The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - THE GALAPAGOS - Gavin Haines


Think about Galá­pa­gos and what springs to mind? The boun­ti­ful birdlife, the play­ful sea lions, the dul­cet tones of David At­ten­bor­ough? Yet it has a se­cret, sin­is­ter side; best rep­re­sented by what be­came known as “The Galá­pa­gos Af­fair”.

In 1929, a Ger­man ex­pa­tri­ate called Dr Friedrich Rit­ter ar­rived on Flore­ana Is­land with his lover Dore Strauch, pic­tured; they lived ac­cord­ing to strict Ni­et­zschean prin­ci­ples, em­brac­ing veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and nud­ism. They doc­u­mented their lives in let­ters, which they sent to a news­pa­per in Berlin. The pa­per pub­lished them, inspiring more Ger­mans to come to Flore­ana, among them Heinz and Mar­garet Wittmer. A com­pa­ra­bly nor­mal cou­ple, they hoped the trop­i­cal cli­mate would heal their sick son, Harry, who in a cruel twist ended up drown­ing in Galá­pa­gos.

Hot on their heels was the self-styled Baroness Wag­ner de Bos­quet, a “flam­boy­ant and ill-tem­pered woman” who ar­rived with two lovers. She ap­pro­pri­ated parts of Flore­ana and an­nounced plans to build a five-star ho­tel. She also started in­ter­cept­ing Rit­ter’s let­ters and edited them to make her­self the star. The news­pa­per lapped it up.

Rit­ter com­plained to the gover­nor about her be­hav­iour, but it was use­less: he had been se­duced by the baroness. Rit­ter threat­ened to take mat­ters into his own hands.

To cut a long story short, the baroness and one of her lovers dis­ap­peared. Rit­ter had a mo­tive, but there was a twist: al­legedly, the miss­ing woman’s be­long­ings were turn­ing up at the Wittmers’.

a favourite novel, had some­how fallen into Mar­garet’s hands.

In an­other twist, Rit­ter died, sud­denly, af­ter al­legedly eat­ing bad meat. His fi­nal words were: “Dore, I curse you with the last breath I have” – but as Rit­ter was a veg­e­tar­ian, the plot thick­ened.

Charges were never brought against Mar­garet or Dore, but af­ter Rit­ter’s death the lat­ter re­turned to Ger­many, where she was ad­mit­ted to a men­tal in­sti­tute. Dur­ing the war, a bomb hit the in­sti­tute and killed her. And Mar­garet? She re­mained in Galá­pa­gos un­til her death in 2000. If she had any se­crets, they died with her.

Next morn­ing, I see con­struc­tion sites on the out­skirts of Puerto Ay­ora, the is­lands’ main set­tle­ment on Santa Cruz. But I also spot sea lions laz­ing on benches in the street, and a Dar­win’s finch scut­tling around by my cof­fee cup in a café. I ask the waiter whether he thinks the town is be­com­ing too ur­banised. “When I ar­rived in the Six­ties,” he says, “it was just a pile of rocks and a shed.”

I buy a Galá­pa­gos T-shirt and pay a visit to a su­per­mar­ket, where the prices are as­tro­nom­i­cally high. “They never go down,” says an­other local, En­rique Silva, who is hang­ing out by the dock near a huge mu­ral fea­tur­ing local su­per­stars from Bishop de Ber­langa to Dar­win. “Re­cently, three sup­ply boats sank,” he adds. “It showed us just how much we rely on the main­land.”

More than high prices and ge­o­graph­i­cal iso­la­tion, it is the is­lands’ sta­tus as a na­tional park that dis­rupts the lives of lo­cals most. Pro­tected as such since 1959, the ar­chi­pel­ago is sub­ject to ev­er­tight­en­ing reg­u­la­tions. “Peo­ple re­mem­ber how it was be­fore,” En­rique tells me wist­fully. “You could go to this beach or to that beach, no prob­lem. Now the na­tional park tells us where to go.”

While En­rique sounds nos­tal­gic for old free­doms, Xi­mena, one of the nat­u­ral­ists on Na­tional Ge­o­graphic En­deav­our II, fully sup­ports reg­u­la­tion. “A driver who killed a land iguana on Bal­tra was fined $15,000 (£11,651),” she says. “This is the way it should go, so local peo­ple who don’t un­der­stand the unique­ness of the place start be­ing care­ful.”

She has seen in­hab­i­tants of Is­abela eat­ing gi­ant tor­toises “in front of ev­ery­body”. Her prin­ci­pal fear, though, is that Ecuador, hit by the oil price slump, is go­ing to fo­cus more on tourism, with Galá­pa­gos as the main sell­ing point. “Sooner or later, es­pe­cially on the in­hab­ited is­lands, the in­cred­i­ble, naive crea­tures are go­ing to be­come ex­tinct,” she reck­ons.

It’s hap­pen­ing al­ready. When the gi­ant tor­toise Lone­some Ge­orge died in 2012, his Pinta Is­land sub­species was pro­nounced ex­tinct.

En­rique, mean­while, doesn’t see his long-term fu­ture here. “We have around 40,000 peo­ple on the is­lands now,” he says. “Within a gen­er­a­tion, it’s go­ing to be 100,000. The tourism will in­crease sim­i­larly. You’ll see boats here, boats there. We don’t have the re­sources, the water.” An in­crease in boats will lead in turn to a greater risk of in­tro­duced species – and of dis­ease. In Galá­pa­gos, the strug­gle for life goes on.

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