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Archive for November, 2009

Monday, 30 November – north of Salinas

Yesterday’s ‘north’ turned out to be more ‘east-north-east’, so today we headed ‘north proper’. For those if you keen to follow our adventures on maps etc, we drove from Salinas to Taiobeiras to Rio Pardo de Minas – all on hardtop – and then on good dirt to Mato Verde, hitting hard top again 28 km from town. In terms of distance we drove 177 km to get there and 177 km back, so 348 km just to see one population of cacti, thus proving again that we are ‘cactus loco’. Well, the cactus stop was actually some 20 km out of Mato Verde as the road climbed from 555 m to 1, 020 m. twisting and turning up the mountainside between partly bare rocks.

Our hearts missed a few beats as we were seeing large official signs to say that it was forbidden to cross the barbed wire fence, all along the south side of the road for some 12 km. Shiny new barbed wire on concrete posts enforced the manage. Not another Grão Mogol! The signs were just on one side of the road, although the new fence posts and wire were on both sides. In Grão Mogol the local people had advised us to ignore the signs and go anyway, which there, with regular motor bike patrols would have been a mistake. But here we managed to park the car at a scenic viewpoint, off the main road and out of sight (S1558). We then walked a few hundred meters up the road and got onto the rocks to the north of the road.

We could easily see Pilosocereus pachycladus, (a form originally described as P. cenepequei, the same as yesterday but now identified by Marlon), poking their heads above the shrubbery, but the first cactus seen and photographed once we had crossed the wire was what I guess is Brasilicereus sp. (B. markgraffii or B. phaeacanthus?).  Yellow Tigridea (?) irises were in flower all round and soon I had found a 30 cm tall 5 cm diameter densely spined ceroid. What could that be. I had walked myself into a dead end into the vegetation and returned to the main road with arms scratched open. Cliff had found a much easier way in and showed me the easy bit in the fence. Tacinga inamoena was spotted and photographed just for the record, we’ll see it in most places in Bahia later. Then, in a white quartz sand clearing, once our eyes had got used to the bright light reflecting off the sand, there were large numbers of Melocactus concinnus. From a higher rock I could see what looked like even taller than yesterday Coleocephalocereus aureus plants in the distance. On closer examination they turned out to be (I think) Micranthocereus albicephalus that is reported from this spot. Not a bad stop at all and in the hot humid weather an hour and a half had been quite enough.

Having gotten so close to the town of Mato Verde, we drove the extra few km. to claim our customary and very welcome bottle of Coca Cola for a successful stop at a bar near the town square.

We knew that there were still more interesting and unusual cacti to be seen along this road, but with the signage up, we did not want to waste lots of time being frustrated by bureaucracy. Time was ticking by and the new tarmac road had no lay bys, let alone out of sight pull overs. During our Cola break skies had darkened over and our drive back to Salinas included about 50 km of dirt road that we’d rather not tackle as mud road. We slowed down at GPS locations suggested by others, but none of the essentials were in place.

Back at the hotel, with more time to establish where we had been it transpired that on the other side of the road at S1558, we could have seen Arrojadoa eriocaulis. Nearer to Mato Verde we missed Arrojadoa rhodantha aureispina and Coleocephalocereus decumbens and that 14 km past our stop we might have seen Arrojadoa eriocaulis rosenbergiana, and Cereus albicaulis. Ah well, such is life.

We cleared the 50 km of dirt without a drop of rain, although skies continued to threaten. Past Rio Pardo we had a few brief showers, but by then we were on hardtop so did not care too much. Interesting observation was that as the cold rain hit the hot tarmac, a thick fog hung about 50 cm deep over the road. As we drove through it, the hot moist air outside condensed on the cooler windscreen of our air-conditioned car, so that now we were steaming up on the outside. Strange!

Sunday, 29 November – north of Salinas

The life of a 2009 Cactus Explorer is not all hardship and tales of woe, as you can see from this link to the hotel where we’ll be staying two more nights.


Marlon had warned us in Rio Grande do Sul, while we were acclimatising from the UK in October (autumn) to Spring in Brazil, that temperatures in Minas Gerais and Bahia would be even hotter. The heat is not the main issue, but the average relative humidity, 70% is quoted for Salinas, can cause problems especially of overheating and heat exhaustion. But here we step from our air-conditioned room into our air-conditioned car and it is not until we step out that the heat and humidity hit. Within seconds we are soaked with sweat and attract all kinds of flying insects that are after our blood, sweat and tears.  Hence, our excursions into the field are usually around an hour only and our daily ice cold Cola serves as a reward for what we have found – or consolation as the case may be.

Salinas is the world’s centre of Cachaça production, the sugarcane rum that can be anything from 38-80% in strength.

Enough of local stats and culture. Today I had mapped out a circular route of some 160 km, taking BR 251 east to Curral de Dentro, from there heading north west to Taiobeiras, and then south back to Salinas. It seemed a good idea looking at the map. Much of the distance was hard top suitable for an average speed of 70-80 km p.hr., a bit less unless you wanted to join in with the trucks playing chicken, overtaking in some highly unusual places. We’ll definitely give parking on the hard shoulder a miss in future!

There were very few side tracks or stopping opportunities on BR 251 and Eucalyptus plantations had again replaced the natural landscape either side of the road for many kilometres on end, so I was getting a little concerned about another cactus-free day.

Past Curral de Dentro, hard top gave way to what my GPS calls a ‘Terra draft’ or a dirt road in the planning stages. It even offered a number: LMG-000. It was actually quite a good track, servicing the Eucalyptus plantations, where we would not find any cacti. So we took a lucky guess aiming for a waypoint where the database showed a mysterious marker for ‘Entbl1’ We wrecked our brains as to what botanical name this acronym might refer to, but failed. We  realised that the new tarmac road ran farther north than the mysterious marker, but carried on anyway.

As we passed forks and cross roads we took fairly random turnings aiming for a low hilly range to our south. As we got closer, we saw some large Cereus jamacaru, still a novelty on this trip, as we have not yet been to Bahia where they dominate the landscape in many places. We took their picture near a farm house and also spotted a Pilosocereus on the edge of a clearing, near the tree line. Encouraged, we carried on. More forks and turnings and the track seemed to run out at a gate to a farm. We were now quite close to a bare rock face sloping at some 20-30 degrees and could see lots of azure blue Pilosocereus near the tree line through our binoculars and zoom lens.

Cliff felt that we were so close that he walked to the farm house and in his best PortuSpEnglish asked if we could drive to the rocks. No problema!

Through two gates and then came a third with a convenient parking place. We must have moved to another farmer’s land, asked permission to park, showed him a picture of a cactus on the camera monitor and received the thumbs up.

Just a short, 100 m crawl through the vegetation described yesterday and I stumbled across a mature Melocactus ernestii fa. I’d guess judging by the traditional long lower radial spine. Pictures were taken, then another few steps into a clearing and BINGO!!

In this small area were five species of five different genera of cacti! They were: Cereus jamacaru, Pilosocereus sp. (no idea what the species here is called until I get home and consult literature), Melocactus ernestii, Tacinga inamoena and …. Coleocephalocereus (Buiningia) aureus! The latter must be what used to be known as Buiningia brevicylindrica var. elongata, not one that I had seen before but hoped to see during this trip. Many plants were approaching 100 cm in height (over 3 ft for non-decimalists).

The Pilosocereus sp. can only be described as GORGEOUS, the epidermis on new growth un unreal blue in colour, somewhat variable spination and white hair at the apex with evidence of very recent and imminent flowering, but again these are night flowering cacti, so nothing open.

Between 12:00 noon and 13:46 I took 123 images, filed as S1557, to be able to tell the story when I get home. I’ll include a few shots in the album below. A remarkable stop!

We have another spare day tomorrow and might take another look in this area now that we seem to have gained a feel of what to look for: high vantage points to spot low hillsides with the right aspect and open rock faces.

Saturday, 28 November – Grão Mogol to Salinas

Two nights earlier than planned we decided to move on. Salinas is a bigger town and as you can see, we have found a hotel with Internet Broadband facilities, so important to the modern day cactus explorer, so he can keep friends and family up to date with the goings on.

It continues to be the case that there are no obvious cactus stops that suggest themselves along the road. Unfortunately on the very smooth hard top but two lanes only BR 251, it is dangerous to slow down when things may start to look promising as the risk of being run down by giant trucks motoring along at 100 km p. hr. is not insignificant. Also, a car park lay by from which we might launch ourselves into the wilderness are few and far between and usually NOT near places with potential. So we resorted to noting a few known localities from the database and set off on our next stretch.

The first stop earmarked illustrated the problem. I had GPS coordinates for a spot along the road, and as we approached it there was a lorry on our tale and no car park. So, 750 m along, on a now deserted road, we did a U-turn and pulled over on the hard shoulder, parked the car and disappeared into the thick vegetation (S1554). Yes, through the trees was a rocky outcrop that promised cacti! The vegetation could be divided into three groups:

  1. Thorny, hanging on to clothes and hat or scratching bare skin

  2. Vines etc, trying to tie you in knots while you are trying to avoid (1) above

  3. Dead branches that the vines from (2) are attached to and drop on you when you pull too hard.

Each night I check for ticks but so far they have missed me.

You can see that in these circumstances it comes as a pleasant surprise when the aroma of a very pleasant perfume enters the nose. Where is the young lady wearing such pleasant perfume? Instead I noticed that I was standing next to an Orchid displaying two or three spikes of delicate green and white flowers.

I finally reached a huge rock and immediately found our target plant: nice azure blue Pilosocereus aurisetus the form previously known as P. supthutianus. I am still confused in the huge range of forms that are now classified under this name and might include a sequence of them in a future talk, particularly if I can explain the what & why for.

Climbing to the top of the rock got me to the nicest plants, plus a look at the other two cacti listed: Tacinga inamoena, that we will see ad nausea in Bahia, and a Melocactus ernestii form, may be ssp longicarpus. I only found one Melo and it was hanging precariously from one root over the edge of the rock, well out of my reach, but within zoom lens reach.

With the pictures taken, I noticed a car pull up in front of our car and two men in uniform getting out and taking a look at it. I was quickly back at the side of the road where they turned out to be a breakdown patrol. Either some one had phoned in a report of a deserted vehicle, or they had just happened on us during their regular patrol. There was much smiling and thumbs-up from me to indicate that all was OK and that we were just cactus loco tourists.

Later we saw that the use of the hard shoulder in Brazil is not such a great idea, as it is frequently used when lorries overtake each other as an escape route for oncoming traffic.

S1555 was a track off BR 251 in the hope that we might find somewhere interesting to take a look without the parking and lorry problems. Only one problem remained: no cacti!

S1556 was a pleasant surprise. At the Type locality of Micranthocereus violaciflorus (HU275), we readily found the plants, growing on rocks behind a microwave communication tower. I bet that was not there when the plants were discovered in the 60s/70s! What the location notes did not reveal was that there was also an abundance of Discocactus here, probably D. placentiformis, as well as P. fulvilanatus. The bad news was that, probably within the last twelve months, a fire had swept through here. Bare quartz with many charcoal black Velloziaceae stems were the scene, with blackened Micranthocereus on the rocks. Most of the Discocactus again seemed to have survived, although most were badly scorched by the flames. There were old and young plants and evidence that some had flowered last night, so it looks as though these plants will survive. Many of the Micranthocereus looked less fortunate – time will tell.

Brasilicereus markgraffii was also here, but that plant always looks ‘beaten up’ so seemed unaffected.

Friday, 27 November – around Grão Mogol

You left us yesterday crossing our fingers for a favourable outcome to our request for permission to be granted for us to be allowed into the Parque to see and photograph Discocactus horstii.

Claunidio Soares BomFim again gave up his time as Solicitor to help with interpreting for us. The outcome was as we had feared. Although the Grão Mogol office of the IEF (Instituto Estadual de Florestas) had put our request to their chief, who in turn had taken it to the Department Chief in Monte Claros who in turn had asked permission from the highest placed person in Belo Horizonte the answer remained a polite but firm ‘No.’

Knowing that we would be disappointed at this outcome, they would allow us to join the Volunteer, Joáo, who we first met at the newly completed Parque entrance yesterday, to take us on a guided tour of the Parque, except to the location where Discocactus horstii grows. They offered us digital images of the plants growing in habitat and struggled to understand why, if that is all that we wanted to take home with us, this was not enough. I struggled to explain this myself, as it was a perfectly reasonable and rational thing to ask. 

We decided to accept their kind offer for Joáo to show us all the other cacti in the Parque, but first we had an appointment at the Prefeitura Municipal, the Mayor’s Office. Last night, Cliff and I went out for a stroll and a beer. We sat down at a small street terrace and chatted with the owner, Antonio. ‘Chatted’ meant that we used a mixture of say 80% English, 15 % Spanish and 5% Portuguese words, a lot of arm waving and some pictures on my camera’s monitor to tell our new found friend that we were eco-tourists from England, touring Brazil for three months to photograph cacti. They were appalled to learn that we were not allowed to visit D. horstii and spontaneously reached for their mobile phones to plead our case with officers from the Mayor’s Office. The outcome was that we had a 10 a.m. appointment there.

Again, we very much appreciated the effort of the people of Grão Mogol to help us, but we realised that this would change little, as it seemed that the Parque was a State owned and managed project, outside the jurisdiction of the Municipio. By now there was every danger that we would spark off a major incident between local and state government and this really was not our intention. We made the visit merely as a courtesy call but found no one at the office who could speak or understand English or who knew of our appointment. Just as we were about to return to the Parque’s Office to pick up Joáo, who should arrive, but Claunidio, again as the interpreting voice of reason, just as he had been when Thomas Wegelin and his wife sparked off an incident, believing that they had received permission from the Prefeiture office and then had been ‘arrested’ when found inside the Parque’s boundary. Again, the Mayor’s secretary and her assistant were called out of meetings, repeated that there was nothing they could do and back we went.

Joáo took us to two different parts of the Parque that I have recorded as S1553a and S1553b, as effectively they are in the same location, the Parque Estadual de Grão Mogol.

S1553a was a matter of stepping through the barbed wire fence not too far from where we had done the same for S1552 yesterday. He had really understood what we wanted to see and took us straight into a very dense area of Discocactus pseudoinsignis. No sooner had we photographed what we thought was the largest plant that we had seen, or he would show us an even larger plant!  Sometimes the plants grew so close together that it was difficult not to step on them. This had also been a problem for the cattle that had been here (not sure how long ago) as some plants had been kicked out and others had been trodden on. All Discocactus are night flowering plants that produce a strong aroma that to attract their pollinators, a species of Hawk moth.

Photographing these plants was not without its challenges as many grew exposed on absolutely snow-white quartz sand, while others grew in the shade of shrubs and grasses, providing strong contrasts. When I get home, I will check the available literature to check if D. pseudoinsignis has been reported from outside the Parque boundaries as well,  or if it is another Parque endemic.

Joáo pointed at a Pilosocereus fulvilanatus that I had been photographing and asked if I liked these as well. Certainly, as all cacti were of interest to me. But this one had been seen outside the Parque boundaries. He took us to an area where the D. pseudoinsignis had suddenly disappeared from the scene and a small forest of Pilosocereus had taken its place. Why? Another one of Mother Nature’s quirks that makes studying cacti in habitat so fascinating.

It then struck me why it was so important to see D. horstii in habitat, when habitat pictures had been offered at the office. I felt a bit like a Brazilian tourist to Europe who had planned to visit the Louvre in  Paris to see The Mona Lisa (also known as La Gioconda or La Joconde) by Leonardo da Vinci in the museum. Millions of people visit the museum each year to admire her mysterious smile. Now imagine the disappointment of arriving there to learn that the hall where the picture hangs has been closed, but that staff are giving away pictures to help to overcome any disappointment. There are just some things that people want to see for themselves and are prepared to travel and pay for to see. Just as the mysterious smile drives us to see her, so the question as to why D. horstii grows where it does and nowhere else on the planet has been a discussion point for many years since its discovery in 1967. 

On our way back to the car I pointed at stems of Brasilicereus markgraffii and asked Joáo if he knew a similar thin stemmed plant from here with a hairy stem that forms a ring cephalium. Amazing what you can do with hand gestures and a mixture of words from different languages. I was trying to check if Arrojadoa eriocaulis ssp albicoronata grew here. He nodded to indicate that he knew it. Later, he showed us a small stem that mimics the Portulaca sp. (yellow flowered) that abounds here. Encouraged but puzzled by our excitement at such an insignificant plant he found as a whole area at  S1553b. He demonstrated that the stems never get taller than some 30 cm. We saw two or three stems with a ring cephalium that is characteristic of the genus. He looked in disbelieve or confusion (?) when I explained that there was a huge tuberous root below the soil and that many of the stems that he showed us were probably all connected to the same root. It seems that this plant has adapted a similar survival strategy to Pterocactus elsewhere: invest in an underground tuber from which new short lived growth emerges when conditions are favourable. If you happen to visit at the wrong (dry) time of year, I suspect that there is no sign of the plant. I suspect that this plant is more rare in nature than D. horstii, but it’s rather temperamental in cultivation in Europe and the short untidy stems seem not to appeal to hobbyists.

We reached the base of a waterfall and Joáo suggested that we’d climb to the top. At around 13:00 hrs, the heat was very uncomfortable and we decided to decline the kind offer, had a rest in the shade by the bottom of the waterfall and returned to the car to drive to the small bar along the road past the official entrance site and have a Cola or two. It turned out to be 3 litres as clearly we were very dehydrated. Joáo only wanted two small glasses of Cola. In total I was able to take 183 digital images in the Parque, compared to the 72 or so slides taken in 1999.

All in all we had a great day and were really impressed with the friendly helpful attitude of the people we met. Claunidio stands out as a key person to help to improve the situation with his language skills. In the meantime, I have offered to help by communicating the current position regarding visits to D. horstii in habitat to cactophiles around the world through my Blog and internet cactus forums. In the short term it may result in fewer international visitors to the town, but once the visiting rules have been agreed and implemented and when the new hotel being built on the outskirts of town is finished, there is great potential for organised cactus trips returning here for every one’s benefit and enjoyment.

Thursday, 26 November – around Grão Mogol

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!!

Wednesday, 25 November – Diamantina to Grão Mogol

We said our goodbyes again at the hotel, this time more permanently than on Monday. It was 365 km between Diamantina and Grão Mogol but it was all on paved roads, so not a problem, especially with two drivers. The first part of the journey was the same as last Monday’s and Tuesday’s: head north past Mendanha and Coutes da Maggalhaes, then past the turning to São Gonçalo do Rio Preto, and on until the turning left to Bocaiúva and Monte Claros. Much of the journey was again through Eucalyptus forest as far as the eye could see. In a way, these trees were to be thanked for the excellent roads that we were on. To get the timber from the forest to the processing plants (a large percentage find their way to the paper mill) you need good roads for the lorries.

We made one stop (S1548) as the road crossed the Rio Jequitinhonha and climbed some hundred meters to offer a superb view as the river with its snow white quartz beaches zigzagged its way through the green forest.

I remember Monte Claros as a bit of a nightmare town in ’99, chaotic with traffic, even late on a Saturday afternoon as we were looking for a hotel. This time the impression was much better as they have made a bypass with well signposted roundabouts to help keep the traffic out of town.

The next stretch of road, the BR365 was like a slow moving snake of lorries. This is the main road between Belo Horizonte and Bahia. There were some amazing driving antics as the snake wound itself up and down hill with the speed dictated by the slowest vehicle. That is until there was a stretch suitable (or not) for over taking, when these giants of the road would slowly grind past the slowcoach, sometimes with another lorry overtaking the over taker on the hard shoulder of the lane meant for traffic going the other way! 

Once we had left Monte Claros behind, things calmed down a bit, but the quality of the road surface deteriorated dramatically, so that overall, our average speed did dot improve.

Before too long, we reached the turn to MG-307 and 53 km later we arrived at our destination.

But first, we made one more stop, S1549, as we were just in need to stretch our legs and thinking that there were bound to be cacti here, Wrong! We walked off in opposite directions, either side of the road, with our walkie talkies and soon reported to each other that although the presence of quartz would suggest that we would find at least some Discocactus. After 30 minutes we admitted defeat, drove on a few more km., took another look, same result.

As we approached Grão Mogol, we finally had confirmation that we were in cactus country, with Pilosocereus fulvilanatus seen regularly either side of the road. We resisted the temptation of a cactus stop and headed into town. An advert for a new superb looking hotel on a poster at the entrance of town appeared to be a promise of future development that was still work-in-progress!

Once in town, it seemed that time had stood still these last 10 years. The square with the church and the Pousada da Serra where all the cactus greats in the past had stayed were still the same as we left them in 1999. Backeberg, Ritter, Buining, Horst (as well as Bates, Grantham, Klaassen & Machado) would have stayed in these basic quarters and been glad of them.

In 1999 we had a late lunch in what at the time was a recently opened hotel, by the river. It was still there, was clean and cheap but had no wifi. Neither would the Pousada, so we booked into the hotel.

After settling in (top of the house – 3rd floor – no lift – narrow steep stairs) we went for a walk around town and again it was as though nothing had changed for 10 years. Eerie.

Tomorrow we’ll check out the formalities of visiting Discocactus horstii that now has its habitat protected in a public nature reserve. We discovered this in 1999 as this change was introduced in October 1998. Recent information suggests that the protection is being taken a little too far with would be visitors being refused entry. We’ll then explore to find the other unique local cactus flora of this area. We have allowed five nights to stay here or in near by towns to enable us to extend the range of explorations once the D. horstii challenge has been fulfilled.

Tuesday, 24 November – Diamantina to Pedra Menina and back

The best laid plans …

There is obviously no excuse for not getting it right. After yesterday’ s scouting trip plus the homework that I had set myself, today was a disappointment for me.

Marlon had suggested by email:

‘   …to Pedra Menina it is even easier, if you take the paved road to São Gonçalo do Rio Preto, then take the paved road to Felício dos Santos, and from there Pedra Menina is not too far and the road is good – they were actually paving it last year, it might be paved road all the way to Pedra Menina now, or at least it is to Felício dos Santos).’  This was the road we had chosen for today.

The reports (from June 2008) were accurate. Although not completely finished, they were still working on the bridges, it provided a very fast access to Felicio dos Santos. There things were in a big mess with the original track blocked, being prepared for tarmac laying. Good job that there was no recent rain or the temporary tracks around the problem spots would have been impassable.

But here the good news stops. The bad news is that we had the impression that the usual maintenance on the track to Pedra Menina had stopped soon after Marlon had passed last year, probably in anticipation of the promised hard top. But where was it? Lost in the post? Money run out on the previous stretch?

To make matters worse, there were umpteen side tracks all clearly NOT sign posted, and if there were signs, they were to metropoles not on our maps or radar.  My GPS had some idea that there were ‘Terra’ (unpaved tracks) and I had taken some key coordinates from Google Earth the previous evening to act as winch posts to enable us to head in the right direction. Sometimes we were right, but on several occasions we had to go back a few km, after asking directions in our, by now fluent (NOT) Portuguese. It was a great relief when down in the valley we saw the village that I immediately recognised as Pedra Menina. It should be plain sailing from here.

Again, we were to be disappointed. It was easy to see the quartz field where we had seen wonderful Uebelmannia gummifera ssp meninensis in 1999. I had their exact location coordinates. I had the coordinates of the track towards them and even the side track that would get us the last km to them. But that last side track was not to be seen in ‘reality view’, only as a wish on Google’s ‘virtual view’. We tried three possible tracks but had to turn back each time as our little town car was not able to handle the deep ruts left by much larger vehicles at much wetter previous times. At one stage Cliff had to reverse about 500 m down hill on such a narrow track with the ridge between the ruts taking bites at our exhaust system By now it was 15:15 and time for alternative options was running out, especially as dark skies were looming – we did not want to be caught in rain before returning back to hard-top.

Had we been earlier, we could have left the car and walked across the valley to the quartz field and back, but there was no time to do so.

Anyone wanting to see this location in the near future better note that the local unpaved roads are mostly in a bad condition and that sign posts to anywhere that might be shown on a map are non existent.

A tiring and disappointing day.

Monday, 23 November – Diamantina to Itamarandiba and back

The best laid plans of mice and men …. often come a cropper.

Today we were moving on from Diamantina to use Itamarandiba (that I have great problems with to pronounce, especially after a couple of beers!) as a jump of point to see Uebelmannia gummifera and U. gummifera ssp meninensis and possibly fa rubra in habitat.

Google Maps had told me how to get to Itamarandiba, but …. the safe, faster long way round – 173 km in total. We drove into town and looked for hotels while at the same time looking for the way out towards Pedra Menina and Penha de França which were close to the locations for the above cacti. In our search for the way out of town we came across two hotels and one Pousada (over the petrol station on the edge of town) None of them seemed to have internet facilities which we needed to finalise our plans to reach the Uebelmannia populations. We agreed to focus on our search out of town towards our target area, then look for the nearest hotel.

As we have mentioned before, the success of finding the plants you want to see lies all in the preparation that you put in before – and we had not.

We found the track that according to my woefully inadequate GPS system seemed to be heading in the right direction. We got so wrapped up in this search that we forgot about returning to town. We decided to persist with this quest as a scouting mission. Earlier today I had spotted a sign for a hotel in Couto de Magalhaes, along the main road, near to where the track that we were following would join it.  Inspection of the hotel resulted in a thumbs down. Although we did not go in to ask, it did not look to have internet facilities and certainly did not advertise it, if it did.

We were only 31 km from the hotel in Diamantina where we had a wonderful stay for the last 8 days, so decided to retreat to there. A bit of putting today’s GPS waypoints into Google Earth gave us a clear idea of where we had been and how close (14 km) we had been to one of these Uebelmannia sites. It seemed a much more practical idea to see these sites from Diamantina, so that is the plan for the next couple of days.

Raphael was very pleased to see us back so soon. He also told us in his best English that a lady would be at the hotel bar tonight who could speak both Portuguese and English, to help us overcome the language barriers.

The lady in question turned out to be Annick, originally from Antwerp, Belgium, who had been living in Brazil for some thirty years. The three of us exchanged summarised life histories and we were now able to amaze our Brazilian audience with what we had done today, what we had been doing and what we were planning to do.

Annick has been added to the number of people who are aware of this blog and, who knows, may drop in unexpected one September at ELK (Europese Landen Konferentie) in the  Duinse Polder, Blankenberge; Europe’s prime cactus festival.

Tune in tomorrow to check if the plans hatched tonight actually work out.

This was a cactus free day, so no pictures to post.

Sunday, 22 November – around Diamantina

We really had run out of things to explore here. That is a lie of course – we could have made stops, say every 1 km along the roads to Datas, Rodeador, Sopa, Inhai etc. walked one  km either side of the road and back and so have a very detailed set of data of the cacti of this area. That is for another life time if we should find nothing better to do.

The remaining Uebelmannia (U. gummifera, its ssp meninensis and U. buinigii), are better approached from Itamarandiba, where we’ll be heading tomorrow.

What to do today? On the assumption that there are cacti everywhere here, Cliff picked a random town from the map, Gouveia, from where a track seemed to run west and then just stop. Obviously we were curious where it stopped and if there were cacti on the way. None were reported from our database. Not a cloud in the sky, it was going to be a scorcher!

We arrived in Gouveia earlier than planned, as the road was an excellent paved road. The track to the west was also easy to find. It had a number of forks and we obviously had taken the wrong one as some fifteen minutes later we arrived in a small village which I think is called  Francisco Doria a Pereira (S1543), at least that was the name painted on the school.

Back on the original track and another fork, eventually the bare rocky hills approached our track – no hard top here! – so we agreed to have a ‘stomp around’. (S1544a). Just one miserable Cipocereus minensis. We were disappointed not to find any Discos on the flat, as the terrain seemed right.

We carried on, still taking the ‘wrong’ turns, ending up at farms, se decided to turn back. As we approached ‘our rock’ again from the other side we decided that this might be the better aspect, facing more to the north, worth another look (S1544b).

Cliff decided to be a mountain goat and found nothing. I decided that as Discos like the flat quartz at the base, so I’d scout around there. It was quite a large area so I started at one end, from where we had actually found one Discocactus. Eventually I found another, but they were few and far between. Then Cliff came back down and found the hill at the other end from where I was searching easier to descend – and stepped right into the core of the Disco group!

There had been a fire through here perhaps 12 – 18 months ago and the plants illustrated perfectly how, being low to the ground, they could survive such a fire; singed ribs and spines and all. The plants were recovering and made unusual subjects to illustrate their powers of survival. I even found a fruit with seed that looked viable that Cliff is looking after. So, new Disco locality in an area not previous explored by our database contributors.

Then into the town that we had picked at random, Gouveia, for the traditional mid day Coca Cola. (S1545).

It was still early and on the way back (at c 16:00) we passed the turning to Conselheiro Mata, the track where we had had our puncture. It bugged me that since we arrived here, my memory was ‘blocked’ by a mental image from the first or second stop that we had made around here in 1999. From memory, the location was only 50 m from the track. So we turned on to the track.

This time I decided to rely on my eyes instead of the GPS and found a likely spot. Consulted the GPS – yes very near to a 1999 stop for U flavispina BUT that location was on the other side of the track. Now there was a farm there with a party in full progress.

We decided to let my instincts take over, had a look around some rocks, then I saw an electricity pylon and memory cells stirred. Go to it! As we approached we could see flat rocky terrain just past the pylon and in front of a huge rock hill. Things were beginning to click, particularly when I spotted the first Uebel!.(S1546). These days, a barbed wire fence cuts across the area. (or did it already in 1999?) I would search one side of the wire, Cliff the other. We had even remembered the walkie talkies. 15-20 minutes later – nothing! Well, except for Pilosocereus aurisetus with two ripe (split) fruits. Then Cliff woke me up from my search announcing that he had found 1, 2, 3, eventually 11 plants in one spot alone. This had to be the place of our 1999 stop that I remembered so clearly, as Marlon had found a group of young plants (16 from memory) that he had called ‘his family’. There had been two crested plants here at that time, but they were gone now.

This was an excellent way to finish off cactus exploring around Diamantina, with the first stop in 1999 now providing success as our last stop in 2009.

Saturday, 21 November – around Diamantina

As we can afford the time, we thought that today we’d do some conservative exploring. That meant taking another look near some places that we missed for various reasons earlier in the week on our way to Inhai.

You may recall that last Monday (16th) we were still feeling like a couple of greenhorns out in Uebelmannia country. There was a certain tension as I had high expectations of the digital images I would take to supplement the relatively small number of slides that I had from my ’99 stay in Diamantina. We gained a lot more experience and confidence since then.

First stop of the day was at last Monday’s Discocactus placentiformis site (S1523). This time (S1539) we almost stumbled over Arthrocereus melanurus ssp odorus that Marlon had told us we would find here. But the real reason to return here was to explore (walk 290 m.) to where he had found Uebelmannia pectinifera (Inhai form). In fact, we did not have to go that far. We spotted some black rocks and headed for them instead and sure enough, before long we had found the Uebels. Now, with digital cameras at our disposal, it is possible to take several pictures of each plant we see, compared of the 36 pictures for the day at perhaps 6 or 7 stops. I have been really impressed with the variability of these plants in habitat, with spines ranging from very short (and spreading on immature plants) to the rigid row of porrect spines, much longer than ever seen in cultivation on old plants. So far we have only seen flowers at one population. Why?

Also photographed here was a humming bird feeding on an unidentified shrub, Cipocereus minensis and the odd few Discocactus placentiformis that had survived crossing the road. Why is it that sometimes roads seem to provide a natural limit to a plant’s habitat.

We became convinced that anywhere along this track we could stop the car, walk west towards the Rio Jequitinhonha and found a rocky outcrop with Uebelmannia growing on it. To prove the point we made a random stop (S1540) and BINGO! Uebelmannia pectinifera as well as A. melanurus ssp odorus, P. aurisetus (the plant that I reported yesterday as ‘bugging me for a name), Euphorbia sipolisii and a Philodendron sp. (Cheese plant) with aerial roots that ran 10 m or more from the plant over the rocks. There was also the Tigridia (Tiger Lily) that we had been seeing all over Rio Grande do Sul, but this time taller, larger and yellow in colour.

S1541 was to prove us wrong – all the usual companion flora was there, but no Uebelmannia. Why?!? To make up for matters we found our first, but only few, plants of Cipocereus crassisepalus. It would seem that these are the rare plants, not the Uebelmannia!

On the snow white quartz sand that the river had deposited as a small ‘beach’ there were tracks to indicate that a snake had been through here.

Just before the famous bridge over the Rio Jequitinhonha was a turn east, to the village of Maria Nunes. The track ran along the river and we could see kids from the village play in the river from snow white quartz sand beaches. We had our daily Coca Colas from the fridge of the tiny village bar, again, much to the surprise of the owner and her family.

The last stop of the day (S1542) was on the south (Diamantina) side of the bridge over the Rio Jequitinhonha that we reported as being under repair last time that we crossed it. Somewhere in the back of my mind was a suggestion that although we parked at the bridge, we walked some 500 m. back along the track and then walked towards the river, through dense vegetation on rough quartzite rocks to find Uebelmannia. So we repeated the experience and within seconds had found a dozen plants. By now, it was boiling hot and we had more images of Uebelmannia from today then I had taken during the whole of the 1999 trip! Time to cool down in the air-conditioned car again.

We made one more (unnumbered) stop that yielded no cacti for the day. It was at the end of a short track from where a foot path ran about 20 m. to the river for a nice picture where the clouds reflected briefly on a smooth river, before a welcome breeze started up again and disturbed the water. A ‘no cactus found’ stop.

It was our last night at the Hotel bar and snack bar, where for the last week Raphael, our barman and Nilsa the cook had been very welcoming and interested in what these ‘cactus loco’ people from England had done each day. Most nights, we were the only customers, with most other customers ordering food and drinks to be taken to their rooms. They learned more English (and we Portuguese) than either of us knew before and I’m sure that each time that they see a cactus, they’ll think of us. We have very fond memories of them.