One of the places I’ve been keen to visit during my trips to the Araucaria forests of Chile in the past three years is the Nasampulli Reserve. It’s an area of 1,200 hectares that is owned and managed by the UK-based conservation charity Rainforest Concern, in partnership with the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh and Chilean scientists. Located on the site of a former logging concession, it contains undisturbed primary forest of Araucaria araucana, as well as previously logged areas that are in the process of recovery and restoration.
In November 2017, I’d met up with one of the Chilean scientists, Marco Cortés Bianchi, and he’d taken me to another site he is also working at – Villa Las Araucarias. Unlike the main areas of Araucaria forest, which are located in the Andes, Villa Las Araucarias is in the coastal range mountains, and is the smallest and most disturbed of all of the remaining parts of the Araucaria ecosystem. Marco showed me the work he’s been involved with for the restoration of the forest there, which involves planting young Araucaria trees in the midst of cleared sections of non-native conifer plantations being grown for timber.
The forestry companies that manage the plantations for wood production have a legal obligation now to restore Araucaria forest in any of their sites where there are remnant Araucaria trees, and Marco has been helping with the planning and monitoring of the tree planting and ecological recovery work. When I visited in November (which is well into spring in the southern hemisphere), the plan was to go on to Nasampulli afterwards, but because of the fact that deep snow had remained unseasonably late in the Andes in the spring and a 4 wheel drive vehicle was unavailable for the journey, that plan had to be abandoned.
When I returned to Chile in March 2018 (the beginning of autumn), I contacted Marco again, hoping that weather conditions would be suitable then for a visit to Nasampulli. The site is not easy to access, and involves driving for 15 kilometres on a gravel road accessible by car, followed by 6 kilometres on a very rough track that is only passable with a 4 wheel drive vehicle in good weather conditions. At the end of the vehicle track it’s then another 1.5 kilometres on foot up a steep path to reach the reserve and the small cabin where it’s possible to stay. This difficulty of access is typical of many of the remaining areas of Araucaria forest, as the trees generally grow at elevations of between 900 and 1,600 metres, whilst most of the region’s towns and roads are concentrated in the valleys far below, with few routes leading up into the mountains. The conditions were better this time, with the track being passable, and Marco offered to meet me and drive me up in his 4 wheel drive pick-up truck. He didn’t have time to stay in the reserve then, but one of his students, Esteban Arias, was working there as a researcher and guardaparque (park ranger) and he would accompany me for the five days I’d arranged to be there.
I’d already met Esteban in November, as he had been helping Marco at Villa Las Araucarias when I visited there. Now at Nasampulli he rendezvoused with us at the end of the 4 wheel drive track, to help me get my backpack and all my photographic equipment up the steep path to the cabin. Marco headed back to civilisation then as he had teaching commitments to fulfil, but I was looking forward to spending the next few days exploring the reserve with Esteban. As we walked up into the reserve itself, little did I know just what an experience I was about to have…
After dropping off my things and having a brief rest at the cabin, we went out for a quick exploration of the closest parts of the reserve before nightfall. Our first destination was just a few minutes walk away downhill, where the Trafampulli River tumbles over the Taique waterfall in the middle of the forest. Taking its name from one of the understory bushes in the Araucaria forest, the waterfall was quite beautiful, and its white colour contrasted sharply with the green foliage all round.
We spent some time at the waterfall, and Esteban told me about the forest as I took some photographs and shot some video footage:
We then walked up to a viewpoint not far from the cabin, passing through some good stands of Araucaria trees along the way.
There’s another conifer in the forest here – the manio tree (Podocarpus nubigena). I’ve mostly seen it at lower elevations than where the Araucaria trees grow, so it was special to find the two species overlapping in their altitudinal range here.
Because it was early autumn, there were fungi of various sorts fruiting on the forest floor. While most of them were unknown to me, I did recognise one species immediately. It was a puffball, and in fact was a species that it is also widespread in the UK, where it is known as the common puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum). Although Chile is in the southern hemisphere and South America is a long distance from Britain, many species of fungi that occur in Europe are also native to the Araucaria forest. Because fungal spores are so microscopic in size they can disperse over very long distances in air currents, and the common puffball occurs almost worldwide, including in China and Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India, East Africa, Europe, and North and Central America, as well as South America.
Nearby, I found another species I recognised, but this was not a fungus – it was a slime mould. The bright yellow colour stood out at almost exactly eye level on the dead trunk of an Araucaria tree, and I suspected this was also a species (Fuligo septica) that is common in Scotland’s Caledonian Forest and other parts of the UK. I was able to confirm this identification after I returned home to Scotland by consulting with Bruce Ing, the UK’s leading expert on slime moulds.
Further up the trail again, and almost at the viewpoint itself, we found a species that was definitely not one that occurs in Scotland. It was a large weevil with a distinctive shape to it, which is typical of a number of closely-related species that occur in the Araucaria forests. Thanks to the expertise of Richard Honour, a beetle specialist in Chile’s capital, Santiago, I was able to get this identified as being a species called Aegorhinus bulbifer, or ‘burrito’ in Spanish.
We reached the viewpoint just at sunset, although the thick cloud prevented us from seeing the sun itself. We had a partial view of Llaima Volcano, which is situated in Conguillio National Park to the north of Nasampulli, and some clouds surrounding its summit cone were briefly illuminated pastel pink by the sun’s last rays. Overhead though were some rather dark clouds, and although we didn’t know it at the time, they were a harbinger of what was to come.
We woke up in the cabin the next morning to the sound of torrential rain and fiercely gusting winds – a major storm had developed during the night. It rained non-stop all of that day, and it was so intense that we weren’t able to get out into the forest at all – we’d have been soaked in seconds. The downpour continued all night and it was still going when we got up the following morning. By early afternoon it had been raining incessantly for over 30 hours and we hadn’t been out of the cabin for more than 40 hours. When the rain finally slackened slightly, I suggested we went out to see the waterfall, which I reckoned must have swollen considerably in size.
When we got to the waterfall, the difference was breathtaking. The volume of water had increased manyfold, and the sound had also increased significantly. With the wind whipping the trees’ branches (blurring them in the photo on the right), I had a real sense of the power of the storm.
It was difficult to take many photographs, as the wind kept blowing spray from the waterfall on to my lenses and I was constantly struggling to keep them dry. The umbrella I normally use to keep rain off the camera was useless, because of the wild, swirling gusts, which seemed to blow from all directions. I attempted to take some longer exposures, to show the wild motion of the tree branches, but I ended up in most cases with images covered in blurry raindrops.
I did manage to get some video footage though that showed both the increased volume of the waterfall, and later (from under the entrance porch of the cabin) the torrential rain that soon returned. The lull in the downpour when we ventured outside turned out to be very brief indeed, and we both got soaked and had to retreat to the cabin again. Here’s a brief video compilation, which starts with the waterfall before the rain, as a prelude to the deluge that follows:
Fortunately, the cabin is well equipped, with photovoltaic panels for electricity and a large wood-burning stove for space heating, so we were able to get our clothes and my camera equipment dried out easily enough. During our time outside on the first day we had collected some piñones (as the seeds of the Araucaria tree are known in Spanish). I offered to peel and cook them, as they are delicious to eat, and were the staple food for the indigenous people of the area, who called themselves the Pehuenche. That means literally ‘people of the Pehuen tree’, which is the word in their own language, Mapudungun, for the Araucaria tree. Their whole culture revolved around the tree, and today the remaining Pehuenche people still utilise the piñones in many ways – as food, as fodder for their animals, for making an alcoholic drink and as a dye, made from the skin of the seeds.
We cooked a great meal, with Esteban providing a rice and pea dish, while I stir-fried a range of vegetables to which I added the piñones. I suspect that it would have been a rather unorthodox meal from the perspective of the Pehuenche people, but we had a delicious dinner that lifted our spirits after the soaking we’d received, and was a highlight of the day.
After dinner Esteban went outside to get some more firewood for the stove, and we noted that it was still raining as hard as ever, but it looked like it was changing to sleet, as the temperature must have fallen several degrees. Esteban mentioned that if it got colder, there could be some fresh snow in the morning at the viewpoint, which was about 200 metres higher in elevation than the cabin.
I was the first to get up the next morning, and when I looked out the window I was astonished to see a completely white world. The temperature had indeed dropped, and it must have snowed all night as there was 50 cm. on the ground. The trees were completely covered, with their branches weighed down from the sheer amount of snow resting on them. It was a total transformation from the day before, and I just had to laugh at the sheer outrageousness of this unseasonal snowfall following directly on from the previous 40 hours of torrential rain!
It was a truly magical morning, and I felt very blessed to be there in this white wonderland, high in the Andes and far removed from any towns or other people. It was completely still, and the wind had obviously relented in the night, as the snow was piled high on the balustrade of the verandah – even a slight breeze would have blown it off. I almost didn’t want to walk into this untouched, perfect landscape, but I knew it was a unique opportunity for photography, so I got my camera and headed out amongst the trees.
With the snow reaching my knees, I didn’t want to go too far, but there was no need to, as there were beautiful vistas all around.
Snow continued to fall intermittently, and the wind picked up as well, blowing snow off the branches, so I had to seize the moment with my camera while everything was still blanketed in white.
Just outside the cabin there was a large coigüe tree (Nothofagus dombeyi), which is a species of southern beech that retains its leaves throughout the winter. The snow had weighed its branches down substantially, and one of them had some leaves that were turning bright orange. Like most evergreen trees, coigüe sheds some of its older leaves each autumn (while most are retained for the next year) and these ones stood out dramatically amongst the snow.
After a little while Esteban joined me outside, and we went down to the waterfall together. Unsurprisingly, the view to the falls had been transformed again from both of our previous visits, although I suspect we had missed the most pristine and white view of the landscape as the wind had dislodged some of the snow from the trees by the time we got there.
Elsewhere, in more sheltered spots within the forest, the snow was undisturbed, and understorey plants such as colihue or bamboo (Chusquea culeou) were almost completely buried by it. In some places it had drifted thigh-deep, making walking through it very difficult.
Part 2 of this blog features more of the wild weather I experienced at Nasampulli, but here’s some video footage from the morning to finish part 1 of this blog. It begins with the torrential rain of the previous evening falling on the crown of an Araucaria tree, and then transitions to the same tree the next morning in the snow.