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Mark and Paul Shipsides were kind enough to give the bus windows a good clean. The drivers did a good job at cleaning out the bus each night, while we were preparing for dinner and having our wine tasting sessions, but perfectionist photographers needed to remove those few little smears that were left behind in the dark the previous evening. We dropped Emilio off in town to do the shopping for the daily refreshments while we returned to yesterday’s last stop, then S497, now S498 (another rule I have set myself is that each stop number represents plants at a particular location at a particular time, so repeated visits (some times years apart) attract different Stop numbers. The plants that showed such promise late last night were still there – unchanged. At 8:48 in the morning it was still too early. We had other places to visit and there had been a slight change to plans as road closures due to repairs necessitated a night in Olta, rather than Ulapes.

An hour later we reached another location where Guillermo had found G. baldianum in the past (S499) and expected that the plants would be in flower. Wrong, the plants were found, but again, buds – no flowers. Spring was late in Argentina, just as it had been in England in May.

Quarter past eleven and we had reached the capital of the Province of Catamarca, or to give the town its full name: San Fernando del Valle de Catamarca. We stopped on the outskirts of town (S500) as we had spotted a crested Stetsonia coryne – something different is always worth a picture. We also found fully opened flowers on some of the other Stetsonia and noticed how similar the naked buds looked to Gymnocalycium buds, but that’s where the similarities stop, so please, no super-lumping these two genera in future! Competing for space with Stetsonia was Cereus forbesii (no flowers) and a large Opuntia sp. with lovely red flowers at eye-level – too good an opportunity to miss. Across the road, another Opuntia showed off its yellow flowers – probably O. sulphurea – while in between the shrubs Cleistocactus baumannii was also in flower with Harrisia pomanensis in bud.

I had to double check the map as for our next stop (S501) we were back in Concepcion, a town we had also stopped at yesterday – what was going on? Not for the first time we found that town names are not unique. This was Concepcion in the Province of Catamarca while yesterday’s garage stop had been in Concepcion, Province Tucuman. While the picnic lunch was being set up, we disappeared into the Acacia scrub to find Cereus forbesii, Opuntia sulphurea, Stetsonia coryne and Gymnocalycium oenanthememum (G. carminanthum) – you guessed it: Gymno in bud – not in flower! During lunch we observed the activities of some brightly coloured birds in a large tree across the road, identified by he ‘twitcher brothers’, Mike and Bryan, as the Oven Bird. A quick search on Google reveals: ‘The ovenbird gets its name from the unusual nest it builds. This odd-looking structure, made from mud and strengthened with fibres and grass, is shaped like an old-fashioned baking oven. It is distributed across Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Argentina, in open country and flood plains. Common near human settlements. In South America, the ovenbird is called el hornero, “the house builder,” and belongs to one of the largest families of birds. The ovenbird can be recognized by its distinctive song and is seen in settlements and on the edges of towns. Although populations have been affected by land clearances in some areas of the ovenbird’s natural habitat, conservation measures do not appear to be necessary as this species has adapted well to man’s intrusion on its habitat.’ I managed to get some nice images of mum or dad landing next to the nest, promising some light relief from the on-slaught of cactus pictures at future talks.

We were also entertained by super collector of everything, Mark, who had found a sizeable lump of Trichocereus wood that he was now reducing to a more manageable length with the handsaw that was part of Dick’s Transformer style toolkit. Disturbed by the sawing, several spiders and bugs crawled out of the wood and must have woken up other insects that later crawled around the bus – thanks Mark! The next day, the 1 m (3 ft) piece of wood was given another clean up at a local garage, with the benefit of the compressed air more usually used to fill car and bus tyres.

And so on to Villa Mazan (S502) where we found Echinopsis leucantha, Pyrrhocactus bulbocalyx, Tephrocactus alexanderi, T. articulatus and Trichocereus strigosus. It was great to find T. alexanderi in flower – pretty delicate flowers on such a fiercely spined plants, one of the paradoxes that attract me to the Cactaceae. Tephros have certainly leaped towards the upper part of My 100 Favourite Cactus Taxa list and the images I took of them throughout the trip are among my favourites, ranging from extremely dehydrated, desiccated plants on the edge of survival, to well fed specimens in flower. What a shame that it is almost impossible to get near their wonderful spination in the UK.

We arrived at our hotel in Olta, where some of the group renewed their obsession with finding a post office that was open AND had stamps. Personally, I have a ‘Don’t expect any cards’ policy for the folks back home. We tend to be in the field when tourist shops and post offices are open. I have also learned that souvenirs bought during the trip necessitate leaving old jeans and T shirts behind to stay within airline luggage limits – I can’t be bothered to mail excess bits home in advance of our departure. But it is good to see that diversity found in nature also exists amongst the habits of the folks on our bus. I wonder if all the stuff sent back home arrived safely and undamaged.

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