Continuing our visits of cactus locations from yesteryear, today we drove to Paposo, paid our usual respects to the population of Copiapa humilis at the statue of the Virgin overlooking the Ocean and this time continued inland following the signs to Antofagasta and R5. Soon we had left the world of plant and associated animal life behind and drove for some 100 km through a scenery used by numerous epic Hollywood films for its unearthly appearance of ….. nothingness. Only getting down on hands and knees could we see small plants and only right along the road, which somehow seems to attract what little moisture there is, to keep these plantlets alive. Getting down on your knees is not very popular in a wind so strong that it makes it difficult to stand upright. At c 2,000 m altitude, the wind is biting cold, although the sun in a cloudless sky gives the impression from within the car that it should be a very nice sunny day out.
The turning west, to El Cobre is now well sign posted. In earlier years there was a warren of tracks at this junction with a number of dead busses providing the only confirmation that here we should find the main track to the west. In the past, the road down was still very barren, but here too the number of low growing annuals suggest that they have shared in the rains that fell in March and August this year. We were well past its flowering peak.
We stopped when hillsides, covered in Copiapoa solaris, appeared. As in 2001, they seemed to be mainly dead or dying as apparently the climate had just become too dry, even for these giants. Pablo thought he recognised the site where back in the sixties, he and a small number of fellow botanists had stopped and had discussed methods for calculating the volume of the large cactus clumps, published in an early issue of the South African C&S Society, ‘Aloe’.
We stopped to take some pictures of these fields of death, but were surprised to find that quite a few of the clumps still had one or two stems were still alive – more than my memory recalled from 2001! Must get a new memory.
This year the cloud / camanchaca that had provided some magnificent views on previous visits, were much higher in the sky, so we drove on to the Ocean in brilliant sunshine. I have visited El Cobre a number of times, mainly to confirm that the ‘planta’ with its collection of mining equipment, guarded by one or two unfortunate souls was still there. Big surprise! The track ended on the beach in a newly built fishing village! Pablo spend some time chatting to the locals and learned that they were all former miners who, in today’s climate of low copper prices, were now trying their luck with fishing. It seemed to be a common story, all along the coast. But where had all the mining equipment gone? Next door!
As we left New El Cobre, we found a turning to a track that would take us south along the coast and sure enough, what had been a graveyard for mining equipment had been completely emptied and washed clean by this year’s rains.
We headed south on a reasonable track at around 30 kmphr, hoping to avoid the sharpest of the stones that, at a higher speed, can rip your tires to pieces in seconds. Although the track should have been familiar to us there were some significant changes. It was clear that large volumes of water, mixed with mud and huge rocks had torn across the feeble attempts of mankind to build a track for their cars. Frequently new tracks had been laid, higher up the hill, so that we were now driving through terrain that was new to us. About 9 km before we were due to reach Botija, a number of mounds of cacti appeared, many dead, some still alive. These must be the population of Copiapoa solaris var. luteus of which we had seen just a few plants along the old track in the past. Many of the plants seemed to have made their way down hill and had made a last stand here. We plan to come back here in a few weeks time with Jonathan.
Our concern now had turned to fuel levels. I had calculated that a full tank should easily enable us to complete the distance from Taltal, inland to El Cobre and back along the coast. However, our fuel monitors – an old fashioned gage and a ‘range’ indicator gave a variable message, where our range increased while the gage showed lower levels. Eventually we reached Taltal without problems but the tank only had some 2 litres of fuel left.