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Published: April 3rd 2006
We checked out several toury agencies in Quito, found one with real cheap fares advertised on hand-printed signs in the window, and altho’ cognisant of the old maxim, “more is better”, went in.
Nancy, ah Nancy, odd name for an Ecuadoriana but she was pretty (and) helpful, full of info and this was the only place in town with a vacancy at all.
At the airline office they had no seats to Galapagos for a week or more, altho’ I suspect the toury agencies book everything in sight then on-sell!.
We settled on an 8 day tour on a 20 person boat, leaving the next morning. Some trepidation as all the other tour boats had glossy photos, ours a gritty old pic…hmmm, but looked OK.
The tour….up at 5.30 am for a 6am airport check-in!..still raining and cold in Quito, hour and a half to kill at the airport, I’d planned on getting a couple of books and basic supplies, cigs, grog, chocolate etc but this airport is like a little rural retro-port, nada!!
Usual boring flight, cardboard food, duty free rum, then we’re here! At the airport I’m met by a bunch of Darwin’s finches, the ones that
started it all, fantastic! and I’ve got time to rewrite the whole Origin of Species as we’re stuck here for 4 hours.
Then our guide(?) well, the first of several, he recognized my sticky label that said “Free Enter rice” and then he disappeared, we stumbled onto gold, a bar, and had a couple of celebratory cervezas, then another guide told us we were going and led us outside, stinking hot so I dug out the shorts, we then sat outside the string of little toury stores, all with identical Chinese artisana crapola and waited another 2 hours. Finally our new guy rounded up a twin cab ute and off we went into the hills to the turtle farm where we met up with the rest of our group.
Ah, the amazing bonding of characters as everyone gets to know the others, the rest of the group knew each other and tended to talk amongst themselves, they’re at that saddish stage as half their number had left that morning, but gradually we blended in…where you from? Some names exchanged, tell us about the boat…yadda yadda, so, we have a Venezuelan, Braziliana and Moi, a Swiss couple who started
their travels in Oz, an Oz guy from Sydney, the usual introduction, he asks me where I’m from, I say Melbourne, I ask him, Sydney, he says, arsehole I reply, he gives me the bird and we grin, some of the others who understand crack up, we also have an Israeli couple and another Israeli guy, a French Canadian couple, and a few others I can’t remember right now, later that night, on board at last, they drag in a Russian couple so I get bumped from my cabin to another, further aft, next to the engine room, but a big cabin, huge double bed, and solitude so I’m happy, especially after I got a couple of beers from the steward(?) for the move.
But, back on the farm, we wandered around for a few hours seeing some giant land tortoises, wonderful creatures, lumbering along, quite quickly in a relative sense, you could see how the hare could be fooled into sleeping while the turtle crept over the finish line!
And then down thru’ the lava tubes, slight claustro but lights along the way and the limited, unseen, vertically challenged headroom. Duck your head, the guide would call out
every time someone opened up their skull, luckily, in keeping with the evolutionary spirit here, thousands of taller tourists have bumped their heads enough to have worn a roofline with sufficient clearance in most places!
Eventually down to the wharf and the little tinny out to the boat, it’s dark, probably so we can’t see the decrepitude and compare it disfavourably to the photo of the gleaming model we had been shown at the agency!…No, it is a beautiful boat, past her former glory but not yet past her use-by date, hasn’t seen sails in a long time and would be abso perfect to be sailing…I’d be happy to sail this one home across the Pacific..it’s strange how being back on the Pacific feels like almost home…just across the water…
The Free Enterprise is about 30 metres long, 8 across, steel, 10 cabins below, upstairs a dining are for 20 and a lounge with bar, pretty shmick, half a dozen crew, She’s old but sturdy, clean and well-kept, polished woodwork, there’s a sense that they want to look good next to the rich boats, but still, there’s a haphazardry to the timing and schedules and everything else that
brings you down to Ecuadorian earth pretty smartly.
There’s quite a swell running and the boat rocks and rolls, gradually things start banging, knocking, creaking, the bano door comes off it’s latch and slams to and fro, the wardrobe door breaks loose, something in the air-con duct is rattling away, anything not tied down is sliding back and forth on each roll. But fantastic, and for sleeping, perfecto, we have a few seasickness problems, several of the group go down, but I’m feeling fantastic.
Once more the evolution image arises with the different boats, there are half a dozen or so boats ranging from 6 people yachts to great mini-ocean liner-types, chockers with geriatric touries. And on each boat the group evolves slightly differently according to the individual dynamics, who has better bar facilities, whose guide knows more, who goes to better islands, cabins, meals, films, music, and, of course, the quality of the people, it would be good, and so appropriate here, to really make a study of groups establishing themselves, I studied it for years and saw it working in professional organizations, but the tour group establishment phenomenon is a wonder to behold, such a diverse
group, the most outgoing starting the introductions, the more introverted slowly getting into it, it reminds me of the coach tours I cooked for way back. The group that evolves a structure or makes that bonding earliest, has the best tour maybe? On the Free Enterprise the learning curve was about hanging around the bar before meal time so as to get near the front of the queue when the tucker was set out. And the quality of food is not too shabby, but rarely enough for our swimming enhanced appetites.
Oh man, the sea lions, smell like shit, bark and growl, grunt, the big males sound like their burping something gross, great lumbering monsters dragging their bodies across the lava rocks, ouch!, then once in the water so sublime, rolling and twisting, coming right up to me, blowing bubbles, then slipping away like silk.
Mother and pup reunions, brings a tear to the eye, mum calls from the water, pup on land calls back, struggles over the rocks, ouch!, then kisses and hugs, intertwinings, so affectionate, fantastic!
We can swim off the boat most places and jump or dive off the bow, Raf jumps in and loses his
watch, later, Itay, the Israeli guy, dive instructor as it turns out, gets his goggles and free dives 12 metres and gets it on the second attempt…pretty impressive!…next day he brings my sunnies that I’d left on the beach, this guy is value.
Our group seems to have people coming and going constantly, Always people leaving and starting, bizarre when we park somewhere in the dark, the little tinny goes off into the darkness, comes back an hour or so later with another couple of shanghaied passengers, they come for 3, 4, 5, 7 or 8 days, ..I’m glad I got the 8 day tour as we lose the first and last days and one in the middle when we pick up the bigger lot.
Swimming with sea lions, see the sea lions, sort of like seals but they have little ears and probably some other distinguishing features, I never caught up with, you can check the net for those sort of facts. They swim right up to me, we blow bubbles at each other, they are pretty playful and so graceful under water, unlike their stumbling, skin tearing, rock crossings, this lava rock is really hard to
get over. (did I just say that?)
Another day another island, can’t remember the name of this one either. We spend a lot of time cruising, but mainly at night. I had no idea these islands are so spread out, often we are out of sight of any land for hours, then we see the next island on the horizon. Perfect unspoiled beaches, your classic clear blue, tourquoise water, always the right temperature. Lava rocks, the freshest lave only 120 years old...watch out!..the older islands several million years.
Stargazing at night. Most nights they turn off the running lights, even the masthead light, oops, and we get the most brilliant array of stars, reminds me of nights in central Oz, many of the northern hemisphere people say they’ve never seen the milky way before, much of the sky is familiar to me altho’ we are right on the Equator I can see the Southern Cross, pointers, Orion’s Belt and lots more of the southern constellations, wish I could remember them!
Most days we get to 2 or 3 locations, walk and talk, great now we have Franklin for a guide, very informative, and thick-skinned as we take the
piss something shocking, keeps us laughing tho’, and, as you can imagine, I’m at the heart of it, relishing again in the luxury of speaking English again. Also, at most spots we either snorkel from the beach or get dropped off by the tinny and snorkel some reef or rock outcrop, the sea is alive, sea lions, green sea turtles, 2 types of sharks, ooh, fish galore, great herds of black masked purple fish with yellow tails grazing on banks of seaweed like cattle, 3 types of stingrays, count them, sea snakes, millions of fish, star fish, octopus (well, I saw one!) seals (I think) and much, much, more that I might remember before this goes to air.
And the birds, I never realised the frigate birds were so big, about a metre or so wingspan, they fly alongside the boat and I was able to reach out and stroke the wings of one from the roof, and the fabulously named Blue Foot Booby, would have to be a Pom to give them that name, but they do have blue feet! And all the toury shops have blue foot booby T-shirts, postcards, plastic crapola gizmos etc etc …and the Hood
mockingbird that only wants water, and we saw the first 3 albatrosses of the season, just landed, fantastic!! They must be the 3 fastest of the lot, back from south Chile or wherever, they crash land on a rocky strip, absolutely fcuked on land, they stagger about looking for last year’s nest, until they find it, the chica albos have to fly around and wait!!, but wait, there’s more..but that’s enough for now.
Sad afternoon as 4 of the group leave tonight and 6 of us finish tomorrow, after such a short time, I guess it’s the shared experiences, we are like blood brothers, and sisters, and really sad to be parting company, promises of endless emails and future contacts are flowing freely, makes me miss the old back-packer circuit, but it’s back to the solitary motociclista life on Sunday.
This place is pretty close to paradise and much more than I had expected. It’s the sense of a giant, living laboratory, this is where it all started for Darwin and you can still see it all still happening. Fortunately there’s a strict control on where you can go, what you can do and how many people can
ever be here at one time, it’s making it harder to get tours unless you book ahead, but if it protects the place then well and good. Sure would be nice tho’ to find a little palapa on some of these beaches, with a coco helado, cold beer, smokes, snacks etc…oh well, evolution hasn’t got that far yet! It is a bit of a dilemma whether to open up more of the islands so more people can enjoy them versus limiting he amount of human activity to preserve the unique properties of this site, or something like that.
It’s the last morning, I often get up before dawn and sit up on the front deck to watch the sunrise, right on the equator and right on the equinox, I guess that means right on 12 hours of day and night? This morning there’s a bit of cloud about, everyone local is hoping for some rain, it’s all so bloody dry, all except the biggest island are dry and dusty, dead looking vegetation, lagoons drying up, pretty crook, and I don’t think there’s much chance of rain from these little clouds.
But a beautiful pink glow behind the horizon clouds,
frigate birds wheeling over the channel, a few sea lions over on the rocks starting to stir, their calls are like a cross between sheep and goats bleating to a drunk’s beer burping, each mother knows her pup by sound and smell and vice versa, all these calls, honking, bleating, barking, farting, bellowing, burping it’s a confusing cacophony for the uninitiated.
Last night we had a farewell cocktail, Martin had a half water melon filled with “Flamingo Blood” not too bad, Franklin gave us a reminder about the tipping protocol and handed out envelopes, he got the captain and other crew down to meet us, some half-hearted responses from us, another attempt at starting a party, 4 guys left in the tinny, I was mucking around with some photos and had 3 of the crew watching slideshows of the islands. Marcel and Nicole, the Swiss couple I met on day 1, who have spent a bit of time in Oz, downloaded their camera onto my lappo to have a look at their pix and have kindly let me keep a copy... they have an underwater case for their camera, I gotta get one!, the little movies of sharks and stingrays
are fantastic. I’m getting keener on getting my dive ticket, maybe in Panama or Honduras, if I do that I will definitely get a u/w case for the camera…I never realised it could be so clear and crisp.
The sun’s just about to burst out over the cloud, I can see the red orb, blood-red thru’ the cloud, right over the bow, slight swell has us gently rocking and all the little creaks and stress noises that you get on all boats….or should I be panicking??…sort of looking forward to getting back on the bike altho’ being back on the group, back-packer circuit thing is awfully attractive. Now the rest of the mob are waking...time for a little brekky.
OK, the last morning, off to the Charles Darwin centre, lots of baby tortoises and Lonesome George, last of his type, hopefully Clonesome George, they’re going to try.
Then back to Quito, another unforgettable experience but this has been special…I’m really glad I did this tour, fantastico…..off to Colombia maybe tomorrow…more soon..chau..
PS: Gavan, if you get this pls send info on Panama dive course...Ta
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