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On every cactus trip there are days when miles or kilometers have to be ‘eaten’ and for once plant spotting takes a back seat. Often such marathons go through the most uninspiring countryside. We had a 601 km like that a few days ago to get from the icy west to the sweltering east coast. As we had then travelled south, Argentina gets more narrow so that to make the reverse journey, from the coast to the Andes and the border with Chile was only some 381 km. Cliff was our man behind the wheel today.

Yesterday’s drive south had already reduced the outside temperature from about 33 C to 23 C and that ever-present wind would make things a lot more comfortable if it was not so strong as to drive you mad.

We went through some extremely flat terrain – it made The Netherlands look hilly! with every 500 m or so a Pumpjack (aka Nodding Donkeys in the UK and Ja-knikkers in Dutch). So we were in the ironic situation that we were driving through Argentinia’s main oil field, but where the majority of the pumpjacks were switched off – on strikes as were the small groups of workers at major crossroads. It seemed to be something that only YPF (Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales) is on strike. Originally a Argentine State owned company, it had an interesting history of ownership and was privatised in 1991 with 5% of shares now owned by the Spanish multinational Repsol.

Anyway, the history of today’s oil crisis is about as interesting as the landscape that we drove through. Cliff suggested several locations for a speculative ‘stomp around’ but with outside temperatures between 10 and 13 C and the car being blown around by the ever-present strong wind, no-one else was particularly interested – how could cacti grow here?

Eventually bladder pressures encouraged us to put on jumpers and find coats for the desired stomp around (S2139). We were immediately rewarded with some typical Patagonian plants – compact and mound forming and, away from the wind, smothered in flowers. No IDs at present. Then Juan (who else?) discovered Pterocactus hickenii (for now) – just a single head poking up between the grasses.  John must be second in the unofficial cactus spotting league when he spotted two stems of Austrocactus growing close to each other. The fruit remains that were wooly, rather than spiny helped Juan to ID this as A. desunii, which is not (yet) reported in literature available to us as coming from this area. We wandered off in various directions until the cold wind had chilled us to the bone and the warmth of the car beckoned us in. Juan had found another A. desunii – a long stem, thin and spindly near the roots but quite robust at the growing point.

And John had found a few more P. hickenii but growing roadside of the fence that we had squeezed ourselves through. We had found this before, that inside a fenced off area goats, sheep and cattle do enormous damage to the flora, but that outside the fence, things are relatively undisturbed. Success on finding plants depends on how long ago the road had been built and if nature had been able to recover from that drama. 

After Perito Moreno the scenery changed again, now with snow-covered mountains to the west and a huge lake (1,850 km sq and up to 585 m deep) – Lago Buenos Aires in Argentina and Lago General Carrera in Chile – the border runs right through the middle. Surprisingly, the lake drains into the Pacific Ocean, not the Atlantic, so we have an indication of being on the ‘continental divide’.

Our theoretical goal for this expedition is to reach Chile Chico, the small village on the Chilean side of the border because some 10 km south of the town the southernmost reported  Chilean cacti have been found. In 2007 Cliff, Juan, Flo and I had driven to east of Antugo in Chile to find ‘the southernmost Chilean cactus’ – Maihuenia poeppigii. We had been aware of the plants around Chile Chico but at that time had dismissed them as ‘Argentinean plants that were growing some 10 km to the west of a man-made border’. If the legislative hands that had drawn up the border had shaken slightly, they would have been Argentinean plants and they clearly belonged to the Argentine rather than Chilean flora. This year’s trip was aimed at exploring Patagonia, irrespective of national borders, so a good excuse to put the matter right.

We just have once complication to resolve. To take a rental car from Chile into Argentina we had to take out a temporary licence to export the car from Chile and, within a month, import it back again. Simple – you’d think. Not so, because while we can legally enter Chile, we can’t then drive through Chile back to Santiago. We  have to make the final crossing farther north, probably around Villa La Angostura, after Christmas.

So tomorrow it looks as though we will be taking a local bus ride across the border into Chile and, on arrival, we’ll try to get a taxi to take us to the locations that we want to visit – all along a paved road. We’re keeping our fingers crossed!

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