Where animals rule the roost

By Robert Hardman, Daily Mail

Last updated at 10:54 05 April 2004


The beady-eyed blue-footed boobie

The bird was only feet away, blowing out its vast scarlet jowls in some sort of courtship routine, but I was greedy for an even better photograph. As I inched closer, I was sure it would squawk and fly off. But it did not.

It just sat there giving me a rather contemptuous world-weary stare as if to say: 'Here we go again. Another moron with a camera. Go on then. Snap away.'

In the Galapagos Islands, it is the animals and birds who rule the roost - or, at least, they think they do.

Humans are but a passing inconvenience, as Charles Darwin noted in 1835 when he spent time here observing the way that different species adapted to different islands.

His visit inspired one of the most important scientific theories of all time - the survival of the fittest - and naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts have revered the place ever since.

So, too, do fans of the Hollywood blockbuster, Master And Commander, the naval epic starring Russell Crowe which was shot on location here.

No doubt, the success of the film will draw more and more people to this peculiar safari park-cum-natural history museum parked 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean.

But do not expect just another cluster of paradise islands. If you want to lie on pretty beaches, go somewhere else. This is heavy-duty sightseeing.

I am proud - and rather smug - to say that I went before seeing the film. As a result, I didn't know what to expect beyond a few pictures in guidebooks. I knew about Darwin, the giant tortoises and a strange bird called the blue-footed booby, but that was about it.


Master and Commander -
filmed in the Galapagos

And I thought it would be more tropical when we touched down at the end of a three-hour scheduled flight from Quito in Ecuador.

Most tourists arrive in the Galapagos by air and then cruise around the 20 larger islands in passenger boats of various size and comfort. You can stay in a hotel, but having come all this way, what's the point? The allure is being close to nature.

It is a short bus journey from the airport to the boats. Some looked like millionaires' yachts, some a cross between a caravan and a bathtub.

At the luxury end of the market, there are small, elegant cruise liners such as the Eclipse, complete with proper cabins, sundeck, pool and haute cuisine which takes 48 passengers.

As a self-contained party of eight friends, we had wanted something to ourselves and rather simpler. Here it was: a sturdy 70ft steel schooner called Encantada - 'Enchanted'.

It had seven cabins, each with two bunk beds and a small en-suite shower and loo. We had decided to pay a bit extra and charter the entire boat.

Over a welcoming lunch, we were introduced to the strictly regimented routine that is a Galapagos cruise. These islands are so fiercely protected that you cannot simply go for a walk.

You can only go ashore en masse and in the presence of a trained guide. Even then, you can walk only along certain designated trails for an hour or so before it is time to return to your boat and move on.

The number of tour boats is limited, while their routes are varied in order to avoid over-crowding. But the authoritarian tone of the eco-police, however worthy, can start to grate.

'Welcome to Paradise,' declared our stern guide, Juan, as we stepped on to the sands of Santa Cruz Island. 'Rule number one in Paradise: keep to the marked trail. Rule number two in Paradise: do not touch anything. Rule number three in Paradise: no eating or drinking. Rule number four . . .'

Someone muttered: 'Do not laugh, smile or crack any booby jokes . . .' There was no shortage of boobies, engaging beady-eyed birds with feet so blue that they look as if they have been painted.

We and our cameras could get as close as we liked without actually going beak to nose. It was an enchanting spot. The beach was bordered by a chaotic sprawl of mango swamp which stretched back towards a tree-covered hill - all off-limits, of course.

Sea lions lay sprawled across the beach, quite untroubled by our presence. Just offshore, giant turtles sploshed around in some sort of mating ritual.

Our walk over, it was time for a swim but we certainly needed the wetsuits which came with the boat (and a £12-a-week rental fee). Being on the Equator, the Galapagos weather is fairly constant all year round but think Cornwall in summer rather than the Caribbean.

Each evening, we had a secluded dinner at anchor and, after motoring through the night, we would be woken somewhere different at dawn and whizzed ashore in the rubber dinghy for one of Juan's pre-breakfast walks.

The days involved more motoring (a good siesta opportunity) more walks and swimming whenever it could be squeezed into the military timetable.

We soon realised how diverse these islands are. One morning, we awoke in drizzle in a horseshoe bay of harsh dark rock called Genovesa. It could have been the Outer Hebrides. A day later and we awoke in brilliant sunshine beneath the haughty volcanic peak of Bartolome Island. We could have landed on Mars.

Every island has its own selection of wildlife, its own micro-climate. Man has done terrible damage to some islands by importing dogs, pigs and rats, but others remain exactly as they were in Darwin's day. And with no natural predators the animals are less worried about us than we are about them.

On Bartolome, we saw hundreds of (harmless) white-tipped sharks grazing feet from the shore. Breathtaking stuff. Seymour Island was teeming with indolent sea lions and piles of snoozing marine iguanas, all with their old man faces.

South Plaza was covered in striking yellow/brown/orange land iguanas. The problem was not finding them, but not stepping on them as we wandered along the paths. Black Turtle Cove on Santa Cruz certainly lives up to its name.

Life on board was civilised. The crew were attentive and cheerful - even when one of our number was sea-sick over their laundry - and the meals were excellent.

It is a very long trip to look at wildlife. Our 18-hour Iberia flight from London to Quito via Madrid was pure misery with lost luggage in both directions (and all camera film stolen on the way home).

But the Galapagos islands are unique, a natural phenomenon which has shaped the entire way we treat our world. If you like birds and biology, you will love it. And, as Darwin would have pointed out, it's all about the survival of the fittest.

Travelfacts A week's luxury cruise aboard the liner Eclipse costs from £2,200 per person (not including flights from London) with Abercrombie & Kent: 0845 070 0610.

A seven-day cruise aboard the sailing boat Encantada costs from £860 per person (not including flights from London) with Andean Trails, Edinburgh: 0131 467 7086.

Trailfinders offer flights from London to Quito return with Iberia via Madrid for £596: 020 7938 3935

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