Ricardo suggested that we’d join him and members of the Chilean Cactus Club for the day and so we met up at the Copec fuel station on Ruta 5 at around 8 a.m.. Our first goal was a drive and walk up the Quebrada El Leon (S0123), where we found Copiapoa humilis, C. marginata and what we tentatively noted as C. hypogaea (which would make it the most southern occurrence by quite a distance and therefore unlikely). The ‘other cacti’ included Eriosyce (Neoporteria) taltalensis and Echinopsis (Trichocereus) deserticola.
Next we were to meet the owner of the hotel where Ingrid & Ricardo had been staying, who would guide us to another location which, as far as we are aware, had not been explored for cacti before (S0124) at La Hormiga. Angie christened this stop ‘Horror Hill’ as the track was probably the most demanding on car, driver and passengers of anything we had met to date. Many a ‘Ouch’ and ‘whoops-a-daisy’ was heard as the convoy of 5 cars lunged up the hillside track. There had been the usual low cloud cover as we woke, but this tended to lift during the day. Not today – it even started to spit with drizzle as we were taking our pictures. The Copiapoa and Eriosyce sp. we found (small plants) were dully photographed. As the Copiapoa met the ‘squishy’ criteria, coined by Rudolf in 2001 for soft bodied plants in the Humilis complex, this was the name noted. Discussions later on left me a little confused with C. humilis, C. echinata and C. totoralensis as possible candidates for the identity parade.
The Eriosyce (Neoporteria) sp. was also ‘different’ to anything we’d seen before with probably more than one taxon represented. The name E. occulta was suggested and that name deserves a bit more study of the available literature in weeks to come.
Plant ID can be quite a tricky business. When it comes to cacti, we’re so used to buying labelled plants and often blindly trust the accuracy of the name on the label. Or we have built up an image of what a particular species should look like from a limited number of pictures in a book. This ill prepares us for the variability that can occur in nature. Some taxa are quite uniform in appearance, while others can confuse the most experienced copiapoaphile. The next aid to identification is to check through literature for suggestions of what has been reported from a particular location before, but this relies on the expertise of the author, who may have copied errors that have crept into earlier works and of the person who has entered that name on their field list and so it too has to be used with caution. Next, we used the process of elimination and ultimately some long discussions over several alcoholic beverages help to put the world to rights.
It was at this point that our car, a Kia Sportage, decided to play dead. It had on some occasions been a bit tricky to start, but this time it was as dead as a dodo. We had been the last car to reach the ‘car park’ – the end of the trail at the top of a hill where we just managed to squeeze the car in between Eulychnia and Trichocereus. The last 20 meters had been steep with large holes and boulders making the end of the road a welcome sight. We believed that we would be able to bump-start the car, but none of us dared to do this in reverse down this horrible track. So with the unified strength of the assembled cactophiles, the car was pushed from (and over) Eulychnia to Trichocereus for what seemed like a 12 point turn on a handkerchief.
Eventually it was pointing down hill and Cliff volunteered to be the chauffeur for the bump start. With a sigh of relief from the spectators the car fired up and we could start the descend. From than on it was important to look for a place to park the car with a good downward slope to get it going again.
We intended to ring the car rental people or to seek advice at a local garage, but when you spend most of the day in the field, away from garages, this proved not the easiest of things to accomplish. We agreed to seek help in Taltal where we’d be spending six nights. By then, Cliff’s careful observations had found the car battery bone dry due to two grommets, fitted to avoid spillage of battery acid in transit between the factory and the supplier, still being in place, despite the instructions (in English) on the battery to remove them after installation of the battery. As a result, the battery had been unable to breath, causing it to boil. The problem was remedied easily with the aid of a few litres of distilled water supplied by the owner of the cabañas in Taltal and the removal of the grommets.
Anyway, with the car still ill, our two car parties decided to spend the afternoon on the Morro Copiapó, opposite the hotel at Bahia Inglesa (S0125). This is an important location for Copiapoaphiles, as it is the location of the neotype of Copiapoa marginata, the plant that was chosen as the type species of the genus when it was created by Britton & Rose. For some 60 years, the true identity of C. marginata had been the source of some argument and discussion until Ritter designated the plants from Morro Copiapó as the neotype.
It is also the neotype locality for Eriosyce odieri according to Kattermann. The two taxa were dully found and photographed as the sun was disappearing behind the Morro, casting a harsh shadow over the plants.
And so it was once again time to get back to the hotel bar and for Angie to down-load the day’s images from her, Cliff’s and my digital cameras to her laptop, which by the end of the trip had about 6,000 images stored.