Although not yet half way through our trip, today we would reach our northern most point, north of El Cobre. This involved quite a drive and for me satisfied another curiosity – what, if anything, can be found on the road that runs north and inland from Paposo, past the Cerro Paranal Observatory, before eventually rejoining Ruta 1 – the coast road.
Our first stop (S0135) had been christened ‘The Paposo Shrine Stop’ in 2001 and we found the same plants (Copiapoa humilis and an Eriosyce (Neoporteria) taltalensis. The Copiapoas here are the subject of frequent damage – collectors? animals? In any event, the damage is usually limited to the heads being removed, leaving the tap root to produce numerous offsets.
Next stop (S0136) was an opportunity to take a more detailed look at a ‘nearly’ stop in 2001. Then, our car had lost contact with Rudolf’s car driving lead and we had taken a wrong turn. The track ended at on open space where the ceroids were covered with lichen, indicating that although the sun was beating down from above, this place gets a lot of fog (or rather, the cloud that drifts in from the ocean hits the hills at this altitude of just under 700 m.) That time we were anxious to meet up with the rest of the party. This time we could have a look around.
We had been right about the cloud / fog! As we parked the cars, lichen covered Eulychnia and Trichocerei seemed to step into view, only to disappear again as the fog closed in around them. We walked up to the rim of the hill and found large plants of Copiapoa humilis. A few of them had been damaged some while back, perhaps knocked over by an animal. Again, the taproot had produced offsets and these looked identical to the plants we had seen earlier at The Shrine. It seems that the plants there, for some reason, never get the chance to put on any size, giving the impression that it is a population of minuscule plants. The only objects to liven up this dreary, gloomy landscape were bushes of Nolana (rupicola?) in full bloom.
The scenery was not inviting for a longer stay. Back on the main road and about 100 m higher, we had escaped the clouds and were passing large clumps of Copiapoa eremophila, another high altitude form of C. cinerea and similar to C. tenebrosa, the high altitude form found east of Taltal. We had been given directions by Rudolf to turn right after passing ‘two dead busses’. ‘Dead busses’ are a relatively common feature in the landscape and we passed several, some on their own, some in groups of 3 or more, but not in a duo. As a result we missed the turn and the opportunity to see these Copiapoa, as by now we were well inland, with the coastal hills preventing any rain or fog from penetrating from the west.
This was the Atacama Desert – a moon scape, without plants. It was a fairly good road, thanks to its use as access to the Paranal Observatory. Still, any car was visible miles away, as its motion threw up huge clouds of dust. The game was to make sure that all windows were shut by the time the car passed us. I’m not sure if the crowd in the Nissan played this game too. They usually followed us, which meant that our dust trail would have been around them most of the time.
Eventually, we reached the turning to El Cobre, a confusing junction with seemingly three tracks to choose from. As in 2001, we picked the wrong one first, ending up at a dead end some 2 km further, but got it right second time round, as my memory told me to look out for a dead bus. Let’s hope that nobody ever tows these away, in an effort to clean up the Atacama – I, and possibly many others, would be quite lost without such landmarks. Was this ‘The long and winding road’ of which Paul McCartney sings? As it snaked down the hill, we could see (mainly dead) clumps of Copiapoa solaris but delayed our stop (S0137) until we were about to disappear into the clouds. Once at the coast, we passed the deserted workings at El Cobre, and pushed on in the fading day light, briefly stopping the car at Blanco Encalada, where C. solaris (still mainly dead plants) was growing along the coast road.
We were keen to get to Caleta Botija, where, at the mouth of the Quebrada Botija, we still had to set up our tents and meet up with Rudolf & Leo. Although I had been here twice before in 2001 and the pictures of those visits were firmly imprinted on my memory, things looked very different at dusk, especially with low cloud hiding the silhouette of the hills that should have enabled me to recognise the canyon. Using our GPS, we felt that we were close – in fact, had overshot the point where we should have left the track. As we were looking for a turning point, the very poor road finally took its toll, as we could smell burning rubber. A massive gash in the front offside tyre explained why.
So, all hands to the pump to unload the luggage to get to the spare wheel (another minus point for the Kia) to replace the damaged wheel. As we’re on popular expressions – too many cooks spoil the broth, so I decided to walk back down the track with my GPS, just in time to see a set of car headlights come down the road from the north and vanishing about one km. from where we were. This had to be Rudolf & Leo, and so, with renewed confidence I returned to the car, once again ready to go, and after about 1 km found the point where fresh tyre marks lead off the track towards the hills.
Rudolf and Leo were cosily arranged around a campfire, (S0138) not visible from the road due to a stonewall that had been built. They had brought plastic chairs from their hotel (only two of course) and had their potatoes and tins on the fire, while laughing and offering suggestions to us setting up camp – for many of us this was the first time that the tents especially bought for this and two other possible ‘camping in nature’ events, were taken out of their bags. By torch light, we struggled to read the instructions stitched on the inside of the bag in a variety of languages, unfortunately not one we could understand. Using common sense we all managed to put up our tents and enjoyed a good laugh at Rudolf’s expense, as he (or rather his tent) seemed to suffer ‘erection problems’ of its own, and collapsed spontaneously as we opened our welcome bottles of wine.
Reasonable quantities of Pisco Sour or wine are essential for our camping stops, as it numbs the back when eventually you lie down for some shut eye on the stony ground. Beer works too, but it is not highly recommended as the volume required to achieve the same affect is such that frequent calls of nature have to be made during the night.
Several trampled on cacti around the camping area were evidence that some of us had to answer such calls. Despite the discomfort endured, these nights of camping out are a must for any cactus trip.
Tomorrow we’ll explore the Botija Valley.