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Thursday, 10 December – Diamantina to Confins

Again an uneventful day when, so far, I have not taken the cameras out of the bag. We took a leisurely drive staying on hardtop, i.e. ‘the long way round’ and arrived at the Airport around 15:30. Although we had provisionally booked into the hotel in Lagoa Santa, we were so early that we decided to look around the town of Confins to see if they had anything better to offer. They had, with a price to match, but overall we kept to below our budget in Minas Gerais, so tonight we are staying in Hotel Fazenda Confins, within earshot of the Airport, but with very few day time flights only that is not an issue. Take a look for your self:


We’re all set for an early departure to drop off the car and report in good time for our 10:55 flight to Salvador, Bahia.

Wednesday, 9 December – Itamarandiba to Diamantina

Today was a completely uneventful.

As indicated yesterday, we had more or less completed our cactus list for Minas Gerais, so decided to go the easy, comfortable but longer way back, on asphalt, to Diamantina, where we arrived around noon. We had not bothered to stop on the way and our cameras had not come out of their bags.

We were greeted like long lost friends by the staff at the hotel and felt the same way about returning ‘home’.

With time on our hands we had our main meal early and had the car washed at the service station next door. As in England, just after driving out of the car wash, the clouds looked very threatening, as though rain was imminent. So far, not a drop as yet.

We leave tomorrow for a 286 km drive to Lagoa Santa, some 10 km from Confinis, a.k.a. Belo Horizonte Airport for our last night in Minas Gerais before flying out to Salvador, Bahia where the cactus adventure continues.

Tuesday, 8 December – south of Itamarandiba

I’ll start where I left off yesterday: we had another great day!

First, we finally succeeded in equipping ourselves with a machete each, so we’re ready for more impenetrable vegetation.

Second, we managed to get to Uebelmannia gummifera – the ‘easy drive through population’. I did not see this species in 1999, just its ssp. meninensis that we tried to see again on 23 and 24 November, only a few weeks back. Then we tried from Diamantina and found the tracks in very poor repair, waiting for asphalt.

We spent a long time there, indulging in photography rather than racing on to the other Uebelmannia populations. We’ll do them next time (pencilled in for another Brazil trip in 2014 ) when hopefully both Pedra Menina and Penha de França will be on a nice asphalt road that at Pedra Menina has been extended to lead straight to the U. meninensis site! A bar and ice cream parlour near by would provide the excuse for the road and would be appreciated.

Cliff had a bad stomach during the night, so taking it easy was the sensible thing to do. No idea how Marlon managed to get busses across these tracks. There were at least three places where Cliff said: ‘Well we can go down, but I doubt if we can get back this way!’ So after the U. gummifera stop we carried on turning left each time there was a junction and eventually got to tarmac. Great driving, Cliff!

It looked on Google Earth that at one stage we were ‘close’ to U. buiningii – as the crow flies – and we could see quartz fields in the distance, but there was at least one valley in between, so probably 4 times as far as we thought.

It is good to have things to come back for: D. horstii, U. buiningii, U. rubra etc.

For me, it put the final tick in the list of taxa to have seen this time round. So, in a way we’re winding down and getting excited about Marlon’s suggested itinerary for Bahia. What a list of cactus species that will add!!!

Tomorrow we head back to Diamantina, get the car washed and the next day drive to Lagos Santana, the nearest town to Belo Horizonte Airport for an early departure on Friday.

Monday, 7 December – Itaobim to Itamarandiba

Greetings from Hotel Marlise in Itamarandiba.

Today, the town seemed a lot friendlier than when we came here looking for Uebelmannia gummifera a few weeks ago. I realised at the time that I was ill prepared and needed to have taken down all the relevant details of how to get to these location from the internet before leaving Diamantina. None of the hotels here advertised the fact that they have internet facilities and, from past experience, did not ‘look’ as though they had. Wrong! This hotel, above shops and apparently without parking space for the car has private parking and internet access! They just like to keep their marketable assets a secret.

Today was a long driving day as we knew it would be. 276 km but about 110 km of that was ‘not the best dirt’ (again, signs were up to say that asphalt was on its way, so maintenance seemed to have been put off. I guess we averaged 30 km p. hr. so the hard top bits were like heaven.

We had intended to see if there were likely locations to the west of Itinga, but the low hills that seem to be a feature south of the Itaobim – Itinga road disappeared just outside Itinga, and with that any sign of bare granite and suitable habitat locations. At least this stretch was fast and because we thought that we had plenty of time, we cruised at a leisurely 80 km.p.hr. Then the road turned to dirt, just as the map had suggested. not a major problem, except that our speed dropped and direction signs at forks and crossroads were missing. Although my GPS Unit has never been connected successfully to a computer to be updated with Brazilian maps (or did Juan do this in September?). In any event, it was suddenly displaying roads (with road number!) that we were on and giving us directions of turns we had to make. But how did it know where we were going? I had not found a way to tell it! Eerie!!

Eventually it started to get it wrong, I no longer wanted to go where it wanted me to go, so it went into a panic, each time that we passed a turning, recalculating the route to who knows where.

We made just two stops. S1578 was a reminder of what BR 367 (check) that had been nice smooth asphalt as it ran past our hotel in Diamantina, had turned into father north. A poor track that at one point had lost a bridge, by the looks of it quite some time ago, so that no traffic had to go through the river. Despite recent rains and other rivers that we had seen being in full flow and near to bursting their banks, here the water level was still manageable, even for our city slickers’ car.  

As we walked back to the car, I spotted a huge flower hanging from a vine. I’m sure that I saw something like it at Kew or was it RHS Wisley? The flower must have been 30 cm in diameter, with a ‘dead meat’ pattern, similar to that found in some Asclepiads. At it gently spun around on the vine it turned its back to us revealing a pitcher like organ. As there is a distinct lack of cacti today, I’ll include some of the pictures of the plant. Marlon tells me that it is Aristolochia gigantea.

S1579 was close to Itamarandiba and is for pictures taken as we drove through endless Eucalyptus plantations. They had been harvesting the wood. (Wikipedia suggests an unbelievable 5 year cycle from small seedling being planted to a (very thin) 30 ft tree being harvested!). Here, for some reason, they had left a single row of trees standing. They formed an amazing profile from a distance; with the stems hardly visible the crowns of the trees seemed to be suspended in the air. I took a few shots from the moving car, but was very pleased when Cliff was able to pull onto a side track where we were able to snap away without fear of being run down by a truck.

On entering Itamarandiba, we spotted the road that Marlon had suggested in his very detailed instructions to get to a U. gummifera site, but with the time pushing on and no accommodation booked, common sense suggests that we’ll do that one tomorrow.

Despite lack of cacti, another great day!

Monday, 7 December – Itaobim to Itamarandiba

The end of this current cactus trip of Minas Gerais, or rather of the drainage area of the Rio Jequitinhonha in Minas Gerais ends on Friday. The good news is that we then fly from Belo Horizonte to Salvador in Bahia for a four week tour of that state and more cactus stories.

Not sure of Internet facilities for the next few days. The plan for the week is:

Monday: Drive to Itamarandiba and renew our hunt for Uebelmannia gummifera and its ssp. meninensis and may be U. buiningii.

Tuesday: Another night in Itabirandiba

Wednesday: Drive to Diamantina. A bit more sightseeing. We’ll have internet facilities there, so shoud be able to send out an update from here.

Thursday: Drive to Lagao Santa, near the airport. Get the car cleaned inside and out (Andres never got this in Chile from us!)

Friday: Early morning car check in and flight to Salvador where we look forward to meeting up with Marlon. 

Sunday, 6 December – South of Itaobim

All over Holland and Belgium, children were sweetly at play with their toys, brought to them by Sinterklaas.

It was a bright but overcast day as Cliff and I set out with our toys, our cameras, bought many moons ago.

S1572 took us back to the Itaobim – Itinga road where yesterday we had left the stop nearest to the hotel for another day, due to the weather at the time. It was here that in 1999 we found a large population of Melocactus ernestii with multiple cephalia. The plants have also been known under the name of M. multiceps as a result. This time, we found only Melocacti and Coleocephalocereus aureus to the north of the road and only one of the Melos had a multiple (double) cephalium. We can only assume that the others have disappeared due to collecting with the hobby in Europe, the USA and Japan as the main takers. If you have a habitat collected plant from here – shame on you! All the other plants found yesterday were here too, except C. purpureus.

Most remarkable find: a 3m (yes, 9 ft) tall Arrojadoa penicillata growing against the trunk of a tree for support. Is this the tallest A. penicillata recorded? No, I do not intend to erect the ssp. elongata for just a single specimen.

Cliff just remarked that C. aureus seeds collected here seem to be smaller than seeds from 3 pods collected yesterday of C. purpureus. There appear to be more but less accessible places along this road that seem ideal for these two species. If we had an infinite time budget, it would be interesting to check these places and also to stray off the main road, that follows the south side of the Rio Jequitinhonha and see what lies over the hills. In addition, Google Earth and our map suggests that there is a perfectly good road / track on the north side of the river with a number of exposed granite rock areas similar to where we scored with these taxa. Recorded for a future visit, if time permits.

Once again we saw and tried to photograph numerous diverse butterflies.

We also found one very untidy member of Hylo- or Selenicereus sp. The stems seemed too fat for H. setaceus that we would in this general area in ’99. I have included a picture in today’s photo album.

We returned to the BR 116 (the main Salvador to Rio de Janeiro road, but still only a two lane affair, with a third crawler lane up the steeper hill sides) and headed for the town of Padre Paraiso where Marlon had suggested a location (TL) for Coleocephalocereus fluminensis ssp. decumbens. (s.n. C. decumbens)

We had already seen these plants from the road, a few km north of the town (and photographed later as S1577) so when we found the entrance to the track suggested by Marlon, without any difficulty, we decided to sail by and instead took a right turn and some 20 km along a good but sometimes muddy track arrived at a likely place. You would be forgiven if you have never heard of this plant as it is not a plant that you would want to give space in a small greenhouse or windowsill. As a result it has hardly suffered from commercial or hobby collecting. It favours similar granite rock faces to its cousins aureus and purpureus, but prefers the really steep parts. So steep that here (S1573) we could not even get to the rock face where they grew together with a very large species of Bromeliad that would seem to be the typical companion plant to look out for, together with a white flowered sp. of Velloziaceae. We managed to climb up a ‘steep-as-we-could-manage’ hillside in what turned out to be a coffee plantation (Eunice, please note!) to get the best view of plants on the other side of a 4 m. wide and deep gully. There are not many reported localities for this plant, so we are glad to add this one to the list

We turned round here and stopped at S1574, a spot where the road ran along the edge of a granite rock face that had the large Bromeliads and Velloziaceae that we had spotted at the previous spot. We were optimistic that a closer look would find C. decumbens here. Wrong! The rock face was mostly so steep that we could hardly walk up it. Even on all fours it proved a problem. That was when it was dry. The recent rainfall meant that about 50% of the rock face was a wet seeping slide, as the mosses (?) that cover these rocks had absorbed the water and now had high lubricant qualities. Trying to find a route that made use of places where the Velloziaceae had found a foot hold proved a success, but the Bromeliads were to be avoided as the stems with which they appeared to be attached to the rock were rotten and disintegrated as soon as you stood on them. Despite this I managed to get to the top of the rock to where the tree line started (and the impenetrable vegetation! Father Christmas please note that I would like a machete for Christmas!) No cacti! We believe in recording ‘No Cacti’ stops as well, to help others expanding their energy to come to the same conclusion. The reward here was a large Orchid sp. with several spikes of yellow flowers. Nice!

S1575 was another no cactus stop, but it was again on a large granite slab that could have supported Coleocephalocereus. Instead there was a herd of cows here and a peculiar tree with most of the soil washed away from its roots. How could it survive?

On the way to BR116 we came across a hedge of a variegated Cereus (?) sp. Normal green stems with bright yellow parts. We had seen them before in the area and always thought that the stems had been painted or sprayed with something nasty.

We finally arrived at the spot that had been suggested by Marlon (S1576). At the farm where we were supposed to park the car, an old man came to greet us. Our Portuguese must have approved as he sighed ‘Oh yes’ and signalled for us to come on to his property. After introductions to his wife, who I think wanted to offer us coffee or tea or food we made our excuses and pointed up the hill and at our watch. He just wanted to show us his two man eating guard dogs that were straining at the lead to make sure that we did not want to do anything silly.

Again, the dark, moss (?) covered rocks were almost too steep to get up. Too steep to walk, not steep enough to climb, in the heat, high humidity and with all the photographic equipment. Cliff went one way, I the other. I must have lost my lens hood a dozen times, each time returning some 10 m down to pick it up, then start again. In the end my pocket was the only sensible place for it.

From time to time I’d look back and on one occasion I had worked my way right by a 2 m. long stem that seemed to be crawling up hill like a creeping devil in Baja, except that they have the good sense of growing along the road and on the flat. When time ran out and common sense dictated that it was time to go back, Cliff was already at the car. He was having problems with his feet and steep hills were not the best therapy. I saw more C. decumbens on the way back than when I was focussed on climbing, but only one long stem with cephalium. I failed to look for any of the other cacti that Marlon mentions from here and certainly saw nothing that resembles Nigel Taylor’s picture in his ‘Cacti of Eastern Brazil’ taken around this area in 2002.

S1577 was just a ‘drive by stop’, literally, as stopping (or even just slowing down to less than 30 km p. hr.) is suicidal on BR 116. On the way south we had spotted a hillside full of C. decumbens right along the road (west side) but in an even more inaccessible place. We could not do better than drive by slowly and stop briefly firing off some shots with a 200 mm zoom lens. Still, for the record…

Another great day!

Saturday, 5 December – Around Itaobim

Today, children in the Netherlands and Belgium celebrate St. Nicolaas / Sinterklaas day, when the children who were well behaved during the last year receive presents and those that have not been good are put into the bags that had brought the presents and are taken by Zwarte Pieten, the Saint’s Moorish helpers, back to the Saint’s homeland, Spain, as punishment. That was before kids enjoyed holidays in the many popular Spanish seaside resorts and before kids could recite their rights under the European Human Rights Act. Happy Sinterklaas Dag!

While yesterday had been a day of occasional showers, it had rained heavily during the night and turned into a day of rain and occasional dry-ish spells. Fortunately all stops planned for today were along the hardtop BR 367 between Itaobim and Itinga. We decided to first drive the full distance (31 km) to Itinga, where people were dodging from doorway to doorway to avoid getting too wet. On our way we had spotted the planned stops and looked for safe parking, plus noted a few other potential sites, weather and time permitting.

Our main goal today was to see Coleocephalocereus (Buiningii) purpureus. This plant has for a long time be regarded to come from just one location along the road that we were exploring. Marlon Machado had reported as long ago as 2003 that the owner of the property had begun to clear the vegetation from the upper part of the granite dome, using herbicide and fire. These granite domes, are often referred to as ‘inselbergs’ – island hills – because their vegetation can be quite different from the surrounding area.

Our first stop S1569 looked just right, so, despite the rain, we set out. The list of plants found was phenomenal, in alphabetical order: Arrojadoa penicillata, Brasilicereus phaeacanthus, Cereus jamacaru, Coleocephalocereus (Buiningia) purpureus, Lilies, Melocactus bahiensis ssp. amethystinus, Pereskia aureiflora, Pilosocereus floccosus ssp. quadricostatus, Pilosocereus magnificus, Pilosocereus X subsimilis, Tacinga braunii and Tacinga inamoena. C. purpureus was in flower, confirming its ID beyond doubt. We were some distance from the known locality, so we had extended the known distribution of the plant. We had gotten soaking wet in the process.

A short distance on we arrived at the known locality (S1570) and the difference was remarkable. Most of the large Ceiba jasminodorus had been brought down and had been left to rot for a number of years. Out of the decaying matter new cactus stems were sprouting, some Melocactus but mainly Brasilicereus phaeacanthus.

Pilosocereus magnificus looked anything but magnificent. The usually perfect azure blue stems had been badly marked and had not yet grown out of the damage. These plants like to use shrubs and trees as ‘nurseries’ to eventually reach a height that allows the tops of their stems to poke above the canopy. So when trees and shrubs were removed, they were damaged and then left exposed without their nursery protection.

Perhaps least affected was C. purpureus. By preferring to grow on the exposed granite flats, they had escaped the herbicide and fire that had destroyed so much else. Again, many of the plants were in flower. It seems that both aureus and purpureus are morning flowering, as today their flowers were as far open as we have seen to date – and this was the earliest in the day that we had seen them. Although closed at other sites, we had noticed large ants and small beetles trying to force the petals open, possibly to get at the pollen before competitors could do so.

The rain was still coming down and I decided to let my usual waist coat dry in the car. Instead I had put on a weatherproof (supposedly) jacket that was better suited to the UK climate. Within seconds I was wet again – this time from the sweat as this rain-protection was much too hot for Brazil in December!

When we had covered the distance from the road side car park to the first C. purpureus, the batteries on my main camera ran out. Where were the spares? In the car! Fortunately I had my little S10 pocket camera with me and I am very pleased with the results while at the same time recognising that it is worthwhile to lug the much heavier main camera around as there were a number of shots that I could not take.

Back at the hotel it was evident that I could have cleaned the lens more regularly, as raindrops had blurred some of the images. Still, with plenty of good sharp ones left to chose from, these blurred images will be proof of the conditions that we saw the plants under – very different from 1999!

A quick stop with more dark skies threatening was at a place where Marlon had told us we would find Pereskia aureiflora. We had missed the recent flowering and while the small fruits with wing-like ‘leaves’ looked very cute, there was no seed ready to collect.

Let’s hope that tomorrow is a brighter day! Although Ian pointed out that in the UK the weather usually clears up on Mondays, when he has to get back to work.