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After yesterday’s disappointment, it was time to head south so that on Saturday, Jonathan and I can fly home. Today was very much a driving day, so up early, down R1, the coast road, to Antofagasta, a hotdog at the Copec, then down R5 and off to Paposo past the Observatory Parranal.

It turned out that ‘our’ side of the road had a Shell, rather than a Copec and that they did not do hotdogs – never mind, a Snicker would have to do. We met Jack from DC who was on month 4 of his tour of South America by motorbike who was on his way from Taltal north. ‘No rooms in Taltal, due to a miner’s conference’ he warned. ‘We know, a friend has booked us in to use up the last available space!’

With all the excitement, we left, forgetting to fill up with motion lotion. We calculated that we should just about make it on the vapours, but as usual, our fuel gage went up rather than down. Still, it was good to reach Taltal where at the Copec we managed to add some 46 litres to our tank so we suspect we had 4 litres left. Compliments to Jonathan to getting us there safely!

After filling up, I had some unfinished business to attend to – flying a drone and this time actually filming it! And so we arrived at the C. cinerea population at Las Breas, where last time we flew but failed to film. Weather conditions seemed OK, but the wind got stronger, with gusts as we set up and did the pre-flight checks. Don’t be rushed in these things! I was, and take off failed horribly, with PKDrone blowing over and breaking two out of four of the rotors.  Never mind, I had brought along a set of spares. But what had gone wrong? The drone has two types of blades:- two left screw and two right screw that should be fitted alternately – left-right-left-right. I had fitted left-left-right-right! No wonder! Doubly careful I fitted the spare blade3s in the correct order, this really was the last chance!

Brian shouted that he had found something unusual – he’d have to wait!

Was the video switched on this time? You bet!

Was the wind OK? I’d have to gain height as quickly as possible to clear the surrounding Copiapoa – success! We flew for about five minutes, then landed and took out the SDXC card and started up the laptop in the car to make sure that we had indeed recorded some images of the flight. YES!!!!

We made two more flights of about five minutes – 15 minutes of material to fit into a presentation – just as well that had failed in all our previous attempts or we would have been spoiled for choice!

So what had Brian found? The bonus of the day! Among some million plus Copiapoa cinerea of all shapes sizes and ages stood a plant that was best called C. krainziana or C. albispina. We all took many images of the stranger in a strange land. Very strange!

Great day! Tomorrow we head south again – probably as far as Pichidangui.

Fourth attempt at seeing Copiapoa tocopilliana and Eriosyce (Rimacactus) laui in nature….. and the fourth failure! Too much of a rush? Over optimistic? We had Brian Bates with us who, in the company of others, had seen them on two previous occasions. For our first attempt we drove towards R5, out of Tocopilla and turned right on a track sign posted to a dozen or so mining sectors. Again, in our excitement to get out, we forgot to visit the Copec to top up with motion lotion. So, when after some searching to get close to the handful of GPS locations that we had with us, the amount left, according to our unreliable gage, dropped to 60 km it seemed prudent to go back for more fuel, a hot dog (at the Shell garage this time) and some Colas, before heading up the mountain road again, this time up the zigzags at the back of town that we knew so well from our previous visit. This time things seemed to go fine, until (we assume) water and or earthquake damage forced us to abandon the car and continue on foot. The track to the flag, now only 1.2 km away, reached an abrupt end as another deep hole opened up before us. Back and up and over seemed the answer, but still smarting with back ache and muscle pains from Sunday’s walk on Cerro Perales, is just could not manage the gradients. Promise to self: sort out back problems once back in the UK before any other attempts here at cactus exploring!

I was in good company, Jonathan agreed that this was to steep for him and Brian, despite putting on a brand new pair of walking boots, peered over the top of a hill and cheerfully joined the quitters.

In a final attempt, I tried to get to a small mine north of Mina Esperanza, from the third visit but this was no longer in operation, the huts abandoned, but still with some excellent views over the Ocean.

I’m very happy of the 90 images I took in an amazing landscape, as was Jonathan with the 3D movies taken while we were listening to Toto’s soundtrack to the film ‘Dune’ based on the book by Frank Herbert.

SatNav reported that it was 453 km to Tocopilla. We took a bit longer, as we took R1 from Taltal up to R5 and then followed R5, past Antofagasta inland before turning west.

As a result, we stopped at the famous Mano de Desierto, a large-scale sculpture of a hand located in the Atacama Desert, 75 km to the south of the city of Antofagasta, on the Panamerican Highway. Jonathan said the this had been on his wish list to see – anything to oblige!

After turning west, we took another turn, to Maria Elena, credited some ten years ago as being the driest place on earth – I wonder if the March rainfalls had changed this position; in any case it was very hot and dry. We drove to the ornamental entrance gate to the city, and posed for pictures and a movie while avoiding getting run down by trucks. The official record figures originated from the old, now disused, airport where weather statistics could be taken. But, was the old airport still here? We sent Brian to speak to a young lad, who looked at Brian in confused amazement – the nearest airport is at Calama! Yes, this is an old, disused airport – one that he had never heard off.

At the top of the hill outside Tocopilla we joined a traffic jam that stretched for several kilometres, as they were working on road repairs.

We then had to battle with the rush hour to find a nice hotel, Carreta de Rosita, and enjoyed an excellent large helping of reinetta (fish), washed down with Cristal beer.

A lot of driving and not a cactus passed our shutters. Some days it’s the ‘getting there’ that is important!

A pre-breakfast weather check showed Cerro Perales shrouded in cloud. Not good to drive through to the top, even if there the sun was shining.

Plan B was to drive to Las Breas and fly the drone over the Copiapoa cinerea.

As we drove off after breakfast, Cerro Perales was now completely clear! So back to Plan A. As usual, it took a while to find our way through the warren of tracks to get to the exact start point of the track to leads to the top. We had already checked through Brian with Osvaldo Chavez that the track was passable; no problems reported and so we arrived in full sunshine, looking down on clouds to the north in the direction of Paposo.

At the top we went through some stretch exercises before starting today’s challenge, descending down to a population of Copiapoa krainziana that Bart had found, just 330 m from the top, in 2013. Sounds trivial, but there were no tracks or paths to guide you down, just gravity, on a surface that was still bedding down after floods and rumbles, so that every step was liable to get you down a lot faster than planned. At 6ft 4″ my centre of gravity is not designed for such descends and after cataract operations in 2006 I struggle with descends in general but needs must! Before long the others had disappeared from view, popping up from behind distant rocks to point me in the right direction. My thighs clearly had not received the right training for such work and began to hurt and at times just refused to do as told. As my head popped over the top of yet another small crest I could see Bart and Jonathan bent over, taking photographs next to a huge rock that I firmly printed into my memory. ‘We have found the first plants already!’ they shouted. On previous trips, with Leo van der Hoeven, he had a theory that the best plants always grow at the top, so as we had started at the top, these must be the best plants! It still took me a good 20 minutes to reach the rock and to be disappointed ‘just’ more huge lumps of Copiapoa tenebrosa. I took another step forward and there they were, a dozen or more plants of C. krainziana, beautifully shaped and draped as soft grey-white cushions over the sharp rocks. I could see Brian some way off to my left, sitting down. ‘Are you OK?’ I shouted. ‘Fine!’ came the reply, ‘just having a Condor moment.’ referring to the cigar advert from decades ago.

I decided to spent some more time in attempt to get the best pictures possible of these wonderful plants and then, knowing that it would take me longer than the others, started the journey back.  Going up hill is a lot easier for my built & vision, but the strain on different leg muscles is still great and my back was also having a moan at my antics.  We should do these things when we are young and fit, when our lifestyles demand that we chase members of the opposite sex rather than cacti up hills.

I got back first, exhausted. Jonathan had done very well keeping up with Bart and they had gone much farther and seen many more krainziana than I had.

Brian had managed to hurt his toe and limped back last – worn out sandals are just not the most sensible climbing footwear.

It was still before 3 so there was time left for Plan B. I had been to the Las Breas site with Angie and Pablo a few weeks earlier and had been disappointed by the number of cinerea that had been destroyed. Bart took up up a different track and once again we were in a sea of plants, ideal for a drone flight. The pre-flight checks went smoothly, contact with the camera was established and to loud cheers and the clicking of cameras PKDrone took off. It made two flights and then we raced back to the hotel to look at the images, but not before joining Bart & Marieke in a celebration bottle of wine.

At the hotel, we discovered a flaw in our pre-flight check: not only do we need to establish contact between the control unit and the camera in the drone – you also have to remember to press the ‘record button’, something that we failed to do.

I’ve worked out that we should have time for another go on the way back from Tocopilla, weather permitting. AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!

I had not seen Brian Bates since our trip in Bolivia in 2011, so we had plenty of catching up to do. We had agreed with Bart & Marijke to go to Las Maderas to look for the Copiapoa esmeraldana / angustiflora that we found here a few years ago. I had been here already with Pablo Weisser and with Angie a few weeks ago and we had been impressed with the huge number of  Copiapoa columna-alba that grew here, but I had failed to find the quebrada which we believe is near to what Rudolf Schulz had called ‘Confusion Hill’. Bart had his location maps readily available and took us down a track that I recognised from a few weeks back but that had produced no results then. Similar results this time, except that Bart’s data allowed us to park the car and walk towards the coordinates from the previous visit. On that occasion we had seen numerous small cacti that we identified as C. esmeraldana, identical to plants growing at Las Lomitas and overlooking planta Esmeralda. They grew in the fine sand, much of which seems to have been washed away. We were unable to find these plants this time. There were still a large number of C. columna-alba here and that included a number of plants with a remarkably large number of stems growing at the apex – these must have been here last time as well but not specifically noted. Rudolf’s name ‘Confusion Hill’ was well chosen as instead of clear species – longistaminea, grandiflora and columna-alba – it seemed that there were a number of intermediates around and relatively few ‘pure’ species, such as could be observed in the Guanillos Valley.

Bart wanted to go on to Guanillos, but in the excitement of chatting with Brian, I had forgotten to fuel up at the Taltal Copec before departure. Our fuel gage was very suspicious with readings increasing the more we drove! It seemed therefore best to return to Taltal, especially, again, not paying attention, I had followed the wrong car (just a cloud of dust) at a junction. The number of plants along the road had decreased quickly, suggesting that we were driving away from the Ocean, i.e. in the wrong direction. Not good when we needed to conserve fuel.

At the turning (‘car park corner’) to the Taltal coast road we decided to stop and look for more Thelocephala weisseri. No plants in flower this time – we had found them here before with Pablo and Angie, but there  were plenty of fruits appearing above the soil.

Surprising how difficult it was to find a restaurant open for an afternoon bite to eat and a beer – everything was closed for lunch! We ended up at Las Brisas and had an empanada and Corona. Cristal seems to be out and foreign beers and local micro breweries are in. The beer was cold and that was all that mattered.


We made a few stops along R5 to look at the Copiapoa calderana, this time in the sun. More pictures were taken – did I need any more? Of course I did! and I witnessed another lizard heaving a large dead mouse around. I managed to get photo and movie records of the event.

I wanted to show Bart & Marijke the remains of the Hotel where we used to stay, but got horribly lost in town. We re-united at the Hosteria where they booked in for a few nights later next week.

Then the long drive ‘home’ to Taltal. R5 passes inland behind the coastal mountain range, through an atrea where traditional no or very little rain falls. Not sure whet happened here last March during the heavy rains that caused flooding along the coast; there were no physical signs of rain here.

As we approached the turning to Cifuncho, Jonathan mentioned that he’d like to see (not so) Secret Valley – it is clearly marked in Rudolf Schulz’s 1996 Copiapoa book. We had driven past it with Angie and Pablo a week earlier, but without stopping. This time  Jonathan was keen to see the C. longistaminea and C. columna-alba growing side by side. The road builders had been bussy again, depositing heaps of sand that had then been built into a wall, almost 75 cm tall along the road, so that parking off-road was impossible. We found a potential lay by and entered on foot.

Sometimes it’s best not to return to paradise-like places. The area was unrecogniseab;le. Were we in the right place? The entrance was right and the GPS coordinated coincided with those in Rudolf’s book, but that’s where things stopped. It seems that over time the rock had disintegrated and during the March rain had washed down the surrounding hills to fill up the valley.

There were still some columna-alba and longistaminea around, so the objective of the visit was met. We drove to Taltal, passing Mina Las Luces and taking the coast road, to find that Bart & Marijke had had similar ideas, had been to visit Cifuncho and had arrived just before us. Back in our room (11 this time, Pablo’s old room) it turned out that Brian Bates was in town, staying at Oswaldo & Maria’s Chavez’ place, which was being demolished to be rebuilt as a two story house.

It was good to see BB again, he had not lost a bit of his Midland’s accent and before long was giving Jonathan his opinion on botanists, not always complimentary. It took a while for Bart & Marijke to switch on the sub-titles, but once the wine started flowing in Club Taltal, all was fine.

The plan had been to drive north on Ruta 5 until we saw the much used (on previous trips) turning to Totoral. Both Bart and I felt that we had been paying attention but we still missed the turning. We ended up some 30 km south of Copiapo until we noticed. Bart suggested that we’d drive on to Bahia Inglesa, book into their favourite hotel, Coral de Bahia, so that Marijke could have a rest while the men went to Quebrada Leon to take a long overdue look for Copiapoa leonensis. I was driving, Bart navigating and Jonathan balancing our cameras around him as the track became more and more bouncy. Our memories told ud so expect a smooth drive in through several kilometers of sand, where in the past we had seen Thelocephala kraussii, but we seemed into the hilly area much earlier than anticipated. The main feature here seems to be extremely dry, close to death, Eulychnia, but they were in bud and even some in flower, suggesting E. breviflora.

Eventually the track ran out and SatNav suggested that we might have wanted to be a few Quebradas farther south. Never mind, we were here now. As we climbed the hills, we found the plants: pumped up C. leonensis, that had recently flowered, and Copiapoa marginata. We climbed to the top where I photographed one of the largest lizards that I have seen in Chile, carrying a dead mouse in its mouth! Well done, big boy! From the top, we could clearly see the sandy area that we should have driven through, farther towards Caldera and decided to take a look there on our way out. The service road for electricity pylons provided excellent access and so we parked up. After half an hour or so it would appear that Thelocephala kraussii did not want to be found and we could hear the call of beers in Hotel Coral calling our names. As we prepared to turn around, Jonathan called us back – he had found some cacti out on the sand and wandered what they were. Copiapoa leonensis again, but I don’t recall them growing on this sandy flat. Had they been washed down by the 2015 rains? Or did they normally grow here, covered in sand, hidden from sight? But why could we not find the Thelocephala? Surely they would also have been covered by the fine sand. Sure enough, half way6 back to the car my eye was caught by two large wooly fruits standing upright above the sand. Bart volunteered to get a face full of sand while he blew away the dust to reveal a large group of Thelocephala. Pictures were taken before the fruit was harvested, but on closer inspection, the seed was not yet ripe. A week earlier we would have found flowers!

The day was rounded off with the beers that we had heard call out for us earlier, used to wash down a big juicy steak in my case.

Another great day!

Hard at Work

Hard at Work


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