Andy and John were the first to arrive safely at around 9:30 a.m. in Santiago, soon to be followed by the Air France contingent, despite the threat of strikes in France that had worried them for most of the preceding week. They were met by representatives of LYS Rent a Car, our usual supplier of the 4×4 pick up trucks that we use on these trips. This time they took delivery of 2 Nissan Terranos, with a covered back to the pick up and before too long set of on their journey to Guanaqueros, some 450 km north of the Airport for our first night’s rendez vous. Leo and I also arrived on time at around 11:45, 20 hours and 10 minutes after leaving London, having spent a total of 16 hours and 17 minutes in the air to cover a distance of 13,252 km. As our third car was a late booking, our contact, Andres Gabor, had no other suitable 4×4’s available, but had arranged a deal with Budget Rent A Car, who have a desk at the airport. Our Mitsubishi was as good as the Toyota Hiluxes of previous trips in getting us to any place we needed to go to see cacti.
Having finalized the formalities with the car, Leo guarded our luggage in the car while I went back into the Airport arrival lounge to meet up with Trevor Sellman who arrived an hour after us from Australia, to complete our car party. Glaswegian folk rockers Travis were due to arrive around the same time, so Trevor was quite impressed with the welcoming committee, including a number of attractive young ladies, that I appeared to have organised. We tore ourselves away and joined Leo in the car park.
Our first and only cactus stop on our way to Guanaqueros (S606) was along Ruta 5, the Pan American Highway, as Leo, from behind the steering wheel, driving at the max. permitted 120 km per hour, spotted some cacti in flower on the rocky hillside along the side of the road. These turned out to be Eriosyce (Neoporteria) subgibbosa ssp nigrihorrida growing alongside Echinopsis (Trichocereus) chiloensis, the latter in bud or in flower.
At Guanaqueros we met up with the other two car parties. Our intended accommodation, cabañas at Club Bahia, were not available, but the advance party had found similar (in my mind better) cabañas a few hundred meters along at Las Dunas, where we shared 2 chalets between 9 people. This included a total of 4 sets of bunk beds, testing our old bones as to who would / could sleep in the top beds.
We enjoyed our first Chilean meal, in the fish restaurant in the centre of the village where, in 2001, I had celebrated my birthday. As would happen repeatedly on the trip, I could hear echoes of the voices of people with whom I had shared this experience on previous trips and who were remembered in toasts to absent friends.
As we were leaving the El Pequeño restaurant, a voice shouted ‘Hello Ian!’. It was Peque (Magdalena Garcés), one of the Chilean participants of the 2003 Copiapoathon, but now married and not so interested in cacti anymore. It was like walking into your local restaurant or pub, 13,000 km from home and meeting an old friend. It’s a small world!
Finally, some 48 hours after getting up in Durrington, I put my head down and was asleep within seconds.