I am on a island in the Juan Fernandez archipelago. Words cannot begin to describe what I feel when I wake up being in this remote part of the world. The Pacific Ocean is outside my window, I am the only person staying in this lodge and there are two other tourists i’ve met are a father and son from Santiago.
Isla Robinson Crusoe is one of three small islands off the coast of Chile. It is not an easy journey to get here. You have to take a small plane for two hours from Santiago. The airstrip on the island is long and narrow and is cut between beautiful jagged rock faces. Hurtling in towards the pristine Tarmac (only two flights a week), the tiny plane’s wings dip right and and left as the pilot carefully manoeuvres the aircraft down. A jeep then negotiates the steep cliff face down to a small jetty and from there a speed boat will take you bouncing hard up and down on the waves for one hour around the island to get to the village – San Juan Bautista. It is isolated to say the least. But what a journey. I feel so privilege to have found it and comes here for my birthday. Lots of locals on the mainland raised their eyebrows when I told them where I was headed. The question was: Why?
My answer: Diving!
The population on the island is about 600 although I have only see about 50 people during my stay here. No one speaks English so I am struggling with pigeon Spanish and sign language. On Saturday a cruise ship docked for five hours and 800 retired Americans descended on the village. The quiet before the storm saw many people get up early to open up their stores and souvenirs steals in the hope of cashing in on the influx of potential spenders. It was great for the community in terms of tourism, but what a horror show. Most locals go to Santiago maybe twice a year if they can afford it. Food is delivered here twice a month. It’s an island that still bears the scars of a Tsunami in 2010.
It struck at 4am when everyone was asleep. It ravaged just one part of the island and many people lost everything. Home, businesses destroyed in an instant. One man I met, a fisherman and restauranteur saw the ocean suck his wife out to sea. He thought he would never see her again. But miraculously she managed to survive, like hundreds of others. Only a handful of villagers actually died. It’s a time no one really wants to talk about, even today.
The island’s name comes from the story of a Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk who survived a voluntary exile in 1704. He lasted four years and four months with a trunk of tools, a musket, a cauldron a small amount of tobacco, a pound of gun powder and a bible. While here Selkirk tracked and devoured feral animals wearing their skins. When he was finally rescued, he was called “a man cloth’d in goat skins, who looks wilder that the first owners of them.” Selkirk’s time is said to have inspired Daniel Defoe’s 1719 well-known classic “The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.” The epic saga of his life on this remote oceanic island prompted the Chileans to change the name of the island from Masatierra to Robinson Crusoe in 1966.
I have spent my days diving in the chilly waters here. Every time I scuba somewhere new in the world I am challenged. Here the water has strong currents and the temperature is just 16 degrees. At least ten degrees lower than what I am used. My poor blood circulation has meant after about 40mins I start getting cramp and I start to lose the feeling in my fingers and toes. At times it has been excruciating, but I have pushed through. Why bother? Because this area is a world conservation area. I am wearing a 7mm wet suit, a hood, booties and gloves. The visibility is crystal clear. I have seen anchors that are 18th Century old, abandoned by sailors after their boats crashed on the rocks now part of the seabed. They are covered in all manner of aquatic life. This is Lobster haven, you lose count how many you see – which would explain why it is a main source of economy here – and yes I have been indulging daily! There are many fish I have no idea of the species and lots of octopus, scorpion fish, and huge moray eels.
On Monday my week began diving with a colony of about 100 sea lions. Their correct name is the Juan Fernandez Fur Seal endemic to theses islands. The exhilaration of being in the water with these animals was immense. They have a curious nature and some are very large. Providing you respect that these like all wild animals are not pets I think you keep yourself safe. I did not try to hang onto them or stroke them I just let then swim about me in a frenzy. If they start vocalising and baring teeth avoid eye contact and move away. You;re pissing them off and if you push your luck they may bite you. I was giggling under water if that’s possible. They are so comical but equally gracefully. They are the dogs of the sea and the majority just wanna play. It was so amazing. Their energy is infectious I thought nothing could beat snorkelling with dolphins in Hawaii but I think I have trumped myself!!! The infants are particularly boisterous and run circles around you and on the surface they come very close popping up next to you look you straight in the eye before coughing and spraying you as they dive under again. I was smiling non stop all day. Beautiful.
They next two days are going to be on land unfortunately. Diving is not a cheap activity and I intend to do more of that off Easter Island in a few weeks. Tomorrow and Wednesday I will be hiking some of the famous trails. The ancient volcanic origin of the island becomes more evident when you begin to climb the rugged hill range and ocean-facing cliffs. I saw this as I flew over The landscape on my way in. Apparently this geology is also similar to the Galapagos (yes it is on my list – maybe next year?!!)
The bird species I am looking forward to seeing are two varieties of hummingbird – Firecrowns and the very comically named Tit-Tyrant. Both are endemic to the island from the dozens of species found here.
There are supposed to be some amazing forests here. But sadly the fragile ecosystem is threatened from human activity after the introduction of new plant and animals species, not to mention logging. The biodiversity here on Robinson Crusoe has been ranked in the World Biosphere Reserve, another reason I am here. After being holed up in a concrete city for five months I have been gagging to get out into the wilderness once more and this has been the perfect tonic.