The Galapagos. Bucket list territory for me over many years. So when I won some money on a raffle, it seemed like a moment of opportunity. I could add it to my meagre pension savings. Or I could do something memorable.
You can stay on the main island, Santa Cruz, and take day tours, or you can take a boat tour, which travels the eastern islands for seven days and the western isles for the same time. I couldn’t afford both so I opted for the western islands, aboard the Mary Anne, an old-fashioned sailing boat, with its own tale to tell, of which more later. My other half gets sea-sick in the bath, so he declined to accompany me on this occasion. So this was a Big Solo Adventure.
The Galapagos is a collection of volcanoes erupted over millions of years from the Pacific Ocean floor, in a hotspot where tectonic plates meet. The islands each comprise one volcano (apart from Isabela which is a conglomeration of six) and they drift inexorably eastwards away from the hotspot over thousands of years where the volcanoes eventually fade and go extinct. For this reason the hierarchy of age moves more or less from east to west: San Cristobal and Espanol at somewhere between 2.5 and 4 million years old, through to Isabela and Fernandina, relative babies at around 700,000 years. These two are still active: the last eruption was from Wolf volcano on Isabela, in June 2015.
This geology is one factor which makes the Galapagos so unique; another is the different currents which bring a huge diversity of sea-life to the islands, including penguins, sharks, sea-turtles and fur-seals as well as all those beautiful shoals of exotic little fishes you see in Disney cartoons. For me, the main draw was the Darwin legacy: all that history, all that research, all that incredible science. Turns out he was only 26 when he visited the Galapagos, and he was not impressed, writing as the Beagle landed: ‘Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. We fancied even the bushes smelt unpleasantly.’
I beg to differ. Arriving on Santa Cruz, I was prepared for the barren landscape, the flatlands of lava flows and ash, but not for the lush highlands where we were immediately whisked off to see – it had to be – giant tortoises.
February is the end of the rainy season, so I was lucky to catch the islands in possibly their greenest state, although this varies from year to year. The tortoises were literally awesome, roaming around in their wild habitat with little or no regard to their human gawpers, basking in the mud of a pool, chomping on grass, and generally doing tortoise-like things. It was great to see this on the first day, almost to take the pressure off – it felt like this was the one ‘must-see’ in the Galapagos; now I could relax, anything else was a bonus.
We joined the Mary Anne in the early evening, the second contingent of the group who would be travelling together for the next seven days. This was not ideal, as the first party had already been together for a week, leaving me feeling a bit of an incomer, but I was really lucky with the group; everyone already there was very welcoming and inclusive, and us newbies soon bonded over a beer or three. So end of day one, exhausted, excited, and everso slightly anxious for the whole living-on-a-boat thing: would I be seasick? sleepless? dizzy? dehydrated? Time would tell.