Galapagos Islands

"Directly below us is the island of Santa Cruz" announced our pilot, as we started to descend. We were very excited to be nosing on into the Galapagos Islands. When we were in Australia, and planning our trip, we thought this side trip a little out of our budget, but with the current power of our US dollars against the Ecuadorian sucre, we were making this trip for less than half the normal cost. Lying on the Equator about one thousand kilometres west of the Ecuadorian coast, the Galapagos consisted of six main islands: San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela, Floreana, Santiago and Fernandina, the last two being the only uninhabited ones. There were also twelve other smaller islands and some forty islets.

They are the peaks of gigantic sub-marine volcanos, with most of them rising two to three thousand metres above the seabed. There were many unique qualities about these islands and it was thought that they were never connected with the continent. Consequently, many shore fish, plants and reptiles are found nowhere else in the world. Charles Darwin in his Beagle in 1935 recognised it and so too have the thousands of tourists who swarm there each year. The animals generally seemed to have little instinctive fear of us. The giant tortoises, the land and marine iguanas (a type of large, fat-bellied lizard), the red-footed, blue-footed and masked boobies (frigate birds), the Darwin finches with their unique system of capturing food. There were also the sea lions with their playful, friendly nature.

We would find our way aboard the boat, the Espanola, together with some Germans, an American, a Columbian and a bouncy Australian girl. It was eight days of pure travel feasting.

Passage was in a large ocean going boat, a small boat in tow for travel to and from the islands, for safety. In control of the ship was the captain, his offsider and the cook. The latter would become our star, cult hero of the coming days. Our travel had been strenuous until this point, so the rest was taken with extreme pleasure.

Viewing beautiful pink flamingos in hidden lagoons and the colourful frigate birds whose males would puff out their scarlet red chests as a sign to attract the females. An abundance of colourful fish in the glassy clear waters lined with coral. Tourist gluttony. The big multi-sensory overdose. Gimme! Gimme!

On one afternoon we were moored in a natural harbour, a small cove with jagged rocky cliffs surrounding, a small white sandy beach at one corner. Classic Pirate Pete! Lunch would be in half an hour and everyone was resting after a big morning exploring the island. I was restless, with the silent buzz of excitement, so decided to go and do some snorkeling along the reef. About a hundred feet from the boat I was given quite a startle as, from the corner of my eye, I focussed on a large dark object coming at me. A shark! I stayed perfectly motionless, so as not to attract further attention, although I was sure that my pounding heart would be causing quite a disturbance in the water. Then, as quickly as it had appeared it had vanished. I was petrified, but decided to breaststroke my way slowly back towards the boat. If only there were a way of swimming without actually moving any part of your body. Would I become the founder of transcendental navigation? Then a flash of black speared past me, causing my heart to flicker between lawn mower beat and deep slow thumping. I turned quickly and noticed a sea lion about twenty feet away, hovering, staring straight at me. I'm a friend, not a foe!

Next time he came front on at me, jutting off collision course just metres in front of me. He was playing and I would be happy to join in on his game. He would suspend motionless, I would swim slowly toward him, waiting for the moment when he would flourish his tail and move off with the swiftness of fish a tenth his size. He would disappear and, as if from nowhere, come from behind me shooting past and saying, "Catch me if you can!" Diving underwater I would fish my way toward him and, for as long as my breath would hold, I would float motionless, staring straight at him. Eyeballing. And he at me. After half an hour of this play I was becoming tired, but felt I wanted this moment to go on forever. The travellers search for an intimacy with nature.

The boat would move on each day for new shores. A resting place for male sea lions, who would spend up to five weeks at a time with personal herds of up to twenty females. Envy! We would even see a couple of penguins, a strange sight indeed, for here we were right smack on the Equator and these were the cute little beings I expected of colder waters. Surprise.

The nights were soft and relaxing. We would sit at our table eating dinner, exchanging both travel and life stories with the other passengers. I particularly took a liking to the German couple with their child on board, and the American economist. Werner was a teacher who was in his last year of a three year teaching contract in Bolivia, and Karin was his charming wife. They would later invite me to stay with them, if and when I reached La Paz. Rod Rodriguez had done a lot of work for governments in and around South America, and was taking time off before presenting a paper at the University of Guayaquil, in Ecuador.

The meals were always plentiful and usually seafood based. "Not lobster again!" was an evolving common joke. We seemed spoiled with reef fish, most of which I hadn't tasted before. Large bowls of rice and salads added colour to the table, and choice of tea, coffee, coke or mineral water for drinks.

This was real living, I would often think to myself, as the long warm days were filled with an endless display of nature's intensity and natural wonder. Those long days were then stretched longer into restful nights spent talking with the different characters on board the boat. The weather was playing an open hand, as it prevailed a clean slate of good weather.

Nights continued balmy, sea breezes and lack of sun meant that night-time temperatures grasped perfection. Sounds were restricted to general chatter, the slow methodic lapping sounds of the water against the boat or on the shore nearby. The occasional splash in the dark by an unknown player, the only punctuation.

Instinctive animal fears were something which were a part of all we humans. And animals in general had to be aware of their natural predators in order to sustain their particular species. Man was an unnatural predator at times, but thousands of years of living apart from man in the secluded Galapagos hadn't yet taught these animals that we could be real bad. They still hadn't heard of oil spills and nuclear leaks, acid rain or greed.

As I dived off the side of the natural rock jetty and into the sea, I became an accepted part of, a natural member to, the herd of sea lions. I knew that those instinctive fears weren't yet here, and I was happy to be experiencing something as "unnatural" as this.

A herd of hundreds of sea lions inhabited this small sheltered cove and they were swimming amongst us with carefree and playful frivolity. Occasionally, one would brush it's thick slimy skin against a leg or a tail would flick onto an arm as we all experienced something very unique, very exciting, very natural. A myriad of colourful fish and corals. Once again, I reminded myself how lucky I was to be having these experiences and savoured upon every moment, my every emotion was engaged at hundred per cent sensitivity, the mental photographs clicking away like some out of control manic Japanese tourist.

I would swim till I was exhausted, then bask in the sun on the rocks and observe territorial power struggles being played between the huge males, the gentle nose rubbing between the female and her baby; the pestering sea gulls; a bright orange crab crawling out from its crevice in the rock ...... "low tide" it probably thinks to itself, yawns, and with slow mechanical motions spiders its way back again.

One afternoon everyone is swimming in the wonderfully cool, clear waters of a hidden bay. I've just crawled back on deck to take another dive from the bow of the boat. Rod is sitting in the small boat being towed behind us. He's sunning himself, enjoying the refreshing feeling of a light breeze and the salt water drying on his body. Just at that moment, a huge pelican glides to a perfect landing on the corner of his small boat. It's a perfect Galapagos photo .... man and nature in harmony. I dry my arms and climb below deck to get my camera. Upon returning, a most amazing incident occurs. At the moment of least warning, and in the splitting of a second, a sea lion jumps out of the water and into Rod's boat. The sudden shifting of balance nearly tilting Rod backward and out into the water. Click! Click! An amazing scene. A ten foot boat, huge pelican sitting nonchalantly at one end, Rod sitting stunned in the centre and newly arrived sea lion wriggling to find a more comfortable lie in the boat's contours. You almost expected the sea lion to steady and look at Rod and say, "Got a 'fag' mate?"

So, what now? A Darwin finch to land on his head? But no, they were all just happy to sit and enjoy each other's company. The sea lion had secured the perfect bedding and looked almost like he'd drop off into a snooze.

With a slither and a grapple the sea lion was up and over the small edge of the boat. Gone to the depths. Back to his friends on the rocks. He was probably the herd's practical joker and would surely remark, "You should have seen the look on that human's face when I jumped into his boat!" The pelican had made his departure at the sea lion's splashing re-entry into the water. Rod just sat silently. He turned and looked at me with a glare, questioning me, "Did you see that!"

Religious belief, of science and myth, theories of evolution. And here I was seeing the indigenous and endemic species of plants and animals, which had played such a large role in supporting the evolutionary theory. Darwin's theory.

The indigenous animals had been those which had made their way from the mainland, one way or another, then adapted to the prevailing conditions of the islands. Other species, though, had completely changed their physical structure and appearance, trying to adapt to new environmental realities. Things such as food supply and climate had led them to re-adapt.

These are the endemic species of the Galapagos Islands, found only on these islands, sometimes only on one of those islands, and nowhere else in the world. These islands surely deserved their title of the "showcase of evolution". Let's talk philosophy. We left stimulated, excited. Back to the mainland.

One thing had become very obvious by its absence in the last four days of the Galapagos, and that was my bowel movements. Too many bananas, too much rice and fish and now the stomach cramps were saying that good times were coming to an end. The cramps lasted all night, a fever started and wasn't helped by the one hundred percent humidity of Guayaquil, nor did the happy lovers in the room next to mine. They would keep me awake till the early hours of the morning. The construction of the walls in this hotel had truly materialised the thought of "paper thin walls". These divides were basically a flimsy bamboo construction, with a mixture of newspapers and wallpaper glued to it. There were numerous holes in the wall and voyerism would certainly be the order here! One hole which was in the corner of the room beamed in the sun's rays, so as to give the impression of a laser beam. In the wee hours of that morning I delivered five days of long overdue excrement, and woke in the morning a new man. No pains, no fever ...... just a sever case of diarrhoea, or "Inca Quickstep" as it is politely known here.