I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but it had the desired effect: even the coolest amongst them couldn’t resist a hint of a smile. And the restaurateur and taxi driver laughed along, despite undoubtedly having seen many stupid tourists smile and giggle at the same silly – and possibly inappropriate – antics.
I had managed to persuade three fellow travellers to join me on a little trip out to El Chato, a reserve a half hour taxi ride away from Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz, one of the main Galapagos island stop-offs.
Not being the right season for this sort of mission, our driver had suggested we would be better off visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station, but determined to track tortoises in the wild we set off undeterred, and with the enthusiasm of explorers arriving to a new land, we clambered over tufty grasses and splintered off in search of our discovery.
One of the guys shouted over. ‘Here, here is one!’ Her four foot body hid in amongst tall grasses and she chomped away on stems, ripping off little clumps of organic feed. We gathered around and she got shy. For a moment she studied us through a crust of wrinkly skin and then retracted her head back into the safety of her hard-backed home. Enough.
To find evidence of this ancient creature in the wild? Incredible. It gave me a sense of how Charles Darwin may have felt, beneath his scientific façade, when he had a somewhat similar experience back in 1835:
As I was walking along I met two large tortoises, each of which must have weighed at least two hundred pounds: one was eating a piece of cactus, and as I approached, it stared at me and slowly walked away; the other gave a deep hiss, and drew in its head. (from The Voyage of the Beagle p543)
After an hour of wandering in the wilderness we had found only two of our tortoise friends, their rarity and the need for their preservation firmly evident. The second tortoise was a whole lot less social and, much like in Darwin’s experience, a whole lot more vocal.
So we left them to do whatever it is that tortoises do whilst they saunter on for years and decades on end.
Somehow, in amongst the grasses and scrubland, we stumbled across the entrance to a cave. Dust covered steps and a wooden handrail lead us down into the darkness where two of the group assumed the role of torch bearers and flickered their lights around. Our eyes adjusted to take in a curious cave over a kilometre in length full of pillars and archways and curvy, spiky edged formations.
Strung-up bulbs hinted at the potential to brighten up narrow pathways and tight spaces that opened up into high-ceiling hallways, but we couldn’t find a switch. Anywhere. So on we went with considered, ill-lit steps, until we saw a chasm of light and a way back up and out.
The exit, we realised, was directly behind the empty restaurant that we’d started out from. When we told of our dark, daring tunnel adventure, the woman started to laugh. ‘I forgot to put on the lights!’ she said. Ah well. It added to the atmosphere, I guess.
So, back to the start and my clowning antics. As the only customers that the restaurateur would probably see all day, it was only courteous to stay for a drink. The driver chatted and laughed with her whilst we refreshed with a cold drink and lounged in the hammocks for a few moments of island laziness, during which time I spotted a ginormous tortoise shell.
In all fairness, it was hard to ignore, sitting there in the middle of a tiled floor. Without its inhabitant, it lost some of its loveliness. On closer inspection I found the shell to be exceedingly tough. Unlike Darwin who gave the actual creature a bit of a rough rapping and tapping, I hadn’t bothered to disturb the living tortoises that I’d come across earlier in the day. But this deserted shell? Oh, what the hell! Get inside the skin of the locals, live as they do? Oh, yeah. It was a tight fit.
This post is dedicated to Lonesome George, ‘a giant tortoise believed to be the last of its subspecies’, a rare creature from the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador who died aged 100 in June 2012. R.I.P. Good effort, mate.
- Last Pinta giant tortoise Lonesome George dies (BBC)
- Lonesome George, the last giant tortoise of his kind, dies – in pictures (Guardian)
- Lonesome George dies but his subspecies genes survive (New Scientist)
- A Giant Tortoise’s Death Gives Extinction a Face (nytimes.com)