Sunday 31 August 2014

Days 137-141: Manali and the Hampta Pass - The kindness of goatherds

Colourful housing in Old Manali
After bus-ing past endless ranks of wooded hillsides we arrived in Manali - the cannabis capital of the Indian Himalayas.  The plant grows prolifically by the roadside and is apparently one of the main tourist attractions in the town.  What fools we are to have visited, instead, for the trekking possibilities!

First we spent a day preparing and seeing the sights of Manali, starting with the wooden Hadimba temple which rises almost organically from a woodland setting.  Inside stands a natural cave believed to have been used for meditation by Hadimba, wife of Bhima, in the holy book of the Ramayana.  We took off our shoes, covered our heads with Guy's buffs (outdoor gear that doubles conveniently as temple-wear - wouldn't the manufacturers be surprised if they knew?), and received the tilaka (red mark) on our foreheads.

Then we headed into town to buy trekking supplies. To our surprise, Twinings tea, pesto and tricolor pasta all turned out to be readily available so there was no need to adapt our trekking diet in favour of rotis for breakfast and curried noodles later.

Feeling smug, it was time to be taken down a peg in Old Manali, where we discovered that we are old - completely past it, in fact, in backpacker terms.  In Old Manali, you do not fit into the local scene if you are wearing a single item of clothing that isn't tie-died.  Ideally, you shouldn't have shaved for a few months either and being stoned is definitely an option. We fail on so many counts.

Entrance to the Hadimba Temple
Apples (as well as Hashish) are everywhere in Manali
Nonetheless, we enjoyed wandering around the old wooden tiered houses with cows tethered outside and mountain views beyond.  We tried to take arty photographs (with more success in Guy's case than mine, as usual!), then visited the Manu temple.

Anniversary dinner at Hotel Mountain Trail
It lies at the centre of  the Hindu Noah's Ark story; Manu's ark is believed to have come to rest in Manali after God's flood abated.  The information board admits that there is no archaeological evidence for this, but if you're looking for high ground in the world then the Himalaya is at least a good place to start.

Back at the excellent Mountain Trail Hotel, we met a young couple who were celebrating their fourth wedding anniversay in Manali.  They invited us for dinner 'Punjabi-style' (rotis and dhal - "rice has too much fat in it," they warned us) followed by chocolate cake to celebrate.

The only dampener on our day (apart from the realisation that we aren't correctly attired to be proper backpackers) was the discovery of some information online about a spate of killings in the hills around Manali.  Over twenty people have gone missing in the Parvati valley (the location of a trek we had considered) and there were also reports of a trekker being beaten to death on Hampta Pass (our chosen destination). Was this still a danger? Did we need to change our plans?

We consulted a trekking agency in town that runs treks to Hampta.  "Yes," they told us, "there was a killing there but it was ten years ago.  It's perfectly safe these days to do the trek alone."  The 'ten years' figure corresponded to online reports, while a quick check of the Rough Guide suggested that only Pin Parvati pass, not Hampta Pass, is still dangerous.  As a final cautionary measure, our hotel owner found out for us that a group of trekkers had set out for Hampta Pass the day before us.  Could we catch them up and camp with them for safety?

The trail near to Chikka

Goats on the trail
No problem.  At 10am the next morning, we drove to a dam at 3,000m above sea level and started walking up the river valley.  By 5:30pm we had caught the other group at their second night's encampment, where they met us with respect when they heard we'd come from Manali that morning.  Thanks to weeks on the trail in the Andes, we are well-trained.

The scenery couldn't have been more different from our previous experience of the Indian Himalayas, in arid Ladakh.  Around Manali, the hills are green and lush, the rain plentiful (it kept going for most of the day), and the river valleys sprayed with flowers in all the colours of a Nepali prayer flag.

One of the more friendly river crossings!
White was the most widespread hue, but not in floral form; rivers of sheep and goats flowed past us to a sound track of shepherds' whistles.  "They are descending from the hills before the first snows arrive," our hotel owner told us later.  "In a week or two they will have descended to the height of Manali."  We were to become better-acquainted with the goatherds later in the trek ... but I'm skipping ahead of the story.

On the second day, we climbed the final few hundred metres of moraine to the Hampta Pass.  In doing so, we had crossed from a fragrant pine-clad world to a more austere rocky one; from the foothills, perhaps, into the Himalaya proper.  On our right, high rocky pinnacles probed the monsoon clouds and thick glaciers flowed towards us, while the valley ahead played down the floral theme and picked a more rugged style of embellishment.

Flocks crossing the Hampta Pass
View from the Hampta Pass
GSI tents are the orange dots
Valley of flowers

After half an hour's descent we had reached its bottom and found a large encampment, with the words 'Indian Field Study in Glaciology, 2014' written in stones.  Geologist Guy was pleased to find such a study taking place, while I cynically wondered if this was actually an Indian army encampment training to resupply the troops on the Sichuan glacier in Ladakh, in the world's highest-altitude military stand-off with the Chinese.  But no, the guides accompanying the other group of trekkers assured us that it was the Geological Survey of India, not the Indian Army, occupying the camp.  So much for my cynicism.

We made camp early, fortunately, as heavy rain started around mid-afternoon.  We sat in our tent reading 'Collapse' by Jared Diamond while hoping that our tent did not illustrate this title under the pressure of the downpour.  Once the thunder abated we poked our heads out and discovered that ours was one of the only tents not to have become waterlogged and had to move.  Full marks to Guy for tent placement.

Susan enjoying pasta in a non-waterlogged tent!
By the next morning, the skies were clear and we set out early in the hope of making the mid-day bus from our destination, Chittru, back to Manali.  We had visions of sitting in Manali with beer and cake by mid-afternoon.  Everything seemed to be going well as we romped down the mountain, taking photos of mountains and flowers and more mountains in passing.  Then the path steepened and began traversing a slab where a ledge a little narrower than the ball of your foot, and irregular handholds, offered onward passage.

Surely this couldn't be the way?  We tried climbing a little higher in the hope of finding an easier route.  Then we saw two men and a goat below us.  We hollered.  They hollered back and pointed to the way they had come (ie. the way we had just rejected).  The guidebook had described this path as 'only for goats', in contrast to the straightforward path on the other side of the bridge-less river.  But we count as goats, right?  And if one had just crossed, on its four knobbly-kneed legs, then so could we.

The slab and river from the far bank (river is about 10m wide!).
We gave it a second shot, but we must have looked pretty shaky as we soon found one of the goat herds skipping along beside us to show us the way.  His footwear was only a notch up from a pair of flip-flops and he definitely wasn't clad in Merino wool or Gore-tex, but his nerves were certainly made from a far superior fabric to ours.  We looked at the seventy-degree slab of rock containing the 'path', then at the fangs of rock protruding from the foaming river below.  We gulped.

With the friendly goatherd's help, we made it across two dubious sections of the slab.  Then, just as a clear path emerged on grassland ahead of us (end in sight!), we came up against the trickiest part of all.  It was a friction move, without any handholds worthy of the name, and Guy decided it was too risky to attempt without a rope.  Only for goats indeed!  There was nothing for it but to retrace our steps up the valley, with our patient goatherd still skipping alongside.

We gave him some money and made a prayer sign, in the absence of common language.  This was our way of saying 'thanks for your help on the rocks' but he may have taken it as an exhortation to get us across the river to a safer path.  Moments later he was standing with his trouser legs rolled up amid the gushing water.  He had found us a section of river where the cascade levelled and broadened slightly so we waded after him, through the liquid refrigerator, where our legs burned with cold.  Then he pulled me up onto the bank, nipped back across the river and waved goodbye.  We breathed a sigh of relief.  Hopefully the ordeals of the day were now over, thanks to the kindness of goat herds.

After an hour's descent to Chittru, a round of chai, and a couple of hours wait for the bus to arrive, we were on our way.  Under motor power once again, Manali was almost within touching distance, wasn't it?  What we hadn't quite realised was that the bus must cross a high-altitude pass to reach the Kullu Valley (where Manali lies); nor had we quite factored in the monsoon condition of the roads.

Fixing the puncture
In fact, it took four hours to traverse the next seventeen kilometres (averaging walking pace) and we gibbered with fear for the duration.  It was one of those journeys on which, if you are that way inclined, you should probably take your last rites before boarding.  I just hope (but doubt) that the driver has life insurance.  Standing in the aisle of the overcrowded bus, I could feel us lurching, almost at capsize-angle, along a rutted track only inches wider than the bus, with the river gurgling at the bottom of the sheer drop on our right.  DO NOT look down!

A couple of days ago I read a newspaper article about a bus coming off the road in Himachal Pradesh and killing most of its passengers.

JCB at work repairing the road
(whilst military trucks wait)
The authorities were quoted as saying that they would be 'investigating the causes of the accident'.  I just hope they don't bust a gut on the investigation; looking at the pot-holed road with its adjoining precipice, the causes seemed relatively straightforward.

After an early stop to fix a punctured tyre, we advanced a few kilometres before our first sighting of oncoming vehicles.  They were waiting for the road to be repaired and we joined them for a couple of hours until two trucks removed the last of the fallen rocks.  I again read 'Collapse'.  What a versatile title it is - appropriate to so many situations!

Once under way again, Guy tried a couple of chirpy comments:

Guy: "Well, at least I managed to get my socks dry while we were stopped" (my internal response: "you'll find that a great comfort when the bus plunges over a precipice").

Guy: "I'm really looking forward to my mutter paneer tonight"  (in my head: "the only thing I'm looking forward to right now is being able to see a hundred metres of road that won't pitch me over a cliff").

Hold on tight (for six hours!!!)
Eventually we reached the top of the Rohtang Pass and began descending - only two thousand metres of descent to go!

We had re-crossed the barrier between the rugged valley and its more fertile sibling.  Wooded gorges surrounded us; pine-clad ridges marched away into the mist; the occasional boulder set off the lush green of the valley sides.  But the beauty of those gorges derived partly from their steep sides over which our bus could so easily topple at any moment.  We gulped again.  It was a day for gulping.

After six hours of standing in the aisle, perspiring with fear, we made it back to Manali.  We expected our hotel to be full, as surely nothing could go right today, but our luck had turned.  The hotel had space; it had food; it had beer.  (There is even an abundance of calming weeds growing along the roadsides outside.)  But a hot shower is the chosen drug of trekkers.

We had only been away from Manali for three days.  It had been one of our briefer treks, but rather an eventful one!

View from the tent at dusk on day two as the storm clears

Thursday 28 August 2014

Days 134-136: Shimla - Summer Capital of the Raj

The "toy train" winds it's way up to Shimla
The toy train from Kalka to Shimla is scenic and cramped in almost equal measure, but the scenery just about wins the day.  We spent five hours huddled amongst our bags, sometimes with three people to a seat, staring out of the windows at wooded hillsides.

Winding round and round the pine-clad slopes, the train climbed gradually into a welcome world of cooler air rolling down from the Himalayas until we reached Shimla at 2,000m above sea level.

We could happily stay for a while in Shimla - and we aren't the first Britons to have that thought.  It was the capital of British India for six months of the year, when the British officials decided to remove their sweating bodies from Calcutta and, later, Delhi to this hill station to avoid the monsoonal heat of the plains.

Meanwhile it's full-sized counterpart has reached
the end of the line at Kalka.
It seems odd to think of such a quaint little town, accessed by a toy railway, presiding over thousands of miles of the subcontinent - but perhaps no odder than little Britain lording it (sometimes brutally) over India in the first place.

We visited the Viceregal Lodge - a beautiful building that now serves as a thinktank and centre of post-doctoral research in the humanities - but once hosted the Shimla conference, a last-ditch attempt to keep India undivided on the brink of independence.  The conference failed and the Lodge became the summer home of India's Prime Ministers until it was converted into the Centre for Advanced Studies.  Inside, you can still visit the conference room and see photographs of the conference delegates amongst wood-panelled rooms.

The former Viceregal Lodge,
scene of the Shimla Conference
After an interesting morning, we decided it was time to revert to colonial habits and take tea - or mocktails and beer, in our case.  We chose Rudyard Kipling's hang-out at The Cedars, which was a beautiful place for a drink but otherwise well above my place in life!

The last stop of the day was the ... temple and Hanuman statue on the hillside above Shimla.  By the time we arrived, the hillsides had wrapped themselves in mist and become a strange other-worldly place.  Even Hanuman was considering burying his head in the cloud, but even on a clear day we would not have seen his face in detail; he is so tall that Guy barely reaches above his ankles.

Susan dwarfed by Hanuman
Yet Hanuman did not have the greatest presence in the glade.  The show was stolen by a bunch of cheeky monkeys who either do not know, or do not care, about the commandment "thou shalt not covet they neighbour's goods".

One held a pair of spectacles in its hand.  Another pair fought over a red scarf that they'd grabbed from an unsuspecting visitor.  A third presided over a solitary shoe.

We were handed sticks to ward them off and we took it in turns to take photos so that there was always one person on monkey watch.  Concentrating on anything amidst their antics would have been difficult, but a few of the faithful managed it inside the small Hindu temple, where we played a brief visit.  Then it was time to return to the colonial buildings along the mall and dine on curry - not for the last time!

Bording the Himalayan Queen at Kalka
The train starts to wind its way upwards
Shimla by night
The view from Hotel White: worth the money for a room with a valley view!

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Days 132-133: Amritsar - The sublime and the ridiculous

An Indian BSF guard at the
Wagah Border Crossing
As we descended towards Delhi airport we signed an unusual declaration on our customs form.  Visitors are not allowed to bring maps or books into India showing the boundaries of the country incorrectly.  Really?  I thought customs forms denied the presence of agricultural products or ostentatious amounts of currency in your baggage?  But when I read the statement again I realised it probably meant something like: 'you may not bring maps or books into India that show Kashmir as a state of Pakistan or as an independent nation'.

A day and a half later Guy and I arrived by train in Amritsar, in the Punjab, and took a taxi to the Wagah Border - India's sole border crossing with Pakistan.  Even before I had fully emerged from the taxi, I was pounced on by four young men wielding green, white, orange and blue paint.  It took less than thirty seconds for my arms and face to sprout four Indian flags and I had to shout 'no more, no more' or I might have ended up with more flags than fingers.  When they finally put down their paint brushes, I naturally had to pay for my 'purchase'.   Welcome to the Wagah border ceremony!

We were ushered towards a grandstand by an Indian soldier whose name, embroidered on his uniform, was 'Surender' - a little unfortunate for a soldier.  I can only hope he didn't notice when I surrendered to the giggles.  In front of the grandstand read a sign saying 'India's first line of defence' with a drum kit stationed immediately above it.  I love the idea that India's first defence is to blast pop music at its opponents.  But it was a good symbol of the ceremony, which was something between a disco and a military parade.

The Indian side looking well-attended
The Pakistan side needs a few more people to fill the
ridiculously-sized grandstand they have built!
First, the border became a dance floor with an open door to all female participants, while girls ran up and down with the Indian flag.  Meanwhile, music blared, fighting with the soundwaves emanating from the Pakistani side of the border - the endlessly repeated words 'Pakistan, Pakistan', using only three notes of the octave.  As you can probably tell, my ears weren't exactly wowed, although it was something of a spectacle.

(What would we do against the French, I wonder?  Say: you're playing Debussy, are you?  Well then, we'll play Elgar.  Oh, so you're wheeling out Faure now?  Fine, I give you Vaughn WIlliams.  What, Poulenc too?  Well Benjamin Britten can easily match up to him. ... Or would the Spice Girls just wail across the channel, sapping the morale of all those in their path?)

Flags get lowered in sync at sunset
I digress ... It was something of a battle of the bands for a while, then members of the army marched up to the Pakistani border, performed a series of moves resembling a mock-fight, then lowered the flag and marched back again.  Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, but surely there's something contradictory about enacting a mock-battle yet co-operating with each other fully in order to choreograph it.  Is this ceremony a demonstration of co-ordination or enmity?

Feeling slightly foolish, we returned to the hotel to wash numerous Indian flags off our bodies before heading into town again.

Our next stop was Amritsar's most famous site, the Golden Temple.  By night, its gold and marble buildings shimmered in the water, while tourists and pilgrims alike circled around, taking photos or sitting and praying.  I liked the way it felt 'lived-in' - as though it is primarily a place for worship (an odd thought for a devout atheist?) rather than just for gawping at.

A guard gazes across the water at the golden temple
We returned to it the next afternoon, to see it in daylight, after a visit to Jullianwala Bagh.  This is a garden commemorating the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, where bullet holes remain visible in the walls and a small museum narrates the history of the massacre.  It included statements by General Dyer, who commanded his troops to fire on unarmed protesters in the gardens, killing over 350 people (possibly many more).  His statement, in summary, said that his response to the protest was the minimum that the situation required and that if he'd had more troops at his disposal he'd have made damned sure to kill more people.  What a lovely chap.  Yet he was never even court-martialled.  (What a lovely colonial regime, to think this unnecessary.)

Jullianwala Bagh, the scene of the 1919 massacre
We wandered around the garden, stopping at times when people asked if they could have their photograph taken with us.  We had met with the same request numerous times in the previous twenty-four hours, first at the Wagah border ceremony where I assumed people found us a hilarious spectacle with Indian flags painted on our cheeks, melting in the sweat of our pasty white skin.  But the same requests came thick and fast at the Golden Temple, where I felt uncomfortable posing as a minor celebrity in a place of worship.  And here in Jullianwala Bagh it was an even stranger experience - the countrymen of General Dyer posing for a photoshoot.  Bizarre.

After a final curry (about the sixth of the trip?) we left Amritsar by train for the five-hour ride to Chandigarh.  A seat in the 'AC Chair Car' (the rung below first class) cost us about a pound an hour each (approximately £99 an hour less than the fee extorted by Richard Branson?) and provided us with at least double the leg room of a Virgin train.  Tomorrow will be another day of train journeys as we head into the foothills of the Himalayas.

A lady bearing the Indian flag runs past a BSF official dwarfing his massive hat. 
Mary was cooking beans! Susan queuing to get into the temple. 
The causeway lined with pilgrims
Susan with some new-found friends
Wonderful outfits on display! 
Apparently it's every Sikh's duty to work for a week at the golden temple.
These women are helping out with the washing up.
Cycle rickshaws plying the streets of Amritsar

Day 131 - Welcome to Delhi!

Auto-rickshaw ride to Connaught Place
Well, after a short hiatus back in Blighty to recharge batteries and do a bit of admin we're back on the road! First stop: Delhi.

Last time we were here in August 2011 we had the journey from hell: planes cancelled, bags delayed, rip-off hotels and monsoon rains. This time we had a super-smooth flight on Jet Airways, we were picked up (with bags!) by a driver from the hotel and the weather... hmmm still hot but sunny with no signs of rain!

We stuck with the familiar and took an auto-rickshaw to Connaught place and had dinner and cocktails at the Q-BA. Tomorrow we head to Amritsar and our first experience of Indian trains!

Candlelit supper on the terrace at Q-BA

Monday 25 August 2014

Day 107: The Galápagos Islands Day 8 - Farewell

Even the Sea Lions were sad to see us go!
After a rough night that put paid to all suggestions of a farewell party, we docked back where we started our cruise: in San Cristobal harbour.  We enjoyed watching the antics of the sea lions and crabs again, but we didn't take any photos.  Today, photographic gluttony comes to an end.

Before leaving the islands, we had time for a quick visit to the Interpretation Centre, to be shocked by the human history of the islands: a tale of piracy, penal colonies with horrendous conditions, colonial competition and decimation of species like the giant tortoise to fill ships' galleys (tortoises can live for months without feeding so they sit perfectly on the menu in the latter part of a ship's voyage.  Unfortunately, there's nothing perfect about this for the tortoise).  There was also plenty of information about Darwin, the theory of evolution, and the formation of the islands, but with an Earth Sciences degree and three years' work experience at the Natural History Museum between us, those are the sides of the islands' history that we were most au fait with at the outset.  Instead of lingering, we went for a final wander down to the beach to say our farewells to our most constant daily companions - guess who? - the sea lions.  Then it was time to go to the airport, rejecting the boobie t-shirts for the final time in passing.

Guayaquil, the night's destination, boasts burger bars and traffic, chain stores and banks, the ceaseless growl of engines, express kidnappings by taxi.  Glancing out to sea, the Galápagos Islands lie hidden far far below the horizon.  Couldn't we go back there and stay with the turtles, please?

Day 106: The Galápagos Islands Day 7 - The best snorkelling yet?

Snorkelling with turtles never fails to delight!
The island of South Plaza has a gender balance problem.  It's a warm island and the gender of a reptile depends on the temperature while the egg is incubating, so the output is almost entirely female.  Consequently, members of the island's rather drab-looking sisterhood are all seeking a splendid sulphurous yellow mate, mostly without success.  So a hybrid iguana species has emerged from pairings between male marine iguanas and female land iguanas.  Unfortunately we didn't manage to spot any of these hybrids but we saw plenty of female land iguanas (a languorous lot who didn't exactly look like they were doing their utmost to find a mate).

A land iguana roams amongst the barren scenery
of South Plaza island
Even without any iguana antics, South Plaza would still be a beautiful island.  Like several of the Galapagos' volcanic outposts, the rock here is dark and thinly colonised with bright red and green plants - a striking contrast.  Walking between shrubs, we climbed gently to the top end of the island, which is shaped like a tilted table.

At the far point, sea cliffs suddenly dropped away before our feet, bustling with the many bird species we saw on Daphne but closer to hand and in greater abundance.  It was a top spot for taking action shots of flying birds, diving birds, perching birds, feeding birds, preening birds, nesting birds - the full avian experience.  The air was thick with them.

A red-billed tropic bird soars above the cliffs of South Plaza
Back on board, we passaged across open water from South Plaza to Santa Fe island, accompanied by a new entry on the bird-spotters' list: the Galapagos Albatross.  As we approached land, the captain also spotted a Humpback Whale and we all piled onto the decks to watch.  But even this excitement was easily out-matched by the afternoon's snorkelling session.  Within moments of entering the water we were surrounded by about ten sea lions who dived and played in front of us.  After a decent stint in the front row seats, almost close enough to touch them, we reluctantly dragged ourselves away so we could swim with turtles on the far shore.  They were more plentiful than ever and never slipped out of sight for the rest of the session.  This was our final snorkelling session and, with the possible exception of Kicker Rock, it was the best yet.

Unfortunately the sharks failed to round off the day with a visit, despite the guide's promise that he'd booked them, but our faithful pelican bobbed at the rear of the boat until we motored away.

Tomorrow: back to San Cristobal and the strange world of twenty-first century aviation - a far cry from the world of the turtles.

A land iguana scoffs prickly-pear cactus fruit
Soaring swallow-tailed gulls on the cliffs of South Plaza
Sea Lion sleeps on Santa Fe
I counted 74 Sea Lions on this beach!
Sometimes it's hard to obey the 2m distance rule. The wildlife is very unafraid of humans!

Day 105: The Galápagos Islands Day 6 - Feathered life

A solitary flamingo filter-feeds 
This morning it was time to pay a call on the flamingos in a pool below Dragon Hill (which, if you haven't noticed the pattern of Galapagos Island names yet, is so-called because it looks like the spout of a dragon poised to spurt flame).

Here lay yet another different and beautiful landscape.  If we had seen nothing but the flamingo pool on our short morning hike we would have been satisfied, but the environs also threw in a host of land iguana sightings for good measure - the first time we had seen them in the wild.

Dragon Hill from the flamingo pool
A more elevated view of Dragon Hill
Pelican eyes up crab
Land Iguana near Dragon Hill
The increasingly-familiar pattern of the trip meant that, after the hike, it was time to don bikinis and snorkels.  We swam around a bay decorated with more than its share of starfish and waited for the turtles to join us.  They didn't let us down.  Swimming with turtles has been one of my highlights of the trip and I'm glad we've had several opportunities.  In the water, they are decidedly more graceful than their distant land-based cousins, the lumbering tortoises, as they swim placidly beside you.  It's hard to imagine what you would have to do to ruffle a turtle.  (Actually, given the more aggressive sea life out there, it isn't that hard to imagine, but we'll stick to the image of turtles doing breaststroke in shallow sunny waters for now.)

The more aggressive sea life wasn't far away though.  In the afternoon, while the boat re-fuelled, some of us visited a nearby beach to take yet more sea lion photos.  We were surprised to see a shark jumping clear of the water not far from the shore ("another first," said the guide) and even more surprised that he swam right into the shallows.  Some spotted eagle rays were the next callers, rippling up and down the bay.  With such visitors on hand, we ceased ogling the family of sunbathing sea lions and focused on life in the water.

Heading for Daphne Major in the Pangas
Back on board, with the taint of fuel in the air, we motored out to an island called Daphne Major and circled it a couple of times.  Landing is not allowed but as most of the local inhabitants are feathered and live on the sea cliffs, this isn't really a problem.  Along with the obligatory sea lion sightings, we saw plenty of Swallow-tailed Gulls (with their red, drugged eyes), Notty Turns (are we sure they aren't Naughty?), a third species of boobie (the Nazca Boobie) whose taste in footwear is less colourful than his cousins', and my personal favourite, the Red-billed Tropic Bird, with the delicate feathers of his long white tail trailing behind.

Although the main species on my Galapagos hit-list when I arrived were mammals or reptiles (iguanas, giant tortoises, fur seals, turtles), feathered life turns out to be rather exciting too. After associating bird-watching as a child with wriggling my cold toes in my wellies while staring at a distant speck that could just as well be a paper bag as a gull, I may become a convert to birdwatching after all.

A marine iguana climbs out of the flamingo pool
Heading out to Daphne Major... wot no blokes?
Frigate birds soar on the uplift from the boat
It's not called a "cruise" for no reason!