Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Bye bye boobies

It was our last morning today, and it started early. Up on deck before 6am, we saw the sun rise behind the rocks across a glossy, calm sea into a clear sky. No more snorkelling for us: this morning’s expedition was a panga ride into the mangroves growing around Black Turtle Lagoon where pelicans and blue-footed boobies were preening themselves endlessly on the rocks and in the bushes.

Then, excitement! A huge flock of the boobies – which are a type of gannet – were feeding on schools of fish. That meant aeronautics in the air as they massed and swirled, and then at some invisible signal, dived. One moment they were in the sky, next nano-second arrowing towards the water, all together, then the surface was covered in little explosions, then it was empty, then they were there again, sitting on the water swallowing their fish. It was all so fast, so precise, so exciting! And also, so hard to capture the moment, despite our being able to watch several manoeuvres before moving on.

There were sea lions, a hawksbill turtle, brown noddies, frigate birds – all familiar to us now; and then there was the Ocean Spray again, for our last breakfast before leaving the other four couples who were staying on for a complete week, lucky things, and heading off to the airport at Baltra (where there were sea lions and marine iguanas almost right to the end).

Back in Quito, Cotopaxi has been steadily belching out increasing amounts of ash – very visible from the plane - and the vulcanologists are expecting some real drama within the next 20 days, with mandatory evacuations from the nearest settlements already in force. Selfishly, my main concern is that it holds off for at least another 12 hours so that I can get well clear on my way home tomorrow (just the three flights and 27 hours) to a Pan's pipes-free zone.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Super snorkelling

If you’re travelling solo and fancy a cruise on the Ocean Spray, here’s a tip: if you go for the one single cabin that’s available at less cost, bring ear-plugs. It’s right next to the bridge and it’s noisy. It’s also dark and poky. Of course, you’re only in there to sleep, so that’s not so important – but it’s definitely a shame that you can hear the captain on his radio, the loud hum of some sort of equipment, talking and doors opening and closing in the middle of the night. After two nights of this I suggested that it might be sensible to give me the sort of experience that everyone else has been getting, so I am now ensconced in a big, airy stateroom with a generous bathroom and it’s just lovely. If you come, and you should, don’t stint on the accommodation if you can.

Enough complaining: today has been classic Galapagos. Before breakfast, agile little Elliot’s petrels were walking on the glossy water behind the boat; then, on a cruise around the bay before landing, we got photos of a stately great blue heron, playful sea lion and multiple Sally Lightfoot crabs in the one shot, and then saw red and black iguanas basking in the sun on the black basalt. I got a bit excited at catching a turtle’s head out of the water – but soon realised I could do much better once we were in the water with our snorkels.
Turtles? Everywhere! Resting on the bottom, grazing on algae growing on the rocks, and cruising up to the surface to breathe: green turtles, hanging around waiting till nightfall to come ashore to lay their eggs under the full moon, and totally unmoved by our presence, no matter how close we got to them. All this, plus a ray and playful sea lions.
Also wasps, alas. They were everywhere on the beach when we went to leave our postcards in the wine barrel letter box that’s been the Floreana Post Office since 1792 when the whalers set it up. We took the ones addressed to our own countries to post back home, and hope that our own will also be posted, eventually, by kind compatriots. We’ll see…
After lunch, we got kitted out again for our first deep-sea snorkel, at Devil’s Crown, a broken circle of jagged basalt rocks that are all that remains of a volcanic crater. The snorkelling was brilliant! There were so many varieties of fish, in big schools or single, grazing the rocks or swirling through the water – big, small, colourful, sombre. Plus starfish, all sorts, a white-tipped reef shark, a jauntily-striped moray eel sliding over the rocks, and more sea lions swooping and twisting around us – all in clear, turquoise water. 

It was a touch chilly, so after an hour of circling the rocks and investigating the reef in the middle, we were ready for a wallow in the hot Jacuzzi on the top deck back on the boat. Then it was out again, this time to walk across Floreana to a beach where the low sun spotlit the birds, crabs and distant islands, and we found the nest of a turtle, freshly dug last night and surrounded by tractor-track marks where she had dragged herself back to the water after laying her 100 or so eggs. Finally, there was a lagoon with half-a-dozen bright pink flamingos standing on one leg busily preening – the default activity for all birds here, vain things.

After a showing a video of the last few days that he’d filmed, naturalist/guide Morris summarised for us everything that we’d seen and done, and though it had been less than three days, it was an impressive list. Those staying on board for the full week – or better still, two like Reuben and his mother – will have a truly comprehensive resumé by the time they finish. We ended the day with a barbecue dinner on the open deck, fish and squid and shrimp from local waters, already sorry that tomorrow we would be leaving.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

All sorts of sights

It was a remarkably bouncy night on the Ocean Spray, considering that there were no real white-caps on the sea as we sailed up the coast of San Cristobal Island. I lay in bed marvelling – and thankful - that I felt fine, but was still glad when we moored at about 6am off Pitt Point, where after breakfast we landed on a beach that is claimed to be green. Well, perhaps there was a bit of a tinge, but you’d need a microscope to see the olivine crystals.

Never mind, though: there were red and blue Sally Lightfoot crabs all over the rocks, and pelicans, and sea lion cubs powering through the water, showing off, and a weary-looking marine iguana on the sand. Morris, the guide/naturalist, gave us a geography and geology lesson, scratching maps and diagrams in the sand with a stick: all about currents and tectonics, plus a bit of history; and then we set off on our climb.

It was pretty easy (especially for those of us who’d recently been in the Andes) and there were lots of stops to look at lizards and vegetation and of course birds. The boobies are nesting, and we saw eggs on the bare ground in the middle of a circle of sprayed guano; a bird with a newly-hatched chick all bare and spiky by its mother’s bright blue webbed feet; another regurgitating an absurdly large fish for its small fluffy chick before thinking better of it and swallowing it again; and another resisting the nagging of its larger chick and continuing, single-minded, with its preening.

Then there were red-footed boobies, which were a novelty; and a half a dozen goats, which were both unexpected and unwelcome, since they’re meant to have been eradicated. Oh, and half a snake, which is always better than one.

Then, as lunch came to an end, the captain announced that there were dolphins, causing an immediate desertion of the dining room, chairs awry, serviettes dropped, desserts left unfinished. Always fun to see, they were riding the bows of the catamaran to the delight of everyone, even those of us frustrated at being caught out with lenses too long on our cameras (I’m finding that’s a frequent problem in Galapagos).

The afternoon snorkel didn’t happen, since the water was too rough, but we had a spin through the hole in the rock at Witch Hill, and then there were plenty of sea lions on the beach, an obliging pelican and various birds to keep us happy for a while. Then some of us got a bit restive, spoilt now by the riches, so it was as well that Reuben was so obliging when Mel wanted some shots for her PBS travel show. There was Charles Atlas posing, there were flips and handstands, and classic running-out-of-the-waves action, all done with the unselfconscious ease you would expect of someone with experience of the fashion and exercise world. 

At dinner, though – always an eye-opener on trips like this – we heard about his career as a bio-medical engineer, and his six languages (“Oh, but they’re all Latin languages,” he said dismissively). The conversation around the table ranged over Texan good manners, the rout of the Scottish Labour party, the unsuitability of Antwerp as a bachelor party location, the low priority of privacy for young people, and penguin-pelican co-operation, amongst other entertaining topics. All this, and excellent food, too!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Volcano to volcanoes

Three-thirty is pretty early, by anyone’s estimate, to begin the day – or so I thought, but on our painfully slow progress along the bumpy cobbled road away from Cotopaxi National Park and Hacienda El Porvenir to Machachi, there was a remarkable amount of traffic. Dairy workers, ok, understand that – but there were also street sweepers at work, whole buses of people bouncing along, even children standing by the street. They start early, here in Ecuador – school begins at 7am with a free breakfast. Anyway, it was worth the early start because the destination today was that collection of marine volcanoes we know as Galapagos: an hour’s flight to Guayaquil; then less than another two to San Cristóbal.

We were scooped up and taken straight out to the boat: the Ocean Spray, a three year-old catamaran that takes just 16 passengers, 34 metres of elegant luxury. Or so I thought. My accommodation is the one single cabin – and by cabin, I don’t mean suite, or stateroom. It’s definitely a cabin. It’s right next to the bridge, so it’s also noisy, unfortunately, even when moored – there’s some humming going on that I will have to make an effort to ignore.

But otherwise, it’s lovely - spacious, elegant and welcoming, and everyone on board is nice: there are Americans, two honeymooning English couples, a Spanish mother and son, a Swiss couple, and an adventurous Scottish/English duo who are just beginning a year’s post-children travel.

After an encouragingly delicious lunch, we began by snorkelling off a beach on Isla Lobos, the water a bracing 19 degrees, but still full of fish – and, it turned out, playful sea lions interacting with everyone else in the water except me. Next time!

One warming shower later, we were in the pangas again on our way to what the brochure called a hike, but was simply a stroll of little more than 40 metres. Eventful metres though: pelicans and sea lions on the jetty, sparring male sea lions and suckling cubs on the shore, blue-footed boobies preening against a backdrop of spectacular Kicker Island blushing in the low sun, frigate birds circling overhead, smaller birds flitting about… classic Galapagos. And then the sun set, red and rapid. And then the full moon rose as we drank a beer back on board before a dinner so tasty that for once I actually cleared my plate. Great start!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Active - and not

This morning I became, briefly, a chagra. That’s an Ecuadorian cowboy, a proud and historic occupation that’s celebrated by a statue of one on a rearing horse in nearby Machachi. I was togged up in thick sheepskin chaps and a striped poncho, plus helmet of course, and mounted on a small, sturdy bay mare to follow Rafael on his eager chestnut up into the surrounding hills.

Rafael spoke no English, and my Spanish has, I’m ashamed to say, remained at the sub-conversation level, so our interactions were mostly confined to gestures and the word ‘rapido’ which allowed me to comment that my horse was not fast, that the condors we saw swooping down to investigate a possible carcass and then rising up again on the brisk wind were indeed fast, and that my horse, as ever, became fast when we turned for home.

We had a wide view over the surrounding ten volcanoes, including glimpses through the clouds of Cotopaxi continuing to belch out great clouds of dark grey ash. Its slopes, which were yesterday still snowy-white, are now blackened as the wind has swirled and allowed the ash to fall on the northern side. The billowing eruption clouds seem bigger and faster than yesterday: the expectation is that at some point this will become a proper eruption with fire and lava. (There’s a reassuring letter in the hotel’s entrance from a vulcanologist stating that the hacienda is not in the path of known lava trails, though ash and pumice falls could be experienced.)

In the afternoon I was meant to try out the high ropes course that’s one of the activities on the programme at the hacienda (biking, hiking, bird-watching, camping…) but after getting all kitted out in harness and helmet, I stood at the bottom of the ladder leading up to the 6m high circuit of ropes and swings and thought, “Meh”. 
The thing was, it was only me and the instructor Italo, who spoke no English, and it just didn’t look like fun at all. It’s not as though I had anything to prove – I’ve done this stuff before, at Outward Bound, at night – so I simply said No thanks and went back to my lovely sunny room to lie on my bed and read a book all afternoon, periodically checking on Cotopaxi. And tried not to think about the energetic Australian couple from breakfast who were all set to climb the Cayambe glacier tonight under a full moon.


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