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After a week of hard rain (80 mm in one day at Boscombe Down, about 1 km away!) the calendar has moved to October with just one month to go before Al Laius, Ian Twaites, Angie Money and I head off to Santiago de Chile for three weeks of cactus hunting in the Chilean Atacama Desert. This time we fly via Toronto, Canada, not the first place you think of when looking on how to get from London, England to Santiago, but as the earth is round(ish) I guess that it doesn’t really matter how you get round the globe.

Things left to do, in no particular order, include:

  1. Pay the deposit to confirm the car rental agreement that is already in place.
  2. Book our flu jab for Angie and I at the local surgery
  3. Check that our travel insurance is up to date
  4. Take the photographic equipment for a test drive, next time the sun here dares to show its face.
  5. Check our passports are still valid.
  6. Obtain our eTA (Electronic Travel Authorisation) to transit in Canada.

My intention is to produce daily reports of where we are, what we’ve seen and how the environment where our favourite plants live, survives in the harsh conditions. I travelled to Brazil around the same time last year and still struggle to complete the Diaries for that adventure. It seems that my laptop and software is so keen to protect me when I travel away from home, that it freezes my accounts when it spots when I move! Fingers crossed that it behaves this time.

Correspondence with friends in Chile suggest that they have had very little rain this year, so that the chances of seeing the Desert in Flower are low. But such events can be very localised and one afternoon of light rain can trigger a local flush of blooms, so we’ll have our cameras ready.

Leaving Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

To all intents and purposes, the trip was over. We reached that stage that seems to happen at the end of all cactus & succulent plant trips: you’re cactussed out. Just can’t get excited by looking at yet another cactus and the mind is already moving ‘home’ where ever that is, or in Alain’s case, to his next trip, as his wife Greet was whisking him off for a week of visiting Christmas markets in London!

The date of the picture is 10 December 2018, flying from Rio de Janeiro to Schiphol, Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Alain had a connecting train or flight to Belgium where he arrived safely we assume – we did not see him again until the traditional BBQ the night before ELK 2019 – it matters not, as the Cactus Trip was over.

Billy met John at the arrivals gate at Heathrow. Chris’ car was parked at my place in Amesbury, but as Angie and her son Peter were in Cologne to help her mum celebrate her 89th birthday, we now had to make the journey back to Wiltshire by National Express coach, after a couple of hours wait in the unheated waiting room at the Heathrow bus station. Considering the heat experienced in Brazil, warm winter clothes seemed inappropriate during packing, but essential now. I became chilled to the bone and administered some chocolate bars to get my blood sugar levels back up. I had become quite disorientated but got better during the 90 minute coach journey to Amesbury. Close to midnight, the town was deserted. We dragged our luggage to the local kebab shop and asked to ring for a taxi, just as one drove by empty. We managed to wave down the driver who dropped us off home. Next ‘crisis’: where were my door keys? I had expected Angie to let me in, but she was in Germany! So, in the rain and by the light of the lamppost in front of my house, shivering in my inappropriate summer clothes, I unpacked my luggage and finally found the keys right at the bottom of the suitcase! Alain and Marlon had promised me copies of their stop notes, but to date, nothing has been received. So the information in this trips Diaries is based on my memory which appeared to improve with time as I presented my images at BCSS branches in the UK and at the Convention of the Scandinavian Cactus Society in Odense, Denmark in August 2019. Apologies for errors and omissions, but I’d rather have an imperfect set of memories than go into the next trip, to the Chilean Atacama Desert without having written up the previous trip.

In Chile, I’ll be back to recording all stop details myself and not to rely on others. Angie will be along, so she can bring the beers at the end of each day while I write up each day’s notes and sort the images by stops. All I’ll need is a bit and a following wind and hope that the internet and my laptop cooperate in getting the messages out each day.

Ian Woolnough will be setting off from Santiago one week after us, with a group of eight Brits. We’ll meet up in Taltal and hope that they can find the labels that we’ll leave behind so that they don’t need to worry about plant IDs in the field.

Cheers,

PK – 8 October 2019

All images today, the last before tomorrow’s departure, are filed under S3764, and include:

Alain’s traditional haircut on holiday. Both the ‘patient’ and the ‘hair doctor’ were fluent, unfortunately in different languages!
Christmas decorations made from Eriocaulaceae flowers. Conservation?
Another Cactus Trip, last day tradition: The Car Wash!

Alain had persuaded Chris to join him in leaving a day early, while John and I joined Marlon to take him home and on to Belo Horizonte for our originally booked flight. After our missed flight from Sao Paulo Airport on arrival, Alain was terrified that he would miss the flight home as well. John and I arrived at the Sao Paulo departure gate with 10 minutes to spare before boarding started, so all was well.

We still had the usual reserve day, in case of breakdowns or sickness left, so Marlon asked for suggestions for any visits for today. After yesterday’s visit to U. horrida and because I missed out on the Inhai plants on day one due my fall, I proposed taking another look at the plants near Inhai.

So after a bit more sightseeing in Diamantina and purchases of some of the semi-precious stones we went back to Inhai. After a month to acclimatise since our first visit here must have helped, although I was grateful for the help that John and Chris gave me to get to the spot where on 16 November 2009 I found a beautiful trio of long spined plants. Surely, these must be the same taxon as what we had seen yesterday as U. horrida. The interesting thing looking at the Inhai plants in more detail, is that as well as long spined plants there were also a good number of ‘normal’ U. pectinifera, so that I am tempted to suggest that U. horrida could be a mere synonym of U. pectinifera.

So the trio of long spined U. pectinifera again had their pictures taken. Back home I noticed that the plants had not seem to have grown in the last 9 years! Come to think of it, neither had I! Just a lot weaker than in 2009!

The Trio at S3764 near Inhai.
Rarely have I been so tempted to invite a plant to come home with me, but I’m pleased that they are still there, to be enjoyed at a future visit and by others in the meantime.
S3765: Discocactus placentiformis getting ready to flower tonight. There must have been a full moon tonight!

I admit it, I’m a collector! No, I don’t go out with a shovel to dig up cacti to come home with a case full cacti, but if there are x species in a genus, I’d like to have photographed them all. There was just one more species to complete the full set of Uebelmannia, U. horrida, to get the full set. Today was the day!

But first we visited another Arrojadoa that grows here, together with Discocactus placentiformis. There were some groups of young stems emerging from an underground tuber. Other plants were single stems with a prostrate growth habit. In 1999 we failed to reach the only location known at the time for this Uebelmanna taxon. Our attempt included ‘the original Dutch dismount’ as I demonstrated my only attempt of riding a horse on a cactus trip, necessary to cross a river, in 1999.

Rudolf Schulz and Marlon managed it on a second attempt after we had already returned to England. Marlon claimed that the plant’s name refers to the degree of difficulty of reaching the plant, horrible!

This time we would try a new location recommended by Gerardus Olsthoorn that was accessible by car. Marlon had not yet seen this location. We stopped at Gerardus’ coordinates. Great! No hills. Just a level rocky terrain that allowed us to keep our feet dry.

And so, I can claim having seen the full set of Uebelmannia in habitat!

But first we stopped for the Arrojadoa (S3760).

S3760: young stems of Arrojadoa sp. (A. dinae?) emerging from an underground tuber, now that the rains have returned.

Also here were large Discocactus placentiformis, Cipocereus minensis and Pilosocereus pachycladus.

Then on to S3761 with the same taxa as found at the previous stop, plus, on lichen covered rocks ‘Uebelmannia pectinifera with extra long spines’. But wait a minute, these looked very similar to the plants that we saw on day 1 of our trip and that Rudolf and Marlon called ‘the Inhai population’ of U. pectinifera. I have been looking for such long spined plants for sale at specialist nurseries and at ELK for the last 20 years, but never seen one offered for sale. There are such plants offered for sale on E-Bay and on similar on-line websites but these seem to be ‘steal-on-demand’ plants with all the images clearly taken in habitat. I would only consider buying plants that fit the description but were raised from seed in Europe.

S3761 Uebelmannia horrida
Gorgeous spines!
S3761 Uebelmannia horrida
These beautifully spined plants surely deserve to have more than one image here.

S3762 was for images of a row of ovens used to convert Eucalyptus trees to charcoal.

We were back in Diamantina in time for some touristy pictures for the colonial architecture. This time we were booked in to a hotel in the centre of town, to avoid the taxi fare for our night time drinking! Even here, prices were so cheap that we had a room each. The real cost was on our legs as we had a fair walk up the steep roads to and from the car park.

The BR-251 in pouring rain must be my least favourite road. Much of it is a wide two lane hard top with potholes large enough for a small saloon car to disappear into. The spray coming off the road surface is dense enough for the front of the truck that you want to overtake to be invisible. You need to concentrate on the left hand side of the truck to find a gap, so you miss the speed restrictions and speed cameras on the right hand side of the road. Alain was good at taking a broom to the front and back lights of the car at every petrol station – perhaps a bit too good, also cleaning the number plates so that the speed traps could send us speeding tickets once we got home.

Soon after Baracao, we turned right, still on tarmac, and drove through a made Eucalyptus forest. Miraculously the rain had reduced to a trickle, but after 30 minutes, just as we had taken all the images we wanted the volume increased again. We admitted defeat to the rain. It’s just no fun to walk under grey skies and get wet, even if the temperatures were higher than most days in the UK. Just one stop, S3759. We saw Discocactus sp., Pilosocereus sp. and an Arrojadoa sp. The light was too poor to get good pictures or ID.

S3759: Arrojadoa sp.

Each time that I was in Grao Mogol (1999, 2009 and now, in 2018) there was tension about our ability to see the cactus that had been the cactus that got us here: Discocactus horstii.

In 1998, the area around the hill arguably is the only place on earth where this little diamond in the cactus world is said to grow. Plenty of rumours that new populations had been found, some 200 km to the north or to the north east, but this is a hilly, inaccessible country and unless we could get our hands on GPS coordinates that showed such a location to be reasonably accessible by car, we would leave it to younger and better equipped explorers.

In 1999, Brian Bates’ Nissan Patrol with Bolivian registration plates attracted a good bit of police attention as it was parked in the square in front of the Grao Mogol Pousada, with the local police station on the opposite end of the square. Brian had four large plastic crates on the roof of his car and Marlon had collected branches of Bursera trees for a Russian collector that were in the crates. Marlon had found a local botanist specialising in Brazilian trees who knew where D. horstii grew.

The local police told us that this would not be allowed as the plants were now protected from illegal collection. Marlon again proved the use of a member of the party speaking the local language. He explained that Keith and I were authors and had written a book including pictures of Brazilian cacti.

We were very keen to see and photograph D. horstii in nature and to tell the story of the plant that was now severely threatened with extinction due to collection. We would be happy to spread the word for future visitors through articles and our websites to explain rules and regulations for visiting the plants, accompanied by park officials or police officers who could make sure that we would not collect anything illegal. We had a great time, but the number of images taken were somewhat limited as we were still using 35 mm slide film. Things had changed quite a bit by 2009 when Cliff and I visited the town with digital cameras. We went to the authorities in the Prefeitura Municipal for instructions and permits to visit D. horstii. It was a bit more complicated than that. The reserve was the responsibility of the State, and the municipio had no responsibility or authority there and could not grant permission.

We managed to find the offices for the State Conservation Agency. Closed, with minimal signage about their name, what they did or when they were open. We eventually found them open, but got no further than a hike with Volunteer Jajo.

Now, in 2018, the weather was the main barrier. The local weather forecast reported rain for the next few days – not the best weather as the track to the horstii site was quite steep. Maron suggested a drive east to Adao Colares which was likely to be drier and where he knew of two populations of the western-most Coleocephalocereus aureus. We were glad to have something to do.

S3755: westernmost Coleocephalocereus aureus
Recent rains made it much to slippery to venture onto the rocks.
S3756: Last Coleocephalocereus stop of this trip.

We returned to Grao Mogol for lunch (S3757) and drove past our hotel towards the river. Here, on the quarts ‘beach’ we found large Discocactus pseudoinsignis, while keeping our eyes open for diamants that were still found here a few years ago. Needles to say that we found no diamonds!

S3758: Marlon searching for Discocactus (and diamonds!) in the rain.
Alain showing off the latest fashion in rain wear, here from Europe, modelling a fashionable orange number sponsored by a Dutch bank!
S3758: Micranthocereus auri-azureus
S3758: Pilosocereus fulvilanatus
The cephalium looks much nicer when dry!
S3758: Discocactus pseudoinsignis