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There Are Guides, Then There's the Galápagos: Going Rogue on the Looney Front

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Dante had the Roman poet Virgil to guide him through the nine circles of Hell in the Inferno part of his Divine Comedy, and the Florentine beauty Beatrice to take him through Purgatory - and onward and upward to Paradise. Yours Truly has Class A war criminal Tojo to guide him round the Galápagos.

I normally avoid guided tours. But there are occasions when for budgetary or accessibility reasons an organised outing is the best bet. It is here that I sometimes find myself waging guerrilla warfare against some git, nowhere more so than on this seven-day Galápagos cruise. Don't get me wrong. Many guides I've had have been good. But then they're just not as much fun, are they?

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Tojo

OK, our Ecuadorian Galápagos guide is not a Japanese WWII soldier, but with his dark glasses and Japanese-style peaked military cap with the flap hanging down the back of his neck, he looks the part. The dictatorial dimension fits him like a kimono - Japan's war-time prime minister, later-to-be-hanged Tojo.

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Tojo climbs a mountain

We've barely boarded our little catamaran on San Cristóbal island - there are just 15 of us - and the tyranny begins. All I do is ask why we're not going to Fernandina, the westernmost island, as they used to.

"We're not, and that's it," he snaps back, no contradictions or I'll slice your head off.

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San Cristóbal

On Lobos island the sights are fantastic: magnificent male frigate birds in heat, huge red pouches inflated under their beaks; baby sea lion pups bleating and waddling up to us; large black marine iguanas in all their scaley and spikey splendour; blue-footed boobies perched on black volcanic crags; large iridescent crabs in orange, red and electric blue garb scampering over dark rocks.

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Frigate bird with inflated pouch

All I do is ask a question that's not in the preordained order of his spiel. "Wait! You wait!" he barks. How long will it be before we come to blows? Darwin used the Galápagos to posit his theory of natural selection. This guy's the epitome of unnatural selection.

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Sea lion pup

Meanwhile, my wife Rivka has a little problem getting her leg over the side of the dinghy to return to the catamaran - in fact she very nearly capsizes the bloody thing and Tojo is ever so slightly peeved. He orders it a few feet further south to another landing rock. Success, she's in! Followed by Yours Truly who narrowly misses biting the rocks. Followed by Tojo's 'night of the long knives' glare.

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Sea iguana

On Española, amid wall-to-wall sea lions and their little pups, Tojo's getting tetchier by the minute as some of his flock flap off before he's finished spouting.

"Come here! No, not there! Here! Keep with me!" he barks to restore order. His barking is infectious. It sets the beach-master sea lion males roaring to restore order among their 30-strong harems as other male challengers approach.

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Brightly coloured crab

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More crabs

On Floreana with its volcanic peaks, boobies plummet into the water, wings pressed back into the body, in a fantastic display of streamlined aerodynamics, like dive-bombing rockets with eyes - and Tojo detonates. I've moved too far to the right.

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Blue-footed booby

Back in the dinghy by the Devil's Crown, the spikey pinnacles of an old volcanic caldera barely surfacing out of the blue waters, dirty great pelicans perch on crags, their throat pouches dangling beneath their beaks - and Tojo's own wattle is flapping in indignation. I'm apparently rocking the boat, literally - and also metaphorically with some other misplaced question.

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Devil's Crown

On Isabela, with its five volcanoes and the spikey pinnacled lava field from some alien planet, fat marine iguanas waddle and bask, the males' black bodies blotched with wide splashes of red and green since they're in heat - and Tojo is certainly not basking. He's red and green with exasperation. I've moved too far to the left.

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Male iguana in heat

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And another one

On North Seymour a sea lion is making for me across the landing rocks, brandishing his flippers furiously, snapping his jaws like castanets and barking. Shoo, Rover, Shoo! But he's having none of that as his mouth fast approaches my leg. I back away smartly, almost knocking Tojo into a particularly spikey cactus. Well can't you see I was in extremis, Tojo? You shouldn't have been there.

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Isabela island

On Santa Cruz, amid green vegetation, large cactuses, a golden sand beach and a dark volcanic cone, even fatter yellow-orange land iguanas, twice the size of the marine version, laze in the blazing sun - and Tojo blazes away. It's not me this time. Somebody else has disordered his order.

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Land iguana

One particularly large specimen, meanwhile, a dinosaur in miniature, looks up in contempt, straightens his hind legs and craps. On the way back to the catamaran an Israeli in the group falls face down from a slippery rock into the dinghy, his legs flailing over the rocks.

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Santa Cruz island

As for the giant tortoises weighing up to 800 pounds, with a lifespan of nearly 200 years - well nobody can get Tojo's dander up here. He's withdrawn to the back of the platform by the enclosure.

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Haughty tortoise

But it all reaches a pinnacle, so to speak, on a pinnacle. "I'm the leader, wait, I go first," he hisses as I scamper ahead up 300 wooden steps towards the summit of the volcano on Bartolomé. We're off Santiago island amid a primordial landscape of barren volcanic cones, huge crags and scant vegetation, a veritable moonscape

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View from Bartolomé

I think I'm seriously going to kill him, except that it's far too public and crowded here as the loudly broadcast announcements from the Galapagos Explorer II, unloading its 100 tourists, pebble-bounce across the wavelets - reverberations to end all pleasant day-dreaming on such matters of higher import. Anyway that's if he doesn't get me first.

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Another view from Bartolomé

And it's not only me.

"I saw no shark," a German snorts at the evening briefing after dinner on the catamaran as Tojo tells him he must have seen it while snorkelling in the afternoon.

"Ah," says Tojo snottily, "you can't just look down through your mask; that way you see only a little, and not what's at your side. You should pay attention to me when I point out things."

"I saw no shark and I don't need to be told by you how to look. I've been diving for 25 years," the German growls.

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Booby chick

Two days later Tojo and the German are still glowering at each other - Germany and Tojo's putatively adopted Japan might have been allies during WWII, but there's no reprise of the love-fest here now.

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Another Santa Cruz view

A day later I'm reclining on deck, eyes closed, playing back images of the prehistoric creatures and landscapes, when I sense a presence lowering over me. I open my eyes. Tojo is hovering menacingly. "I hear you've been saying bad things and leading everyone else against me," he snarls.

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Catamaran at rest

Damn, the catamaran's crew has ratted on me. Now Tojo clearly wants to hang me from the mainbrace. I reply with true British phlegm: "Why, my dear chap, it's just that being a guide, you know, doesn't mean being a little Napoleon, or a little Tojo for that matter, ha ha, if you know what I mean, old bean."

Well, Old Bean doesn't. Now it really is eye-daggers drawn for the rest of the trip.

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Floreana view

On the final night, he gives us strict instructions, together with envelopes, on what tips to leave - $80 for the whole crew of eight from each of the eight cabins, and $50 from each of us for his high and mighty self. I'm not going to leave him anything, but Rivka starts going on at me about how I'll shame her and how embarrassing I am, yadda yadda yadda.

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Giant tortoise love fest

We're back at San Cristóbal, disembarking. I'm resting from the night's near-puking on the upper deck after a rough crossing when Tojo looms over me. "Have you handed in your envelope for me," he asks sweetly.

I have indeed - $40 from the both of us, just so as not to shame Rivka.

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Galápagos sunset