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.