Kiwis In The Mist
Adventure In The Andes: Travel Experiences
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Join New Zealand nurseryman Dick Endt on an exciting palm hunt up
hill and down dale in the Ecuadorian Andes Mountains. Who needs
Dick Endt, Landsendt Subtropical Fruits, 108 Parker Road, Oratia,
Auckland, New Zealand
Chamaerops No. 15, published online 23-08-2002
Above: Parajubaea cocoides is a commonly planted
street tree in Quito, Ecuador
Below: Tree ferns on a misty hillside, Ecuador
For the last twenty years Ecuador has held a great
fascination for me. This country, roughly the same size as New Zealand,
yet one of the smaller South American countries, has probably the
most diverse vegetation in the world. Our climate in the northern
parts of New Zealand being so-called 'winterless' yet never too
hot in summer, equates with the general climate of the high altitude
region in the Andes. Plants that we collected on previous expeditions
are now thriving in New Zealand. Never before has such a range of
new plants, including many palms, been introduced into New Zealand.
The results of these efforts can now be seen at our farm near Auckland.
Our latest trip last year in July and August provided
much material, both in the way of plants but also experiences which
cry out to be put on paper.
It is impossible to describe all of our adventures,
rather I will describe just two trips, one to the high mist forest
on the Equator, the other, also near the Equator, this time to Rio
Palenque river valley in the hot humid western plains of coastal
During a visit to Carlos, one of our friends in
the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, he suggested that we visit his
parents who were managing a large hacienda, north of Quito near
a place called Calacali. The country just north of Quito is quite
forbidding, dry, windy and dusty. The sparse vegetation struggles
to gain a hold on the steep-sided gorges and washouts in this badly
eroded land. This arid area can only support plants such as yuccas
and bromeliads which somehow find a foothold on the slopes while
on more even ground the ever present Faique (Acacia macracantha)
grows. These rather dry looking trees are the only plants that can
survive the onslaught of roaming goats, the forbidding spines on
the trunks even discourage these destructive animals. Here and there
small Indian farmhouses can be seen, the adobe walls and dust covered
roofs the same colour as the dismal landscape beyond.
The only signs of cultivation are a few rows of
dried up corn stalks, a cherimoya tree near the entrance of the
house. To our left, the high Andes, the tops invisible in the mist,
to our right the land falls away steeply to the Guayabamba river
far below, too far away to hear the torrent of white water struggling
to find its way to the coast in the west.
After a steady ascent we finally arrived at the
hacienda. This place was amazing, built more than 300 years ago
by Jesuits. The cloister-like building is quite formidable. One
metre thick walls surround the inner stone paved courtyard with
a traditional sundial in the centre. A wide veranda shades the room.
Bougainvillea covers much of the veranda posts, the strong purple
of its flowers contrasting with the distant blues of the cloud-covered
mountains in the distance. If these walls could only tell their
story! We were told that early last century the buildings were used
as a breeding colony for slaves. In fact the slave quarters are
still there, but nowadays used for the raising of cattle.
The next day we were to visit a lush mountain forest
on this 3000 ha estate. The four of us got ready the next morning.
The local farm vehicle, an old Second World War jeep was to take
us up the mountain, a frightening experience as a road did not really
exist. Perhaps years ago a track was bulldozed, long since gouged
out by infrequent rains and rock slides, vegetation being scarce.
Of particular interest were the puyas P. hermata; its silvery rosette
leaves contrasting against the blue sky. Here their flower spikes
displayed their strange blue green flowers. Sudden splashes of bright
red colour were provided by the flowers of the Mutisia vine Mutisia
coccinea. Incessant bouncing of the jeep made sitting down impossible,
to prevent ourselves from being thrown out we held onto the roll
bar of the jeep while standing up. In this fashion we finally arrived
at the edge of a deep volcanic crater.
Being on the western face of the Andes this area
was clothed in lush forest, in contrast to the eastern parts through
which we had travelled previously. This was not our final destination
however, the track veered sharply to the right, going ever higher
until mist closed in around us. Here we landed in a strange fairyland,
cold and damp. Stunted gnarled trees appeared festooned in dripping
lichens and ferns, ghostly in this misty atmosphere. Epiphytic plants
clothed the trees; magnificent bromeliads, some with red or orange
tipped leaves crowded on heavy boughs of the trees, together with
myriads of different kinds of Orchids, giant leafed Anthuriums,
climbers, the pink blossomed Joyapa (Macleania sp) climbed rampantly
over anything it could get hold of.
Dense thickets of a creeping bamboo, Chusquea sp,
made progress impossible. Dainty pendulous passion fruit flowers
would show, right off the end of the branches of trees to gain that
extra bit of light. Although it did not rain we got drenching wet.
If it were not for these mists these forests could not exist, its
only precipitation being the moisture held in these mists induced
by the warm moist air coming up from far below condensing at this
height at about 3200m asl. When the clouds briefly lifted we had
a great view towards the west, endless forests deep below covered
by swirling clouds. To the east the giant snow capped volcanoes,
Cayambe and Imbabura were edged against an almost black sky.
After the collection of numerous seeds we started
our return trip, certainly not for the faint hearted; the steep
descent seeming more hair-raising even than the climb. Several times
we almost careered off the edge of the road but we finally made
it back to the hacienda before sunset.
The last account described a cold mountain area
of the Andes, yet only a few kilometres away we had a totally different
experience, a visit to one of the last remnants of virgin tropical
forest left on the western plains of Ecuador. Some 25 years ago
most of this area was dense jungle, only visited by a few Indians
who travelled by canoe on the many rivers in the area. This changed
suddenly when it was realised that this land was suitable for the
culture of Bananas, cacao and later oil palm and rubber.
Roads were built, and soon no forest was left, not
even remnants. It was only the efforts and foresight of one man,
Dr. Calaway Dodson, an American scientist, a botanist from the Missouri
Botanical Garden, who had the presence of mind to purchase a 100
acre tract of virgin forest 20 years ago and preserve this land
As more and more forests disappeared, the Ecuadorian
authorities finally recognised the importance of this private estate,
now recognised as a biological reserve, now known as the Rio Palenque
Science Centre. Intensive research has been carried out by science
students from many countries in the world. Ninety species of birds
have been described from this reserve alone. On the other end of
the scale it was discovered that only twelve mature specimens remain
of a local native mahogany, Persea theobromifolia, almost extinct
in the world. Efforts are being made to multiply this species to
prevent total extinction of this valuable tree.
We left Quito early one morning to travel the main
highway south, already clogged with traffic. There was an urgency
in our driver to overtake every bus and truck ahead of us, understandable
perhaps as no-one would want to travel behind these smoke-belching
behemoths. During such manoeuvres we only just managed to miss the
oncoming vehicles in front of us. Finally we started our descent
down the western slopes of Andes towards Santo Domingo de Colorados.
This winding stretch of road perilously follows down the steep ridges
of the Andes to the plains below.
Driving continuously in thick mist there was no
way we could see ahead forcing us to sit behind trucks grinding
down in crawler gear, yet cars did overtake much to their peril.
It goes without saying that many accidents occur; wrecks are littered
by the wayside, casually pushed over the edge. Some 40km beyond
Santo Domingo on the straight road heading south one will reach
the Rio Palenque research centre, there is little to suggest that
the place is there. Endless plantations of banana and oil palms
line the roadway.
A long winding road through an oil palm plantation
finally brought us to the edge of the native forest reserve. The
road continues through the forest itself until it opens out on a
ridge. From here we had a breathtaking view over the river valley
below, and paused, enjoying the hot hazy atmosphere, the brilliant
colours of tropical flowers, rampant growth of everything.
On the river s edge were large clumps of Guadua
bamboo widely used in construction either as scaffolding or in the
making of adobe dwellings.
It is quiet here; only birds and chirping insects
provide a background sound. Once inside the forest itself there
is a cathedral like awesomeness, the tall trees festooned with lianas,
epiphytes, orchids, large leafed anthuriums. The chattering of birds
unseen but echoing as if we were in some huge inner space. There
are a variety of palms in this ecosystem, of the smaller palms the
Genoma were most prevalent, and in darker recesses the slender Synechanthus
Of the taller palms Iriartea gigantea was perhaps
the most striking. Scheehia butyracea too is a massive palm with
huge clusters of orange seeds. The Ivory nut palm grows here, Phytelaphas
aequatorialis. The seeds are incredibly hard, in appearance like
ivory. One of the few native cycad species in Ecuador grows near
the edge of the forest, as it demands a lot of light: Zamia lindenii.
In the middle of the forest we found the tallest
tree of them all known here as the Ceiba tree. Its large flange
like roots dwarfing us beneath its huge spreading canopy far above.
From the lofty heights of these treetops ropelike lianas dangle
down to the jungle floor.
The tree supported a whole plant and animal community
of its own. Ants and termites travelled up and down in single file.
Birds, bats, butterflies and all kinds of insects have found a niche
in which to spend their lives.
There this tropical world is overwhelming, yet a
privilege for us to have seen; a last remnant of jungle, something
our children may not see, since what is left is rapidly being decimated
by thoughtless people cashing in on what is there now, not considering
what can be preserved for the future, and for future generations
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