As you may have gathered from the break in communications, time has stood still for tourists in Grão Mogol and we were unable to find an Internet cafe to send out our daily missives.
As I started to explain yesterday, the cactus flora around Grão Mogol is of great interest to lovers of Brazilian cacti. Members of genera that are widespread elsewhere in the States of Minas Gerais and Bahia are represented here by species that only occur in this small area. Examples include Discocactus pseudoinsignis, Micranthocereus auriazureus, Pilosocereus fulvilanatus and Arrojadoa eriocaulis ssp albicoronata but the plant that is probably most closely linked with Grão Mogol is Discocactus horstii, named in honour of the Brazilian cactus explorer, Leopoldo Horst.
We started the day with a quick trip along the road to Cristália. In May 1999 they were working to build the bridge across the Rio Itacambiruçu This time, the bridge was completed and a smooth hard top road lead us south. The vegetation was becoming thicker and thicker without obvious rocky outcrops to explore. We found a track off to the east and this soon was the required rocks and quartz patches, plus we could see P. fulvilanatus and M. auri-azureus from the car. As we parked up (S1551) and walked towards these plants I stumbled across a much less attractive plant, Brasilicereus markgraffii, not often seen in European collections and here we could see why. The thin stems, at most 4 cm in diameter can only stand upwards to a certain height. After that they require the support of a shrub or rocks and when that fails, the stem breaks and sprouts again from the base. There is nothing that you would call beautiful about the plant, but as I don’t recall seeing and photographing the plants in 1999, I made up for it this time.
Before lunch we decided to check out the entrance to the Parque Estadual Grão Mogol that we had first learned of in 1999. On that occasion we were unable to find Discocactus horstii during our first attempt. We had asked a 7 year old boy who was playing barefoot along the road, showing him a picture of the plant. ‘Oh yes’, he volunteered,’I’ll show you.’ Unfortunately the plant he showed us was the big brother of our goal, Discocactus pseudoinsignis. We returned to the Pousada Vila da Serra where we were staying at that time.
That evening, Keith Grantham noticed three young man examining our car, Brian Bates’ Nissan Patrol with Bolivian number plates. They were looking through the windows and checking the empty boxes on the roof of the car. We went out to discover what they wanted. Marlon’s native Portuguese again proved invaluable. They explained that they were policemen and that they had reports that our car had been seen near the location of a newly formed nature reserve. We confirmed that we had been there and that we were visiting Grão Mogol to take photographs of the wonderful plants of the area. We were not aware that the area was now a nature reserve. There were no signs. We were told that we were not allowed to enter, but Marlon asked if it was possible to speak to the Police Commander to plead our case.
Keith and I had brought spare copies of the book that we had just written, ‘The Plantguide to Cacti and Other Succulents’ and donated a signed copy to the Grão Mogol Library. That evening the Police Chief came to visit us and with Marlon as our translator, we put our case. We were aware of past commercial collecting of plants and that under current law, this was no longer legal. However, we had travelled a long distance to photograph plants to show back in our own countries. We invited the Chief, or one of his men to come with us, to check that we did not steal or damage plants and that we would follow any instructions and limitations imposed. The Chief agreed that if we took one of his men, we could go. The next morning we met our guide and drove to the site. Fortunately we had information from friends in Belgium of how to get to the location, as it was a walk of up to 2 km from the road as our guide did not know exactly where the plants grew or what they looked like. We gave him a thorough lesson in Cactology and by the end of the excursion he knew the botanical (Latin) names of all the local cacti. It was a wonderful experience that I have often quoted in my presentations of how an unofficial neighbourhood watch scheme helped to protect these plants.
We had understood from many recent visitors that there was now a Parque office where visitors needed to sign in and would then be escorted by a park guide along a paved foot path to the Discocactus horstii plants. It sounded like another very positive move of a country and its people caring about their natural resources.
We found the likely entrance to the Parque, but there was a gate across the drive. We drove on to a small bar along the road and over a Coca Cola asked if this was the entrance to the Parque and if it could be visited. The bar keeper took us to the road and pointed at a house that we could see in the distance, close to where we had seen the gate. ‘Go there!’ he said.
We found the gate unlocked and drove up to a newly built house and an entrance building, still being finished. There was no one to be seen. We honked the horn and a gentleman in uniform overalls came from the bushes. Unfortunately we had a language problem as we were all fluent in our own languages but not in each others. With our little appreciation of Portuguese picked up during the recent six weeks we understood that there was an office in Grão Mogol, where we would need to obtain written permission to enter.
Back in town, we had soon found the office. It was situated above a supermarket just around the corner from our hotel. But where was the entrance? We went to the Tourist Information office where again, the lady did not speak English, but seemed to have a good understanding of our English request. She took us to the building and next to the supermarket was an unmarked door. It was open and we went up the stairs. Unfortunately the door was locked and through the windows we could see the place was empty. It was 12:15, so likely the staff were at lunch. We pointed at our watches and said that we’d come back later. What time would she suggest. One o’clock seemed OK. We went to have a leisurely lunch ourselves and came back at 13:45, but still there was no one to be seen. We held watch in a small park and at 14:30 finally saw somebody go in. What a shame that there was no clear signage on the door with the hours of opening.
We were greeted by a young lady and again we struggled to understand each other. In anticipation I had taken a picture of the Parque Office and showed that on my camera monitor screen. We had been there and the man told us to come to town to obtain written permission.
She looked concerned, then said quite definitely in Portuguese ‘The Parque is closed, it is not possible to visit there.’
Cliff and I must have looked visibly disappointed. We have flown from England to Brazil and driven yesterday from Diamantina to Grão Mogol, especially to see this cactus. She offered us a seat and made a phone call. A few minutes later a gentleman arrived at the office and fortunately our language problems were solved. He was the gentleman who had helped Thomas Wegelin and his wife, the Swiss couple that we had met looking for cacti on 17 November. Thomas had warned us to get official permission before attempting to see Discocactus horstii as they had no end of problems that took five hours to resolve.
Claunidio, a lawyer by profession, did his best to plead our case. The final decision lay with the lady who was the local manager and who was away from the office today. The office assistant promised to contact her boss and Claunidio suggested that he would meet us at the offices at 9:30 the following morning to communicate the decision to us.
Everybody had been very friendly and helpful, but the rules did not permit a different outcome for now. Full of hope we left to take a look at a location for Arrojadoa albispina that in 1999 we had seen much nearer to town.
We had little trouble finding a parking place along the road and finding a gap in the barbed wire to let us in. (S1552) Before long we came across many B. markgraffii, in much better shape than the plants seen exposed on the rocks at the previous stop.
Soon we had also found the first of many Discocactus, but this was D. pseudoinsignis. There were a few buds appearing in the cephalia, but we did not feel like repeating Leo & Gerardus’ experience of returning at night and catching these night flowering cacti in action. The Pilosocereus here also looked better than out on the rocks, protected by the shrubbery. Then the biggest surprise I could imagine, found by Cliff: a Melocactus ernestii fa. plant, very mature and with cephalium. How on earth had this gotten here and were there any more?
Just as we were going to explore, we heard the noise of people coming through the forest. It was our friend from the Parque house with a young man in Parque uniform. If we understood them correctly, we were still trespassing as we were still in the Parque! ‘How far did the Parque stretch?’ we asked. ‘Many thousands of hectares’, we understood to be the reply. ‘But where does it start and finish and how can we tell?’
All we could do was to apologise and walk with the Parque attendants to the road. We really had no idea that we were on Reserve land. There are absolutely no signs along the road to suggest that here the barbed wire is to keep people out, rather than elsewhere, where its function is to keep cattle in or merely mark the extend of land rights by respective owners.
No where in my thousands of kilometres of travels, in the USA, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Chile and the rest of Brazil have I been unable to obtain permission to photograph cacti in habitat. We are now pessimistic that this unintended trespassing will damage our chances to obtain permission to see Discocactus horstii in habitat.
I will offer to write an article for the British Cactus & Succulent Society’s journal so that readers will understand what to expect when they visit Grão Mogol and what the correct procedure is to obtain permission and guidance on how to arrange things. We can also put in a proposal for funding from the BCSS Conservation Fund to assist the Parque in achieving its objectives, but we hope to be able to communicate that like everywhere else, things created in nature should still be capable of being seen and enjoyed by visitors. There is great potential for eco-tourism in Brazil, including Grão Mogol, and it would be a great shame if our experience would sour these opportunities.
Fingers crossed for tomorrow!!