Birds, birds, birds

As we travel between islands overnight, we never know what we will see when we wake up. Each island has its own shape and vegetation; sometimes barren, sometimes green. This morning’s view is of Isla Genovesa, one of the most  the north-easterly islands.  We crossed the Equator overnight, and although we were offered the chance to go to the bridge and photograph the instruments showing 0.00 latitude, no-one did.  As always, there are other boats nearby — four this morning, and all fairly close.  Some are familiar by now — the elegant Grace, Nemo with its furled sail and the large G-Adventure I relish the tranquility of the early morning, when the only sounds are the calls of sea-lions or the cries of frigate birds and gulls,  and the light changes as the sun rises.

Genovesa is known as “Bird Island” because of the numerous and varied bird species that nest there. I am not much of a bird watcher — usually I find the process frustrating as I peer through branches looking for whatever feathered creature is making the appealing noise.

IMG_5131
Swallow-tailed gulls

But this is different. When we land at Darwin Beach, there are birds everywhere — calling, dancing and sitting on eggs; red-footed and Nazca boobies, swallow-tailed gulls, frigate birds. There are gulls on the beach and the rocks and  boobies in the trees; males, females, fuzzy chicks, and juveniles — each with their own distinctive plumage. We also see our first Magnificent Frigatebirds with their puffed out red chest. This is no quiet walk around the cove, as the cries of the birds are cacophonous. Like the other wildlife we have seen, they seem oblivious as we approach, cameras and lenses in overdrive. 

IMG_5109
Red-footed booby

At the end of the walk is a bay, which could easily be in Northern Australia, except for the colour of the rocks. I have never thought of myself as particularly patriotic, and I am surprised to find myself saying “in Australia” as often as I do.

IMG_5122

We return to the beach where a sea-lion spends several minutes posing for us, readjusting his position slightly each time, until he slides down to the water to swim. 

IMG_5137
Look at me!

It was now time to snorkel. The Canadians were keen to see hammerhead sharks, and they finally got their wish. I only saw them briefly. They are very shy, and if they sense you or detect your legs kicking, they quickly disappear. I was far more impressed by a school of manta rays which floated under us several times as they passed forward, then back, then forward again.  There was also a school of large fish with white tipped fins, and other brightly coloured fish, including a couple of my favourite blue chin parrot fish.   

This was the only time we saw rain — only a light shower, but enough for Jonathon, one of the crew, to don his bright yellow raincoat and sou-wester as he kept watch over us. For our position in the water, he seemed over-protected. He hopes to be a ship”s captain one day, so maybe he was imagining himself on the bridge in a heavy storm.

After lunch we got back into the zodiacs to head for Prince Philips’s steps. The Duke of Edinburgh visited the Galapagos in 1965, and again in 1981. As we passed the lava cliffs we saw various birds and our only sighting of fur seals. These are smaller than sea lions, with shorter noses. We climbed the steep stairs to the plateau above where there were colonies of nazcar and red-footed boobies and ostentatious magnificent frigate birds.  This part of the island was like a moonscape, almost devoid of vegetation, with birds sheltering from the heat under the few scrubby Palo Santo trees.

IMG_5157

These look dead, but in the wet season they are covered with green leaves. Other birds were in the open, their necks panting in a silent ululation as they tried to keep themselves and their chicks cool. For me this was the hottest afternoon walk, but the birds and their newborn chicks were our reward. 

IMG_5166
Afternoon tea time

At the edge of the plateau was a large expanse of brown lava rocks, home of the elusive short-eared owl, almost impossible to see in the distance as it is camouflaged against the rocks. Like everywhere else on the islands, visitors are asked to keep to central tracks, so there was no opportunity to get closer. I was prepared to take its presence as a given and return to the cool of the boat,  but the keen birders were determined. First they saw one  — see that little brown spot on that big brown rock — then another, then several more. My cheap binoculars didn’t reveal much, but then someone passed me their powerful set. I couldn’t believe the beauty of the golden feathers of the owl, highlighted by the afternoon sun, against the brown.   

IMG_5172
Where is that little brown bird?

By the time we returned to the steps, and descended to the boats, it was almost sunset, and we made quick progress back to Daphne and dinner, saddened by the knowledge we have only one more full day ahead.

IMG_5113

 

Advertisements

Santa Fe and South Plaza

 

IMG_5065.jpg
Giant cactus forest

This morning we woke facing the small, low island of Santa Fe, another of the older islands, located in the south-east of the archipelago. The beach was littered with the inevitable sea lions, and we soon saw our first land iguanas. These live on the fruit of the local species of giant Opuntia cactus, with their bright yellow flowers. They are more solitary than their marine relatives, and are very territorial for their own cactus.  Males and females lead separate lives with each having its own solitary burrow, where they spend the night to avoid losing  body temperature.  There is evidence that there were once giant tortoises on the island, but they are now extinct here.

The presence of skeletons of birds and sea lions reminds us that despite the laid back appearance of the animals we see, there is still a cycle of life and death.  In contrast, we we were fortunate to see a land iguana “having lunch”, munching on a cactus fruit.

img_5080.jpg
Lunch-time

After wandering through the cactus forest to the cliffs where we saw Galapagos hawks, mockingbirds and gulls soaring. As always there was time to rest, observe or photograph, imprinitng the sights and the ambience in out memory. Soon it was time to return to the zodiacs for the short journey to Daphne where we struggled into our wetsuits and collected our snorkels and masks before re-embarking on the zodiacs for transport to a snorkelling site. Here we swam through shoals of colourful fish, saw rays, white- tipped sharks, and an amazing pink and turquoise fish. Identifying birds is hard enough, but, without an underwater camera, holding the image of the fish in my brain and relating it to the one fish book on board, is more effort than I was prepared to exert. so pink-and-turquoise-fish it remained.  But it was beautiful.

Later research identified it as a bluechin parrot fish.

bluechin parrotfish
Bluechin parrotfish (image from Google)

When we returned to the boat, the crew was approached by National Parks officers, reporting that sharks had been seen attacking sea lions. Jose was quite scathing of this advice, as he says this is nothing new and he is always careful. but maybe the less experienced guides needed this reminder.

After lunch we moved to the nearby island of South Plaza, which has one of the largest populations of land iguanas – these ones yellow – as well as marine iguanas and hybrids of both. It is thought that the latter pose a threat to the continued existence of land iguanas as they can climb the cactus for fruit, whereas the land iguanas must wait for fruit to drop or eat low fruit. When eating the fruit, the females remove the spines by rolling them ; the males just eat spines and all. The companion island of North Plaza is restricted to visitors, but has a research station.

There were plenty of delicate  swallow-tailed gulls, with their red-ringed eyes and feet.  These delicate birds have an equal distribution of labour, with males and females taking  turns to sit on the nest, but it is the females who fish at night.

IMG_5131
Swallow-tailed gulls

We were walking in the heat of the afternoon, with little shade. While Jose continued his “blah, blah, blah” ( his phrase), it was easy to drift into a trance, his heavily accented English providing a perfect background for day-dreaming.

South Plaza has lost many of its cactus, possibly due to introduced mice. There is now a replanting programme, with the new cactus being protected from iguanas until they are established.

IMG_5084
South Plaza

Another feature of South Plaza is the “bachelor colony” of sea-lions who have been superseded as alpha males. When offered a further walk to visit them, we decided unanimously that we had seen enough sea lions and returning to the cool of Daphne was a better option.

As I sipped a cocktail, I fantasised about life on the 5-star Grace, a beautiful old wooden boat, now refurbished from the time when Princess Grace and Prince Rainier had their honeymoon aboard. There would no doubt be fresh towels every day,  bread with meals (how I longed for a fresh roll instead of the slightly sweet slice bread we had for breakfast each day), good wine instead of beer or cocktails. but I doubt the company would be as electric and interesting as that of my fellow travellers on Daphne.

IMG_5085
Gulls and hawks off the cliffs of South Plaza

Finding my sea legs

IMG_0938.jpg
Kicker Rock

The bruises on my shins tell it all. I am not a boat person. Too impatient to move with the swell of the sea I have spent the first few days colliding with stairs, walls and beds as I make my way around Daphne. 

But something has changed. I’m not sure when it happened, but now, instead of lurching around the boat and stumbling into the zodiacs, I am moving around with ease, running up the stairs, and stepping onto the zodiacs with confidence.

I think it started yesterday, when I relaxed as I swam in the  clear turquoise water of Gardner Bay, followed by an unexpected family whatsapp session.

Today started early, with a pre-breakfast snorkel session off Kicker Rock. I had been told that this was one of the best experiences of the trip. The morning light shone on the towering peak as we snorkelled below, observing fish, neon blue plankton, graceful turtles and sharks as  frigate birds, gulls and boobies glided above us; it was hard to know whether to look up or down. The hour passed quickly as we circled the rock and swam through the  channel seeing different marine  life on either side. The two zodiacs shadowed us,  with crew members Umberto and Jonathon keeping an eye on us.

After breakfast and a short cruise to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno,  the main port of San Cristobal, we farewelled half our group. While they went to the airport, we had time to explore, and access ATMs and free WiFi. San Cristobal, named Chatham by the English, is home to the oldest permanent settlement of the islands and is the island where Darwin first went ashore in 1835.

The port has a lovely feel – not as flash and touristy Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. I was surprised to learn that there are many government offices here, as I saw no signs of bureaucracy. There are lots of entreaties to care for our world – from a seal made of recovered plastic, (although most souvenir shops automatically give you a plastic bag) to photo-voltaic solar lights on the main pier.

IMG_4976.jpg
This sea lion is part of a project to make the Galapagos free from microplastics

The coffee shop Jose recommended was in a side street, and not air-conditioned. For once, comfort took precedence over coffee quality, and I chose one on the waterfront instead. Sadly, it was between coffee for breakfast and coffee for morning tea, and there was no coffee, so I settled for a mineral water. Anyway, my main reason for stopping was to write postcards and use the WiFi. When some of my fellow passengers arrived about twenty minutes later, they had no trouble getting a coffee, but I was running short of time.

Believing this was our last chance to contribute to the economy of San Cristobal, it was time to hit the souvenir shops. There were many on the main street, all displaying T-shirts of different colours and designs. These varied enormously in price and quality – and finding a preferred pattern in the desired size and colour was more challenging than expected, considering the number of outlets. My original idea of finding matching shirts for my brother and his grandsons proved too hard – but at least they will all have tortoises. (So I thought; renewed inspection reveals one tortoise and two turtles.)

Back on board, we met our new complement of travellers – Canadians, Israeli and English. After lunch we returned to the port to visit the interpretative centre. This was highly informative in terms of the geology, biology and history of the islands. The newbies had a quick look then left to visit the tortoise reserve, while we had time to explore in depth, learning about buccaneers and whalers who made Galapagos home in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and later settlements including a penal colony, agriculture, sugar cane and fishing industries and a US Army base in World War II.

A large display outlined plans for the Galapagos Islands to become entirely reliant on wind power and solar energy by 2017. Sadly, these plans have stalled. Jose told us how hard it is to educate and keep young Galapagenos; his children live on the mainland to get a better education. He described volunteer medical students who were better than the local medical staff. Recently, a  colleague had died because only one person knew how to operate an essential piece of medical equipment and they were unavailable when needed.

IMG_5005
The best made plans….

We walked back slowly to town, passing sea lions in their natural environment – and taking advantage of human structures.

IMG_5016
More comfortable than rocks

When we came to a beach I exclaimed “We should have brought our togs and had a dip”. Blank looks from those for whom my Aussie slang was meaningless.

Without the swim, we settled for a beer from the beach kiosk. The kiosk bore a large scouts logo, although apparently the scouts only benefit from the sale of the empties, not the alcohol itself.

IMG_5011
Beach Kiosk

There was time for more souvenir shipping, coffee and WiFi before the other passengers returned and we caught the zodiacs back to Daphne, observing the sea lions happily basking in dinghies as the sun set.

IMG_5024
Sunset over Ecuadorian naval vessel

Although we were offered a ride back to town after dinner, only a couple of the group’s younger members availed themselves of the opportunity. I had my customary early night, listening to the sound of distant music and the barking of sea lions as the boat rocked. gently, relieved that I no longer needed to lurch around the boat like a drunken sailor.

Sea lions, iguanas, boobies et al.

img_0998
Galapagos sunrise

My first active day on the cruise started with a Galapagos sunrise, followed by breakfast and a dry landing at Punta Suarez on Isla Espanola. This is the southernmost of the islands, and also one of the oldest and flattest. Being so remote, it also has many endemic species. Like most Galapgeno wildlife, they appear quite oblivious to humans, and sea lions, marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoot crabs and cute little lava lizards with their curled, erect tails can be easily seen.

img_9109
Marine iguana

We are fortunate the trip is not rushed, with plenty of time to observe the various animals and birds we encounter. There is a two metre exclusion zone between humans and animals, but the animals don’t seem to follow the rules. Walking from rock to rock, you can be so busy looking at where you put your feet, you almost  miss the giant iguana or tiny lava lizard just outside your field of vision, or running towards you. Not to mention the sea-lion poo which is everywhere.

img_9137
Swallow-tailed gulls and Nazca boobies

As we walked over the island we came to the cliffs where swallow-tailed gulls  and Nazca and blue-footed boobies nest. Having missed the blue-footed boobies yesterday I was hoping for a close look at these quintessentially Galapageno birds, but although I saw them flying, their blue feet were hidden. It was only when I returned to the boat and looked up that I saw the stunning turquoise feet as one flew overhead.

 

I can’t help but wonder what it was like for those who first saw this amazing range of beings, without the prior experience of BBC documentaries, zoos and Encyclopaedia Britannica.  For me there was a strange sense of the familiar mixed with the bizarre. I had seen the vision, but hadn’t smelled the smells, felt the intense heat or heard the cacophony of different calls of the the birds and sea lions.

 

img_1002
Not quite two metres apart!

We returned to the boat boat for a lunch of curried prawns, and a short rest. Then it was back in the zodiacs to what Jose had described, in a mastery of understatement, as a “nice beach.” Gardner Bay ticked all the boxes for idyllic – clear turquoise water, cool white sand (which would have been far too hot for bare feet in Sydney) and lolling sea lions , oblivious to us walking past. Female sea lions have two pups over three years, so it was common to see offspring of two different sizes feeding from the same mother.

Although we were going to snorkel back to the boat, I couldn’t resist the water, and was soon doing my own water baby frolic, relishing being immersed in the cool, clear

The downside was that when it was time to snorkel, I struggled to get the wetsuit on over my wet swimmers and took on sand which weighed me down. so I struggled with my first snorkelling experience even though the fish were amazing.

However, a beer and dinner soon fixed my disappointment.  As half the group were leaving the following morning, we had farewell drinks with the crew before Jose’s customary briefing.

And the next day’s early start gave  me a perfect excuse for my customary early night.

IMG_9167
Sea lions at the “nice” Gardner Bay

https://www.galapagos.org/about_galapagos/about-galapagos/the-islands/espanola/

Saturday in Quito

A cold drizzly Saturday morning in the old town of Quito does not deter the street vendors. Some aim for the tourists with Ecuadorian scarves and ponchos, but the majority are targeting the ordinary Quitenos – with everything from plastic pegs, Samsung Galaxy 6 phones to kitchen whisks. There are people selling lottery tickets, or offering to take your photo. One old man with a tank of water and plastic cups seems to cross my path again and again. With the sudden onset of cold, puffer jackets are big business.

Not to overlook fleecy jackets, hats and shoes for dogs – the models looking less well cared for than their owners.

There are fruit sellers, loading their apples, oranges and tamarillos into large plastic bags as they sit on the side of the narrow streets. Others offer cups of cut up melon and pineapple. If you want something more substantial there are women with plastic bags of pulled pork, or men with a yoke across their shoulders with packets of biscuits of various shapes and sizes. For something sweeter, try a cone of meringue or a cup of red jelly.

And as they offer their goods they cry, their voices echoing across the narrow streets as they encourage custom, each trying to outdo the other with their vocal range. I M reminded of a flock of corellas, heard long before they appear in the evening sky.

I wonder how these people make a living – is theirs a subsistence existence (in some case it definitely appear so) or are they entrepreneurs able to do a deal and buy in bulk and sell in the streets with no overheads – and presumably no taxes.

A couple of days ago, outside the old town I saw a woman with baskets of delicious looking apricots, cherries and strawberries. I asked to take her photo, but she disappeared rapidly, and although I waited on an opposite corner, she did not reappear.

For those without the ability or contacts to sell on the street, there are beggars. I see several amputees, one man with an open wound on his heel which looks as though it needs hospital care, and old women. They are prolific in the porches of the many churches, especially around the San Francisco monastery, but also scattered throughout the town.

In this melange of bustle, crowds and noise, as I huddle into by anorak, the ice cream sellers are missing today

It seemed like an easy wants get some travel money – what my mother would have called pin money – though I don’t know why. Being paid to walk the streets, which I do regualrly anyway, tea,k g to people , whichI love.

With the five yearly Census approaching, I applied for a position as a field officer. How hard could it be?   Last Sensis I had been working in an aged care facility, wher eI helped the residents complete their cCensus,or used thief medical files to fill  in what information I could.

And ” miracle of miracles, I could even Fong my ABS employee number in my erratic filing system. ( note to self, fi.kmg this I a well labelled folder is more efficient than piling this I the corner of a desk, hoping they will sort themselves. Sometimes.)

 

Never on Sunday

pexels-photo-358319.jpegIn my limited experience of overseas travel, three airports/ flights stand out as being more challenging than usual. It may be coincidence, but they all took place on a Sunday.

The first was a flight from Dublin to Madrid. We weren’t even meant to be on that flight, but my husband had been ill overnight causing us to postpone our flight. So instead of the early Saturday morning flight, we left on a Sunday afternoon. At the gate we realised that this was no ordinary group of passengers. About half were schoolchildren, aged between ten and fourteen. They were excited after a weekend
excursion, and once on board, showed no interest in sitting in their assigned seats, listening to safety briefing or even wearing seatbelts. They shouted to each other across the plane in Spanish. Not only were they impervious to the requests of the flight staff, but the accompanying teachers did nothing to settle them. The flight attendant – a mature woman who no doubt had children of her own, told us that this was a common occurrence. Rich private school kids, hyped up on a weekend of freedom, CocaCola or more.

We did make it safely to Madrid, but this was strike one against Sunday.

Strike 2 was in Casablanca. No romance with Ric climbing the aircraft stairs. We had started the day in Fez, leaving at the time of the first muzzerin’s call, driving for several hours to Casablanca. Why this was necesssary when Fez has a perfectly good airport, wasn’t clear – it was the way the tour was planned, and in my naivety I hadn’t questioned it.

Although it was a week after Eid, there were still many family groups travelling, and the airport was chaotic. So much so that we had to to queue outside to even get intothe terminal. Flights were delayed, gate numbers on our boarding passes bore no resemblance to what was on the indicator boards, and there were few announcements in English. My attempt to spend my last few dinars on coffee were successful only after a group of men pushed in front of me.

Everywhere there were signs warning us not to take large volumes of fluid on board and to have all our tubes creams and potions in clear plastic bags. Standard procedure, but despite passing through several checkpoints, no one ever asked to  see mine.

We finally found ourselves at the right gate, waiting,waiting, along wth many others. We chatted to a couple of young Americans who were seated behind us, and joked about leaning our seats back on them. Be careful what you threaten. When we took off, my husband’s seat flew back and he was left staring at the ceiling until we gained altitude. As the plane shuddered and rattled, I began to have thoughts about having to leave him and saving myself if we did end up in a disaster situation –  our daughter has a chronic illness and is unable to live independently.

Strike three was in Lima today. Wedged between the successful economies of Ecuador and Chile, Peru is very much a developing country. The airport is busy, but there aren’t enough gates so buses are often used to transport passengers between the plane and the terminal. There seems to be a severe lack of toilets, too.

Today’s adventure started when my alarm went off a t 12.45 am, in preparation for a 1.30 pick up from the hotel for a 4.15 flight from Quito. There would be a short layover in Lima,  and then onto Santiago.

When I tried to print my boarding pass, a message about priority passenger came up. I stood up straight, rearranged my scarf, and waited to be invited to upgrade to business class. Ahh, those two minutes of hope, soon dashed. Not business class, but no room on the aircraft. Despite booking my flight six months ago, I had been offloaded to a later flight. In compensation, I had two hours free wifi (usually you only get half an hour at Lima airport) and was given a breakfast voucher. I couldn’t find the restaurant I was meant to use it at, so I contributed to the flagging Peruvian economy by paying $US11.50 for coffee, juice, and a few small rolls.

Being Sunday, and the last weekend of the annual Chilean vacation month, there we many families with young children travelling, and both airport and plane had many unhappy babies. In the restaurant where I had breakfast, the music and chatter were so loud that it was impossible to hear any announcements.

Earlier I had congratulated myself that being half asleep minimised my stress about the delay. But the noise levels, missing free breakfast and the crowds soon had me anxiously waiting the call to board.

The flight was relatively uneventful, except for the crying babies, and the fact that there appeared to be no expectation that you would sit in your assigned seat. But I was aware that my luggage was probably on the original flight, and having been told at length by some travel  companions  about their battle to find their luggage in Shanghai, I was aware that finding my suitcase might be an issue.

I passed through immigration and customs without drama. But the baggage hall was chaos, with piles of unclaimed suitcases between carousels and  stacked up in corners. I couldn’t find the indicator board telling me which carousel to go to; nor could I recognise anyone from my flight. Finally I found the carousel, through a door at the end of the hall, but, as I expected my, suitcase was not among those going round and round.

I pulled out my phone, and composed a question in Google Translate, asking where I should begin to search for my luggage. But as I approached the Latam enquiry counter ther was my familiar green case with its red Bunnik’s strap and pink ribbon on the handle. I breathed a sigh of relief, and headed for a taxi, incredibly grateful for my distinctive case in a sea of hundreds of apparently identical black bags. I don’t know how anyone else found their suitcase.

All these things might happen any day of the week. And it was a Saturday, not Sunday, when my boarding pass had seat number XXX, and the driver I had booked to take me from Lima airport was late.

But on the balance, it seems wise not to book an international flight on Sunday unless absolutely necessary.

IMG_0950