reasons for this, but right now it gives us an excuse, sort of, to drive 1500 miles in the newest Mini on some seriously trying roads. The victim for the mission is a Cooper S Countryman All4, its all-wheel-drive system being just the thing to get us out of sticky situations, if not the onset of panic attacks and deep-vein thrombosis.