State of ori­gin

Fol­low Charles Dar­win’s foot­steps in the lap of lux­ury

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - PAUL HEINEY

Just to be sure I haven’t been dream­ing, I write down a list of all the wild crea­tures I’ve seen in the Gala­pa­gos Is­lands. I note that I’ve been barked at by a sea lion, had a blue webbed foot wag­gled at me by a booby bird, been eyed-up by a pel­i­can sit­ting close enough for me to smell its breath (like a filthy fish fac­tory), and been given a time-weary stare by a tor­toise that might have been 100 years old.

Then there has been an iguana, a black, scaly crea­ture that looked as if it might eat me for din­ner. Mean­while, a flock of fri­gate birds, chill­ing descen­dants of di­nosaurs, has hov­ered above. No, it hasn’t been a dream. I re­ally have seen all this and within the first few hours I have spent on these vol­canic Pa­cific specks known as “the En­chanted Is­lands”.

When it comes to wildlife, Gala­pa­gos de­liv­ers. There are about 4000 species here, 40 per cent of which are found nowhere else on Earth, and each re­mark­able, from the tiny, vul­ner­a­ble Dar­win’s finches to the lum­ber­ing gi­ant tor­toise.

Your first glimpse of the is­lands might be a dis­ap­point­ment. It was Charles Dar­win, fa­ther of evo­lu­tion­ary the­ory, who said “noth­ing could be less invit­ing” af­ter he vis­ited in HMS Bea­gle in 1835. The arid, vol­canic land­scape, scat­tered with des­ic­cated veg­e­ta­tion, re­veals none of the magic these is­lands hold. This is a close-up kind of place that needs care­ful ex­am­i­na­tion to re­veal its true rich­ness, the ex­cep­tion be­ing the chubby and un­avoid­able sea lions that stick their noses in ev­ery­where. I first meet them sprawled along the har­bour wall on San Cris­to­bal Is­land, asleep and not giv­ing a damn about those of us ea­ger to join our ships. They are ev­ery­where — in the door­ways, in gut­ters and at cafe ta­bles, too, if no one stops them. “Re­mem­ber, they are wild,” we have been warned. “And they have big teeth.” We take a step back, but are be­guiled.

The ship we are about to board, if the sea lions al­low us, is the re­cently com­mis­sioned MV Ori­gin, com­plete with a Dar­win Deck, of course. From the shore it looks as if an oli­garch’s pri­vate yacht has steamed into town. Dar­win would have recog­nised that this stylish lit­tle ship is, in it­self, a good ex­am­ple of evo­lu­tion in ac­tion.

This is no place for larger cruise ships. Our bou­tique cruiser, hold­ing no more than 20 pas­sen­gers and 14 crew, leaves barely an im­print on the is­lands it vis­its. Its hull is de­signed not just for good looks but for ef­fi­ciency and its emis­sions, from both en­gines and hu­mans, are con­tained and con­trolled.

Ecoven­tura, which built the boat, is a cer­ti­fied Smart Voy­ager (an eco­log­i­cal pro­gram de­vel­oped by The Rain­for­est Al­liance) and has raised more than $US300,000 ($407,000) for the Gala­pa­gos Marine Bio­di­ver­sity Fund. In 2012, the com­pany part­nered with Ecol­ogy Project In­ter­na­tional to pro­vide lo­cal teenagers with a field course in con­ser­va­tion. The craft car­ries two nat­u­ral­ist guides to fa­cil­i­tate the split of pas­sen­gers ac­cord­ing to in­ter­est or ac­tiv­ity level. Those who want to keep ac­tive while at sea can take out kayaks, stand-up pad­dle­boards and snorkelling equip­ment, or use the gym.

The ex­pan­sive win­dows of my cabin (there are 10 in to­tal) reach down al­most to sea level, so I can lounge on the soft, broad bed and feel as if I can trickle my fin­gers in the wa­ter as I read Dar­win’s jour­nal of 1835. Out­side the only two set­tle­ments on the is­lands, with a mere 30,000 in­hab­i­tants, lit­tle will have changed since then.

Dar­win Deck is for eat­ing good, fresh food from an in­ven­tive gal­ley, and en­joy­ing the lo­cal beer which, agree­ably, comes free (as does whisky). This news pleases two of my fel­low pas­sen­gers, a re­tired Scot­tish lawyer and his wife, now world trav­ellers, ner­vously try­ing to work out if they’ve made the right choice hav­ing stated em­phat­i­cally, “We are not the sort of peo­ple who do cruises.” We are 16 in to­tal — my other co-pas­sen­gers are re­tired Amer­i­cans, “bustin’ out all over” with en­thu­si­asm, as is their way.

It is a shock to dis­cover our days start at 6am to be ashore by 7.30am with the sun just up. This is clever tim­ing, though, for by 11am we are glad to be back in the cool of the ship. Hot ex­pe­di­tions are usu­ally fol­lowed by snorkelling, ex­cept on the day the sharks ar­rive when, for some rea­son, it seems less pop­u­lar. There are no har­bours so ships an­chor in shel­tered bays. Land­ings are wet or dry. If wet, you will be jump­ing from an in­flat­able Zo­diac into surf and mak­ing your own way up the beach. If dry, you will be able to step ashore on to land, usu­ally rocks. The walk­ing is var­ied, and some can be done in flip-flops. Oth­ers are more stren­u­ous and re­quire a cer­tain sure-foot­ed­ness to jump from boul­der to boul­der, rem­nants of vol­canic out­pour­ings. Those who bring col­lapsi­ble walk­ing poles are grate­ful for them.

With each stop among the is­lands care­fully sched­uled two years ahead by the Na­tional Park au­thor­ity, which even de­ter­mines land­ing and de­par­ture times, this is not a trip for the free spirit. Our ever-smil­ing guide Billy (all guides must be Gala­pa­gos-born and ed­u­cated to de­gree level) briefs us on the rules. “No ap­proach­ing the an­i­mals, no feed­ing, no depart­ing from the tracks,” he tells us. Then with a sigh and a big grin, he adds, “In fact, you can’t do any­thing much, re­ally.” In­ter-is­land sail­ing takes place at night. If you meet an­other group ashore it will never be of more than a dozen peo­ple. With­out these rules, the place would be as packed as a theme park.

And so to the wildlife, which seems to line up to be in­spected, as if on pa­rade. You will pass within cen­time­tres of booby birds and frigates and they will never flinch be­cause they have no preda­tors in this unique world where hu­mans and an­i­mals co­ex­ist on equal terms. Dar­win found this re­mark­able, as do I. Lizards do not even scam­per, and al­ba­trosses will not dream of leav­ing their nests at the sight of you walk­ing by. Need­less to say, ab­so­lutely noth­ing dis­turbs a sea lion from its slum­ber.

We visit six is­lands in all and no two are the same. We see pelicans on San Cris­to­bal, unique marine igua­nas on

Fur seals at Punta Carola, San Cris­to­bal Is­land, top; gi­ant tor­toise, above; mag­nif­i­cent frigate­bird, above right; marine iguana, below

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