The rickety, bird dropping-encrusted quay adjacent to the Galapagos Islands’ principal airport at Baltra has a waiting area full of benches. But you can’t sit on any: They’re full of sunbathing sea lions.
And, as you scan the shimmering, yacht-dabbed harbour for the dinghy that’s due to take you to the boat that will be your home for the next 10 days (there are no hotels on the islands, which are totally and deliberately deserted), you realize there are sea lions everywhere—on the giddily swaying stairs leading down to the water, on the shiny, chrome stepladders leading up to yachts, on the sun-worn decks of lazy, yawning sloops.
Around noon on a sunny July day, the sea lions are asleep— impervious to squalls of frigate birds squawking shrilly overhead, their crimson throats inflating like birthday balloons; impervious to the blue-footed boobies diving like animate hail out of a metallic, azure sky; impervious to us, the gaping outsiders who tiptoe awkwardly around them, at once thrilled and daunted by our first taste of the unique fauna that so captivated Charles Darwin when he first sailed here on the HMS Beagle in 1831.
By the end of our frantic 10-day tour of the Galapagos, we felt marginally less intrusive—if only because the more effusive of the sea lion pups had gone out of their way to befriend us. When we went snorkelling, they would thrust their whiskered faces into our goggles, jet-propel their oil-sleek bodies down to the ocean floor, rocket up again in flurries of bubbles, breach the surface in flailing leaps of joy and then shimmy back to our masks with quizzically tilted heads that seemed to say, “Now show us what you can do!”
In marked contrast to the exuberance of the sea lions, the marine turtles swam steadfastly past us, chewing silently on tiny leaves, faintly contemptuous of the sparkle and bustle of the soldier fish and barber fish and stone fish and angel fish that flashed their way past us in gigantic glittering shoals. No dive was so heavy as to put them off their stroke, no splash so unruly as to shift their resolute calm. The children would see them from their kayaks and shout to each other excitedly, but the turtles would simply glide by with serene indifference, irrefutable evidence surely of their belonging to a higher order of being.
If watching the children kayaking alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean had me worried (irrationally, as they were quick to point out: At worst, they would fall into the water—which is what they’d been doing deliberately all morning anyway), two days into our trip, the captain—an irascible old sea dog and ladykiller called Pepe—gave them an even greater thrill.
Having taught the children how to read a compass, he asked them to take a particular bearing and then calmly declared that he was off to have a cup of tea on the deck. He had left two children, aged 11 and nine, in sole charge of an 80ft ketch. I let the captain monopolize the teapot; I switched hastily to vodka.
So much for the joys of having a boat to oneself (we were two families of four each on a boat that slept eight). He would never have done this had we been sharing the boat with hordes of shutter-happy Japanese or litigation-minded Americans.
Touring the Galapagos is not just about exploring the ocean. Just as exhilarating are the guided walks around the islands. It is both mandatory and edifying to have a naturalist in tow on these explorations. We had Josie, a pretty 20-year-old who dreamt of visiting mainland Ecuador one day but was, for the moment, content to be the heart-throb of the crew of the larger boats. Being young, Josie was able both to explain the intricacies of natural selection to the adults and to build sandcastles with the children.
Josie’s pet theories centred on the tectonic plate movements responsible for making each of the islands vastly different from the other. So, one day she would drag us up thickly wooded hills through a perpetual drizzle. The next morning, after no more than a couple of hours’ sailing, she would introduce us to hundreds of dirty red land iguanas ferociously spitting salt at one another on a deserted outcrop masquerading as a tourist destination.
Of the many different kinds of scenery the 13 large and six small islands present, the most spectacular is the lava field by Sullivan Bay on Santiago. Here, among the unremitting swirls and whorls and spiky outcrops of corpse-grey rock, it is possible to feel utterly destitute. For, here, nothing lives. That which once lived has been blotted out by the slow advance of toe upon unremitting toe of petrifying pahoehoe magma. This is an utterly alien moonscape, a sight to jolt even the most hardened traveller out of any complacent assumptions as to what it is like to live on a “blue planet”. There is nothing blue here, nothing green, nothing soft, nothing that brings even a shred of solace, or comfort, or ease.
But, then, desolation is what one seeks out in what the Ecuadorian people call their “no human footprint” islands. Even the marks you leave are strictly controlled: You can’t just pee under a tree, as we discovered to our horror. When my poor nine-year-old son wanted the loo, Josie had to radio Pepe, who sent out the dinghy to take him to the sloop. What Vir thought would be a two-minute detour into the bushes became a 30-minute exercise in patience even more testing than the shoe-washing ritual that accompanied every departure from an island (by Ecuadorian law, every time you leave an island, you have to wash out your shoes and tip the sandy water back into the sea. You can’t bring anything to the islands and you can’t take anything away. Not even sand).
Eventually, you get used to these routines. You respect the determination with which the Ecuadorian government has set about preserving its pristine paradise. You begin to see even the regulations as just another aspect of the unremitting otherness which gives the Galapagos its edge, which sets it apart from most other holiday destinations. The tundra of Greenland may give you isolation—but not a wilderness you can enjoy in 21°C comfort with a cactus-flavoured Pisco Sour in your hands.
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