Guayaquil in Ecuador is a pleasant enough place next to the Pacific; some have said it has an edge to it. You can’t take your gun into a restaurant (or roller skates – Have you ever been threatened with a roller skate?) – That may suggest a slight edginess, (or an American High School disco!), but it seems fine to us. It has a nice coastal frontage, and the large numbers of land iguanas in Bolivar Park are well worth a visit, nothing says South America like feeding an iguana fruit, snorting cocaine, reading a Marquez book, toting your gun on roller skates during your main course and shouting random lines from Speedy Gonzales – I may have made the last parts up, or read them in a Hunter S Thompson book!
Before we have come away, we have all written down one ‘dream’ thing we want to do, think of an achievable bucket list with one item on – tick, where’s the number for Dignitas! Everyone’s done his or hers now apart from me. I remember like yesterday getting a new Parker pen for Christmas in the sixth form and then setting about my A level Biology evolution assignment. I fell into it like you might fall into a fiction book, lost. Only momentarily being distracted by the young neighbourhood kids singing up at me “Pindus, success on a plate for you” This was a slight derivation on an advert at the time for Findus fish fingers – funny, the storage unit of the mind! I remember thinking then of all the places in the world I’d like to go, this is A number one, top of the pile (kick your legs in the air)… The Galapagos Isles – So good they named it after the old Spanish word for saddle, due to the shape of the giant tortoises backs’. So I told The Boy he was in charge on the mainland and left them behind, ‘Hideous Kinky’ as that maybe.
The Galapagos lie 1000km west of the Ecuadorian coast and is part of the nation of the earth’s belt. This is where I have to check myself a little, have some measure, and not write a novella on the home of evolution. On landing we get shown to the 20-birth cruiser that will be home for the week ahead. We are all introduced to one another and the crew, Diago, the guide for the week is very charming and knowledgeable. I’m sharing a birth with a bohemian Italian, Fernando, he can speak four languages fluently. He shares a story about Heathrow Airport when I tell him I’m English. He has passed through there a few weeks previous. “I went up to the international help desk and asked them, “Do you speak Italian?” “No” the young woman replied, “French?”. “No”. “German?”. “No”. Exasperated he asks, “What languages can you speak?” “Oh, I can speak English!”She says like it’s a major achievement for her. “But it says this is an international help desk, what happens if people can’t speak any English?” “I can’t help them then!” “Ok, let’s talk in English.”This is only one reason why Brexit was such a bad idea.
We take small boats around from the main town port of Santa Cruz to a natural mangrove nursery. The amount of biodiversity is enormous, I will avoid mentioning all the animals, but just on that first brief trip we observed; blue-footed boobies, land and marine iguanas, fire lizards, sea lions, Sally-Lightfoot crabs, bottlenose dolphins, manta rays, frigate birds, baby sharks, Galapagos hawk, lava herons, oyster catchers, storm petrol, green and hawksbill turtles. It is, bloody amazing!
The next morning we are up early to go and see the giant land tortoises, this is a mini bus ride and I sit next to Diago and naively and slightly pleadingly ask, “We will see them, won’t we.” “If we don’t, it will be the first time ever we haven’t.”As we pull away from the small town (village), he casually points without speaking, to three we pass by the side of the road. Then as we pull off the tarmacked road and bump down the track, we have a comedic moment were a giant tortoise, this is four foot high, refuses to leave the track when the driver bibs the horn, and four of us have to alight to lift a 200kg turtle out of the way! We are heading to a watering hole and there are another fifteen there, several even bigger than lazy one we have met.
You can never tire of seeing a giant tortoise, it’s like a cross between ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and ‘Around the world in 80 Days’. Their tastiness was almost their downfall, somewhere near 200, 000 were eaten; even Darwin ate them! But how did such enormous tortoises get from the mainland? Have a think about that for a second (?), they can weigh up to 400 kg! [Have you finished thinking – you’re only cheating yourselves!] One possible explanation – a now defunct land bridge from the mainland, but that is incredibly unlikely. The accepted theory is they swam!! Hey up, I hear you say in a Yorkshire accent. You would, and I did, think they would do the opposite of swimming, sinking without grace, so in 1923 William Beebe, a naturalist, threw an enormous one in the sea and watched as it “floated buoyantly!” He was astonished apparently, and so am I. So the most popular theory goes like this; turtles can float, pregnant turtle falls into the sea on the mainland, floats/swims/gets carried by strong easterly ocean currents and when she climbs out she has an island archipelago named after a body.
There are many great aspects to the boat, but falling asleep after lovely food and beer/wine and waking up at another new island in the Galapagos is the best. It was on the first Island – Bartolome, this is where my stills camera plopped into the sea, just after we had been to spot white-tipped sharks over the headland, on the opposite bay. On the sandy beach that also had the largest male sea lions I have ever seen. I excitedly spotted Galapagos penguins in the surf, so in my excitement to film tropical penguins and get my video camera out, the other camera, plopped out of the camera bag, and failed to work ever again, even the memory card followed suit, this is why there are no photos of The Fat Peruvian of Peru! Then to top it all, by the time I get the video camera cranked up, the penguins have gone. Out of the bad comes the good (positive peace), this meant I could only record everything with the video camera, and consequently have lots of better footage.
Some on board are not bothered about snorkelling around the iconic Pinnacle Rock, but I’m not missing out. So I set off on my own, the penguins are shooting and speeding around me in the warm water. I have no one to share it with, and amazingly none of the others see them, it was after the triumph of this I spot a very large murky figure in the water ahead, it is enormous, and the shape shouts one thing: shark! Fucking BIG shark!! And it appears to be getting bigger as it leaves the murk twenty metres away. ‘Cling to other people’, ‘make yourself bigger’, there is no one, just me. A twelve stone bloke, how big can I make myself? – it is not a great white nasty, it’s a male sea lion, weighing in at about a ton, we have been told not to approach them as they can be very dangerous. It fixes me in its eye-line, transfixes me, and moves towards me, whilst never taking its eyes from mine, it nudges me deliberately on the left shoulder and carries on. I’d rather it be a sea lion than an enormous hungry shark, but not much can scare me, I’ve been to prehistoric island of Komodo!
On our next excursion we come across a group of German photographers taking pictures, pretty much of everything, one appears to be snapping rocks. Diago tells me of one trip he ran for photographers, again German, they took 2,000 photos a day! 14,000 by the end, spent all nighty editing them down to just thousands, can you imagine, “Here’s a photo of an iguana, here’s another photo of an iguana, and another, just another 700 to go.”
We visit the Darwin Research Conservation Centre on our last day, I’m keen to meet the legendary Gorgeous George, originally when he was discovered, the last of a sub-species from Pinta Island, each island has their own sub-species, not much swimming had appeared to be going on, why risk it? He’s gorgeous mainly because of alliteration only, originally he was Lonesome George. He’s a legend in his own lunchtime, he’s up there with Harriot, the female Giant Tortoise Darwin brought back on HMS Beagle in 1836 (died 2005) that ended up in Australia, and also metaphorically in an upward direction in heaven that are connected now. They have been throwing ‘sexy’females of other subspecies in with him since 1971, he died in 2012, but I can only conclude two possibilities; firstly, GG is xenophobic and will only make the beast with two-saddles with a Pinta female, or, he’s a homosexual. He took the genes with him, it was a lot of pressure to bear, he was well over a hundred years old. I hope the Anglo-Saxon race doesn’t depend on me to bring forth the fruit of my loins at that (un)ripe age with lots of tourists ‘doggedly’ exalting words of encouragement! Donald Trump appears to be in charge of that now! (I did read on the internet that he is thinking of banning anyone without a spray tan from all public places, as that’s where his random thought generator stopped whilst he lost interest on Twitter the night before! It must be true as its unreal news: unreal is the new real!)
I buy a lovely photograph of three iguanas on the beach at Bartolome the night before I fly out, it is just three iguanas among the hundreds I saw, but every time I stop to look at it I can see beyond it to the white-tipped sharks, tropical penguins like arrows in the water, Pinnacle Rock and a massive belligerent sea lion giving me a territorial nudge.
All Galapagos iguanas eat vegetation, the marine iguana consumes only algae – this is very unusual in the animal world, a vegetarian lizard. They are amazing animals, to regulate their salt intake from the sea water they sneeze concentrated brine out of their nostrils, it is worth going there just to see this. And after the amazing ‘BBC Planet Earth’: iguanas vs snakes, that maybe another reason, the most amazing piece of documentary making ever (although some of it is staged!), watch it if you have never seen it, you will remember it for the rest of your lives. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3OjfK0t1XM
I see everything and more in the Galapagos, the only ones missing from my Eye-Spy book of Galapagos animals is the hammerhead shark and the flightless cormorant.
The Galapagos Islands are amazing. It is not only me with a degree in Ecology that feels this way, everyone agrees it’s been amazing. The only two other experiences people on board say gazump this is walking to Everest Base Camp and the Amazon Rain Forest in Brazil.
On my return to England I am in the NHS system to get my left dislocating shoulder sorted out, and on my first visit I tell the consultant about how I dislocated it in Australia and how an aggressive sea lion also had a go. The next time I visit him he has scheduled me to be his last appointment before lunch, and he explains, “Tell more about the Galapagos Islands, I want to go.” I explain and advise him further that if you’re going that far, you have to go to the Amazon Rain Forest as well, that will also blow you away. The next time I see him after my shoulder has been operated on (not by him), he tells me he has booked both… he will not have regretted it, I’m absolutely certain of that.
Next time: Swimming with the Piranhas.
All the missing travel blogs can be found on https://www.goodreads.com/author/dashboard
My latest book: Hull, Hell & Homecomings, is out later this year to coincide with Kingston upon Hull being the 2017 UK City of Culture.
I write books. You can buy any of them at very reasonable prices here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=ian+m+pindar