1981, Pamela Holt, Expedition Southern Peru

Peru revisited

18th July – 23rd August, 1981

By Pamela Holt

Whilst gasping for breath on the steep shaly path shading my eyes from the intense sunlight, I was struck by the beauty of the golden silhouettes of Calamagrostis vicunatum waving on the steep scree slopes above me. To my right were the woolly leaves of a Culcitium species, the only other vegetation at 14,000 ft. just below the pass of Pulcay in the Peruvian Andes. Lower down I had passed tiny blue Gentiana sp. nestling in the short grass and moss along with a yellowy green spur-flowered Gentianella sp. whose beauty was unappreciated by our steadily weakening leader, Ian Wolfe. Unable to acclimatise in the heat and the altitude, he had been escorted back down the remote valley on a local mule. Ian subsequently suffered a number of cardiac spasms, putting him out of action for four weeks.

This was my second trip to this fascinating country, the first being in 1975 when I collected plant material for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Then I had four months at my disposal and was generously funded by the Bentham and Moxon Trust and the Studley College Trust, enabling me to travel and eat in relative comfort, compared to my recent trip in July and August last year. This time with only five weeks and a tight budget, plant collecting was curtailed to only four days due to many unforeseen circumstances and bureaucratic difficulties.

As the Horticulturalist attached to the Hampshire Venture Scout Expedition to Peru, my task lay with the Scientific team (nick-named the ‘Jungle Bunnies’ in the mistaken belief that they were going to explore jungle), whose main aims were to study epiphytes and collect specimens of Ichthyafauna from high altitude lakes. The former, suggested by the University of Aberystwyth, where Dean Madden (Venture Scout) is a student of Zoology and Botany; the latter at the request of the British Museum, Natural History Department, because so little is known about the fish and amphibians in these remote lakes. Originally I had trained with the Mountaineering Team, whose objective was to climb the 20,565 ft. Mount Salcantay in the Cordillera Vilcabamba, north west of Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital; but events changed following an ankle injury in Scotland, pressure to help the Scientific Team and a request from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to collect plants when I applied for their Kew Guild Award Scheme.

The Machu Picchu Venture 1981, consisted of 15 Venture Scouts, girls and boys, ten assorted assistants and two Royal Engineers. Each member contributed £750, either from his own pocket or by fund raising. Our black ‘T’ shirts with gold lettering and Inca motif were very popular. I am indebted to the Kew Guild Award Scheme, the Womens Farm and Garden Association and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew who loaned field equipment and covered the cost of air freighted, live plant material.

Our major headache concerned climbing equipment, food and medical supplies, which despite being sent out in April, were still in Customs in July when we arrived in Lima, the coastal capital of Peru.

In the vain hope that our impounded supplies would be released soon, the Scientific Team set off on the weeks trek, back packing along ancient Inca pathways, whilst the Mountaineering Team tackled the trail leading to Machu Picchu, the ‘Lost City of the Incas’.

As our way lay through mainly uninhabited and uncultivated mountain country, we carried 4 lbs. of food each, which we had brought out of England, cooking on wood fires initially in the lower valley of the Cusichaca River. Our stoves and ‘meta’ fuel were back in Lima, so as our path wound higher up the mountain, some ingenuity was called for when the Caesalpinia spinosa, Eucalyptus and Spartium junceum gave way to Stipa ichu grass. Llama dung is not recommended especially at an altitude where it is difficult to boil water and half cooked dehydrated dinner is rather unpalatable! l made do with a meat cube in a cup of warm water for my evening meal that particular night. After coming over the pass of Pulcay, 14,800 ft., it wasn’t very filling!

Once over the pass, breathing became a little easier and for the next three days, the scenery changed dramatically. At first the vegetation was mainly grass beside the fast flowing glacial river, hemmed in by snow covered ranges, a place where the inside of your tent ices up at night and water in mess tins is frozen solid by morning.

As the valley opened out, grass gave way to low shrubs of Berberis at 12,000 ft., resplendent with orange flowers, Escallonia sp. with creamy white flowers, even a Desfontainea. Often red flowered Bomarea straggled through them and clumps of Baccharis genistellioides grew alongside. Locally this composite plant is known as ‘Espadilla’, its roots and stems being used to dye woollen cloth. Its species name give the clue to its appearance which like to so many Andean plants does not conform to normal family characteristics.

Lower down the valley, groves of Polylepis incana rose up from the river. A densely branching small tree, three to eight metres high with a twisted trunk, exfoliate bark and trifoliate leaves, this member of the Rosaceae family is an endangered species. P. albicans, P. racemosa and P. villosa are also listed, being confined to the steep slopes in inaccessible side valleys leading to glaciers, growing up to 4,500 m.

Frequently Polylepis supports parasitic plants such as Phrygilanthus with its scarlet flowers, reminiscent of Embothrium. At lower altitudes I did see Embothriumgrandiflorum with its pink flowers and glabrous rounded leathery leaves. Continuing down the Aobamba River, with our rucksacs the vegetation became more luxuriant, from Buddleia sp., Mentha sp., Barnadesia sp. with pink flowers to glorious red tubular flowered evergreen shrubs which possibly belong to the Ericaceae family. Beneath peeped Stenomesson on Eustephia, red and yellow tubular flowers in Amaryllidaceae.

As green and yellow parakeets flew overhead and Bamboo and lianas struggled through Begonias and ‘Tree Ferns’ the climate became distinctly subtropical. The last night on this trail was spent beside the now widening river, where washing that evening I was fascinated by the fireflies, like darting flashes of light, over the water. The main meal that night consisted of curried muesli washed down with ‘Orovite’ an orange flavoured multi-vitamin sachet rifled from the first aid kit, as all the tea and coffee rations had been consumed!

The following day we walked out of this valley to join the River Urubamba, where we boarded the narrow gauge Santa Anna train at Hydro Electrica, a half built village, which takes its name from the power plant opposite.

As the train did not leave until the evening, we spent a lazy afternoon by the waterfall and precarious bridge indulging in a picnic feast purchased from the local ‘tienda’. That evening saw us camped by the River Urubamba, downstream at Santa Teresa, where we collected our scientific equipment sent on from Cuzco. With the Expedition Leader laid low at Cusichaca, with an Archeological project camp, and holding the expedition travellers cheques, we spent the following day buying provisions locally with our ‘pocket money’ and hiring mules to take us to the research area. We managed to engage four mules and a truck to take the scientific team part of the way.

Meanwhile the mountaineering party had ‘done’ Machu Picchu and explored the Archaeological site where a canal system once brought water to the ruined city of Llactapata. To everyones amazement, the site where a possible aqueduct could have crossed the ravine, was found by the Venture Scouts. Flushed with success they trekked off along our route intending to cross a higher pass to the left of Mount Salcantay, having been resigned to the fact that the climbing equipment and supplies were now unlikely to be released.

The weather, however, put paid to further progress by snowing continuously for 36 hours. After floundering in waist high soft snow, the party retreated with one member temporarily snow blinded and another burned and blistered on his face.

Meanwhile, the Scientific Team had disembarked from the open truck in pouring rain, to spend the night in a coffee plantation. The next night, being higher up on a ridge with decent sized trees, we used our hammocks for the first time. We walked up from the plantation with the mules loaded with food, plant press and ‘fish’ collecting equipment. The muleteers tied everything down by placing their feet on the package and heaving on their ropes, regardless of whether it was a sack of carrots or a box of 60 eggs! I think this is why Dean Madden, a Zoology and Botany student was able to make pancakes that morning for his 21 st birthday treat enriched with honey, kindly presented to us by the owner of our ‘campsite’.

Most of our plant study was carried out in the region known as the Ceja de Montana, literally ‘the eyebrow of the mountain’ – a good descriptive term for where the eastern side of the Andes meets the jungle or selva. To quote Major Peter Marett, “It’s the only cold jungle I’ve ever been in!” sums up the area where we worked. For although we were 130 8′ south of the equator, at 10,500 ft., we were frequently in cloud or rain despite it being the ‘dry’ season.

Toiiing up the steep mountainside above the River Sacsara, we passed through citrus and coffee groves often hung with Passiflora ligularis the granadilla or passion fruit, a welcome thirst quencher. Dean and I made mental notes of various plants on this ascent with a view to collecting them on our return, four days later. One notable example being a Podocarpus species, native to Peru and Chile resembling an overgrown yew. Frequently Begonias and Fuchsias peered out of shady banks on either side of the path, with Gunnera and Aralia sp.

From our base in amongst the twisted limbs of a latex bearing tree (possibly Castilloa elastica) we made repeated forays into the cloud forest and beyond. The wealth of plant material actually growing on a single tree, greatly reduced the distance we needed to travel. Orchids grew everywhere in great abundance, the most obvious being a beautiful orange Epidendrum species, others less obvious because they were not in flower. One particularly wet day, when the advance party led by Major Peter Marett, set off for the high altitude lakes, was a field day as far as orchids were concerned. Nine different species were collected, from tiny yellow-flowered Pachyphyllum and lilac fringe flowered Sobralia to cream, maroon striped Telepogodon and a magnificent Epidendrum with a foot long spike of pink and cream flowers which was obtained at great risk to life and limb growing on a swaying moss covered leaning tree. Another larger Sobralia growing high up on a tree overlooking our hammocks and tent tops was collected by Venture Scout Chis Dare, using an ingenious device of paracord footloops.

Many ferns were collected from trees as well as the forest floor where large mats of Sphagnum rosea, reminded one of Wales. This proved invaluable for wrapping the plant roots prior to inserting in plastic bags which were then secured at the neck, leaving the foliage free. A small cold frame of logs and moss provided a temporary home for our collection. Orchid flowers and various fruits were preserved in bottles of alcohol other plant material was pressed and dried. The plant press was hung over a small wood fire to dry the specimens, the paper being changed at intervals. With the onset of rain a temporary canopy of polythene was rigged up over the top to protect the press.

The Cloud Forest consisted of trees with knotted branches often forming dense flattened crowns where the bamboo Chusquea made useful tables to work from. Vallea stipularis with its unusual knobbly fruits, scarlet flowered Ribes, blue flowered Tibouchina and numerous shrubs in the Gesneriaceae and Ericaceae families often overrun with vivid orange trumpet flowered Bomarea or furry leaved Fuchsias.

Beyond the ‘tree ferns’ and shrubby Hypericum type plants, lay open grassland where a species of rosulate Viola grew at 11,000 ft. along with metre high Lobelia and Werneria nubigena a ground hugging giant daisy. Aquantityof berries were taken from a prickly furry leaved tree Solanum, seed of which has now been extracted and banked at Wakehurst Place. A bag of Caesalpinia spinosa collected close to Cusichaca is now also in the seed bank.

In the four days at our disposal, a total of 77 plants were collected, involving meticulous measuring and recording in field notebooks and numbering and labelling of plant material, often far into the night. The plant material was carried in boxes by hand down the mountain and then repacked in the dilapidated ‘hotel’ at Santa Teresa. To prevent rotting, each plant with its moss and polythene covered root bundle was wrapped in newspaper, packed upright wherever possible into cardboard boxes, with the corresponding field notes packed in a plastic bag alongside. During this operation the weak electricity supply finally cut out and I finished this operation by candlelight, only discovering that I had singed my eyelashes and hair the next day!

Back in Lima, I learnt a new Spanish word, ‘Huelga’, in English the familiar word ‘Strike’! Rather inconvenient when you are locked in, rather than locked out. The occasion, the last three days in Peru, the place, inside the gates of the Natural History Museum, ‘Javier Prado’. It made a change from the Banks or the Hospital being on strike but my Peruvian Scout escort was waiting with a car outside the gates to take me to the airport to clear customs for my plants. At times like this you feel glad that you asked the caretaker the night before what his dog is called as it snarls on your approach to its master’s door. The good man reluctantly opened the gate to allow me into the street for I was staying in the botanists apartment located behind the museum, while I obtained the necessary permission from the Ministry of Agriculture, University of San Marcos and the Air Cargo Division of British Caledonian. The rest of the expedition had already left to spend their money in Miami, after the Lima scouts laid on a farewell party, where we dished out the food, finally released from Customs!

One consolation for the inconvenience of impounded equipment and supplies was a free flight from Cuzco in the mountains down to Lima on the coast in a Peruvian Air Force Hercules. At least it was only two hours late taking off, a contrast to the beginning of the trip when we spent all day in Lima Airport, waiting for an internal flight to Arequipa, that should have left at 6.30 a.m. Then we were put up in a hotel at the Airline’s expense and finally flown to our destination, only to watch the plane take off for Puna with all our luggage on board! Luckily the plane being a shuttle service returned two hours later.

Viva el Peru!

Pamela Holt, March 1982

I am indebted to Dr. Ramon Ferreyra, Botanical Consultant to the University of San Marcos, Museum of Natural History and Jose Purisaca of the Ministry of Agriculture, without whose help the plants might never have left Peru.


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