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Thursday 19 November 2015 – Vallenar to Bahia Inglesa

The plan had been to drive north on Ruta 5 until we saw the much used (on previous trips) turning to Totoral. Both Bart and I felt that we had been paying attention but we still missed the turning. We ended up some 30 km south of Copiapo until we noticed. Bart suggested that we’d drive on to Bahia Inglesa, book into their favourite hotel, Coral de Bahia, so that Marijke could have a rest while the men went to Quebrada Leon to take a long overdue look for Copiapoa leonensis. I was driving, Bart navigating and Jonathan balancing our cameras around him as the track became more and more bouncy. Our memories told ud so expect a smooth drive in through several kilometers of sand, where in the past we had seen Thelocephala kraussii, but we seemed into the hilly area much earlier than anticipated. The main feature here seems to be extremely dry, close to death, Eulychnia, but they were in bud and even some in flower, suggesting E. breviflora.

Eventually the track ran out and SatNav suggested that we might have wanted to be a few Quebradas farther south. Never mind, we were here now. As we climbed the hills, we found the plants: pumped up C. leonensis, that had recently flowered, and Copiapoa marginata. We climbed to the top where I photographed one of the largest lizards that I have seen in Chile, carrying a dead mouse in its mouth! Well done, big boy! From the top, we could clearly see the sandy area that we should have driven through, farther towards Caldera and decided to take a look there on our way out. The service road for electricity pylons provided excellent access and so we parked up. After half an hour or so it would appear that Thelocephala kraussii did not want to be found and we could hear the call of beers in Hotel Coral calling our names. As we prepared to turn around, Jonathan called us back – he had found some cacti out on the sand and wandered what they were. Copiapoa leonensis again, but I don’t recall them growing on this sandy flat. Had they been washed down by the 2015 rains? Or did they normally grow here, covered in sand, hidden from sight? But why could we not find the Thelocephala? Surely they would also have been covered by the fine sand. Sure enough, half way6 back to the car my eye was caught by two large wooly fruits standing upright above the sand. Bart volunteered to get a face full of sand while he blew away the dust to reveal a large group of Thelocephala. Pictures were taken before the fruit was harvested, but on closer inspection, the seed was not yet ripe. A week earlier we would have found flowers!

The day was rounded off with the beers that we had heard call out for us earlier, used to wash down a big juicy steak in my case.

Another great day!

Hard at Work

Hard at Work

Wednesday 18 November 2015 – around Vallenar

We had managed to fix a few more buglets with the drone last night (Jonathan performed his wizardry – must have gone to school with Harry Potter) and things seemed to work fine but we were unable to test the GPS function in doors. So we thought of a day to the seaside to try filming Copiapoa from the sky would be interesting.

Nature had put out another Purple Haze display right along R5 so that became the first stop of the day. Then on to the road to Carrizal Bajo. Bart had wanted to see the Thelocephala that grows along the road, about 500 – 1000 m after the ruins of a factory on the right hand side of the road. Our flowering desert stop had allowed them to arrive early and find a few plants already, or rather, Marijke to find them. She was on an incentive scheme where plants found in nature could be exchanged later for purchases of shoes and tops etc. For the sake of consistency I’ll look up the names that I used on previous visits for the plants from here – they looked a lot larger than I remember!

Next stop Llanos de Challe NP where we explored a new low hill and were nearly blown down from the top – nature was providing its own air-conditioning, very pleasant!

Bart & Marijke had brought ingredients for their lunch, so Jonathan and I went for a hunt for empenadas in Carrizal Bajo. Wrong! Everything was closed for lunch. The tide was out, so an opportunity to photograph the sand bank again (see 2001) this time from the bridge. Nature’s air-conditioning was still in the switched-on mode – nice, but now creating concern about flying a drone in these winds. We3 decided to find a suitable spot first, found some 20 km north of CB, where indeed a local weather check ruled out an attempt to fly. At this rate, the drone will go home without having fulfilled its purpose!

Angie will be interested (and sick) to read that the cacti were now in full flower – what a difference a few weeks make!

David Whitely wrote to say that when they stayed in Vicuna, they experienced heavy rain that must have caused all the flowers that we saw during our visit! Are you producing a report of your trip, David?

Readers of the 2013 Diaries will recall that one of the highlights of that trip was the finding of an excellent cake shop on the Vallenar crossroads opposite the Coped and this became our next target, but not before I was distracted by a sign to Caleta Matamoros, a new one to me, so one to explore. The rough track lead to some fisherman’s huts but high above the Ocean – strange place for fishing, and let us past a huge clump of C. dealbata featuring a large crested stem. We draped ourselves around the plant while Jonathan set up the tripod etc and recorded a film clip from which the group photo could be selected in due course.

Tomorrow we head for Bahia Inglesa – Englishmen’s Bay.


Tuesday, 17 November 2015 – Vicuna to Vallenar

The plan was for us to drive to La Serena and to get out again as quickly as possible, heading north and filling up with motion lotion at km 9 out of town. Wrong! On arrival we were told that petrol was due to be delivered at 16:00 hrs! So another 9 km drive back along R5 to the Copec there, fill up, then out again, each time passing a slow moving queue of traffic past the road works, with diggers and bulldozers setting the page.

We did not take long to reach the turning to Los Choros and to admire the scene at Juan Pablo Acosta’s first ever location – JA 001. Ritter reported finding Copiapoa pseudocoquimbana var armata ‘north of the Rio Choros. We were standing on hills to the south of it but it was hard to imagine how a usually dry river bed could be a barrier, separating ‘armata’ from ‘coquimbana’.  In the past we had always called these plants ‘coquimbana’ but a recent DNA study shows that it is different to the conventional ‘coquimbana’. Well, there were hundreds of Copiapoa here, most in full flowers – again very large in size, the name grandiflora would have fitted in that respect! There were some small ‘Copiapoa’ plants that had already flowered and bore fruit that clearly indicated that they were Eriosyce – E. simulans – close in appearance to the Copiapoa. It struck me after a while that there might be two Copiapoa growing here – one tuberculate at the apex, but turning to clear ribs lower down, and one that was ribbed from the apex down. Jonathan keyed out to plants and in both cases came up with ….. C. echinoides!

Reluctantly, we moved on from this cactus paradise, drove to Los Choros as headed off across the plain to roughly where I had tested the drone a few weeks earlier. Jonathan had brought along the paper copy of the user manual which proved very useful in swatting at the flies – here shaped like darts and aiming to stick the tips of the dart into any exposed bit of skin. They were very persistent and drove us back to the car from which we’d venture out to push a button or two before retreating back to Suzy the Suzuki. This time, after both the flying part and the controller had been on for some twenty minutes, the propellers were suddenly spinning. Hooray, we would fly at last! Another few steps on the checklist and it turned out that the control over the on-board camera was not working. It seemed that the number of flies had increased, waiting for a mass attack if we should emerge from the car. After some more failed attempts, we decided to abort today’s mission – no point flying the drone without the ability to film from above. Once again, there were time pressures – we wanted to get to Vallenar to meet Bart & Marijke.

We followed the track up the hill to where earlier we had decided to turn round. This time we progressed – past a herd of about a dozen guanaco. SatNav was happy that the track we were following would get us to Vallenar at around 18:00 hrs. That time became later and later as the track deteriorated.

The number of Cylindropuntia tunicate also went down. Eventually I found that the tyres balanced precariously on two bits of solid ground while the bit in between was getting wider and wider and deeper. Jonathan went ahead on foot to see if things would improve or not – they would not. Turn around was indicated – so we crawled back some 25 m + where the vegetation either side of the road suffered as I did a refresher course on a ‘n’ point turn. SatNav insisted that we should have persevered until we passed JA001 again. It then acknowledged that R5 was the smarter way home. ETA: 20:08. Pushing Suzy harder than usual (fine at 165 kph) we stopped in front of Hotel Atacama at 19:43, still (just) in day light. Bart & Marijke had already arrived and gone for dinner at the Club Social. By the time that we arrived, Marijke was on the edge of her seat as Uruguay were beating Chile 3-0. The atmosphere in the dining room was a bit like a wake, except for the waiter, who told us that he was from Peru.

We put the drone’s bits on charge and will attempt another flight tomorrow, this time along the coast in ‘Dealbata’ Country – weather (wind) permitting.

Monday 16 November 2015 – around Vicuna

Today I wanted to see if Cumulopuntia grandiflora, growing near Mina El Indio was still accessible and alive. That meant that we drove inland, into the Andean foothills. I had never seen the Desert in Flower phenomenon here before, but it exists this year as complete hillsides covered in Callendrinia.

Plenty of evidence that they had experienced a rumble here not too long ago, as the roads were still covered in small and not so small rocks that must have come from the hillside during such events.

We saw (very few) of the bright yellow spined Eriosyce eriosyzoides – mainly plants that had been knocked down the cliffs but also two plants alive, in situ.

We reached the border posed with the sign indicating that the Paso Negra was still closed – too early in the season for a pass that crosses a glacier. There was a chain across the road to El Indio, so the continued well being of C. grandiflora remains a mystery for another year.

Normally, with time to spare,  I would have suggested a visit to Gabriella Mistral’s birthplace, but as Jonathan had only been on a teaser visit to the Eriosyce aurata ‘Golden Ball’s’ site yesterday, I suggested that we’d return for a more relaxed second visit. As usual, it was difficult to limit the number of images taken. Still no evidence of goats – great – and that includes droppings from recent visits. And Jonathan found a small (2 year old?) plant that suggests that there is plenty of seed in the soil for the population to recover. We even took time to take more ‘wild flower’ pictures. Jonathan found a plant with unusual flowers that turned out to be Aristolochia chilensis. Nice pictures too of the incredible long spined Trichocereus chiloensis that really looked better than I have ever seen them, amazing what a bit of rain can do.

I forgot to mention that when we left Vicuna this morning, we stopped and said hello to the small ‘cactus nursery’ in town where they grow plants in tin cans, coffee cups etc – many prbably habitat collected. Ian Woolnough reported good germination from E. aurata seed obtained from here in the past, so I topped up my stocks and might get around to some seed sowing. There was also a large Trichocereus in a sunflower oil tin – covered in buds and with one or to open flowers. But was this a different species / form? Where were the long spines? The owner confirmed that they had been removed for health & safety reasons – so I’ll call it ‘nail-clipperiensis’. Jonathan took pictures and film.

Sunday 15 November 2015 – Olmue to Vicuna

Quite an ambitious day – driving to Vicuna ‘the wrong way round’ – we normally launch ourselves from Vicuna into tyhe Andean foothills (?).

We left Olmue too early for breakfast, so stopped at the Pronto in Pichidangui for the Spanish version of a full English, imvolving Advocado Pears. Just to aid digestion we drove to the beach so that Jonathan could also add the BCSS signs to his collectiopn of images. The gentleman from the house opposite the site came over for a chat and was pleased to see so much support from the English – he must have spotted Angie, Pablo and I here the day before. We were invited in for a cup of coffee, but had such a challenging program ahead that we declined this time.

The Pronto at Soccos provided another stop – just a coffee and hot dog this time and a full tank of fuel. Ovalle was easy to find, but how on earth do you find the road out to Hurtado? We pulled over tyo  the Copec in Ovalle and tried for a while to persuade SatNav to go to Vicuna without returning to R5 and battle with the traffic in La Serena. I tried putting in Hurtado as a ‘via’ but Garmin had not heard of that or any of the other villages along the route. Out of desperation we decided to use the sun as our navigating tool, pulled out of the Copec and within 200 meters found a sign to Hurtado! If only we had looked up while battling technology in the car park.

The question now was, could we complete the journey before sunset? Jonathan was duly impressed with the magnificent spination on the Trichocereus here – must look up Ritter to see if he had a name for this form. With a limited time budget we pushed on (at around 30 kph) as, although much of the road is now paved, beyond the police station in the village of Hurtado, it was not and the old track had received a hammering from recent rains and rumbles so was a bit of a challenge to negotiate.

We made it to the ‘Golden Balls’ – Eriosyce aurata, the original ones, beautiful plants but on a site that had also been hammered by nature. There are now two deep (to 20 ft) gullies between the track and the main area where we would stamp around in the past. There were some very sharp stones (slate?) in these gullies – all in all too dangerous for the goats that used to keep the young auratas under control – hopefully they will have a chance of regeneration!

Our usual stomping ground was by now in the shade of the hills as the setting sun had popped behind the higher peaks. I guess the 20 images added to those from previous visits will have to do.

We arrived at the Hosteria in Vicuna around 20:00 hrs. Yes, they had space (2 nights) and the restaurant was still open!

Tomorrow we drive to the border with Argentina to see if I can still find the nice opuntioid that grows on the way to the Indio mine.


Saturday 14 November 2015 – Olmue – the Airport Run

Early get away to get to Santiago Airport in time for Angie to check in and lose her luggage, for Jonathan to arrive and for Pablo to meet a fellow scientist, interested in butterflies, to remove a piece of Copiapoa cinarescens containing the larva that may or may not be responsible for the destruction of Copiapoa in habitat.

Everything worked like clockwork. I watched Angie disappear through the security / immigration gate – see you in just over two weeks! Jonathan was itching to start his Chile adventure while I was keen to introduce his charger for the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 to mine – now completely flat. It was great to download my images  and to finally know what my next Stop number was. I use these numbers to organise my images – for each number I record the date and GPS co-ordinates and the cacti – other succulents – other plants of interest that were photographed here. I usually include the Stop numbers in my Diaries, so that is a catch up job to do back home.

The journey back to Olmue was nice and relaxed and we made a leg stretch stop in the Sierra de la Dormida to get Jonathan get used to the Chilean flora and see his first cactus in habitat – Trichocereus chiloensis.

Back at Olmue we helped Pablo to move his gear into the Weisser residence and then went for our last meal in Chile with Pablo – nice restaurant in town as the Hotel’s facility had closed early.

Early start tomorrow – we’re down to two in the car!

Friday 13 November 2015 – Pichidangui to Olmue

It is always a sad occasion when a trip comes to an end. There was a hint of sadness in the air as Angie and Pablo prepared for their last day in the field for this time. Angie and I have already promised ourselves another trip to Chile in 2017 (must remember to renew my passport that year!). But, amidst the sadness, also the excitement that Jonathan Clark reported that he was just about to board his flight to Madrid from London Heathrow – as one door closes, another opens and we’ll be heading back north on Sunday, hopefully to meet up with Brian Bates in Taltal and with Bart & Marijke who so far have managed to miss us – not intentionally, just the way it has turned out.

We started the morning with our usual last stop, on the rocks of Pichidangui, these days just referred to S107 – the last stop number of our 2001 trip. The usual array of plants were on show again, looking very colourful after this year’s rains.

This time we made a second stop at the southern end of the coast road where the BCSS Conservation Fund had funded the tidying up of an area and had planted it up some of the local flora. There were two notice boards asking people to respect and protect their local flora – a good public relation exercise. We duly had our pictures taken with the sign – the project had been opened shortly before our arrival by no less than Adrianna Hoffmann and Roger Ferryman apparently appearing on TV! We could not compete with that, but the picture of Pablo Weisser next to the sign nicely illustrate two Conservation funded projects together.

Do try to catch our talks in 2016 when I’ll be showing more of our Chilean adventures while I’m sure that Roger Ferryman will do the same.

Who said the Friday 13th was ‘unlucky’? We’ve had a great day!

Thursday 12 November 2015 – Guanaqueros to Pichidangui

As usual, we had failed to cater for breakfast in the self-catering cabana. As in 2013 – no panic – a drive to the Copec at Soccos and refuel the human engine at the Pronto did the trick.

I wondered how the track to the Parque Nacional Fray Jorge had changed. Had the fields of grain taken over alltogether? was it still a storage area for windfarms along the coast? No, everything seemed to be returning to ‘normal’ except that unlike in 2001, most of the land was fenced off and at our usual stop, where at least we could see some Eriosyce aurata long the road, there were now GOATS! Intentionally or unintentionaly the fields of grain were now providing grazing for a few horses. The Trichocereus here – call it ‘chilensis’ or ‘skottsbergii’ as you will, I’ve never been able to tell which is which and what happened to the ‘rule’ that a species and its subspecies don’t grow together? There certainly are two ‘Trichoes’ here, alongside Eulychnia acida to confuse matters further, but from the island of Chiloe in the south, right up to Taltal (?) the name ‘chilensis’ is applied to a very variable taxon. The plants seem to be of little horticultural interest, which still seems to be the main motivator for creating names, but if we want to have meaningful names for things found in nature, than surely consistent regional forms that vary in appearance along the range deserve a name to enable us to talk about them? From memory, Ritter I believe recognised eight varieties. The form found in the Elqui Valley with its super long spines certainly deserves a ‘name’, even if there is no need to record it at a botanic rank.

Pablo and Angie wanted to take pictures of a fence of ceroid cacti – I stayed in the car, having seen it dozens of times before. A lady, more senior in years than I am – I have to be careful now that I am over 60 years young as well – that used to be my benchmark for using ‘old’! – came to the gate of her property and shouted a question to my deaf ear. In my best Spanglish I replied that we were English tourists on our way to the Parque. She came through the gate and said ‘I’m not sure why you are trying to speak Spanish to me, I have lived in the US for the last 50 years, but I was born just a few 100 meters from here.’ We had a nice chat over how things had changed, some for the better, but some for the worse too – people just don’t handle change very well.

We came to the turning to El Sauce, the weeping willow tree.  Nature became more and more powerful, as ‘the flowering desert’ also extends to the hillsides either side of the road. It was an interesting ride on a track that Jonathan and I first explored in 2013 to find a nice stand of Copiapoa coquimbana overlooking the Ocean, in fields where as dense with Eulychnia castanea as the I have seen any population of cacti.

The C. coquimbana here were marvellous, obviously also as a result of this year’s rains, evidenced by the tracks that often had been partly washed away. It’s a shame that the name ‘grandiflora’ has already been used elsewhere in the genus Copiapoa, as the plants here had the largest flowers in the genus that any of us had seen. Had it been the same in 2013? Or does it add to my theory that flower size (and shape for that matter) is not a guide to identification of taxa in this genus – available water and density of spines at the apex are significant in determining flower size!

This is one of the most southern populations of Copiapoa, with the nearby Rio Limari generally regarded as the natural southern border of the genus, with small groups of plants in the sand dunes at El Teniente and La Cebada holding the official southern-most record – or has anyone found them in nature even farther south?

Again, when I get home, I’ll have to look for the name of the small Eriosyce / Neoporteria / Horridocactus that we were seeing this time – in bud. Not sure if Jonathan wants to take a look next week if they are in flower yet. Superficially, they looked similar to the E. heinrichiana that we had seen near El Trapiche yesterday. And remarkably, there were small plants resembling Thelocephala growing near the Eriosyce as well, again, just like at the El Trapiche site. But, according to literature, no Thelos have been reported this far south, so it is probably another example of dimorphic growth – differing juvenile and mature spination found on plants of the same species. All together a very enjoyable stop again!

Wednesday 11 November 2015 – Vallenar to Guanaqueros

No signs of any earthquakes at Club Bahia, Guanaqueros. Nice easy drive mainly along R5, cruising at around 100 kph.

I had forgotten to put the coordinates in for Thelocephala riparia and there were no obvious places to park and do so along R5, so I turned right at Domeyko and suggested a run to Copiapoa domeykoensis.  Angie requested a stop around km 6 as millions of Caladrinia were colouring the desert nicely.

The coordinates were duly put in and so we headed down R5 towards El Trapiche to see if Eriosyce (Thelocephala) napina subsp. riparia required an ‘extinct in nature’ rating or not. There was no obvious place to pull off as we approached the Pylon 227, so we followed the signs to El Trapiche, using the original R5. That eventually ran out as the road had been blocked but seeing Copiapoa in flower on the embankment, we were soon tempted out to stretch our legs and point cameras at Copiapoa coquimbana (is this still ‘armata’, now suggested by recent DNA studies to be a good species? We are certainly north of the Rio Choros, but then, so is Tocopilla!)

It didn’t look hopeful as we drove along the outside of a works depot to one of the pylons, this one # 276, just one out, with ‘our’ #275 across the bussy PanAmerican highway. We found a ‘work-in-progress’ ‘retorno’, yet without signage, that in future will warn us that this is one way traffic only. Still, no arrows, no signs, no police …… and I found a parking spot a couple of hundres yards away from #275. It seems that our fears that the area had been a truck and heavy goods yard in 2013, right on top of the small habitat of T. riparia had been unfounded. All the expected plants were here and looking in great shape: Copiapoa coquimbana ‘armata’, Eriosyce heinrichiana, as usual during our November visits, in full flower, the Eulychnia, a cross? with the hypanthium of E. chorosensis, but the short upright stems of E. breviflora. Unusually, the ground was covered by grass, Callindrinia and other annuals as befits a desert that has flowered. Finding Thelocephala is a challenge at the best of times. I won’t cheer and announce that the Thelos are alive and well, but did take some images of candidates that might be the plant or might be young plants of E. heinrichiana to confuse us. Time will tell. But I was greatly encouraged to see that if these plants had all survived, without obvious signs of habitat destruction, then the Thelocephala ought to be OK as well and, depending on future plans for the area, should be capable of being re-introduced from seed from grafted ex-habitat seed raised plants growing in Santiago. The future is looking brighter!

A bit of shopping at the huge Lider superstore in La Serena and on to the Cabanas at Club Bahia, bring the Diaries up to date before dinner at La Pequenia, quite possibly with a Pisco Sour and some wine to wash down the fish and chips!

Tuesday 10 November 2015 Post Script

Talk at breakfast was about the two rumbles that were felt strongly in Vallenar last night. Similarly, last Saturday night in Chanaral, Angie woke me to ask if I had felt a couple of rumbles then. It wasn’t me dear!

Keeping up my track record of sleeping through earthquakes. This one had its centre at La Serena – we’re heading for Guanaqueros today ……..  home of the rumbles!