Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Life on 'The Enchanted Isles'

I would have run straight past it had it not been for the loud, breathy hiss that made me stop in my tracks. It sounded threatening, but there was no sign of the fearsome reptile I would have expected to make such a noise. Instead, it came from what I had mistaken for a large boulder - the mottled brown outline of a Giant Tortoise, its head and legs hidden from sight inside its shell.

I could hardly believe my luck stumbling across one of the animal kingdom's great treasures on a morning run. Yet as I continued, I passed several more dome-shaped boulders that hissed as I passed. It did, however, take some time before I saw one with a head and legs outside of its shell. You see, despite the Darth Vader-esque vocals, imposing body armour and leathery scales worthy of a dinosaur, these gentle giants are shy, bashful creatures - they shrink into their shell with a hiss the moment you venture too close. It goes without saying that they are a huge upgrade from the feral dogs that stalked my running route on the mainland!

It turns out that my current home in the highlands on Galapagos's Santa Cruz is just a few roads up from the Giant Tortoise Reserve and, as its residents roam freely in the surrounding fields, I have got used to seeing these endearing beasts going about their business day to day. In fact, they are often pottering around by the stables every morning - frighteningly unaware of the damage that could be inflicted by the back legs of a disgruntled horse.

Avid grazers with a big appetite, they seem to go wherever the pasture is good. Slowly but steadily, they will chomp through their chosen patch of greenery, their long, crinkled necks stretching a surprising distance to select the juiciest morsels. Then, they'll lumber to their feet, take a few laboured but purposeful steps to their next location, and flumpf to the floor once more. It looks like hard work - and, if you're over 90 years old and heaving around a heavy shell, I expect it is!

The giants in the highlands are just the start of the wealth of wildlife living here. Thirteen miles away in Puerto Ayora, the island's main coastal town, you can't walk more than a few paces without seeing something photo-worthy. Marine iguanas (that, to me, seem wildly incongruous with the ocean vista) sit poised and proud on the pier, impervious to the paparazzi of tourists anxiously snapping their photo. Sea lions lounge on the decks by the boats, comfortable and carefree, their whiskers twitching as they snooze. Bright, red-yellow crabs - Sally Lightfoots - scuttle up vertical walls; hoards of Pelicans boldly harass the fishmongers as they gut that day's catch; and elegant, red-breasted Frigates soar across the sky. Put simply, it's hard to know where to look!

Of course, it's not all beaches, ocean vistas and incredible wildlife. Currently, I am helping to care for and train five young horses in return for free accommodation on site. The place I'm staying may be within striking distance of the Tortoise Reserve, but it's also just up the road from a pig farm. The screams of the animals going to slaughter (a daily occurrence) are enough to make the most fervent sausage-lover swear off meat for life. Similarly, the house is home to a veritable hive of insects. Cockroaches are just the start... I can't even name some of the monsters that appear after dark! In addition, there is a strong population of geckos. They make their presence known by poo-ing on every available surface at an incredible rate, but seem to do a very poor job of keeping the house insect-free.

On another note, last year's drought has made fruit, veg and water prized commodities on the island - never has being a vegetarian been so expensive! It also means running water at the house is limited and somewhat temperamental. Lowering buckets into the water tank as if it were a well and stockpiling it in basins for a cold shower has become a laborious chore. But, given that when the shower does work, it's a pathetic dribble from a hose that hangs at knee height, it's a job well worth doing.

Even so, all this seems like a fair exchange for living on 'The Enchanted Isles' - cockroaches and gecko poo included. I've been captivated by this carefully conserved haven from the word go. For the first time, the horses have taken a back seat in favour of everything else there is to see!

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