Carol Ann Bassett is the author of three works of literary nonfiction: Galápagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin's Cradle of Evolution; A Gathering of Stones: Journeys to the Edges of a Changing World (a finalist for the Oregon Book Award in creative nonfiction); and Organ Pipe: Life on the Edge (part of the Desert Places series). Her essays have been published in the American Nature Writing series and other anthologies. Bassett was a regular contributor to The New York Times and Time-Life, and was an independent producer for National Public Radio. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, Cond Nasté Traveler, and numerous other national publications. She teaches environmental writing and literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.
Walking With Giants
(Excerpt from Galápagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin's Cradle of Evolution, National Geographic Books, 2009)
Tui de Roy knows Volcán Alcedo and its giant tortoises better than most people on Earth. The world-renowned wildlife photographer grew up in the Galápagos and has climbed this mountain on Isabela Island perhaps eighty times over the last four decades, up through prickly pear cactus and acacia, into forests of pungent palo santo trees and lichen draped croton. She has stared from the volcano's rim down into the crater, an alien tapestry of black basalt, white rhyolite, and crevices flanked by a tangle of green. She has camped on unstable ground near steaming fumaroles on the western side of the caldera and has spent weeks at rain-filled pools where the tortoises congregate.
Alcedo is home to the largest population of land tortoises in the Galápagos, the descendants of a single species, scientists say. They know this because the tortoises carry in their DNA genetic proof of an eruption that occurred on Alcedo about 100,000 years ago. These behemoths are the master lineage that survived the blast.
In May I travel by speedboat from Puerto Ayora to Volcán Alcedo with Tui, her partner Alan, and a photographer from Quito named Pete Oxford. In all my visits to the islands, I've never seen tortoises in the wild, only in rock pens and on private land. I'm thrilled to be here with Tui. She's one of my heroes, a world-famous wildlife photographer who captures the ethereal beauty of nature in all its perfection. She's a former naturalist guide here (one of the earliest) and she has written and photographed numerous books on the Galápagos, the Andes, Antarctica, and New Zealand, which she now calls home. Her goal on Alcedo, like mine, is to document how the volcano has changed in the last few years since teams of sharp shooters and specially trained dogs, working with the Galápagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Research Station, eradicated about 100,000 feral goats from this island. The wild ungulates had taken over and were competing for the same grasses and shrubs the endangered tortoises depend on for survival. In some areas, the volcano was so denuded it resembled a desert. Most of the shade trees were nibbled to the roots, and tortoises were dying of heat stroke or starvation.
Now, as our panga, or dingy, arrives at Shipton Cove, a narrow strip of beach on the eastern side of Isabela, the sun beats down, burning our faces. We're about one-half degree south of the equator. Tui is anxious to get going. She's a tall woman with a boyish haircut and burnished skin that attests to a lifetime of working in the sun. She's wearing a khaki-colored shirt, gray shorts, and dark blue sneekers. Tui caches several gallons of water on the beach under a low-growing bush for our return trip. Then we adjust our heavy backpacks and follow the trail past tall prickly pear cactus, some still in bloom. The stark terrain, the crystal air, the emptiness of the land, feel to me like the Sonoran Desert where I lived for nearly thirty years. As we ascend the volcano it becomes clear that Alcedo is to Tui what the Sonoran Desert is to me: Home.
The trail climbs gently through the spare terrain of the coastal zone. The rains have been heavy this year, and normally dry palo santo trees are so leafed out I barely recognize them. Mockingbirds sing from their branches. It's getting hotter, and an hour into the hike we rest in some scanty shade to rehydrate. But not Tui. She's out in the sun with her Nikon, photographing a carpenter bee as it pollinates the waxy blossom of a prickly pear cactus. The fuzzy black bee is a stark contrast to the bright yellow flower. Soon, a butterfly the color of a lemon enters the frame. Tui waits for the decisive moment, then shoots. It's a close-up, perfectly timed. She steps back, visibly pleased. “I got my photograph,” she reports, joining those of us still huddled in the shade.
Tui de Roy was born in Belgium in 1953, the daughter of what she calls “original free spirits.” In the post-war atmosphere of Europe, her parents couldn't find the space and self-sufficiency they needed to live off the land. They'd heard about several European families who'd moved to the Galápagos and who were farming, catching their own fish, and educating their children at home. So they moved to this little known archipelago when Tui was two. During the first year her parents carved a little place out of the wilderness up in the misty highlands of Santa Cruz Island, where they lived in a tent. But the perpetual rain and mist weighed on the family, and they moved down to the coast where they built a tiny house and a fishing skiff.
Her father was a naturalist by vocation and an artist. “He was very interested in wildlife and the ways of nature,” she says. He was also hooked on photography and brought with him an ample supply of black and white film, reels, and chemicals. “He actually made black and white slides, processed the film in the sea. I remember he tied the film to a mangrove root and let the tide rinse the emulsion. There wasn't enough fresh water around to waste on processing.”
At age 12 she was borrowing her father's camera, following his mentoring on what made a good photo-and what didn't. “He gave me a wee camera and I remember it had little bellows and you had to cock the shutter and then click it and set the distance manually.” But the budding wildlife photographer was more interested in shooting in color. She'd hit up visiting scientists or travelers passing through on yachts and ask them for film. “I loved climbing around in the mangroves or taking a rowboat around and looking for heron nests and pelican nests or yellow warbler nests, and investigating things.”
In 1969 she was selling cured goat skins to the few tourists that came on the monthly supply ship and saving up to buy a single-lens-reflex camera. That year a filmmaker who was working for Walt Disney named Jack Cauffer came to the islands to produce a piece on Darwin. Tui guided him up Volcán Alcedo. The rains were relentless, but something clicked: Cauffer must have appreciated the teenager's knowledge of this stark terrain and her love of photography. He wanted to upgrade his still camera, so he gave her his old one.
“That was basically the beginning of my life, my career,” she recalls. In 1972, Les Line, then-editor ofAudubon Magazine, visited the Galápagos. Tui had recently been on Alcedo for ten days with a tortoise researcher and had taken some stunning photos. The captain of Les Line's boat had seen the photos. “He told Line, 'You must see these photos.' And he was like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. A 17-year-old girl and I'm gonna see her photos.'”
But the captain would not give in and arranged for Tui to come aboard. She arrived in a dingy, a young girl clutching her work to her chest, ready to present a slide show. “He [Line] just sat there in silence as I went through the photos. When we were done, he said, 'Can I take these with me? I'll let you know.'” The next year, in 1973, she got a phone call from Audubon's photo editor-and a plane ticket to New York. Line and his colleagues had been so impressed that they gave her a cover story-a photo essay of her images from Alcedo of giant land tortoises clustered in pools in the volcano's crater with a quality of light that seemed otherworldly. She had made it as a hot new wildlife photographer, and she wasn't even 20.
Now, as we climb the volcano that made Tui famous, sweat drips from our foreheads into our eyes. Nettles stick to our socks, pricking our ankles. We use walking sticks made by a friend of mine in Puerto Ayora to whack down spider webs that cross the trail. An hour later we stop in some spotty shade. Tui points out a Galápagos hawk that has just landed in a tree less than a stone's throw away. The raptor watches us for at least ten minutes. “He's just curious,” she says. Sunlight glints off his hooked yellow beak, his brown and white feathers, his intelligent eyes. Soon a shrill whistle fills the air. “That's its mate,” Tui informs us.
Along the trail we pass several sun-bleached skulls of the feral goats that once dominated this island. One skull has been placed in the branches of a tree, its empty eye sockets staring into infinity. The terrain changes yet again as we enter a grassy area-a stark contrast to the arid zone down at the coast. I stop to observe tiny black butterflies swarming a yellow-flowering bush. I've lagged behind the others, and when I catch up Tui exclaims, “Greeting party!” There before us, munching on grass, is the first giant land tortoise we encounter on the volcano. It hisses and retracts its head as we pass.
We're entering a different realm, a moist upland habitat where the absence of feral goats and the presence of heavy rains have created a jungle. Where a dry trail once led up a relatively gentle slope, the vegetation is so thick it has swallowed the path. The ferns are so dense we can't get through. Thankfully, Tui has brought a machete. She pulls the curved instrument from a leather sheath and begins whacking away. Blood trickles down her bare legs where cat's claw has snagged her skin, yet she never complains. She knows and respects this volcano and its wildness. It's like a blueprint engraved in her cells, yet on several occasions we lose the trail completely. Like the rest of us, she soon becomes frustrated. She knows exactly where the trail should be and continues swinging the sharp-edged blade.
Soon we come to the first of three water caches set up by Galápagos National Park rangers. We're running low on water, but this cache won't do. Several finches float dead on filmy black slime. For three more hours we climb steep hills where lichens hang from trees all the way to the ground past vines tough enough to swing on. This is not the volcano Tui remembers, and she's as shocked as the rest of us.
The second water cache is no better than the first. Invasive geckos have contaminated the tank. By now we're dead tired and thirsty. Even so, as we pound ahead, we discuss the many paradoxes in the Galápagos. I ask Tui if she thinks the islands can survive. “It's already too late,” she says without hesitating. “There are far too many people here.” On the other hand, she adds, the Park has done a good job of keeping remote islands like this one relatively wild. “People could ride up here on ATVs (all-terrain-vehicles), but it's not allowed. Can you imagine that kind of tourism in a place like this?”
As we continue bushwhacking up to the volcano's rim, I begin wishing those feral goats were still here to serve as four-legged locusts to clear the trail. Then I catch myself. The fact is, Project Isabela was so successful that it's now almost impossible to ascend the mountain. The message: Maybe humans don't belong here.
It's getting dark and a thick blanket of mist rolls into what has become a jungle. We've entered yet another life zone where mushrooms grow beneath low-growing vines that send us face first into the scrub. Crotons, tall shrubs with leathery leaves, weep resin onto our clothes, staining them black. We must tread carefully. The trail is muddy and strewn with loose volcanic rocks. Soon the light vanishes completely. We've been hiking since morning, and now we're inching our way straight uphill in the dark of night behind Tui's machete, trying to reach the rim and much-needed water. Finally, we give up. Ourmachetera should be dead tired, but she still has enough energy to help the rest of us bivouac in a tick-infested clearing under moss-draped trees. We have almost no water, but alone in my tent I console myself. Tomorrow I'll walk among giants.
Morning. I wake at 5 to the sound of someone yawning. It's Tui, up in the crotons with her machete, clearing a trail. As she swings the blade, dew showers her mud-stained clothes. She must get to rim, then hike about twenty more minutes to the third and final water cache at a shack called a caseta. If the tank is empty or polluted we could be in trouble. But fate is kind: The tanks hold an abundance of cool, clear water and Tui returns to camp with a gallon of water for all of us to share.
The sun has not yet risen as we climb through mist thicker than potato soup. Tui plods ahead. When the rest of us catch up at the rim, she's perched on a boulder, smiling. Three young Galápagos hawks circle above as if in greeting, then disappear into the mist that rises from the volcano's floor. The moment lingers for a while, this lightness of being in contrast to the heavy weight on our backs.
Along the rim, more goat skulls appear, and tortoises wallow in brick-colored dirt. The larger tortoises have left scat the size of eggplants: undigested grass. Tiny white mushrooms grow on some of the droppings. The view down into the crater is still partly obscured, but from time to time, the mist rises and one of the island's greatest spectacles appears: Lava flows and great fissures caused when the crater floor dropped; forests of impenetrable green; and sulfurous gas spewing from heat vents: Alcedo's lungs. In some places we can see the tracks made when tortoises slipped to their deaths while traversing earth eroded by thousands of grazing goats.
Tui sheaths the machete. Up here it isn't needed. The namesake creatures of these islands have blazed a modest trail. Pete Oxford, who is also a former naturalist guide in the Galápagos, begins photographing a behemoth on the edge of the rim. Its face resembles that of the whimsical character, E.T. His timing is perfect: The sun emerges from the mist, casting light over the island all the way to the sea. Like Tui, he's also stunned at the radical change in the landscape. “I've never seen so many tortoises up here on the rim,” he says, shaking his head.
Pete, who is British, lives in Quito with his wife and partner, Renee Bish. He's tall and muscular with wavy brown hair that's beginning to gray. He's wearing camouflage pants and a T-shirt, and although the sun burns down, he wears no hat nor sunglasses. So far he's published nearly a dozen books. Most of his work focuses on indigenous cultures in relationship to the environment. The cover of his photo book on Ecuador's Huaorani Indians (a traditional rainforest culture still battling oil exploitation in their homeland), shows a muscular hunter with a bowl-shaped haircut, naked except for a piece of string holding up his penis. Part of the image is blurred, revealing action as he hurls a 10-foot-long spear while running barefoot through the jungle.
At the caseta we survey the descent into the crater. It looks deadly, another long hike with a bushwhack down a precipitous slope where fumaroles belch volcanic gas. My body aches, and the prospect of more trailblazing through a jungle of ticks mortifies me. I'm highly allergic to flesh biting insects, and my once-broken kneecap is screaming. The crater floor is a waterless hell. That means hauling down a ton of water for the next two days and I begin to balk.
We brew coffee on the gas range inside the shack and sit around on plastic chairs. The wooden floor is a mass of dried mud and mice droppings. The hot coffee feels good in the cool morning mist. Tui's partner Alan is an electrician and former beekeeper from New Zealand who she met over the Internet. As we discuss our plans, he says, “No one, not one of us, expected these conditions. Here I am wearing $300 hiking boots and Tui's wearing $3 sneakers. She can outdo me anytime.” The truth is that Alan seems a good match for Tui. He helped machete through some of the toughest brush on this volcano in the dark of night while heaving a pack that weighed half his body weight. It included my small daypack. Pete, who was straining under his own camera gear, carried my pup tent. Ashamed, I confess that I'm not tough enough to descend into that nebulous hell, not like Tui. I gaze down at her swollen ankles. They're covered with tick bites upon tick bites and perforated by nettles, yet she's ready to rally.
Tui agrees that the volcano is radically different from anything she ever imagined. “It's just hideous,” she says. “I'm afraid this may be my last trip up Alcedo.” Under these conditions any normal person would give up and sleep on the panoramic rim, or return to the beach and camp in the sand where a cool tropical sea breeze blows off the eastern side of the island. But Tui is no ordinary human being. As a wildlife photographer and naturalist, she prides herself on pushing it to the limits, as I would learn later on Española Island where we camped with a biologist to observe the courtship ritual of the endemic waved albatross.
My plan on Alcedo from the very beginning was to follow Tui down into the volcano and document her as she photographed giant tortoises in rain-filled pools. Instead, I embrace my limits and pitch my tent on the grassy rim as my companions enter a labyrinth of trees, each one carrying an extra gallon of water. Here on volcano's edge among knee-high ferns, I'll spend the next two days surrounded by tortoises that amble by as though I'm invisible.
Volcán Alcedo is home to the healthiest population of giant tortoises in all the Galápagos. About 5,000 of the reptiles live here, about one-third of the total number in the islands. These tortoises can weigh up to 600 pounds and live more than 150 years. Mating usually occurs in March or April when the grunts of copulating males are so distinct that park rangers call this the loudest sound in the Galápagos. The inseminated female then rambles off to dig a nest in soft earth, where she can lay up to twenty eggs. Then she covers the clutch with dirt and urinates on it to cement it down. The hatchlings are born about three months later. Like sea turtles, they're extremely vulnerable; they must find cover before hawks, owls, and feral mammals such as cats, dogs, and rats nab them. Even the adults are prey-for poachers. Throughout the years, scientists have found dozens of slaughtered tortoises on Isabela Island, victims of an influx of fishermen and colonists who recently arrived in the Galápagos. About 70 percent of the population is new to the islands. Most of these newcomers don't follow sustainable fishing practices in the protected marine reserve, say authorities, nor are they aware of the biological diversity that surrounds them or how fragile it is.
Morning mist fills the volcano's crater from rim to rim. It looks like snow, as though I could ski across it to the far western side. By mid-day it lifts like a veil, exposing a lost world of smoking fumaroles where minerals have painted a palette of salmon, tan, and lime. Rivulets of green appear in crevices. All day long the mist creeps in and out of the crater like dragon's breath: the Earth as living entity. This, to me, is the real Galápagos, that illusive, hard-scrabble world that empties into the mystic. If I peer into the crater with my binoculars I can see tortoises huddled in rain-filled pools, seeking reprieve from the heat and the blood-sucking ticks. This is where my hiking companions have pitched their tents. Their plan is to work in the pristine light of dawn and dusk in those rare moments when the sun breaks through. Here, in the bowels of the volcano, they can smell the sulfur from the nearby fumaroles. And all night long they listen to farting tortoises, as Tui later recalls. “It was hilarious. They have a pretty rudimentary digestive system. They churn up these ponds to the consistency of chocolate sauce, but it doesn't smell like chocolate sauce. All of that fermentation causes plenty of gas, and so you hear this blub-blub-blub [and you see] these ripples coming out and creating rings around their backsides.”
Up on the rim in my own camp, a different microcosm unfolds. In morning I watch a saffron caterpillar, thin as a piece of spaghetti, wriggle up a blade of grass. As I follow the trail I come upon two tortoises mating. The male is much larger than the female. He has pinned her against a tree, his alien neck stretched over her shell and bellowing down at her withdrawn head. Farther on, two tortoises greet each other face to face, raise their necks, and touch noses as if they're about to spar. But the larger one retreats into the shade while the smaller stays put, chomping grass as intensely as a goat. She doesn't pull her head in as I watch, but turns to face me, the sun glinting in her primeval eye.
Then something catches my own eye. It's a quadruped, a mammal, and as I turn to investigate, it slinks behind a rocky outcropping. It looks like a feral dog, one that escaped its master during the goat eradication project, but I don't get a clear enough look. Later, when I report this sighting to the Galápagos National Park, I learn from one of Project Isabela's directors that it was a feral goat-one that got away.
On the third day on the mountain I hike along the rim to meet up with Tui and the others. I've brought a gallon of water just in case they've run out. To the east tiny Rábida Island appears, and the much larger Santiago Island rises to the north. If I walked to the western edge of Alcedo, Fernandina Island would appear-the youngest and most active of all the Galápagos volcanoes (it last erupted in 2008). I'd be looking across Urbina Bay on the western shore of Isabela, a landmark that formed when it uplifted from the sea in 1954 and where today, visitors can snorkel with sea turtles, marine iguanas, and rays.
About an hour into my rim-walk the campers emerge from the trees. Tui isn't even winded after climbing up the mountain. Furthermore, she has plenty of extra water in her jug. She's astonished at how lush the volcano is now that the goats are gone. From time to time, she stops to marvel at club moss and shelf mushrooms. The endemic scalesia has returned along with giant ferns. As I follow her she remarks how healthy the tortoises are. “Now, when they pull their heads in, there's a rumple because their necks are so fat.” She looks down at a grazing tortoise right beside us. “That's right, my friend,” she tells it. “Eat to your heart's content.”
Tui is triumphant: The volcano has been liberated. “The tortoises were enduring. They were hanging in there waiting for deliverance, and their deliverance has come.”
Then she shows me where several tortoises slipped to their deaths after goats destabilized the ground. “The rocks had no vegetation to cling to, and the pebbles were as slick as ball bearings.” Sure enough, at least three huge carapaces lie sun-bleached on the crater floor. But she's in her element now as she stops to document a tortoise close-up—the story in the details. Her modus operandi in photographing wildlife: Keeping still.
“It's like Soto Zen,” I suggest. Just sitting.
“The Zen concept is a good reference point. Photographing puts me in a state where everything is at peace, where here and now is what matters. All of my attention is focused on what is there in front of me.”
“What is it that drives you?”
“Beauty, peace, harmony.”
And focus, the perfection of nature captured by an untrammeled vision. “It's my mantra, if you like. Meditation is not easy, and a mantra helps. Photography is the reason I'm still there three hours later. It's the reason I don't mind being cold or whatever because when I look at my pictures and I see a photo that really came out, I have this buzz of pleasure seeing what I regard as the beauty of a reflection of harmony.”
She's referring to that perfect second when the sun glints in the eye of a red-billed tropicbird, or a Galápagos hawk lands on the back of a giant tortoise, or a lava lizard nabs flies off a lazing sea lion with a lightning quick tongue.
On the last day we hike back down through the brush past more goat skulls. Tui is hoping to find a colony of huge land iguanas, but it's too hot and they're hiding out in the shade. Pete and I continue down to the beach, dump our packs in the sand, and dive into the ocean. It's the first bath we've had since we arrived here four days ago. When Tui appears with Alan, she discovers that our water cache has been stolen. She's not happy, and when our speedboat arrives to take us home, she asks the captain to pull up beside a traditional fishing boat just off shore. The boat is old, its blue-green paint peeling off the hull. The crew has been fishing for bacalao, known as grouper in the Galápagos,and is drying their catch in salt. As we float there just off their stern, Tui asks a man with a a few missing teeth if the crew has taken our water.
“No, no,” he responds. “We haven't even been to shore.”
It's obvious he's lying; he won't even meet our eyes. But the fishermen of Isabela, who call themselves "pirates," are quite another story.