For reasons that are not clear to me now (2003) I took no digital images at S045 and S046 that were made past Antofagasta, on the way to El Cobre. I can only assume that there were just no cacti to be found.
Things seemed to look up as we spotted large clumps of cacti growing high up against the hill sides (S047). In the heat, we eagerly walked across the gently sloping base of the hill (with sand as fine as talcum powder) to start our climb to where the plants had been spotted through Leo’s binoculars. These had to be Copiapoa solaris. They were, but dead ones! But we did not discover this until we had climbed up the crumbling hillside. The rows of Eulychnia had not faired much better – all dead. It would be interesting to hear from other travellers through this area how the climate and flora has changed in recent years.
As the road descended from 1,000 m to 750 m. we made another stop (S048) and now found clumps of Copiapoa solaris with some 50% of the heads still alive – but barely. There was another, bluish stemmed, Copiapoa – C. atacamensis but again, it did not look happy.
The disused equipment yard of what used to be the mine at El Cobre (literally ‘the Copper’ – guess what they mined here!) was our next stop (S049). I had read so much about this location that it was great to actually see it, even though there was little to see, other than a collection of discarded trucks and, near by, some Copiapoa solaris.
Pleased that we were able a couple more ticks behind our list of Copiapoa species seen in habitat, we agreed that we should make for Taltal, still a fair distance away on a road (or track) of uncertain quality. But the need to stretch legs is such that a call from Marlon: ‘Stop! Cacti!’ was enough for us to do just that (S050). Because we knew we would return to this stretch with Attila and Rudolf later during our trip, we had not done our usual homework, checking what we were likely to pass and see. So we just took a GPS reading and pictures. My brief scribbled notes about the cacti says: ‘Copiapoa sp. – two different forms, clumping, different spination, tending to C. cinerea. Later (26 May and 27 May 2001) we would return to this exact GPS reading, knowing that we had come to the entrance to the Quebrada Botija and that the plants that we had photographed were those called Copiapoa varispinata by Attila and Rudolf in their 1996 book ‘Copiapoa in their Environment’. Later, we questioned the accuracy of this ID and Rudolf and I were able to see the type herbarium specimen at the Utrecht Herbarium and agreed with others that the name Copiapoa varispinata belonged to plants growing at the mouth of the Quebrada Izcuña, the ‘next valley south’. The plants we found here were later described by Graham Charles and Nigel Taylor as Copiapoa ahremephiana a name derived from the field reference of material that had been already been in circulation from seed collected by Roger Ferryman (RMF 53). But at the time of this, our first visit, we were unaware of the taxonomic significance of the plants we were busy taking pictures of. The plants seemed similarly unaffected. But, take a close look at the plants: why did I write down that there were two distinct forms?
The plants at our next stop (S051) was easier: one Copiapoa species only – small bodied C. haseltoniana plus Eriosyce taltalensis ssp paucicostata.
Rather late (after sunset, which happens around 18:30), we arrived at Taltal and found our lodgings for the next few days: the cabañas at Caleta Hueso Paraiso Atacama, just north of Taltal.
Today was a bank holiday – Navy Day – and a fancy dress party, with all guests dressed as pirates, was in progress. While Leo and John went straight to bed, Marlon and I joined in with the celebrations and it only took a few glasses of Pisco Sour before I had been dressed up by the guests so that I too could call myself a pirate. Marlon had picked up the Nikon Coolpix to take more pictures of me making a fool of myself. Alright Marlon, the cheque is in the post!
The arrival of a police car, lights flashing, had a very sobering influence, particularly as the two formidable looking officers, after some talking with the Chilean guests, came over to me and put on some handcuffs. What had I done? Then loud laughter – one of my drinking buddies turned out to be the Chief of Police for Taltal and, in respect of the strict no drinking & driving laws, had asked his officers to give him a lift home.