Team VA's Wonderings

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Mitad del Mundo

So, it took its time, but one of the bizzarest bits of my trip finally became clear. Charlie and I had thought previously we recognised each other but had been unable to find anywhere we were in the same place at the same time. Even when Charlie described the American girl on Easter Island who'd told him he could go to the post office and get his passport stamped-she'd found out when posting a parcel. When I said that sounded like Steph, we still couldn't match the dates up. Later Sonya managed the brain wave that the 4 of us had bumped into each other as they finished lunch at the quarry in Rapa Nui. Small world.

Just a few km north of Quito and a an hour and half on the buses is the equator. I headed up to the widely plugged Mitad del Mundo, home of the equator monument. It's a tourist tat fest to rival Niagara, had I looked hard enough I'm sure I'd have found a Ripley's Believe or Not. There didn't seem anywhere near enough punters for all the shopfolk to make a living; there is of course a limit to the money making opportunities presented by an imaginary line. Naturally painting it helps people's understanding.

El Condora Passa drifted over the cafes, stalls and t-shirts. I've heard it a few times and the other day I heard the Ecuadorians getting even/repaying the compliment with a pan pipe/Andean version of 'The Boxer'.

The monument's nature is quite appropriate

telling you with flowers which hemisphere is which. Good as all this was, the absolute best thing about the Mitad, its shops, its line and its rather large monument is it's in the wrong place. And it's a Frenchman's fault.

For the actual GPS verified equator you have to go 200m round the corner to the Museo Inti Nan, which oddly combines equator stuff with a lot of Amazon tribal exhibits.
They had a real shrunken head and an explanation of the process. And we got to have a go on a blowpipe

Our target was a cactus, which I managed to hit first time. It was a touch closer than the targets these are used for in the jungle.

Then of course there's the equator, where a surprising amount of freaky stuff happens. Our guide was tiny and about 2 strides from the line tried to test our strength. She tried to prise apart our fingers and pull down our arms that we'd raised above our head. She made little impression; on the line you could really feel the difference and she moved my arms a lot more. Something to do with centrifugal force. Although the water down the plughole had some encouragement in the hemispheres, it really did shoot straight down on the line. Egg balancing is easier on the equator

I got a certificate for that and then headed for the actual equator

It was a lot of fun.

I've done some museum hopping the past few days-Museo de la Ciudad, Etnographico de Artesania de Ecuador and Amazonico. All had their moments, but in all honesty nothing was too outstanding.

I've no idea what's being said about Harry Potter, but I thought it was bloody brilliant. Hope she's had another idea.

Met up with the jungle massif gang today and it's a top bunch of folk. We had a spin round the Museo del Banco Central museum, which had more tribal and jungle culture as well as a top little art gallery. We headed across town to the Teleferiqo, grabbed a pizza and took the cable car up to the views at 4,100m. It was Guaga Pichincha I'd climbed previously-the Teleferiqo left you able to climb another Pichincha peak-we passed. As no one else had been to the old town, I did a bit of tour guide Barbie round some of the highlights.

So, off to the jungle tomorrow. Wonder what to call the next post.......

In the Jungle
I need a map. I think there's one in the bar. Right now I have very little idea where we are. We flew from Quito to Coca-flight time 25 mins! Then a bus to the dock; 2 hours on a motor canoe; 15 minute walk across to a slow river and finally a 15 minute paddle canoe to the lodge.

The executive backpacker touch seems to be asserting itself again: after checking in at Quito, we were escorted to the VIP lounge. I passed on the vodka and orange after a fairly late night, but there was no avoiding the rummy welcome cocktail at La Selva-our jungle lodge. This place is really impressive

and we have a hammock on our porch. Looking at the linen in the dining room for dinner, it seems we may be in another luxury option. Plan of campaign appears to be early starts, long hike, lunch and siesta, another hike/canoe, dinner and night hike. Should be good. It was damn hot until the rain started.

Clad in wellie boots, just as my Glasto blisters were easing, we headed off to check out some jungle. It was a lot drier under the canopy and Marco, our English speaking naturalist guide, gave us a sound introduction to some quite muddy rainforest. I was unaware that in Gondwana the Nile and Amazon ran in together. Marco is assisted by Bolivar, who is a local guide. He knows the area (I have no idea how he navigates) and he regularly points out flora and fauna. Wielding his machete, Bolivar is also a one man deforestation programme as he clears the path for overbalancing tourists. We are essentially on a track, but the pesky plants will insist on growing over and onto the path, just inviting a swish from Bolivar's big knife. Photography is a bit tricky, which I think must be due to the low levels of light on the forest floor.

After the obligatory 3 course dinner we headed off for a night walk, spotting spiders, frogs and various insects. No snakes, wahey.

Definitely this is high end stuff: there were a lot of Americans at dinner last night; at the airport we were offered the choice between a wooden toucan or butterfly badges-this was so the lodge staff could identify us, even though we were travelling with 2 guides; everyone I'd spoken to about the jungle said we'd return stinking, with everything wet-we've a hot en suite shower in our cabin.

I slept really well, I find the jungle noise of insects, birds and the odd monkey strangely soothing.

Today was a single long trip with packed lunch. We boated across to the national park, where we headed through some much thicker jungle. Given the wellies, hills and mud, Laura's Bambi on ice performance was understandable, but falling forwards into the mud is always funny. As is someone splitting their trousers-that was me. Think I tucked them too tightly into my wellies.

The walk was very botanic and my memory and absorption of that is a fraction of what it is with animals. We got Dragon's Blood to treat bites-tree sap. The leaf cutter ants had their own highway as they tottered under their loads.

Mainly I saw butterflies, which were numerous and beautiful. We saw many more birds, including toucans, when we were in a clearing or on the boat: practically every bird I've seen has been at the very top of a tall tree, making itself tremendously difficult to see in the jungle. Today just spending 5 or 6 hours slipping and sweating round the jungle was the real experience. The one sad note was that we may have caused a nest to be abandoned; unaware of a nesting bird we paused while the others looked at a spider. Suddenly there was a great flapping of wings and this was left behind

It's unlikely mum will return. We then had a 'cultural experience' when Bolivar painted everyone's face with a native plant.

No one could explain what the designs meant. Looking at the pics again, I think this one of Laura makes it slightly clearer

More food, then it was time for a night boat ride to go Caiman spotting. I believe they're small and crocodile like. I didn't see a body, but the eyes glow an evil red in the torchlight-very atmospheric, especially when the water's reflection gives them 4 glowing red eyes of evil.

And then it rained. Hard. For hours. I got pretty wet running back from the bar. Manuel and I were in the third cabin out, so it wasn't so bad-stuff still damp come morning. Others weren't so lucky-Holly was wringing. Come morning the only indicators were a couple of small puddles and a freshness in the air.

We spent the morning exploring a black (tannin coloured) lagoon by boat. The ride couldn't be described as incident packed-we saw a few birds and insect nests, but it was enchanting to glide round the waterways, seeing the jungle from a different angle in shifting light.

The lodge has a butterfly breeding programme housed in a couple of greenhouses. As we headed there from the jetty, we crossed the jungle and got some real monkey action. Again they were high up in the canopy, but you got a real sense of their movement and we had a faller, who crashed through a few branches before getting a fresh hold.

We pottered round the butterfly farm, seeing the 4 stages from egg to caterpillar through pupa before the metamorphosis to butterfly-we even saw a couple emerging. In essence the butterflies were beautiful and friendly

After lunch we spent an hour in the tower. The tower winds round a large Kapok tree, ending in a platform at the forest roof. I was very up for this as the birds and animals we'd seen had always been up top. My animal magnetism has been a little weakened this week, so we only saw a woodpecker, vulture and oro pendala. Still, it was wonderful just to be up looking over the forest and Marco said we may see monkeys from the boat this afternoon.

I left the others to the decidedly unvegetarian activity of piranha fishing. I sat on the dock during the yells of 'they eat it so quickly', 'someone's nibbling mine' and 'mine's not big enough'. The dock is like many of the walkways round here: slats of wood 2 inches by about 2 feet form a raised walkway. The odd one rots away and breaks. There's one in the forest where 3 broken slats have left a gaping hole. I'm just happy I haven't broken through anywhere and ended up suspended by my armpits. Rich has caught one. Brett's got one big enough to eat. Final tally: tourists 4 piranha of eating size and a few more chucked back in the water-piranhas countless screams, but no blood drawn.

I was finally distracted from the slaughter by the arrival of a posse of squirrel monkeys in the trees on the water's edge. It was impossible to count them, but they were everywhere running, jumping, swinging, eating and fighting. They really brought the trees to life as they posed.

With about three quarters of an hour of light left, I'd given up on the boat trip and handed the group's tip to Bolivar, but then we were off for more monkey magic. Bolivar edged the boat around for some aquatic monkey magic.

Overall the wildlife-fest has been in the lagoon around the lodge, but the walks in the jungle have held their own magic. Three very long and enjoyable days.

Tomorrow is basically going to be a travelling day, with the probability of Saturday night out at its end. We're heading to Banos and it's going to take paddle canoe, walk, motor canoe, bus, plane, bus to Quito hotel to pick up luggage and lunch and finally bus to Banos. So with that in mind, we played a bit of cards and had a few last night drinks ending up in the staff quarters with some guides and twins from New York.

Now on the Banos bus, struggling to stay awake. Laura's got a 2 year old fan, who looks like he's going to stare at her all the way to Banos, where it seems hot springs, mountain biking and volcano hiking are the big attractions. Inevitably when we reached the dock at Coca, there was a bunch of monkeys playing around-one ran off with a coconut, looking very guilty.

It's Peruvian independence day. Party tonight then.


It would be fair to say that Peruvian independence was celebrated with substantial gusto. Dinner was followed by a dodgy cocktail bar, then onto the Leprecaun, less Irish bar, more sweaty local club with shamrocks on the wall.

There was salsa, cheesey Europop and some decent tunes too. The crowd was pretty diverse and it took the genius of the Jovi to really unite them: Living on a Prayer was belted out in a remarkable range of accents. Everyone was half way there. As I was drinking Long Island Ice Teas, I may have been slightly more than half way. Earlier there had been flaming drinks-Ecuadorians appear to expect you to consume these with a straw; I eschewed the local custom and licked the palm of my hand in the traditional manner.

Happily I was persuaded to leave in time for 4 hours sleep before hiking up the Tungurahua volcano.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that we got our timings awry the next morning; oddly everyone was ready too early. A good 45 minutes sleep went begging.

Let's face it 8 hours sleep in 2 nights, insufficient hydration and buckets of booze is no way to acclimatise for hiking up a rumbling volcano at altitude. Still, the soloing genius of John Fogarty on the truck's stereo gave me an unwarranted level of optimism about my physical condition. We parked up at Granny's, where I excitedly translated Se vende quesos into her being a cheese merchant.

The night before may have contributed to the general shambles early on: while Manuel was heading up like a mountain goat, Laura's backpack leaked all her water out, Brett went off too fast, Vanessa threw up twice and my legs were heavy after just 5 minutes (must have been all the dancing). Oh, and naturally enough, Laura fell over.

We walked up the road until we turned up into a field, where the local horses did their best to eat our backpacks. They pursued us for a while, but the fields soon gave way to the real track.

Make no mistake this was hard going, although the walk was only about 5km each way we started at 2,500m and finished at 3,800, where we lunched at the refuge. 2 or 3 times we heard the volcano having a little eruption. It blew properly last year, villages were evacuated, and has been chucking out crap on a pretty regular basis. The Lonely Planet describes heading to the top as suicidal. As we neared our top (over a 1,000m below the rim), we saw volcano billowing. This wasn't some cloud being blown by the wind, but a living entity growing and changing shape like a mushroom cloud. Sadly everyone assumed we'd get a better view at the top, but the rain clouds closed in, so the photo op was lost. We made it though

The paths made the way down horrid; we needed Bolivar and his machete to attack the branches and vegetation that intruded and threatened to scratch and poke you in the eye. This removed my customary weight advantage on downhill sections, and I had to work to hold myself back. Much of the path was closer to a trench; it was as if a stream had cut its way through, then dried up leaving banks either side. In places the trench was barely a boot wide and the banks could be above knee height. I found that frustrating, but enjoyed the walk as a whole.

We ended up walking about 4 hours up and 2 hours down. The girls had never planned to bike down afterwards, but the three bikes we had brought were loaded into the back of the truck-we'd had enough.

Banos is named and famed for its thermal baths. Naturally, I have never been to anything like it before-all a bit too like grooming products for me. Still, after the girls told me it involved sitting in hot water, my tired limbs told me to give it a go-even my arms ached. Obviously I am keen that this doesn't mark the start of a slippery slope towards white dressing gowns and spa weekends. It was damn hot at first, but seemed to do the trick although it left me quite spaced out. There was no way I was going in the cold water plunge pool afterwards, that's just bloody silly.

Despite a lightweight day's eating I couldn't finish my veggie spaghetti, which at least made me feel a lot better than the awful I felt when I sat down to eat. I was not alone in my nausea. A proper night's sleep will fix that-lights were off in our room before 10.

Well it's bus day, we go to Riobamba for a couple of hours, then 7 to Cuenca. However, I'm already wary of timings and expecting a longer trip. From the bus to Riobamba we got a proper view of the billowing volcano and the picture I missed yesterday

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Irish Eyes are Smiling

I´ve been frequently surpirsed how little I have missed of England, the weekly, monthly and yearly routines. Dominos, poker night and the summer barbecues have all passed without really affecting me. The Masters in April was the first thing that really made me think of what I´d normally be doing. And although I´ve missed a lot of action in recent Opens, it was the first thing I´d been on the internet reading the build up rather than just noting the result afterwards in a slightly detached manner. Perhaps this was because of my recent stint in Europe. Maybe, but I´m not so sure. Despite the almost vice like American grip since big JD won at St Andrew´s in 1995, it holds a special place in my heart. I´ve made some ludicrous attempts to watch it in Spain, Portugal and the US in recent years-often without success, so why should Ecador have been any different.

I had a plan of sorts. I needed to find a bar (I´n in a TV free hostel). A bar that would show golf. And would do that as early as possible in the morning. I figured I had no chance before 10, so headed off about 9 to start scouting likely looking place. I had spotted some possibilities in the previous 2 days and took a list of English pubs from the LP. The plan was to circulate every so often and see if I could get in, check the scores on the internet from time to time and read Harry Potter in the park in between.

At about 11.30 I found the Irish bar had opened up and was showing soccer. I quickly persuaded them to switch channels and sat down a very happy man. I won´t talk much of the golf, it you watched it you care and will know more than me, if you didn´t, well that´s a bit odd. Suffice to say I had no commentary as an Ecuadorian soft rock station was playing on the tannoy. This was a bit weird, it would have been nice to hear the roars of the crowd, understand what happened with Harrignton´s 3rd at 18 and hear if Sergio misread a putt others holed. But Peter Alliss wouldn´t have given me that. I reckon I understood most of Harrington´s speech from his body languageand the camera work. I hope someone asked him if he thought of Jean van de Velde on the 72nd. It was great to see McGinley and the plumber watching them too.

For some time Mac and I have sad we felt Padraig had a US PGA in him, happily we underestiamted him greatly. As I was walking this morning, confident of a Garcia win I mused that there was so many talented Europeans of his generation that they couldn´t all win majors, but many surely would. I thought perhaps the time had passed for Monty, Our Lee, Big Darren and Padraig. Fortunately no one is paying me for my crystal ball efforts.

Any Open related comments are most welcome!

The shot of a broad smiling member of the crowd reading Harry Potter somehow sums up my day. After the last putt, the smile on my face was so huge that everyone waling past me stared at the TV. I´m not sure that helped them understand.

I have things to write about Quito, but today is not that day. Today is a day out, a day in Ecaudor that was almost England.

Just one question-why don´t we always hold it at Carnoustie?

And Sergio, go win the US PGA

Friday, July 20, 2007

On Top of the World

I think it's fair to see my brain's still a little scrambled with Galapagos overload. It was so much to take in that I think the brain's still working on it.

So, back in Quito. I spent Sat night on the previous mega-post, then Sunday morning sleeping and sorting out my gear. In the end it was after midday when I got a taxi from my New Town hotel (included in my Galapagos trip) to my Old Town hostel. Apparently, it's the top rated hostel in South America. I do like it. Put it this way, Pulp hidden gem Something Changed has just come on as I write this. And the view from the terrace is quite something.

I've managed to sort myself out a trip to Cotopaxi, which everyone says is amazing, and make some plans to go to the Equator line, cloud forest and climb a volcano. I've also had to put photos onto CD already-I took a few in the Galapagos you see. In amongst which I've seen some of the city. Quito old town is stuffed full of churches, it's fair to say they got religion here to an almost Roman extent. For most of the day on Sunday the centre of the Old Town is closed to traffic-note to city authorities the world over, this is a great idea.

There are some different things in churches here: the San Francisco church has clothed statues and Jesus has dreads, possibly made from wool. I wonder if Michelangelo ever considered such an approach? On one side altar, the flowers were vased in big plastic coke bottles with the tops cut off. At the Mercad I saw Jesus framed in Neon for the first time. It's a very different cultural approach to some very familiar themes.

At the Campania, they've managed to use 50kg of gold leaf on the decoration-David my guide described it as the most beautiful church in Ecuador. It was a bit Versailles for my tastes. They're big on depictions, especially gory fire and brimstone stuff alongside many life sized sculptures. David said it was help explain, as the priests were talking in Latin. After the tour, David left me to walk around by myself; as I left, I was delighted that my Spanish stretched to translating 'Turn off your mobile; you don't need it to talk to God.'

The Basilica del Voto Nacional sits atop a hill and can be seen across the city. It's Gothic, so won the architecture prizes for me. In amongst all the churches I stumbled across what the Lonely Planet described as 'a museum' in the cultural centre. My Spanish left me with a bewildered picture of religious and political power struggles, universities and the foundation of Quito's first library! Think I was missing a little context. Andean dress is by no means universal, but every time I see it I'm thinking Fast Show Patagonians, which is weird.

I've not seen as much as I'd like, but the openings times of things have been a little scatty and some places have been closed for restoration, so I've done a lot of walking including a return trip to the New Town-all good acclimatisation.

So what next? Before my Cotopaxi trip up to 4,800m, a third day of churches seemed sensible preparation. My first two stops were a repeat of yesterday's attempted opener, when I was foiled by a combination of opening times and mass (should that have a capital M?).

First up was the Monastery of Santa Catelina, which is full of Nuns. The Planet says they get an hour a day to talk to each other or watch TV-I couldn't get a statistical breakdown of how much talking they got into their hour, but knew I'd struggle even if I talked solidly for the whole hour.

They've an interesting collection. The dates on the pictures (all religious) kept surprising me as many were so recent. This was partly as the style looks 14/1500s, but more because I don't expect to see such narrative religious subject matter in painting from the last 150 years. I was reminded of what I read on Chile-the Pope is still very big here.

The nuns didn't shy away from the gruesome-one picture of the flagellation had Jesus with no skin on his back and cherubs collecting blood. There was also a odd bit I called Nun Fun, where they had a radio, gramophone, typewriter and sewing machine all in a classic 1930s style.

I wrote a lot of this while waiting to get into the second half of the museum, someone (the nuns I guess) was having a bit of pray. After half an hour I gave up, headed back up the stairs and found some of the rooms I'd already seen were locked and others were now open. Enigmatic is probably the word. Afterwards I had a quick look in Santo Domingo, but it seemed yesterday's mass was still going on.

The Franciscan Museum, part of the monastery of St. Francis of Asisi, had the pick of the art I've so far seen. The works in pencil, some with wash, were the strongest I felt-partly as the medium forced the result to be less bling and mawkish. However, the highlight was the choir; accessed from the cloisters it formed a mezzanine type level. The walls had wood carvings of 30 saints and the holy family, while the fantastic geometric ceiling was accented (rather than covered) with gold. I've not been allowed to take photos anywhere indoors.

I finally got into the cathedral, as I realised the main doors stayed shut and access was via the museum. It was lovely-both dimly lit and very peaceful. I think the quiet was due to a more restrained programme of Mass-the Church of El Sagrario round the corner chalks up 31 masses a week. The wooden ceiling, frescoed altar and relegation of the main goldfests to side chapels made it a great place to sit, contemplate and nearly doze off.

I spent last night chatting to a girl with no name from Leeds, who told me you couldn't ride on top of the Devil's Nose train after a Japanese tourist was decapitated in January (I'm still wincing as I type that). That rules out one of my away fixtures as the roof's meant to be the only place to get a view. In an attempt to plan Pasochoa (where they have a cloud forest) I took the bus way up town to discover the Fundacion Natura wasn't where it meant to be. By the time I got back to the bus stop the rain was like England in June. I hopped off the bus at the other end and thought I could make it back home. 10 mins later, I hid from the monsoon in an internet café: I was pretty soaked by then, so it may not have made much difference. I spent a while on the Beeb's website and read a fair bit about the Open; I felt a slight pang on hearing about Clarkey's improved form and realising I'll miss Wednesday night's preview programme (and the whole tournament). Last time the Open was at Carnoustie, I spent the first three days of it in Florida with Swiss: each morning we got to laugh at all the yanks moaning about how difficult it was. We were back home in time to see Paul Lawrie play a flawless playoff.

Go on Big Darren.

Well I'm battered now. I'm lying on my bunk and I'm a bit confused about the trip I'm going on with the hostel tomorrow. I read about it on Monday, figured it sounded good and put my name down. They do it when enough names are down; I got back, very ready for a shower at 8.15 to find out we're on for tomorrow. That's a 7.30 departure to add to today's 6.30. Like I say I'm battered, so only remember there's a volcano, a hike and a big arse statue of the Virgin Mary. Magical mystery tour then.

Ayway, I should be writing about today's volcano. It was a surprisingly long way to Cotopaxi and the group was spread across 3 vehicles. In my Land Cruiser, there was a none too friendly group, which didn't much matter as I sat in the child seats at the back with Rachael and we talked the whole way. We had a breakfast stop for the accurately named Massive Pancake.

After some hours and a lot of chatting we arrived in a valley near the snow topped volcano for an introduction to the 4 visible volcanoes and a cheesey photo stop.

(and no, I don't know what's going on in the background).

We started hiking at 4,500m to the refuge at 4,800. You could see it, it didn't look far, the guide said it would take an hour, clearly he knew best, but come on, it was just up there. It took an hour and made my legs feel very heavy-we walked slowly, took several rests and I talked too much. We were expecting lunch but it turned out we had to go to the glacier first. The ground was less sure underfoot as I talked even more, but eventually we were at the glacier, which I thought was a good effort. We had a slide on it, but without crampons this was the end of the ascent of man (and woman). And if you thought the other pic was cheesey, try this.

I'm facing the glacier, stood on icey red mud at about 5,100m. I just found the glacier pic

I'm just a little bit higher here. I don't actually know, but this may be the highest I've ever been. Sonya, who's done proper mountain stuff, told me it was higher than anything in Europe.

I got to take some clothes off on the way down as it was much easier going and seemed to have warmed up. Happily we were rewarded with a good lunch.

Activity wise we wrapped up with mountain biking down, which was fun. At times the ruts in the trail made it like riding a pneumatic drill. I didn't like using the brakes with the vibrations in case my hands lost grip; inevitably this pragmatic approach when combined with my natural ability for generating massive speed downhill led to crazed overtaking while shouting 'no brakes'. The cycling posse made it tho.

It was a bit cold, so hats were the order of the day

On the way back we stopped back at the breakfast spot for chocolate cake and I bumped into the Norweigian couple from my Galapagos boat. Don't say it....

Met lots of really lovely people today and there's talk of a night out tomorrow. I sense a shambles coming on. One of the things I learnt today is that a number of people, aside from me, are going to be looking for an English Harry Potter 7 this weekend (deathly hallows?). For me this is more to avoid spoilers-I will have a serious sense of humour failure if anyone tells me anything. Anyway have to see if we have any luck in the bookshops.

Rucu Pichincha
I'm not 100% that this is the peak of Pichincha we climbed, as they are 3. Anyway Pichincha blew pretty spectacularly in 1999 judging by the photo on the terrace. Luis our guide had 5 americans and myself to deal with. I wasn't so lucky with my companions today: Adam and the 4 girls from the US Virgin Isles were nice enough, but weren't too clued up. They were a bit short on layers.

It was quite a drive to the starting point at 4,000m, so it was just as well a hearty breakfast was included. We went through some small villages and a lot of countryside and every infant and calve produced delirious squeals of 'cute'. A little like yesterday we were to start by hiking to a refuge, at 4,500, then onto the summit at 4,800m.

Luis was driving to the refuge (with the supplies), then walking with us to the top. It was just as well this was the plan as poor Casey was so dizzy with the altitude after 5 mins that Luis drove her to the refuge, so she'd have a chance to acclimatise before heading to the summit.

It took the rest of an hour and some up the winding track. It was mostly a steady uphill, but the last 200m or so to the refuge was just plain mean. It was very steep and without a pace setter, I just put my head down and went for it. It may not sound much, but at that altitude it's a lot of effort and I was quite pleased with myself when I reached Luis and Casey. Luis was less pleased-he took my pulse and told me I'd have to go slower if I were to go to the summit. It's fair to say that my heat was beating like Marwood's; happily my thumbs didn't go weird. Even with my gloves from the Fox Glacier, my fingers did get cold later.

We had a snack and rested a time at the refuge. Adam, feeling cold in shorts, tried one of the beds. As we'd walked up, there appeared to be two summits-a little plateau with a couple of crosses, then a craggy peak further up and 500m or so to the right. Adam and I had wondered which we were going to, so we asked Luis. 'Both'. Gulp.

It had felt tougher than the previous day, but with Luis controlling the pace I was fairly comfortable. We headed higher up into the views across the valley and when we reached the ridge, we were suddenly and spectacularly in the clouds.

There was even a little snow. We'd been making steady progress for a while, but Casey and Bug were struggling. Luis had been checking their pulses and looking in their eyes. Bug's fear of heights certainly didn't help her-some of the path was ash and uncertain underfoot. So Luis checked them over again, gave some of his clothes to Bug and said we wouldn't be able to go to the summit. It looked pretty cloudy up there, so I wasn't too disappointed, and it was definitely the right decision from Luis. Still, just 10 mins from the top, we were afforded some good posing opportunities.

We rested awhile, then headed back down via the 'second summit', which was a little more developped with steps, a shrine, two crosses and some railings.

Only afterwards did I look at the drop behind the railings. Large sums it up. Happily everyone was feeling better by now.

Conditions may have been harsh, with no sign of birds or animals, but there were a good number of plants.

As Luis unpacked lunch back at the refuge, we discovered that possibly the finest vegetable soup ever was our reward, as well as crisps, biscuits, chocolate and fruit. Everyone agreed this became a sumptuous feast after a near death experience.

As a Brucie bonus on the way back we stopped at El Panicillo, a hill where the Virgin Mary looks out over Quito.

I'd been wanting to do this, so was pleased to get it as freebie-you need a cab as the walk is through a dangerous area. It was a touch disappointing as it was clearly designed with only the views from town taken into consideration. There wasn't much chance to get a good photo and there was no way to stand by it.

US spirits were fully restored by the tourist tat-I was surprised shagging key rings amused anyone over the age of 15, but then I am an old git.

I had dinner at the hostel, then headed out with a couple of new pals to meet Charlie et al. Shambles was avoided and I spent ages talking cricket with a veggie Aussie girl, who was surprised we don't like Glenda. Still a late night made this a day for blogging, napping and the Camilo Egas museum.

I'm off to post this and check the Open leaderboard. Come on Big Darren.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Voyage of the Beagle

In a break from the travelling tradition I established prior to my European vacation, I decided to take it easy for my first day in Quito. Tomorrow I've an early flight to Baltra island and I've plenty of time in and around Quito when I get back from the Galapagos. So, I took a walk round the Old Town (world heritage listed, natch), but didn't go into any of the churches or museums. It's a lovely collection of colonial architecture that I'll be exploring after the Galapagos. Interestingly the 2,800m altitude isn't affecting me the way Denver used to, although I certainly notice the lack of oxygen going uphill-trekking to Machu Picchu is going to be fun.

For $1.50 (USD is Ecuador's official currency) the Hare Krishna's gave me a 3 course veggie feast at their Govindas restaurant. Perhaps I'm not going to starve after all.

I'm enjoying being surrounded by Spanish-I'm understanding some and speaking rather less. There was a letter waiting for me back at the hotel to say my Galapagos boat was unexpectedly in dry dock. As a result I'm now leaving a day later, with a complimentary upgrade to a luxury vessel. This has heightened my now customary pre-organised trip nerves: I'm not quite sure who takes a luxury cruise round the Galapagos, but I have suspicions and fears. Still, just adds another top dollar experience to this executive backpacking lark.

With an extra day before I leave, I consulted the map to see where I should sensibly go. My Galapagos trip includes a hotel before and after, then I move to a hostel before hitting a different hotel, which is the jungle starting point. Since my current place is the most northerly, I headed to see the work of Guayasamin-the most northerly thing that interested me in Quito.

The Lonely Planet says Guayasamin is world renowned. I'd never heard of him. Up a pretty big hill in the wealthy looking Bellavista neighbourhood is the Guayasamin institute. As well as an artist, he was also a prolific collector: the colonial era religious painting was quite graphic, while the pre-Columbian pottery had its moments. One which was the summoning of the English speaker to show me round; the enthusiasm to show me round was charming and I loved the uncanny resemblance between the guide's English and slowly spoken Spanish.

Guayasamin himself did some great stuff-he was very concerned with the plight of man, especially indigenous South Americans.

He worked in the twentieth century and I saw elements of Picasso and El Greco in his painting. I felt these comparisons were a result of my experience of art, rather than influences on Guayasamin. I suspect his style came out of Ecuador and his own experiences.

I feel there is a point in European and North American modern art where talking about your aesthetic became more important than communicating directly through your work. The audience needed to know what they were looking at; for me this is when pretension outweighed substance and talent. Guayasamin is nothing of the sort, he is modern in style, accessible and heavyweight in meaning. It was my loss not to have heard of him before.

On top of the institute, there is the Chapel of Mankind. This is further up the hill and houses some larger works on his key themes in a striking purpose built structure. The views are also quite impressive. It is the classic project that had to be finished by his children after Guayasamin's death.

I've just started reading Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and a look at the contents surprised me considerably. Darwin didn't visit Africa, but his Rio to Oz odyssey bears a striking similarity to my journey in reverse.

I like Quito, it's a very international city. I had curry for lunch and pizza for dinner (safe veggie options, given the state of my Spanish). After a butterfly came to see me during dinner, the bloke who owned the restaurant told me "In Ecuador, when a butterfly comes to your house, we say someone is bringing alcohol." I like that; especially when he followed it up with a wobbly legged walk.

Day 1 Santa Cruz-Highlands, Tortoise Reserve and Lava Tunnel

There were 5 of us from the hotel, who were now luxury cruising-Ben and Jo from Farnham and Nick and Maria from Denmark-everyone seems very nice. It took quite a while to get to the military airport at Baltra, our way into the Galapagos. Our flight went via Guayaquil-something about Quito's altitude and refuelling, which I didn't really follow.

After taking bus and ferry to reach Santa Cruz, first up for the wildlife was the Galapagos classic-the Giant Tortoise.

Sailors and whalers loved them-you can chuck them in the hold, they'll live for months without food and water (this saved them from the fate of the dinosaurs) and then you've fresh meat when you want a curry. 100s of thousands ended up on navvies' plates. They just mosey about looking contented. Apparently they're none too smart, which is probably just as well since their physical limitations rule out most diversions. The Darwin Institute is working hard to get the numbers back up.

We followed that up with a bit of crawling through a partially collapsed lava tunnel.

While we waited for the tender to take us to the Galaxy (our boat), we got a good taster of tripping over wildlife: as the pterodactyl-alike frigates circled overhead, Ben spotted some interesting looking crabs

which Duncan (our naturalist guide) told us were everywhere. Then we saw our first blue-footed booby, which was great even if it did make me think of 'Allo 'Allo.

I think there's a crew member per passenger; the barman is wearing a waistcoat and bow tie. I'd been told to pack what I needed into a smaller bag and leave my excess gear in Quito due to the cabin size-what a joke, I've stayed in smaller hotel rooms than my top deck cabin with its 8 foot window.

Day 2 San Cristobal-Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Cerro Brujo and Isla Lobos

The trip roughly works like this: wake up at new island, breakfast at 7, tender drops us off to make 2 or 3 visits during the day for walking, wildlife spotting, snorkelling etc, lunch at 12, dinner at 7, then overnight the boat navigates to new island. And repeat. It makes for very full days and rolling, slightly disturbed nights' sleep.

First stop of the day was Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal, where we visited the interpretation centre. This gave an overview of the archipelago's geology and history, as well as some stuff on the environmental threats. It was a useful introduction, tho I'd seen much of the geological stuff elsewhere in the ring of fire. What a great name for a place that is; and Johnny Cash wrote a song about it (that is now on my iPod).

After that we had 30 mins to wander round town: having previously woken Milly up (with the help of a loud Canadian girl), I popped back to spend a surreal half hour with her and her hangover. She's been on the island for a couple of months-apparently doing good works in the highlands in the week, while clearly trying to drink the island dry at the weekend. I mention this brief encounter for the many women who gave me a beasting about Mill when I was back in Europe.

Back on the Galaxy, we headed for the Cerro Brujo beach, home to a lot of sealions. Before we hit the beach, we needed to eat-did I mention the three 3 course meals a day? I'm stocking up for the possible lean times ahead.

After wandering round the beach and watching the sea lions sleep, go out to sea, eat lunch, come back ashore and shout at each other, I said to Maria that I could just watch sealions for a week-I think that's something of the Galapagos magic. You can see so much of an individual animal, and then there's such a variety of wildlife. Tomorrow afternoon's walk alone promises sealions, marine iguanas, nazca boobies, blue footed boobies, albatrosses and lava lizards. And snakes. These won't be simple glimpses, but close up encounters. Boobies have been known to lay eggs on tourist paths. One of today's highlights was simply sitting on the beach next to the sealions.

It was some afternoon. We snorkelled-firstly with the fish, which I still love and I saw a small ray. This was the moment when I really felt I was travelling again. Then we went snorkelling near some sealions. The babies started swimming with us. They may be comical on land, but in the water their combination of barrel rolls, spins, sharp turns and effortless acceleration is balletic. Incredibly they make your graceful author look a touch lugibrious-especially the time the sealion left it so late in the game of chicken that I thought he'd bash my head before turning away and I jerked my head back, thus filling with water, in swift succession, my snorkel and lungs. One was joined by two and then mum joined in too. It was very special.

After a quick change into dry clothes, we walked round Isla Lobos, which the sealions shared with frigates and 'nesting' blue footed boobies

The absence of predators during the booby's evolution has led to them laying their eggs on the ground and keeping them warm with their feet. It's hard to put into words just how much of an active disinterest the animals take in the tourists. When we finished the track, there were steps to take us down to the landing point to get back on the tender. We couldn't use the steps as a posse of sealions were sleeping there, so it was scramble over the rocks for us. As it should be-this is their home.

The day was capped off with sunset, 3 course dinner, a beer and a game of backgammon. I have got to get me one of these boat things.

Day 3 Espanola-Gardner Bay, Punta Suarez

We opened up with a couple of hours on the beach at Gardener Bay. The itinerary had described this as chilling out, but I spent most of the time walking amongst the sealions, wildlife spotting. The mockingbirds can identify water by sight alone

And I chanced upon my first marine iguana.

Some sealions wanted to join us on the towels.

We had about 15 mins after returning from the beach to get some dry clothes on for today's snorkelling; naturally we were greeted by a quick snack when we alighted from the tender onto the Galaxy. Only 5 of the 11 passengers took up the snorkel opportunity, but we were richly rewarded. At the time, yesterday's outing had seemed marvellous, but this kicked it into touch.

The plan was to swim round the islet in Gardener Bay. It seemed we'd barely got into the chilly water, when I was able to put out the shout of 'Turtle' and we all spent a few minutes as a Green Turtle glided along-another creature which appears comical out of water and shames you for that thought when seen in its main environment.

The fish were more interesting too. There were several colourful shoals, a silvery one ran as if a shark was arriving. There were a few larger fish too, including some beautiful Wrasse.

I'd been swimming for a minute or so with a young sealion and was trying to get Nick's attention when all hell broke loose. I'm not sure how many sealions there were, but I could see half a dozen at any one time. Seeing as they were flying all around the 5 of us, there must have been more. I reckon one was less than 6 inches from my face. They swam under, alongside and at me, making a lot of eye contact. At least one enjoyed chewing on my fin. Eventually the cold forced us from the sea before they tired of us. Marvellous.

We had a couple of hours free after lunch, which were widely used for a siesta after last night's rough journey interrupted a lot of sleep and made a lot of people sick. My sealegs seem as good as ever.

It was a frisky afternoon at Punta Suarez-birds everywhere were engaged in mating rituals. The blue footed boobies combine dance, calls and making presents of sticks and pebbles.

The albatross were really special. They did a little dancing, some crossing of beaks

and made some wonderful sounds I got on video. We saw both birds nesting and sadly an abandoned albatross egg. One albatross walked up to me until it was close enough to touch; perhaps this is how wildlife should behave-sadly this combination of curiosity and fearlessness feels completely alien. Iguanas, crabs and sealions were also about in large numbers. Even on the tracks, you have to be really careful where you step-the iguanas are especially at risk of being trodden on.

Half the guys leave tomorrow, so we had a goodbye cocktail and a team photo.

Day 4 Santa Cruz-Black Turtle Cove, Bachas Beach

Today had the potential to be a touch disappointing-with people disembarking and new arrivals getting on, the itinerary's a little skimpy with a big gap in the middle of the day.

However, I've just got back from a wonderful boat trip round Black Turtle Cove. The cove is a series of mangrove lined inlets, which we navigated in the dinghies, often using paddles rather than engines. A Galapagos flamingo flew overhead as the tender neared the coast. We arrived just after 7 in the beautiful fresh morning sunlight to be greeted by 4 blue footed boobies at the entrance. It was booby breakfast time and we saw dozens of booby dives-the birds dive from something like 30 feet, plunging beak first into the water at speed. The whole area seemed a very dangerous place for fish as we also saw sting ray, spotted eagle ray and many white-tip reef sharks. Both the sharks and turtles seemed to enjoy the shallows around the mangrove roots; in the branches above we saw more boobies as well as brown pelican, lava and great blue herons. I've yet to see a bird and it then fly away, which I'm still finding extraordinary.

I hope the bout of sickness abates-Jo's not good today (and it's her birthday tomorrow), we didn't see Carolyn at all yesterday and Dave struggled the day before. This is the kind of trip where you don't want to miss a minute.

We headed to the beach on Baltra, while Duncan dropped the others off and picked up the 10 new guys. The idea was to take it easy, but there were still plenty of sealions to paddle and sit with.

After lunch and a quick meet of the 10 new faces, we headed to Bachas beach. This was unusually sealion free and crab lite. Behind our landing spot was a lagoon, where flamingoes could often be found. As they were on an away fixture, Duncan led us 15 mins to a second lagoon, where 3 flamingoes were walking around, disturbing the mud and eating shrimp.

I like that other flamingoes are migratory, but scientists don't think this is the case with Galapagos flamingoes-they clearly know this a great place. We stayed for quite a while, then 5 mins into the walk back 2 flamingoes flew over our heads. We walked past turtle tracks and the holes they dig for eggs before returning to the lagoon where we started, which was now home to 2 flamingoes. Class.

Duncan described the Bachas beach snorkelling as 'beginners', so Ben and I stayed chatting on the beach, waiting for someone to shout about rays, sharks and turtles. When no one did, we just stayed chatting to Duncan.

The ship has a large flat screen in the bar and after dinner someone put on the appropriately named Big Fish-not sure I'd have stayed awake had it not been for the popcorn.

Day 5 Santiago Island-Sullivan Bay, snorkelling. Bartolome Island-snorkelling, landing

Picking up the pace with 4 excursions today after the quiet yesterday, which left me exhausted.

Our first visit of the day was to the lava field in Sullivan Bay. Duncan described this as a geological day and we saw very little animal life-a couple of marine iguanas, a handful of small nervy lava coloured lizards (nervy as snakes and Galapagos hawks find them tasty) and a hornet like thing that landed on me before Duncan flicked it off saying 'it bites'. The field consisted of lava that flowed just over 100 years ago, reshaping and extending the existing Santiago Island. The shapes, patterns and terrain were varied and interesting: flat parts, tiny cones, rope like formations reminiscent of sweet manufacture at the Big Banana and sharp fragmented rock, which recalled my lava walking exploits on Hawaii.

In many ways this was a window on the past of the Galapagos. This was a harsh, desolate looking environment, but broadly speaking this is the starting point of each island in the archipelago. The biodiversity and plethora of life developped in a place that looks hopelessly unwelcoming. As I've heard the greatest living Englishman say 'life will find a way'. Given time.

I was reminded of Rangitoto in Auckland harbour-you could see how life developped. From small pioneer plants in tiny cracks to cacti, the first plants allow soil to form and eventually something more complex.
Amazing to think that from this beginning, other islands became world renowned ecosystems; for now the lava field looks like an inhospitable part of an alien world.

Onto the first snorkel of the day. I flipped off the back of the dinghy and by the time I surfaced someone was shouting 'shark'. How many times have you heard that in a film just before a supporting character loses limb or life. This was different as everyone in the water swam towards the shout to get a good look at a white tip reef shark, which was about 5 feet long. Later I found another and swam with it for a few minutes (while placing my hand on my head like a fin to alert anyone else); we reached a shallow spot, with a sandy bottom and there was a cracking money shot as the sun poured through the water and the shark was illuminated swimming a couple of feet above his shadow.

I saw a couple of other sharks amongst a myriad of fish-all of whom appeared completely not bothered by the dorsal finned killer, who seemed equally uninterested in lunch. Most notable was the striking blue parrotfish feeding in a small underwater cave and the shoal of yellow tailed grunt-they were a good size and I don't think I've ever seen so many fish together, swim underneath them and they'd have blocked out the light.

The outing will live longest in the memory for one of the leit motifs of my travels-penguins. I first encountered the endemic Galapagos Penguin under the water; for maybe 5 seconds I watched it fly through the water until it sped away from me. Having followed my nose for a bit, I got a bit disorientated and couldn't see anyone else. So I stuck my head out the water and saw Ben in the dinghy pointing towards some rocks where I could see 4 snorkellers. I swam over and as I got closer looked around to see what was going on. Then I noticed there were 4 bodies in the water, but no heads. As soon as I got my head into the open air, I saw the penguin going about its business on a rock-it was about 3 feet away from me. I clung merrily onto the sharp rock for quite some time, while the penguin was gloriously unperturbed. I'm not nonchalant, but something as extraordinary as that is just part of one day-in other places, companies could sell whole trips on the chance of such an occurrence.

Given how brilliant the snorkelling has been, it would have been top to have been able to dive-sadly not an option the boat offers. Joyce and Stefan, who joined us yesterday, were diving before and they saw hammerhead sharks! That would've been summat else.

Meals have moved to a buffet stylé now that we've got more folk on board; even without Alan's Big Plate I'm making this count as the activity level here makes it a challenge to maintain my fighting weight.

The second snorkel of the day was a swim round the rocks to the beach. Once again I jumped out the boat and swiftly came across white tip sharks and some big shoals of fish. I've also seen a lot of sea stars today. At one point I swam over to the cliff edge and had a staring contest with a Sally lightfoot crab-the red ones Ben and I find endlessly interesting and photogenic. A little later I spotted another penguin; I shouted to the others and swam over. Initially I was bobbing round the rocks and penguin solo, but after a few minutes the crowd of 2 or 3 boats and a group of snorkellers probably made the penguin think about selling t-shirts.

Back on the beach Duncan got me earworming Goldfinger. We crossed the dunes to the beach on the other side, where there were a couple of Galapagos sharks and 8 or more white tip chilling within 6 feet of the water's edge. As they swarmed, it was very James Bond baddie.

Last stop for the day was Bartolomé-a small island with a number of volcanic features and a climb of a touch over 100m. Volcanic rock is impossibly heavy, nice for me to know that all the time at the gym has paid off

The reason for coming here tho is the picture postcard view

I am cream crackered-low sleep, high activity.

When we navigate tonight, we shall cross the equator-straddling the equator is just one more extraordinary thing about this incredible little archipelago. For scientific purposes, I should probably leave the tap running all night.

Day 6 Genovesa Island-Darwin Bay, Prince Philip's Steps

Genovesa is a relatively remote island and we're spending our time in a big bay that was once a volcano crater. We boated to the beach in Darwin Bay for a hike (mostly birds here) and snorkel. The sky was thick with birds-something I singularly failed to capture on camera.

It all got a bit overwhelming today-my senses are starting to overload with the weight of information and sights. Walking round Genovesa it seemed every bush contained not just one bird, but almost colonies. So many of the birds were nesting and there were a number of chicks who were at least semi-independent. At one point someone said John and I turned to see a red footed booby in a bush behind me at head height about 12 inches away. Everywhere I look there's things that anywhere else would be unbelievable.

The main inhabitants here are red footed boobies

and frigates

The latter get their names from their piratical nature-they can hunt for themselves, but prefer to steal off others. One of their techniques is to grab a booby mid air and shake it into regurgitating-pleased to say I've not seen this. As a result boobies tend to eat what they catch while still underwater. Finches and yellow crowned night heron also made an appearance.

And of course only a fool would pass us a sally lightfoot crab photo op

We've become good mates

The snorkelling was tough-rocks and sand combined with the current to make visibility less than great and swimming hard work. Still I saw some lovely larger fish including (I believe) green and chameleon wrasse and blue chin parrotfish plus a reef shark swam just under me.

We had a welcoming committee at Prince Philip's Steps

This is a Galapagos Fur Seal, which is actually a sealion-gotta love these natural history dudes. So it was Phil the Greek who came here and they named the steps after him. Time for a new name I reckon. I wonder how much offence he caused-the steps are basically natural with a handrail, so he probably asked if they'd been done by Indians.

Just at the top, a frigate was saying hello to the ladies

This is their 'come get some' look-given the number of nesting frigates, I'd given up on seeing any courting so this was tip top. Sadly when we returned an hour and a half later, he was still inflated and alone.

There were boobies everywhere-nesting, fighting, being bombed by frigates and courting.

Often when a couple is getting together a 3rd booby tries to get involved (the goosebooby). The booby of the same sex takes out the goosebooby; occasionally a booby returns to find their place taken by the goosebooby. Then all hell breaks loose.

We saw a couple of short eared owls, who hunt during the day and were excitedly watching (tho not eating) the large number of storm petrels.

Day 7. South Plaza and Santa Fé Islands

At the landing point on South Plaza we were 'greeted' by the biggest bull sealion I've seen. There were significant numbers of sealions and the young ones swimming just a couple of metres off the north coast provided an almost continual sideshow as they cavorted in the surf. Sealions' nipples don't protrude, so visually the difference between a youngster resting his head and having breakfast is hard to spot, fortunately the slurping sound of suckling is a dead giveaway.

This was our first proper encounter with the land iguana, a more colourful variant that his marine relative.

Vegatively this was a more interesting island with reds, yellows and greens to add to the colours of rock and guano. At the end of the day, the Galapagos is fauna, not flora. We walked across to the other side of the tiny island (approx 1km by 100m); on the cliffs we saw many birds, including a glimpse of nesting red-billed tropicbirds. More surprising was the visibility in the sea 30m or so below; I was especially pleased to see mullet. Sadly Nick and Maria had to leave-our one day delay and inflexible flights resulted in a speed boat fetching them at half 9. I'll try not to make what they missed sound too amazing.

I sat up top in the wind for the navigation to Santa Fé-Duncan had said there was a chance to see rays flipping out of the water. A larger squadron of frigates than usual decided to accompany us.

So to our final snorkel, which was a bit chilly, but I think the $40 I saved by not hiring a wetsuit was a reasonable decision. I haven't caught my death and I was always amongst the last out the water. Now I just have to work out hot to fritter those $40.

Santa Fé has an interesting crescent bay, which has a rock islet across half of it, creating a nice anchorage and snorkelling area. A blast of icey water lets you know when you've swum beyond the edge of the islet. The initial part of the snorkel must have been what inspired Billy Idol when he sang about a 'fish filled fantasy'. It was like a greatest hits of the past 7 days. The fish mostly disappeared as the sealions came in.
I'd almost forgotten the fun of sealions-at one stage I had 5 to myself, though I did back away when I saw the big bull!

After a quick shower we landed on the beach in a throng of sealions. Almost immediately Duncan spotted a Galapagos Hawk-these are a vulnerable species with about 800 on the islands. When we returned to the beach there was one sat on a stone pillar reminding visitors to behave. The pillar was practically on the narrow path, so the hawk was ridiculously close-it was so close some of my photos blurred.

I looked back as we left and saw there were now 2 sat there! Santa Fé also has an endemic land iguana

we were lucky to see several. Unlike marine iguanas, who pile on top of each in a huddle, these guys are territorial and keep their distance.

We're navigating to Santa Cruz before dinner and it all got a bit rushed at the end, so it was just a quick farewell to the sealions.

On the way back the water seemed to swarm with rays, sharks and turtles, while the pelicans did a spot of fishing. As a coup de grace we got Jimmy to drive the tender straight through a (moored) catamaran, which was nice.

Having turned down the offer of a trip to town on the first two evenings, Ben, Jo and I headed ashore to Puerto Ayora. Sat on my bar stool I could still feel the boat moving, happily a few beers sorted that.

Day 8. Santa Cruz Island. Charles Darwin Research Station.

What would the Galapagos be without Darwin? I really can't answer that question-it is possible that the tourism generated has made Darwin's impact on the islands negative; it's equally possible the interest Darwin aroused saved the islands. I'd back Tortoise and Darwin to be the top two Family Fortunes answers on Galapagos and we'll get both at the final port of call-the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Although it seems strange that Darwin has only become directly involved at the very end of the trip, it is appropriate-without the preceding islands and animals, what would Darwin be?

Fingers crossed there's a statue of him.

A sealion came to say goodbye as we left the Galaxy for Darwin and the crossing of Santa Cruz to get to the airport at Baltra. I was sad to leave-it's been a great home and we were exceedingly well looked after. By a long way this is the most expensive week of the year-I reckon it's a touch more than wedding-fest and Glastonbury combined, which would be second and third. I do feel we got value for money tho-both in terms of the experience and what was done for us.

The Darwin station is predominantly a scientific facility, but you can see some of their tortoise breeding programme and a very little on the land iguanas. For the first few years tortoises are very susceptible to predators. Endemically this was a non issue, but introduced species (rats especially) have caused havoc; one island only had adult tortoises such was the appetite for eggs and younglings. Numbers had already been reduced by generations of sailors putting tortoises in ship hulls for fresh meat (a giant tortoise will live for a year without food or water). They took a disproportionate number of females as they were more commonly found by the coast and, being smaller, were easier to lift.

So the scientists breed tortoises at the station and take eggs from the islands (tortoises leave their eggs after laying). The tortoise's sex depends on the incubation temperature, so they try to get more females to hasten the rebuilding of the population. Conditions in the wild, without the predators, are simulated closely, so for example there's not too much water. When they're big enough and their shells are hard enough they're released onto to the relevant island, where they should enjoy a long life. Good work science dudes, say I. Like most miniatures, they are cute.

This is Lonesome George.

He's the last of his species-the tortoises of Pinta Island. He's been offered lady tortoises from near species to no effect; a Swiss student tried turning her hand to getting a sperm sample without success (she averaged 10 mins on other tortoises); he even lives with a couple of fillies. It seems George isn't up for it; when he goes, there'll be only 10 species of Galapagos tortoise.

There was no statue of Darwin, rather a living statue of the Galapagos

I'm sad to leave, it's been really exhilarating, but I feel very tired now. If you've got the cash and seasickness isn't a big concern, then go-even if the return flight's rather rough. Like many of my favourite spots, there really is nowhere else like it.