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Archive for October, 2010

Sunday, 31 October, 2010 – around Lonquen

Today was just a rest day. Florencia’s family were in residence and I had a reminder that the disadvantage of visiting Chile in Spring is that the pollen count is high, so my eyes were red and burning. Spent most of the day in my room, getting the database up to date.

Florencia’s parents went off to the races. Today was the Chilean equivalent of the Epsom Derby. Victor’s horse was running in the main event and came second. Another horse, Over The Cliff, came first in one of the other stakes.

Saturday, 30 October, 2010 – around Lonquen

So what does a Cactus Explorer do in between expeditions? e makes sure that all his images are sorted, that his Diary reports are up to date and starts thinking about planning the next trip. And then Florencia suggested a trip into Santiago, visit the National History Museum, then move on to a Plant Fair that included three cactus retailers, including our good friends Ricardo Keim and Ingrid Schaub and from there to a good vantage point to take pictures of the Santiago skyscrapers with the snow-covered Andes in the background.

Excellent idea, with Florencia offering to drive so that I need not get stressed by driving through downtown Santiago. We saw some very nice cultivated cacti at very reasonable prices, with as wide a selection of cacti and other succulent plants as you’ll find in the UK but at far lower prices. The plants looked more natural and less forced than their European brethren of Dutch origin.

For the views of Santiago and the Andes we moved to the home of yet another family friend with a home with spectacular views across the Maipu Valley, on the Pucara de Chena. The views were spectacular, but were more over the lower built suburb of San Bernardo than of the skyscrapered skyline of Downtown Santiago.

Once back at Lonquen, Florencia’s parents and some brothers and sisters with their kids had arrived for the weekend and I was made very welcome. Beer, Pisco Sours and wine were flowing with lots of different crackers served that included king crab and various cheeses. Then on the huge mussels (= choros, particularly interesting in view of my studies of Eulychnia chorosensis).  These were just starters for the main meal, around the table, of beef bourguignon and custard apple as a sweet. A very civilised way to spend a Saturday night.

Tomorrow there is a visit to an Oktober Bier Fest on the agenda, proving once more that the life of a dedicated Cactus Explorer is anything but an easy one. Ritter must have known days like this!

Meanwhile, Angie and David were ‘enjoying’ their own adventure. Here is Angie’s Diary report:

We left Santiago on time (very unusual, that should have sent alarm bells ringing). After about 4-5 hours we were served our dinner , then they closed the windows and switched the lights off; good night! Some 30 minutes later there was a commotion near the middle door, then the light went on and they asked if there was a doctor on board. Don’t know if they found one but the collapsed person was taken to first class, the lights stayed on. Turbulence notices were ignored by staff and everybody was wondering what would happen next

After another hour, I guess, they announced that we had to land in Recife/Brazil as the sick person needed urgent hospital treatment. Because we were carrying too much fuel they had to drop a lot, before they were allowed to land, I now know what that looks like. We stayed on the plane, even during refuelling (there were certain rules for that too). Every exit was manned by a member of staff in case of an emergency, everyone had to sit in their allocated seat, but the seatbelt wasn’t allowed to be fastened and toilet visits were not allowed during that time.

After about two and a half hours we were finally on our way – another 7 hours to go – minus the ill person and family. By then we reliazed that we had very little hope of catching our connecting flight.

We arrived at Madrid at about 5 p.m. Once off the plane we had to go to a desk where our details were recorded and we got our instructions of what to do next. When the nice lady at the desk said that we were going on the 8.05 plane we said, ‘Good, we get home some time today.’  But then she added ‘no, no, no tomorrow morning!’

Next we had to reclaim our luggage, pay a visit to the Iberia/Lan desk and then find the shuttle for the hotel, which we had been allocated.

As soon as we touched down and found out we weren’t getting to Heathrow, I phoned Peter and let him know our predicament. My phone has no problems in Europe.  I tried in Brazil, but of course that didn’t work. Peter had gotten as far as Fleet when he got my message and waited there for my second call, When I told him the bad news, he returned home.

The Madrid hotel was 4 star marble everywhere. We got free dinner but could not enjoy breakfast as we had to leave before, but we got a cup of coffee.

Dinner was a buffet and as we sat down, the waiter provided a bottle of red wine (Spanish) and a bottle of water, so we tried every thing and nearly finished the bottle. David took the whole adventure in good spirit, was funny and jokey and we toasted absent friends with the free red wine. David thought that this was a nice end to the trip, a pity that the others couldn’t be there. Shame that the reason for it was rather sad.

Iberia/Lan certainly did well to sort things out after we took off from Recife. Instead of arriving at Heathrow we were taken to Gatwick this morning. Peter kindly decided to swap his day off this week for today and David phoned his sister.

Friday, 29 October, 2010 – Lonquen: the airport runs

So what could possibly go wrong on the last day?

We all woke up in good time for the various flights home. Around 10 a.m. Ian and Cliff were the first to depart in Big Red that had managed to follow our Chevy everywhere, although at a much slower pace. I never asked them to check if the handbrake had been left on. Final instructions were given on how to avoid becoming the ‘Permanently Lost Boys’ in Chile and yet get to the airport on time. See you at the end of November, Cliff, for our Patagonia adventure.

As I was staying behind for the next Copiapoathon adventure that will start on 3 November, I sorted out the washing to be done before the next trip and Carmen, the Peruvian domestic help, had it all washed, dried and folded by the time that the next heavy shower helped to clean the car a bit more while we were enjoying lunch. I started tidying up my notes, finishing incomplete Diary reports and pestering Juan with questions of what we had seen where, particularly on the subject of Thelocephala.

Just before lunch, David realised that he had left his camera underneath the seat in Big Red. A quick phone call to Andres and his contacts at the car rental firm that had provided the car confirmed that the camera was still in the car. A courier would take it to the Airport where he would page Mr Ian Woolnough (the name on the rental papers for Big Red) and reunite the camera and its forgetful owner. That will teach you to make jokes about the elderly, David!

And so the time had come to take Angie and David to the Airport. During the night the Andes to the east of Santiago had enjoyed a good sprinkling of snow, making for a very scenic airport run. Angie was cursing the telegraph post, traffic signs and trees along the road that were getting in the way of her last Chilean pictures this time round.

David, it was a pleasure to have travelled with you, we must do it again sometime, somewhere. And to Angie: Safe journey home! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! See you on January 8, 2011.

Back at Lonquen, I managed to clear up the Diary Report back log and publish them all to the Blog so that my fellow travellers have something to do when they get back home. Looking at what we have seen during the last three weeks in terms of plants and geography is amazing – I must check how many km we drove!

Thursday, 28 October, 2010 – Ovalle to Lonquen

The last day of this extended (to Argentina) Copiapoathon consisted of three plant stops and at Ian’s request, a visit to the small town of Combarbala that is famous for a type of stone, Combarbalita, from which ornaments are made. At the source, prices were much more affordable than say at Santiago Airport tomorrow. The shop owner was very pleased with the amount of business that Juan had brought him. Was he a tour operator? No, just travelling with friends, looking at and photographing cacti. Did we want to go on a guided tour of a quarry? No thanks, we planes to catch tomorrow. ‘Adios, come again!’ he urged us, as we left. Perhaps next month?

Plant stop wise, it was a disappointing day, or had we just reached that ‘cactussed-out’ stage that can creep in towards the end of a trip, when even the most ardent Cactus Explorer has had enough and thinks of going home. At least I can charge my batteries at Lonquen before the next one.

So what did we see? S1973 had Echinopsis (Trichocereus) chiloensis, Eulychnia acida – the typical tall growing form, as was to be expected so near to the Type Locality near Illapel, Eriocyse curvispina and the smaller E. heinrichiana. We had hoped to find E. senilis, that is reported from this area. I believe that only Juan and Ian, who had ventured to the top of the hill, managed to find one specimen. A ‘goatery’ with hundreds of these flora destroyers bleating away was probably the reason for this relatively bare hillside.

We fared no better at S1974 where again E. senilis remained illusive all the other cacti mentioned earlier were seen and photographed.

Next was the souvenir buying stop and so we headed west to meet up with Ruta 5. As we approached Pichidangui, it seemed tie for a final leg stretch and for what has become a traditional first and last plant stop of a Copiapoathon (even though the Copiapoa distribution stops a good 200 km to the North). S1975). Cactus fatigue had now really set in, with Cliff not even bothering to get out of the car.

Just when it seemed that nothing could go wrong, we lost Big Red, who had so far stuck to our bumper in town traffic. We waited for at least ten minutes but every red pick up coming round the corner was a different make with different occupants. We moved on to the road overlooking the bay. If they had taken one of the other roads on the peninsula, they must come past here. Or had done so already? Time clicked by and we moved on to the southern junction with R5. Still no sign of Big Red.

Earlier avid had said that if Ian and Cliff had known the way back to Lonquen, they would have driven on without the photo stop. So we surmised that we were now looking for The Lost Boys. Had they managed to pick up a puncture as they drove off? We had done so in almost the same spot in 2003!. To we drove back one more time, to where the cars had been parked, looking into every side street – without joy.

Once back on R5 we speculated that they must be ahead of us and, given the crawling qualities of Big Red, we cruised south at around 140 km p. hour and sure enough, some 60 km out of Santiago, there was the red Nissan with the tell tale tail light failure on the near side.

Juan had been keeping Flo informed of our progress by phone and so we had learned that Santiago was experiencing strong winds and hard rain. We could see the clouds as we came out of the hills and before long had the windscreen wipers going full strength. We arrived at Lonquen in the rain and in the dark and dinner was accompanied by the drumming of raindrops on the plastic roof outside the kitchen. 

The Weather Gods were preparing the Brits for their return to autumnal England.

Wednesday, 27 October, 2010 – Vicuña to Ovalle

Today’s program was for a relatively short (in km) drive, but on a dirt road winding back and forth through the mountains with speeds of around 30 km p. hour and nice cactus spots that needed detailed attention of our cameras.

We had seen many Echinopsis Trichocereus sp. on this trip, many in Chile the result (taxonomically) of lumping, under the name E. chiloensis. The form that would be with us today and for most of tomorrow is what I have been calling informally ‘the Elqui Valley form’, although once we had passed Hurtardo, we were actually in the Rio Limari catchment area. This form has amazingly long spines, usually around 15 cm (6 “) in length, although longer spines could be found. Reason enough for our first stop of the day, S1969 and again, around km 98, in full view of the El Tofollo stellar observatory, where the first Eriosyce aurata appeared on the scene.

The next location, S1971, around Mirador Tres Cruces, has become known on previous visits as the ‘Golden Balls’ stop, due to the golden yellow spined E. aurata. And they were marvellous again, ‘Best plant of the trip’ announced Ian, but then he has not qualified as a BCSS judge. Eriosyce eriosyzoides was also here, this time in fruit and some plants still in flower. The name illustrates very well what nonsense you end up with when new combinations and stati resulted in Ritter’s Horridocactus eriosyzoides (= like an Eriosyce) became an Eriosyce itself, becoming ‘Eriosyce like an Eriosyce’. Yeah, right! An excellent stop, even third time round and good to think that I’ll probably be back here again in November.

S1972 was another third time visit for a hill side densely packed with Echinopsis (Trichocereus) chiloensis near Los Morales. The effect could be enhanced even more by using the compression effect of a 200 mm telephoto lens. Returning to the same location on several occasions makes me think that I have a design fault my Stop Number lists. I should perhaps have recorded Location References, e.g. Los Morales, with the ability to record many stops there on different dates. Perhaps S1972 is not the best time to start changing a system, but I should be able to retrofit a Location Reference to the database, some time during Summer 2011 in England perhaps. We’ll see. It is not unusual to revisit a place and find cactus taxa that escaped us before. Similarly it is not unusual on subsequent visits not to want to repeat a long duplicate plant list each time.

We arrived at Ovalle and thanks to Juan’s excellent rear seat GPS navigation found our way through the busy town to Hotel Turismo, which proved a lot more comfortable than Hotel Roxy in 2003, in what seemed to be the red light district of town.

Rather worrying, after the Taltal Hen Party experience, they were setting up stalls and a sound stage for an Agricultural Fair on the Plaza immediately opposite the Hotel. Fortunately for the light sleepers amongst us, the Fair did not start until the next day and we enjoyed a good night’s rest.

Tuesday, 26 October, 2010 – Vallenar to Vicuña

Today we would travel from one town in an important river system – Vallenar along the Rio Huasco – to another – Vicuña along the Rio Elqui. Although the flora all round indicated relatively recent rainfall, river and reservoir levels were very low, perhaps suggesting that the amount of Andean melt water was down or that the demand for water down stream had increased.

First stop of the day (S1965) was along the Domeyko – Carrizalillo road for Eriosyce (Thelocephala) napina ssp. tenebrica and an opportunity of some more flower sections of E. chorosensis. We were now getting the full ‘benefit’ of the Camanchaca – far from ideal photo conditions. The second stop (S1966) gave us the same cacti, but closer to Carrizalillo, plus Eriosyce heinrichiana (?). By now we were using the windscreen wipers of the car in a light drizzle.

The rain had eased up by the time that we stopped again (S1966). Copiapoa coquimbana was here as well as several plants of Eriosyce subgibbosa wagenknechtii. I had not noticed that there was a light wind that had resulted in plants being half wet, on the ‘windy’ side and bone dry on the other side of the stem – it all looked most peucliar. Under these conditions it looked as though the large felted areoles of E. chorosensis had swollen in response to the humidity.

S1967 was a historical moment as we stood at JA001 – Juan and Florencia’s first recorded cactus stop in habitat from 2004! Cliff was again looking for seed and made the startling discovery that the seed pods here were proud off the plant instead of hidden in apical wool. We smiled, as Juan had earlier told us that alongside Copiapoa coquimbana grew Eriosyce simulans – Ritter used the species name because the plants were so similar to C. coquimbana. I managed to take some good shots of plants in fruit, growing side by side. Only the fruits look different.  Miqueliopuntia miquelii was also in flower, reminding me of the variability in flower colour and petal shapes noted on earlier trips. I must take a closer look when we pass through here again on the November trip.

The really positive point from today’s travels was that we were able to follow a reasonable hard road from Carrizallilo, east to Ruta 5 via Choros Alto, rather than having to go back the long way round, the way we had come, via Domeyko. This new track saved us at least 150 km. There was a lot more mining traffic (large trucks) that suggests increased activity in the hills: better access but also some habitat destruction.

Monday, 25 October, 2010 – Chañaral to Vallenar

We drove straight to Caldera without stops. I had been looking out for Eulychnia, as there seemed to be a big gap of no Eulychnia sightings along this road. They were indeed few and far between and from the moving car would appear to be dead. There was no easy access to the top of the hills farther inland, so that may have to be the subject of a more detailed look in November.

Past Caldera we headed south on the new road network that was evolving here, to end up at our regular stop on Morro Copiapó (S1957) for Copiapoa marginata and Eriosyce (Thelocephala) odieri. Both were found without trouble. There was also a charming miniature Alstroemeria here that was flowering, but had no leaves visible. The Eulychnia here was E. breviflora and more flower sections were taken to prove the point later on.

There was another ‘traffic’ sign to warn of cacti, with no prickly friends obviously visible. These spots had already proved to reveal Thelocephala growing by the side of the road, so were a good excuse for a leg stretch. Sure enough, plants of E. odieri (or was it glabrescens?) were soon found. (S1958).

S1959 was another sign and another search – this time without results. It did show the desert still in flower and the huge amount of seed that was covering the surface from recent flowering. Beetles were scurrying around and birds were busy eating both seed and insects, but it made little impact on the seed bank.

I’m not sure why we stopped at S1960, but instead of cacti, most of the images are of a pair of courting lizards that were proving interesting camera and cam-corder subjects.

At S1961 I asked myself ‘Can you ever have too many images of C. dealbata?’ They were large clumps, the light had improved, so cameras clicked again. Also seen: Eulychnia breviflora, Oxalis gigantea in full leaf, and a white flowered Calandrinia sp.

S1962 was not a plant stop but pictures of Carrizal Bajo and the new bridge across the Rio Carrizal. I know it’s progress and all for the best, but I cant help but feel that these trips have lost an element of adventure as I look at the sand bank, just emerging above the waves as the tide was coming in, and think back to one late Sunday evening in 2001 when we approached this sandbank after a long trip on one of the worst tracks I can remember, to find the tide was in and no sand bank could be seen. Our options then were to drive back to Totoral, then head east for some 100 km and then turn south on Ruta 5, arriving back at our hotel in Vallenar close to midnight. The alternative was to trust our memory on where the sandbank had been, hope that there were now areas of quick sand to get us stuck and pray that there was no strong current to take us off course. I remember that we screamed loud as Leo van der Hoeven put our car into gear and we splashed into the water, cameras held above out heads. There was a round of applause from the locals standing on the other side of the shore and no doubt the story has been added to the local folklore, at the gringos who drove across the water. This new bridge is very much what we had wished for at the time. Now that it was here, there was no need for any more water adventures.

S1963 saw us back at a spot that was the site of a night’s camping and group photos from previous trips, in the Llanos de Challe National Park. The obligatory group photo was again taken here amidst large C. dealbata and Eulychnia breviflora. Higher up on the hill, Juan showed us some more Thelocephala. Was this Eriosyce challensis? No, this was Ritter’s Thelocephala nuda that became a synonym of E. aereocarpa sensu Kattermann.   And just as I was becoming more confident about the distribution of E. breviflora, there was a single E. acida with characteristic naked hypanthium. Where had that come from?!?

For E. challensis (Eriosyce odieri ssp. challensis to give it its full name) we drove past the ranger’s building and, finding no-one home, decided to treat ourselves to a free visit. Before long we had stopped again and were preparing to climb yet another ‘Thelocephala hill’. Juan & Flo were first up, as usual, but in their haste missed out a plant that I spotted by nearly falling flat on my nose as the unstable surface of the hill started sliding. The surface here was different to that in other Thelocephala locations: the gravel was coarser and there was a good portion of quartz amongst it. Many plants stood proud of the surface, not unlike Echinopsis famatinensis ssp bonniea that we had seen in 2005 in Argentina, where as most other Thelocephala are near geophytes. Here too, there were a number of plants where only the flower popped above the surface.

It was still light, just, as we arrived at the Hosteria Vallenar. Sadly, work duties called Florencia back to Lonquen, so we enjoyed our last meal together (for a few days) and said our ‘See you soon’s as Juan took Flo to the Vallenar Bus Station for her night bus home.