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Tuesday 10 November 2015 – around Vallenar

Today we did the traditional Vallenar – Huasco – Carrizal Bajo – Vallenar circuit. Today just a few notes on stops:

  1. Maitencillo
  2. C471 road to Ojo del Agua to km 15
  3. Mirador Maitencillo
  4. Hacienda Nicolasa
  5. The Thelocephala napina stop south of Huasco
    Its worth mentioning here that the napinas this time were huge. The had finished flowering but the seeds were not yet ready. C. fiedleriana looking superb, Eulychnia breviflora also in flower. Great increase in plastic waste 😦
    As we got back to the car, waiting for Angie, Pablo recalled how they used to collect seed here in 1960. ‘There is a Copiapoa humilis that grows on top of Cerro Colorado’ he said, ‘but Frau Winter told us not to collect those plants – they grow like weeds and there is no demand for them. So it was left some 40 years for Alfred Lau to point Paul Hoxey to the top of the mountain, leading to the description of C. humilis ‘australis’ 
  6. Huacso Bajo – Llanos de Challe   There is now a huge settlement of beach houses here, causing quite a problem for CONAF. Some are multi story affairs and look very comfortable if you don’t mind the constant sand storm here.
  7. Copiapoa echinata north of Huasco Bajo
  8. Copiapoa dealbata – the 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006 etc group photostop. In flower and looking superb!

The owner of Hotel Atacama recommended the Club Social on Av Arturo Pratt for dinner. Excellent food but the fluorescent lights were a bit too harsh. Instead of the usual Crystal beer there is now a huge range of Cerveza Artesanas, local ales. The Huasco Valley offers an excellent stout and a very nice brown ale.

Monday 9 November 2015 – Chanaral to Vallenar

The main objective today was to get to Copiapó where at 16:00 we had a meeting with a lady from Conaf, the conservation group responsible for the National Parks in Chile.

On the way north, we had told Pablo about passing alongside a population of Copiapoa calderana, but at around 120 kph on an overcast day we passed the area without particularly seeing the plants. Today I recognised our usual spot where a bit of the old R5 provides a useful lay by, even though road building schemes have now cut our lay-by into 4 sections.

Again, we had come to see some particular plants, not so ‘famous’ as Smiler but still, plants that we would visit when passing if the opportunity arose. At this spot, in 2003, a pipeline had been laid along the old stretch of road and a small leak from one of the joints had created a smell puddle. A kind soul had placed a pad of an Opuntia in the puddle and it appeared to have rooted. Over the years, the pad had grown into a plant, now over 2 m (6 ft ) tall standing in the middle of a small oasis surrounded by Frankensia (? spelling?) in full flower.

There was another plant here that was of interest, a cactus, but not the typical C. calderana found all around. Some years I would stumble across it, some years it was playing hide and seek or I forgot to look for it. This year it looked in excellent shape and I noted its location more carefully for future reference. I feel sure that it is a C. marginata, found abundantly some 20 km farther south at the Morro Copiapó, at Bahia Inglesa. But why just a single plant? This time Angie had the answer. As usual she had wandered off on her own – no point in both of us coming home with a set of identical photographs of the same plants – and had gone as far as the lower part of the coastal hills. When she came back, she reported seeing several plants that were ‘different’, but what were they? I showed her ‘my’ C. marginata and she immediately recognised this as being the same as ‘her plants’.

Pablo added another interesting story. He and Hans Lembcke had been on a (mainly) seed collecting trip and had collected two plants that had stood next to each other. They sent one plant to Backeberg, who, in 1959, described it as C. lembckei and they sent the seed to the newly started nursery of Karlheinz Uhlig who distributed the plant throughout the hobby under that name. As usual, Backeberg fell foul of not following the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature and so his description was judged invalid. Ritter had noted the discrepancy and had published C. calderana as a new species based on the other plant collected by Lembcke.

It seems that over the years C. calderana enjoyed a period of taxonomic stability while plants grown under the name of C. lembckei caused a lot of confusion, popping up as a synonym of a number of other taxa, including C. marginata. Pablo seems to remember that the two plants had been identical. Had some of the seed collected here and sent to Uhlig included some seed of the C. marginata plants also found here? The intrigue continues.

What I can say from my own experience is that plants acquired by me in Europe under both names (calderana and lebckei) look similar enough to be considered the same species, but that on one of my plants, the lower stem had produced offsets that looked quite different from the original head – different enough to confuse people like Rudolf Schulz, Brendan Burke, Benjy Olliver and Leo van der Hoeven into thinking that they were different species. There had been some correspondence about this phenomenon in The Chileans too. Marlon Machado suggested that the differences were caused by hormones. The lower stem of the original plant, obtained by John Pilbeam from an old collection that he had bought had been badly marked. Leo suggested that I should cut off the pretty top and root it and throw away the lower part. I tend not to throw away plants as long as there is life left in them and so enjoyed new offsets coming from the old stem. Marlon suggested that the apical dominance caused by growth hormones was lacking in the lower stem and had so produced ‘different’ looking offsets. I’ll have to dig out the images when I get home as well as the feature in The Chileans.

Back in nature, it has to be said that C. calderana looks so much better on a sunny day than on overcast days. I will be passing by again with Johnathan in weeks to come and hope to catch them in the sun to be able to show the contrast.

We arrived in Copiapó in good time for our meeting with the lady from CONAF. There were three more gentlemen present as Pablo gave a presentation (in Spanish) of his experiences with Cylindropuntia tunicata in South Africa, then in Australia and now, seeing it in Chile at Los Choros. This is a Mexican cactus that seems to have been introduced to the Los Choros area (according to stories from the goat herders) when donkeys were introduced from Mexico and the US to help in the collection of nitrates at the end of the 19th century. When the nitrate boom collapsed, the donkeys had been turned lose and become ferile.  Pablo will prepare a more detailed report about this later.  We learned from one of the CONAF reps that there was a similar aggressive stand of C. tunicata near Ovalle, an area that Jonathan and I hope to visit in weeks to come when we will ask for more information at their local CONAF office.

Altogether a very useful meaning with a mutual exchange of information and the message understood that whilst in general C. tunicata does not pose an immediate threat to the endemic flora, populations should be monitored in case vectors for distribution such as goats, donkeys, guanaco and rats (new rubbish tips at new human settlements) cause an outburst of the plants.

We decided to drive down to Vallenar so that we could make an earlyish start for a look at Huasco and what is happening along the coast road to Carrizal Bajo.

Sunday 8 November 2015 – Pan de Azucar again

As arranged we reported at the main Ranger station at 10 a.m. to check if Domingo had obtained permission to guide us to the area where Cylindropuntia tunicata grows in the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, at Las Lomitas. Sadly, it had been decided that it would take him too long away from his duties as his colleague, Alfonso (Poncho), was unwell. However, Domingo promised Pablo a detailed report on the area, doing a population count by plant size in months to come. He also reported that during his 30 years at the Parque and his many visits to C. tunicata, he had not once seen the plant in flower. This in contrast to the plants at Los Choros which had flowered and had fruits, although our friends there reported never to have seen seedlings. I wonder if they would have recognised them as such.

Domingo reported the population at Las Lomitas as ‘stable’ – just a few plants and no evidence of the plant spreading. Apart from Guanacos, there were no other vectors such as goats, donkeys and dogs that would be able to spread the plant.

Later, back at the Pan de Azucar Cactarium – a little garden with plants native to the parque struggling for survival, we saw two specimens of C. tunicata in separate beds and were able to show how in one of the beds, cladodes (stems) of the plant had become detached, had rooted and were growing well, showing off their quite different juvenile spination. We were now joined by Alfonso (Poncho) who I had met in 2013 and who asked me to pass on a special thank you to Florencia for sending him a copy of the Spiniflores fieldguide on the Cacti of Chile. They had mistaken these young plants of C. tunicata for Cumulopuntia sphaerica, almost as invasive as C. tunicata, but at least a native species. Does it really matter? A nuisance is a nuisance irrespective of its country of origin!

With the full day trip to Las Lomitas out of the question, Domingo offered us the key to Quebrada las Castillo at the south side of the Parque, tempting as it was as this would have taken to a population of C. hypogaea and C. serpentisulcata that we visited in 2003 and close to the ridge, overlooking the old Chañaral Airport, just as Ritter described the habitat of C. mollicula. As we looked over that way, a cloud was covering the hilltops at that end of the Parque; conditions far from ideal for exploring and photography.

Once again I made an appeal to be allowed to repeat our walk from yesterday, this time with sufficient water on board. How long would it take to get to Smiler? On foot, about 2.5 hours each way. I thought it would be less, after yesterday’s fact find. Domingo made a snap decision: Let’s go! as he walked to the spare seat in our car. We quickly climbed aboard before there was a change of mind and so we bounced on semi official tracks, marked by piles of stones more or less in the direction that we had taken yesterday. Then we had decided to drop down to the old road for the walk home. This time we used the old road until another side track appeared which lead us back up the hill. Some 30 minutes drive after leaving the main ranger station things began to look familiar to Angie and myself. We explained that there was no need to go to the location of the chain that used to mark the track to El Mirador. From there we would have to climb a low hill to reach the plain where Smiler grew. It looked as though we were on that plain already and suggested a short walk around to get our bearings. I had the GPS reading with me if need be, but wanted to see if Angie’s famed photographic memory would make the day again. And sure enough, some ten meters from the car, Angie’s scream for joy indicated that we had arrived. She hugged the plant and set her camera up for a selfie and I managed to record the event on my camera. Pablo and Domingo watched in amazement. Oh, it’s a crest – yes, but not just any old crest, this is Smiler. And as if to prove the point, Angie walked another ten or so meters and found the clump of Thelocephala malleolata that she had also found in 2003 – this time the plant was more exposed at the rains had washed away the sand.

It was quite a relief, after all the devastation in Chañaral and the to the tracks in the Parque, it was nice to see a sign that some things had remained stable! We celebrated with a beer and a couple of empanadas on the beach at Caleta Pan de Azucar.

Pablo requested a stop at the field of C. cinarescens on the way back to Chañaral. He (and Rudolf on previous trips) had a bee in their bonnets about a beetle or moth where the larvae could bore into and destroy large clumps of Copiapoa. To prove the point, Pablo had bought a machete and was now looking for an infected plant, just outside the boundary of the park. I watched and found some more T. malleolata in flower while Pablo soon pointed out the frass, waste material produced by the culprit and even, briefly saw the larvae before it hid again back into the clump. Just to address the balance I took pictures of some 150 clumps of C. cinarescens to be able to demonstrate the variability of this plant in habitat in terms of overall plant size, size of heads, body colour and spine length. A splitter could describe half a dozen taxa from this place! For me, one does the job.

Angie and I decided to celebrate the day with a meal at the Hosteria which at least was consistent in its unreliability. In the absence of guests, they had decided to close at 7 – 15 minutes before we arrived. Usually restaurants in Chile don’t open until 8! They had also switched off their router so that we failed to send this message from the car park. Ah well, back to the Chinese, next door to our Hotel – cheap and cheerful with a Pisco Sour that packed a punch. As a result, the release of today’s missive will need to wait until we reach Vallenar tomorrow.

Saturday 7 November 2015 – a day around Chañaral

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!!

Friday 6 November 2015 – Taltal to Chañaral

Angie was sad to say ‘See you again in two year’s time’ while for me it was ‘I’ll be back in approximately two weeks time’. Rooms have been booked provisionally. Francisca is also keeping her eyes open for a Gringo from Bolivia arriving by bus or by bicycle – Brian Bates.

And so we set off for Chañaral. We had seen the devastation as we had driven through the town on our way to Taltal a week earlier, but had been assured to see that the Hosteria appeared to have survived the floods and mud flows in March; it even had a fresh coat of paint to make it stand out more on the entrance to town.

We decided to first visit the visitor’s centre in Pan de Azucar where Pablo had soon made contact with the rangers. He explained our two goals:

  • For Angie to see Smiler, not far away from Caleta Pan de Azucar
  • For Pablo to see the extent of Cylindropuntia tunicata infestation in the Las Lomitas area of the park.

It was agreed that Angie and I would manage our first objective on Saturday and that one of the rangers would ask permission to show us around Las Lomitas – a full day’s drive around the Parque along R5, to Ritter’s TL for C.columna-alba before heading into the park by-passing the barriers that had prevented us to enter on previous occasions, to achieve the second objective.

Today’s stops were

  • a short ‘leg-stretch’ at the (blocked) eastern entrance of the Parque
  • Copiapoa in flower and Thelocephala malleolata around the ranger’s office in Caleta Pan de Azucar
  • Devastation caused by the floods in Chañaral.

Knowing that the Hosteria Chañaral was open for business, we headed for our favourite alternative, Aqua Luna Hosteles. This had clearly received way too much ‘moon water’. The lower two floors had been gutted while there were still curtains at the top windows, rooms where we had slept on previous stays. Through the archway into what had used to be the car park, we could see mud piled up to a height of some two metres. Unbelievable! Very sad.

Amazingly, the Chinese restaurant across the street was still standing and seemingly still open for business!. Next to it, another building had weathered the storm and received a new lick of paint to make it stand out even more amongst the wreckage!

The sign on the building indicated that this was Hotel San Nicolas, but it looked deserted – a work-in-progress? Pablo went to investigate and returned triumphantly! They were open, but still without wifi and credit card facilities, but at a price too good to believe and inclusive of breakfast!

The next morning we added ‘no hot water’ to the list of minor defects, but when we mentioned this to the managares, she promised to fight with a problematic master switch to fix it. When we had finished breakfast, there was warmish water from the shower, but the toilet now refused to flush! Fawlty Towers springs to mind. I’m sure that by the time we leave on Monday morning we will have completed the guest QA check list.

These people had never run a hotel in their lives. They had been very well to do, owning a mine and a fleet of trucks, all destroyed by the floods – 2 days of just 20 mm of rain per day in March! ‘I bought expensive shoes, wore them once, then bought another pair. We lost everything and had to start again with money borrowed from the bank. Now they employ a few local people to help with cleaning and 24 hour reception duties. The Chinese next door provides the eating facilities.

Thursday 5 November 2015 Taltal sightseeing

As usual we have been full on since we arrived on 25 October, so it was time for a rest day. Pablo was surprised how shattered he felt, just from bouncing around on tracks and roads for tank-fulls of petrol each day and so was grateful to have a break from the usual up-at-7-breakfast-at-eight-away by nine routine. He climbed back into bed while Angie and I went out to milk some ATM machines as Hotel Plaza does not take credit cards and tomorrow we would have to pay for our seven night stay. We have provisionally booked back in for three nights when Jonathan comes with us. Brian Bates is still in Bolivia, hoping for his passport to arrive so that he can join us.

So today is probably best kept as a photo report as Angie and I spent four hours walking through Taltal, taking pictures of, for us, favourite sights, with happy memories. Just a few for now, with more to be added later once we’re back in the UK.

Well – great idea – accept that the combination of Angie’s laptop and the washing line that passes for broadband does not support uploading the large images. Never mind – I’ll do a catch up on one of the missed days instead.


Wednesday 4 November 2015 – Trip to Tigrillo and Las Maderas

It is said that for every sunny day, Taltal has two overcast days. We had yet another sunny day! Relying on the (missing) cloud cover I wore one of my short sleeved shirts and got quite sunburned by the time we got back.

For regular Chile travellers planning to visit Taltal – Bart & Marijke please note – there are two new restaurants in town. Just as well, as our regular eatery, the historic Club Taltal, had been having difficulties and remained closed, leaving us to eat a pizza at El Rancho, a cheerful fast food pizza stop next to the old Faro (lighthouse) along the promenade. This morning, as we drove out of Taltal using the coast road, south, just before our favourite restaurant of some 10 years ago, Las Brissas, there is a new, attractive and modern restaurant called El Mason del Greko. We decided to give it a go last night. As you might expect (????) this is run by a guy from Sweden! His daughter, the cashier in the restaurant, explained that her grandfather was Greek, hence the name. Excellent food, but a bit pricy for every night in Taltal.

As we walked to the Greko there was another new restaurant, looked bright and modern, with a special 40% off discount on wine. We’ll give it a go when Jonathan arrives. Tomorrow night (Thursday) Angie has reqquested a last visit this trip to old faithful, Club Taltal, before we head south towards Santiago for her flight home in some ten days time – and Jonathan’s arrival.

Back to today. Having found Thelocephala weisseri a few days ago at what we call ‘the desertorum stop’, we returned, now with better light, to check what had happened to Copiapoa desertorum. Just some brief notes and impressions that may well prove to be incorrect in time, but jotted down here as an aide memoire.

  • The age distribution of a population of Copiapoa is not the traditional bell-shaped normal distribution curve made up of plants germinating on a year by year basis. Every year the brief ‘wet’ season may be enough for seed to germinate, but tnot enough for the seedlings to put on enough bio-mass to survive to the next water event. It is during the ‘special’ El Ninjo events that there is sufficient moisture for seedlings to make sufficient bio-mass to withstand the next 7-9 years (roughly) of drought.
  • At the Desertorum location along the coast road, south of Taltal, just before it joins the road to Cifuncho we were impressed in 2001 by the massive ancient clumps of this plant.
  • We stop by every time that we have visited Taltal and only find few flowers that always look ‘reddish’ in colour. This is never a ‘pure’ red, like you might find in a rose or tulip, but rather it seems that the usual yellow pigmentation of Copiapoa flowers is missing, leaving translucent cells that show through the red of the outer petals – Copiapoa often have buds that are red coloured. I have never seen a typical yellow coloured Copiapoa flower on these plants during visits in January, May, June, July, September, October, November and December. May be there is a yellow flowering colour variant that shows of its flowers during the months that I have not visited the site – any observations from others would be very welcome.
  • We believe that Ritter called the plants here C. rubriflora, and for me, the two names are synonimous.
  • After this year’s double rain event (March and July/August 2015), it seemed easier to distinguish the ‘generations’ in the population age distribution:
    • Small ‘seedlings’, probably to 10 years of age
    • Small clumps, probably some 50 or more years of age
    • The large clumps – ‘ancient’, mostly dead or dying with only few heads capable of pushing out the odd new growth or flower before joining the piles of ash and blackened tissue and spines that make up most of the individuals here.
  • The other cactus found here abundantly is Copiapoa columna-alba. These were looking very pumped up as a result of the recent rains with a few buds starting to become visible through the wool. Some plants were forming new offsets

We carried on past Mina Las Luces towards Quebrada Tigrillos (small tigres). I had not been here for a few years and really enjoyed the session here, photographing the local form of Copiapoa longistaminea that Knize called ‘tigrillensis’ a nomen nudum. Here thw plants grew between huge granite boulders that sheltered them from the Ocean wind. Many plants would have been automatic Best in Show plants back home, but best left here to be enjoyed again during future visits.

By growing in and on top of the rocks, it was easy for the eye and brain to take in the healthy plants without becoming distracted by all the dead plants. Imagine stepping out of your front door and looking down the road seeing the corpses of all the folks who had died here during the previous 50 or more years. It can be a very depressing sight, until you put it in the correct context.

I should have plenty of pictures for next year’s round of talks, just from this stop alone. Quite a challenge ahead to select the best!

As we headed back, we took the turning to Las Maderas (the wood) where indeed it was difficult to see the wood for the trees, this valley has one of the largest and densest populations of C. columna-alba that I know. Just before coming to Chile, someone at Exeter university published a paper stating how desperate the conservation status of the cacti in the world had become with many species nearing extinction and firmly pointing the finger of guilt at the cactus hobby and commercial collection of plants. Even if the hobby was able to tripple its global membership and give every registered member three plants of C. columna-alba from this location, it would hardly make a dent. Perhaps I need to send her some pictures from this trip and illustrate damage done by road building, mining, agriculture (wine and goats) and natural events (floods) to enable her to adjust the balance of reality in her mind and teachings. Hers is the wrong message – doom and gloom – to express. There is much cause for optimism.


Tuesday 3 November – Post Script

This year, updating the Diaries is done as soon as I wake up and finish abruptly as soon as I am called for breakfast. The ‘To be continued’ notes at the end of some messages are to remind me to complete that day’s entry once I get home.

Today I have 10 minutes left after breakfast and before we hit the road, so time to mention some points to be expanded later.

  • On the whole we have seen very few Copiapoa in flower, especially here, in the north.
  • Exception: C. ahremephiana where a few clumps on the beach were in bud. We will go back to Botija in a few weeks time for a longer visit.
  • We did see Copiapoa with evidence of flowering, probably in response to the August rains, but NO FRUITS.
    Is it possible that the pollinators are also confused by the unusual events in nature this year?
    Francisca, our friend in Hotel Plaza, reported that children were swimming in the bay of Taltal in September – very early! But now, in November, it is too cold!
  • Dead Copiapoa remain a feature of the northern Chilean landscape. Many dead plants in photos taken years earlier are still there now – it seems that nature’s recyclers such as fungi, worms and small insects are missing here and plants eventually turn to ash, ‘burnt’ by the sun over many years.
  • Often, dead stems of Copiapoa are infected by ‘worms’, borers that leave a large amount of ‘frass’, waste material,
    Pablo is convinced that these ‘worms’ (most likely the larvae of beetles seen with Copiapoa) are the cause of death of the plant and he fears that an ‘outbreak’ of this beetle could kill off significant numbers of plants. I have a different take on this and see the beetles and their larvae as part of nature’s recycling team – they are found in plants that have been dead for many years but they are not the cause of death.
  • Similarly, yesterday’s dead solaris plants had large numbers of dead snails around them. These plants had grown many kilometers from the Ocean and there was no evidence of water near by.
  • We plan to visit the natural history museum in Vicuna during this trip to learn more about the life cycles of the beetle that we photographed and of the snails and so, gain a better understanding of these phenomenon as well. Rudolf Schulz’s books Copiapoa in their Environment 1996 and 2006 mention these phenomenon as well, without conclusions. Is Copiapoa 2016 on schedule, Rudolf?

Duty calls for another day

Tuesday, 3 November 2015 – Taltal – Botija

Continuing our visits of cactus locations from yesteryear, today we drove to Paposo, paid our usual respects to the population of Copiapa humilis at the statue of the Virgin overlooking the Ocean and this time continued inland following the signs to Antofagasta and R5. Soon we had left the world of plant and associated animal life behind and drove for some 100 km through a scenery used by numerous epic Hollywood films for its unearthly appearance of ….. nothingness. Only getting down on hands and knees could we see small plants and only right along the road, which somehow seems to attract what little moisture there is, to keep these plantlets alive. Getting down on your knees is not very popular in a wind so strong that it makes it difficult to stand upright. At c 2,000 m altitude, the wind is biting cold, although the sun in a cloudless sky gives the impression from within the car that it should be a very nice sunny day out.

The turning west, to El Cobre is now well sign posted. In earlier years there was a warren of tracks at this junction with a number of dead busses providing the only confirmation that here we should find the main track to the west. In the past, the road down was still very barren, but here too the number of low growing annuals suggest that they have shared in the rains that fell in March and August this year. We were well past its flowering peak.

We stopped when hillsides, covered in Copiapoa solaris, appeared. As in 2001, they seemed to be mainly dead or dying as apparently the climate had just become too dry, even for these giants. Pablo thought he recognised the site where back in the sixties, he and a small number of fellow botanists had stopped and had discussed methods for calculating the volume of the large cactus clumps, published in an early issue of the South African C&S Society, ‘Aloe’.

We stopped to take some pictures of these fields of death, but were surprised to find that quite a few of the clumps still had one or two stems were still alive – more than my memory recalled from 2001! Must get a new memory.

This year the cloud / camanchaca that had provided some magnificent views on previous visits, were much higher in the sky, so we drove on to the Ocean in brilliant sunshine. I have visited El Cobre a number of times, mainly to confirm that the ‘planta’ with its collection of mining equipment, guarded by one or two unfortunate souls was still there. Big surprise! The track ended on the beach in a newly built fishing village! Pablo spend some time chatting to the locals and learned that they were all former miners who, in today’s climate of low copper prices, were now trying their luck with fishing. It seemed to be a common story, all along the coast. But where had all the mining equipment gone? Next door!

As we left New El Cobre, we found a turning to a track that would take us south along the coast and sure enough, what had been a graveyard for mining equipment had been completely emptied and washed clean by this year’s rains.

We headed south on a reasonable track at around 30 kmphr, hoping to avoid the sharpest of the stones that, at a higher speed, can rip your tires to pieces in seconds. Although the track should have been familiar to us there were some significant changes. It was clear that large volumes of water, mixed with mud and huge rocks had torn across the feeble attempts of mankind to build a track for their cars. Frequently new tracks had been laid, higher up the hill, so that we were now driving through terrain that was new to us. About 9 km before we were due to reach Botija, a number of mounds of cacti appeared, many dead, some still alive. These must be the population of Copiapoa solaris var. luteus  of which we had seen just a few plants along the old track in the past. Many of the plants seemed to have made their way down hill and had made a last stand here. We plan to come back here in a few weeks time with Jonathan.

Our concern now had turned to fuel levels. I had calculated that a full tank should easily enable us to complete the distance from Taltal, inland to El Cobre and back along the coast. However, our fuel monitors – an old fashioned gage and a ‘range’ indicator gave a variable message, where our range increased while the gage showed lower levels. Eventually we reached Taltal without problems but the tank only had some 2 litres of fuel left.

Monday 2 November 2015 – Day at Guannillos

It was one of our usual circuits from Taltal. After a bit of shopping for snacks and water we drove out towards R5 but before getting there, turned right towards Cifuncho. Before hitting the coast, we took a left to Planta Las Luces, the mining processing plant that had provided the better than expected roads in the area. Just like on Saturday we took the track signposted to Tigrillos and Last Maderas but instead of following the signs to these Quebradas later on, we carried on towards R5 until we found the sign to Caleta Esmeralda and turned in. Quite a difference with the way we found this in 2001 when there were no signs or SatNav and our navigation had been rather hit and miss.

Before reaching the quebradas we passed through a canyon of rather darker rocks and saw the first cacti – Eriosyce microcarpa. This was a different passage through the same range, a few km along where again the Eriosyce were the first cacti spotted, i.e. if we had come from the coast, these were the last plants before the dessert became too dry even for cacti. A quick leg stretch allowed us to snap pictures of plants of all ages, young (c 5 years old, based on growth rate in the UK) to larger mature specimens, some still in bud and one, conveniently growing next to the road, in full bud with one flower open.

In the Guanillos Valley we drove straight on to the beach and once again took the opportunity to say hello at the small monument dedicated to the late Alan Craig who died in 2001. Alan loved his Thelocephala but try as we had in previous years I believe we had never found any. I believe that the plants here would have been T. weisseri, so what better reason to have an extra hard look in the company of Pablo Weisser himself.

Angie has officially been nominated plant spotter this trip as she soon found one in bud, or rather, found the buds, with the plant itself burried in the coarse granite gravel. After the usual photography she then went a step further and found a fully open flower, again with the plant body itself fully open. Well done, Angie!

  • On to ‘Puma beach – it seemed that the C. longistaminea and C grandiflora had suffered from the recent rains – lots more dead plants than I recall on the past. Some old friends, like the C. grandiflora growing inside a clump of C. longistaminea was still in tact, but a dozen or so heads of longistaminea had died.