Kiwis In The Mist

Adventure In The Andes: Travel Experiences In Ecuador.
Join New Zealand nurseryman Dick Endt on an exciting palm hunt up hill and down dale in the Ecuadorian Andes Mountains. Who needs gorillas?

Dick Endt, Landsendt Subtropical Fruits, 108 Parker Road, Oratia, Auckland, New Zealand
Chamaerops No. 15, published online 23-08-2002

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Above: Parajubaea cocoides is a commonly planted street tree in Quito, Ecuador
Below: Tree ferns on a misty hillside, Ecuador

Introduction

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 Ecuador.

Misty Mountains

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.

White Water

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.

Crater

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.

Lush

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.

Seeds

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.

Preserve

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 for posterity.

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.

Santo Domingo

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.

View

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 warscewiczianus.

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.

Community

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 to enjoy.

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