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These days the 50 km drive to Paposo is quick on the well maintained asphalt coast road, Ruta 1 (S2839 – no cacti photographed). S2840 was for a leg stretch among the Copiapoa cinerea ssp haseltoniana.

Ruta 1 - the coast road between Taltal and Paposo

Ruta 1 – the coast road between Taltal and Paposo

Copiapoa cinerea ssp haseltoniana

Copiapoa cinerea ssp haseltoniana

Another one of Angie’s requests was to see Copiapoa solaris at the end of the Botija Valley. Why not? During my last visits in October and December 2010 our familiar ‘campsite’ had been bulldozed and a rough track lead into the Quebrada. In December we met a car with two occupants at our old campsite – they too were surprised. One of them was the Manager of the Manta de La Luna Mine in Tocopilla and keen on cacti. No, we need not fear that Botija would be destroyed by mining – he would have heard on the grapevine, although clearly there had been some serious exploring, judging by the heavy-duty caterpillar tracks. Perhaps a small gold vein had been found and emptied, but the tracks were now ‘old’ and there had been no obvious follow-up.

So we were a little tense as we approached – for two reasons: 1) would there now be a camp with mining equipment and 2) if not, would we recognise the place? I had not brought my regular GPS along and had set off believing that I’d have no problem at all. Never mind, we could always turn round if we got to the easily recognised mining dump at El Cobre! S2841 was for images from the car – no cacti photographed.

There was no need to panic. Some of the R1 beyond Paposo had been improved, but there was still some 80% of the traditional bone shaking to endure. Angie & I both saw the first Copiapoa ahremephiana more or less at the same time – but they looked extremely dry, almost beyond hope! Fortunately nature seems to have a fantastic ability to recover, but this will take a major miracle! It was difficulty to decide which image was right to include in talks and in my blog – one of the very few plants that still looked in reasonable shape or one of the many dead or dying plants, looking very dehydrated. I settled on a small clump that shows aspects of all these stages perhaps explaining why when we were first here in 2001, Marlon & I both noted two species here. When we get back here in a month’s time Jonathan Clark noted that there are two different ‘faces’ on the same clump – one plant, one species, but two different appearances as the plant sacrifices stems to survive. (S2842).

Copiapoa ahremephiana - one clump, one species, two 'faces'

Copiapoa ahremephiana – one clump, one species, two ‘faces’

We set off on our hike but soon found what seemed to be a new branch to the Quebrada off to our right. I decided to follow it for some 30 minutes while Angie marched on to the ‘T junction’ at the end of the main valley. All I found were dead C. arhemephiana, quite a depressing sight. This small canyon seemed to turn round to the coast, away from where I might expect to find the other interesting cacti of this area.

I turned back and followed Angie’s footprints along the track that we had found in 2010. It seemed that nature had done nothing to improve the quality of the track, rather made it worse. It also seemed as though not many other cars had tried to copy us and drive in. The suspension on the Dodge was rather bouncy and if we had a new set of all terrain tyres, I might have risked driving in. For now I was happy to explore, move some of the larger, sharpest stones and see if I’d like to take the risk in a few weeks time when I would be back here again.

Most of the track was passable, some parts even good enough for a 20 km.p.hr. sprint, but in some places wind and water (?) had cleared away the sand between huge boulders, leaving large gaps with protrusions that I think would not be cleared by our car. Also, if we should be able to get to such a point, there was no space to turn around, so we’d be stuck. I stopped my highway maintenance tasks and started to look for cacti – still very distressing. Soon Angie appeared, reporting that she had reached the T junction and at least found a number of healthy looking clumps of C. solaris, but here too, there was more death to be observed. We walked back along the south side of the Quebrada (the track zigzagged across the valley floor, but the main place to spot C. decorticans had always been on the south side – north facing side of hills. I have never been able to work out why Copiapoa, living in an environment where water, and how to avoid losing it, is of critical concern, always seem to select the north facing side of a hill – the side that at midday gets the full sun, rather than look for shaded positions. This preference could be fatal here.

C. decorticans (the name C. moribund had been considered when naming the two ‘sp. Botija’ plants was discussed) was in serious distress – I did not find any live plants, plenty of clumps that had died a while back. I know from more detailed explorations high on the surrounding hills by mountain goats such as Rudolf Schultz, Leo van der Hoeven and Juan Acosta and Florencia Senoret that many healthy plants grow much higher on the hill, much too high for my physical ability and for today’s time budget, even if I had been mad enough to try. Fingers crossed that things are better higher up.

And so, after our after our brief sojourn to our farthest point north, we set off back to Taltal, muscles aching after years of too little exercise.

The story of cacti looking stressed through lack of water has now been observed everywhere that we’ve been. That despite us seeing the Desert in Flower in October/November 2010.  Clearly there had been plenty of water than to encourage the annuals to put up a magnificent show, but not enough to allow the cacti to build themselves up for the next great drought.

We saw some lizards that seemed in no hurry to run away from us, but no insects, even though there were some annuals in flower. Angie reported being followed by a hummingbird everywhere she went – must have been her shirt with lots of red in the pattern that was the attraction. So even if there should be a good wet year for the plants, will there be enough pollinators left to ensure sex for the cacti?

On the way back to Taltal we made another leg stretch stop (S2843) among the ever so photogenic C. haseltoniana.

Copiapoa cinerea ssp haseltoniana along R1

Copiapoa cinerea ssp haseltoniana along R1

Off to Club Taltal soon, where yesterday we had been greeted as long-lost friends. It’ll take a few Pisco Sours to forget the dead plants seen today.

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