As we drove south along Ruta 5, the km. posts, showing the distance to Santiago showed less than 1,000 km to go – so a ‘homeward bound’ feeling crept over our party.
We stopped, at Ricardo’s suggestion, at a prominent shrine at km 950 along the Pan Americana (S097). We had stopped here on the way north, but purely to stretch our legs – the scenery of large boulders did not suggest a cactus habitat. Ricardo and Ingrid guided us between the boulders and pointed out the Copiapoa calderana var. spinosior that was growing here, as well a small Eriosyce (Neoporteria) pulchella.
A bit further along Ruta 5, (S098) we stopped again to look at ‘proper’ C. calderana and for our final goodbyes to Rudolf, Attila, Michelle, Ricardo and Ingrid – it had been great fun travelling in their company.
Things went quiet in our car, as the realisation that we’d be leaving in two days time hit home. We all agreed that we wanted to go back via Totoral and Carrizal Bajo to take another look and more photographs of the Copiapoa dealbata that impressed us so much on our way north at the start of our trip.
And so, we turned west off Ruta 5 and headed for Totoral, stopping a few km past the small village (S099) where we found two forms of C. echinoides :- the dark skinned C. dura and lighter coloured C. cuprea. Unfortunately, I had run out of charged batteries for my digital camera, so was only able to take slides of the plants here and at the next stop (S100), where C. echinoides was now growing right alongside C. dealbata / C. carrizalensis with both species in flower, without any obvious barriers to cross pollination between them.
This was a truly magnificent stop and I praised my digital camera, now recharged from the car’s cigarette lighter socket, as we were all running short of slide film. I had brought a laptop computer to down load the digital images from the Flashcards, but even this had its limitations and the 5GB hard drive (considered exceptionally large at the time!) was rapidly running out of space and would need some selective deleting of less than perfect images to allow me to down load today’s crop of pictures. Just as we’d decided that we had taken enough pictures, one of us would find another exceptionally nice plant or another spectacular cristate.
Time was pressing on, and as the track was one of the worst that we’d been on, it was difficult to guess when we would reach Carrizal Bajo and the better quality road to Ruta 5 and Vallenar.
We allowed ourselves one more stop (S101), to take pictures of C. echinata and it was near dusk before we could see the outline of Carrizal Bajo. What we had not counted on was that the sandbank that we had driven across on 14 May was a tidal feature and now – with the tide in – invisible. What to do? Leo shouted across the water to some local couples, out for a Sunday evening stroll to see the sunset. Their reply was not good – the tide would cover the track until early morning, there were no crossings further inland and the only way back seemed to be along the ‘bone-shaker’ track to Totoral. With heavy hearts we started the journey back. After a few km, Leo uttered some Dutch curses, turned the car round and we sat in silence as we drove towards the water’s edge, with the lights of Carrizal Bajo beckoning across the other side.
Our silence turned into screams of excitement, encouragement and fear as Leo selected the most appropriate gear, revved the engine hard and built up some speed before we hit the water. Yes, it was sheer madness, but none of us had really wanted to go through the ordeal of the overland journey via Totoral again. Our camera equipment and my laptop were on our laps, just in case the water should rise above the car’s sill or worse, in case we would have to evacuate the car. The locals on the beach joined in with our shouts and screams and cheered and applauded when we reached dry land. Never again!.*
*PS We were here again in November 2008 when good progress had been made to build a viaduct for a brand new motorway a little inland.