We left the cabanas at Mejillones and headed north for Tocopilla along Ruta 1, the coast road. Dead plants continued to dominate the scenery (S038). Of course, in this climate, it may be several years before dead plant material is recycled by nature so that the large number of dead plants may have occurred over many years, no doubt caused by droughts which have not permitted the population’s regeneration, as seedlings are unable to build up sufficient biomass following germination during the rare rain events, to survive the next drought.
At Michilla, we stopped at a refreshment stand – a bright red metal structure with the words ‘Coca Cola’ emblazoned on it – along Route 1 for a cup of coffee. ‘When did it last rain?’ we enquired from the lady running the stall. ‘That’s easy’ she explained, ‘it rained for 1 hour on 1 June 2000, my 45th birthday.’ Brilliant! Nearly a year without rain – that’s dry! ‘When was the last time before that?’ asked Leo. The lady looked puzzled and said: ‘That was the only rainfall that I have seen in my life.’ No wonder that there is no visible flora to speak of!
A tip from others suggested that we might find cacti (Copiapoa tocopillana) growing at a mine, high on the coastal hills, south of Tocopilla, the Mantos de la Luna. We followed a massive truck up the single track unpaved road from sea level to the many small mines at the top of the hill (S039), but dead Eulychnia were the only sign of vegetation we found. The track was just wide enough for the huge lorries that snaked their way up the mountain. Occasionally, it seemed a lorry had lost its way, or that the road had just slipped away from the mountain side, indicated by a straight line down, with a lorry wreck at the bottom.
The sensible thing seemed to be to follow one of these truck monsters up the hill – after all, if it met another coming down, the experienced drivers would know a solution that we could equally apply with our much smaller pick-up. We need not have worried. It seems that there was an informal variable one way system with trucks travelling up hill in the morning, only to make the down hill journey in the afternoon. If we had known, we need not have driven for an hour in the dust of our ‘guide’. We drove through the cloud layer that hung at between 600 and 800 m and finally arrived at the top – an altitude of 1,142 m. The gaps between the clouds revealed some spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean coast line.
So, where was Copiapoa tocopillana? This is the most northern Copiapoa, as well as one of the least attractive and most difficult to find. We stared over the huge flat area inland – it seemed that the hill had been much higher once and was being systematically grinded down and presumably used for road building. What chance would a small cactus have here? And where should we start our search for the needle in the haystack? Time approached 2 p.m. – the time that the lorries would start their downward convoy. ‘Do you want to go first?’ came the question? ‘Yes please!’ was our reply – we had seen enough dead plants and lifeless scenery.
Our mood did not improve greatly when we arrived at Tocopilla, a poor and dirty town. We made for Hotel Casablanca that was recommended in the previous year’s Lonely Planet guide. What a difference a year makes! There was a pile of lorry tyres in what used to be the restaurant area. The locks on the doors of our rooms did not work and we felt that we did not want to risk our camera equipment being stolen, so lugged it with us as we found a Chinese restaurant for our evening meal. As we returned to the hotel at sunset, hundreds of vultures had taken up residence in the radio masts behind the hotel. Did they know something that we didn’t?