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Craig Howe, who shared his Diaries of a trip with Guillermo last year, tells me how fortunate I am to be able to do such trips annually and says he can’t wait until he is retired. Actually, I’m only 52, so still have a few years to go. I feel that I’ve reached that golden age where you have earned the right to do what you want: the kids have left home and have learned to stop asking for more money to top up their student loans, my elderly parents are comfortable in health & wealth and my divorce a few years ago released me from that barrier, plus I have a partner, Angie, who is as besotted with cacti and travel as I am and encourages me to indulge and joins me when ever she can. My boss has got used to me handing in holiday requests three years in advance.

Now, back to the Diaries.

S437 is in fact the area around Hosteria Ruines de Quilmes and consisted of Echinopsis sp, Gymnocalycium saglionis, G. spegazzini, Opuntia sulphurea, Tephrocactus weberi and Trichocereus pasacana. The Trichos completely dominated the landscape. I’m not sure if they were planted in and among the remains of the Quilmes Indian’s town or if they were already part of the landscape when the Ruins were transformed into a tourist attraction, but they were as impressive as any Saguaro stand that I’ve seen in Arizona.

The usual mesquite / Acacia scrub presented the other dominant flora feature on the plain where the hotel and the ruins were set and at the base of the hills that rose to the west. These low, very spiny bushes were not yet in leaf, so you could at least see the spines. Once again, the Gymnos tended to be nestled at the base of these bushes, or right in the middle of an impenetrable patch of shrubs. This is where tripods are useful — to push the branches aside so that you can get into the thorn patch, take the picture, and then worry about getting back out. Looking at my images, it seems that G. saglionis seemed to prefer this shelter, while G. spegazzini was more commonly seen in open exposed situations. It could of course be the case that, being slower growers, the spegs had survived their nursery bush while (at least in cultivation) the faster growing sags still had the benefit of theirs. You see how easy it is to jump to conclusions! As the branches were bare, the amount of shade that the bush provided was minimal, but of course, this snapshot in time does not tell us how many months the shrubs are in leaf, how much shade they are then able to provide, if there are other benefits to the Gymno, such as the branches acting as \221fog-catchers’ directing any dew or mists (if there any) to the base of the plant, etc.

Just as you think that you’ve reached a reasonable conclusion, the next stop (S438) contradicts your finding. The stop was prompted by a T. pasacana (or was it still a hybrid, and should it be pasacana x terscheckii or terscheckii x pasacana) in flower, spotted from the bus — any cactus in flower was worth a stop. But in terms of numbers, G. spegazzini was the dominant plant. It grew in open exposed places, in the grass (the grass was not yet in growth, but from dried up polls, it seemed that at the peak of the grass season, it would completely hide the spegs from view and from the burning sun), under and among shrubs etc, apparently at random. Bye bye theories. Some were globular, others (in more exposed places) tended to be spiny pancakes, flat to the ground. Any theories? No, I’ll await until the first image-review get together with other cactophiles and a few bottles of Argentinean Malbec for that. They were big — at least 25 cm (10 inches) in diameter, and there were a few crests amongst them; not pretty, like the smiling Copiapoa columna-alba last year, but looking \221damaged’. I have kept 79 digital images from this stop, so I’ll have to do a bit more pruning to arrive at the one-per-taxon target for each stop on a website.

I did not enjoy S439 very much. My Clifftonnaires Disease had really affected my lungs — I found it difficult to get enough air into my lungs as we marched along a narrow path, guided by a young lad who must have been keen to get back to the Bocca Juniors game on the telly. We were following the Rio Colorado upstream, towards a waterfall near the top of the hill where Parodia microsperma and P. penicillata grew against and hanging from the vertical cliff face. Dick and Phyllis were the first to see sense and decided to wait for us to return. Anne was next. I’m not a quitter by nature and did not want to give up when some of the others — several decades my senior — were still climbing around like mountain goats. A steep climb, close to our goal was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Not for the first time on cactus trips I allowed common sense to take over (Remember Pico das Almas, Brian?) and on each occasion had really enjoyed the peace and quiet while exploring at my leisure as I started the walk back to the bus. I found the two Parodias, not in huge numbers, but sufficient to tell the story at a future talk. I spent more time at one of the places we had stopped for a breather on the way up, and this time, instead of queuing for pictures, photographed the flora on a tree — a member of the mistletoe family, the usual Tillandsias, lychens and, surprise, surprise, some cacti growing epiphytically: Trichocereus and Parodia seedlings!

During the crossing of the river, using smooth round boulders as stepping stones, I had lost my balance and the camera, hanging from a strap around my shoulder, had swung forward and attempted to dislodge another boulder — it failed. The lens sun hood was cracked and the next day, the 18 — 70 mm zoom facility gradually became limited to 65 — 70 mm, while I seemed to be able to take pictures around a 5 degree corner, instead of a straight line. An insurance claim is in progress.

I was not the only person with camera problems. I had brought two – Nikon Coolpix 995, technically now belonging to my son Christiaan, but I was allowed to use it for the trip, and a Nikon D70, with the aforementioned lens, plus a 50 – 200 mm lens that allowed me to carry on using that camera, although this now had to be used with a tripod to get acceptable pictures. On balance, I was best pleased with images taken with the 995. It has an unusual feature in that you can twist the lens part through 360 degrees from the main body with the monitor screen, so that you can take low angle shots of a cactus with the sky in the background, without having to lie flat on the desert floor, which is often covered in animal excrement and / or cactus spines.

My peace and quiet was over, when those that had reached the goal, caught up with me and over took me on the return journey. It appears that (once again) I had not missed anything particularly special at the top, but of course I’ll never know for sure, until I see the images taken by my fellow travellers.

It was not far to our hotel, where the first litre of Quilmes disappeared rather quickly before subsequent bottles were enjoyed in more relaxed fashion.

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