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Archive for October, 2015

31 October 2015 – Around Taltal

Today, we were joined by Pablo’s younger brother Rolf with his partner Renata – two people not with our deep passion for cacti, but interested in seeing what it was all about.

We started off with a visit to Las Breas, Philippi’s TL for Copiapoa cinerea subsp. cinerea. In 2013 there were still huge fileds of C. cinerea here, but since then, a water management system with concrete canals and reservoirs had been built that had badly let the side down last March. It seems that the system had been extended further since.  We found our way on tracks throgh terrain where quarying for materials to produce the concrete channels and for road building, all at the expense of numerous C. cinerea – by the acre. No doubt last March’s floods would have further contributed to the habitat destruction.

It was quite a novelty to see these plants growing in so much other vegetation with Alstroemeria the most spectacular. All the cinereas looked as if they had enjoyed a good drink although some looked as though they had been used as pins on a bowling alley and had gained a few dents and bruises.

From here we drove to Cifuncho, where, behind the village, we had little trouble to find ‘Benjy’s Plant’, a.k.a. Copiapoa ‘sp Cifuncho’. It too had weathered the floods well, although the water had reshaped the landscape here as well. For me it is still the northern most form of C. longistaminea, that is first seen and plentiful on the beach below the hill tops of Las Lomitas in the Pan de Azucar National Park, in the Guanillos valley, as Kinze’s Copiapoa tigriloensis n.n. in the Tigrillo Valley and in a valley at the foot of what Rudolf Schulz called ‘Confusion Hill’ – where the plants are intermediates between C. longistaminea and C. grandiflora.

On the opposite side of the bay, between some very dark, slate-like rocks Pablo gave us a brief presentation of where he had foud a plant that had later been described by Adrianna Hoffmann as Eriosyce odieri subspecies weisseri. We all had a good look around and Angie found the most plausable candidate, although after Pablo had given his presentation, he had to admit that the plant in question was most likely the offset of a Copiapoa taltalensis / rupestris burried in the sand, but in terms of size was just right.

Not much farther along, past Rudolf’s Secret Valley, we reached Ritter’s Type Locality of Copiapoa cinerea subspecies columna-alba. We had not brought along the original photograph in Kakteen in SuedAmerika, but we still grouped around the Eulychnia saint-pieana in the original photo, and still there today, and photographed the columna-alba plants, both dead and alive, that were still here today.

As time was moving on, we took the track along the northern border with the Pan de Azucar National Park to Ruta 5 and arrived tired but happy for a meal at Hosteria Taltal – Club Taltal had for some reason not opened.

Friday 30 October 2015 – Vallenar to Taltal

  • Nice breakfast, sunny skies
  • Visit the Copec at the R5 crossing to milk the ATM as per usual
  • Took R5 north to turning to Carrizal Bajo
  • Saw evidence of Desert in Flower, but not at its peak
  • At Carrizal Bajo more new housing and signs of (slow) progress
  • Lots of Annuca (yellow flowered bulb) in flower
  • Stopped at the usual C. dealbata stop but none of the crested plants from previous years were found.
  • None of the Copiapoa were in flower! Back home must check this for previous visits. Could it be that in an El Ninjo year there is more cloud cover / camanchaca, reducing the amount of sunshine which in turn reduces fowering of Copiapoa?
  • Eulychnia breviflora in full flower!
  • We took the Vallenar – Carrizal Bajo – Totoral – Copiapo Airport – Caldera road, then R5.
  • Could not see any C. calderana at 140 km p. hr.
  • Lots of damage from last March’s floods – wrecked cars buldozed into the desert. Hosteria brightly painted plus other new? hotels in evidence, Copec and Petrobas stations rebuilt, away from the road
  • New junction to Pan de Azucar. All clear to the PdA Village, then the road completely washed away with signs indicating ‘blocked’ So no opportunity for Angie to say hello to Smiler.
  • Roads into PdA from R5 also closed.
  • Met up with Pablo’s brother Rolf with his partner Renata (from Austria) at Club Taltal. Not sure where the Zimmerframers got to. No sign of Brian Bates as yet
  • Tomorrow: short drive to Cifuncho to see if we can find T. weisseri.

Thursday 29 October 2015 – Los Choros to Vallenar

Sorry for the brief silence; no internet services in the facilities in Los Choros. I’ll catch up later.

Today we set off without breakfast – well a few crackers with goat cheese, of which we have plenty, and a cup of coffee.

The weather was much the same as on the previous two days – low clouds and the phenomenon that our goat herders friends called the garûa. Wikipedia reports that garûa is a fog that is so clear that it poses no problem to visibility but so wet that drivers have to use their windscreen wipers (we did!), where as the camanchaca is clearly visible, or rather, reduces visibility. We decided to take the road back to R5 and drive along the Eriosyce ripparia site. As we joined R5 at Trapiche – a large new proper motorway junction, except that the safety rails had become undone and could have speared the car if I had been less awake. The stretch from La Serena to Vallenar had never been one of my favourites, except for the Cuesta Buena Vista where cars, stuck behind lorries snaked their way up and down the mountain side. The whole stretch was now dual carriage way which greatly reduced the comfort and speed of the journey as we no longer needed to dodge from behind lorries when a gap in the oncoming traffic appeared, to overtake as many as possible before it was best to seek the relative safety of our own lane again.

As a result we arrived at the old Vallenar cross-roads on R5 with the two petrol stations – Petrobas on the side heading north and Copec on the side heading south. In 2013 we had discovered a marvellous cake shop opposite the Copec Station where today we discovered they have expanded to also serve omelettes, burgers etc. As we had missed out on breakfast, we enjoyed topping up here. At these pit stops, Pablo tended to follow the ‘mean and lean’ traditions of his travels with Lembcke, when money had been very short. He still had some biscuits in the car so had a glass of water while joining a chap of his own age at a table for a chat. It turned out that this man had connections with Hotel Atacama on Serrano, near the Plaza. He gave them a ring and was able to confirm that he had booked two rooms, including breakfast at a discount, for significantly less money than Hosteria Vallenar where we normally stay.

The pavements around the hotel had been pulled up for renewal so the first impressions were of a rather run-down place, but once through the door we were in a well maintained clean courtyard, all within the recorded sound of the bells of the church in the Plaza. We decided to do our own thing, with Pablo taking a rest and checking his emails while Angie and I walked to the Plaza to see the preparations of festivities this weekend, milked the ATM and visited the electronics shop where in 2013, Jonathan had managed to get a charger for his 3D camera.   I had brought my Surface Pro3 along and asked in my best English if they had a charger that would fit my laptop. The three members of staff walked confidently to the part of the shop where all sorts of chargers were stored and displayed, looked at the socket on the Surface and then their faces dropped. I believe they were asking each other if any of them had seen anything like it!? With a sad expression they handed the machine back to me – ‘No, Sorry!’

I tried the advice received of how to get my emails on Angie’s laptop, only to be told that there had been suspicious activity on my account. They would send a text to my mobile phone (I have none) or to my home number in the UK – no body home – or take me to another page where they asked lots of info to verify my ID. It all felt very safe and moving in the right direction until I had completed the page and was told that it would take up to 24 hours for the verification process to be completed!

In desperation, I switched on my laptop which reported to have 8 hours of juice left. I quickly opened my emails only to find some 187 messages including loads from Brian Bates. I was expecting a message from him to say that his passport had arrived and that he was on his way to meet up tomorrow in Taltal. Most of his messages turned out to be his usual drivel as self appointed football pundit, on anything from no hope English  nth division teams to out bursts against the top teams in the league and their managers and anywhere else for that matter. They are often quite amusing and I even respond from time to time but with limited juice in the batteries, it’s tempting to adjust the spam filter, but would then also miss the important message that would enable us to meet up.

Angie and I cooled down with another walk to the Plaza and a litre of draft beer in our usual Pizza restaurant.

It had been much of a driving day today, so only Angie too images – from the car. It was difficult to spot the location for Eriosyce ripparia, but Angie believes that she spotted a turning off R5 that should take us to the site for an inspection on our next pass by. That time, I’ll make sure that the GPS coordinates are in the SatNav so that we can slow down in time. At least the area’s function as a heavy duty road building car park seemed over and at 120 km p. hr. it looked as though the ground had been returned to its original state. But would the plants still be there? Time will tell. Fingers crossed!

Wednesday 28 October 2015 – around Los Choros

We got up at 05:15 and promptly at 06:00 Boris knocked on the door of our cabana to take us to his goat farm. We drove through the pitch dark at break neck speed. It reminded me of that trip from Santiago Airport to Andres’ garage in Down Town Santiago, where we stuck close to his bumper in order not to get lost. Again, I was stuck close to a bumper, in order not to get lost.

Due to lack of time (playing catch up) here are just some key points of the day.

  • The goat farm is some 10 km to the north east of Los Choros and as well as Boris and Arnold, is home to a couple of dogs and 420 goats. As soon as we arrived, our hosts started the seemingly random process of milking. No neat line of animals with milking machines, no this was done on the principle of catch your goat, hook its rear leg around the milker’s leg and extract the foaming white stuff into metal buckets.
  • The milk is used to make goat’s cheese and once the milking was done and morning had broken, we were treated to bread rolls, goats cheese and coffee. Over breakfast they told us how an old man in the village (1910-2009) had told them that around 1850 cows had been imported from Mexico to feed the workers on the Nitrate projects. This is how joints of Cylindropuntia tunicata had found their way into the area.
  • Donkeys were used in nitrate mining and once the boom for this was over, were turned lose to roam free in the Llanos (Plain).  They have no commercial use. Most of the deaths on the roads in the Llanos de Choros are caused by drivers hitting donkeys at night, killing themselves and the animals.
  • Guanacos have always had a presence here, but their numbers were kept down by hunters. In recent years, Guanaco numbers had fallen dramatically and the Conservation organisations had arranged for the government to impose a ban on hunting. Since then their numbers have increased sharply and we encountered several groups of a dozen or so animals on or way to Los Choros yesterday.
  • The goats, donkeys and guanacos all pick up cladodes of Cylindropuntia tunicata and so ensure its distribution over a wide area. Obviously the goat herders are most concerned about the affect on their goats, which can easily get hurt by the spines that get stuck in their skin and cause infection.


Monday 26 October 2015 – Olmue to Guanequeros

A quick reality check after yesterday’s euphoria at visiting Ritter, even though he was out, revealed that the luggage space in our car was smaller than expected and that our drone takes up at least another person’s (Brian’s?) space. I’ve seen worse, we’ll manage some how. But it did necessitate a serious repack for Pablo who had packed everything into one huge suitcase that he said, would not fit. So he needed to do a complete repack and asked for a delayed departure. Fine, but today’s aim was a hard ride from Olmue to Los Choros – 580 km and with our usual policy not to drive at night, particularly without accommodation booked, it seemed wise to aim for Guanaqueros instead.

And so I find myself again in the Cabanas at Bahia Club, in the same challet where Leo, Marlon Machado, John Ede and I first stayed in May 2001 – on the occasion of my 48th birthday. Our friend Helmut, who owns the cabanas was unfortunately on holiday (in Russia we believe) but it was business as usual. ‘Is Restaurant Pequenia open tonight?’ ‘No, it is their weekly closing night’ the stand in manager reported, but he would ring them to make sure. The good news is that they are open, so we are able to relive old memories and to toast our absent friends with a Pisco Sour and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.

It is worth noting that the scenery that we saw along R5 is the greenest that any of us could recall. Pablo is bombarding us with names of plants (with my limited botanic knowledge classified under ‘field flowers’) to be identified, if necessary, with Pablo’s help via Internet communications from home.

Not only is the land covered in flowers, but also in windmills, or rather wind turbine farms. Their numbers are approaching the density found along the highway between Palm Springs to LA. It is clear to see in the USA, that much energy is needed for the good old folk in LA and southern California. But who needs so much power here? You can’t easily store it. The nearest major town is Coquimbo / La Serena, some 150 km away. Still, I’d rather see endless wind turbines than a nuclear or coal fired power station to supply the necesarry energy!

Just a brief reminder that I can’t reach my emails on Angie’s laptop – the hotmail sign in page automatically sends me into Angie’s mail – there is no opportunity to enter my details – so any urgent emails for me to fraileaspine@hotmal.co.uk please.

Tomorrow we leave for Los Choros and our first adventure, studying the threat of Cylindropuntia tunicata to the endemic flora, especially to the Cactaceae of Chile.

Sunday 25 October 2015 – Around Olmue

Apologies first of all to all perfectionists for the usual typos in yesterday’s missive – some people only read my entries to have a laugh at the spelling mistakes. The point is, that none would ever reach the light of day if perfection is what the aim is.

What a day! Great to be alive! We reported for breakfast at 8, and found ourselves to be the second couple to do so, to be met by a buffet breakfast laid out for hundreds. Lovely food and in plentiful supply. We can thoroughly recommend the Hosteria Copihue in Olmue..

Around 9:15 we arrived at the Weisser homestead where we took pictures of what was left of the cactus patch, a stand of ceroids that on close inspection contained Eulychnia and Trichocereus that Pablo and Hans Lembcke had collected during their travels in the 1950s and 60s. Some of the Eulychnia were coming into bud which revealed them to be E. breviflora. Those not in bud were more difficult to ID but if I was to hazard a guess, the procumbent plants were E castanea. There was also a small (considering its age) plant that I assume to be E. barquitensis. It looks almost identical to a plant from Bill Maddams’ collection under that name. The stems are thinner than those of E. saintpiana and they branch from the base. The hairy areoles clearly indicate an affinity with the E. iquiquensis group.

Another member of the Weisser family, Kurt, arrived to connect Pablo’s laptop to the internet. Kurt is also the historian in the family and had been busy copying the family scrap book onto his computer. Pablo leaved through the scrapbooks and came up with a page dating back to the sixties showing a Hans Lembcke watering the same stand of ceroids that we were looking at.

Around midday we set off to another quebrada, the Cajon Grande where the Weisser family had owned land. The valley offered a great view of La Campana, the bell shaped mountain (you do have to use your imagination to see it as a bell) that dominates the landscape.

Pablo was amazed at the amount of housing that had been added since his last visit tome years ago. He was looking for the distinct shape of the Ritter residence and explained the aspect that offered a magnificent view on La Campana. Why did he settle here? Apparently he saw an end to his travelling lifestyle and wanted a place to settle down to start developing his many years’ worth of rough notes. Olmue offered a tranquil location with a comfortable climate without the extreme conditions favoured by the cacti that he had studied. Everything looked very lush and green but, as we were to learn later, this was not the usual scenery but again the result of the current El Ninjo event, after seven years of draught.

Pablo guided us down a track that eventually lead us to some fog nets, where we parked the car. I had not expected to see fog nets here – they turned out to be netting put up behind one of the goals on the local football pitch where the local team (Ritter United FC?) were playing to an audience of about 20.

Pablo was still unable to spot the Ritter house but thought that the aspect where we were standing was not right. And so we went down a steep footpath that followed an 8ft high wire mesh fence that clearly marked the parcellas of the new housing that had mushroomed here. We stopped every few hundred meters as Pablo again came face to face with plants that he had studied as a youngster. He described in detail the features of the various plants and pointed out those that were native and those that were foreign imports. Of these the Californian Poppy with bright orange flowers, were to most obvious –  I was tempted to declare it the Dutch national flower!

We could hear some people working in one of the gardens and Pablo called for their attention. The ability to chat to the locals in their own language is invaluable on such trips and Pablo is a master at this. He told the man and later his elderly father how his (Pablo’s) father had owned much of this land and that we were looking for a particular house where from c 1965 and 1973 a German by the name of Ritter had lived, next to another house where another German couple raised chickens and looked after Herr Ritter’s plants during his long periods of absence while exploring for cacti all over South America. The old boy seemed to remember bits of what Pablo had told him and pointed us down a narrow track along a stream. More fences eventually blocked the path and Pablo (aged 74) took to bouncing over the large boulders in the stream until Angie ended up standing up to her ankles in water. Our rucksacks and two heavy cameras each were just not practical for this kind of hike. Pablo agreed to carry on by himself while we would make our way back to the car park, enjoying a bit more photography of the wild flowers. Pablo can look forward to receiving numerous images of wildflowers once we are back home, with requests for IDs. Once identified I will update these pages with the images.

We got back to the car and waited patiently for Pablo’s return which he had estimated at around 15:00 hrs. ‘No chance’ Angie and I agreed, as he would have to climb over fences and wind his way up the hill back to the football pitch once his search had been completed. We dozed in the heat and at 15:05 were woken by the claxon of a bright blue jeep pulled up to the bumper of our car. There, in the passenger seat, was Pablo with a huge smile on his face. He had crossed the stream a number of times, got scratched by patches of dense vegetation, climbed fences and walked through various gardens, all the time following his instincts based on how things were some 50 plus years ago, when he would have done all this on horseback.  He eventually knocked on the door of a house that he thought was the one. The door was opened by a 12 year old boy who ran to get his mum. ‘There is a man at the door saying that he knew a man called Ritter, who used to live here!’ The lady of the house was Isobel. After a brief chat, Pablo had confirmed that this was indeed the house and then explained that he needed to get his fellow travellers. He hitched a ride from the local passer-by in the blue jeep who then guided us back to the entrance to the property that was invisible from the road. Indeed, there had been no road in Ritter’s day!

Isobel treated us to a welcome glass of water in what was a very comfortable house. She was an architect by trade, married to a German, Thomas, who is an MD and works in the main hospital in Santiago, two and a half hours drive away. Pablo was allowed to take us round the garden and looked for evidence of some of Ritter’s plant collection. All that could be found were a number of large Trichocereus chilensis stands and a ‘wall’ of Cylindropuntia subulata. It could be that smaller cacti were hiding below the carpet of Californian poppies, although it is likely that they could not survive the competition over the years.

And so, on the second day of our trip to Chile, we found ourselves standing in what had been Ritter’s bedroom / study, with a window that overlooked the Cajon Grande towards La Campana. The German connection had been everywhere around – we had even passed a restaurant called Schwarzwald! He must have felt home-away-from-home. The room was now used as a spare room and study, where on Isobel’s desktop computer, she was showing us photographs of the same room when they had bought the place. A magic moment!

We exchanged contact details and invites to drop by each other’s places when ever we would visit Chile or if they should visit England. We live close to Stonehenge, the ideal project for an architect to design the finished product!

We dropped Pablo off at his lodgings and enjoyed a Pisco Sour and a nice meal at the Hosteria before dropping off to sleep, with the room lit by the lights of laptops, camera batteries and drone chargers flashing. Just imagine what Ritter could have done with laptops, GPSs and drones!

Tomorrow we head north, already with some huge ticks in the boxes alongside the aims of trip.


Saturday 24 October 2015 – Madrid to Olmue via Santiago

Greetings from Olmue in Chile!

As they say, I have some (quite a lot) of good news and some (very little) bad news.

I’ll get you out of my misery by starting with the bad news. No trip would be complete without kicking yourself about things that I’ve left at home. The worst item this applies to so far is the charger for my laptop. So today’s missive comes from Angie’s laptop. This can also be used to down load my images onto my plug in HD. The problem is resolved when Jonathan arrives in 3 weeks time as he has the same Surface laptop that I have, so if you are still wondering whether to bring your laptop or not, please at least bring the cables & charger!

Now the good news – lots of it!

Baggage check in at LHR was a doddle. The large yellow hard case designed for my drone weighed in at 7.9 kg. The allowance is 23.5 kg. ‘That’s light!’ the check in clerk said. ‘The bag contains a drone’ I said. ‘perhaps it’s flying inside the bag to make it lighter!’ Nonsense of course, but it made us all laugh. I didn’t want him to reach for a H&S manual to check if drones are allowed as luggage on a flight, although we can’t think of any valid reason why they should not be – still, life isn’t always so simple!

We skip the flight bits, other than to say that it all went without incident and that it seemed that either they had reduced leg room by another 3 inches or that I had gotten taller.

Our arrival at Santiago coincided with three other transatlantic flight arriving from Madrid all within a one hour window, so long queues for immigration, collecting luggage and getting that cleared by customs & SAG who are convinced that we all try to bring in diseases by smuggling in bars of chocolate and the odd apple – or any of the other 5 healthy eating items recommended in the UK. No, I’m not carrying any of those, just a drone! Oh, alright then, have a nice day!

It wasn’t until arriving at our hotel that I dared to open the drone bag and found its contents to be present & correct!

Andres was waiting for us in the snack bar next to Exit 4 as arranged – the nicest ‘office’ that I have used to date with a large glass of naranja each for Angie and I.

The car rental formalities were completed quickly and efficiently by his colleague. I suffested that if he extended the add ons for car rental to include drones, we would do a roaring trade!

We arrived at Olmue at 13:00 – half an hour late, but easily found the hotel where Pablo had arranged a room for us – he himself was staying in the Weisser estate that we’ll visit again tomorrow to also see the bungalow that Ritter bought there for his stay in Olmue. By now Angie & I were running on vapours – dead on our feet from exhautions. Pablo just wanted to show us a plague at the entrance to the La Campana National Park, dedicated to his friend, the late Senor Garavante, after whom Ritter named the Horridocactus / Eriosyce garavanteae that grows at the top of La Campana (the Bell). This is where Angie recorded her first interview with Pablo as he told us about the people mentioned on the plaque. He turns out to be a true professional interviewee – I, the interviewer, didn’t even get a chance to get a word in!

I should also mention that the weather was bright and sunny, just as it always is when we’re there.

Time for dinner, before we drop into bed!


Thursday 22 October 2015 – the Drone Challenge II

As usual, when you reach one goal towards a project, another one climbs to the top of the list. Sunday’s triumph was our ability to fly the drone. Then Jonathan solved an issue with firm ware upgrades on Monday and yesterday Angie’s son Peter donated an old Nexus tablet to the cause. That left time for me to run through the check list of achieveables again and that raised some more questions:

Does the Nexus actually work?

How do you take images and movies while the drone is in flight? Seeing is believing!

What format is the output in, can my laptop use this and can I include them in my presentations next year?

And so me moved to a park near Jonathan’s home for some open space for another trial. Within seconds we saw evidence that the Nexus worked and that we could use it to operate the Drone’s camera. While holding the Drone we could take stills and movies. What about in-flight? Sure, no problem! This time, after the confidence booster of the maiden flight, I sent the drone up to a height of some 25 meter. What about moving forward and turning circles? Yep, all by trial & error rather than from the manual. On-lookers must have thought that they had walked in on young kids’ birthday festivities, the way we were jumping around and high-fiving.

The following movie clip (it uses .MOV format files, just like my Nikon DSLRs) was taken by mistake, but is quite amusing as we mess about, thinking that I had finished the previous movie. The film of what was supposed to be our day 2 demonstration film, where I fly the drone at speed across a soccer pitch, through the goal posts and then return at some altitude, was never recorded. Tricky things, those touch screen controlls!

So, sit back, be patient, and enjoy, and laugh with us when we come back with images of the Atacama Desert in flower!

Change of URL

Dear readers,

Please note that the URL for the Cactus Trip Diaries has changed to


The reason for the change is that I wanted to be able to include videos on the Blog and that required an upgrade (and payment) to the Premium Account and offered a free Domain name as a bonus.

I expect that your subscription to The Cactus Trip Diaries will continue seamlessly and will use this first new message since the change to check that notifications continue without glitches.

Next challenge: learn what formats video files need to be in to be accepted on the Blog.

Ultimately I want to check if it is possible to include my full 45 minute presentations for this and previous trips on the blog, so that my audience for presentations can increase without me having to travel great distances to and from the presentation locations. Should also benefit your local Cactus & Succulent Societies as they save on my travel expenses. I might have to review past presentations to include a voice over. What would be required to view these for a club evening would be a venue that is able to receive a wifi signal, a computer connected to the wifi link and plugged in to a digital projector. I expect it to be a process of trail and error, but as my Dad used to say: ‘You need to have the dream to turn it into a vision to work out what needs to be done to achieve it!’

Happy dreaming!

Tuesday 20 October 2015 – the Drone Challenge

You might well think ‘What on earth has a drone to do with a Cactus Trip?’ Not sure exactly when, but it was probably seeing some footage in a David Attenborough TV documentary that showed footage taken by a camera afixed to a drone that made me think WOW! How good would it be to come home with footage of aerial views of The Atacama Desert in Flower, of the extent of the invassive nature of a foreign cactus invader from Mexico (Cylindropuntia tunicata), the barren landscape where we plan to look for Eriosyce laui and Copiapoa tocopillana etc. The implementation of this plan has proven to be a good deal more challenging than envisaged.

First hurdle: where do you buy such a toy? The obvious answer is The Internet. But the item was so new to us that I’d rather buy it from a store with knowledgeable staff and a range of models to hold and to discover practical facts about ease / difficulty in flying it. It can only be a matter of time before a chain of ‘Drones’R’Us’ will find their way onto shopping malls. During a random visit to Maplins in Salisbury, there they were!!

From my research on the internet I had put the DJI Phantom 3 Advance at the top of my Wish List. They did not have that one in stock. A week later another impromptu visit and there was the Phantom 3 on display! Just pack it up and bill me!

After downloading the volumous support and user documentation from the internet I managed to put my back out – a great opportunity to read and digest the documentation, but the pain killers had numbed my brain (my excuse) so that a lot of the information, especially concerning the rather specific range of mobile devices to down load the App that controls the steering of the camera fixed below the aircraft. Clearly I needed assistance from my co-traveller (for the last two weeks of my 5 weeks Chile trip), Dr. Jonathan Y. Clark. (a.k.a. Doctor Y, as oposed to Dr Who, get it?)

With my back on the mend and with Jonathan having managed to clear his busy Diary, last Sunday was the time to attempt Mr PKDrone’s maiden flight.  We had already learned that this was not a matter of ‘unpack, charge the batteries and fly’! And so, Jonathan & wife Rose’s kitchen was turned into a workshop to work carefully work step by step through the pre-flight check list.

Drone workshop in Jonathan's kitchen

Drone workshop in Jonathan’s kitchen

It’s a good bit more tricky, than plug in and play, not in the least because these products are new and ‘bleeding edge’, rather than ‘leading edge’.

Our first check point indoors was to get to the Aircraft Unit and the Control Unit to recognise each other and to let them go through a routine where the four motors were whirring away. Health & Safety wise you’re not supposed to fly it in a built up area, not ‘near’ neighbouring houses as it may invade their privacy, not near airports, not on / near military or other high secure areas (My home on Salisbury Plain is owned by the MOD (Ministry of Defence!) and so on. We wanted the weather to be dry without any strong and gusting winds. A mobile phone or tablet, Apple or Android, is connected to the Control Unit to control the camera. My iPhone5 is already too old to be used, the iPhone5S would have done, but we did not have one of those. I had already bought an Android tablet – a Prestigio Multipad WIZE3008. The DJI App refused to download and install to it, even though the Tablet was running Android v4.2 – higher than the minimum V4.1.2 and with a much better size monitor screen. But the App refused to download to it – no idea why. Jonathan’s iPhone6 did the trick, but I find the monitor too small for use in the field.

Next challenge, removing the clamps that hold the gimble in place while in transit, without breaking it was less obvious but eventually was achieved. Screwing the first propeller on: easy! But why would the second one not go on? Because if I had read the manual, I would have known that some propellers have a left hand thread while others have a right hand thread. That all worked. Then there was the pre-flight safety check list. Batteries were charged (takes c 2 hrs, but Jonathan had done this already before we arrived.

More fluffing around as the iPhone needed different cables to the Android tablet to connect it to the Control Unit.

The propellers were taken off so that we could test if the 4 motors would start and embed themselves. Hooray! But JC’s kitchen was deemed too small to try a test flight, so with daylight fading we moved to the garden, fitted the blades. Hooray! But it was now sitting on a table on a concrete patio – if it fell off, it would break. Also too close to the house. So we found a patch in the garden, put down a base in the soft too long grass and switched on again! Hooray!  Angie was filming and photographing all this. Jonathan joined in the photography with his 3D Camcorder. Let’s fly!

Pilot PK carefully moved one of the control sticks and we cheered as the drone took off, hovering at c 1 m altitude. We had set the ‘user level’ to Beginner, so that it limited itself to Max 30 m. but 1 m. was enough. Tried the right hand joystick and Mr PKDrone flew slowly c 2 m forward, towards the glass greenhouse that suddenly seemed a lot closer than I remembered.  The drone responded well to the joystick instructions. I landed it on the soft grass. Another cheer went up. Then a controlled shut down.

ready for lift off

MR PKDrone, ready for lift off

We have video footage taken by Angie on her Nikon P610, but putting this report together I need to discover how to insert a .MOVIE file into the Blog. (PS. success – see bottom of page.)

We then ran through the preflight check list again and found that in order to fly with the last remaining daylight, we had skipped ‘update firm ware’ for The Aircraft and the Control Unit. The Control Unit update went fine – this is not ‘rocket science’, although …. when it came to doing the Aircraft, it failed to upload the file downloaded from the DJI site, claiming that the
file was corrupt. We tried a number of times – whiping the card each time, down loading it from different computers on different cards etc – all with the same results. Of course the original software was (probably) now out of sync with that in the Control Unit. Various ways of destroying the hardware in use and slashing of wrists were considered. By now it was c 23:00 and way past my 7 p.m. dinner time, so it was agreed to leave the beast with Jonathan to sweat over to get things going by Thursday so that it can join us on our flight on Friday evening.

Late Monday night a much relieved Jonathan rang to triumphantly announce that he had succeeded to bring the firmware up to date – won’t do that again until we’re safely back in the UK.

No cacti were harmed in the process of the drone’s maiden flight, was it my imagination that they had faint smiles on their faces about the length that Homo sapiens will go through to take their picture?

PKDrone maiden flight

PKDrone maiden flight

Test Video