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Wednesday, 15 December 2010 – Rawson to Camarones

Yes, that’s right, we’re staying in a town called ‘Shrimp’ (Camerones). As you might expect, there was plenty of sea food on the menu and I had local (sea) salmon with Roquefort cheese sause for dinner, washed down with a couple of bottles of Malbec (who cares about white wine with fish?!)

As we had no data from other sources to aid our explorations, it was down to ad-hoc stops, any place where the scenery seemed suitable or, as in this case (S2133), where there was a natural call for a comfort break. John claimed to have found an Austrocactus but I wanted to see evidence. On the way to his spot, Juan found another, allowing me to take its pictures and thus avoiding this becoming a ‘No cactus stop’.

While S2133 had been a relatively ad-hoc short stop, S2134 at Punta Tombo nature reserve lasted several hours and produced 152 images. Why? Because this was a penguin colony and we had the chance to walk through a colony of some 200,000 penguins. At this time the eggs had hatched and we were looking at parents with chicks waiting for the return of partners from their fishing trip with food for the chicks before the other parent could go for a few days of fishing. The location provided an excellent opportunity to snap some pictures to give audiences next year a break from endless cactus pictures. In addition to the Magellan penguins, there were also Rhea and Guanacos among the endemic animals spotted.

S2135 was back to ad-hoc stops, this one because Juan had spotted some clumps of Maihueniopsis darwiniii with large orange flowers. I also managed to find a dry and shrivelled Maihuenia patagonica.

S2136 was for more Maihueniopsis darwinii but soon Juan had found some Gymnocalycium gibbosum – small plants, highly variable in their spination and some in flower. Not a bad stop, but then Juan shouted ‘Ptero!’ The self acclaimed Cactus terrorist had already proven his skills in finding Pterocactus, with only tiny bits of stems appearing above ground. The school is still out about a positive ID. Juan suggested P. australis, but a chat with Guillermo via the hotel wifi suggests that P. valentinii might be a candidate. An excellent find and we’ll worry about a name later. We are not aware of many cacti reported from these areas, so with ‘data to swap’, we may have a bit more luck. Does this find mean that Juan is now a qualified ‘Cactus Pterorist’? Austrocactus patagonicus was also here, and Maihuenia patagonica. Soon after we drove away, Cliff spotted an armadillo running across the road. With temperatures of 33 C only Juan and I could be tempted out of the car for some more pictures.

The animal hid in the shade of a bush, creating some problems for my camera. It seems that after 3 years of active use in the field, the 18-200 mm zoom lens may have picked up some war wounds and may have to be replaced so that I can get it repaired while I’m off on my Mexico / California trips in February, March and early April. I still managed to get some useful pictures despite the mechanical faults.

As the clock ticked on, a change of substrate to a more rocky texture prompted another quick stop, S2137. Maihuenia patagonica and Maihueniopsis darwinii were soon found, but I had already got back into the car when Juan claimed his second Pterocactus of the day. Well done, again!

Back in the hotel I stripped down my lens as far as I dared. any of the later pictures today show that things are dramatically wrong, with the centre of the picture in focus, but everything very fuzzy around the edges. Just like the cactus taxonomy for the plants that we are finding. Both can be fixed in time.

Having experienced Petrol Day, another public holiday in Argentina, on Monday, we were now told that there was a strike threatened that had already resulted in some panic buying in Buenos Aires. The garage where we tried to fill up outside Rawson this morning had no iesel and explained the nature of the problem, forecasting that Argentina would be ‘dry’ fuel wise, over Christmas. Our priorities on reaching Camarones was therefore focussed on getting fuel first, with success, so that we have another 760 km in the tank – more than enough for tomorrow’s adventures.

Monday, 13 December 2010 – Esquel to Trelew

It took a lot of phylosophical reasoning over a steak and several bottles of wine to decide on a change of direction. Yesterday’s exploration to the east of the Andes immediately gave us some cacti, looking at data from various sources (thanks Martin, Brian and Guillermo), it seemed that there were cacti in Patagonia on the Atlantic Coast. Not only that, but there are other attractions such as the Maggalean Penguins, Orcas  and ‘seawolves’, large seals I guess, that appear on each other’s menus.

So we decided to drive right across the continent (if we ignore Chile for the moment), from Esquel on the Andean foothills to Trelew on the Atlantic coast. It was a straight run to the east, 602 km in all. You may remember the temperatures in the west were rather like those in England, around 5 C. The car thermometer gently nudged up to 12 C and it seemed right to try a leg stretch stop, S2127. The one thing that had not changed was the wind that was blowing at gale force and added a significant wind chill factor. It nearly took the car doors off their hinges and Cliff’s jumper took off and got caught on a bush. The wind caused the usual streaming eye problems – I might see if I can get prescription goggles – a realo pain and not very efficient as a cactus explorer. Still, I found some cute yellow flowered plants that turned out to be a small pansy and a cute yellow star flower with black spots on the petals, plus a nice unusual lizard. I wandered back to the  car and stood around until the key holder would let me in. But John was waving madly some 500 m. away, pointing down at something at his feet. Juan was already there and did a little war dance. So I squeezed myself through the wire fence again – very tight, very narrow, but fortunately not barbed wire. And there it was! Austrocactus patagonicus (?) and in flower! – how else could you find it? Excellent spot, John.

More reading required when we get home as there seems to be hardly any difference between A. patagonicus and A. bertinii. Certainly less difference then we have seen at some locations between the different growth forms of the same plant! 

We made one more plant stop – there was just no more time because I made the silly suggestion to stop for ham, eggs and chips at a roadside restaurant. Service was awful and the food ranks amongst the worst that we have had in South America. The price (145 Argentine pesos – about £31) was a shocker too, but hey, motorway catering is expensive and there was nowhere else to go for hundreds of miles. Except that this was no motorway and no ‘catering’ in the European sense.

As we progressed farther east, the outdoor temperature just kept on climbing, reaching 34 C! Eventually settling at 30 C as we entered Trelew. We are staying in a nice historic hotel (= needs updating) that claims that Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid stayed here during their South American adventures. ot much has changed since those days, except that there is now a wifi system that made me wrestle with my firewall until it let me in, but after Angie had given up on me.

Tomorrow we go sightseeing before, on Wednesday, we drive some 380 km south, still along the Atlantic Coast. At least we have found the sunshine again and we have some cactus spots along the way as well!

Sunday, 12 December 2010 – Villa La Angostura to Esquel

The last two days had improved our appreciation of the area: idealic scenery – large lakes surrounded by snow capped mountains, good roads (gravel or asphalt) bordered by beech and araucaria forests and bordered by bright yellow broom or lupins in various colours. Great, but there were a couple of factors that were not so good:

  • The overnight snow and rain plus sleet during the day had made the tracks to the higher altitudes just about impassable, so we were unable to reach the higher areas where we might find Viola and other Andean / Alpine flora, and
  • Around the lakes it was just too wet to expect cacti. As a result we had not seen a cactus for two and a bit days and were getting withdrawal symptoms.

The answer seemed to be to find roads farther to the east, the area that local people described as the Pampas or the Patagonian Desert. And so we headed east, to Pilcaniyeu, a small dot on the map that turned out to be a small community around a railway line that had fallen into disuse. S2123 was for pictures taken between V. La Angostura to Pilcaniyeu. We passed a small lake with some flamingoes feeding between the ducks and geese. We ventured out a few times, wrapped up in T shirt, Jean shirt, Llama woolen jumper and my lined all weather proof jacket with the hood tied down. The sharp wind got behind my glasses as usual, making my eyes water so my gloved hands managed to find the shutter on the Nikon which had been set to ‘point & shoot’ auto-everything. We saw various interesting rocks and some nice miniature plants including a mat forming plant with millions of yellow flowers, but no cacti.

S2124 was for a similar stretch of road beyond Pilcaniyeu. The short walks into the cold this time brought us some bulbs in bud, Evening Primrose in flower and some sharp rock formations, apparetly freshly sculptures from volcanic activity during the past millenium and before, but no cacti.

There is a daily lul in chat in the car, heads start nodding, eyes are shut and everyone hopes that the driver stays awake. I was and as a result spotted a large clump of Maihuenia patagonica along the side of the road, mainly because it was in flower. At last, a cactus! I took many more pictures than I would normally have done for a fairly average plant. There were one or two others around, but it was certainly not abundant here (S2125).

S2126 was John’s sighting of another, larger clump of M. patagonica, with close to 100 flowers and many more buds for weeks to come. What a shame that the sun was not out.

At least we had broken the cactus drought and had learned where to look to find them – but where were the Pterocactus hiding?

Saturday, 11 December, 2010 – Junín de los Andes to Villa La Angostura

We started the day with a quick stop on the Plaza of Junín de los Andes, where, opposite the restaurant where we had treated ourselves to huge steaks during the last two nights, there was an Araucaria tree, decorated like a Christmas Tree. We just had to have its picture. Weather was grim – overcast and cold.

Friday, 10 December, 2010 – around Junín de los Andes

Chatting with Angie, it seems that we had very similar weather today. She reported temperatures of 6 C in Amesbury while here in Argentina, in summer, it was 9 C when we left the Hosteria and 5 C when we reached the lava flows a few miles from the Chilean border.  Unfortunately is poured down with a steady rain all day long, rather like a UK Spring day. The gravel track had become quite treacherous – John reported that at times it was like gliding through butter as the top layer of fine gravel had turned to mud. The car went where it wanted which fortunately most of the time was the same way where John was pointing it.

Our goal was the lava flow at the western end of Laguna Verde. On a sunny day this would have been a spectacular ride, through meadows, then forest (beech followed by araucaria trees) along lakes and often with glimpses of a tall snow capped volcano to the north. Unfortunately the rain was coming down so hard that we could hardly see the other side of the lake.

The lava flow turned out to be ‘recent’, resulting from an eruption 400 years ago, still too fresh to accommodate the plants that we had hoped to see.

On the way back our previous passing in the other direction and the continued rain had made the track only worse – not better. Congratulations to John for getting us back safely. 

All 44 images taken are filed as S2121 – No Cacti.

Tomorrow we move on, hopefully driving out of the rain and towards the sun.

Thursday, 9 December, 2010 – Villa Pehuenia to Junín de los Andes

Our hosts in Hosteria Al Paraíso in Villa Pehuenia were a mine of information to help us with our trip. They had suggest Martin as our guide yesterday and he certainly took us to places that we would never have found on our own, recommended places to eat, arranged taxis to those restaurants and now suggested that Junin de los Andes was a good place to stop for a night or two and recommended a hosteria. It was only 122 km so we took things at a very steady pace, made more stops over the distance than usual, whenever the conditions looked promising.

The first stop (S2117) was a mistake. We had been travelling on a dirt road and I had noticed that at times, the strong wind, coming up from behind us, seemed to overtake the car (it was my driving day). We were in an area that could house some Pterocactus – a flat area, sandy with some rocks. But after 10 -15 minutes it was clear to me that there were no cacti there, so I returned to the car. Before reaching the car I was engulfed in a sand storm. It only lasted a few minutes and was quite local, but my decision to return to the car seemed a sound one. It was a no cactus Stop but I did take a few ‘before & after’ pictures as first there was a hillside with a line of Araucaria at the top, then just a shadow through another blast of the sandstorm. By now John had joined me, Juan was in the thick of it, videoing and Cliff was somewhere in the lee of a hillside. Eventually we were all back in the car and Cliff reported to have seen a small plant of Maihuenia patagonica in flower – and has pictures taken with his new camera to proof it. We believed him and decided that we did not have to see them ourselves.

 S2118 was another No Cactus Stop, but nice scenery and roadside plants with a river in the back ground. 

S2119 was because Juan woke up, looked out of the car window and spotted cacti on the cliff face along the road. How do you do it?!?! These were Austrocactus bertinii but they were only visible through the zoom lens as John caused a minor landslide trying to get to one of the clumps high on the hill. In the mean time, Juan walking along the road, found plants growing at eye level and lower – much better. Again the plants were in flower, but sadly, the sun had gone and the low light made good picture taking unlikely.

 S2220 and Juan spotted cacti again – this time on low rocks, about a meter high. The similarities with small clumps of Echinocereus are remarkable – until you see the flowers.

Found another very nice hotel with very helpful staff to put together tomorrow’s program – if only the weather holds out.

Wednesday, 8 December, 2010 – around Villa Pehuenia

Two months after I left England and I’m already well into my third trip. ‘Doesn’t it get boring?’ Not as long as you have days like today!

Our local guide, Martin, arrived promptly at 9 and waited patiently while we created space in the car for him. There is an area that is ‘owned’ by the original native people that is only accessible by main roads at the weekend. But Martin knew the back roads very well and so promised to take us to above the tree line – and into the snow – to show us some more Violas. Stops S2110 to S2114 were for four segments of this trip for different flora and scenery – no cacti found. We are looking for the book that our guide had brought along, to get all the names for these plants, but that will have to wait until we reach a larger town.

We drove through pine tree plantations into Araucaria forest and out onto bare scree made up of pumice and other volcanic rocks and sands. Although we are only some two weeks from the longest day in the middle of summer here, we were driving through snow covered patches on the south facing slopes. The car’s outside temperature gauge suggested 13 C. We were happy to walk around in shirt sleeves in the sun, although jumpers came out when the sun disappeared briefly behind clouds and a biting cold wind stirred up.

For now I can tell you that we saw a Viola sp. that was new to us, Viola cotyledon, Nassauvia lagascea (Asteraceae), Senecio boelckei as well as a remarkable Oxalis, O. adenophilla, with, for me, delicate, most un-oxalis like leaves and, for the plant’s size, huge pink flowers. There are others, still awaiting identification. As well as these fascinating plants, growing in pure pumice, the scenery was breath taking.

The tricky part, photography-wise was to strike a balance between fast exposure times, to freeze petals blown about in the strong winds and using small apertures to achieve maximum depth of field. And to handle the contrasts: white snow v. dark volcanic rock etc.

For S2115 we had a small misunderstanding. Guillermo had sent me a message that they had found a location where Pterocactus had been in flower – some 200 plants flowering at the same time. We had been two days behind him and had driven through the same area, but on a different road as we discovered later. So this afternoon we hoped to find this spot. Martin had understood that we wanted to go to Laguno Blanca and Zapala, in that order and had taken us the long way round, thinking that the order of seeing these places was important. It was not, in fact we would only needed to go some 56 km towards Zapala to hit Guillermo’s location. Instead we took a 156 km ride but did stop at a huge rock formation where Martin remembered having seen cacti. Cacti were not his specialty. But we had hit the jackpot with a large number of Austrocactus bertinii in flower. Austrocactus are strange plants with various growth habits from thin wispy stems growing through shrub and stones to robust stems, not unlike Echinocereus in North America, but with buds and flowers superficially resembling Eriosyce.

S2116 was for a strange dried out lake that had very bright salt crystals colouring the sides of the rocks that contained it. Once we were out of the car we naturally started looking for plants and soon found another viola. Juan then found Maihuenia patagonicus and Cliff found a strange plant that at first sight reminded us of Toumeya papyracantha from Utah or Colorado or some other Pediocactus or miniature Sclerocactus. A bit of digging revealed a long neck attached to a large tuber: Pterocactus. Pterocactus araucanus comes from this area, but the pictures and description in Roberto Kiesling’s Cactus de la Patagonia for P. australis were a much better match. That will be the name I’ll use until I’m persuaded differently.

This threw doubts on the plants found by Guillermo that he had reported as P. araucanus. Based on what was reported from here or on appearance? We found no flowers but a bit of surgery revealed that the above ground stems were no more than ripening fruits. The coordinates for his stop were still in the hotel. Likely places had goats grazing on them – this seems to be the time that goat herds move their flocks around. Well, after all, Christmas is approaching ….

Pressed for time, we did not find Guillermo’s stop.