Ship's Log s/v Uliad
By late afternoon we wandered out of the tortoise center just as a number of tour busses pulled up to unload their cargo. The tourists are a mix of well-to-do retirees in their neat khaki explorer outfits and twenty-something biology majors from the world's universities. It was terribly hot to visit the tortoises in mid-day, but we were thankful to have them all to ourselves for a while. We set off in search of a spot to rehydrate.
Charles Darwin Street roughly follows the waterfront for a few miles between the town dock and the Tortoise Research Center. This street is lined with dive shops and t-shirt vendors, open air restaurants and upscale galleries. Everything the visitor might need can be found here. We found a nice bar with comfortable looking chairs and ordered large cold whatevers. Soon we were revitalized and ready to set off again.
We caught a cab to take us up into the hills to see the "lava tubes". These are big long tunnels in the rock that were formed by fast moving rivers of lava. The cab ride took us up out of town and into the "agricultural zone". The vast majority of the Galapagos Islands are a National Park, but there are a few small areas on Santa Cruz and San Cristobal where agriculture is permitted. Although from the looks of things, I'd sure hate to have to be a farmer here with a thin layer of soil covering a thick layer of volcanic rock. Better to be the lucky guy who has a lava tube located out back where he can charge tourists $3 a head to walk through.
Despite this farmer's best attempt to make the lava tube look like a tacky roadside attraction (even going so far as to name it "Tunnels of Love", the lava tubes did not disappoint. A teenage girl handed us a flashlight and a key and, after stepping around a few giant tortoise shells set up for us to gawk at, she pointed down a path between the chicken pen and the banana orchard. Soon we came to a steep, rocky path that led down into the mouth of a cave.
We stood inside the cave, letting our eyes adjust to the darkness. I was none to confident that the flimsy flashlight we were issued would last long in that darkness; but suddenly a string of light bulbs came to life along the side of the tunnel and we began to follow them. The tunnel was huge--perhaps 40 feet high- and perfectly round. It snaked around in different directions, meandering deeper and deeper into the earth. The cool dampness was a refreshing change from the equatorial heat outside. We walked and walked, climbing occasionally around the odd boulder that had fallen from the ceiling (gulp!) and after a quarter mile or so we started wondering just how far this would go. But we kept following the string of light bulbs and eventually the air felt a little warmer, the tunnel seemed to go slightly upward, and finally we emerged into the jungle. Only to find that the trail led us back down into another (much shorter this time) lava tunnel. But eventually we re-emerged for good to find our taxi driver waiting nearby. He drove us back to the farm where we turned in our flashlight and key (there was a gate at the end of the last tunnel--I guess to keep people from going backwards and not paying).
Emmett was beside himself by the end of the day. "This has been the best day ever!" he declared. "How many 8 year olds get to explore lava tubes or see giant tortoises and sea lions except maybe in a zoo?" I couldn't agree more. We've sort of suspended his homeschool lessons for a few days because The Galapagos Islands are basically one big science classroom. But I'm not telling him that.
The science lessons continue along the town waterfront, where Sally Lightfoot Crabs crawl around the rocks and occasionally jump from one rock to the next. Em never fails to ask us to stop and watch the crab show. Further down the beach, at the Park Service's dock, marine iguanas bask all along the pier. They look just scary and prehistoric enough to make us think twice about stepping over them. There's something about animals that are unafraid of us that makes me nervous at times. Why are they so unafraid? Do they know that they could pounce upon my jugular vein without warning if I dared to do anything threatening?
No, the marine iguanas like the sea lions are just really lazy. Once they've got a nice patch of sun, they really, really don't want to move. Not even for humans.
After several days of running ourselves ragged, we finally got an opportunity to be lazy ourselves today. We set the autopilot for Isla Isabella and lounged around in the cockpit all day like a group of sea lions. Finally by sunset we dropped anchor in a nice quiet bay. The bottom was hard packed sand here and our anchor had a hard time digging in. Finally, with light fading fast, I jumped in with a mask and fins and stuck the point of the anchor in by hand. That always does the trick when we can't get our anchor to hold. Then after supper, we all turned in early with a whole other magical island waiting for us to explore tomorrow.
As I mentioned, the vast majority of the land in the Galapagos is set aside as national parkland. Aside from a few small areas on four islands set aside for residential or agricultural use, its all preserved. And nobody is allowed to go into the park unless accompanied by a licensed guide. At first glance this seems like a plan to create jobs for the locals. I wasn't too excited to hire myself a babysitter everywhere I went here.
But my attitude has changed. After seeing just how fearless of man the birds and animals are here, I'd hate for that to change due to unsupervised, uneducated tourists. And far from being babysitters, the guides we have met here have all been helpful, well trained, knowledgeable, and nice to have around. On Isla Isabella we signed up for an inland tour of the area. Carlos was our guide who took us first to the tortoise breeding center here.
We arrived just at feeding time. Tortoises are fed only twice a week, so this was a big deal. Compared to the ones on Santa Cruz, the tortoises were practically sprinting around their pens, waiting for the grub to arrive. If you've never seen a stampede of baby tortoises, its not a sight to be missed.
The other 5 days of the week, the tortoises have nothing else to do but breed. We were lucky enough to see that also. But as this blog is rated PG, I'll spare you the details of exactly how that is accomplished. All I'll say is that at the end of the day I was reminded that it's about time I had that awkward "birds & bees" talk with my son.
After the tortoises, we climbed in our truck and rode up into the hills for a half hour over seriously washboarded gravel roads to the edge of the park. Here a herd of horses were saddled and ready for our group to ride up to the rim of the second largest volcanic crater on earth: Cerro Negro. When we finally arrived there 1 1/2 hours later, we were all glad to get out of our saddles and peer down through the mist at the giant field of black lava below us. Carlos told us stories of the last eruption here 10 years ago. The locals came up here at night to watch the red lava swirling around below.
At this elevation, we were surrounded by clouds. It was cool and misty all around us, even though we're only a few miles from the equator. We left our horses in the care of the cowboy who accompanied us up the trail and marched on further to a place called Volcan Chico--another volcano site that last erupted 30 years ago. There are still heat vents and steaming craters here, but most of the lava has cooled into bizarre swirling colors and shapes.
It is easy to be enchanted by the zoology of the Galapagos Islands, but it was here on Volcan Chico that I really began to appreciate the geology as well. A hike back from Volcan Chico is literally an overview of the history of the very earth beneath our feet...
Volcan Chico last spewed lava over this vast plain some 30 years ago. Everywhere there was black sharp pumice, streaked with minerals of many different colors. An occasional heat vent would puff out steam, reminding us of the lake of magma beneath the earth's crust. It is dead and hot--all cinders and pumice. But walk further and you notice how the spongy cinders are already being ground into sand beneath the feet of tourists on the trail.
Move on a few hundred yards and primitive plants are already clinging to life on these rocks. They use the rich minerals and plentiful sun, their roots slowly breaking down the raw rock even more.
A little further and suddenly, some critical mass is achieved and plants spring from every crevice. Insects and lizards appear. Plants and animals live and die and leave behind their organic matter, which mixes with the crumbled rock. By the end of the trail, a thin layer of soil exists, supporting dense brush, birds, and the occasional tree. Keep this up for another million or so years and perhaps there will be rich loam, yards deep, like there was back on the Minnesota prairie where I grew up and dreamed of one day travelling to strange exotic lands...
We've spent a few more days on Isla Isabella. One day we rented bicycles and rode out along the beach to a nature trail. We found yet another lava tube that sunk right down into the ocean. The tunnel was half filled with water and as we waded back into the dark, someone commented that it looked just like we were Jonah in the belly of the whale. Deep in the cave, you could hear a deep rumble like distant thunder as the surf bashed against the rock. Water trickled in through a few cracks in the dark. It was eerie and beautiful at the same time.
There were salt water estuaries inhabited by flamingos and egrets, deserted beaches, and at the end of our ride, a sleepy little beach town with quiet sand streets and a few open air restaurants and bars to rehydrate us after the ride.
We snorkeled and hiked around the islets that ringed our anchorage and saw penguins and boobies resting on the rocks, marine iguanas basking in the sun in preparation for their next trip to the "salad bar" of seaweed on the rocks. We swam with curious sea lions and docile white tip sharks. Every day here is absolutely magical.
Today we got up early and set sail for the island of Floreana. This little island is home to about a hundred people and is rarely visited by cruising yachts. More than a few try to stop here as "one last stop" before the long passage to the Marquesas, but without permission in advance, foreign yachts are usually turned away. The Ecuadorean Navy officer stationed here was standing at the dock waiting for us when we ventured ashore. Our paperwork was all in order, however, and he eventually agreed that we were welcome to be here.
Kathleen and I wandered the town trying to find a fisherman who could take us on a boat tour of some sites we have read about and eventually were sent to see Mauricio, who agreed to be our guide tomorrow. Which gave us just enough time to get back to Uliad, whip up a batch of Plantain Spiders, a few gin & tonics, and enjoy the sunset while turtles and sea lions played around the boat.
Floreana is a barely inhabited island with an interesting history. Back in the 1800's Ecuador began to solidify their claim to these islands by encouraging settlers to move here. Floreana must have been the island zoned for European oddballs. First came a German dentist named Dr. Sigmund Ritter who had all his teeth extracted before coming here, reasoning that he'd no longer have to worry about cavities when there were no dentists to fix them. Plus being a committed vegan he felt teeth were unnecessary for his diet anyway. He sent back glowing stories to newspapers about this magical place and soon the Wittmer family came (also German) with their two teenaged sons. Then a group of 25 Norwegian men who were somewhat hoodwinked by a newspaper ad. (Come live in a Tropical Paradise for free!!!).
Finally came a shady woman who called herself Baroness Elisa Von Wagner who also read about this magical Shangri-la. She announced plans to build a luxury hotel, went to Ecuador with two men where the government was so pleased with her ideas that they provided her with a boat and a carpenter. The whole troupe steamed off to Floreana and upon arrival the Baroness--in some sort of pagan rite took off all her clothes, dove into the beautiful blue waters here and waded ashore to the site of her future luxury resort which she planned to call "Paradise Retrouve" (French for Paradise Found).
Well, the climate being so perfect here, she never bothered to put on clothes again for the whole time she was here. And instead of building a resort, it was said that she founded a sort of free love colony here with her two lovers from Germany. The hired carpenter cobbled together a small shack, then set down his tools and joined in the merriment. Soon the lonely Norwegian colonists began to visit...as did the teenaged sons. Even Dr. Ritter and his wife were said to have gotten caught up in the erotic fever.
Such things rarely last of course. One day the carpenter was found with a fractured skull. Dr. Ritter suddenly got ill with terrible stomach pains and died three days later. Then 19 of the Norwegians got ill with the same symptoms. Without doctors or medicines, the terrified islanders made a break for the mainland. Some died at sea, some died in a hospital after reaching Guayaquil. Only 4 survived.
A few months later, one of the Baronesses lovers arrived at the Wittmer's place panting and terrified. He asked them to hide him and he'd leave in the morning. He and the last remaining Norwegian left on the island's last remaining boat, they all believed the Baroness was poisoning people. As for the Baroness and her one remaining lover...at that point they vanished. The shack lay abandoned and nobody knows what happened to them.
The granddaughter of the original Wittmer family still lives here (fully clothed) and runs a small hotel. With a farm in the hills and a large chicken coop (and a large bank of solar panels providing electricity to the town of 100 people), they are about as self-sufficient as one can be. And visiting the Wittmer hotel, you feel more like this is a family very well set up to provide hospitality to travelers than it is a business. She (like the navy officer) already knew that we were visiting yachtsmen and after helping to arrange a boat tour the following day, Erika Wittmer sat us down to show us the scrapbooks that she keeps of every yacht that has visited Floreana. Back as far as the 1950s there were occasional visits. Each yacht is assigned a page and we were asked to write something. We first noted that we were only the second yacht this year to come to Floreana, so it started to sink in that this was a big deal.
After a quick trip back to the boat to print a photo of Uliad, we composed a message for Erika, as well as for future sailors who may come here and pour over the book. And if you want to know what it says, you'll have to sail here yourself someday! As for Ms. Wittmer, she pressed a big bag of bananas into our hands, thanked us, and asked, "Now when will you be coming back?"
"Next time around," I told her. Whenever that might be.
Mauricio was another Floreana native who took us in his panga (an open fishing boat) for a trip up the coast. Our first stop was a place called "The Devils Crown". It is a semi-submerged volcano just offshore whose circle of black rocks jutting up out of the sea certainly looks like its name. We drift-snorkeled with the current seeing all sorts of fish and corals. He then took us to a beautiful protected bay where the Baroness once dreamed of her luxury hotel. Today there is no evidence she ever existed. Aside from a small trail to a pretty overlook, there is no evidence that humans exist at all. Sea turtles and rays swim in the bay, oblivious to this place's bizarre past.
Our real goal for the day was, however, to go to a place called Post Office Bay. Since Floreana is an island with a small source of fresh water in the hills, (and once had plenty of fresh tortoise meat) whaling ships once stopped here to take on water and tortoises before setting off across the Pacific to hunt. They erected an old barrel on shore where outbound vessels could leave mail and ships returning home could take whatever was addressed to their home country.
Plastered with graffiti from decades of sailors, that barrel still sits there to this day. Now it is tourists who place letters and take them out, as the area is protected as part of the Galapagos National Park. Inside we found letters addressed to England, a small package to New Zealand, and a small bundle of cards to the USA. My brother picked one out with a Georgia address and decided to mail it when he gets home. We left a few cards to family, and attached a small wooden plaque to the barrel with Uliad's name--keeping the old sailor traditions alive.
We're back in San Cristobal now after a long upwind sail from Floreana. We wanted to do some scuba diving before my brother Mike leaves us so we spent our first afternoon here trying to find a dive shop to take us to a place called Kicker Rock that has lots of sharks to look at. We were all set up at the Franklin Dive Center for our trip, but yesterday morning Franklin apologized that when he went to the port captain to get permission to leave (nobody can leave port without permission from the port captain) he learned that his boat driver's license was expired! So we ended up going to another shop and signing up for today.
I should begin this tale by telling you just how terrified Kathleen is of sharks. She fully realizes that her phobia is a touch irrational and knows that only a few species are dangerous and even then only under certain conditions. But nonetheless, she is afraid of sharks. When we were first getting ready to go cruising, she once said to me in all seriousness, "The one reason I can think of that we might want to carry a gun onboard is for sharks. That way if you see one heading toward me you can just shoot me before I get eaten."
She is really afraid of sharks. So you have to understand just how courageous Kathleen is to actually volunteer to go diving where she can see Galapagos sharks, and often large hammerhead sharks. After ten years of marriage, she still does things to surprise me and make me admire her all the more!
Kicker Rock is a giant volcanic rock whose sheer cliffs drop hundreds of feet to the water. Underwater they continue to plunge hundreds more feet. It provides refuge from the current for small fish, which then attract larger fish, and so on. After entering the water we descended to 60 feet and began to explore a deep crevasse between two giant rock walls. About midway through, they appeared...shadowy writhing shapes above us and around us. Soon about a dozen Galapagos sharks were patrolling the alley. Kathleen grabbed my wrist in a death grip and hunkered down behind a boulder. A few deep breaths later and she eased her grip and began swimming. The sharks stayed behind but we did soon meet a sea turtle who appeared to have one flipper bitten off!
Two tanks of air later we never did see any hammerheads, but Kathleen decided that it was fine with her to save that sight for another day. We finished the day snorkeling at a place called Lobo Island. Emmett had a blast cavorting in the water with the sea lion pups all afternoon. He absolutely loves sea lions and I'll have to admit, his Mom & Dad are a bit smitten by them as well. They are so curious and playful. The young ones swim right up and poke their big snouts into your mask to get a good look at you. Then they dart off to show you just how much better swimmers they are. Em started playing a sort of sand dollar frisbee game with them for a while, giggling through his snorkel the whole time.
"HALOOO Meester Steef!" This has been my morning wake up call about every other day since getting back to San Cristobal. It is Joseph, our yacht agent, coming to check on us again. Joseph is a lifelong native to these islands and, like certain tortoises and plants here, he has grown to gigantic proportions. I always wince as he heaves himself up over our stanchions--uncertain if they will handle the load. "Good morning Meester Steef. OK. Please Meester, when you vaya to Marquesas?" he asks in his Ecuadorian grade school English.
Again I tell him that we're not really sure when we're leaving, but I take him up on his offer to deliver some diesel to Uliad this afternoon. "OK Meester Steef. I come back um...Monday for when you go to vaya to Marquesas so we can do the plannification." For some reason he's really excited about doing our exit paperwork and always wants to know if we've chosen our departure date yet. But we're having a fabulous time, and after being on the go for two weeks, we've all been enjoying a couple of lazy days in the harbor here. But Joseph's visits are a reminder that we soon have to move on; and with over 3000 miles of open ocean ahead of us, I have to get going on a few maintenance chores on the boat.
The mainsail foot tape is falling to shreds. I was planning to have this repaired in Tahiti, but Emmett's buddy Mako from Samba lets me know that his parents do sail repairs on their boat. So I decided to haul down the mainsail and bring it over. While taking down the mainsail I found more problems. There's a small tear near the clew and the webbing at the foot of the sail that holds the whole thing onto the mast is torn 2/3 of the way across! Worst of all, the inch thick pin on the gooseneck that holds our boom onto our mast has worked its way loose. Both of these are issues that unnoticed, could have been disastrous at sea.
I got the sail over to Samba and they seemed pleased to have some more work here. Back aboard Uliad I discover that our battery charger/inverter is overheating. It seems the more chores I do, the longer my list gets! Just to boost my confidence, I tighten some bolts on our toilet pump to stop a small leak there. Problem fixed and no new disasters found! I winch the boom tight enough to pound the gooseneck pin back into place and I've got a winning streak going.
By then the engine room has cooled enough for me to assess the battery charger. Our Xantrex Freedom 30 inverter/charger is a metal box stuffed into one of the most inaccessble places on the boat. It turns AC power from the generator into DC power to charge the batteries. Then when the generator is off, it turns DC battery power into the AC power that comes out our standard wall outlets. And it has a cooling fan inside it that turns itself on whenever all that elecricity makes things too hot. Sure enough, the fan is shot. Replacing it is pretty simple except for the fact that, despite riding all around town precariously balanced behind Joseph on his moped, there is no replacement fan available in the Galapagos islands. Oh, and did I mention that it's really really hard to get access to the battery charger?
The whole process reminded me of laparoscopic surgery. I was using long tools through narrow spaces to remove the cover, and pull out the bad fan. A spare ventilation fan I found didn't quite fit inside the metal housing, so I ended up wiring it and duct taping it to the outside of the case. And so far it is working beautifully.
By the end of the day, I felt like I was making progress--my list was getting shorter again. As I sipped my rum & coke and enjoyed the sunset though, I couldn't help but shudder at the thought of doing any of today's repairs as the boat was pitching around at sea. So although I sometimes hesitate to go looking for trouble, I resolved to double check everything I can think of before we set off on such a long voyage. As Joseph keeps reminding me, leaving for the Marquesas takes lots of careful plannification.
I got the mainsail back on and the repairs look great. I fixed a bad wire in the mast. I even took apart the motor to a macerator pump that had quit working and managed to tease it back to life. "Can't you ever just relax?" Kathleen chided me the other day as she walked past me as I was hunched over a table strewn with parts from three different electric motors. Which struck me as funny because I was having a great time figuring the thing out. To me, it was like doing the Sunday crossword puzzle. Just as entertaining a diversion and every bit as satisfying when the puzzle was solved.
Crossword puzzles. Take away life's challenges and people have to find new ones. I'm not one to care much for crosswords or soduku unless I'm painfully bored on a long plane flight. But give me a real problem and I'm happy as a pig in shit. Perhaps that's why I love this life so much. Stuff's always breaking so there's always plenty of shit to wallow in.
I celebrated my 41st birthday today by lounging around the boat doing as little as possible. I have finally run out of little projects to do around the boat and decided that it is also a very happy feeling to know that everything is right with your boat. I've even got the bottom clean after several hours of scraping off sea grass while three sea lions did their best to distract me and get me to come play with them.
This evening we went out with Independence to a restaurant at the far end of the beach. I had the calamari appetizer, followed by fresh langustino in coconut sauce...delicious! We all washed our meals down with a couple of bottles of wine which even further assured a good time. Then the owner heard it was my birthday so she brought out a couple of gifts (a Galapagos calendar and book of postcards). After talking a while, she invited Emmett and the boys from Independence to come play with her kids tomorrow afternoon. Nice people here.
I may be one year closer to dead. But I decided tonight that I'm definitely wringing out every drop of life I can from what time I've got!
A few days ago our plan was to leave for the Marquesas this morning, but several events have conspired to change our plans again. First of all, there's a patch of weather and rough (well, rougher than usual) seas blowing arosss our path on the weather charts. So we thought we'd wait for that to go away. Then Independence is having some problems with a seal on the shaft of their saildrive. We kind of had it in our minds that we'd sail in their company so waiting a couple of extra days for Otis to get his parts shipped in and complete his repairs seemed reasonable. And then to top it off, the town here was having a party to celebrate the completion of their new waterfront promenade.
The harbor was packed with local boats as folks streamed in all day from surrounding islands. We wandered into town after dark to watch an assortment of acts on stage--from Latin rappers to traditional Ecuadorian dancers in no particular order and all with highly variable levels of talent. Miss San Cristobal sat politely in the front row, accompanied by some Navy big-wig in full dress uniform. The town kids marked the occasion by rolling back and forth on the new smooth sidewalk with their skateboards.
Emmett proved to be as much a novelty as the new sidewalk. By the end of the evening (much to his annoyance) there was a gaggle of girls following him out to the dinghy shouting "Adios, Emmett!! Buenas Noches, Emmett!!" as we puttered off into the dark bay. Em's not really into girls yet, so this may be just the thing to get him looking forward to the long voyage ahead.
Well, the word came today that Otis doesn't need our help to beach his catamaran and fix his saildrive here. After more calls to the "experts" he's decided he can carry on to his next haul out in Tahiti and fix it then. Which means that our 30 day visa for here expires tomorrow. Which means suddenly that we have to get everything set to go.
Physically, this isn't too big a deal. We've been anticipating this could happen, so we have all the provisioning and maintenance done. But mentally, it is taking us a bit by surprise. Neither Kath or I feel quite ready in our heads for this enormous voyage ahead of us. Maybe it's better that way...no time to fret.
Things I will miss:
The sea lions definitely. We drift off to sleep with the sounds of them surfacing by our port holes to take a breath...or blowing bubbles under the boat that gurgle up the side. I'll miss their lazy expressive faces ("Do I really have to get off your dinghy? I'm comfy here!!) and their company when I clean the hull.
Rum and coffee. Up until now, every new country has it's own brew waiting for us to try. We're now leaving the coffee growing countries and the rum distilling countries. I wonder what we'll find to fill their places?
Short sails. The distances are truly vast across the South Pacific. Our days of short day hops or overnight sails from one country to the next are over for a while. I never sleep as well when I don't have a securely set anchor beneath me...so we'll see how that goes.
Cheap restaurants. From all I hear, being able to eat dinner out for $3 per person is over after the Galapagos. So for tonight, I think we'll all go into town for one last trip to our favorite restaurant.
Emmett's 9th birthday is tomorrow, so we decided to throw an early party for him while he has other kids to help him celebrate. Em invited Ben & Sam from Independence as well as three French girls who are also on boats in the harbor here. I baked a cake, and Kathleen organized the games and activities.
He got a few toys, a bunch of books, and a new kneeboard and tow rope for his birthday. Unfortunately, he's going to have to wait until the Marquesas before we tow him around on it. I'm not exactly sure what the laws are here, but I have a feeling with how Eco-conscious everyone here is, that motorized watersports are probably frowned upon. That being the case, his favorite birthday present hands down has been his Razor Scooter that his Uncle Mike brought him. He and Ben have been wearing out the sidewalks along the waterfront and hanging out with all the Ecuadorean skateboard kids every night for the past two weeks. When we get back to deserted islands with nothing but sandy beaches and coconut trees again, I have a feeling Emmett is really going to miss sidewalks.
Midway through the party, Joseph showed up and stuffed a wrinkled piece of paper in my hand, offered me his enormous mitt to shake, and wished us good luck. We have our clearance papers...Ecuador's way of telling us to hit the road. So tomorrow, I guess we will.
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