Tag Archives: Galápagos Islands

Dolphin delight

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South Pacific companions

It was Day 9 of my sail across the South Pacific and finally, – finally! – I saw some dolphins.

I ran from a conversation, grabbed my camera and raced to the bow of the boat, sitting myself down and hugging the guard rails as I watched a private wildlife show close-up.

The rest of the crew soon tired of the dolphin dance but other than a single, bigger dolphin that I’d seen briefly on a boat ride over from Santa Cruz to Isabella in the Galapagos Islands, these were the first dolphins I’d seen out here.

I don’t know what it is, but there is something about these beautiful, majestic and intelligent creatures… Something gentle yet strong, graceful yet powerful. And social all the way.

For ten minutes or so I observed these slippery grey beauties lead the boat; dancing in and out of the water as a group, dashing ahead, falling a bit behind, but dancing, dancing all the way.

And as suddenly as they arrived, dolphins started to leave the party. For a few precious moments a pair stayed and danced close to my dangling feet and I felt my gaze get lost in the royal blue playground of the sea.

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And… just about had enough

And finally they too turned around. Off they swam, leaving us to sail unaccompanied once again.

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A day in the life of a crew member crossing the Pacific Ocean

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Anything up ahead?

My home is currently a fifty foot carbon fibre box rigged up with sails that are helping me and a crew of three to cross the mass of the South Pacific Ocean from Galapagos to Tahiti.

What I’ve come to realise is that long distance cruising is as much about adapting to life at sea as it is about the sailing itself. Compared to coastal sailing where you’re frequently making quick decisions and pulling ropes and following carefully constructed sail plans that take into account regular waypoints, out on the great ocean the same awareness of weather systems and sail trim and all that stuff still needs to be in place, but everything is at a different pace. Our first waypoint was over 3,o00nm away. When I’d done coastal sailing back in the UK, waypoints were usually plotted every few miles.

So how does an average day pan out? What does one actually do without going crazy inside this confined space on a vast ocean of no escape? Although different for everyone, here are extracts from a day in my life at sea.

12:30am
I finally get to bed after a two hour watch and hand over to Matt, one of the other crew members. Brush teeth and all that stuff. Then sleep, delicious sleep.

5:45am
My alarm goes off. I push snooze. Twice. But it’s time to pull on some clothes and splash my face with water. My next watch is coming right up.

It takes a few minutes to get into it. I catch up with Alan, the skipper, who is on watch before me and I check over the log book. I notice one of the guys has made an entry about a great dinner the previous night. Always nice to know that my cooking hits the spot.

In amongst all the usual watch stuff, I grab some breakfast and a cup of tea and go to sit up top to watch the sunrise. How did I land this shift?! Mornings are difficult for me but I love this time of the day. Other than the sunrise, there’s nothing to report; no dodgy sounds, no boats on the horizon, no shifty winds.

8:30am
I go back to bed for another two hours sleep. I drop back off fairly easily. It’s taken a while to adjust to these strange sleeping patterns but by having set watches, it’s possible to have some sort of a structured day that your body clock can understand.

10:30am
Up and about. Time to do any small jobs on board, plan the evening meal, take meat/food out of freezer, or read/write/watch movies/listen to music if there are no chores to do. If I’ve had a rough night, I might just grab a few more zeds.

Midday
Log book round up where we find out the miles and average speed for the last 24 hours. Anything below 180nm and a speed of 7.5 feels disappointing because we’ve had some great days doing way above that. Need to keep it all in perspective. It’s funny how little moments become such a focus in this environment.

One of the guys puts together something to eat for lunch, a concoction of yesterday’s leftovers. We’re eating well at sea, even if the chocolates and sweeties have all but run out.

2:00pm
It’s my second watch of the day. In between checking out the numbers on the captain’s computer below deck, I head up to the helm and chill there for a while, watching the sails and the clouds in relation to the numbers on the instruments. I love standing on the upper deck, holding on to the rails of the helm cover and letting the wind mess my hair as I scan the horizon and cloud patterns. I feel invincible and in control of my own destiny: me, a sailing boat and a world of blue. Anything is possible. Maybe a pirate ship of olden times will appear? Maybe a giant whale will rise from the depths and swallow us whole? Maybe I’m having some quality time to let my imagination run free. Yes. Definitely.

4:00pm 
I make an entry in the log book and start to get ingredients out of the fridge for dinner. Right now we’re still eating fresh vegetables but within a couple of days it will be on to frozen and finally tinned. At least we’re not going hungry. I’m so excited to be cooking again after months on the road where few hostels had a kitchen. Here we have spices and utensils and all the things I need to cook up some loveliness. I can enjoy getting food creative again.

6:00pm
We all sit down to eat together and catch up. Because everyone is on different watches there is usually always someone sleeping or having some time out, so its great when twice a day we all gather together. After food I get to sit back and relax whilst the guys sort out the washing up.

And then I try to sleep for an hour or two, although often I’m not tired enough until 21:30, which is just about when my alarm goes off for my final watch.

10:00pm
Final watch of the day. To start with I’m usually pretty groggy and tired. I check in with Alan, look over the previous log entries to see how we’re going followed by a natter about everything and anything, night time reflections on life. Often I head up top for a while where it’s easier to feel in tune with the boat as she glides through a night-time ocean.

Regularly there’s a change in wind around this time so I might help to reef in the mainsail or collapse the spinnaker, depending on what the weather is doing and promising. In all fairness though, the boys seem to do most the laborious stuff. How this sail has ended up being gendered is anyone’s guess! They’re going easy on me, for sure.

Once again it’s a clear night. I love looking out at the blanket of stars that reaches horizon to horizon, a density of sparkling spots in an immense sky. I search for streaks of light, hoping to spot a dying star in its swan song fall towards the earth.

And so the days roll by – sail by – each day not so different to the previous. In a strange way, the monotony is a welcome change from constant on the road movement and daily exposure to new sensory experiences that I’ve become accustomed to in the last year of travel.

I realise I am a bit tired. This time at sea is healthy for me. It’s giving me routine again, space to catch-up on writing and reading. And a chance to rest. I don’t have to plan my next day, my next couple of weeks. My body and mind can relax into this different way of life.

Who knows what will happen when I get to Tahiti. For another two weeks, I won’t find out whether I’m staying on board this boat to Tonga and then Australia, whether I can and should find a new boat to crew on, whether I decide to settle in Tahiti with a stocky, local lad. Or whether I just want to find the cheapest, quickest flight out of there, back to Australia.

For now I have no choice but to stick with this schedule. And you know what? I’m enjoying it.

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Sleeping my way through the first day at sea

My skipper, Alan, let me off watches and cooking for the first day to allow me to find my sea legs and adjust to life on the ocean. I needed it.

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Hasta luego, Puerto Ayora. Until next time.

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A big grin as we set off… will it still be there in three weeks?

I popped a travel sickness pill just before we set off from Galapagos as dusk set in on May 13, 2012. ‘I take pills for the first couple of days’, said Joel, a young American crew member ‘and then after that I’m good’. I followed suit. Slight nerves about the upcoming journey together with a bit of boat rock were giving my stomach that sickness potential.

Matt, another crew member, cooked dinner first night. Spaghetti with a vegetable sauce. Perfect. No wine. A sober boat. I fell asleep shortly after food, swayed to sleep as the 50 foot catamaran climbed and descended gentle nighttime waves. It wasn’t even 9:00 p.m.

I woke up every few hours and finally decided to get up at 7:00 a.m. The sun was shining; a beautiful first day at sea. A fat tuna jumped out of the water; a seal swam close to the boat. We were making good speeds – over 8kn an hour – and already it felt a long way from shore, over 100 miles at this point. I went out on deck and stumbled around a bit and looked out at the views: 360° of nothing but a vast, composed ocean and a 180° sky speckled with the odd fluffy cloud.

I checked out the route progress and boat speed. Our estimated time of arrival for Tahiti fluctuated between 2nd June and 5th June in the morning. We were looking at spending at least three full weeks at sea. Repairs and victualing had been done back in Galapagos. Hopefully all would be well for what is one of the longest crossings out there.

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Over 3,000nm to go… wish me luck

During the day I learnt how to put up the spinnaker on this boat, switching over from the genoa, and I held a few ropes and did what little things I could, but mostly I observed. And made tea.

And then I lay on the hammocks up front, face down, watching the hulls slice through clean, clear water. Up close, against the white plastic, the water was a brilliant blue. Hypnotic. I fell asleep and woke up a few minutes later in a bit of a panic. What if I rolled off? I guess that would be me done, finito. I felt less worried when I gave up the panic, but decided that I’d quite like to get to Oz and see friends and a certain someone, so I moved back indoors.

I tried to write a diary but was too dozy and ended up asleep in my cabin for a few hours. Drug induced or my body trying to figure out what the hell was going on? I’m not sure. I’d only taken half a travel sickness tablet this day, surely it wouldn’t have the power to knock me out?

Washing up after a lunchtime bite, I looked up to see a fishing boat heading straight for us. 60ft of bulky metal towing four smaller fishing boats, this wouldn’t be a pleasant encounter. I alerted the others. Matt jumped up top, switched onto manual and steered us off course. A vast ocean with nothing and now a potential collision. Why they chose to head straight for us, who knows. A game of chicken? They won.

That would be the last boat that I’d see for twenty days.

Late afternoon, I woke up from another state of doziness to discover that Matt had got a bite on the hook he’d been fixing up for a couple of hours. He pulled her in, a skipjack tuna. The boys spilt her blood and guts and prepared her for the evening meal. I couldn’t watch. The blood bothered me less than the fact the boys were so close to falling into the ocean. No lifejackets.

And then after a tasty fish and rice feed, my eyelids grew heavy and an early night beckoned once again. This tiredness was a symptom of sea sickness that would take a couple of days to straighten out. Ah, sleep. My own cabin. Wonderful.

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Diving the Galapagos

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Dive spots in the Galapagos islands (map from http://www.galapagosdestiny.com)

I needed a gentle re-introduction to the undersea world, not an adventure that would see me hanging on to tough, solidified lava for fear of getting swept away into the mouth of a hammerhead shark.

I decided pretty much last minute that I really should dive whilst in the Galapagos. When would I be back?

But I did wonder: was it really worth paying over $150 for two dives in waters that I’d been warned had low visibility and strong currents? It definitely sounded beyond my diving ability.

Ah well. So long as I stayed within my 18 metre limit, I was insured. Galapagos had thus far been good to me and I decided to place my trust in the hands of people who dive these spots on a daily basis.

It was on a Friday evening in May that I excused myself from a social meet-up with a delivery skipper who I’d be crewing for across the Pacific Ocean, and headed off into a dusky Puerto Ayora in search of an open dive shop.

A woman turned the key to her shop door as I approached. ‘‘Everywhere is shut now. But maybe René has space for you’, she said, “I show you.’ Within twenty minutes I was signing paperwork and trying on dive gear behind re-opened shutters.

It was going to happen.

Saturday morning. A sleepy-eyed start for us all, bouncing over dawn waves to the north-east coast of Santa Cruz island.

Dive one at Plazas started off hesitantly. An old boy, a man with sailing skin, natural highlights and a grey tuft of a beard helped me step into my buoyancy aid and tighten up my weight belt. I was a bit nervous. Would I instinctively remember everything? Maybe I should have done a refresher course first. Hmmm.

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Some of the dive team ready for action (*)

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Before the dive at Plazas

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King angelfish tempting us into the water at Plazas

Hands on regulator and back of the head, backward rolls, splash, splash, hitting the water one after the other. Apart from I stayed put. I couldn’t do it.

Second countdown, just for me this time, and pride pushed me overboard.

But I wasn’t the first to panic. A girl with a face full of makeup about to be melted by the lick of the sea started to hyperventilate once she hit the water. She lasted a few minutes. ‘No’, she said, ‘No’, and got back on the boat.

I struggled to submerge. Again and again I hit the surface to reach for air and calm my beating heart to a steady pace.

Eventually I descended, found my buoyancy and balance, and I eased into it, finning gently along a sandy bottom past curious king angel fish and a shoal of yellow tailed surgeon fish, floating along with golden Mexican goatfish, shimmery blackspot porgy – unique to the Galapagos – and grey mickey with delicate trailing tails and fins. And some stingrays. I kept my distance.

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Finally checking out the ocean floor *

It was all fairly relaxed. After twenty minutes two of the boys surfaced, out of air, whilst the rest of us continued cruising around. We were deeper than I should have gone – 23m – and whilst visibility wasn’t great, the grey waters still had enough clarity to keep this underworld from becoming too freaky.

Dive two at Gordon Rocks was a different ball game. The boat rocked heavily. ‘This section is calmer’, René assured us. But the entry was a little hectic and once in the water, my breathing was instantly panicked.

‘Behind you!’ shouted the driver, ‘Look, look! A hammerhead!’ I couldn’t look. A little apart from the rest of the group, the shark was close to me. If I didn’t look, it didn’t exist, and if I pretended that all the fins we’d seen from the boat were imaginary, all was good.

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Approaching the calm side of Gordon Rocks

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Overboard at Gordon Rocks

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My group… left to the sharks

We started the dive, submerging to 18m, down the crater wall. For forty minutes we drifted around the rock, currents spurring us on.

This dive gave me my shark sighting, finally. I’d done my best to avoid them until now, but a couple of whitetip reef sharks were insistent on being seen from a comfortable distance. More Mexican goat fish and blackspot porgy, some blue striped snapper, some surgeon fish. And two turtles. Ah, my beautiful friends.

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A shoal of yellow-tailed mullet, unique to the Galapagos islands *

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Galapagos fish

The safety stop showed me why Gordon Rocks is considered an intermediate to advanced dive site, with currents in the shallows threatening to rip us away from our handholds. My legs splayed out to the side as water surged past and I gripped on tightly, thrilled and scared and a little sad that it was nearly all over.

And the hammerhead story from the start of this blog post? Yeah, my imagination got the better of me. It could have happened, I guess, but I held on tightly, did my five-minute safety stop and finned up to the choppy surface fully unchomped.

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The reputation of the Galapagos means that they can demand fairly high prices and people will pay. There’s little room for bargaining and you can expect to pay upwards of US$170 for two dives. I paid $135 for two dives as a last minute special deal through Galapagos People Shalom Dive Centre. Carol – my fun, expressive yet calm dive buddy – and René kept a close eye on me throughout the two dives. Thanks guys! Thanks also for permitting use of some of the GoPro images (*) and  stingray footage.

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Losing the plot (and everything else)

I’d been on the road for nearly a year and should know better, but somehow Galapagos was giving me a little test. This was the third example of stupidity since I’d arrived. First, I’d left my bank card at El Chato and had to pay for a taxi to take me back for it, completely cancelling out any financial benefits of sharing a ride there in the first place. Secondly, the whole ATM, no-money fiasco once I arrived at Isla Isabela.

And now this. I’d had this horrible feeling that I’d forgotten something, but then I often have that worry. Only this time it felt real.

Sure enough, once I got back to Puerto Ayora and unpacked my bags I realised I’d left my hard drive and banking key hidden under the mattress in the hotel on Isla Isabela. A two hour boat ride away. How silly.

Time to pull myself out of my drifty traveller dreamspace and tune back into reality, switch back on.

Dejo mi disco duro bajo el cochón en Hotel Sandrita en Isabela’. I was back on Isla Santa Cruz in the Galapagos trying my best to explain to Maria who ran Los Amigos in Puerto Ayora that I’d left my hard drive behind on Isla Isabela, trying to ask her for some help.

She got the phone books out, made a few enquiries and dialled me through to Señora America at Hotel Sandrita, the place I’d stayed over in Puerto Vilamil on Isla Isabella. ‘Ah yes’, said America, ‘I’ll send it through on a boat tomorrow. Be there at 0800’.

After barely four hours sleep I was up and standing bleary-eyed at the water’s edge trying to decide which boat was my boat. I hadn’t fully understood America’s instructions. My Spanish failed me. So I did the rounds and chatted to captains and crew, but no one had a parcel for me.

After some minutes a guy who had been skulking around (and also looked like it was too early for him to be up and about) approached me. ‘Are you looking for a parcel from Isabela? Are you Finola?’ he asked.

He directed me to a little office and sure enough, there was a small package. For me.

Oh happy day.

Privileged worries and a shallow blog posting ? Yes, maybe. But, a reality of backpacking nonetheless, and another story from the road.

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A little slice of paradise

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Some of the iguanas having a lazy social

I’m sitting on a little stretch of beach in  Puerto Villamil near to a hotel whose outdoor areas are covered in a blanket of sunbathing iguanas. I think back over what has been an interesting year full of big decisions, of solo traveling, of various dramas that have been emotionally consuming but far from unique in the bigger human picture. It has, undoubtedly, been full-on.

But now, I realise, I’m peaceful and content and grateful. I feel so, so lucky. The people I’ve met, the struggles I’ve overcome, the guidance, the goodness, the inspiration I’ve found at home and along my way. My eyes have been opened, my heart healed.

And then bang! – in a moment of stillness this great wave of love for life hits me. (Reading this may make some of you squirm and look away, but most of you will get it. At least I hope you will.)

And I’m feeling this all in paradise. Alone. On a beach.

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Empty beach at Puerto Vilamil,

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Before anyone turned up

A warm salty breeze dries my hair as I sit shading from a strong sun. I look around.

In the distance, boats and liveaboards bob about on a turquoise sea with a bit of chop. White seahorses ride messy waves that splash over black lava rocks and break onto a stretch of damp, golden sand. I can hear the light sound of laughter as a girl and boy scramble around on sharp stones and dip into a nearby rock pool.

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Isla Isaebla, Galapagos by boat

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Children playing in the rock pools

Spiky, foot-long iguanas amble away from the water’s edge, back to their basking point on the wall of the deserted beach front hotel. A man wanders down and climbs into a hammock, rocking to the sound of small crashing waves and music that is spilling out of an empty, rundown bar.

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Sunbathing iguanas

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Daytime bar desertion

For a moment, before the shrill whistle of a father calling his kids pierces the air and before an approaching tour group encroaches my space, I have my little slice of paradise.

La Isla Isabela, tu es bella.

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Journey into the strangest landscapes

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Approaching Los Tuneles

Despite first impressions of an inhospitable, aggressive and alien landscape, these dry, spiky islands were also strangely fragile and elegant, composed of narrow passageways, slim archways and slender pillars dipping into lightly rippled lagoons of clear, turquoise waters.

I was on a trip out to Los Tuneles and typically I had failed to do any research other than listening in on a couple of travellers debrief the outing. I knew, then, that it involved tunnels and snorkelling in waters with a selection of our sea life friends And I heard sharks were involved. I was both strangely drawn in and totally terrified.

So I set off with expectations of big, fat tunnels where we’d sail into the depth of darkness and take to the water, and splash and snorkel around in a flash-lit womb. I guess I was thinking about caves, or maybe I still had the tunnel experience at El Chato at the forefront of my mind.

Instead, we motored along south from Puerto Vilamil on the island of Isabela, Galapagos for forty minutes until we reached a splattering of mini lava islands. Nazca and blue footed-boobies sat king-of-the-castle on top of black, chunky rocks as we wound our way further into a thickening maze.

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Getting closer

The skipper manoeuvred through narrow passes and shallow spots, finally dropping anchor in a more sheltered lagoon. Here was a network of lava archways and strips that joined islands into a bigger formation. Cacti and a few piles of rockiness gave some height to this floating land.

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In amongst it

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Moored up in an alien landscape

‘Give me your camera’, said a French tourist. On our way out to Los Tuneles we’d picked him and his family up from a yacht moored a little off Isabela. ‘Come, I take a photo of you here’. I posed awkwardly and then went off on a little solo wander. It was crunchy underfoot and I nearly lost my grip. But no! If you’re going to fall, don’t grab out! There is nothing to hold on to apart from cacti.

I sat on the edge of an archway and looked into one of the lagoons. Here, the water was less rippled and the sun pierced right through to the bottom. A sea-lion swam along, hitting the surface and then diving down again. A turtle glided past, a little beneath the surface. Another woman joined me and shouted over to the others, but the show continued only for a little while longer.

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Sea lion taking a dip

Within fifteen minutes we clambered back on board our little boat. As we headed away from the main bulk of lava mass we passed by some penguins and pulled over for a closer look. It wasn’t long before they leapt into the sea. You humans are all the same! Such voyeurs! Can’t a penguin socialise without you guys hanging around like a bad smell?

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Pose? Nah, let’s get out of here

And what about the snorkelling? Ah, yeah. It turns out that the snorkelling was to come later and was totally separate to the tunnels or archways or whatever you want to call them. Someone mentioned something about swimming and snorkelling not being allowed in Los Tuneles anymore. What was I thinking? Silly me.

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I paid $60 for the tour through Tropical Adventures in Puerto Vilamil.  The tour included a trip out to Los Tuneles, a basic pack lunch and snorkeling in another spot in the afternoon.

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Why didn’t I think this through? Reality kicks in

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Something to get excited about, or at least be grateful for

What would you do if you rocked up to this tropical slice of Galapagos paradise with enough cash for a hotel room, a drink and absolutely nothing else? Panic? Or trust life?

I bought my ticket for the boat that would ferry me from Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz to Isla Isabela at 13:55PM, ran to the marina and made it with a minute to spare. We should have left at 14:00PM, but time ticked by and my breathing returned to normal as we sat bobbing around watching boats load up for inter-island trips.

At this point I should have gone to the cashpoint. I didn’t. But not to worry. There was an ATM on the island of Isabela, supposedly. All good. I could get some out when I got there.

This is where fancy free travel, last minute decisions and lack of research come undone. Of course there wasn’t an ATM.

You don’t take cards?’ I ask Fabricio at Tropical Adventures when I went to book a US$60 tour to visit some volcanic tunnels and craters, ‘Oh, okay… where is the cashpoint’. He looked at me and smiled. ‘No ATMs. There is no a way to get out money in the town. Well, maybe it’s possible’.

Together with an older couple I took to the streets of Puerto Villamil, the main habitation on Isla Isabela. They needed money too, and they needed me. Their Spanish was terrible. I should have charged for my time, been entrepreneurial. I needed the money.

Our first stop at a minimarket proved fruitless, only accepting cards from Banco de Guayaquil or American Express. They sent us on to Hotel Albermarle. Why? Who knows. Maybe because the woman there spoke English.

There is no ATM on Isabela, no way to get cash out ‘, she said, ‘but you could try MoneyGram or Western Union’. Both instant money transfers carried hefty fees but to regain my independence and address my complete helplessness it was going to have to happen.

I tried to do a money transfer but it was declined, possibly because I tried to send money to myself. Maybe, however, it was because a few days earlier the fraud squad at my bank picked up that my card may have been copied in Bolivia and had since placed restrictions on my account. Oh travelling, oh South America. Either way, it wasn’t happening.

I stopped for a moment and thought about my options. I didn’t even have enough cash to leave the island the following day, let alone stay another night, take tours and see the place. How totally silly.

I did what I never wanted to do. I emailed my dad to bail me out. Oh, the shame.

Next I went to cancel my place on the tour before joining a Swede and a French guy for dinner. ‘What would you like?’ asked the waiter. I’d studied the menu and my mind. ‘Just a small beer’, I told him. It was cheaper than a juice and would leave me with 20 cents. Let the alcohol numb my frustration. I watched the other guys tuck into seafood feasts.

Back in my hotel room I was so glad I’d brought along yesterday’s leftover pasta. With no cutlery I squeeze-ate it out of its plastic storage bag. The height of glamour. Dessert was a packet of Oreos that had been squished in my bag for a week or so, but let’s keep things in perspective, at least I had dessert. A little bit of luxury.

I spent a restless night wondering how I was going to get out of this mess, whether the transfer would work, and the next morning I Skyped with my family. After an extended process including phone calls to India and the US, £300 with a £25 fee was transferred to Ecuador. But I still didn’t physically have the money and I wasn’t confident that I’d get my hands on it.

MoneyGram in Puerto Villamil was situated in a convenience store where, typically, the cashier was out on business when I showed up. I’d have to return in an hour or come back later in the day.

But wait a minute! Fabricio at Tropical Adventures had done me a huge favour when I’d tried to scrub my name off the tour list the previous night. ‘Don’t cancel’, he said, ‘I’ll see you at 08:30AM, okay?

I had a few minutes to make up my mind. In a predicament where I wasn’t confident that I could get the money but where there was definite potential for a withdrawal later in the day, would I gamble and go on the trip?

Hell yeah! Trust life, trust it will work out.

It did.

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Tunnels, tortoises and being a teeny bit terrible

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.

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The adventurers set off

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Tramping through the undergrowth

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A little more familiar

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.

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Oh rare creature! We found you!

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.

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The tree that marked the cave entrance

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Into the darkness

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It starts

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.

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At least they’re smiling in the background

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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.

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Spending the day at Tortuga Bay

Ah, Galapagos! That place of mystery through which Charles Darwin journeyed back in the autumn of 1835; those islands chock full of natural wonders, of  unusual birdlife and iguana-like creatures, of volcanic formations and varied landscapes. The Galapagos archipelago, Darwin said, is quite simply ‘a little world within itself’. Time to get in amongst it and find out for myself.

So here I am, in Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz having spent my first night crashed out in a simple yet immaculate room. I’m wondering where to go, how to start on my independent Galapagos adventure. Most visitors to the Galapagos jump on board a week-long cruise around the islands. It sounds nice, I guess, providing you get on with everyone and get lucky with a good guide. But avoiding luxury and high costs is my thing, my necessary thing, so it’s a matter of keeping it local. And keeping it real. Surely this way I can get a better idea of the place? I’m going to chat to people in the town, talk to the woman who runs the residence where I’m staying. She’ll point me in the right direction.

And she does. In fact many people do. Today, I decide, will be the day to check out Tortuga Bay. It’s close, it looks beautiful, and it’s an ideal way to taste what the Galapagos islands are about.

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The pathway to Tortuga Bay

Clutching a map of the island I walk out west and it’s not long before I’m  ambling along a fine, white sand beach a few of kilometres from the town.

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Arriving at Tortuga Bay

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Tortuga Bay minus the tortugas (turtles)

I had anticipated crossing paths with a few more folk, but maybe I’ve hit the low season? It certainly doesn’t feel like I’m going to experience anything close to the three hundred visitors per day that this reserve typically expects. A lone surfer tries to carve up rippy waves to the left of Tortuga Bay and I see two people to the right in the far distance, the only other signs of human life.

As I get closer to the couple I see the girl crouch down, posing whilst her partner takes photos of her next to some… hang on… something moves. I squint and see that she is edging in as close as she dare to some chunky, four foot lizards oozing island laziness but whose spiky mohawks and slow, flickering tongues hint at a potential to turn nasty. In Th e Voyage of the Beagle (1836) Darwin describes this type of lizard (A. cristatus) as a ‘hideous looking creature of a dirty black colour, stupid, and sluggish in its movements’. A little harsh, maybe, but I hear him.

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Lazy lizard

Around the corner I find the crowds. All fifty of them, if that. A young couple play in the sea, mouths teasing and eventually giving in to the kiss. The first kiss? A holiday romance? Families shade beneath mangrove trees and kids paddle in the calm shallows.  Here in this little lagoon it is sheltered and perfect for a relaxing afternoon dip, a significant contrast to the rougher waters around the corner.

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Shallow water play in the bay

I sit down on a slither of sand and watch birds swooping and boobing, sorry, bobbing about in the water. (The boobing comes later. No blue-footed boobies for me today. Let the anticipation build.) My picnic lunch creates some curiosity and a Straited Heron moves in on my personal space. Feeding the animals and birds on the islands is, however, banned so sorry, matey, today I’m going to be selfish and enjoy my avocado, tomato and bread feast alone.

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My picnic companion

As I start to make my way back through a scattering of trees and shrubs and a speckling of deserted beach towels, a guy shouts over from a small boat in amongst the mangroves. ’Puerto Ayora?’ he asks. Nah, I think I’ll walk.

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Lagoon calm at home time

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Perching pelicans

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Looking back up Tortuga Bay towards Puerto Ayora

And I retrace my steps, back along Bahía Tortuga and past perching pelicans, back along the pristine, cacti edged pathway, back to the wardens’ hut. I sign out and sit down to pause and look down over a dusky Puerto Ayora and the visiting yachts rising and falling in the gentle swell of Academy Bay. Soon, I hope, I will make my home on one of those yachts and embark on the most daring adventure of my travels thus far: a South Pacific crossing, back towards Australia via the tropical magic of French Polynesia. Am I really going to do this?

One of the wardens comes out and perches on the wall a few metres away. I’m crucially aware of his presence, a quiet, strong guardian of this beauty spot, and I wonder whether to continue sitting in silence or to strike up a conversation.

Of course I go for the latter, studying his face as I nosy in on island life. He has kind eyes. ‘Do you ever think about working somewhere else? Going somewhere a bit busier?’ I ask him, trying to not show that I’ve noticed his visibly beating heart. A stress condition? Surely not, not in this lovely, serene environment. He fixes his gaze on the village below. No, he tells me, he can’t imagine leaving this place, not for more than a few days.

And why would he want to? Fair enough.

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