In agricultural areas around the lava stream, we encounter several well-known plant species, e.g. yarrow (Achillea millefolium), bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), common St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), and ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), the seeds of which were accidentally brought to this area by European settlers. Bird life, however, is typically Chilean, among others we observe black-faced ibis (Theristicus melanopis), southern lapwing (Vanellus chilensis), long-tailed meadowlark (Sturnella loyca), and Chimango caracara (Milvago chimango). Far away, the pointed, snow-clad peak of the Llaima Volcano (3,125 metres) seems to pierce the sky.
We find a fine camping spot in an open forest, close to a gravel pit. At dusk, the owner appears – a friendly and talkative man, who is not at all opposed to our intention of camping in his forest. He informs us that it has been raining more or less continuously for the last week, and that today is the first fine summer’s day. The evening is pleasantly warm – at 9:30 p.m., our thermometer shows 26oC.
The only designated camping ground in the park is situated near the shores of a large lake, Lago Conguillo. The camping fee is outrageous – 15,000 Chilean Pesos per night (c. 22 US$). Around the campground, thousands of golden Inca lilies (Alstroemeria aurea) are blooming, while several white-throated treerunners (Pygarrhichas albogularis) are feeding on the tree trunks, nuthatch-like.
In 1791-1795, Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies (1754-1842) participated as surgeon and botanist in an expedition around the world on board HMS Discovery, under leadership of Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798). In Chile, while dining with the Viceroy, Menzies was served Araucaria seeds as a dessert. He popped some seeds into his pocket and was able to make them sprout on board ship. He returned to England with five healthy plants – the first of its kind in Britain. (Source: www.kew.org).
The English name arose around 1850. In an English park, which had specimens of this tree, a visitor jokingly remarked that it would “puzzle a monkey to climb that tree” – referring to its stiff, spiny leaves. The name ‘monkey-puzzle tree’ stuck to this day.
The genus Araucaria belongs to an ancient group of conifers, which evolved in an era, before the ancient continent Gondwanaland began to separate. In those days, the distribution of Araucaria was limited to what is presently the southern hemisphere, and today members of the genus are found in South America, Australia, New Zealand, Norfolk Island, and New Caledonia.
Its leaves are triangular, 3-4 centimetres long and up to 3 cm broad at the base, very tough and with a sharp point. They can remain on the tree as long as 15 years, and in time they cover the entire surface of younger branches, only the trunk and old branches being devoid of them. Araucaria is usually dioecious, with male and female cones on separate trees. The female cones are wind-pollinated, maturing in about 18 months. The mature cones are very large, 12-20 cm diameter, holding about 200 seeds, each 3-4 cm long. The seeds, which are nut-like and edible, are extensively harvested in Chile. The species name, araucana, has been derived from the name of a local people, the Araucanians, who ate the seeds. A sub-group of this people are the Pehuenches. In the local language, pehuén is the name of the monkey-puzzle tree, while che means ’people’. (Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Araucaria_araucana)
We roam a wonderful forest, containing a large number of giant and ancient trees. The largest pehuén in the park, called Araucaria Madre (‘Mother of the monkey-puzzle trees’), is c. 1,800 years old, 50 metres tall, and has a diameter of c. 210 centimetres. Another very large tree species is the coigüe (Nothofagus dombeyi), one among ten species of southern beeches in Chile.
Birdlife in this forest is not particularly rich. We observe two species of woodpecker, the very large Magellanic woodpecker (Campephilus magellanicus) and Chilean flicker (Colaptes pitius), besides common miner (Geositta cunicularia), rufous-collared sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis), scale-throated earthcreeper (Upucerthia dumetaria), and small flocks of slender-billed parakeet (Enicognathus leptorhynchus).
Vegetation along the upper part of the ridge consists of low shrubs of a different species of southern beech, Nothofagus alpina. Ultimately, these shrubs disappear, and we encounter the first snow. Along a stream of meltwater, a group of Ourisia poeppigii with bright red flowers add a splash of colour to the drab landscape, while a grassy area is full of other flowers, e.g. fleabane (Erigeron), chickweed (Cerastium), a very compact species of violet, Viola atropurpurea, and the gorgeous Rhodophiala andicola, which belongs to the amaryllis family. At this altitude we observe very few birds, only a flock of yellow-bridled finches (Melanodera xanthogramma), feeding in the grass. Here and there, the melting snow has created ice caves, in which the walls and ’loft’ form a picturesque frame around nearby peaks in the Sierra Nevada.
The following day, we hike across the lava fields beneath the Llaima Volcano – a tremendous contrast to the landscape we experienced the previous day. The black lava gravel is almost completely barren. Only a few hardy plants have managed to take root here and there, and we see no animals at all.