When she was younger, Chloe was given a book. It was David Attenborough’s ‘Life on Earth’, based on the BBC TV series of the same name. It was a weighty hardback with thick, silky pages and the most wonderful colour photographs of strange creatures from around the world. And it’s the reason why today’s plane ride of terror was worth every white-knuckle second.
We landed on a barren, rocky island called Baltra, which hosts nothing but the airport. Its other name is South Seymour and it’s one of the Galapagos Islands. We can hardly believe we’re here. The dry landscape, humid atmosphere and stifling heat are less than promising. However, the thick, blue disinfectant soaked carpet that we are made to walk across and the security search for seeds, fruit or other potential biohazards, with a frenzy usually reserved for explosives or drugs, promise that there must be something amazing past this point.
After waiting for other members of our party to arrive on different flights, we are poured onto a hot bus and ferried to a small jetty to wait, again, until the small zodiac dinghy can take us to our ship. Not much to do then but look out into the little harbour. Hang on, is that a sea lion basking on that rock not twenty feet away?
Which is when the Galapagos springs to life.
A school of brightly coloured fish dart into the shade of the jetty. Another sea lion rises in triumph to the surface with a huge parrot fish between its teeth. A pelican that’s been hanging out on the rocks tries to nab the fish, but fails. The sea lion legs it with its lunch. A huge, black frigate seems to hang in mid-air, using the breeze to hold its position behind a large refuelling boat. The first sea lion sleeps on.
We didn’t even get our cameras out of our bags.
Soon the zodiac turns up and we’re bundled into lifejackets. As we zoom across the bay, a large sea turtle swims lazily within a few feet of us. Our expectations, which we have worked hard to keep in check up until now, explode into technicolour and we haven’t even set foot on our ship yet.
The Treasure of the Galapagos sleeps sixteen guests, plus a crew of about a dozen. We’re pleasantly surprised by the size of our room, which has a large window and its own balcony. It’s a lovely ship but there’s no time to admire it as we’re off to Santa Cruz island for our first stop – the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora.
Another transfer to land in the zodiac and we’re soon driving up and over the island, from the arid lowlands and through the ‘sunflower forest’ (not sunflowers but trees with wide, flat canopies).
The Darwin Station comprises a biological research centre, running breeding programmes for various species, and a visitor trail that gives newly arrived tourists a chance to meet some of the wildlife we’ll encounter.
On our way in, a bevy of sinister-looking marine iguanas bask on a concrete slipway, their beady eyes and scaly black and cream crests reminding us of Gremlins. We meet their land-bound cousins too, slower, rust-coloured, peaceful vegetarians. We see a number of Darwin’s finches – the group of birds whose beaks held the key to his theories on evolution – and the only cacti in the world that grow like trees, with thick, woody trunks. We stop to smell the bark of the Holy Stick tree, which looks mostly dead but gives off a resiny incense aroma (they are burned in churches hereabouts).
One of the totemic animals of the Galapagos, the giant tortoise for whom the islands were named (‘galapagos’ being Spanish for a kind of saddle), is far bigger than the individuals we saw in Singapore. Ponderous, huge and jurassic, their feet are elephantine and the size of dinner plates. It’s hard not to imagine we’re watching a CGI-ed recreation of some long-extinct creature.
Once our tour is over, we have an hour or two to wander around Puerto Ayora. It’s a typical seaside town, but the largest in the Galapagos and our last chance to buy any essentials before we haul anchor. Our guide, Harry, suggests we take the sea road back to the main square. There’s an interesting little fish market on the way.
Clever Harry. There certainly is an ‘interesting little fish market’, but not for the reasons we expected.
Two concrete counters – one for preparing the fresh catch, one for selling it – sit under an awning. Locals turn up to buy their dinner or supplies for their restaurants. Does that really warrant the amount of tourist attention it seems to be getting? Yes, when you realise that there’s another whole customer base for this stall, but unfortunately they don’t pay cash.
A sea lion poses within throwing distance of the counter, letting out a quick bark when cameras come too near. A posse of pelicans are lined up on the other side, behind the fishmongers, like a gaggle of schoolchildren. One particularly clever one takes up position underneath the counter itself. And most breathtaking of all, a large frigate bird uses the nearly non-existent breeze to hover barely a few feet above the counter, hoping to snatch his supper.
To be clear, no one appeared to be feeding these animals – the only fish we saw taken was in a lucky drop by one of the fishmongers, quickly wrestled back by a customer.
A stroll down to the furthest pier offered us sightings of a heron, more marine iguanas and dozens of Sally Lightfoot crabs, ruby bright against the black volcanic rocks.
Soon it was time to catch the bus back to the dock, but even then the Galapagos wan’t done with us. As if to remind us that it’s not all about the glamour pin ups, every one of us (except Allan) was bitten to hell by horseflies and midges as we were waiting to board the zodiac. Our final spot of the evening was the sight of two pelicans using the zodiacs tethered to the back of the boat as fishing platforms.
What’s it going to be like when we actually get onto one of the human-free islands?