'Hurry up and wait' meets 'Oh, my Gosh!'
It all started two days before my trip, when I asked Trailfinders for details of my flights to and from the Galápagos. "Oh, you don't need to know all that," said the agent. When I asked again, she gave me the wrong return date and then went AWOL for two days! She didn't even bother to confirm the right date, let alone apologise. The next thing to go wrong was when I was in Miami. I was supposed to get a transfer to the airport in Quito, but Audley Travel this time obviously thought I "didn't need to know" what time it was supposed to be, so I had to call them from Miami airport! (Oh, and that was the same woman who put the wrong date down for a tango show in Buenos Aires after I'd specifically asked her to check there were no mistakes in the itinerary...) After that, my guide to Iguazu screwed up his timekeeping and only got me to the airport an hour before my flight was due to leave! Again no apology. Obviously. When this sort of thing goes wrong in Kenya, you just smile and shrug and say "TIA", or "This Is Africa". Here, it's "Welcome to South America!"
I love to travel - even though I hate the actual travelling part! - and the Galápagos Islands certainly lived up to their reputation. I wasn't sure initially that I wanted to go, as the landscape didn't seem that impressive, but my friends Andy and Josie persuaded me that I'd get so close to the animals I'd love it: "It's impossible to take a bad picture!" And so it proved. From sea lions to giant tortoises to crabs to marine iguanas, all the wild animals seemed to make it their business to sit and pose for us with endless patience. We saw sea lions everywhere, from the very first evening when we passed one on the pier to almost every boat ride and almost every landing. I was even 'buzzed' a couple of times underwater when I was snorkelling! The best moment, though, came on one of the islands when a young sea lion pup suddenly popped out of a bush and started licking my boot! You couldn't make it up...
We spent a week on a G Adventures cruise aboard the Estrella Del Mar. There were 15 of us on board, and it was a good group. I've had a few nightmares with other guests on these kinds of tours - especially the ones who forget they're on holiday and should be trying to enjoy themselves! - but it was different this time. There was a huge range of ages and nationalities, but - crucially - there was nobody who ruined it for everyone else. I spent a lot of time with Marshall, Sherry and Anand, in particular, as they were keen photographers, but we generally did everything together. Every evening, our guide René would give us a briefing about the next day's activities, and it usually involved a snorkelling trip and/or two or three 'dry' or 'wet' landings (depending on whether we were going to have to get our feet wet or not). The high point was swimming with a Galápagos green turtle, but the low point was having to swim out to the Zodiacs with our cameras in black plastic bin-liners after getting stranded on the beach by ten-foot waves! The less said about that, the better...
On our first day on the islands, we took a bus to Rancho Manzanillo, which is a great place to see the giant tortoises. There are six different species in total - or five now that Lonesome George has passed away - and each is generally limited to only one island or - on Isabela - just one volcano. Rancho Manzanillo only had Chelonoidis nigra, but the big advantage was that the tortoises weren't in cages or pens, and you could get as close as you liked to them. (The name 'Manzanillo', by the way, comes from the poison apples that the tortoises have to eat to help with their digestion.) That was a rare privilege for a photographer, and I was soon hopping about the muddy ranch in bright yellow wellies, trying to capture the strange prehistoric look of the tortoises.
It was a great opening day, and the only problem was that I lost my jacket. We had a few minutes to kill at the port once we'd driven back from the ranch, and our guide hadn't told us we couldn't leave anything on the bus. The first thing I knew about it was when I walked back to where we'd parked and found it wasn't there! Even then, I was so focused on taking pictures that I didn't realise I'd lost anything until a couple of days later. Then I began to worry, especially when the bus company told our guide René that they couldn't find the jacket! A jacket is just a jacket, but my jacket was a 'super jacket' that doubled as a suitcase so that I didn't have to check any bags, so I was anxiously wondering how I'd be able to carry all my clothes without it? I put it to the back of my mind, though, which was easy enough when there was so much to do and so much to photograph...
The wonderfully colourful crabs were what struck me on our first zodiac excursion. In fact, there's only one crab on the Galápagos, and it's called the Sally Lightfoot as it looks like a dancer when it moves over the water, but it goes through so many different coloured shells in its lifetime that it feels more like half a dozen!
The reason I picked this particular cruise, though, was because of what the G Adventures rep described as the 'Lguanas'. I was a bit confused at first, so I asked him to spell it out for me: "L-G-U-A-N-A-S". "Ah," I replied, "I think you mean 'iguanas'. It's not an 'L' but a capital 'I'!" Anyway, January was a good time to see the 'Lguanas', and the best place to see them was on Isabela, and this trip was due to do a number of landings on that particular island. If you've ever read any Darwin (or just watched Master and Commander with Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany), you'll know that the iguanas on the Galápagos are the only ones in the world that can swim! That's why they're called marine iguanas, and they look like something out of Jurassic Park:
I'd done a bit of research and seen pictures of creatures with pink, red and orange stripes all over their bodies. Unfortunately, René told me the only species that did that was on Española - and only in the mating season! That was disappointing, but more than a quarter of all the pictures I took were of marine iguanas, so they must have been worth the trip!
I don't believe every story has to have a happy ending, but this one does. On our final day, as we packed up our suitcases to go to the airport, René told me that he 'might' be able to find my jacket after all. After a prolonged negotiation with the bus company and a manic $10 taxi ride (that I had to pay for), he finally came through and produced my jacket. Hallelujah!
Anyway, I mustn't dawdle. I'm off to Iguazu for a helicopter ride over the waterfalls, Buenos Aires for a raunchy tango show and then Ushuaia to catch a boat to Antarctica...!