Monthly Archives: June 2012

Climb ev’ry mountain

We were up at “sparrow’s” the next day. After a lot of dicking around – we got to have a catch-up kip on the soft seats of a plush bus which took us up to the lil village of Mollepata. We had a light brekky & got some last minute supplies (cocoa leaves, flower water and the like). We were then thrown into the back of a bone-rattling truck which took us up a wild rocky road to the start of our trek.

It was all very relaxed for the first few hours: a chilled out, mostly flat walk with stunning vistas of the Vilcabamba mountain range.

So far, so good – I thought.

Leading up the walk, I had some little doubts that had tried to creep into my consciousness. Yes, it had been a while since I’d taken on a big physical challenge. No, I hadn’t been doing enough exercise recently. Yes, I had been drinking a bit too much red wine. No, I hadn’t ever done a multi-day hike before. Yes, I had a couple of issues with my poor old feet (tendonitis).

I reassured myself by thinking of all the Things I Never Thought I Would Do – And Did. (Giving up smoking. Doing a triathlon. Completing a 5km swim.) I just needed to have faith in myself. And just get on with it.

And then it started raining.

It would help if it didn’t rain all day every day for the next 5 days.

We stopped at a refuge & had the first of many ah-Mazing meals (no Beans Means Heinz here) prepared by our exceptionally resourceful cooks.

After lunch we were treated to a gorgeous grey sky showcasing a crisply coloured rainbow. The sun came out shortly after that and didn’t go away for the rest of the trip. Except at night. But that’s allowed.

With happy bellies, we continued on through the crisp, clean Andean valley. Admiring the views. Finding our pace. Getting to know each other. There were about 23 of us all up separated into 2 groups with 3 guides.

Some people struggled with the altitude. Shell & I were doing fine, benefiting from our time at Lake Titicaca.

It was all rather pleasant until we came to a big fuck-off mountain which presented us with a good couple of hours of hard work. Never ending switchbacks. It was slow & steady for ‘lmost everyone with the air thinning right out and making it hard to breathe.  I’d count to 50 steps and take a breather, but I soldiered on.

Shell was a little ways ahead of me and was sweet enough to come back to get me after she got to the Salkantaypampa camp (3,950m). We had walked some 12km, ascended some 1,100m over a period of maybe 6 hours. I was starting to get tired. Shell coming back was just the encouragement I needed to get that last lil bit done.

The sun had dropped behind Mount Salkantay (which translates to ‘savage’) – and the temperature dropped dramatically.

Within a matter of moments we were all uncomfortably, ridiculously & unnecessarily cold.

Sorry, did I sign up for this?

We got sorted in the tents our horsemen had set up for us, before having a quick dinner and some hot tea. We all went to bed early that night. Too cold basically, to do anything else.

I was inside my sleeping bag (designed for zero degrees at best),wearing pretty much everything I owned, and all curled up around a makeshift hot water bottle.

And I was:

Fucking.

Fah-Reezing.

I was an inconsolable shivering little ball. Every muscle in my body was tensed up in self-defence. I had to clamp down on my teeth to stop them from chattering. I wanted to cry.

It got down to minus five degrees that night.

And we were in a goddamn tent. By choice.

I have never ever been so cold or so miserable in my entire life.

The only cool (pardon the pun) part about the night was listening to avalanches.  I’ve never heard such a thing before. You know that scene from Jumanji when the rhinos start stampeding through the house. Well it kind of sounds like that. Simply astonishing.

We all got up with the sun the next day. You could hear the communal relief as we all scrambled out of our tents. And it wasn’t just the first pee of the morning kind of relief. More the glad I don’t have to do that ever again in my life kind of relief.

When we got up, we realised what an absolutely cracking view of Cusco’s 2nd highest peak we had. Salkantay rises to an impressive 6,264m.

A muy rapido pack-up & brekky and we were off! Despite 2 coffees and a very strong cup of cocoa tea, I was nowhere near properly awake when we started walking.

It was shaping up to be a glorious day and I was in good spirits but my body wasn’t cooperating … I was a bit of a slow poke all day that day.

When the others split off to go see a glacial lake mid morning – I kept on track with Cristina & Gabby (a bubbly Brazilian mother & daughter duo).

At one point, I walked on ahead on my own. Not another person within cooee. So lucky to get those breath-takingly beautiful mountains & valleys all to myself. Every now & then, I’d stop and just take it all in… majestically jagged snow-capped peaks of the Humantay range in their varying shades of brown & grey… the surprisingly lush mountainside vegetation satisfying the hunger of some very happy cows. Pretty white rivers busily babbling away. And lots of brilliant blue sky setting the whole scene off.

I’ve never seen anything like it before. And I’ve never breathed in air that clean before. It put me on such a natural high. This is what all my mad mountaineering mates were always banging on about!

Although Day 2 had been the longest day (I think we walked some 16kms), it was mostly downhill and easy, and (at the risk of sounding like a pompus git) just glorious.

We got to camp well before nightfall and were able to sit around in the sun & have a couple of long-necks before dinner, which was most civilised. Being at 3000m also meant it was a heck of lot of more pleasant in terms of temperature, too.

Day 3 was another easy & beautiful walk through a mountainous jungly landscape called Ceja de Selva. It was so vastly different in terms of terrain, and flora & fauna compared to the previous days. Lots of greenery and pretty little waterfalls.

Victor our lovely guide took the time to stop and show us some truly special flowers along the way, including a really rare orchid. I really liked him. He was young & fit, but by no means one of those ‘I’m a Legend – Watch Me Hike’ type of blokes. I liked that he was always keeping company with whoever was bringing up the rear. He took every opportunity to stop, sit and just enjoy the environment. He took the time to tell us the stories of the original custodians of the land, and some of his own story as well.

Although I really enjoyed the day, I had a terribly large blister (a good square inch or more in size) on the back of my left heel that was starting to become unbearable.  So when the track dried up a bit – I took off my boots & walked in my thongs for the last couple of hours of the day. The last part of the track traversed a lot major landslides. I likened the seeing the sides of the mountains all sliced up like that, like the seeing the insides of the earth’s body.

Just before reaching our campsite, we stopped at a little village and bought avocadoes to make a guacamole. We reached La Playa (2,350m) early in the afternoon.

We had time to make a little excursion to Aguas Thermales de Cocalmayo – some hot springs, maybe an hour or so away. The 3 natural pools with their crystal clear waters were a welcome relief for our tired old aching bods. Tucked away inside a deep cut-away on the side of a rocky mountain – the baths offered 180degree views of more mountains across a great divide. Their silhouettes provided a dramatic skyline.

Later that night we enjoyed a few drinks around a campfire and celebrated a couple of birthdays. I went to bed completely content & utterly knackered that night. I later got up for a midnight piddle and took a moment to enjoy the stars. So many stars. The kind of stars that make you feel such a small part of the universe. But also make you feel big enough to make a wish that might come true.

I know this is gunna sound lame but the next day, I seriously struggled to get my hiking boot over my heel with the ever bulging beast of a blister.

I didn’t want to compromise the next day, the last day – the grand finale of walking around Machu Picchu and hiking up Huayna Picchu. So I talked to Victor. He told me my choice was 8 hours of walking or nothing. He also told me the day would be a bit tough-going and walking in my thongs was not really an option. He encouraged me to take it easy so I could enjoy the next day. I didn’t take much convincing. Having said that I had a little, ‘I’m such a sooky-la-la’ cry.

The bus took me & Cristina (who also didn’t go for her own reasons) directly up to the Hydroelectric Plant at 1,870m where we had the last lunch with our awesome staff & the rest of our group. The arrieros, horses and donkey herders all made their way back to Soraypampa, where we started. And then we caught the super luxe train to Aguas Calientes at 2,000m.

We checked into our hostel, had a much needed warm shower and ‘glammed up’ for dinner. We had some free time to have a poke around, and we all met up later for a few pre-dinner Pisco Sours.

Dinner tipped me over the edge and I wasn’t alone in opting for another early night (and that’s coming from someone who didn’t even walk that day).

Next morning we were up for the first bus at 4am. We were all used to the silly early morning starts now, so it wasn’t that big a deal. Besides we were all super excited. After all, this was what we had come so far to see.

Walking in through the gates of this 15th century Incan site and seeing Machu Picchu open up in front of us was a moment I will never forget. Sitting in between mountains of extraordinary beauty, smack bang in the middle of a tropical mountain forest is this remarkable city.

The place is bloody huge – it spans some 5km2. And is arguably the most un-touched Incan site in the world. There is no sign of the Conquistadors ever having visited the remote city.

The place is thought to have been a sanctuary inhabited by high priests and the ‘Virgins of the Sun’ (chosen women). Excavations revealed that of the 135 skeletons found, 109 were women.

There are some places that when you finally clasp eyes on them, literally make you want to weep. You just can’t believe you’re there, you know…

Victor took us on a really passionate interesting tour. I like that he focused on the Incan significance of various parts of the site.

My ears perked up when he started talking about one of the more important structures – the Room with Three Windows.

I have a little bit of a crush on the number 3. I regularly look at the time when it happens to be 3.33. I like to exaggerate in lots of 3s. (There were 3 million people at the festival!) My birthdate is divisible by 3. I Googled it once. And it has a lot of significance in a lot of different cultures. Generally speaking though, it’s seen to represent balance. Think of your average bar stool, for instance.

So I was interested (but not all that surprised) to learn the number 3 was also significant to the Incans. The ‘chakana’ was a 3-stepped symmetrical cross. They strived to live their lives according to three principals (love, knowledge and work); three commandments (don’t steal, don’t lie, and don’t be lazy); and three types of work (for others, for the State, and for the Gods).

The three worlds that the Incans believed in were the Uqhu Pacha – which represented the underworld and death, the Kay Pacha – which represented the world of humans, and the Hanan Pacha – which represented the stars, celestial beings and gods

There were three revered animals: The snake, living underground, representing the lower world; the puma, a powerful land animal represented the middle world; and the condor which represented the upper world in the skies.

After the tour, Shell and I went up with Cristina and Gabby for the optional climb of Huayna Picchu.

Huayna Picchu is actually the mountain that you see in all those ‘hero shots’, the one you see in postcards, accompany travel articles etc. The mountain Machu Picchu is actually what you see when you’re standing on Huayna Picchu.

Everyone I had met on my travels, who had been, had told me climbing Huayna Picchu was a ‘must-do’. And they were right. It was just a very steep climb with a lot of unsure stairs, and it took me a good while.

We were exceptionally fortunate to have a really clear day. The views from there were nothing short of spectacular. And it was there you really got the best sense of the sheer scale of the site.

I could describe the site in painstaking detail, I could regurgitate lots of interesting facts & figures, I could re-tell some of the stories I’ve heard until the llamas come home. But for me –it comes down to this:

This is a place you’ve been seeing images of all your life and it somehow strangely feels familiar. This is a place that has seen countless sunrises & sunsets. And will continue to do so long after you’re on the bus back home. This is a place which has held so much meaning for so many generations of people – from the original landowners who conducted spiritual rituals here, to global visitors who come to meditate during the Solstices. This is a place which was built by an incredibly intelligent race of people who we have a lot to learn from. This is a place which you can’t really know, until you go. So if it’s not on your Bucket List, I’d suggest your list needs revising.

To write this post, I referred to the SAS Travel website (we trekked with these guys & they were great). The section about the significance of 3s to the Incans was lifted (and re-worked) from a 3rd party website.

River deep, mountain high

Shell & I moved across town to a hostel in Miraflores & went out for a walk in the afternoon, essentially to book a flight for the next day & get all important supplies: wine & cheese. We had a lovely afternoon catching up on the events of the past year.

Isn’t it funny how with some friends, it always feels like it was only yesterday since you saw them last. I love Shell to pieces. We became friends in our last year of uni, so we’ve been friends for more than 20 years now. She’s smart & sassy and super interesting. And she makes me giggle my arse off like a little school kid.

I couldn’t think of anyone I would rather be doing my first multi-day hike with. She’s a total outdoorsy type and has done lots of this sort of thing before. She’s the sort of person who has technical socks in her wardrobe.

And (for the most part) she knows exactly how to manage me with the right balance of genuine encouragement (for those moments when I’m unsure of myself) & gentle mocking (for those moments when I just need a good kick up the arse). I was confident she’d be able to help drag my sorry butt up & down all those big ass hills.

After we knocked off all the wine & cheese – we went out to a hipster Japanese brasserie & celebrated our friendship, our trip, our everything with some very tasty morsels of ceviche, sashimi and the first of many Pisco Sours.

On Thursday, we caught a plane to Cuzco and went to find the Walkon Inn. The LP described it as ‘a short puff up the hill’. At an altitude of 3,400m, it was much more of a big puff up the hill, I’ll tell you that for nothing.

Cuzco was Just. Gorgeous.

It reminded me a lot of Antigua, Guatemala. The big open plaza (which incidentally was the scene of the death of the original Tupac) with its pretty little trees and old wooden benches made way for amorous kissing couples, eager ‘art students’ selling Cuzco School imitations, or people like me having broken conversations with wrinkly old men in faded 3-piece suits.

The grand old cathedral and the beautiful Church of La Compañía corner the square. Touristy tiendas, outdoors equipment stores, and balconied bars take care of the rest.  Big old wonky cobblestone streets spider off in all directions, making Cuzco an absolute delight to just get lost in.

We spent a bit of time sorting out our Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. Neither of us knew we needed to make reservations to be one of the 400 they let up daily to Huayna Picchu, which threw a little spanner in the planning. But by the end of the next day, we had booked in a tour for the following week.

We spent a bit of time getting to know Cuzco a bit better. Shell  went & saw some of the churches. I just kinda wandered about, spent some time in a cafe, and practiced Spanish on any locals who would afford me the time of day.

Shell took us on a self-guided walking tour of the city & we had a great morning of haggling in the markets for all sorts of mismatching colourful things. (“It goes with your outfit!”) She entertained gorgeous Peruvian kids (who are right up there with Guatemalan kids in terms of Steal Factor) with a wind-up backflipping kangaroo. And we had a cheapo market lunch washed down with our first Inca Kola (tastes just like creaming soda). Soooo good.

We had a few days to kill before our trek so we decided to make our way down to Lake Titicaca – the biggest in all of South America.

On Saturday – we took a very fancy tourist bus down to Puno. It stopped along the way at some historically significant sites: Andahuaylilllas, Raqchi and the Pukara Museum. I’m not sure if I’ve just been travelling too long now but truth be told, I was a little bored.

I think I’m just less into seeing sites and more into having human exchanges. My all-time favourite moments over the last year have been having laughs with locals. Learning a bit about their lives first-hand. Buying something directly off an artisan I’ve shared a box of goon with. Being part of family celebrations. Seeing how someone cooks. Having kids correct my Spanish. Impromptu salsa lessons with Latino men.

Having said that – the tour wasn’t entirely awful. I think I was still a bit tired – one of my personal manifestations of attitude sickness.

That and a loss of appetite. Much to both mine & Michelle’s dismay. It was such a disappointment as we had some truly beautiful meals. We also met some truly lovely people.  People who would quite literally cross the road to ask if they could help you.

I had met a few travellers in the past year who had told me that Peru wasn’t all that terrific for food and Peruvians weren’t all that friendly. I really don’t know what Peru they visited because I had a completely different experience.

We got to Puno and I made a phone call to the boss-lady of a family who ran an unusual home-stay, that Shell had read about.

Uros is a group of 50 or so man-made islands constructed of Totora reeds – each one populated with 3 to 5 families. The original inhabitants of the area (who speak Aymara, Quechua and Spanish) built the islands as an escape mechanism from the Conquistadors.

Cristina told me she’d send her son to come collect us from the bus terminal. Shell & I had picked up a lovely young lad from NYC by the name of Jeff & he decided to come along for the ride. We didn’t really know what we getting ourselves into, so it was a bit of blind faith on his part. Turns out, he made the right decision.

Khantati island was one of the highlights of my whole year. It was a bit pricey for a night’s accomm & 3 meals for 165 sols (USD$60). When you can get a room for $7 and a meal for $3 soles. But it was one of those experiences you end up calling ‘priceless’.

The sun had set by the time we got to the water’s edge for our slow motor boat ride to the family’s home. Landing on the island, my feet sank squishily into the reed ground. It was like walking on a foam mattress.

We were greeted by Cristina, who was all decked out in traditional clothing – she was wearing a brown bowler hat which covered her waist-length braids which had pom-poms tied to the bottom of them. She was also wearing a brightly coloured bolero style jacket and a big big skirt with lots of pleats around her generous waistline which made it look, well, even more generous. She was also wearing a massively cheeky grin.

She introduced us to some of her other family members & then showed us our rooms. They were so coooote! Two beds sighing under the weight of masses of brightly coloured blankets.

Not long after, we were sitting on the dining room floor wrapped up in those same brightly coloured blankets, warming ourselves with cocoa leaf tea, waiting for our dinner. The whole meal was divine but the soup was amazing. Soups are a bit of a specialty of Peruvians. Note to self: Must procure a Peruvian cookbook when I get home.

It was freezing cold & there wasn’t much (in fact absolutely nothing) to do on the island, so after a sweet lil exchange of songs with some of Cristina’s family members (get this: they knew Waltzing Matilda!) – we got an early night.

The next morning, the son took us out on a ‘fishing’ trip of sorts. More of a lazy boat ride in a reed canoe in the morning sun with a bit of net chucking. Total catch equated to two tiny fish that were going to be cooked up for the cat. It was a nice way to pass the time.

When we got back he gave us a history lesson on the area & the people. I was surprised to learn that the Uros pre-date the Incans. They had once been on the verge of disappearance but are now thriving on tourism and the sales of their textiles.

I was also interested to learn how they more or less knit these islands together by hand. The islands decompose from the bottom up and so the Uros keep adding layer upon layer. Family disputes are apparently resolved by chopping the island in half and the two parties going their separate ways! That’s one way to do it, I suppose.

After lunch, Shell & i said goodbye to Jeff and made our way to the peninsula of Llachon. It wasn’t far but on the way, I was really struck by how geographically diverse Peru was. It really is a very striking country.

After a knees-up-around-your-ears kind of bus ride, we ambled around the lil village knocking on doors to see if anyone knew of anywhere we could stay the night.

Word must have gotten around – as before you knew it we were being led by a little girl and her younger sister down a dirt road to their father’s house.

The views of the Lake from Magno’s home were in a word – spectacular. We were shown to a tiny little guesthouse with a cold shower (brrr!) bathroom, where we dumped our bags and did a little ‘We’re in Peruuuuuu!’ dance.

Within moments we were surrounded by the Quechua couple’s tribe of gorgeous lil kids & their cousins – with their tassle-eared beanies, rosy cheeks and snotty noses. They wanted to play volleyball with Shell (apparently the national women’s team is a force to be reckoned with) and play horseys on me. I get all the good jobs.

We had a couple of long necks and watched the sun go down. Later we were treated to yet another beautiful meal (again with the amazing soups!) and had yet another early night.

Next morning we went for a walk up to the mirador – the highest point on the peninsula to get a better idea of the sheer scale of the lake. It’s so big, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re looking out at the ocean.

The next day we sadly farewelled the lovely family & caught the long bus back to Cuzco which took forever. We got in late that night.

The day after, we got organised for our trip and in the afternoon we visited Sacsayhuamán (pronounced more or less, Sexy Woman) – which is the former capital of the Incan empire.

“The stones used in the construction of these terraces are among the largest used in any building in pre-hispanic America and display a precision of fitting that is unmatched in the Americas. The stones are so closely spaced that a single piece of paper will not fit between many of the stones.”

The largest limestone block is estimated to be anywhere from 128 tonnes – 200 tonnes in weight. Freaking heavy in other words.  It’s quite mind boggling when you start thinking about how these people built such a place without the technologies of today.

It certainly got Shell & I a tad excited about what was to come at Machu Picchu. At 7pm, we had our briefing for the trek which was *interesting* to say the least.

And afterwards we met up with another Michel (you can never have too many) for drinks & dinner.  We had met the charming silver-haired surfer at breakfast and bumped into him again up at the ruins. We invited him to join us for dinner.

We were all keen to try Cuy – a Peruvian specialty. Cuy is actually guinea pig & they serve those little buggers whole. It’s most disconcerting to see their little faces and feet.  When you can get past that – they’re actually very tasty. Just don’t tell the kids.

We had another drink after dinner before heading back to the hostel to finish packing for our trek. It was a stupid early start the next day, so we were keen to get at least a few hours of shut-eye beforehand.

___

PS: Am home now but have a few more posts to publish before I wrap this baby up.

Hammer time!

In retrospect, I feel like I didn’t give Ecuador enough time. It’s such a geographically diverse country for its size. There were so many places I didn’t get to.

And I could have stayed longer if I wanted to. I turned down a ‘job’ offer teaching English on the Galapagos Islands. Essentially volunteering in exchange for accommodation & a bit of lunch money. I would have had to get a 2nd job to make ends meet, let alone make the most of everything the Islands had to offer.

I’m not 100% sure why I didn’t take it. But put it this way: I was focusing more on the reasons why it wasn’t a good idea rather than the reasons why it was. So I went with my intuition. I’m sure the reasons will reveal themselves in time.

So, exactly 12 months after leaving Aus, I booked my flight home. I admit to having troubles hitting the ‘Confirmation’ button. There was such a big part of me that felt like I wasn’t done. So much more to see. Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina. But it felt like time. I was missing my mama’s cooking, my friends, babies I haven’t met yet, and our beautiful beaches. And besides, I needed to get a job, pull some more savings together and try & be a proper grown up. Enough of this gallivanting around the world with just a backpack to my name & no real plans to speak of.

It was Mother’s Day back home, so I called Ma to let her know. She burst out into tears, she was so happy. Bless.

There was one more thing I had to do before I felt I could leave the Galapagos. I had been chasing hammerheads since Nicaragua in November. The only issue was the next available dive was on Sunday. Same day as my flight out to Guayaquil. Everyone reassured me that getting on another flight on Monday wouldn’t be a problem.

I decided to go on the dive. I had to see these dang sharks. I’ve racked up 44 dives in the past 12 months. This was a pretty hectic dive. For starters, the water was cold. Maybe 18 degrees at depth. We were fitted with 7m wetties which make you feel like the Michelin Man. There was a lot of surge. And the visibility in some places wasn’t all that great.

We came up from the first dive. No hammerheads. And of course the other group came up chattering excitedly like schoolkids. I couldn’t help but be quietly petulant. We had seen some amazing things on our 1st dive. But it wasn’t what I had come here for. I looked down at my wrist: “Gratitud”. Mmmm.

We went down for our 2nd immersion and then my DM started pointing his fist very deliberately. I scanned the deep blue waters & saw what looked like pretty much your run-of-the-mill shark. But then I saw his head. I could not believe my fucking eyes. Shaped just like a big flattened hammer (I’m gunna say his head was close to a metre in width) and with big bulbous eyes on the ends! What a peculiar looking beast. I was spellbound. Then into my peripheral vision swam two more. I looked up and around and saw we were floating in amongst a school of maybe 12 of them. Unlike most sharks, hammerheads usually swim in schools during the day, and become solitary hunters at night.

Up there with one of the most amazing dive moments of my life. I came up from that dive happy as Veruca Salt when she thinks she’s going to get her golden egg-laying geese.

The “next day, ‘nother flight, no worries” actually turned out to be quite the opposite. The only flight with my carrier on Monday was full, and so I had to wait another day. This meant I would be really pushing it to meet my dear old friend Michelle in Peru on time. Shell was coming over from Aus so we could do Machu Pichuu together.

Flights from Guayaquil to Lima were nearly $500 one way, so that was out of the question. I spent a bit of time hunting around & found a cheap flight from a little town just south of the border. I could catch a bus to there and be in Lima on Wednesday morning. Michelle could get a good night’s sleep from her long haul over & we could get on with it.

Well, 4 buses, 2 planes, 2 taxis, 1 boat, 1 tuk-tuk, 1 lost Kindle (GUTTED), 1 scary motherfucker wearing army fatigues, a balaclava & waving a machine gun around, plus another night-time border crossing but this time UTTERLY on my own –

And 26 hours later I was having a good old giggle with one of my besties in the foyer of her fancy hotel in Lima.

Hello Peruuuuu!

I am a rock, I am an island

The Galápagos Islands

  • An archipelago of 13 volcanic islands spread across 45,000km 2 some 1,000km from the mainland of Ecuador.
  • They were originally discovered by a Bishop from Panama in the 1500s – not Charles Darwin as is popularly believed.
  • Nearly 9,000 species call the Galápagos Islands home. Endemic species – found nowhere else in the world – are common throughout the islands, and many are nearly unchanged since prehistoric times.
  • The Galápagos was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 1978. In 1986 it was also declared a marine reserve, 2nd only in size to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

I had wanted to come here my whole life.

I arrived into Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island around midday on Friday 4th. I scouted around for a room in the scorching heat and then set off immediately to talk to operators about a last-minute cruise. It is possible to do the islands independently, but the most important ones are only accessible by boat and under the supervision of a guide. I had heard that sometimes you can get a deal if you turn up and are prepared to wait. I decided to chance it as I had 10 days on the island and I only wanted to do a 5 day cruise.

I ended up talking to an Aussie girl whose cousin I had met in Cartagena. Alice had fallen in love with a local dive master three years ago. They were now married & had their own dive shop. I was keen to dive with the hammerheads & also price a dive cruise. The latter was way out of my price range. I liked Alice. She was informative, not at all pushy, and organised. She had a good view about the majority of boats which were going out the next week. She told me that La Encantada had the best itinerary of them all.

I paid a little more than I had budgeted for. I could have travelled in South America for another 1½ months. I told myself it was less than I normally earn in a fortnight – in exchange for a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity. Even if I did get another chance to come by this way again sometime… who knows? It’s not completely unthinkable that there might come a time when the fragile Galápagos would only be open to an elite group of scientists and the super- uber-rich. Currently the Galápagos sees some 100,000 visitors pa which, despite best endeavours of the authorities, is naturally having an impact on the islands.

On Sunday morning, I went back to the airport where our group was convening. We were met by our Juan, our tour guide. He was a stocky Galapagonean with a friendly round face and a big sincere smile. I put him in his early 50s & guessed he had probably been very fit in his younger years and would have undoubtedly been quite popular with the ladies. He had a reassuring demeanour about him and I could see straight away he was a no-bullshit kinda guy. I liked him instantly.

In the bay where all the boats were docked, La Encantada looked like a simple little country girl in amongst a bunch of sophisticated city women. I admit to thinking I might have been getting one of the flasher boats for my money. But when we got on board, I was really surprised. For starters, she was a lot bigger than she looked (70ft) from the shoreline and she was so well appointed.

The first thing we saw when we went below was a lovely dining room set for 12, with proper linen. Each of the berths had decent sized bunk beds with colour coordinated manchester and their own bathrooms with a hot water shower! My friend Martin would have been beside himself. I was beside myself! This was going to be a very different cruise from the one I had taken in Belize or the one from Panama to Colombia.

We had the first of many delicious 3 course meals cooked by a professional Chef, while Juan introduced us to the rest of the crew and gave us our first briefing.

Over the course of the next 5 days we stopped at 5 of the islands. Every day we took guided walks with the most knowledgeable Juan, who had been living on the islands for more than 40 years and had been guiding for 20. He wasn’t formally educated but you can bet he knew more than a beaker-full of scientists all put together.

He had eyes like a hawk and showed us everything there was to be seen: dozens of different birds, iguanas, insects, and plant life (of which there is a lot more than you might expect on volcanic islands). He would tell us about their history on the island, their mating habits, and give us insight into their future. He shared with us what the locals and scientists were doing to preserve the future of the endangered species. And whipped out facts & figures faster than Wikipedia.

Needless to say, the Galápagos Islands are just phenomenal. Beyond words & pictures in many ways. Definitely one of those places you just have to go and experience for yourself. But I will do my best to share with you what I saw & felt…

The Islands are ugly & unforgiving in many ways. But there’s so much beauty that belies the callous exterior. Armies of intimidating cactus steadfastly stand their ground on an arid volcanic landscape – making the islands seem so unwelcoming. Added to this, at the time we were there – it was harshly hot and uncomfortably dry.

Alighting from the dinghy onto jutting jet black rocks, we saw hundreds of Sally Lightfoot Crabs – all brilliant red-orange with luminous aqua-blue underbellies – slowly swarming around, making the rocks come alive.

Everywhere we looked – there were these prehistoric land iguanas. Some sleeping all piled on top of one another, some coolly munching on little yellow flowers, some just staring you down with their wrinkly old eyes. You had to be careful not to walk on them, there were so many. (My only real disappointment of the trip was I never got to see the freaky underwater iguanas underwater, which woulda been well wicked, but you know: this is nature not a theme-park. Nothing is guaranteed.)

I’m not much of a bird watcher ordinarily – but I quite got into it on the Galápagos. There’s just so many different species. And really weird-arse looking ones, at that. On the first day, we saw one of my favourite birds: the pink flamingos. They remind me of ballerinas: despite their long ungainly legs and thin long necks, they look so elegant & graceful. Most of all I love their colour. Apparently, it’s a result of their diet.

Sitting in the sparse, harsh, trees that looked like they were dying of thirst – we saw Magnificent Frigate Birds. Huge red bulbous throats on a beautiful streamlined body. All the boy birds were showing off, trying to attract the girl birds. “Look at me! Look at me! See how big my big red bulb is!” How they managed to defy gravity when they were flying was beyond me.

We saw many Blue Footed Boobies, for which the Islands are famous for. They look a little like an oversized seagull but prettier and they have these big webbed duck’s feet in the perfect shade of sky blue. It was amazing at how close they would let us get to them. We were lucky enough to see a pair of them do a little mating dance: somewhere between an African tribal dance and a square dance. They would noisily clack their beaks together in a chopstick kissing game. And then stomp around in slow mo on the sand. Then the boy bird tried to get the girl bird to go back to his place. And they waddled on up the track for some business time. I loved that we didn’t even exist in their world.

We snorkelled every day, and every day we spotted a staggering diversity of fish (evidently more than 400 different species) swimming along happily in amongst turtles, manta rays & lots of different types of sharks. The meeting of two different oceanic currents is what brings this astounding array of aquatic life to Galápagos.

One of my favourite sites though, wasn’t the best in terms of underwater life. Not that we could see anyway. The day we went, the waters were unfortunately quite cloudy and visibility was at best 3m. But it was an absolutely stunning rock formation protruding from the dark blue seas, a place called Kicker Rock. Rising 150m out of the ocean, it was quite a sight to behold. It had split into two and you could swim between its towering walls. Another moment of realising how ancient the earth is, and how small we are by comparison. I love these moments that nature sometimes gives you. So humbling.

For me though, the highlight of the whole trip was snorkelling with huge colonies of happy go lucky sea-lions who just wanted to plaaaayyyyyy!!! They just love to come darting up to you at break-neck speed, and then zoom off in a completely different direction at the last second, they’ll roll their big bulbous bodies around in contorted circles, and if you imitate them, they’ll be your friend forever.

Their big brown cow eyes are so soft & sweet, and they have these cute as a button love heart-shaped noses, tough-as-nails looking whiskers and long long teeth – the latter of which can make them look a tad scary sometimes. The babies are just like underwater puppies and cannot get enough. But you don’t want to be getting too close to the bulls. To illustrate why – they can grow up to 2m long and weigh up to 360kg. Comparable to some motorbikes. They can get very protective of their families, so they’re not really something you want to be pissing off.

We had quite a few sessions with these guys, and I can honestly say it was never enough. I could have played with them all day.

Another highlight of the trip was on the last day when we visited the Darwin Research Station and got to see Lonesome George – the only surviving giant Pinta tortoise. I think his story is worth sharing. Because it really highlights the need for us to take better care of our planet and its natural inhabitants for future generations to enjoy.

Discovered on Pinta by accident in 1971 – George, weighing in at 90kg, was relocated to the safety of the Charles Darwin Research Station. Quite how George is or how long giant tortoises live no one actually knows.

His subspecies, Geochelone nigra abingdon is now officially extinct in the wild, according to the World Conservation Union. Of the 14 different types of Galápagos tortoise, three are now extinct.

For centuries, predators (& this includes us) have hunted these gentle reptilian beasts for their meat & their eggs. It is thought that the last tortoise of George’s kind was carried away by scientists in 1906.

In order to prevent Lonesome George’s genes dying out, the Charles Darwin Foundation has put up a $10,000 reward for any zoo that can offer him a female Pinta tortoise. It seems unlikely this will ever happen.

The research station has tried repeatedly to mate George with tortoises from another island, but so far he seems very uninterested in any advances.

However, the research station refuses to admit defeat. They even employed Sveva Grigioni, a “beautiful” 26-year-old Swiss zoology graduate, to spend four months trying to “rouse the fire in Lonesome George’s loins”. This unenviable job involved coating her hands with the “genital secretions” of female tortoises and engaging in “manual stimulation” of George. Apparently such “genital massage” in the cause of conservation is common. Although locating a tortoise’s penis is a highly skilled, indeed delicate, operation, at least it isn’t dangerous. Grigioni’s ministrations did indeed succeed in awakening George’s interest in female tortoises: “he started to try copulation but it was like he didn’t really know how…” Poor old George.

Today George is on his own again, as the woman known as “Lonesome George’s girlfriend” has returned to Switzerland. But the search for a female tortoise “to put the spark back in Lonesome George’s love life” goes on.

A sign at his enclosure reads: “Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.”

La Encantada’s itinerary

Day 1 (Sunday 6 May, 2012)

  • Baltra / Playas Las Bachas

Day 2

  • South Plaza Island
  • Santa Fe Island

Day 3

  • San Cristobal – Leon Dormido & Los Lobos
  • Kicker Rock

Day 4

  • Española

Day 5

  • Floreana Island
  • Post office Bay
  • Champion Island
  • Puerto Cormorant

Day 6

  • Darwin Research Centre

Sources:
http://www.worldwildlife.org/what/wherewework/galapagos/species.html
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/may/13/featuresreviews.guardianreview11