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Archive for November, 2015

Sunday 29 November 2015 – Madrid to Amesbury

I’m writing the last report of this trip from home in Amesbury. The washing machine has just finished the load of washing that I have dragged with me for five weeks to ensure that it is ready for February 2016 when Angie, Jonathan and I will be doing it all again, this time for three weeks in Baja California.

Many thanks also to Pablo, Bart & Marijke and to Brian Bates for their companionship these last few weeks. Angie and I have pencilled in our next visit to Chile for 2017 – health & wealth permitting, as always.

We’ll be off for a short break to Angie’s family in Cologne and to visit the Christmas Markets, all without the internet. I’ll be selecting the best images from this trip for the Cactus Trip Diaries book for this trip and to add a selection of the images selected to these pages. I’ll post a message once the job is done, so that you can take a look over Christmas.


The last days of a trip are not the most interesting pages of any blog – some folks leave them out, but that leaves the reader hanging in mid-air. So, here we go, for the sake of completeness.

We left the Hosteria Scala De Milán at 9 a.m. on the dot. SatNav put us on the right way again, predicting arrival at the Airport at 10:14, despite Brian suggesting that it would take us via Arica. Wishful thinking.

The Cuesta de Dormida is a beautiful route through fantastic scenery, much more enjoyable than the alternative of R5, the Pan American Highway, close to Santiago, that is busy and industrialised. Only downside this time of day and this time of year is that the low sun is straight in your face as you negotiate the zig-zags.

We found fuel to be able to return our rental car back at the required level and had an ice cream to make up for the fact that we had left without breakfast.

We were still on time for an early arrival until we got close to the airport and SatNav suggested that we’d take the back road that took us all the way around the airport. It helped to avoid tolls, but used up the spare time, so that we rolled up at the agreed bay in the car park at 10:40-ish, as promised. Next time I’ll pay the tolls and stick to the main road.

We had arranged to meet Pablo Weisser around this time, but were keen to lose our check-in luggage, so sent Brian to the coffee bar on the ground floor, near Exit 4. Check-in again was without any hitches.

At around 11:00 we joined Brian – who of course had never met Pablo – so no wonder that he had not made contact.
Time for breakfast, so I treated myself to a nice omelette, toast and coffee. No sign of Pablo, but time ticked on regardless, so we said our goodbyes to Brian, who was going to catch a bus back to Taltal – lucky so and so!

Nothing else left to report – hope to be back in Chile in 2017!


On arrival in the UK I received a brief email from Pablo to say that he had more computer problems and had not received my email announcing our visit to Olmue until after we had left again. He had stayed in a different ‘hut’ which is why we had missed him there. He had also been unable to let us know that he would not be at the airport.

Never mind – we look forward to meeting you again, sometime, somewhere.

Friday 27 November 2015 – Pichidangui to Olmue

We had hoped to spend today with Florencia in Lonquen. Flo would have loved to have come with us tho ‘her’ Norte, but as she was expecting the birth of her first baby sometime during our trip, that was not a very practical proposition. Brian recalled how last year’s trip, Giggly Girl made it one of the happiest that he can recall.

I am not a great fan of mobile phones etc that in South America seem to have replaced computers and email to stay in touch – my eyes struggle to read the screens unless I’m in a well shaded room and my ‘blind’ left ear (a Brian Bates expression as for many years he did not know the word for ‘deaf’ in Spanish) means that I also struggle to hear a caller on a mobile device unless I’m in a very quiet room. Yesterday Flo dropped me a line on Facebook to say that she had given birth to a son, Atilio, who at two weeks of age, demanded all of her time. We understand and send mother and son our very best wishes and look forward to seeing both of them in the field, surrounded by cacti, in years to come.

Pablo Weisser had asked to meet us tomorrow at Santiago Airport, so we thought we might provide a surprise for him by looking him up ‘at home’ in Olmue, and sent him an email to announce our change of plans at very short notice.

But first of all, we allowed ourselves a final cactus photo shoot on the rocks at Pichidangui.

We enjoyed a leisurely drive to Olmue and arrived at the Weisser family’s residence, but it was all locked up. Never mind, we had arranged to see Pablo at the Airport on Saturday before take off. Jonathan and I could use the time to do a final repack and tidy up Suzy who had picked up quite a layer of dust on the inside during the previous five weeks!


Thursday 26 November 2015 – Taltal to Pichidangui

As I’m sure you all know by now, Chile is a very long, thin country and driving from Tocopilla to Pichidangui in two days is like a summary of the four weeks and three days (?) that have gone before as well as of the other many trips since 2001.

‘Look, there is the spot where in 2006 we met Juan & Flo in 2006!’

‘There, behind the road fences is where we used to stop, above Los Hornos’


It was quite an ambitious goal to do the c 800 km today in one go, and it was very much a matter of discipline as we drove through the dealbatas around Carrizal Baja – my five images today were all from here, nothing special, just a reminder how you can randomly take some nice images anywhere along this road, from around Tutorial to past Cardinal Baja.

We made sure that we stopped for fuel when it was available, rather than when it was needed, and that included fuel for us – i.e. the cake shop opposite the Copec in Vallenar.

The setting sun provided a great end of talk slide somewhere between Los Villos and Pichidangui. We made it to the cabanas at Rosa Nautica where again the owners recognised me and greeted us like long lost friends, around 21:00 hrs. A quick run back to the harbour but the two restaurants there had shut up for the night since we had driven past.

Plan B was to drive back to the Pronto on R5, north of town, but by now, having done most of the driving, my batteries were drained. The Supermarcado was still open so we bought a bottle of Casillero del Diablo, some cheese and biscuits that made sure that for yet another night, the boys did not go hungry – a prime requirement for any cactus trip!

Wednesday 25 November 2015 – Tocopilla to Taltal

After yesterday’s disappointment, it was time to head south so that on Saturday, Jonathan and I can fly home. Today was very much a driving day, so up early, down R1, the coast road, to Antofagasta, a hotdog at the Copec, then down R5 and off to Paposo past the Observatory Parranal.

It turned out that ‘our’ side of the road had a Shell, rather than a Copec and that they did not do hotdogs – never mind, a Snicker would have to do. We met Jack from DC who was on month 4 of his tour of South America by motorbike who was on his way from Taltal north. ‘No rooms in Taltal, due to a miner’s conference’ he warned. ‘We know, a friend has booked us in to use up the last available space!’

With all the excitement, we left, forgetting to fill up with motion lotion. We calculated that we should just about make it on the vapours, but as usual, our fuel gage went up rather than down. Still, it was good to reach Taltal where at the Copec we managed to add some 46 litres to our tank so we suspect we had 4 litres left. Compliments to Jonathan to getting us there safely!

After filling up, I had some unfinished business to attend to – flying a drone and this time actually filming it! And so we arrived at the C. cinerea population at Las Breas, where last time we flew but failed to film. Weather conditions seemed OK, but the wind got stronger, with gusts as we set up and did the pre-flight checks. Don’t be rushed in these things! I was, and take off failed horribly, with PKDrone blowing over and breaking two out of four of the rotors.  Never mind, I had brought along a set of spares. But what had gone wrong? The drone has two types of blades:- two left screw and two right screw that should be fitted alternately – left-right-left-right. I had fitted left-left-right-right! No wonder! Doubly careful I fitted the spare blade3s in the correct order, this really was the last chance!

Brian shouted that he had found something unusual – he’d have to wait!

Was the video switched on this time? You bet!

Was the wind OK? I’d have to gain height as quickly as possible to clear the surrounding Copiapoa – success! We flew for about five minutes, then landed and took out the SDXC card and started up the laptop in the car to make sure that we had indeed recorded some images of the flight. YES!!!!

We made two more flights of about five minutes – 15 minutes of material to fit into a presentation – just as well that had failed in all our previous attempts or we would have been spoiled for choice!

So what had Brian found? The bonus of the day! Among some million plus Copiapoa cinerea of all shapes sizes and ages stood a plant that was best called C. krainziana or C. albispina. We all took many images of the stranger in a strange land. Very strange!

Great day! Tomorrow we head south again – probably as far as Pichidangui.

Tuesday 24 November 2015 – around Tocopilla

Fourth attempt at seeing Copiapoa tocopilliana and Eriosyce (Rimacactus) laui in nature….. and the fourth failure! Too much of a rush? Over optimistic? We had Brian Bates with us who, in the company of others, had seen them on two previous occasions. For our first attempt we drove towards R5, out of Tocopilla and turned right on a track sign posted to a dozen or so mining sectors. Again, in our excitement to get out, we forgot to visit the Copec to top up with motion lotion. So, when after some searching to get close to the handful of GPS locations that we had with us, the amount left, according to our unreliable gage, dropped to 60 km it seemed prudent to go back for more fuel, a hot dog (at the Shell garage this time) and some Colas, before heading up the mountain road again, this time up the zigzags at the back of town that we knew so well from our previous visit. This time things seemed to go fine, until (we assume) water and or earthquake damage forced us to abandon the car and continue on foot. The track to the flag, now only 1.2 km away, reached an abrupt end as another deep hole opened up before us. Back and up and over seemed the answer, but still smarting with back ache and muscle pains from Sunday’s walk on Cerro Perales, is just could not manage the gradients. Promise to self: sort out back problems once back in the UK before any other attempts here at cactus exploring!

I was in good company, Jonathan agreed that this was to steep for him and Brian, despite putting on a brand new pair of walking boots, peered over the top of a hill and cheerfully joined the quitters.

In a final attempt, I tried to get to a small mine north of Mina Esperanza, from the third visit but this was no longer in operation, the huts abandoned, but still with some excellent views over the Ocean.

I’m very happy of the 90 images I took in an amazing landscape, as was Jonathan with the 3D movies taken while we were listening to Toto’s soundtrack to the film ‘Dune’ based on the book by Frank Herbert.

Monday 23 November 2015 – Taltal to Tocopilla

SatNav reported that it was 453 km to Tocopilla. We took a bit longer, as we took R1 from Taltal up to R5 and then followed R5, past Antofagasta inland before turning west.

As a result, we stopped at the famous Mano de Desierto, a large-scale sculpture of a hand located in the Atacama Desert, 75 km to the south of the city of Antofagasta, on the Panamerican Highway. Jonathan said the this had been on his wish list to see – anything to oblige!

After turning west, we took another turn, to Maria Elena, credited some ten years ago as being the driest place on earth – I wonder if the March rainfalls had changed this position; in any case it was very hot and dry. We drove to the ornamental entrance gate to the city, and posed for pictures and a movie while avoiding getting run down by trucks. The official record figures originated from the old, now disused, airport where weather statistics could be taken. But, was the old airport still here? We sent Brian to speak to a young lad, who looked at Brian in confused amazement – the nearest airport is at Calama! Yes, this is an old, disused airport – one that he had never heard off.

At the top of the hill outside Tocopilla we joined a traffic jam that stretched for several kilometres, as they were working on road repairs.

We then had to battle with the rush hour to find a nice hotel, Carreta de Rosita, and enjoyed an excellent large helping of reinetta (fish), washed down with Cristal beer.

A lot of driving and not a cactus passed our shutters. Some days it’s the ‘getting there’ that is important!

Sunday 22 November 2015 – around Taltal

A pre-breakfast weather check showed Cerro Perales shrouded in cloud. Not good to drive through to the top, even if there the sun was shining.

Plan B was to drive to Las Breas and fly the drone over the Copiapoa cinerea.

As we drove off after breakfast, Cerro Perales was now completely clear! So back to Plan A. As usual, it took a while to find our way through the warren of tracks to get to the exact start point of the track to leads to the top. We had already checked through Brian with Osvaldo Chavez that the track was passable; no problems reported and so we arrived in full sunshine, looking down on clouds to the north in the direction of Paposo.

At the top we went through some stretch exercises before starting today’s challenge, descending down to a population of Copiapoa krainziana that Bart had found, just 330 m from the top, in 2013. Sounds trivial, but there were no tracks or paths to guide you down, just gravity, on a surface that was still bedding down after floods and rumbles, so that every step was liable to get you down a lot faster than planned. At 6ft 4″ my centre of gravity is not designed for such descends and after cataract operations in 2006 I struggle with descends in general but needs must! Before long the others had disappeared from view, popping up from behind distant rocks to point me in the right direction. My thighs clearly had not received the right training for such work and began to hurt and at times just refused to do as told. As my head popped over the top of yet another small crest I could see Bart and Jonathan bent over, taking photographs next to a huge rock that I firmly printed into my memory. ‘We have found the first plants already!’ they shouted. On previous trips, with Leo van der Hoeven, he had a theory that the best plants always grow at the top, so as we had started at the top, these must be the best plants! It still took me a good 20 minutes to reach the rock and to be disappointed ‘just’ more huge lumps of Copiapoa tenebrosa. I took another step forward and there they were, a dozen or more plants of C. krainziana, beautifully shaped and draped as soft grey-white cushions over the sharp rocks. I could see Brian some way off to my left, sitting down. ‘Are you OK?’ I shouted. ‘Fine!’ came the reply, ‘just having a Condor moment.’ referring to the cigar advert from decades ago.

I decided to spent some more time in attempt to get the best pictures possible of these wonderful plants and then, knowing that it would take me longer than the others, started the journey back.  Going up hill is a lot easier for my built & vision, but the strain on different leg muscles is still great and my back was also having a moan at my antics.  We should do these things when we are young and fit, when our lifestyles demand that we chase members of the opposite sex rather than cacti up hills.

I got back first, exhausted. Jonathan had done very well keeping up with Bart and they had gone much farther and seen many more krainziana than I had.

Brian had managed to hurt his toe and limped back last – worn out sandals are just not the most sensible climbing footwear.

It was still before 3 so there was time left for Plan B. I had been to the Las Breas site with Angie and Pablo a few weeks earlier and had been disappointed by the number of cinerea that had been destroyed. Bart took up up a different track and once again we were in a sea of plants, ideal for a drone flight. The pre-flight checks went smoothly, contact with the camera was established and to loud cheers and the clicking of cameras PKDrone took off. It made two flights and then we raced back to the hotel to look at the images, but not before joining Bart & Marieke in a celebration bottle of wine.

At the hotel, we discovered a flaw in our pre-flight check: not only do we need to establish contact between the control unit and the camera in the drone – you also have to remember to press the ‘record button’, something that we failed to do.

I’ve worked out that we should have time for another go on the way back from Tocopilla, weather permitting. AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!

Saturday 21 November 2015 – around Taltal

I had not seen Brian Bates since our trip in Bolivia in 2011, so we had plenty of catching up to do. We had agreed with Bart & Marijke to go to Las Maderas to look for the Copiapoa esmeraldana / angustiflora that we found here a few years ago. I had been here already with Pablo Weisser and with Angie a few weeks ago and we had been impressed with the huge number of  Copiapoa columna-alba that grew here, but I had failed to find the quebrada which we believe is near to what Rudolf Schulz had called ‘Confusion Hill’. Bart had his location maps readily available and took us down a track that I recognised from a few weeks back but that had produced no results then. Similar results this time, except that Bart’s data allowed us to park the car and walk towards the coordinates from the previous visit. On that occasion we had seen numerous small cacti that we identified as C. esmeraldana, identical to plants growing at Las Lomitas and overlooking planta Esmeralda. They grew in the fine sand, much of which seems to have been washed away. We were unable to find these plants this time. There were still a large number of C. columna-alba here and that included a number of plants with a remarkably large number of stems growing at the apex – these must have been here last time as well but not specifically noted. Rudolf’s name ‘Confusion Hill’ was well chosen as instead of clear species – longistaminea, grandiflora and columna-alba – it seemed that there were a number of intermediates around and relatively few ‘pure’ species, such as could be observed in the Guanillos Valley.

Bart wanted to go on to Guanillos, but in the excitement of chatting with Brian, I had forgotten to fuel up at the Taltal Copec before departure. Our fuel gage was very suspicious with readings increasing the more we drove! It seemed therefore best to return to Taltal, especially, again, not paying attention, I had followed the wrong car (just a cloud of dust) at a junction. The number of plants along the road had decreased quickly, suggesting that we were driving away from the Ocean, i.e. in the wrong direction. Not good when we needed to conserve fuel.

At the turning (‘car park corner’) to the Taltal coast road we decided to stop and look for more Thelocephala weisseri. No plants in flower this time – we had found them here before with Pablo and Angie, but there  were plenty of fruits appearing above the soil.

Surprising how difficult it was to find a restaurant open for an afternoon bite to eat and a beer – everything was closed for lunch! We ended up at Las Brisas and had an empanada and Corona. Cristal seems to be out and foreign beers and local micro breweries are in. The beer was cold and that was all that mattered.


Friday 20 November 2015 – Bahia Inglesa to Taltal

We made a few stops along R5 to look at the Copiapoa calderana, this time in the sun. More pictures were taken – did I need any more? Of course I did! and I witnessed another lizard heaving a large dead mouse around. I managed to get photo and movie records of the event.

I wanted to show Bart & Marijke the remains of the Hotel where we used to stay, but got horribly lost in town. We re-united at the Hosteria where they booked in for a few nights later next week.

Then the long drive ‘home’ to Taltal. R5 passes inland behind the coastal mountain range, through an atrea where traditional no or very little rain falls. Not sure whet happened here last March during the heavy rains that caused flooding along the coast; there were no physical signs of rain here.

As we approached the turning to Cifuncho, Jonathan mentioned that he’d like to see (not so) Secret Valley – it is clearly marked in Rudolf Schulz’s 1996 Copiapoa book. We had driven past it with Angie and Pablo a week earlier, but without stopping. This time  Jonathan was keen to see the C. longistaminea and C. columna-alba growing side by side. The road builders had been bussy again, depositing heaps of sand that had then been built into a wall, almost 75 cm tall along the road, so that parking off-road was impossible. We found a potential lay by and entered on foot.

Sometimes it’s best not to return to paradise-like places. The area was unrecogniseab;le. Were we in the right place? The entrance was right and the GPS coordinated coincided with those in Rudolf’s book, but that’s where things stopped. It seems that over time the rock had disintegrated and during the March rain had washed down the surrounding hills to fill up the valley.

There were still some columna-alba and longistaminea around, so the objective of the visit was met. We drove to Taltal, passing Mina Las Luces and taking the coast road, to find that Bart & Marijke had had similar ideas, had been to visit Cifuncho and had arrived just before us. Back in our room (11 this time, Pablo’s old room) it turned out that Brian Bates was in town, staying at Oswaldo & Maria’s Chavez’ place, which was being demolished to be rebuilt as a two story house.

It was good to see BB again, he had not lost a bit of his Midland’s accent and before long was giving Jonathan his opinion on botanists, not always complimentary. It took a while for Bart & Marijke to switch on the sub-titles, but once the wine started flowing in Club Taltal, all was fine.