Well, it took a considerable amount of research, tapping friends and acquaintances for information and endless searches of the area in the Mexican State Oaxaca where Mammillaria bertholdii was found. Today was D-Day and we set off for what on paper was a simple 63 km journey through the mountains. Also on the schedule was Ortegocactus macdougallii. This plant had already been visited by Alain as part of the 2016 trip to Oaxaca by Alain and a long list of friends who had seen these plants in March when they had been in flower. Locals told us that it had been very dry, so no such luck this time. We also found a few Ferocactus, still with last year’s fruit. One plant looked remarkably like F. haemathacanthus, others will need a bit more reading up later.
And on to the small village where M. bertholdii resides. We had been supplied by different sources of a contact in the village. Driving through the almost deserted town we asked three men if they knew our contact. ‘Follow us’. We made a quick U-turn and soon had caught up with the pedestrians and followed them to a yard where we were invited to park the car and come in for a chat. The man explained that he was the uncle of the man that we were looking for. We were also introduced to the wife of our contact, whom I recognised from a YouTube video.
We were treated to a shot of Mescal, home made and to me, as tasty as paint stripper, and as strong. Our contact was away – could we come back tomorrow? No, because our planes would leave Mexico City in a few days time. We were joined by the son of our contact and told that if we were to be taken to the plants, we would not be allowed to photograph them! Memories of a visit to an archaeological site early on during the trip sprang to mind.
Eventually the talk turned to financial reward for the uncle and his nephew to take us to a site where the plants grew. We knew from others that a fee of MX$ 300 (per person or per party?) was a reasonable reward for their troubles, but the amount requested this time was MX$500 per person. With a falling Peso on the currency markets it was about what I had expected and prepared to pay. The others agreed – after all an hour earlier it seemed that we had flown half way around the world, bounced over some 5,000 km of variable roads and their topez (sleeping policemen) not to go away with at least a picture or two.
And so we set off, the nephew in the lead on his motorbike and the uncle in the backseat of our car squeezed between Jonathan and Chris. After a fair amount of zigzagging through the village’s streets we arrived in the countryside. The nephew stopped – would our car be able to make it down the track ahead? Let’s try, until we say ‘no farther’.
We did not go much farther when the motorbike stopped and parked up. We got out of the car, laden with cameras. Down a fairly steep (for a 63 year old aching back) slope of what seemed to be volcanic material, into a gully and up another fairly steep slope with rocks that seemed to be of the fossil petrified wood type. Through a small wooded area and on to an exposed rocky plateau. ‘We’re here!’ our friend announced. I am sceptical by nature, so smiled and asked ‘Where?’ We started bending our backs and scanning the rocks. It was Chris Hayes who was the first to spot the tiniest of plants. Jonathan was the first to confirm the ID ‘I’ll be a Dutch uncle if that is not M. bertholdii’ he announced. Hi, Oom Jonathan! But he was right. And as usual, once our eyes were in, we started to find small clusters of five to eight plants at the time. Uncle was pleased too as he had warned that this was the wrong time to look for them, we should wait for rains when the plants are bigger and in flower. ‘When is that usually the case?’ I asked. He shrugged his shoulders ‘when it rains!’ a rather irregular and unpredictable event. Anyway, we were all in heaven, clicking away with our cameras until reality reminded us that we still had to make a long journey ‘home’ to the hotel.
As we walked back the way we came, it was again Chris who announced that on the volcanic rock there were more Ortegocactus macdougallii, an important find as hitherto official records had reported just one population for this taxon. The nephew pointed out the tiniest signs of a yellow bud, a sure sign that flowering might be in a month’s time.
On the way back to our contact’s home, he stopped off at his Mescal factory where we were given a guided tour of the operations. Not sure if the manufacturing process would pass European health & safety laws, but then I had seen some cider farms in Somerset in the 1970s that would struggle to meet today’s standards as well.
Back to where we had started, the nephew managed to sell some of the Mescal to Alain and Chris. This morning they still manage to pass the ‘how many fingers?’ test to see if this near neat alcohol was affecting their eyesight.
A great day that we’ll remember for many years. Back in the UK, Storm Dorris was doing her worst! What a contrast.