by Lyn Li Che, Grade 12
Heads bowed and necks white with sunblock, the group of intrepid explorers trudged up the beach diligently, their feet sinking into the soft white sand. A frigate bird flew overhead, its inflated red pouch in full view as a strange rock-coloured marine iguana exhaled a spray of saltwater but neither creature elicited much interest from the group. Meanwhile, a lava lizard hunkered down on a lava rock, as further down the beach, a sea lion raised its flipper lazily as it basked in the sun. The guide signalled and the group came to an abrupt halt, craning their necks as they tried to see what lay in front of them. “What, what is it?” they grumbled impatiently. Then they saw what the fuss was all about – a small flock of flamingos striding regally through a shallow lagoon, ignoring their presence. Was this some sort of big budget nature documentary? Or some sort of exotic walk-in zoo? No, it was the 2010 SMUS Ecuador and Galapagos trip!
Held over Spring Break, the trip was truly unforgettable as it allowed participants the chance to explore one of the most biodiverse countries in the world: Ecuador, home to about 15% of the world’s known bird species and over 16,000 plants. The best part was that we had the privilege of being accompanied by SMUS’ very own Mr. Michael Jackson, who is one of the foremost experts on the Galapagos Islands (his book is even used as a reference in training local Galapagos tour guides). Accompanied by Mr. Jackson and Ms. Tobacco, six SMUS students and two parents set off on a three-week adventure through Ecuador that included excursions to the Ecuadorian highlands, Amazon jungle and the Galapagos Islands.
The trip started with a gruelling day-long plane ride that took us to the capital city of Quito from Victoria. From there, we ventured into the cloud forests – so named for the foggy mists that typically blanketed the area. To our delight, our lodge turned out to be a haven for birds. We manage to spot just about every bird in the forest from the luxury of our own hotel lobby — from tiny hummingbirds that buzzed past our heads to a pair of colourful aracaris (mini toucans) and even an owl. Over our short stay at the cloud forest, we made an early-morning trek to spot the elusive Andean cock-of-the-rock, became friends with vibrant butterflies and were dazzled by a stunning array of endemic orchids.
The cloud forest was a great introduction to Ecuador, as the next stop was the remote Cuyabeno wildlife reserve nestled deep in the regions of the Amazon jungle. Our journey into the jungle involved a jeep ride followed by a ride in a dugout canoe from which we saw wasp nests, monkeys, macaws, and toucans. We even managed to spot the elusive pink river dolphin (which turned out to be more grey rather than pink). Over the four nights that we stayed in the rain forest, it rained almost constantly. It’s one thing to be caught in a measly Victoria drizzle, and another to be caught in a horrendous torrential downpour. Everything was so wet, yet that did not dampen our spirits.
There, we hiked forest trails, fished for piranhas (Ms Tobacco caught a catfish instead!), visited a native village, went caiman-spotting (ironically, the caimans came to our lodge), were almost frightened to death by a lobster-sized grasshopper, and got to channel our inner Tarzan as we swung from vines and swam in the lagoon. The best part was that the lodge we stayed at was very open air, so we really got the chance to experience nature. Even the rainforest creatures decided to pay us a visit – from frogs in our showers to whopping spiders on our mosquito nets and a boa constrictor behind the kitchen.
After the rainforest, we briefly visited the Otavalo area, home to the famous Otavalo market and some of the oldest haciendas (former colonial Spanish estates) in Ecuador, before heading off to the Galapagos Islands. Over 600 miles from the mainland, the equatorial islands’remoteness, frequent volcanic activity and location have made it one of the most unique places on the earth. Once there, we joined up with two other couples and boarded the MV Daphne, our floating home for the next week and a bit. We toured from island to island and were truly amazed by the sheer multitude of animals and plant life on the mostly barren landscapes.
Whether it was observing the imposing orange land iguanas on Santa Fe island or walking amongst vast seabird colonies, we were struck by how close to nature we were as we say creatures living, dying and carrying on with their lives without giving us the slightest bit of attention. We saw so many things, from penguins (fun fact: the Galapagos Islands is the only place in the world where penguins nest above the equator) and giant-tortoises to fighting marine iguanas and even an unfortunate dying heron. We were lucky that we arrived during the so-called rainy season (it rained all of 20 minutes while we were there) so the islands were reasonably lush and it wasn’t so hot. It was also the start of the mating season for the frigate birds and the blue-footed boobies so we were treated to some awesome mating displays along the way. Not to be forgotten are the fantastic snorkeling opportunities we had, which allowed us to swim with sea lions, spot sea turtles and even catch a glimpse of a hammerhead shark. It was truly a mind-blowing trip.
At the end of our journey, we were all a bit sad to leave as we had all grown to love the country and its diversity so much. We left the country with heavy hearts and even heavier bags, still unable to believe what an incredible trip we had had and what amazing experiences we had shared. I strongly urge all SMUS students to go on future school trips to the Galapagos – it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will leave you all eager to go back someday.