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Pablo was still overtired from yesterday’s session with the Rangers at Pan de Azucar Parque Nacional so requested a day off, unless we were passig by the hotel at 13:00 or later.

We took another dozen or so images of the devastation caused by last March’s floods, just in the road where we were staying. Most of the buildings between this road and R5 had gone and the ground cleared.

The semi permanent road building scheme that used to be Barquito seems to have been completed, at least until the Scheme that turns R5 into a dual carriage way hits town. A quick stop at the Supermarket in Barquito brought our supplies for snacks and drinks back up to date. I spotted a sign to the Barquito Golf Club, and as one of my friends in the UK is a keen golfer, thought that he would enjoy a quick look. This must be the golf course with the greatest number of bunkers – in fact, it seemed to consist of just one huge bunker! All 18 holes of it. A pack of semi wild dogs were standing by in case caddies were needed. I always thought that dogs fetching balls was a much better idea than whacking a ball yourself and then going to fetch it yourself. Cheers, Derek – I’ll buy you a pint when I get back!

For our first cactus stop of the day, Angie and I decided on ‘Hoot The Virgin’, at km 950 on Ruta 5, where in between the massive granite boulders grew what Ritter called C. calderana var spinosior. Just like the plants of C. longistaminea admired a few days ago in the Tigrillo Valley, these plants grew close to the Ocean, near enough to get covered in the saltwater spray regularly and, we expect, with a fair amount of Ozone in the atmosphere to combine for a perfect recipe to bleach spines.

Lovely plants between dramatic scenery but on the downside, it seemed that the Virgin or her followers use a lot of toilet paper as passers by use the spaces between the boulders as their toilet. Even the rain in March could not flush that hard!

It was only 11:30 as we moved on to the Pan de Azucar to repeat yesterday’s experience of empenadas and cerveza at Caleta Pan de Azucar. A German couple sat next to us and soon we were engrossed in conversation.

But our mission was to go and say hello to Smiler, Angie’s favourite Copiapoa colmna-alba with a crested head resembling a smile. She had visited this plant every time that we passed it since June 2003! But now, the road leading to El Mirrador was closed due to damage from the floods. So, we made an attempt to get there on foot. I warned her that it was a good few miles farther than she imagined and sadly was proven right , particularly that we had to negotiate the canyons formed by the water. We climbed higher up to avoid the uneven valley bottom and soon started to see the first columna-alba. Also here were plants that I think are C. serpentisulcata, as well as clumps of C. cinerea, but very few flowers. I suggested to Angie that she might also look for some Thelocephala and within a few minutes she had found a clump of what I think is Copiapoa laui! Close-ups back home might confirm or otherwise.

We had left the drinks in the car, hoping that we could reach Smiler in less than an hour, but sadly we had under-estimated. I could see columna-alba ‘climbing the hill’ on the other side of the valley a bit farther along. Let’s get to that point, look round the corner of the hill on our side and if that is the ‘field’ where Smiler’ grows …..

But it wasn’t. Instead, around the corner came a lady with a young boy at her hand. ‘Say Hello!’ she encouraged him in English and you can imagine her surprise when I replied in English and explained that we were from Salisbury, Wiltshire. ‘We’re from Crawley’ she said. Her husband and two more teenage children joined in. As chance would have it, until 2003, I was the Secretary of the BCSS Crawley Branch and go back every year, in April, to give a presentation of What I Saw Last Winter. They promised faithfully to come to the April meeting! You see how hard we all must try to recruit new members for our Branches, even when we are on holiday!

We reached the point of return, as it seemed that Smiler was still at least one valley farther along. We did the sensible thing and recognised that without water, we had to turn round. Looking at the scenery, the bottom of the valley, with the original track was now as clear as it had been in previous years – would have been fine for cars and certainly easier, on foot, than the hill track that we had been following.

Not long after, Angie called me back to show me the Thelocephala malleolata, in flower that I had just walked past, and another, and another! I blame the image of an ice cold beer waiting for me at the end of the road for missing them and was glad each time to be called back and once again go down on my knees for a picture – of course, it is the getting back up that is the hard thing!

We plan finish the day with a meal at the Hosteria, seemingly under new management with separate catering and accommodation responsibilities. They have a special promotional meal for just 4,500 pesos each – no doubt there will be more to spend on the wine.

PS: The special offer was for lunch only! But we have their wifi code! Enjoy!!

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