Just another WordPress.com site

With Ian and his Magnificent Seven now safely installed in Taltal, we had agreed to make a joined attempt at looking for a new location for C. krainziana, much more inland than our previous known locations.

We had already had a dummy run at this a few days ago, ‘dummy’ being the operative word, as we had discounted a very poor dirt track, with every risk of doing a ‘Cliff / Ian’ and getting cars stuck in the sand. We had therefore taken the wise (on hindsight) decision to take the next turn, on tarmac, turning into a salt road, sign posted for the VLT telescope at the Paranal Observatory . Showing no lack of imagination, the initials VLT stand for Very Large Telescope, which kind of sums up what it is. Needless to say, we did not see it or get there.

We stopped when the coordinates that we had been given for the C. krainziana spot started getting farther away. I took pictures looking at the four points of the compass and saw sand and hills – not a single plant in sight. This is the Atacama Desert at its most featureless and desolate, a place where you can imagine that if your car broke down, vultures would come and pick your bones clean!

With our crowd of 11 staring in disbelief at so much dryness, I suggested that we make a visit with the whole group to S3845, now S3860 – the Las Breas Copiapoa cinerea stop, where on 14 November, Al had complained of feeling claustrophobic at the number of Copiapoa crowding in on him!

John Bridgman complained that all that Ian W. had shown him so far were Copiapoa. Not quite true, but he did agree that feasting our eyes on so many plants was a magical experience. Sooner or later, even the most dedicated Copiapoa fan had taken all the pictures that they need back in the UK.

What’s next? Ian W suggested a climb to the radio masts at the top of Cerro Perales. Excellent idea! A climb (by car) from sea level to 1,084 m. altitude was a bit risky in one car, but with two Toyota RAV4 in support, Al relished the thought of a driving challenge. Our Suzuki had 4×4 capability while the RAV4s did not. So it was no surprise that we reached the top of the hill first, while Cliff in the first RAV4 decided to abandon their climb just before reaching the top as his wheels were spinning on the sand. Good H&S decission!

The plants, Ritter’s Copiapoa tenebrosa, the high altitude form of C. cinerea subsp. haseltoniana at Taltal, according to the New Cactus Lexicon, looked magnificent, with many heads in flower and the dryness emphasizing the spination, hard to match in European cultivation!

On the way back down, it was difficult to miss a group of ‘bulby things’, a John Carr expression from a few years ago, to be IDed back home (Ian Woolnough ID: genus Rhodophiala)

We returned to our hotels and around 17:00 descended on a newish restaurant, El Meson del Greko, near a former favourite, ‘Las Brisas’. Excellent food and drinks served by a couple of sisters from Sweden, of Chilean origin, who speak excellent English! Recommended!

Today we set out for the hardest walk of our trip – down the Quebrada San Ramon to see Copiapoa krainziana and Copiapoa taltalensis – the one that I still prefer to call Copiapoa rupestris. There was also a very diverse collection of C. cinerea, including white spined plants (‘Copiapoa albispina‘), plants with yellow wool and spines in the apex (Copiapoa cinerea subsp. haseltoniana / C. tenabrosa) and with an Eriosyce, E. neohankianus.

Eriosyce taltalensis (Hutchison) Katt. (syn. Neoporteria neohankiana)

There seemed to be more places with ankle deep water and grasses and sedges than in previous years – or had I taken a wrong turn. Ian had taken a number of GPS readings and when I get home, I’ll map these on to Google Earth and check if we had followed the main route in the Quebrada, or had taken a wrong turn. Angie decided that she had enough some 5 km in – and promised to stay put and take lots of images. We returned here some four hours later, but by then she had gone – walking back to the mouth of the Quebrada? She was not at the car on the beach, but had written a message on the car that she was walking back to Hotel Plaza. Back at the hotel, there was no sign of her at the hotel – she had managed to get lost and eventually made it back, long after we arrived back. She seemed confused and dehydrated – this walk was not for the faint hearted, but all’s well that ends wall.

In the mean time, Al, Ian and I had marched on in semi robotic mode. I was continuously plagued by uncertainty – had I taken the correct turnings? I found the first Copiapoa rupestris, a sure sign that C. krainziana would appear soon. My legs and knees were hurting; Al marched on; Ian decided that he had had enough – there was still a long walk back to the beach where we had parked the car! I struggled on to tell Al of Ian’s return. I saw him soon after the Quebrada turned left – waving wildly. I walked on as fast as I could. Al had found a comfortable rock and sat down next to a great plant of C. krainziana

Copiapoa krainziana – Quebrada San Ramon

It felt like a great achievement! As Al had had a rest while I struggled to meet up with him, we suggested that he should walk back to where I had left Ian, in case he was still there, waiting to catch us on the way back. Soon, he and Al came round the corner. We were all very happy, but there was one thing seriously amiss – it was the only krainziana where in the past there had been quite a few plants. Had I taken a wrong turn? Would I be able to find the way back? I promised to never walk back here again! During the walk back I thought that I might do it again in the future, but only if I had brought my SatNav along or if we could find the ‘easy to reach by car’ location that Ian had been given by Elizabeth and Norbert Sarnes. Ian and his Magnificent Seven in days to come.

We took the coast road from Taltal to Cifuncho. Again, we made a familiar stop near the Quebrada Bronce (S3847). There were some Copiapoa cinerea subsp. columna-alba, but we’ll see much better stands later. There were also small clumps of Copiapa taltalensis here – all very dry! Of course we sang the chorus of ‘We do like to be beside the seaside’! – our theme tune for this trip!

Next, at S3848, the clumps were larger – Copiapoa taltalensis subsp. desertorum = but I’m still not convinced that there is a close affinity with C. taltalensis. For me I prefer the name C. desertorum until detailed DNA research sorts this issue once and for all. Also here were clumps of Nolana sp., in flower. Although they are not ‘true succulents’ that are considered to use their leaves and pachicaul stems to store water during periods of drought, these plants’ leaves shrivel up when they need water.

Nolana sp.

Our next stop was just past Cifuncho in search of a plant that we called ‘Benjy’s Plant’ as Benjy Oliver first showed us this plant on our trip in 2001, 18 years ago. It is also known as ‘Copiapoa ‘ sp Cifuncho’ but for me it is the northernmost form of Copiapoa longistaminea.

Ian posing with Copiapoa longistaminea – Benjy’s Plant

Later today we’ll see this taxon again, at its southern most stop at ‘Puma Bay’, then in the Quebrada Huanillos (Quebrada Guanillos), Quebrada Tigrillo and Quebrada Madera. At Puma Bay, C. longistaminea grows alongside C. grandiflora where the two taxa are very distinct. As we visit the quebradas farther north, hey seem to ‘morph’ into one single taxon. Rudolf called a northern location ‘Confusion Hill’, for obvious reasons, but this year there was no time to visit that spot.

For some reason, Benjy’s plant was always keen to play a game of hide & seek – Angie and I were convinced that we could find it without the need for a GPS and eventually we did! It’s a beautiful plant in a spectacular location, overlooking guano covered rocks just off shore.

Al covered a larger area, including at the foot of the hill between our spot and Cifunco and found many more plants. I did not see those this time – the rocks were quite difficult, loose and not very stable – not easy with a touch of arthritis in my knees and hips and a bad back. I promised myself a closer look next time, possibly in 2020.

I suddenly felt unsure on how to get to the locations for the day – there were quite a few excellent stops in this area, but how to get to them without a SatNav system! I saw a sign to Minas Las Luces, my first clue. We drove through an inland Quebrada and I remembered seeing an Eriosyce here – Eriosyce rodentiophila or is it E. megacarpa? If only Roger Ferryman was to finish off his Eriosyce book to clarify the names of these plants!

S3850 Eriosyce rodentiophila

S3851 was for Ritter’s type locality for Copiapoa cinerea subsp. columna-alba. A few years ago, Rudolf Schulz had tried to take a photo of the exact plants that Ritter had photographed here and that featured in Kakteen in Südamerika Band 3. Again we were overwhelmed by the large number of plants here, but the star of the show was Eriosyce (Thelocephala) esmeraldana, with a flower stuck above the soil giving away where other plants were seen on previous occasions, this time hidden below the soil.

The Copiapoa columna-alba must have had some moisture as many were now in flower.

S3852 was our regular spot to say hello to Alan Craig, whose ashes were buried on the beach after he died of leukemia on 31 January 2001.

Alan William Craig R.I.P.
S3853 – Another plant, first photographed in 2001. The C. longistaminea has grown quite a bit faster than the C. grandiflora. The two taxa are very distinct, but farther north the seem to have morphed and almost indistinguishable.

We headed ‘home’ to Taltal, driving through the Guanillos valley and our last challenge – finding Copiapoa laui in the extreme drought! This time it was Ian who performed a war dance as he believed that he had found C. laui. Well done Ian!

S3854 Copiapoa laui – not in the best light conditions!

As we wanted to get back to the car, I had my only fall of this trip – nothing too dramatic. Everyone helped me get back to the car and got out the tubes of antiseptic creams. A trip down the rocks now seems to have become a part of any cactus trip for me!

Not sure if the social unrest yesterday was to blame, but we were without internet for most of the day, so the page for Wednesday 13 September covering our trip to Botija will be published later.

We started with a visit to the Taltal Museum where a friend from previous visits was now working. We kept in touch on Facebook, so it was the least that we could do to pay her a visit. We enjoyed a lengthy chat before the call of cacti in the hills became too strong!

After yesterday’s rather long trip to Botija via El Cobre, we had decided on a rather easier day, a stop some 20 km east of Taltal at Las Breasas where in the past we would visit a huge population of Copiapoa cinerea subsp. cinerea. Ian and Al were suitably impressed, both by the number of plants (the comment: ‘Enough plants for every C&S Society member in the world!’ was heard. Yes, and on several planets more!)

They looked in reasonable health with small apical patches of white wool showing that they were in growth and even buds showing on a number of plants. This is the spot that we flew my drone on a previous visit in 2015 with Jonathan Clark as co-pilot and Brian Bates as himself. Bart and Marijke Hensel were on hand to lend moral support. On our first attempt we flew the drone very well and celebrated with a bottle of bubbly that Bart & Marijke had brought along for the occasion. We then raced back to the hotel to download the files on the disk where the movie file of the flight were stored. Disappointment awaited as either Jonathan or I had failed to press the ‘record’ button on one of the control panels. But this is not a blame game, so we promised to come back after first racing to Tocopilla as Brian new of spots where C. tocopilliana and Eriosyce laui could be photographed.

More disappointment as the track that Brian had used on a previous visit had a huge 10 m wide whole in it either caused by an earthquake or the heavy rains that had caused havoc in Chile early on in 2015. There was no obvious way to circumnavigate the hole and too hot and far to walk around it, tired as we were from the long drive from Taltal.

We left early the next day to drive back to Taltal and made a second attempt at flying the drone. This time Jonathan and I must have checked three times that the ‘record button’ had been pushed! Success!

But back to the here and now where Ian and Al had closed their mouths and seemed to be involved in a project to photograph every plant from at least two angles. We climbed a low hill offering a view along the valley that we were in, the valley next door and another flat area in the valley beyond hours. So why are cacti considered to be so endangered? At the entrance to this spot are huge concrete works to control water and sludge running down the hills and causing serious damage to the people and property in the town of Taltal. On that occasion, the flood must have wiped out a large number of plants. As the flood defense works were built another significant number of plants would have been destroyed. The plants grow in a material that appears ideal for building material. The beginning of the area is a huge quarry with truck in an almost continuous stream driving in, to be filled up and drive out again. These activities seem to have moved at least a km. into the area where the plants grow. Taltal is a growing place with lots of the ramshackle houses now replaced by modern but basic homes. There are posters showing the building plans of 2-3 floor apartment blocks, reminding me of similar building activity in Salisbury, UK. So why should the people in Taltal not enjoy similar living standards? No reason at all, but lets hope that in sourcing their building material they do not destroy their nature!

Friends in Europe had suggested that there was a new location where we could photograph Copiapoa krainziana without the need for the 7 km walk through the Quebrada San Ramon.

In 2015, while flying our drone at Las Breasas, Brian Bates found one lonely multi-headed plant of kraiziana among the billions of C. cinerea. Google Earth suggested that this location may be connected to the Las Breasas area and that this plant could reasonably have been washed down the hill, although I would have expected to find more plants then just the one.

So we decided to drive on as far as we could; a good deal farther than I had expected but not getting closer to the krainziana coordinates that we had. Ian had a number of SatNav / GPS tools on his mobile phone each providing different suggestions of where we should go, all agreeing that we were getting farther away. Cliff Thompson will be familiar with this when we were hunting for Uebelmannia spots in Brazil in 2009! Very frustrating!

We decided to return back to the main road where we could ask our tools for directions again. The mobile phone apps seemed in general agreement so we followed their instructions obediently, although it was blindingly obvious that nothing could grow in the area that we were being led to. Right on the spot indicated we stopped, on a good track but without any plants or signs of life. Angie volunteered to walk up a hill so that she could sing ‘So we do like to be beside the seaside’ but as she was facing east rather than west, that sea would have been the Atlantic Ocean, with the Andes and the whole of Argentina in the way! Thanks for the heroic effort, but clearly none of us were thinking straight!

We got back around five and enjoyed the new room that our hosts at Hotel Plaza had provided on the ground floor, having seen me struggle carrying bags up and down the stairs. Early signs of arthritis we think – must check what the impact might be on Travel Insurance costs and what can be done. More tablets? I already rattle like a pair of maracas since 2006’s heart-attack!

We’ll await until Ian Woolnough and party arrive in a few days time and use his geography expertise to find the most eastern Copiapoa krainziana!

But now it is time for food and check out the Chilean’s ability to make Margaritas! It will make a nice change from the Pisco Sours.

Today’s stops would be north of Taltal, over the ‘back road’ to El Cobre which some 50 years back was probably one of the largest ‘Plantas’ for copper mining. There are a number of routes that we could take, but I decided on driving to Paposo and then heading inland, past the monument of the ‘Paposo Virgin’ and past the Observatories at El Paranal, currently considered the largest Astronomical Observatory in the world, to the turning to El Cobre – the most northern point of our trip. This is now a very good road and there is even a small airport – well, at least a run way – to allow scientists to be flown in rather than have to dress up as cactus explorers for the journey from Antofagasta. We made several short stops to stretch our legs and stare in awe at the empty moonscape that had been used to test the lunar vehicles in the past – or had the whole moon landing been staged here? Images filed under S3840.

What once was ‘the turning with the three dead buses’ in ‘Rudolf Schulz speak’, was now a proper sign post, pointing us down a track with safety barriers and all sorts of traffic signs, winding down to the coast where Ian and Al promptly burst out into song about their love of the seaside.

S3841 was for images taken at the last part of our descent down to El Cobre. There is now a small settlement of fishermen and just scars on the landscape of what had been a very busy place 30-40 years ago. Most of the clumps of C. solaris were dead, but there is little here to enable Nature to recycle its dead.

As El Cobre disappeared behind us, the side side of the road was free of cacti. The salt track was in better shape than I had ever seen it this far north so we made good progress at about 70 kph. There were some bends coming up where in the past, rain had often washed away the track, but clearly, with the small settlement at El Cobre, the urgency with which this was patched up had increased. One year, Cliff and I had left the group at that time playing with the cacti at Botija and had taken a look at one of these bends where Copiapoa solaris (var. luteus) made a brief appearance, but like before, most of the stems had been dead. But don’t write off a dying clump of Copiapoa too soon! Through stem sacrifice, the clump might look dead, but there is probably enough life left in some stems to recover when conditions improve! And so it was at this spot. The road workings must have encouraged the truly dead plants to be removed and what was left was enough to satisfy the appetite for cactus images. Al spotted some much smaller cacti between the clumps: Copiapoa atacamensis seedlings that was a new site for me. Well spotted! So the desert was slowly fighting back? (S3842).

There was no need for a GPS to find Caleta Botija (S3843). Copiapoa ahremephiana was in flower and so helped to find what we had come to photograph. There was no time to walk to the T junction at Botija. I had hoped that we might have been able to drive in, but there was no evidence of the track that had suddenly appeared some eight years ago.

We made some short, leg stretch stops on the way to Taltal to record the variability in size of Copiapoa cinerea subsp. haseltoniana.

It had been a long day but tomorrow we’ll visit the habitat of Copiapoa cinerea subsp. cinerea, this time without a drone to add to the entertainment.

Yesterday we failed to find Smiler. Our fear was that it was Smiler RIP with the understanding that there was no guarantee that we would find its remains among the thousands of Copiapoa cinerea subsp. columna-alba. I experienced a strong feeling of loss and I knew that Angie felt worse. Smiler had been our friend since 2003!

We decided to go back, this time with the GPS coordinates on Ian’s GPS. And we took a different route up to the plateau where he grows. We carried on photographing interesting plants, candidates for Smiler #2 and so on while we let Angie follow her instincts.

All of a sudden, a yell, Angie with her arms up in the air, she had found Smiler. She gave him a stiff talking to about hiding from us, although it transpires that we must have walked by him the day before. Never mind, he was found now. And close to him Eriosyce (Thelocephala) aerocarpa, again a plant that I have seen and photographed since 2003. And slightly farther away, again photographed since 2003 or even 2001, Copiapoa serpentisulcata, way out of its usual range, near the southern entrance to the Pan de Azucar.

While we gave Smiler a nick-name, we never bothered with the other two taxa. So why not send in your suggestions? The internet connection is again too weak to post images tonight, but I will remedy the issue once that I’m back home in the UK.

Smiler (left) and Angie (right) 16 years after we first visited this plant!

Next we headed to Taltal and drove straight through to take a look at the monument of the Paposo Virgin (S3838) where we saw Copiapoa humilis in its various forms. We saw lot of plants, both in their juvenile short spination and adult plants with it’s more robust mature spination. Sadly, no flowers on show. We saw Copiapoa cinerea subsp. haseltoniana but this time the path was too narrow for me to risk life and limb. I left that to Al.

With today’s goal achieved, we drove back to Taltal. On the way I was happy for Al and Ian to call the stops for Copiapoa cinerea subsp. haseltoniana. More by accident then science, they selected a spot with large (gigantea) plants, some of which had fallen apart by the lack of water. (S3839)

We’re in Taltal for six nights and are contemplating the 106 km run to Botija (and 106 km back) tomorrow. Not for the faint-hearted as we don’t know how far the tarmac goes now. 10 km after Paposo it stopped abruptly in 2015.

Today could be summed up with three words: Pan de Azucar. That is the Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, named after the island that lies in the Pacific Ocean off the north side of Chanaral Bay. But with 147 images to file today, I’ve divided them over 5 stops.

S3832 starts with the statue of a lama on R5 that marks the turning to the southern entrance of the Parque. We drove across the plain that seems to be taking on a healthier colour as the chemicals from a spill at one of the mines much farther inland were finally cleaned away. At the time, the fishermen thought their luck was in as fish were easily caught doing the back stroke. The fish was eaten by the people of the town, many of whom still have ailments relating to Arsenic poisoning.

But today the sun was shining bright and we noted that today was the 11th day of the eleventh month, and that in about one hours time there would be a minute’s silence in those countries that had had soldiers involved in the two World Wars and other events since.

We started seeing clumps of Copiapoa cinerascens along the side of the road. We were all keen to take their picture but I urged everyone to wait just a little longer for a spot (S3833) where these silvery looking plants were growing on very dark rocks, with the very white sand and the waves crashing on to rocks provided the perfect setting for a photo shoot. I could have stayed here for days, but I have also seen it on days when the typical Chilean coastal weather covers the area with low hanging clouds, with a fine light drizzle in the air. Not so nice then. But today it was heaven.

The server still refuses to upload my images so you’ll have to come back in the future when the server at home is hopefully more obliging.

We arrived at the main ranger station and were pleasantly surprised to meet Domingo again, who five years ago had taken us to Angie’s Smiler, a crested Copiapoa cinerea subsp. columna-alba that she first found in 2003 and that we have visited every time since as we were passing. All the Copiapoa here had shrunk but some stems showed new off sets, so at least here, the plants were not done yet! We always knew that one day we would visit and Smiler would be gone. Angie normally walks straight to the plant, past some thousand C. columna-alba, but not this time. We’ll go back tomorrow with the GPS coordinates embedded in one of my images from previous visits, but the signs are not good.

But first we had been given the keys to the chain across the track to Las Lomitas. The rangers had told us that this area now had research projects in progress into the lichen that form a thin crust on the soil and also to protect the guanacos that have made this their favourite home. It wasn’t to be, as none of the keys in the bunch fitted the padlock with the same story again at the chain to El Mirrador.

And so, back to Chañaral where we found that most of the restaurants are closed on a Monday evening, but where we were fortunate to find a snack bar that sold typical Chilean bar food alongside pints of Crystal beer.

Tomorrow we move on to Taltal.