27 September 2011

Galápagos: Part II

Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz
At the end of the wharf just beyond the sleek sea lion sleeping on the wake-washed steps, a turtle slowly descends into the depths — a glimpse; nothing more. A yellow warbler flits a few paces ahead, tantalising, never quite allowing the opportunity for a photograph, and above the bay frigate birds circle incessantly: looking, waiting, patrolling. I know of no other birds that look so pointy — everything, bill, forked tail, wingtips, comes to a long, thin point[1] — and so unstable; the slightest change in the air seems to make them tilt and wobble. Yet in truth they're among the most accomplished fliers. I read once that they have the smallest wing loading of any bird; in other words they have the largest wing area in relation to their weight. Perhaps this is why they appear like paper kites, vulnerable to the whims of the wind.
I'd intended visiting Tortuga Bay today but the weather looks ominous, so instead I return to the Charles Darwin Research Centre and stop at the little beach where yesterday I photographed the marine iguanas. Today just a few photographs satisfy that compulsion and I prefer to sit and enjoy them, to listen to the sea breaking on the rocks and white sand, to gaze out at the big cruise boats anchored in the bay. Even in this relative shelter they're rolling and pitching; through binoculars the open sea looks wild. Two hours on that sea tomorrow. Even with dramamine it might be rough.
A movement catches my eye. I should mistake it for the tail of a lava lizard but I recognise it instantly — a small snake. The guide book describes the Galápagos snake as "locally common but difficult to see". This is one of the advantages of simply sitting still; of not being in a hurry, not feeling compelled to be always photographing or even constantly searching. For me, this is not even primarily a matter of patience — I don't think I'm a particularly patient person, although with practice I've learned some degree of that skill — but more a matter of paying attention and being satisfied with the opportunity to do nothing but notice and wonder. Still, being still guarantees neither remarkable sights nor worthwhile insights, and once again I feel blessed with luck — to have seen this small, thin, lithe animal gliding over the rough rock feels like a great privilege, as if the Galápagos has rewarded me for noticing small things.
Out in the bay the National Geographic Explorer pitches and rolls and slowly swings around on its anchor. What is it like to live aboard a huge, luxurious cruise boat like that, to be taken around these islands and shown the sights — the animals, the landscapes, the sea- and sky-scapes, the places significant in the human history of the Galápagos? I admit I sometimes feel twinges of envy; how great it would be to have all the practical things organised for me, not to have spend time trying to work out how to get to some of the difficult-to-reach places — places I'll never see, like Fernandina with its flightless cormorants. But the cost would be prohibitive, and the other cost would be the lack of time to be still, to reflect, to do nothing except live where I am.

A blue-footed booby glides in to join the pelicans at the fish-cleaning station, and through the recently rain-washed air the grey silhouette of the island on the horizon is as clear as I've yet seen it. Last night and early this morning rain pounded the roof, wild gusts howled, and I thought maybe the trip to Isabela would be cancelled, but now in the early morning the sea seems, if not calm, then at least not confrontational; the trip might be bumpy but neither frightening nor sickening (I trust). I'm actually looking forward to the journey — going somewhere new, just going somewhere; going somewhere I trust the wildlife will be just as inspiring. Ten days there. Ten days to relax and think and see and write and photograph unhurriedly.

The ride proves anything but smooth — a progression of leaps and lurches with an occasional huge thump as the sea suddenly vanishes from beneath the boat, leaving it momentarily airborne before the impact. I gaze out at the horizon from my lucky seat near the stern and trust the dramamine, and throughout the two-hour journey I'm not troubled in the slightest by any nausea. In fact, I enjoy the ride — the sight of the deep swell rising and falling, Santa Cruz and the island to the east gradually shrinking towards the horizon, small islands appearing, seabirds circling and gliding, and the unvarying, near-deafening growl of the two massive 225 hp Suzuki outboards. The sky darkens and softens, looks ominous. Soon we're surrounded by rain. The world contracts: above and all around, the indistinct grey sky; beneath it the heaving ocean, dull and leaden and churned white in the wake; through it all the strangely meditative roar of the motors. We pass through the rain and emerge into a brighter day. Isla Tortuga appears; we pass close by a spike of guano-plastered rock pounded by waves; Isabela draws closer. Behind the boat the wake sprays white against the dark raincloud, and a rainbow hangs there, motionless and beautiful among all this movement.

Isla Isabela
The small beach at the Playa del Amor comprises countless shells and broken coral. Mangroves flank one side, a lava tunnel the other, then a long, steep embankment of black boulders, among which rest several of the largest, most colourful marine iguanas I've seen. Two of these beasts flick their heads up and down, apparently at each other in some kind of interaction, punctuating the display with bouts of nose-blowing, snorting salty water violently from their nostrils. A third, close by, looks on like a referee. The surf rolls in, smashes and foams against the boulders but the iguanas take no notice. Evening approaches; a heavy grey sky over an almost-turquoise sea. As far as I know, I'm the only person within at least half an hour's walk, probably more, and except for the information sign saying don't walk on the sand the iguanas nest there, I could have stepped back thousands of years, maybe millions. Before humans arrived, change here must have happened at evolutionary rates — except for the volcanic activity, of course.
When I began walking here in the early afternoon I didn't know how far I'd go. I walked along the beach, stopping to watch the little sanderlings rushing frantically back and forth to check the sand between waves, the whimbrels, the ruddy turnstones, the ghost crabs and the endlessly fascinating patterns they leave on the beach. Eventually I came to a section of sand untracked by humans and realised that beaches without human footprints must be one of the world's great delights. Maybe that's why I feel so reluctant to walk on them, or, if I must, my inclination is to walk where the sea will quickly erase the marks of my passage. Perhaps also this is one of the things I love about the sea: that no matter how badly the crowds might churn up a beach, within a day the sea will have erased those signs.
I crouch in the evening on the rocks of the lava tunnel at the Playa del Amor and admire the iguanas, look along the boulder bank and think about returning tomorrow. But the chances are good that other people would be here, and although I'm no misanthrope places like this have a fragile timelessness that the presence of people can easily destroy. Even my own presence seems too much — I write this back at Puerto Villamil at the little beachfront bar where I've stopped for a beer and a session of writing, and I think of the Playa del Amor now as night falls and no one's there, just the sea, the night, the iguanas; the smell of the ocean and wet rock; the sound of the sea breaking — a sound that pre-dated life itself — and the night breeze in the mangroves; the way it was millions of years ago; and I can't help feeling I'm an intruder despite the care I've taken to tread carefully and slowly, not to disturb anything — if I could have walked without leaving footprints I'd have done so. How much do we need to see and hear and feel and taste for ourselves; to what extent can imagination and the recorded experience of others replace our own experience? Of course imagination can mislead, but experience can also carry a cost: the observer effect is inescapable.
On the way back from the Playa I pass the small cemetery which sits just behind the beach, some distance from town. Few things seem as still and permanent as graveyards, but this one on Isabela seems particularly silent despite (or perhaps because of) the incessant sound of the surf and the occasional calls of birds in the dusk. White graves, each with a cross; bright fake flowers; the sky darkening. Each grave has a story, but how many are still remembered? This morning I woke feeling that perhaps the strongest argument I know for the existence of intrinsic value — the value residing only in the thing itself, not in any usefulness it might have for us — is the knowledge that eventually our universe will cease to exist, and everything it ever contained, including the Galápagos, my time here, and everyone who ever shares it, will be lost, irretrievable. Immortality is an illusion, but the extraordinary grief of knowing what will be lost seems to me to be the strongest argument that those things have value regardless of whether they're "useful" to us, and the value of these things, here, right now on Isabela in the Galápagos, seems immeasurably great.

1. The tip of the bill actually curves into a sharp hook, but from a distance the pointy effect remains.
2. Trying to format this post has nearly driven me crazy — large chunks keep disappearing for no apparent reason; the html seems simple and straightforward yet identical strings give completely different results in different paragraphs. I’ll post it anyway and trust the weird and illogical idiosyncracies aren’t visible. Besides, I have more important things to do with my time than sit in front of a computer screen, going nuts.

1. Galápagos flycatcher
2. Frigatebird (Magnificent frigatebird, I think)
3. Lava lizard. The red on the throat identifies this as a female.
4. One of the combative marine iguanas at the Playa del Amor.
5. Striated heron.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

15 September 2011

Galápagos: A raid on the inarticulate

What can one say about the Galápagos [1] that hasn't been said so many times before, sometimes by far better writers? The guide books rave; the coffee table books filled with spectacular photos project endless variations of the same images of a place the way it might have been before human ascendancy; occasionally someone mentions the impacts of tourism. This is one aspect of Eliot's "intolerable wrestle/With words and meanings" [2] and perhaps the only approach is what he called "the fight to recover what has been lost/And found and lost again and again". Here on the Galápagos the problem isn't only words: everything has been photographed innumerable times before, often by those with the eye that characterises the exceptional photographer (always supported by equipment I can only lust after), and sometimes I despair of finding a way to present what I feel (not necessarily what I see) in a way that hasn't been presented a thousand times before. Still, I take heart from the similar despair of a man I cannot hope to emulate and find encouragement in his conclusion: "For us, there is only the trying".

A short path leads to a tiny white sand beach bordered by black lava boulders. From the rocks I look out over the dull turquoise sea at the boats pitching and swaying, the grey sky bright with cloud; I look down at the brilliant, sea-washed reds and oranges and blues of the Sally Lightfoot crabs. A sudden memory of those wonderful days at Flounder Bay and the big Leptograpsus there, close cousins of these. This is the kind of place where I can relax and feel alive, where I belong: here in a place owned by animals — by birds and reptiles in particular.
Reptiles. There, just a few metres away, a marine iguana looks back at me. I work carefully, photographing, taking care not to overexpose the scaly white patch on its head. I notice another, close to the first; their camouflage on these rocks is astonishing. Two more; I realise I'm looking at a small group. Later at the Charles Darwin Research Station I photograph the beautiful, bigger, land iguanas with their sulphur-yellows, russets and touches of white and red — spectacular dragons — but it's these little marine iguanas I'm in love with.

At the Station's Interpretation Centre, the main exhibits — the giant tortoises and land iguanas —  are only part of the attraction for me. So much is happening around them: birds, lava lizards, big yellow and brown paper wasps, dragonflies, a Darwin's carpenter bee, a sulphur butterfly, ... how many people pay much attention to these things?Most of the people I see focus on the tortoises, with size seemingly the greatest attraction, and admittedly the fully grown adults are astonishing. But most of these enormous reptiles, not just the famous Lonesome George, who stretches his long, old man's neck to peer hopefully in my direction, have a kind of sadness about them. One in particular, in an enclosure further on with several others, looks back at me with what seems to be a kind of longing for something lost. These tortoises can live more than a century; what might they remember, and what meaning might these memories have for them? A century ago airmail began, Hiram Bingham rediscovered the present-day theme park known as Machu Picchu, and we began bombing our own species from the air. For this tortoise inspecting me, the single most memorable event in its life might be the day it was taken from the wild — or perhaps, if this is one of the products of the highly successful breeding programme, perhaps nothing stands out as memorable among the endless succession of similar days. Most probably, the longing I see in this tortoise is my own looking back at me, but to articulate its nature I need to know what I long for. Without that, I can't even try.

The walk back to Puerto Ayora takes a long time, not because it's far — it isn't — but because so much keeps calling out to be noticed. A Galápagos flycatcher flits among the foliage close by. As I photograph it, it swoops down and snatches a spider. A few quick photographs — then suddenly the bird flies directly towards me and tries to land on the lens. For a few seconds it scrabbles with its little claws on the lens hood then, unable to grip, flies off. This is the Galápagos.

1. Written on Isabela Island, about events on Santa Cruz.
2. T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: East Coker.

1. Blue-footed booby. I never, ever, want to see another T-shirt printed with some bad pun about boobies.
2. Sally Lightfoot crab.
3. One of the very-difficult-to-identify Darwin’s finches. Beak size and shape is apparently the only reliable way to distinguish the species, and even then the overlap means it’s not always possible. Presumably they have it worked out, though.
4. This is the one.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

11 September 2011

The Amazon: Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve

A bird flies across the evening sky some distance away; Miguel calls out to Jairo and revs the outboard motor, steering the canoe towards the tree where the bird landed. Another of the birds crosses. In silhouette, it looks a little like a small, heavy-billed stork, but the identification doesn't click until Jairo tells us — it's a white-throated toucan, the largest of the toucans in this area. Another first for me; not just the species, but the group — the first toucan I've ever seen.

But I wonder about what it means to say I've seen a white-throated toucan. The silhouettes of birds flying in the darkening sky; a few seconds during which I didn't even know what I was looking at? This is an aspect of the birds, but not the same as a protracted period of watching, noting the shape, the colours, the behaviour; listening to the calls, watching them feed. Sometimes the brevity of an encounter's inevitable — I remember the momentary glimpses of botos (freshwater dolphins) breaking the surface of the river, and the second or two as the otter slipped into the water (a sighting, Jairo says, about as rare in this area as seeing a jaguar) — and perhaps this is bordering on semantics — I saw the bird but don't know it — but the substance of my frustration remains.

Sometimes, however, second chances arrive. At the laguna I finally get a good look at Greater anis, after missing the earlier sightings of these strange, long-tailed, heavy-billed birds. We see botos again, too, as we start fishing for piraña (I catch eight, and try to put them back with as little harm as possible to the fish and my fingers) but if we hadn't seen the documentaries, we'd have no idea what these river dolphins looked like. For us, they're a splash, a gasp, a glimpse of a pale greyish-pink hump, ripples spreading; nothing more. Later we move to the middle of the lagoon and swim in the murky water, with much nervous joking about swimming with pirañas. I'm glad I've seen the documentaries and read Richard Conniff's excellent book, and in truth I don't feel at all apprehensive, even when Jairo tells us the lagoon's also home to stingrays and electric eels. I assume he and Miguel wouldn't be swimming if the risk was worth considering. Besides, the water feels lovely. The laguna has a distinct thermocline, a layer of warm, almost bath-like water over much colder water. After the first few people have stirred it up, the water becomes a patchwork of cold and warm — a curious sensation.

By the third evening I realise I'll miss these swims — the feeling of being in the water, the knowledge I'm swimming in one of the innumerable headwaters of the giant, wonderful Amazon, surrounded by everything from caimans and pirañas to monkeys (we've seen five species: squirrel monkeys, white-throated capuchins, woolly monkeys, sakis, and a pair of night monkeys), gorgeous tarantulas and countless birds, including the weird hoatzins that fascinated me almost from the time I developed an interest in birds, meaning almost as far back as I can remember. I'll miss the social aspect of larking about with friends, too. I've been lucky with this group, some of whom I've known only for a few days, the others a few weeks at most.

That question again — what does it mean to say you know someone? People can go for years without getting past the stage of saying "Hi", yet strong and lasting friendships can develop within a matter of days. Circumstances can influence this; the intensity of the situation can forge friendships remarkably fast, and in the same way, the intensity of an encounter determines what one sees. I could have looked at white-throated toucans in a zoo, but could I justifiably say I'd seen them? The tendency to think of things — animals, in this case — as objects in an environment seems to miss the point: they're part of their environment and when they're removed from it, they're incomplete and so is that environment. Perhaps this is a rationalisation of not having seen white-throated toucans close up and in detail, but for me it's a consolation. I've seen white-throated toucans, not as specimens or objects for inspection, but on their terms, as an integral part of their environment: flying in the warm dusk over the Laguna Grande.

1. "Jairo" is pronounced, roughly, "HAI roh". Our guide for the whole four days, he speaks excellent English, has a degree in ecology, and did an excellent job. 
2. I wrote this post from journal notes while on Isabela Island in the Galapagos. If it’s a little rough and lacks links, it’s because I’d rather be out enjoying the wildlife ;^) [Update: added the link to Richard Conniff's book. I think he's a wonderful writer,]

1. Red-bellied piranha
2. Samona Lodge, Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve
3. Ruby dart frog.
4. Jairo and a friend from a nearby lodge wait for night on the Laguna Grande so we can look for caimans. We found them, including a very large black caiman.
Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor

05 September 2011


At the little museum beyond the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park, Pedro gives us a brief tour, speaking in Spanish, which I mostly can't follow, and skipping the tattered, stuffed condor with its outstretched wings. The enormous bird saddens me — dispossessed of its life in every sense. I've seen animals mounted so expertly their eyes seem to retain the memory of life, and although taxidermy raises difficult philosophical questions, at least the care and expertise with which those animals were mounted suggests a respect for the animals, an attempt to retain the life taken from them. I don't know the history of this condor, but can't help feeling it represents (unintentionally, I trust) not the wonder and magnificence of the largest flying bird in the world, but the power of humans over animals; too often, the only reason we do things to animals is because we can. I glance at the dusty bird, its disintegrating primary feathers, its dull dark head and lifeless eyes, and turn away.

Outside, however, I feel more optimistic, particularly after I've tried a cup of coca tea from the little stall. Coca tea's supposed to help one cope with the effects of altitude, but I'm trying it because, ... well, because it's tea; it looks like real tea, with lots of big leaves steeping in the cup. I love it; I'd happily drink more. The flavour differs from the teas I love (and miss here), but at least it has a flavour, unlike the steely tea bags to which I've resorted.

We drive up towards the cloud, along a badly corrugated and pot-holed dirt road. Wild horses graze unperturbed as we pass by; a few fine spots of rains appear on the windscreen, then sleet, then we're bouncing our way up through snow. At the car park (about 4500 m) we change into whatever warm, wind-and-rain-proof gear we have and begin the 300 metre steep trudge up volcanic scoria to the refugio. I'm breathing hard because of the altitude but feel good. I settle into a steady pace and maintain it all the way, loving the feeling of working hard in a wild, cold environment — the kind of environment that reminds me of familiar places in Aotearoa.

Pedro arrives at the refugio and congratulates Mike and me, telling us we're very strong.
"Next time we will go to the top", he says.
But there won't be a next time, not for Mike, who flies home in a week's time, and not for me. An expensive guided climb — a non-technical slog, in fact — as part of a long line of people all intent on the summit holds no interest for me. Even on this day of bad weather, the refugio's crowded and people still trudge up from the car park. This is not a place for me; I don't resent the crowd or deny them their enjoyment — I'm glad to see so many people enjoying the place — but I don't feel at home here the way I would if the hut were much smaller (this sleeps 70 people), with just a handful of people present.

Back at the car park I'm appalled at the number of cars, and they're still arriving. The place reminds me of a skifield car park in New Zealand. The weather closes in, so we drive lower, unload the bikes and try to get them to work. This proves difficult. Mike's has a bald back tyre, so he can't brake effectively and eventually has to stop partway down to change bikes; my gears barely work and when I remount the bike further down the mountain the chain slips off the sprocket and I'm dumped onto the ground, knees first but fortunately into soft volcanic dust; Sean's seat keeps slipping down and his gears eventually fail completely.Nevertheless, I enjoy the fun and the exercise despite the discomfort, although the appeal begins to wear thin while biking on the flat in the rain along a rough, corrugated road.

But by the time we reach the restaurant I'm still mostly dry thanks to the foresight of having packed leggings as well as parka. I've seen a few new birds, too — Stout-billed Cinclodes nesting in a roadside bank; a large raptor circling a long way off and far below; Andean lapwings on the flats.We recover in the restaurant over chips and guacamole, brown bread, slices of banana and apple, a delicious bean soup, and cinnamon tea, then begin the long drive back to Quito. We all sleep well, but Sean sets the record: 14 hours. Even I sleep well, and I need it — the next day I have an overnight bus journey to the Amazon.

Note: Check the photoblog for more photos of our day on Cotopaxi (and elsewhere)
1. The summit of Cotopaxi.
2. The car park when we arrived.
3. Mike rests on the parapet at the refugio as the cloud begins to lift (briefly).
4. (L to R): Phil, Serena and Sean wait partway down the road while Mike gets a replacement bike.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor