Thursday 23rd December, 2004. We arrive on Baltra island, whose call to fame in the Galapagos Islands is the fact that it has an airport. Tourists are everywhere, going in numerous different directions, while the locals hang around in the intense heat. There is no rest for Billie our guide who is busy seeing off his previous group. He finally transfers us to a bus for the five-minute ride to the ferry for Santa Cruz, the hub of the archipelago.
There is an unseemly scramble amid the tourist groups for luggage and buses. My heart falls as I discover we are last in line, then a plush coach appears and transports us across the island through tropical bush and lush pastures, down to Ayora and the harbour. Amid a frenzy of bobbing dinghies and swooping frigate birds, we board the Guatenamara, eight cabins and six crew, our base for the next week. The frigates are like eerie black etchings come to life with bat-like wings and forked tails opening, closing or twisting according to speed and direction. Brown pelicans fly ponderously about, or perch on empty dinghies, waiting patiently for leftovers.
Billie summons us for a quick briefing in front of the whiteboard on deck. He relays several do’s and don’ts, circulates a sheet on safety, and gives us an overview of our program for the rest of the day. We are offered fruit refreshments, and bundled back into two outboards and onto our bus again for a ride inland to hunt for tortoises. He leads us through two barbed wire fences on what is obviously private farmland for a close look at some monsters wallowing in mud or humping between enormous green tussocks. I have my first sighting of the beautiful yellow warbler, a little golden bird with bright orange front patch and orange streaks down its breast, which I will see on practically every island we visit. We keep away from the cows, who aren’t amused to have us there.
Then we probe inside a dark lava tunnel, before travelling back to the boat for supper. I clamber clumsily onto the top bunk. I haven’t done that since my teenage years. I don’t dare think how I am going to get down again. At midnight, the engines start and we set off on rough seas for the island of Rabida. There is no air conditioning, and the cabin is stifling.
It is quite a clumsy business climbing down from my bunk the following morning.
Rabida Island, and a lovely red curved beach await us after breakfast. The place is a hive of activity as sea lion females and cubs honk and flop in our path. Blue-footed boobies perform synchronised dives, arrow-like into shallow waters, and iguanas slither among the rocks. There are seven other boats in the bay, and the beach is crowded with tourists.
They guard their heritage well in the Galapagos Islands. Tourists can only tread certain paths, and never venture off the beaten track. Only a certain number of people can visit a place at any one time. I come to understand that the same group of eight boats travel to the same islands on the same days, and the guides congregate daily to discuss timetables.
We are herded into our groups and led on an inland circular walk for the view over a lagoon. The far side of the island is barren except for dead-looking scrub bushes which Billie identifies as “incense trees”. He tells us that once rain falls, they break into green buds and tiny flowers. We are allowed some “quiet time” on the beach amid the crowds. Several people snorkel within a strictly demarcated line below an overhanging cliff.
We wander back along the sands, watching the sea lions and spotting birds and lizards.