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.