You all must have heard of those books that tell you of all the places and things that you must see before you die? You know the ones that I am talking about – 1000 Places to See Before You Die or 1001 Natural Wonders You Must See before You Die. Well, don’t you find them all a bit depressing? How on Earth are you going to find the time and the money to visit ALL of these places before you die? Quite frankly, it is all a bit intimidating and a bit daunting and you start feeling like a failure because you know that there is no way that you will ever be able to get to all of those places before you pop your clogs and visit the One Final Resting Place, be that a hole in the ground, a fiery inferno or an eternal holiday, blessed with sun, endless hot water showers and no intestinal tract issues. So, I have decided to make it easy for you and I am going to write an abridged version which only requires you to travel to one place before you die. We should all be able to manage that, shouldn’t we? It won’t take you a whole year just to read the book, you won’t have to deliberate and agonise over which destination to go to next, there will be no long, tedious and annoying arguments with your partner (or with yourself, for that matter) over the merits of Angel Falls and Venezuela versus the undersea wonders of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea or the The Hanging Gardens of Babylon versus herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plains of East Africa. OK, so the Hanging Gardens of Babylon don’t actually exist anymore, but you get my point.
So where is this one place to go before you die?
The Galapagos Islands.
After three and a half months tootling around South America, we finally made it to end of our journey, a group of small volcanic islands squatting on the equator, nearly 1000 miles from the coast of Ecuador. This is the place that inspired the whole trip. This is the place that I have been waiting to visit since I first decided that I was going to be a biologist, all those years ago when I was still suffering from buck teeth, a flat chest and National Health glasses. This is one of the places that inspired Charles Darwin, which helped to shape his ideas as he formulated his Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. This is a biologist’s Holy Grail. And now that I had finally made it to the One Place that I needed to visit before I died, I was worried that I was going to be disappointed. How on earth could this place live up to my expectations? After all, I am a tad demanding and somewhat critical and just a teeny weeny little bit hard to please. What exactly is there to see here? Let’s make a list of what you can expect to see or not to see:
1. Volcanic lumps of rock, devoid of any obvious signs of life.
2. Volcanic lumps of rock covered in bird poo.
3. A lot of water – well, they are islands.
4. No elephants, lions, tigers, hippos, bears, antelope, moose ........ I could go on, but I am sure you get the point. For someone who loves to see lots of big and exciting wildlife, this does not seem to be the place to be.
5. Nothing especially dangerous. See above for large animals that might eat you or gore you to death, plus no venous snakes or snakes large enough to swallow you whole, no horribly large and hideous spiders with fangs the size of my little fingers, no scorpions or box jellyfish, no alligators or crocodiles. Now this might seem like a plus for many people, and I suppose that it is, but I do have this fascination with all animals, big and small, domestic and dangerous and I do get quite excited by the less liked and more reviled members of the animal kingdom. As far as I can see, the biggest dangers one faces on these islands is being hit by incoming bird shit or tripping over a lizard that looks suspiciously like a lump of volcanic rock – there is a lot of that around here. I suppose you could worry about stampeding tortoises, but I am guessing that you could avoid them by walking away.
6. No natural wonders such as snow capped mountains or lush and vast rainforest. No thundering waterfalls scouring out impressive canyons, no glaciers, no flower filled meadows, no towering trees, no glistening lakes.
So, to recap - lumps of rock with the occasional lump of sea lions and lizards that look like lumps of rock, with a lot of birds flapping around using you for target practice and a very fishy atmosphere wafting up your nostrils. There you have it, the Galapagos.
After this, I don’t think that I can expect a letter from the Ecuadorian Tourist Board seeking my assistance in selling holidays to the Galapagos anytime soon. You are probably not all rushing for your nearest computer or travel agent to book your holiday of a lifetime. You are more than likely changing the title of my post to “The One Place To Avoid While You Are Still Alive”.
So, what was it about the Galapagos that captured my heart? Why is it that, out of all the amazing, fascinating, breathtakingly beautiful places that I have visited over the years, the Galapagos rates as number one? To be honest, I am still not sure, but here are some of my thoughts.
The Galapagos are often thought of as the islands that inspired Charles Darwin, that led him down the winding path of thoughts and ideas that finally culminated in his Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. While this may not be the whole truth, Darwin certainly did visit these islands back in 1835 and they did make a significant impact on his view of life and its evolution. He did not step ashore, see a bunch of different finch species and have a eureka, naked-in-the-bath moment. Darwin was a keen observer and a great collector of specimens, facts and ideas. He travelled the world and picked up pieces of the puzzle from many countries and many people. His greatest feat was to bring all of these ideas and observations, facts and thoughts together to come up with a theory that could explain the diversity of life on earth, a theory that would forever change the way we look at ourselves and our relationship to other animals and our relationship with God. Darwin changed the world with his theory and he changed man’s place in that world. We were no longer separate and apart from all other life forms, we were no longer the pinnacle of God’s creation. So, just being on these islands, seeing some of the things that Darwin saw, knowing that I was walking in Darwin’s footsteps sent a tingle down my spine. I had a sense of being somewhere important, being in a place that helped to change the world.
Since I am such an animal lover, it should come as no great surprise to anyone that I loved the Galapagos due to the weird and wonderful animal life that can be found on the islands. Is there anywhere else you can go where you can find marine lizards feeding on seaweed or an assortment of tortoises that are big enough to ride (although I would have to wonder why you would want to, since it is far quicker to walk to wherever it is you want to go and it would not exactly be a thrill a minute). Where else can you find a slew of finches that have beaks of all shapes and sizes that can cope with diets of seeds, grubs, nectar and even blood or a bunch of boobies with bright blue feet prancing and dancing around like drunken sailors who have not found their land legs yet? Where else can you see pairs of albatross clicking beaks and dancing for each other oblivious to the world around them or penguins at the equator – oh yes, there are even penguins here, and that will always make me happy! There is nowhere else on earth that you can find some of these creatures, there is nowhere else you will see this assortment of bizarre but loveable animals and this makes the Galapagos a very special place indeed.
But I suspect that the most compelling reason for me ranking the Galapagos as the One Place is the fact that the animals don’t run, waddle, hop, swim or fly away. I spent 90% of my time in the rainforest gazing up into the canopy trying to convince myself that I really could see the monkey/porcupine/bird/anteater that the guide was patiently trying to point out to me. I spent the other 10% of my time trying to capture those small blobs that my guide assures me were monkeys/porcupines/birds/anteaters with my camera using my biggest zoom. The rainforest was fantastic and when you finally did see something or catch it on film, you would be delighted. But for far too much of the time you just stood there, gawping up into space getting a very stiff neck. The Galapagos were completely different. Throw away those binoculars; don’t bother lugging around that behemoth of a lens. You won’t need them. If you want a closer look at that bird or those lizards, just walk a bit closer. That sea lion not close enough? Well, give it a minute and it will probably flop its way over to see you. Just be careful where you step or you might squash one of those adorable little sea lion pups with its eyes of liquid chocolate or trip over a booby having a nap. This really is the place to go if you want a close encounter of an animal kind.
So, there you have it. Lumps of rock, yes, but oh so much more. I suspect that I have not been able to convey the true majesty of these islands, but I hope that I have given you a taste of their magic, their beauty and their allure. While I hope that some of you may now be tempted to wander their way there, please don’t all go there at once – that would kind of spoil it.