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Thursday, 30 December, 2010 – Taltal: the Guanillos Valley circuit

Just as was the case for yestreday’s ‘Paposo’ circuit, the last few months had established a ‘Guanillos Valley’ circuit. We decided to take Ruta 5 to the turn off to Pan de Azucar / Esmeralda but it seems that the Park wardens had not only closed access to the north of the Park from within it, but it seemed that the usual signs had been removed and replaced with signs to Cifuncho / Minas Las Luces, so that I ended up on the track that takes you to the centre of Pan de Azucar.

No choice but to turn back and try again on the ‘next’ track east that I had rejected nearly one hour earlier. We arrived a little later than planned at Ritter’s Type Locality for Copiapoa cinerea ssp columna-alba. (S2188) Every time that we get here, the light is a little different and the area presents new photo opportunities.

This time I focussed on the Eulychnia (iquiquensis I assume, but there were no buds, flowers or fruits to confirm the ID). It appears in Ritter’s image in KiSA, with a man and a woman standing next to it, to give us an idea of its height. This time it was John who offered to be ‘the Bowdery’. It seems that the plant is now 3/4 of a Carr in height – not much growth considering the c. 45 years that have past since the original photo was taken! And not surprisingly there were no signs of recent growth, although the plant looks to be alive. Compared to the Copiapoa that grow around it, this individual seems to have almost stood still! John and Juan managed to find a few Eriosyce (Thelocephala) esmeraldana between them – the easy ones, with fruits sticking above the surface to draw attention to their pressence.

S2189 was an ad-hoc stop near Secret Valley, but on the opposite side of the track where Juan (who has never been to Secret Valley) saw C. columna-alba and C. longistaminea growing together. It made a nice picture, especially when these two were joined by Thelocephala esmeraldana growing at the feet of the columna-alba. Also nice views from the top of the hill of the cactus covered hills, although many of the plants were ash-mounds, having died probably many years ago. Things seem to be getting dryer here in general.

S2190 was another visit to Alan Craig’s memorial. It looked as though the stones and shells had been tidied up since our November visit. Juan found T. esmeraldana here too.

S2191 was just after our Puma Bay camping spot, again for the magnificent (although suffering) C. longistaminea and C. grandiflora below the hills of Las Lomitas.

And finally S2192 was the regular spot for C. laui, where this time we pointed John in the right direction with instructions to find the miniatures (he did!) and C. angustiflora (still C. grandiflora ssp esmeraldana in my book). I climbed one of the hills in the other direction and took some nice wide angled shots of the track.

Around 4:30 it was time to head home and we decided to take the track that eventually takes you to Minas Las Luces. This had become rougher than I remembered it in November, but clearly maintenance has been reduced now that they seem to discourage visitors to Las Lomitas from the north. While driving my mind wandered what this track would be like on a future visit and thought ourselves lucky that we had not had any punctures since we started this trip on 1 ecember, via Patagonia. Always a bad thing to do. Five minutes later, Juan reported that the wheel under his backside had a puncture. Not a disaster in itself, as we were well rehearsed in the changing of tires. But with a dodgy spare going on to replace the puncture and some 40 km of rough track until we would reach a Vulcan. in Taltal, we needed a certain amount of luck with the remainder of today’s journey.

We celebrated our luck with ice creams while the vulcanisation man gave us the bad news. Either this time, or on a previous occasion (the tire had been repaired before we reted the car) it had been driven for a while when flat. As a result the inside walls of the tyre had worn badly. He could patch it and recommended that we’d keep it on the back and keep speeds down, especially around bends. 100 km p hr max!

We have to look at the options and have some rescheduling to do.

 

 

Post scripts: S1691, 7 February 2010: Las Tunas, Cuba

Regular readers may remember the images of an Anole lizard sp. feeding on the nectar of a Euphorbia sp. that we saw widespread throughout Cuba, often used as fencing. During my visit to California in March, Petra Crist of the ‘Rare Succulents’ nursery in Rainbow, told me that this was Euphorbia graniticola, and further searching under this name on Google reveals that it is a native of Mozambique.

How did it get to Cuba? It certainly likes the conditions here and the Cubans seem to have turned this to good advantage by using it to produce self-maintaining fences.

Thank you, Petra, for the information.

Thursday, 4 March, 2010 – Gatwick to home

I boarded the plane wearing a green safari shirt – plane but practical. As morning approached, I beat the queue for the facilities and did a quick change into the loudest Caribbean shirt that I could find during our travels. Mike told me that I would never dare to wear it. The chap next to me had the shock of his life when he woke up with the sun rise on his left and me on his right. Three airhostesses came to tell me individually that they loved my shirt! It may become part of the 2010 talks, so bring sunglasses.

Mike, who sat at the front of the plane and had a train to catch was gone by the time that Cliff and I had collected our bags. You’ll regret not getting a similar shirt, Mike!

Just a week and I’m off on my next cactus trip from 11 March, arriving back on 15 April. Watch this space for reports of what we see in various parts of the USA and Mexico.

Wednesday, 3 March, 2010 – Havana to home

Fortunately and usually there is not much to report on these days of travel.

We had to be out of our room by noon. By that time I had completed the 15 minute section of the What I Saw Last Winter talk for 2010 presentations. A quick thirty minutes in the Internet room, checking last minute messages and making sure that Angie had the right details for picking me up at the airport. She beat me to it with a message reminding me of the detail.

Lunch – Pizza Havana (for me) and Spaghetti with prawns for Cliff (can’t remember what Mike had) made the time pass by.  Good to see that Cliff has got over his fear of prawns after a possible food poisoning incident many years ago.

15:30 and time to get a taxi to take us to the airport where we were supposed to take off at 19:10. Add at least an hour to that, without any explanation announcement. If there had been one, the P.A. system was still the type that they used to have at UK railway stations in the sixties. Inaudible.

Eventually – nearly eight hours in flight – boring!

Tuesday, 2 March, 2010 – Matazan to Havana

It should have been so easy. We had carefully noted landmarks on the way back to our Hotel, last night. We carefully retraced our tracks this morning and without difficulty found ourselves standing at the sign of ‘Casa de Pancho Flora y Fauna’ at just after 10 a.m. We walked through the gate, along a few hundred meters of track when we were caught up by a horse and cart. The driver jumped down and greeted us in English. But his language skills did not go far beyond the greeting. I showed him the Melocacti book and asked if we were at the right spot. No. We learned that the Estacion Biologica de Cuabal was still the correct name of the project and was about 3 km farther along the road. Ah well.

The turning to the project was about 1 km beyond the point where yesterday we had decided that enough was enough. But the sign was far from informative: ‘Area Protegida, Tres Ceiba de Clavellina – 2 km’

Two kilometres along, we arrived at another sign near a gate: ‘Entrada Estacion Biologica de Cuabal R.F.M. Tres Ceiba de Clavellina A. Protectida’ (S1735). We had arrived!

Or had we?

Two gentleman and a young lady were waiting with a tractor and trailer, like a welcoming committee just for us.

After the previous experience, and once again brandished the Melocacti in Cuba book (I receive no reward for advertising this excellent book!)  I asked the person who appeared to me the leader of the three, if we were at the place mentioned in the book. ‘Yes’ he said hesitatingly, as if he knew what was coming next. ‘Could we be granted permission to see and photograph the plants?’ I asked politely. ‘Do you have a letter of authority from Fauna & Flora?’ he asked in return. ‘From the farm 3 km back?’ I asked, confused. ‘No, from the Flora y Fauna office in Matazan’ he advised.

Our faces dropped. Cliff & I had been here before, in Grão Mogol, Minas Gerais, Brazil. ‘But where in Matazan?’ I asked in despair. There is no information available about such matters, especially not to organisations that represent the cactus hobby in various countries. Our friend was obviously embarrassed by the situation, as indeed several people in Grão Mogol had been.

‘Do we need to pay admission fees to get this letter?’ I asked, politely, trying to get to the root of the problem. ‘Yes …., but also a letter’ ‘We can pay you the money’ I suggested ‘and then you can pay it to the people in Matazan.’  ‘No, that is not possible.’

He offered to show me some plants that were grown in the garden around the project office. Cliff & Mike declined. I explained that we had travelled widely around the world to take pictures of plants in habitat. In my home country of Holland, they grow Melocactus matanzanus in their millions – it is very popular because it is the Melocactus that forms a cephalium at the youngest age / smallest size. I had it in my own collection. But this plant is only known now from the area of Matazan and I was keen therefore to take a picture of it in habitat. He offered again to show me pictures of the plants grown in his garden.

While I went along with him, he explained that the reason that they had appeared as our welcoming committee was that they were expecting an inspection visit from his boss. Bureaucracy had once again prevented us from seeing a cactus in habitat.

Bottom line: we can be pleased that Melocactus matanzanus is well protected, while at the same time we can be sad that ordinary cactophiles are prevented from seeing these plants in habitat.

We needed to take our car back to Havana and book into our hotel for our last night in Cuba.

Monday, 1 March, 2010 – west of Matazan

Our credibility as cactus explorer did not rise in the ratings today. In fact, we would have achieved as much if we had stayed at the hotel and drank free cocktails and beers.

However, out of habit we set off to the west of Matazan, taking the coast road and looking for a turning to take us back on a south-eastern heading.

We had on the one hand too much information: the Cacti of Cuba book and a reasonably detailed map of the island, but at the same time, not enough information. Let me explain.

The book was quite clear that Melocactus matanzanus was recorded as recently as 2006 at Estacion Biologica de Cuabal, near Chirino, with the habitat of 385 hectares providing a home for five colonies or populations.  But Chirino was not on the map provided in the book, nor on the detailed Cuba map. In fact, few of the towns shown on the map in the book were on the detailed map and vice versa. And names of villages and hamlets appearing on any signage did not appear on either map. Arghhhh!

We followed our instincts that seemed to be confirmed by what we saw on the maps, stopped on three occasions in places that looked similar in soil (serpentine rock) and vegetation to information provided in the book.  No Melos were found, but were added as ‘no cacti seen’ stops (S1732, S1733 and S1734).

By two p.m. we were back in Matazan, not really sure where we had been, other than that I have GPS data on some of my pictures that I can plot onto Google Earth once we get back to home and the Internet.

As it was still early, we decided to have another go: back on the coast road, as the more promising track west out of the centre of town could not be found. Plan B consisted of no longer trusting our instincts and asking local folk often, starting as a snack bar along the side of the road.

The lady knew exactly where we wanted to go, pointed to the hills to the south-south-west, but told us that we had to drive back east, to Matazan and then drew us a map of traffic lights and turns before wishing us good luck.

It was a slow process, but eventually we discovered that the hamlet with the official name sign of Mena was in fact also called Chirino! And why not?!? We asked several people who confirmed that we had arrived.

It also turned out that the Estacion Biologica de Cuabal, was now known as ‘Casa de Pancho Flora y Fauna’. We had seen such a sign about a km back, but it was know past 4 p.m. and light was past its best for photography. We’ll have a go tomorrow, on our way to Havana.

Sunday, 28 February, 2010 – Playa Girón to Varadero

Again, we rose in good time, after another restrained round of cocktails – only six each this time as they had run out of crème de menthe.

And so we headed north, to cross the island once again, heading to Matanzas.

I should have mentioned that our previous two nights were at the south side of the island, in the Zapata Peninsula Swamp area, at another historic site: El Bahia de Cochinos, a.k.a. The Bay of Pigs, where mercenaries, believed to have been backed by the CIA, staged an ill-fated invasion in April 1961. 156 Cuban combatants and five civilians died and were elevated to martyr status in Cuba’s battle against imperialist forces.

Right outside our lodgings was the Museo Girón, with a British Sea Fury that took part in the battle on the Cuban side, as its main attraction, alongside two replica Russian built tanks.

As we drove along the Bay of Pigs towards La Boca, we kept passing monuments, marking a spot where one of the martyrs had died.

At La Boca, the mood changed as this was a park / zoo dedicated to the endangered Cuban Crocodile, a nice change from the lizards that I normally encounter during cactus trips and that find their way into talks. The purpose of the project is to raise crocodiles to be released back into the wild to compensate for their fall in numbers due to hunting and loss of natural habitat. According to my guide book, 80-90% of the animals raised here fall prey to ….. human consumption, starting in their own restaurant: ‘Make me a Crocodile Sandwich and make it snappy!’

We all dully posed with one of these creatures; a small one, with it’s jaws tightly wound by a rope, much thicker than it needed to be. I had mixed feelings about the appropriateness of the exercise, but it is easy to get carried away by the event. We declined the offer of the Crocodile Lunch.

Our drive across the island was uneventful, again. Sugarcane dominated the scenery.

At Matanzas, we got lost, as expected, in the town, lacking in sign posts as usual, but at least we had learned the lesson to look over our shoulders, as the most useful sign posts are the ones that benefit drivers going in the opposite direction. It seemed that the neighbouring town of Varadero is where the hotels were to be found. Most were in the $$$$$ price class, way outside of our budget. Things were getting a bit tense financially. More and more hotels and petrol stations were claiming that their credit card lines were not working and so we had eaten into our cash reserves more than we had wanted to. We all had some Euros and Pound Sterling left in reserve, but did not want to change more than was strictly needed as any unspent CUCs would be useless outside of Cuba.

We stopped at the first hotel outside of Varadero.  Did not look too bad and the price was roughly what we had been paying throughout our trip, but this time it was ALL INCLUSIVE! So while that meant that the buffet meals were unimaginative food to fill the stomach, the drinks, again, were for free! Excellent!! Cheers!!!