All our questioning yesterday seemed to indicate that the best place to get transport to take us across the border to Chile Chico was by public transport and so we drove to the bus station – where we found everything closed. Well, it was Saturday after all! So over to plan B. Our maps showed that there is a track that runs south from Los Antiguos, running parallel to the border. So if our cactus targets exist this far south and just ended up in Chile by the quirk of human geography drawing a line, than they must also exist down this road.
Our first attempt ended up at a locked gate (S2140) and a quick walk around confirmed that this was not an area for cacti – too close to the river and probably subject to regular flooding. We went back to town, quickly stopped at our hotel to pick up Juan’s spare camera battery and found a much more promising track.
Not only did it head south, but also up, to the top of the mesas that had surrounded us at S2140. And as we reached the top it offered a nice view of the Argentinean border station. S2141 offered nice views up and down the Rio Jeinemenia valley and some nice examples of Andean flora including a very attractive grass with almost black flowers – but still no cacti. S2142, a bit farther along, looked very similar to the last stop, but this time the shout went up ‘Cacti!’, accompanied by mad waving, as the strong wind again blew any sound away. There were several small clumps – or rather, we believed that the heads that we found were connected to the same tuber – of Pterocactus hickenii. Cliff was also indicating a find on the other side of the road, but by the time that I arrived after taking pictures of Juan’s find, he had already moved on, believing that we had found the same plants. However, inspection of some of the heads that had been quite loosely attached to the tuber revealed that he had found P. australis.
We were more optimistic as we stopped at S2143, proposed by John as there was an easy ridge to explore. Prompted by Cliff’s shout, I headed off to the other side of the road where he had found a small 6-headed group of plants. But what was it? Pterocactus are not the easiest of plants to ID. The plant itself is a massive tuber below the ground. They produce a number of ‘heads’ that, once above soil level, develop to look like small individual cacti. These heads produce a flower that seems very large for the size of the head, based on what I had seen in other people’s pictures as we still had to find a plant in flower. These heads were still immature and did not have the adult spination that helps to identify the species. Near by, Juan and I soon found stems of P. hickenii so that we concluded that Cliff’s find was the same species. Although the wind often destroyed any attempts at verbal communication, occasionally it carried a message much farther than expected. That is how I heard John shout ‘Flowers!’ from his high vantage point on the ridge. It took a little while before we had joined him but sure enough, there in the sand, out of the wind was a single flower. There were lots more plants (P. hickenii again) all around, many with recent flower remains suggesting that one or two days ago this place would have been awash with flowers. I took lots of pictures and started to walk back to the car to fid that John was already there and started to take a look at the area where we had already spotted P. hickenii earlier. But this time his shout was ‘Austro!’ as he had found a few plants of Austrocactus dusenii, one of which was in flower. Excellent find! And as we looked around for more, I think that it was Juan who spotted P. australis. The interesting point here was that there were three or four seedlings pocking out of the soft sand. A quick look below the soil revealed that these were already perfectly formed plants with a healthy tuber and a small head developing.
S2144 was for scenic shots to the point where we thought it best to turn around. It took just over an hour to drive the 60 km back to our hotel. We had proven that most of the cacti that we had come to see in Chile grew on the Argentinean side of the border. We had failed to find Maihuenia patagonica and Maihueniopsis darwinii. These were not the difficult plants to find, we had already succeeded with the ‘hard ones’. As I’m writing up today’s notes we may have a solution. The owner of the hotel phoned a friend – a taxi driver – who can help, but is not allowed to take fare-paying passengers across the border. However, we can take a bus to Chile Chico where he could meet us and take us for half a day to the required locations. We’ll see what happens next!
BTW – sorry for the poor internet service – it seems that the whole town runs on one server and more than 1 user per address makes the system grind to a halt.