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We had all experienced shifts in time zones, the Brits GMT – 4 hours and the Americans (at least those from California) Pacific Time + 4 hours, so it was somewhat of a miracle that we all managed to meet up at the appointed time from breakfast. Well done! This feat was in fact repeated throughout the trip, even if some of the hotels were not quite up to our eagerness to get on the road.

The routine was that we brought all our luggage down so that it could be loaded onto the 20 seater bus by our drivers. This proved quite a challenge, as the airlines used by the Americans allowed twice as much luggage per person as our flight from Europe. But Jorge was well up to the challenge and succeeded every day.

And so we arrived at our first cactus stop of the day at 8:26, according to the metadata that comes as part of digital images. Digital camera developers please note: it would be useful if this data in future could include GPS (global positioning system) data and weather information (temperature, humidity etc) – no need for the short range weather forecast as we are likely to move on to other locations.

I take at least a day to get back into a `field study routine` while trying to decide where I am, what time it is and what I`m supposed to point my camera at, so this first day`s information is very poor and will be augmented by info from others in the group over time. For now I can tell you that our first stop was alongside a main road near the village of El Manzano and that my first picture was of a nice Gymnocalycium mostii, growing amidst more vegetation than we`d seen on a whole trip in the Chilean Atacama Desert! Some of the plants were in bud, but there were no flowers – and this was to be the story in many locations during the trip, because:

  1. Because just like the UK in April / May 2005, Argentina was experiencing a late Spring and
  2. because in juggling the preferred dates of travel for the Brits, we had ignored advice from Guillermo to delay our departure by a few weeks to optimise seeing cacti in flower.

I use `S numbers` (i.e. Stop numbers) for my cactus trips and remembered that in 2004 I had reached number S three hundred something or other, but not the exact number. So I decided to start at S400 for this trip. My other routine is to make the first picture at a stop an image of the GPS showing the appropriate location data. Any image that follows must be taken at that Stop, or en-route to the next one (usually this can be concluded by the data stamp of each digital image). Great plan, but when I switched on my GPS it transpired that the batteries were flat and my spare batteries were in my main case, at the bottom of the busses luggage space. Never mind, there were enough fellow travellers with GPS equipment, so it was a case of copying this into my (paper) note book. But where was my note book? Still in the side pocket of the bag that I had intended to take, but that had to be left in England as the zipper broke as I carried it to my car. Aarrgghh! I felt frustrated and humiliated at such beginners` errors. Fortunately I had a miniature note pad that easily fits into a shirt pocket and that somehow managed to contain all my notes by the end of the trip. The replacement for my field note book that I bought a few days later was only used as an occasional supply of toilet paper, but more of that later.

So, S400 – El Manzano, along the main road: Gymnocalycium mostii, an Opuntia sp (probably O. cordobensis or O. sulphurea – on my day of disasters I forgot to take its picture) lots of Acacia scrub (the name Acacia caven was suggested), most with thorns more formidable than any cactus we could find the first of the many charming bromeliads that we would see: Tillandsia recurvata, here growing from the telephone lines.

Our next stop (S401) was north of El Manzano, at a small stream, where the attraction was a Puya spathacea in bud on the hill on the opposite side of the stream from where we were parked. By the time I arrived on the scene, there was an impressive array of tripods (favoured by some of the photographers from the USA), lined up along the stream pointing at the low (c. 10 m.) hill. Having taken the same picture as everyone else, I followed Mark who had found a way to cross the stream (using the bridge a bit further along was too obvious for us) and had managed to get to the top of the hill and take a picture of the plant, the flower spike and the activity among the photographers.

Next on to S402, christened the Car Rally Stop. This was because the road is frequently used for car rallies and the particular corner where we were looking for cacti would then be `populated` by a hundred or more spectators, waiting for cars to lose control and crash into ditch. In the process, the spectators would be standing on top of a small population of Gymnocalycium amerhauseri. Each September, at ELK, we see Helmut Amerhauser, one of the officers of the Austrian Gymnocalycium Study Group. Next September I must pull his leg about the trampled on appearance of the plants named in his honour. They grew alongside G. mostii and introduced us to our first cactus challenge, identifying different Gymnocalycium species that share the same habitat. I am no expert on this genus at all and will probably be laughed at for calling the large plants here G. mostii, with the smaller plants being G. amerhauseri.

We moved on to S403 at El Cuadrado, where G. mostii was joined by Echinopsis (Lobivia) aurea and Echinopsis (Trichocereus) lamprochlorus. E. aurea rewarded us with the first (bright yellow) cactus flower of the trip. These plants proved a lot more of a challenge to photograph than the Copiapoa on previous trips in Chile, as these were surrounded and partially covered by other vegetation, with spines and blades of grass intermingled. My final image of this stop is of a small hairy leafed Oxalis in flower. A pest in most cactus collections in the UK, I have to admit that they can be quite interesting plants in habitat.

El Cuadrado turned out to be a small hill and S404 was higher up, probably at its summit. Here the diversity of cactus flora was impressive. Going through my digital images I have found Echinopsis aurea, Gymnocalycium amerhauseri, G. bruchii, G. mostii, Parodia (Notocactus) submammulosus, Trichocereus candicans and T. lamprochlorus as well as images of a Euphorbia sp., and of bromeliads (with viscous toothed edges to their leaves – real ankle-rippers!). It was only 11:24 (according to my last digital image) and the array of cactus genera and species that we had seen was impressive! I`m sure that if I had remembered to look, I could have added a couple of Opuntia to the list as well.

They certainly appeared among the images at the next stop, S405, 30 minutes drive further on. If my notes are correct, the Gymnocalycium here include G. bruchii, G. capillaensis, G. monvillei and G. valnicekianum, and probably more if you are a serious student of the genus and take the splitters view. The Parodia, Opuntia and Trichocerei mentioned for previous stops were also present, in an attractive setting of low, green, rolling hills. Quite a few cacti were in flower – most were in bud, we were just a few days too early. The sun was out and quite strong compared to what we had experienced in the UK a few days earlier. A cool breeze made conditions very comfortable. Life is good! The sound of clicking cameras and shouts of “Here’s a bruchii in full flower” filled the air, until the sound of the bus horn called us back to reality.

S406 was near Capilla del Monte, and offered G. capillaense, G. valnicekianum and Trichocereus candicans, as well as the omni-present Opuntia sulphurea, which I`ll probably drop from my list of cacti seen at future stops, unless there is something unusual to report. As I ended up surrounded by Acacia on a dead-end path, I took the opportunity of photographing at least 4 species of Tillandsia on one tree. Could these turn into a new obsession for me? No repotting needed!

S407 was on the shore of a lake or water reservoir. Most of my fellow travellers were marking our progress on the road atlases that Guillermo had provided. I`ll mark my copy up at a future wine tasting session. The Gymno here is again G. valnicekianum, but much bigger plants than those seen at previous stops. Am I becoming a splitter? It was 5 p.m. when we boarded the bus and 5:40 when we arrived at S408. On the ridge alongside the road, some 3 m (12 ft) above us Guillermo had spotted Acanthocalycium spiniflorum (syn. violaceum) Basking in the late evening sunshine. By 6 p.m. we sat back on the bus, satisfied with a rewarding day of `cactussing`, arriving at Cruz del Eje before sunset, for a beer at the poolside and our first wine tasting in the hotel restaurant before dinner.
I have rambled on enough for today and will tell you all about the now infamous wine tastings in a future report.

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