The Galapagos - island paradise or no man's land?

by Elizabeth Willoughby

This archipelago of volcanic islands 972 kilometres off the coast of mainland Ecuador is famous for inspiring Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, but there are more characters in the Galapagos' history worth knowing about.

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"Nothing could be less inviting than first appearance. ...the whole black lava, completely covered by small leafless brushwood and stunted trees, show little signs of life. ...The country was comparable to what one might imagine the cultivated parts of the Infernal regions to be."

I admit Charles Darwin's dismal description of the Galapagos Islands in 1835 — like hell itself — is not travel brochure material. "First appearance" at Baltra Island's airport surround, at least in October, is as barren as Darwin described. However, at higher altitudes the rising, moist air provides enough dampness for a more lush vegetation. Desertscape and grey shrubs give way to Santa Cruz's banana and guava groves, bromeliads and lichen, cornfields and cactus trees. Tall grasses, ferns, bursts of red and yellow blossoms, rich brown soil and rocks line the roadway. Things begin to look better. Nearing the end of the six-month dry season, this is the only green flora present until December rains arrive to spread colour throughout the lower altitudes. The good news is there are few mosquitoes.

The road ends at Charles Darwin Research Station's turtle ranch where captive breeding is bringing many tortoise species back from the brink of extinction. Where once, it is said, there were so many galapagos (Spanish for giant tortoise) on the islands that one could step from shell to shell without touching the ground, today it is a rarity to happen upon a tortoise in the wild. For nearly 400 years from the islands' discovery in 1535, thousands of tortoises were collected by sailors for their meat or oil — it is said that they could survive upside down in ships' holds for up to a year without food or water. Additionally, goats, pigs, donkeys, dogs and rats introduced by pirates, whalers and colonists competed with the giant reptiles for grazing and ate eggs and young. Of all the islands that make up the archipelago, visits by tourists today are only permissible on a few for reasons of preservation and scientific study.

Walking along the ranch's damp, dirt paths, the ground sounds hollow underfoot. A light breeze mingles the zesty scent of forest vegetation with a subtle odour not unlike barnyard manure. Huge tortoises roam the sylvan and scrub and bellow like cows when approached. Others doze in the brush, under bushes or soak in ponds coated heavily with blooming red algae giving the impression of a thick pink porridge. Large, penetrating eyes study passers-by.

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Lonesome George, the very last of the Pinta Island tortoise species and now in captivity, is working on a hybrid species with two female tortoises taken from nearby Isabela Island's Volcano Wolf. As yet unsuccessful, George's social skills, apparently, need some work.

The Island for Visitors

At Santa Maria's Post Office Bay, mother sea lions laze on the sand beach with pups suckling or napping, unmindful of the human visitors. The older pups playing in the shallow waters nearby tease, cajole and swim circles around snorkelers, always just beyond the fingertips. Sea turtles show nary a care, nibbling at plants growing on rocks while snorkelers floating above them watch on.

At Devil's Crown, a cinder cone just offshore, life in the open water aquarium goes about its daily business. Schools of colourful fish move in perfect unison, a white-tip reef shark lazes under a small ledge, king angelfish with glowing yellow tail fins, darting purple sergeant majors and bright yet translucent parrotfish float by with the current, obliging photographers.

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In stark contrast, behind Post Office Bay's beach is a desolate terrain. Inland along a rocky path is the post office after which the bay was named. A hodgepodge of signs and mementos are fastened together and a pile of unsent postcards stored. Visitors take any destined to their home cities to post upon return and leave some to see if they'll ever be sent — this in accordance with tradition since 1793 when navigators and whalers would leave letters in a barrel to be picked up by ships returning to port.

On Punta Cormorant beach lies a sea lion pup that has been attacked by a shark, not fatally. Another stony path winds its way past cactus trees and fields of etiolated Palo Santo trees that will soon be green again. Even now they emit a faint, spicy aroma from colourless bark. Through blanched branches a brackish lagoon comes into view. Pink Flamingos wade the waters along the far side. Two brown goats descend onto partially submerged rocks of the distant shore and survey the area.

The path leads to another beach where a strong surf, cloudy with white sand, rolls over feet. A group of small rays float up in the wash and then back out again, oscillating with the waves. Further along the beach, a large rock appears to be moving. It's coated with sally lightfoot crabs that, feasting on anything, help keep the shores clear of organic debris. As black as the lava rock they live on when young to avoid predation, the scavengers become brilliant yellow, red and blue as they mature. Two sea turtle heads bob offshore.

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The various islands introduce new and constant marvels. Black sea iguanas climb head first down a sheer cliff gripping only with their claws, then head out onto a reef protruding from the dark green sea. Waves that crash over the reef are captured between ridge and cliff forming a pool of swirling seawater. Iguanas grip the lava strip as waves batter them and retreat. Here for a purpose, the iguanas dive meters down through the pool water in search of algae. A larger wave races in, forced through cracks in the volcanic rock cliff. Like a blowhole, the water blasts 25 metres upwards and the mist, floating on the wind, showers the hundreds of iguanas and red crabs basking about in the sun.

Blue-footed boobies dance for the audience. A masked boobie, ever the charmer, carries gifts of pebbles to his mate, whistles, honks, wraps his neck around hers and drops the stone at her feet. Small yellow wobblers hop by pecking at the sand, mockingbirds peck at shoes. A Galapagos hawk perched high on a rock scans the terrain for lava lizards and baby iguanas. A fuzzy, young albatross nestled on the rocky desert floor watches visitors trod by. While other frigate bird eggs have long since hatched, persistent males passed over during mating season inflate their blowzy pouches, still piteously trying to attract a female.

No one leaves the sui generis Galapagos Islands without sensing their singularity and the simple innocence of nature in this isolated world.

Galapagos' Other Wild Side

Being one of the few anchorages and sources of supply in the vast Pacific, buccaneers from the 17th century sought refuge in Galapagos. Then came castaways, smugglers, scientists and colonists, but it was never a mainstream destination as ventures too often ended in death or abandonment due to the harsh environment or murder.

Ecuador's attempt at colonisation in the early 19th century was bloody. Using convict labourers donated from mainland prisons, the result was more of a penal settlement that required the managing General to move around with the protection of a pack of dogs, with good reason. Revolts, hostage taking, violent deaths, assassinations and coup d'état are all elements of its modern history.

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As one of the few islands with a natural fresh water supply, settlement on Floreana (now called Santa Maria) was frequently attempted and abandoned. The greatest mystery occurred early last century with a cast of eccentrics including a dentist who pulled all his teeth out and made himself a set of steel dentures before departing for the Galapagos, and a self-proclaimed Baroness. In 1929, Dr Friedrich Ritter and Dore Strauch left their spouses in Berlin (a spousal exchange, if you will) and set out for a "free" life in the Galapagos — he to be a nudist, write on philosophy (a Nietzsche follower) and feed the curiosity of the international press; she to be at one with nature and her new love. Ritter turned out to be more eccentric (read domineering) than Strauch had anticipated.

Heinz Wittmer and his pregnant wife, Margret, arrived from Cologne in 1932 in search of a better climate for Heinz's invalid son. For Mrs Wittmer and Ms Strauch it was hate at first sight. Ritter also bitterly resented the intrusion on the island.

Then Baroness Eloise Wagner-Bousquet arrived with her entourage of lovers. In delusions of grandeur, the Baroness claimed ownership of the island, declared herself Empress of Floreana, had her "in-favour" lover abuse those out of favour, bathed in the island's fresh water supply and goaded the fires between the two other families. Subsequent settlers were convincingly discouraged by the Baroness and her men, usually at gunpoint. It didn't take long for her peculiar personality and fanciful pen to attract the international Sunday paper readership away from Ritter, to his increasing frustration.

In 1934, at the height of strained relationships in the three households and hatred between them, the Baroness and one of her lovers disappeared (no bodies were ever found), and Ritter died suddenly either from eating bad meat according to Mrs Wittmer (he was a vegetarian) or stroke according to Ms Strauch. Many years later, Wittmer's son-in-law, who had come to live with her daughter on the island, also disappeared. The cases have never been solved.

Although Dore returned to Germany after Ritter's death, the Wittmer family never moved from the Galapagos. Heinz passed away in 1963, Margret in 2000, Rolf Wittmer, born only weeks before the fateful events of '34, captains tourist ships around the islands and his sister, Inge, manages Floreana's Wittmer Hotel.

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How to: Cruising Galapagos Islands on the Angelique

It's 6:30 p.m. and you are leaning against the bow rail of the Angelique, the 96-foot Dutch ship that sailed over from Holland in 1890. Three ladies, tourists from Germany, sit nearby on a bench discussing tomorrow's itinerary. A Spanish couple sit on another bench reading. A British woman jots in her diary while her husband, lying on the wooden deck, takes advantage of the last few rays of sun. Dusk is approaching. You stare at the wake streaming off the bow and gaze over the endless sea, still excited about the sea turtles you swam with this afternoon and the sea iguanas that can dive and swim while holding their breath endlessly. You wonder about the blue-footed boobies that you'll finally get to see on tomorrow's island in the Galapagos archipelago.

The clanging of a bell drifts upwind; dinner is ready. The U-shaped benches on the covered dining deck, open on both port and starboard, fill quickly. The quiet banter of past adventures, travel tips and future plans pass between the passengers while a gourmet buffet of local specialty seafood dishes and Mediterranean cuisine is served, both meat and vegetarian options available at each meal. You wonder how the chef manages such feats from the tiny galley.

After dinner, passengers wander to the lounge or back to the deck for more socializing. In a few short hours everyone is slumbering in private cabins while the Angelique continues on her way to the next anchorage. Tomorrow morning, the bell will clang at 7 a.m. calling everyone to breakfast and the beginning of another day of exploration in the Enchanted Islands.

Visiting the Galapagos is no longer the complicated venture it used to be. An easy flight from Guayaquil on mainland Ecuador will land you at the Baltra Island airport. There a representative transports you to the main port where the Angelique awaits your arrival. A multilingual guide and six-member crew escort you and the rest of the ship's passengers (sixteen maximum) on a four, five or eight-day cruise around the various islands that are open to tourists. Eight cabins, each well equipped with two double berths, private bathroom with shower and hot and cold water, air conditioning and ample storage, accommodate the travellers.

Completely restored in 2002, the Angelique is one of the oldest boats in the Galapagos — a beauty with character.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2003

This article was published at Sunday News, Brazil ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2003 and at © 2008

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