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Monday 30 June 2003 – Olmué to Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benitez at Pudahuel pt 2

The final leg – the journey home

As the meeting was brought to a close, we arranged to follow Frankie and Peque back to Santiago. This turned out to be an ‘interesting’ drive, as we had to negotiate a very windy road to get us back to Ruta 5, in the dark, in thick fog, with cars fully laden with people and their luggage. The Kia’s gear ratio was just not right for this type of driving and I was continually changing through the full range of gears to try and keep up with the lead car. It was quite a relief to get to the airport and to say goodbye to our very dirty cars – its amazing to think what punishment they had taken on the often challenging tracks. They had served us well.

Sleeping in airport departure lounges is never ideal, but turned out to be a good idea as the fog outside had not lifted at all. Our early morning drive in the dark from Olmue would have been extra stressful in the knowledge that we had a plane to meet!

The representatives of LYS Rent a Car met us as arranged and formalities were completely quickly and pleasantly – I’d recommend them to others – but do insist that you get the car that you want!

As our check-in time approached, we became aware that many flights had been cancelled. The fog was so thick that our departure was delayed by three hours. Such delays roll on, so that with further delays in Buenos Aires, chances of making our connecting flight in Madrid were minimal. We eventually arrived at London (Gatwick) Airport nine hours late, to the unaccustomed sound of a heavy rain storm on the glass roof.

Previous experience had learned me to prepare for a mild dose of ‘post-trip depression’ and that the best therapy is to write up your notes and sort out your pictures while things are still relatively fresh, if muddled, in your memory. These Copiapoathon Diaries are the result.

Another therapy consists of planning your next trip, before the plane touches down in England, so Marlon, are you ready for Brazil 2005* ?

* Since the trip, Marlon accepted on opportunity to study for his PhD at the University of Zurich, so that his availability for a trip were unclear. Instead, some of us decided to join Guillermo Rivera for a guided cactus tour in North West Argentina, but not before I sneaked back to Chile in October 2004 with Anne Adams and Alain Buffel – but that’s another story.

Sunday 29 June 2003 – Olmué to Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benitez at Pudahuel pt 1

All good things come to an end, and so the time had come to rearrange our packing for the flight home.

The weather was not great when we got up, a reminder that we were in the middle of the Chilean winter and had come a good deal further south, away from the equator. We woke up cold and damp and thoughts of tomorrow’s flight home further dampened our mood. We would have to leave here at about 5:30 a.m. and in the dark find our way to the airport. We all agreed that once today was over, we’d drive straight to the airport so as to have plenty of time to get there, empty out the cars – our home for the last four weeks – and to get our souvenirs.

Alvaralto and a meeting of the Chilean Cactus Society

Alvaralto is the name of Ricardo and Ingrid’s home, high in the hills above Olmué. It is not the easiest of places to find and so Ricardo had arranged to meet us on the main road. We followed him up the windy track, higher and higher, until we had broken through the cloud base and once again enjoyed brilliant sunshine. This cheered us up considerably. As we parked our cars there was another indicator of what time of year plants thought it was – narcissi were in bloom, just as they would be on a sunny Spring day in March in the UK, or earlier further south in Europe.

Rudolf and Brendan Burke had told us of Ricardo and Ingrid’s wonderful garden, but had not really prepared us for the marvellous sights that unfolded, each time we turned another bend along paths that snaked through the garden. Ricardo had built wooden structures, covered with polycarbonate sheets and filled them with benches similar to those found at commercial nurseries in the UK. The benches were full of cacti, but not just Chilean ones – most genera were represented and with most plants having been grown from seed, the number of individuals of the same species and the same age paid tribute to Ricardo’s ability to obtain excellent germination. The same was true for Chilean cacti grown from habitat seed. The order and tidiness of the collection made me feel guilty about the state of my own collection, particularly as I still had to complete building their winter home on my return, after my house move earlier in the year. But there was something else that set this collection apart from the many I have seen in Europe: the great attention to detail and artistic flair for which Ricardo credited Ingrid.

And then another turn in the path and another wooden frame / polycarbonate covered structure, but much larger. Inside we were delighted by a cactus garden, landscaped to make use of the natural hillside location with massive rocks that must surely have been left in place, with the remainder of the garden built around it. Again, cactus and succulent plants from around the globe were on display, but now large, mature specimens and again Ingrid’s artistic flair was in evidence. All plants were clearly labelled, with location information included where available. Film shortage problems experienced yesterday hit a high, but everyone’s needs were met, even if rationing was the order of the day.

Throughout the day refreshments were offered – and I have to mention here that our visit had coincided with a meeting of a branch of the Chilean Cactus Society that afternoon with an ‘open-house’ at the Alvaralto collection in the morning. It was great to meet and exchange experiences with Chilean hobbyists – they all put our language skills to shame as they were fluent in English – unlike our very limited knowledge of Spanish – during the trip we struggled after ordering the beers.

Soon after midday, we returned down the mountain.  In the village we were lead through what seemed a small grocery shop, to what turned out to be a large open air restaurant with large barbeques at full blast roasting a variety of meats. In one area, tables had been set out to accommodate the twenty or so cactophiles for a delicious meal, as always accompanied by excellent Chilean wine.

After the meal, we all went back to the cabanas where we had spent the night and in the large function room the furniture was quickly rearranged in the usual branch meeting set up – rows of chairs facing a projection screen. Some of us had brought slides along so that we could show our Chilean friends how we indulge in the hobby in the UK. Cliff took us through his Thelocactus collection (a talk I had tried but failed to book him for in England for at least two years), Ian showed us slides of his visits to European collections and nurseries and I finished off the conventional slides with pictures taken around my own collection and at the Holly Gate Cactus Garden in Ashington, West Sussex. I feel that I’d rather let the side down, as by this time it was completely dark outside and, pushed for time and tired, I struggled to get my slides the right way up in the cartridge – several appeared sideways or upside down – sorry! I had planned to take one of my regular talks, but during my recent house move, this had been put ‘in a safe place’, which I have yet to discover. As a result, some 50 slides had been selected in too great a rush on the morning of our departure for Chile.

Ricardo made me very envious with his closing presentation – a digital projector display of images of Thelocephala in habitat – very informative and somewhat embarrassing when I learned that we should have found some of these minute plants, hidden mostly deep in the gravel, at some of the places where we had been – too busy pointing our cameras at the impressive Copiapoa.

Saturday, 21 June 2003 – Caldera: ‘Hunting for fossils’ and ‘Morro Copiapó’

We were torn between what to do today: look for those magnificent fossilised shark teeth that were there, just for the taking, or give the Morro Copiapó a serious once-over. As we had two cars, the problem was easily solved: Ian would take the Nissan with Anne, Benjy, Bryan and Paul Sherville shark (teeth) hunting, while Cliff, Finn, Angie and I took the Kia to take a look around the Morro Copiapó.

Ian writes of their experiences:
Looking for Megalodon teeth

‘To provide a break from full time cactus hunting, and in the hope of finding a fantastic 5 inch long razor sharp fossilised shark’s tooth (as had been shown to us by the teenage son of one of the Chilean Cactus Society members earlier in the trip), car 2 set off westwards from Bahia Inglesa towards a bay that the hotel staff had indicated was where the smaller teeth they had, on proud display in reception, could have come from. The road passed the turn off to Morro Copiapo that we had taken earlier on the trip and we continued for nearly another 20 km or so until the bay in question was found. Spurred on by Benjy’s offer of free beer for the rest of the trip if we could allow him to find such a tooth, the car party for the day (Ian, Paul S, Ann, Bryan and Benjy) scoured the length of the beach enjoying the stunning scenery, only finding a bed rich in oyster shells but no teeth. We wondered if the beach was the right one as the hotel staff had been rather vague so decided to continue further along the coast.

This again gave some stunning views and allowed some photography of wading birds in lagoons behind the beach but the geology was wrong. Retracing our tracks we passed the first bay searched and the area then looked promising so Ian suggested a stop here (he is supposed to be a geologist). The orangey-yellow sandy sediments that were present looked very promising and it wasn’t too long until the first shark and fish teeth were found along with some other nice marine fossils including vertebrae, bivalves and gastropods. The preservation was not ideal so a lot of the teeth had the enamel preserved but had lost the dentine so they tended to fall into 2 sections. When showing Paul Sherville what to look for, he insisted what I had found was a bird’s beak (he can be a real twit sometimes!)

By working our way down towards the sea we were able to find more teeth including better preserved ones in iron concreted pockets. It was from such pockets that I am sure that the bigger teeth purchased from the market at Caldera in the following days had been won. At the coast we were also rewarded by spectacular cliffs of horizontally bedded sediments that were very photogenic if one was bold enough to get near the edge overhang to get the best angle!

I believe that small shark and fish teeth were found by all at this stop and though maybe not being as big as the ones subsequently bought there was the immense satisfaction of finding them ourselves. Another stop nearer Bahia Inglesa was made in an attempt to find more fossil beds and although this was unsuccessful, Ian was only a few metres from the car when he spotted what he thought was a discarded sweet wrapper. On closer inspection it turned out to be a red Thelocephala (Eriosyce odieri) seed pod – all that was visible above the ground of the plants. Further investigation by all car members identified other plants in the otherwise barren gritty plateau so yet again even with another agenda we had managed to find some more of our beloved cacti.’

More cacti on the Morro
We also drove down the track first taken on 8 June (was it really that long ago?), but continued only a few kilometres further before turning west towards the ocean. This brought us out to the south side of the Morro – while Copiapoa prefer to grow on north facing slopes. There was again a low cloud base – not good photography conditions, so at our first stop (S0187) we recorded the stop data, but as there were no Copiapoa or Eriosyce to be seen, left without taking a single picture.

The track was in places of dubious quality, so we were glad to reach the beach for a break from being shaken around. We had passed some clumps of Copiapoa marginata and had noted the place for a stop on the way back, so that the beach stop was limited to taking pictures of spectacular 3 m. (9ft) high waves (or were they higher?) crashing on the off shore rocks. There is a small delay – the combination of human failings and electronic wizardry in the camera – that resulted in the first frames always capturing the wave after it had ‘fizzled out’. Later images were better – who cares how many you take when you can discard the failures and do not need to worry about the cost and your remaining stock of slide film?

On the way back we stopped at the best location noted earlier (S0188) and found some good large clumps of C. marginata but also a distressing amount of dead plants. Again, we needed to remind ourselves that these may be the result of natural mortality over many years, rather than of a sudden disaster striking this population.

A little further east, we found a tempting track north that seemed to lead to a saddle between two higher parts of the Morro. Eventually we agreed the track had become impassable, so left the car and continued on foot (S0189) finding many large clumps of C. marginata as well as seedlings. While looking for seedlings, one of us commented that there should be ‘Thelocephala’ here as well, and once we focussed our search on these small geophytes, it did not take too long before Angie (‘I can never find those small things’) was the first to find one. Others soon followed and as usual, the largest of these miniatures was found about a meter from where we had left the car.

Satisfied with our day, we went back to the hotel to discover how the other car party had enjoyed the day.

Friday, 20 June 2003 – Chañaral to Caldera

Rudolf was keen to establish how Copiapoa calderana and C. marginata grow together (or not) between Chañaral and Caldera. Our contribution was to make regular stops along Ruta 5 between the two towns and to photograph what we found. And so we would stop roughly every 10 km, or as soon afterwards as promising terrain would appear close to the road, while Rudolf and Leo spent the day driving up tracks inland and make some hikes to see what they could find.

It is much too early to say anything meaningful until we’ve mapped our stops, merged our images with similar stops in the area in 2001 and those made at the start of our trip this year, compare these with Rudolf’s findings etc. At this stage, I’ll make do with simply listing the stop numbers and reporting what, in the concept of Benjy and my understanding of Copiapoa taxonomy, we saw. It is interesting to note that when discussing such issues with other Copiapoaphiles, many have differing concepts of what a particular taxon is. You can argue until you see blue in the face – such concepts are deeply ingrained, sometimes based on interpretation of available literature, sometimes on a particular photograph in one of the authoritative works (many of which disagree with each other) – or elsewhere, or by what a person has seen in collections and habitat. Who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’ is a mute point. As a result the following list should be regarded as those ‘working names’ only, that I am comfortable with at present, but may change my mind on, depending on new information. Not very scientific, but most snapshots of projects during the ‘work-in-progress’ phase are messy.

stop# Location Taxa
S0180 Punta Animas aff. Copiapoa cinerascens / calderana/serpentisulcata intermediates, Eriosyce rodentiophila

S0181 Los Toyos aff. C. calderana ‘spinosior’, Eriosyce rodentiophila

S0182 South of Puert Flamenco aff. C. calderana

S0183 South of Caleta Obispo No Copiapoa found, Cumulopuntia sphaerica, Eulychnia sp.

S0184 North of Rada Blanca C. calderana (few)

S0185 South of Rada Blanca C. calderana (many:- seedlings through large mature plants)

S0186 Near Punta Zentena, in and along a dry river bed. C. calderana

Beyond S0186, the terrain consisted of lose sand plains – not suitable for Copiapoa – or any other plants for that matter.

Tired and confused we arrived back at Hotel Rocas de Bahia, where the bar was ready and waiting for us and where we took a look at the itinerary for the following day. During our last visit, some members of our party had wanted to spend a day here, looking for fossils, while others wanted to carry on looking at Copiapoa in their environment. Angie and I went out for a walk along the beach and found a small supermarket open. We just wanted some bread rolls for the following day, but were surprised by the large number of fossils on display and for sale. Unable to withstand the temptation, I bought a Megalodon tooth, 9 x 7.5 cm in size, and produced this at dinner with a casual ‘Look what Angie and I came back with from our stroll along the beach.’

This established two distinct parties – the ‘fossil hunters’ and the ‘cactus hunters’ – for the following day.

Thursday, 19 June 2003 – Chañaral: Pan de Azucar part 2

We followed Leo and Rudolf north along Ruta 5, until, near the turn off to Cerro Colorado, they turned west onto a track. Not until several miles from Ruta 5 was there a sign, in the middle of nowhere, to indicate that we had just entered the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar from the east side.

We made three brief stops S0173, S0174, and S0175, where Rudolf showed us three ‘different’ plants or plants that we had not expected to find here – so far inland and out of the reach of regular fogs. Although….., I had seen large notices on Ruta 5, warning drivers to switch on their head lights during fog. The barren, bone dry landscape made the signs seem quite funny, but perhaps fog is not such a rare occurrence here after all. The first plant Rudolf showed us was Copiapoa hypogaea barely visible in a crack in the rocks, but a huge tuber became visible once the rock was removed. This plant is watered regularly – at least once every 6 – 12 months, when ever Rudolf passes by, it receives about a litre of the best drinking water (sin gas). The second plant, also growing in a crack in the rocks, is still a mystery.

It was quite large, with longish spines for its size and very dark in body colour – probably due to its shaded location. C. serpentisulcata is the most likely candidate in my reckoning, but quite a distance from its mates and no other Copiapoa near by. The third remains even more of a mystery, looking like a young plant intermediate between C. serpentisulcata and C. marginata (C. bridgesii) if such a thing exists.

Rudolf and Leo then went their own way for a day of climbing and hiking, while we followed their instructions and aimed for two hill tops visible when you approach Pan de Azucar from Chañaral which we had christened ‘Fog-net Hill’ and ‘Antenna Hill’. The difference was that we were approaching these from inside the Park. On each occasion we judged the track impassable for our vehicles some way away from our goal. Never mind – instead we spent some time exploring at the point where it seemed wisest to turn around.

But before that, our next break (S0176) was a comfort break (where the males in the party lined up along one side of the track while the two ladies found large rocks on the other side). This brief stop provided us with pictures of C. columna-alba and C. marginata – although Benjy is keen to use the back-in-favour name C. bridgesii for this northern form.

S0177 just happened: as we turned a corner, the track had been dug out through a low hill, making us eye-level with the gently sloping plain in front of us with the densest population of C. columna-alba that I have seen to date! There was no need to negotiate a stop – both cars pulled up and we piled out with our cameras a great sight!

S0178 was the point where the road to Antenna Hill seemed too steep. We did not mind, as we were at the foot of a hillside covered with large clumps of C. serpentisulcata. We tried for ‘Fog-net Hill’, but again, used common sense (which later gained us the title of ‘a troupe of girls’ blouses’ from Leo and Rudolf) and turned around at S0179.

This spot seemed less rewarding with a few miserable specimens of C. bridgesii and C. columna-alba. But a more detailed inspection was rewarded by a number little gems: C. hypogaea in its dark, rugose splendour, and some small Eriosyce (Neoporteria) sp. most too shrivelled to identify, even though some were in flower. The lichen on the Eulychnia iquiquensis were blood red in colour and also made for some interesting shots.

Graham Charles was kind enough to point out that the woolly areoled Eulychnia are now covered under this name, rather than E. breviflora, which was the preferred name at the time of the 2nd Edition of the CITES Cactaceae Checklist.

On my return home, I found that I had also taken some pictures at another unnumbered ‘toilet stop’, so these have been catalogued under S179a, as I do not want to renumber all subsequent stops.

And so back to Hosteria Chañaral for a continuation of the pool game of the previous evening, and the bar. Benjy sent me a comment about yesterday’s report:

Paul, you missed out a bit on your daily report for Chañaral: ‘Benjy / Rudolf doubles : Kings of the Pool Hall, 5 games, all wins, no losses.’
‘Misspent Youth’, as Rudolf would say…. I say: ‘SIMPLY THE BEST’.

Benjy, Rudolf was right – I have corrected your typos!

Wednesday, 18 June 2003 – Chañaral: Pan de Azucar part 1

Today was the first day of our explorations of the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar. We took the easy way in, sign posted from Ruta 5 in Chañaral and even before reaching the official gate, were keen to take a closer look at the clumps of Copiapoa that could be seen from the road. (S0164). They were C. cinerascens, heads with white felted apex, giving the impression of being somewhat flattened, leading to Backeberg’s name C. applanata, now a synonym, and C. serpentisulcata with darker heads where the spines formed a peak at the apex. There were many plants that looked just like the text books indicate they should, but there were also plants that were more difficult to decide on, likely intermediates – and why not – the plants grow (and in 2001 – flower) side by side.

At the next stop (S0165), just inside the park, having paid our admission fee, the white spines of C. cinarescens stood out nicely against the dark rocks on which they grew.

When we stopped again (S0166) we could now see C. grandiflora, seen earlier during our trips from Secret Valley, and possible intermediates with one or both of the two taxa seen earlier today. If only we could jump into the future, to the day that a probe can determine what name to attach to a plant by a combination of chromosome counts, DNA and iso-enzyme analysis. Would we believe the result? And where would be the fun of not being able to speculate and argue about the possible identity of these plants in the bar at the end of the day? I blame the discoverers of these taxa for not clearly labelling each plant in the Park correctly.

At a split in the road (i.e. track), we followed the sign for ‘El Mirador’ where in 2001 we had found a huge wonderful stand of Copiapoa columna-alba. These were at least consistent in appearance, just like the uniformed foot soldiers in the army they resembled.

On arrival (S0167), we found a chain across the track to the car park, so had to climb up a 3 m. (9 ft) high slope to reach the plateau on which the plants grew – wonderful plants of all ages, from small seedlings (well, no sign of flowering in any event and only a centimetre or two in diameter – but probably already more than 10 years of age!) to ancient monsters with stems over 1 meter (3 ft) tall, all slanting at about 60 degrees in the same direction – north, to the sun at mid day. These old guys had folds in their stems like some sumo wrestler. And looked at closely, they were not so uniform, with some stems off-setting and others definitely clumping. Spine counts per areole could also vary from plant to plant and from head to head on the same plant. Of course cameras clicked when ever a cristate head was found. At the edge of the stand C. serpentisulcata had also joined the party.

On our way to the next stop, the Park buildings at Las Lomitas, we paused to take pictures of a small herd of guanaco crossing the road. Once severely threatened with extinction, due to over hunting, their numbers have increased dramatically since the protection of the National Park has eliminated legal hunting there. Ironically, their favourite snack is Copiapoa laui and where ever we found this plant in nature, the guanaco’s hoof marks, having recently scraped away in search for these plants, was there in greater number than plants found. Another example of how man-kind’s interference with nature can upset a delicate balance.

Las Lomitas (S0168) was shrouded in cloud, with drops of water dripping down the lichen covered Eulychnia – a shame, as I had hoped to take some pictures to the north from here, where, at c. 800 m. above sea level, on a clear day you can see Esmeralda and the Cachina Valley, and follow the coast line to see the mouth of the Guanillos and Tigrilo Valleys. Also the views south, towards Chañaral, had been spectacular in 2001.

Instead, we fed the three Chilean Desert Foxes, that seemed to have survived being hand fed cream-crackers in 2001, when we left them anxiously looking for a drink to wash them down.

From here, we followed a track south, along the edge of the steep drop to the ocean that was only visible for brief spells as the cloud temporarily lifted. In 2001 we had found Copiapoa laui along this track, mainly because one plant had been in flower. Instead we found some slightly larger heads of a Copiapoa in the humilis / hypogaea complex – ‘squishy’, as Rudolf would say. (S0169 and S0170). Was this C. hypogaea? C. montana? C. esmeraldana lost at high altitude?

We made two more stops on the way back to Chañaral: S0171 was more like an emergency stop, as Cliff slammed on the anchors as he had seen a golden spined football – Eriosyce rodentiophila as we came around a bend in the track. S0172 was more controlled as we were itching to take come more pictures of C. columna-alba on the march.

Again, we found the marvellous fish restaurant, at Barquito, just south of Chañaral on Ruta 5, where we were able to watch the pelicans and sea lions compete with the local fisherman, fishing from the pier. Well, not quite ‘end’, as some of us got involved in a game of pool at the hotel, where the beers and Pisco Sours seemed to make it more difficult to pot the balls. Square pockets did not help either.

Tuesday, 17 June 2003 – ‘Secret Valley’ (near Esmeralda) to Chañaral

Looking at the mass of cactus taxa that I have scribbled in my notebook and at the hundreds of Angie’s, Cliff’s and my digital images that are stored on Angie’s laptop, it is difficult to believe that today we are only half way through our trip. Looking at our slightly modified itinerary, there are still lots of exciting places and plants to come.

Everyone was up early, because Rudolf and Leo wanted to be dropped off at the northern most edge of the Pan de Azucar, near Las Lomitas. Some of our party were keen to join them, so we drove their Toyota Hylux to a suitable point near Esmeralda, where Rudolf figured their hike would end, and then all (Rudolf, Leo, Ian, Benjy, Finn and myself) crammed into the Nissan to drive the party to the drop-off point, some 800 m. above sea level. My role was to drive the Nissan back to Secret Valley, after taking some pictures at the drop-off point (S0159) of Copiapoa hypogaea.

When I arrived back, the remainder of the party had packed away the tents and were ready to go. Having seen the Guanillos Valley yesterday, today was the turn of the next valley north – the Tigrillo Valley, home of KK 1385 – Karel Knize’s Copiapoa tigrillensis n.n.

As we turned each corner, the temptation to stop and photograph the impressive clumps of C. longistaminea and the stands of C. columna-alba but we knew we would pass these plants again on the way home, so waited until we reached the end of the valley for another picture stop (S0160). These were gorgeous plants, forms of C. longistaminea, but with some beautiful orangey spination. It became easier to see how this taxon varies as it moves north with its last outpost at Cifuncho, seen earlier at S0129. The scenery too was spectacular, with the plants nestled between huge lumps of granite that had been weathered away by wind, sand and sea. Again there was an Eriosyce sp in evidence as well.

Rudolf had told us that there was another valley, north of Tigrillo, so this is where we made our next stop (S0161) with much the same mix of cacti as at the previous stop. On the way back, but still in view of the ocean, we finally gave in to our craving to stop earlier and took some nice shots of the army of C. columna-alba seemingly in a hurry, all leaning at some 60 degrees, heading north (S1062). Cliff also managed to find an empty shell of what was once an Eriosyce microcarpa.

More C. columna-alba were shot (by cameras) later at S0163, before returning to Secret Valley to await the return of the hikers. We got back into our usual car-parties for the ride back to civilisation and a shower and bed at the Hosteria Chañaral, but not until after some beers and Pisco Sours in the hotel bar, to exchange stories of today’s finds.