An unforgettable summer trip to the Galapagos Islands
16 Sep 2015
Thanks to the centrifugal force from the rotation of our planet spinning the equator outwards to pull what would otherwise be a perfectly spherical world into something like the shape of a satsuma, the peak of Cotopaxi is the furthest point from the centre of the Earth to the surface – further even than Everest.
Notoriously volatile in nature, just one month after our visit Cotopaxi erupted dramatically for the first time since 1904 and resulted in the President declaring a state of emergency and the potential threat to 325,000 people.
Of course, this was yet to come and we were oblivious to it: our task was to climb from the 4×4 track at 4600 m altitude on the north side to the base of the glacier at just over 5000m. Walking at altitude was tough but the sky cleared and the view was spectacular. It was with some relief that we left the high Andes the following morning and bounced our way down precipitous roads to the misty cloud forests that cling to the western slopes. The butterflies, humming birds and swimming in crystal clear waterfalls were the highlights – although a tour of a chocolate production facility by a cowboy Texan with an accent as thick as his chocolate was certainly memorable.
From Mindo in the cloud forest we drove back over the Andes to the Amazon basin and settled into a rainforest lodge before promptly coming down with bouts of food poisoning. Between trips to the bathroom we planted trees, played football with barefoot locals on a scrubby pitch and learned how to dance like an Ecuadorian.
Even this far from the mouth of the Amazon, for which it is but a minor tributary, the River Napo is a slow, wide and muddy flow past small villages, greedy monkeys eager to steal food, primary untouched jungle and even some tribes who have not had contact with the outside world. Buzzing up in zig-zagging motorboats then drifting back down in surprisingly comfortable inflated inner tyre tubes, it is easy to get the impression that life here is idyllic in its simplicity and natural beauty but the signs of poverty and environmental and social degradation are sadly evident so, leaving the swarms of hungry jungle insects behind, we ventured back to Quito (for a gratefully received bellyful of KFC and an evening out in the lively and often mispronounced Foch Square) and looked forward to the highlight of the trip – the precious natural and cultural jewel in the Pacific that is the Galapagos Archipelago.
The landscape as you descend in the small plane is a lost world from a Jules Verne novel. The sparse stands of cacti in broken grassy savannah on Baltra Island contrasted with the lush grasses and bushy trees elsewhere, a variety of habitats that helped lead to the rapid adaptive radiation and speciation seen in the ubiquitous finches and lumbering giant tortoises. These gentle giants, able to survive for months without sustenance, were once gathered by the dozen to be stacked upside down and kept as a source of fresh meat in the shadowy hulls of buccaneering ships. Now, ironically, thanks to the introduction of feral rats and goats, they are only able to survive from egg to adulthood with human protection and we were lucky enough to visit two such hatcheries. It is humbling to imagine the individual babies potentially surviving into the 23rd century.
Despite having our passports held on arrival, experiencing possibly the worst hotel on Santa
Cruz, queazy three-hour boat crossings, jellyfish and the incessant equatorial sun, the precious time we spent on the unique Galapagos Islands included unforgettable treasures: snorkelling with playful sea lions; swimming alongside the marine iguana – the world’s only marine lizard – and then strolling through the lunar landscape “nursery” where their eggs and babies are guarded; diving down to watch a green turtle lazily chewing seaweed on the shallow sea floor; watching the deceptively comedic blue-footed booby dive like a gannet to pluck an unsuspecting fish from under our boat; trying to keep up in the water with a cheeky Galapagos penguin – the only tropical species of penguin; having a sea lion sidle up and plonk himself next to you on a beachside bench; watching Sally Lightfoot crabs wrestling on the craggy rocks; snorkelling over the shadowy outlines of a flock of stingrays; looking up from cautiously assessing the intimidating bulk of a brown pelican to see the startling pink of flamingos flying overhead and onwards to the distant horizon.
Despite being tentatively removed from UNESCO’s red list of endangered sites, the Galapagos Islands are visibly under threat from human activity and introduced species. The wildlife live cheek-by-jowl alongside the hotels, bars and restaurants where locals rely on moneyed tourists for their livelihoods.
This trip presented challenges to every member of the group – physical, psychological, social and intellectual – but, in the manner typified by Ardingly students, every trial was met with enthusiasm and I am proud of how they responded to every difficulty and each contributed to the success of this very special expedition.