|Floreana, Island of Death|
|2||The Ghosts of Post Office Bay|
|3||The Tragic Year|
|4||The Haven of Peace|
|5||The Early Settlers|
|6||The Search for Saydee Reiser|
|San Cristóbal, Island of Springs|
|8||Return To Paradise|
|10||At the Mercy of Wind and Current|
|11||Life in Puerto Baquerizo|
|12||The Americans Arrive|
|14||The Colonization of San Cristóbal|
|15||Of Treasures and Other Things|
|16||The Franciscan Missionaries|
|17||Tourists and Scientists|
|Santa Cruz, Island of the Norwegians|
|18||Date Palms, Wild Goats, Spiny Lobsters|
|19||The Early Inhabitants of Santa Cruz|
|20||Life of the Settlers|
|21||The Quest for Salt|
|22||The Island of the Buccaneers|
|23||Of Tortoises and Cacti|
|24||Goodbye to Paradise|
All rights to the present work belong to the author. You are however welcome to use any part of it provided you mention its source, a courtesy I would expect from anybody who is provided with free access to another's work. I hope you enjoy reading this and find it interesting and useful. Any comments you may have are appreciated.
I would like to thank my daughter, designer Ingrid Lundh, and our mutual friend photographer Erik Thallaug for their offer to help me with the copying of slides and other photographic material for these pages, which will be used in the future.—J. P. Lundh (1928-2012)
e-mail: (Jake's daughter)
Since the 1960's, there has been much published about the islands, especially scientific papers. What has been written for the general public is, now as before, not to be taken at face value, though it must be admitted that most articles and books only have unimportant errors, something to be expected when people write about exotic regions they visit for a very limited time. The photographic material is nowadays invariably good. In addition, two websites are of interest:
In 1931, my father, Captain Herman Hoff Lundh, decided to travel to Ecuador to investigate the possibility of settling in the Galápagos Islands. He wanted to leave Norway as he was certain that the situation in Europe—as it appeared at the time—would inevitably lead to a Communist takeover of most of the continent. He arrived to the islands at the beginning of the following year, finding Santa Cruz very attractive. Here was a small colony of Norwegians already established on the south of the island, in the village of Puerto Ayora. The Norwegians at that time made up half the permanent population of Santa Cruz, the total number of which scarcely reached a dozen souls. When my father returned to Guayaquil, he was accompanied by one of the founders of Puerto Ayora, Gordon Wold, whom he had made his partner in order to purchase the sailing vessel Santa Inez. Our fate had been decided. My mother, Helga Bjørgo Lundh, and I, who was only three and a half years old, left Norway around the middle of the year to join my father.
The Santa Inez was destined to failure from the very beginning. Wold, who shared the settlers' dream of having a means of transportation to the mainland owned by settlers, let himself be led by this wish, convincing my father. The fact that most of the cargo in the islands belonged to the sugar plantation on San Cristóbal, which had its own vessel, did not seem to carry any weight. It was thought that the limited income provided by the cargo from Isabela and Santa Cruz could be successfully supplemented with fishing, though dry fish did not sell well except just before Easter. In other words, the project was started on totally false premises. After her third voyage, the Santa Inez was sold on account of some bad luck and a great number of losses that had to be covered by my father.
After nearly three years in Guayaquil, my parents decided to spend a long vacation in Galápagos. They purchased food and various supplies, including school books, knowing that nothing could be obtained in the islands and that there was no school on Santa Cruz at that time. They took along a large amount of cargo, knowing how unreliable the communications with the mainland could be. By then there were four of us, as my brother Eric had been born in Guayaquil in 1934, being a little over two years old in 1936, when we left for the islands.
After eight months on Santa Cruz, my father decided to remain permanently on the island, greatly upsetting my mother, who considered that their children's education had a considerable priority over the wishes of the adults. Under the then existing conditions, Galápagos had little to offer, as the only school was on another island, in the San Cristóbal highlands, and all it had at the time was three grades.
My father's argument was that life on the islands was infinitely healthier than in a city, and that we could get all the knowledge we needed at home, where we had a varied and well supplied library. This had no effect on my mother. The result was that my brother and I went to school in Guayaquil and Quito, thus developing a painfully ambiguous attitude towards Galápagos. The islands attracted us greatly, while the need to “make a future for ourselves”, which the environment we grew up in had inculcated in us as the only worthwhile goal in life, made us view with considerable misgivings the struggle for an existence poor in material goods, as was the lot of those living in Galápagos. Our present point of view continues to be ambiguous, despite the passing of these many years, for though the name of Galápagos still brings a painful longing, we cannot deny that the experiences lived away from the islands have enriched us greatly, perhaps more in spirit than in our respective bank accounts.
However, the year 1937, when we returned to the mainland, was not the end of our life in Galápagos. My brother and I returned in 1946, and our mother joined us the following year. We went back to the mainland in 1949, coming to the islands again after ten months. I remained on the islands from 1950 to 1954, the year I went to Colombia. There, I worked as mate on a freezer ship, on which I also made two trips as skipper, in the absence of my superior. It was at that time that I was initiated into prawn fishing for the export market. Later, I spent a year on a Norwegian freighter, where, failing the sight tests because of my shortsightedness, I had to leave the deck and work as a purser, a job I did not like. Finally, I returned to fishing, where shortness of sight is not considered a handicap, provided one is able to produce reasonably good catches.
When the production of the prawn fisheries in Ecuador began to decline, I accepted a job ashore. A fishing company in Guayaquil sent me north, to set up a buying station in Bahía de Caráquez. However, the production in that area fluctuated too much with the seasons, as did also the size of the prawns. The station was closed at my own suggestion.
In one of the two trips I made to Bahía de Caráquez to make preliminary arrangements to set up business, I ran into Alejandro Avilés, an old friend from Guayaquil, who was visiting with a maternal aunt. This meeting opened wide my entry into the best circles in the city, something I accepted as most natural, until I discovered that it was far from easy to be integrated into Bahía's high society. It was at that time that I met and married María Isabel Alava, one of the most popular young ladies in this exclusive group. Among her family and friends, she is known as “Maritza”, a diminutive that comes from the Croatian side of her maternal family. (Her maternal grandfather was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian merchant marine before establishing an export business and a plantation in the valley of the Chone River in 1877).
After marrying, I realized that I could not continue on the sea, as this is not a career suitable for a family man. This led me into different activities that were foreign to my previous experiences, and I consider myself fortunate to be very adaptable and rather versatile. I have taught biology and English grammar, I have been sales manager and worked as inspector on the construction of a gas pipeline, among other things. But all this happened later.
I returned to Galápagos twice in 1959, coming back the following year with my mother and my wife, to remain on the islands for five years. Though I shall often go back to the past and make an occasional incursion into the present, we shall here be concerned mainly with those five first years in the 1960's, when the islands still retained much of their pristine condition, and tourism and “development” were still considered as something in a hazy future. The islands have changed much since then and I prefer to remember them as they were in former years. We may therefore call this story, with good reason, The last years of a paradise.
Much of what is told about the history of the islands comes from books that are now out of print, and from the remembrances of old settlers who had the patience to answer an inquisitive boy and to later describe their experiences to a curious teenager. At the end I have added a short bibliography that may be of interest.
Though reasonably well sheltered inside the bridge, I can still feel the cold of early morning. A persistent, chilly breeze is blowing outside. The leaden sea that surrounds us throws a spray of pale foam over our bows, wetting the two crewmen who, bent over the anchor, make it ready for port. They work quickly so that they may soon find shelter from the wind, which is robbing the heat from their bodies. They get little protection from the light clothing they wear, though it is supposed to be adequate for this equatorial latitude. In fact, we are barely seventy-six nautical miles south of the equator; but we are also surrounded by the cold waters of the Humboldt Current, which turns the Galápagos Islands into less than tropical in the period between June and November.
The fog that surrounds us seems to deaden the sound of the engines. It makes me feel as if suspended in a dimension where time is nonexistent. We seem to be moving without actually getting anywhere, afloat in a shoreless, infinite ocean. It is hard for me to describe this sensation, this moment of unreality, nor do I attempt to do so. Captain Nelson Campuzano breaks the silence. “Captain Lundh,” he says in a tone that reflects his frustration, “if this fog continues, we'll have to sit here until it clears.”
Shrugging, I answer, “Bad luck. If we don't make it to Santa Cruz this afternoon, we'll be delayed at least half a day. But what else can we do?”
“Without radar, nothing.” Campuzano's smile is humorless.
I give him an approving glance. This veteran mariner is a most competent man, unwilling to take needless risks, though I also know that he made his first voyage as skipper in an open sailboat, braving the more than six hundred nautical miles that stretch between San Cristóbal Island and Guayaquil. With strong features and a powerful body, both nearly square, his large, strong jaw makes him look remarkably like Martin Luther; but Captain Campuzano is not given to intellectual activities. The master of the Cristóbal Carrier, a ship belonging to Fruit Trading Corporation, which I represent in the islands, is a decidedly practical man, for whom the only realities are those of the physical world, the ones he can see and touch.
When Captain Campuzano is about to signal the engine room to slow down, the fog begins to clear, gradually revealing the unmistakable outline of Floreana, with its skyline of conical volcanoes. I am pleased to discover that Black Beach is straight ahead. I reckon we will be dropping anchor there at seven in the morning, right on schedule. Once more, Captain Campuzano's accurate navigation has taken us through the reefs of Puerto Villamil, on Isabela, in pitch darkness, guided only by compass and his unerring instinct—this latter born from an intimate knowledge of these waters—to bring us safely to the western shore of Floreana. He has no doubt profited from sailing since childhood with his father, Captain Pedro Campuzano, who once was the master of the old plantation schooner, the Manuel J. Cobos.
Soon, we are anchored in the open roadstead, outside the minute village of less than ten buildings—if one counts all structures with a roof. The island, at the time, had less than fifty inhabitants, including the tiny garrison, the teacher and the nurse, who strictly speaking cannot be regarded as permanent residents. As soon as the anchor splashes into the sea, we are boarded by the port captain and all the other men of the island, who have arrived in the two small motor boats that make up Floreana's fishing fleet. As usual, there are greetings, embraces and handshakes; but, though old friendship joins me to these people, the moment of welcome has to be brief, for the settlers have come for their cargo, and the ship remains here only a very few hours. I am soon left alone, waiting for one of the boats to be lowered, so I can go ashore with my tourists.
I gaze at the gloomy landscape—a shore bordered by black rocks, which are briefly interrupted by two sand beaches, one white and the other, farther south, of a brownish color. From this coast, extends an arid land, covered with a vegetation of shrubs and small trees, most of them spiny, the majority leafless this time of the year. A brooding cone rises in the background—Cerro de la Paja, its 2100 feet making it the highest mountain on Floreana. The somberness of this landscape is increased by the thought that this gloomy place happens to be the port of entry to an island where many an act of violence has been committed in the past. But Floreana is not only an island of tragedy and blood. It is also a place of unsolved mysteries, an island where many have vanished without leaving the slightest trace to indicate what fate they may have met with.
My thoughts are interrupted by a deck hand, who tells me the boat is ready. We get together our handful of tourists, leaving for the nearest beach, where I jump into the water to help one of the crew steady the bow, while the tourists jump ashore. As so often happens during these landings, we get our share of wet people. One fails to jump far enough, his right foot hitting the wet sand, sinking into it so that he stumbles, landing on his face. By sheer luck, he manages to get up, outracing the next wave, making it to the top of the beach in a nearly dry condition. Another is less fortunate. He loses his balance before he jumps, landing in the middle of the large receding wave, then getting the full impact of the following one, as he fails to get up in time. Luckily, we have a group with a good sense of humor, and the two unlucky ones are those who laugh the most.
Black Beach is a name that dates back to the whalers, who also called this place Pat's Landing, after an Irishman, Patrick Watkins, the first known settler of Galápagos. He lived inland from the roadstead, around 1805, most likely near the small spring that exists a little distance inland. During the two years or so that he remained on the island, he traded his vegetables to the whalers in exchange for such items as tobacco, rum and clothing. Finally, tiring of the loneliness, and being unable to get a berth on one of the visiting ships, he stole a boat and sailed to the mainland, where he was last seen behind bars in Perú, in the Paita jail.
Once ashore, we head for the second beach, where a German family, the Wittmers, have their houses—a small hotel, the two-storied wooden house where the family lives, a warehouse, and a shed. Nearly half the houses in Black Beach. Mrs. Margret, her husband Heinz, and his son Harry arrived to the island in 1932. In her book Postlagernd Floreana, Mrs. Wittmer describes their life in the relative isolation in which they lived. It is a book that gives a very good picture of life in Galápagos as it was during the years prior to World War II, though the Wittmers undoubtedly managed to get more out of the few available resources than most, showing considerable ingenuity in doing so.
When the ship calls, the Wittmer home fills with people. Tourists, crew members, traders and settlers come and go. All of them must sample Mrs. Wittmer's coffee and her excellent home-made mocca liqueur. Amidst this apparent chaos, Mrs. Margret manages to talk a little with everybody, read the more urgent mail, look over invoices, and discuss with her son Rolf regarding the goods unloaded from the ship. Everything works with German efficiency, and everything is ready in time for the ship's departure at noon. On this occasion, doña Margarita, as she is called locally, has seen us from a distance, and comes to meet us. A small lady with graying hair, and a great smile that brightens her blue eyes, she approaches us. Looking at me, she exclaims, giving me a hard hug, “O, Jacob, we who have slept together!”
From the corner of my eye, I see the smile freezing on the American missionary's face, as the other tourists look at us with unhealthy curiosity. The gaunt missionary seems to be having trouble fighting off an expression of disapproval that comes and goes over his lean features. Though our hostess shows no sign of having noticed the effects of her words, she laughs gaily, explaining, “When we traveled to the islands for the first time, in 1932, Jacob, who was seven, his mother and I shared a cabin on the plantation schooner, the old Manuel J. Cobos.”
I have long since given up correcting her about my age, which was less than four years at the time, so I join in the general merriment, while noticing what seems like relief on the missionary's face. Mrs. Wittmer invites us to her home, where she seats us around a table that is loaded with magazines. Amidst the reigning confusion, she finds us cups, saucers, and everything else needed to serve coffee, and a tray filled with delicious, home-made cookies. Then, she vanishes. Fortunately, I know where to find her, and head for her study, the door to which is in a corner, hidden behind a heavy drapery. In all the confusion, I have forgotten to give her the package I have brought—the Japanese edition of her book, just released, which the skipper of a Japanese fishing vessel has left for her at my Puerto Baquerizo office.
Visibly moved, Mrs. Wittmer barely manages to whisper, “You know, Jacob? Counting this one, my book has come out in fourteen languages. And I was so overjoyed when it had only been published in German!”
After leaving the book on her desk, she takes a package that is wrapped in gift paper, handing it to me. “This is for you. I didn't give it to you before, because I wanted to get you a copy of the Norwegian edition.”
I thank her heartily, though I have yet to read the dedication, written in Spanish—“To Jacob Lundh, the companion of our first voyage to Galápagos, in July of 1932, our friend of many years, with a special greeting from the author, Margret Wittmer.”
Returning to the chaos outside, I get together the tourists, while at the same time picking up the latest Floreana gossip. I have found that we even have time enough to visit the grave of the eccentric Dr. Friedrich Ritter, up at Watkins' Oasis. We seldom go there for lack of time, but can make a try this time, especially since there is a tourist who is eager to visit the grave, as he has read all about the happenings at the time of Baroness Wagner. I cannot complain—it was I who told him the tomb is still there.
After sending word to the ship's captain, as I like to keep him informed of any changes in our schedule, I get together my little expedition, seeing with renewed pleasure that all five members of the group are in excellent physical condition, though their appearance may not always show it. One, a mature American industrialist, looks as if he has too many years and too many pounds to carry to be a successful hiker; but I have seen more than once that he can hold his own. The missionary, who looks almost emaciated, straightens his glasses—which are thick enough to have been cut from the bottom of a champagne bottle—and smiles with youthful enthusiasm. He too has passed all the tests with flying colors, despite his weak appearance. I return the smile, and placing myself at the head of the party, give the usual marching order, “Let's go!”
We move over a dry terrain of decaying volcanic tuff, as we walk along a dusty path that moves inland in curves and bends, dodging the spiny, leafless trees. The trail to Floreana's interior does not cross any lava fields, barely skirting one or two, which makes it an excellent road by Galápagos standards. The ascent is mostly gradual, there being only a short stretch that can be described as steep. The landscape however is decidedly inhospitable, with its more or less open vegetation, which, at this time of the year, looks as if it were dead.
Coming out from a wide curve, we suddenly find ourselves in front of a wooden fence. Before us are a few coconut and date palms, rising above a tiny spring. These were planted by Ritter and Dore Strauch, his companion, during those brief years they were allowed to dwell in this peaceful, dusty Eden. The palms are protected by the wooden fence, separating them from the rest of the open ground. These plants are now government property, which in Galápagos meant at the time that they had been taken over by the Ecuadorian Navy. Outside the government fence, stand a wooden house, a few papaya trees and some white-blossomed Madagascar periwinkles. The house belongs to don Eliécer Cruz, who often stays here with his family, though his farm and a much larger house are farther inland, in the moist region, towards the center of the island.
The only animals we meet are a few gray and black finches, and a big bumblebee buzzing loudly among the flowers. It is ship's day, and the whole family is in Black Beach, where they have even taken their dogs. We approach the grave, and the tourist gives me his camera so I can take his picture, standing by the weathered wooden cross and its supporting pile of rocks. Two or three of the others do the same, before we head back to the shore.
Watkins' Oasis, known locally as el Pozo—the Well—has an interesting history, like so many other places around Galápagos, and it is not altogether filled with peace and happiness. Watkins, the Irishman, must have felt bored here, though he undoubtedly suffered no lack of food for, aside from what he grew himself, tortoises were then abundant, probably even near the oasis itself. Galápagos pigeons were still plentiful and easy to kill by knocking them over the head with a stick. There was plenty of spiny lobster along the shore, while fishing was good and easy, even without a boat. But there was a lack of human company, something he could only enjoy briefly when an occasional ship called.
It is known that the oasis was inhabited at the time of the first colony, and there is reason to believe that its founder, General José Villamil, lived there. The next inhabitant whose name we know was don José Valdizán, who settled on Floreana in 1870. Though most of his plantings and the cattle were inland, Valdizán had a house built at the oasis, with double walls of split bamboo plastered with whitewashed clay and a plank floor. His verandah even had a beautiful Bougainvillea climbing up one of its sides. Valdizán's main activity was the gathering of archil, a lichen that was much in demand as a source of dye, before the advent of anilines. It is also likely that he produced tortoise oil, and exploited the wild cattle that were so numerous on the island. Though tortoises were by then extinct on Floreana, they were still plentiful on other islands, such as Isabela and Santa Cruz.
We know that Valdizán's colony had its ups and downs while it existed, but things seemed to be going well on Floreana in 1878, when some of the workers decided to revolt. On the 13th of July Lucas Alvarado, their leader, came to Valdizán ostensibly to ask for the day off. Kindly, but firmly, the master denied his permission, but served him nevertheless a drink. When Valdizán turned to put away the bottle, Alvarado jumped him, shoving a knife into his left side. Though mortally wounded, Valdizán managed to escape, his lifeless body being found later some distance from his house. He was buried near the latter, his remains being taken to Guayaquil in 1904.
The ship that Alvarado's followers planned to use for their escape from the island was, according to one version of this story, the sloop Josefina Cobos, belonging to Manuel Julián Cobos, the owner of Hacienda Progreso, on San Cristóbal. A second version claims that the sloop belonged to Valdizán. Otherwise, the two traditions agree, even to the name of the vessel's captain, who was the Englishman Thomas Levick. Levick either suspected something was amiss or had been warned by one of the workers on the island. In any case, he placed an armed guard on his ship, and went inland to warn Valdizán. As we know, he did not get there in time; but he managed to get both Mrs. Valdizán and her daughter to the safety of the sloop.
After this, Captain Levick organized the loyal workers, and a veritable civil war broke out on Floreana. It is obvious that Lucas Alvardo had underestimated the number of disaffected workmen, expecting to find support among a larger number of people than those who actually joined him. The result was that only one of the rebels survived the struggle, though Alvarado and his men had had the advantage of surprise on their side. It is said that Levick tried to save the small colony from breaking up, but was unsuccessful. I have some doubts about this, for the nearly one hundred people left on the island soon moved over to San Cristóbal, to work for Manuel Cobos. Thus, as so often before and after, Floreana became again deserted.
We would occasionally call at Post Office Bay, on the north coast of Floreana. The landscape here is more pleasant than at Black Beach. At the head of the bay there is a somewhat steep beach of golden sand, above which stretches a flat expanse of sandy soil. Once, we beached the Cristóbal Carrier here, to change a damaged propeller blade. We arrived on a warm morning, with an overcast sky, through which came a lot more sunshine than one would have expected. This sunshine and its reflection on the water and the sand burnt our skins, and strained our eyes so that we suffered from a most unpleasant drowsiness all day long.
Coming in on the high tide, we anchored our bow, then secured our stern to some dead-looking trees above the beach. Unfortunately, their roots held poorly in the dry sand, so that the waves and the pull of the outgoing tide uprooted two or three of them before we could be safely moored. This was an unusual experience for the few American tourists who were with us. All the maneuvering was photographed and filmed from every conceivable angle. Despite everything, we had a pleasant, enjoyable day, though this bay has very little to offer the visitor, apart from its famous post barrel.
It is not known when the first barrel was placed there, but one appears on the excellent chart that Captain James Colnett R.N. made of the islands. Colnett visited Galápagos in 1793 and 1794, as leader of an expedition that was financed by the British government and the whaling company of Samuel Enderby & Sons. Its purpose was to gather information and chart the various shores visited by the whalers, as the capture of sperm whale, the oil of which was the best lamp fuel known at the time, had gained great importance. Since the first whaler entered the Pacific in 1787, the capture of sperm whales had grown rapidly, thanks to the efforts of the British and American ship owners.
The barrel was used for leaving messages and mail. When a ship came from its port of registry, she would leave mail for vessels known to be in the area. Ships on their return voyage would collect all outgoing mail. If a visitor found the barrel in a poor condition, he would replace it with a new one. Between the present and the first barrel there is thus a long and nearly uninterrupted series of barrels and canvas covered boxes. This tradition, which today only has a purely sentimental value, could very well have been lost with the disappearance of the whalers from the Pacific. It survived thanks to the British Navy, the vessels of which called at Galápagos in search of possible shipwrecked seamen when on their way to British Columbia via Cape Horn. With the Panama Canal, this route was soon abandoned, but the maintenance of the barrel was taken over by scientific expeditions and pleasure craft visiting the islands. The Floreana barrel was not the only one of its kind. I recall having heard about several at various locations around the Pacific. There even used to be a wooden box at Tagus Cove, in the northwestern part of Isabela, which I saw for the last time in 1950. I have never found a record of its origin.
As we usually did when calling at Post Office Bay, we picked up the mail in the barrel—some letters left by a Japanese fishing vessel, and a sailing yacht registered in Miami. These were later mailed from Guayaquil. The letters left by our tourists, one of them wrote me later, were picked up by a Japanese fisherman, and mailed from Honolulu, all of them previously stamped with the special barrel rubber stamp that Mrs. Wittmer kept in her office.
At the foot of the barrel, holding in place the wooden post that supports it, are some concrete posts, lying on their sides. On these and the barrel itself are painted the names of the vessels that have visited the bay. The concrete posts invariably attracted the curiosity of the tourists, for who could have bothered to bring something so heavy from afar, instead of using the abundant rocks in the area to support the wooden post? As so often, I explained. “These pieces of concrete are some of those that were made to support the great wooden house that was built by the Norwegians, who settled here in 1925.”
I take the tourists with me, walking along a sandy trail, bordered by stones which, beginning at the barrel, goes inland, across the flat area above the beach. The stones have been placed in neat rows, forming what looks like garden beds, on either side, to make a pathetic sort of park of dry trees and brush. Farther inland, we find more concrete posts, some on their sides, some standing, where they were originally placed to support the enormous prefabricated wooden house in which the Norwegian settlers lived. We also discover some large steel tanks, corroded by the salty air and the weather. These served once to collect rain water from the roof of the house, which has long since disappeared. In the back of the area, there is a concrete platform with the rusty remains of the bolts that were used to secure the steam driven electric plant.
I try to bring back the ghosts of this lonely place, those people who once were as real as ourselves, but now are barely a memory. Their shades materialize only vaguely with the inadequate magic of my words, to appear for an instant in my companions' imaginations. The Norwegians, who decorated this arid landscape with their sandy, stone-bordered paths, attempted perhaps to create some sort of park between the sea and their great wooden house. The planking of the latter must have intensified the longing for their distant homeland with its aroma of fir resin. The Baroness Wagner, Philipson and Lorenz, the three partners of disappearance and death, took possession of the house in 1932, using it until the tragic year of 1934, which marked the end of their lives.
But let us begin with the Norwegians, who arrived much earlier. In the 1920's the desire to migrate to Galápagos went over Norway like an epidemic. A paradise in the South Seas held a tremendous attraction for the imaginations of young adventurous people, though the depression was not yet being felt in Europe. Unfortunately, those who wrote about this island paradise painted an overly optimistic picture, largely ignoring the more negative facts, despite their importance. The scarcity of water, the barrenness of the greater part of the archipelago, as well as the poor, sporadic communications with the outside world were barely mentioned if at all. And it was precisely these problems which caused the greatest disappointment to the new settlers, though many of them might have been more disposed to accept them and cope with them, had they been forewarned.
In January of 1922, the Norwegian journalist Per Bang and his friend Jens Aschehoug arrived to uninhabited Floreana, where they spent several weeks, living in the main cave at Asilo de la Paz. Here, they admired the benches, shelves and the fireplace that had been carved out in the walls by unknown hands. They harvested oranges and limes from trees just outside the entrance, and watched how the goats, pigs and wild cattle roamed over the island within range of their guns. Later, they were joined by the third member of the group, Finn Støren, who had remained in Guayaquil to gather material on Ecuador in general. With him, they sailed to Isabela, from where they were unable to return on account of unfavorable currents and winds.
Støren became the most enthusiastic promoter of Galápagos, though he never returned to the islands. However, there was already another great Galápagos promoter, who had written articles about the possibilities of settling there, preferably on Floreana—August F. Christensen. The son of a prominent ship owner in the whaling industry, he had been in charge of the family interests in Chile and the Antarctic. He began writing articles about Galápagos on his return to Norway in 1914. There is no evidence that Christensen had visited Galápagos before 1925; but his enthusiasm for the islands finally developed into the Floreana project, headed by him and Captain Olaf Eilertsen, another old Galápagos fan.
The three-masted schooner Floreana arrived in Post Office Bay on August 10, 1925, under the command of Captain Anton Stub, with whom came twenty-two men and the organizer of the project, Christensen. Captain Eilertsen had remained in Norway because of poor health. Christensen's plans were basically sound. He would establish a whaling station on Floreana and the ship that had brought the settlers would be placed on a cargo run along the Ecuadorian mainland coast, as it was not suitable for whaling and too large for the needs of the colony. Two whalers would arrive to work in the project, one of them bringing a smaller vessel on her deck. This last would run between Guayaquil and the islands to provide for the needs of the settlers, bringing supplies, fuel and mail.
Though the Norwegians must have suffered a great disappointment at the sight of the barren lowlands, they worked with considerable enthusiasm, and were fascinated by the highlands, where they found large quantities of wild cattle and pigs, an abundance of wild oranges and limes, and what was obviously fertile farm land. The warm season of that year brought unusually high temperatures, but it also provided an abundant rainfall, which turned the lowlands green overnight, filling the trees and bushes with leaf and bloom.
But the years of heavy rains are nearly always followed by drought, as has been the case also with the 1982-83 warm season, which brought the most extraordinary rainy period on record in Galápagos, and was followed by the worst drought in man's memory, during the warm season of 1984-85. Thus, the Norwegians in Post Office Bay had to suffer from lack of water, and had to carry the precious liquid from the spring at Asilo de la Paz, far inland. Furthermore, the whaling vessels did not arrive, nor did the Isabela, the small craft that was so badly needed to bring supplies from the mainland. Nor was the Floreana making a success of her cargo run along the mainland coast.
One of the whaling ships was shipwrecked, and the other was prevented from sailing by the company that was to provide the ships, as several whaling projects along the Pacific coast of South America had failed recently. The Isabela, which was supposed to have come on one of the ships' deck, still awaited transportation. Finally, it was decided to send her down under her own power, with Captain Paul Bruun, a most capable master mariner, and two other men. This turned out to be a hazardous voyage that lasted several months. In fact, when Captain Bruun and his two companions finally arrived, the colony was breaking up. The only person who seems to have benefited from the whole venture was the Norwegian zoologist Alf Wollebaek, who made some interesting collections of Galápagos fauna, which are still to be seen at the Museum of Natural History in Oslo. Galápagos sea lion (Zalophus californianus wollebaeki) was named after this scientist, having been recognized as a separate subspecies thanks to material collected by him.
Captain Bruun, on account of the situation he found, kept the Isabela as compensation for his work and his expenditures during the voyage. Besides fishing, he began a run between the islands and Guayaquil. Later, he entered into a partnership with the Dane Knud Arends and a Norwegian, Arthur Worm-Müller. The latter had been a member of the Norwegian group that came to San Cristóbal in 1926. When this group broke up, he had become Norwegian vice-consul in Guayaquil.
It was in the year before the establishment of these three Scandinavians at Post Office Bay, in 1929, that the German physician and dentist Friedrich Ritter and his companion, Dore Strauch, came to the island. As has been told previously, these two built their house in Watkins' Oasis, naming it “Friedo”, a name that they formed from the first syllables of their respective names. Nobody knows for sure if they found the happiness they sought. Ritter took his thoughts on the matter to his grave, while Dore, in her book Satan Came to Eden, provides so much information that is in contradiction with other sources, that it is best to drop the subject altogether.
My father and Captain Bruun maintained an irregular correspondence from 1930, when my father became interested in the Galápagos Islands. This interest on my father's part may seem a bit unusual, since he was one of the few who viewed the “Galápagos fever” with considerable doubt at the time it spread all over Norway. In fact, he had remarked at the time, “If Galápagos is the paradise they say, it seems strange that so few people live there. After all, it's only about a thousand kilometers from Guayaquil.”
But the situation in Europe was becoming bad. Not only was the economy depressed; the European politics at the time were far from reassuring. In Germany, at the very center of the continent, things were critical, and, according to my father's opinion, the situation was just ripe for a communist takeover. With the communists running Germany, he reasoned, there was little to prevent them from taking over elsewhere, including in the Scandinavian countries. According to him, it was just a matter of time. Of course, at that stage, very few people outside Germany took Hitler, the little Austrian with the funny mustache, seriously. It was also difficult then to imagine the enormous transformation that was about to take place in Germany. Anyway, things would have been the same as far as we were concerned, as Hitler would have worried my father as much as Stalin. We would either have gone to Galápagos or to South Africa, my father's other alternative.
Captain Bruun and a few other sources convinced my father that Galápagos, though far from the paradise described by the newspapers, or the hell pictured by disillusioned settlers, was a peaceful place with a pleasant climate, sufficiently interesting to justify making a voyage there for a closer look. Though Bruun did not answer my father's last letter, the latter left for South America towards the end of 1931. When he arrived in Ecuador, he heard about his colleague's tragic death in the breakers of southern Isabela, where he had capsized in a small boat. This accident led to the breaking up of the little group at Post Office Bay. Arends returned to Guayaquil, while Worm-Müller moved to Santa Cruz. Arends did however come back to Galápagos, to be cured of his love for the islands only after the Baroness Wagner shot him in the stomach, in a hunting accident. Post Office Bay would never again have permanent inhabitants.
Strange as it may seem, I had never visited Floreana before 1947, the year in which my father died. Nobody could have then thought that his days were numbered. In fact, it was hard to imagine Santa Cruz without Captain Herman Lundh, strong, tough and ageless, with a boy's agility, and the wide awake, inquisitive mind of a youth. It was no secret that he had been born in 1876; but, in the same manner that he ignored his age, others also forgot it. It was in fact his agility that led him to his death. He climbed a very tall avocado tree to harvest some fruit—like he had done so many times before—stepping on a healthy looking branch that was rotten inside.
His cat like agility, which had earned him the name of “the Ocelot” when he climbed the tall masts of sailing ships in his youth, did not help him. All happened so fast that he was unable to grab hold of something. He suffered considerable internal injuries, and broke his spine, dying eleven hours later. It was lucky there was enough morphine on hand to ease his pain. The Hornemans, his best friends, in whose home he spent his last hours, had a well stocked medicine cabinet. This happened in August, shortly after my mother's arrival from Quito, where she had been working at the Information Office of the British Legation.
My visit to Floreana took place much earlier, in February, after a trip around the islands, which began in January, and covered much of Galápagos waters. I had become a crew member on the almost legendary Falcon that belonged to Kristian Stampa, one of the Norwegian founders of Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz. I went out with Stampa mainly because he had told me he would be looking for new fishing grounds, which made me hope there would be a good possibility of extensive travel around the islands. This hope was amply fulfilled, as we covered considerable territory.
Aside from the thirty-foot Falcon, we had two small motor boats, one of which we always took along on our trips. This not only increased our safety, but also provided us with an extra boat that could be left fishing while we returned to Santa Cruz with dry fish, and brought back food, salt, fuel and water.
At that particular time we were camping at Las Cuevas, a small anchorage on the northeastern side of Floreana. The catches were poor, so Stampa waited too long before returning to Santa Cruz for supplies, believing we would leave the area altogether, to search later for a better place to fish. To our surprise, on one of the last days, our catches increased, for we found some good fishing just outside Las Cuevas, after having traveled daily to some islets farther to the east. As I put it to Stampa, quoting an old Norwegian saying, “We've been crossing the brook for water.”
Stampa decided to leave the larger of the motor boats, while we would tow the smaller one back to Santa Cruz. He himself, one of the fishermen and I would sail the Falcon home. We still had plenty of water at the camp, and enough fuel and salt, but were somewhat short on food. Thus, it was decided that before leaving I would take the smaller boat to Black Beach, to find out if we could buy supplies from the settlers. Two of the crew, Tobías Mejía and José Pincay, went with me. As soon as we got to Black Beach, we beached the boat, pulling it up above the tide line, so it would be completely safe. Nobody came out to meet us. The few houses were empty and, against the background of a soft breeze that whispered amongst the branches of the mesquite and acacia trees, all we could hear was the waves breaking heavily against the steep beach. The only sign of life were a couple of hens scratching dejectedly in the dust on the hard, dry ground, behind Ezequiel Zavala's house. (Don Ezequiel was an old settler from Isabela who had moved over to Floreana a few years earlier).
The oppressive silence, the houses without people in them, and the weight of the island's history were overwhelming. Even the carefree José Pincay had lost his smile, though he knew as well as I that the island's inhabitants were all inland, working their farms. The strong and good-natured Tobías, who came slightly behind us, proposed, “Let's go to el Pozo, before we go to the highlands. Maybe don Eduardo Cruz can tell us where we can get some supplies.”
That we did. When we arrived to the oasis, we found a small wooden house, surrounded by trees. A slight, dark eyed, bearded man came out to meet us. His curly black hair and beard, his piercing eyes and fine features gave him the appearance of an Old Testament prophet who had exchanged his flowing robe for a pair of shorts. Thus, I met for the first time don Eduardo Cruz, yogi and natural philosopher, a man who then—as we would learn much later—was in the middle of a hard spiritual struggle, in which his love for wife and offspring would eventually triumph over his love for nature and things spiritual. Though his wife had tried several times to live in Galápagos, she had been unable to get used to being so far away from her family, in a land so totally different from her beloved Ibarra, the White City, surrounded by its beautiful, green countryside and the lofty Andean mountains.
After we had refreshed ourselves with a great quantity of red, juicy mombins, picked while we relaxed under the old trees by don Eduardo's house, the latter took us to his brother Eliécer. To get there, we went up a long stretch of arid ground, similar to that in the lowlands, climbed a slope that extends between conical Cerro de la Paja and a saddle-shaped hill, to find ourselves suddenly entering the moist region of the island, which lies between Asilo de la Paz and Cerro de la Paja.
Here, walking among lime, orange and guava trees, we arrived to don Eliécer's home, a two-storied wooden house. He too was living alone at the time, his family being away on a visit to Ibarra. Don Eliécer, though he resembled his brother very much, had a lesser interest in Oriental mysticism, but shared the same love for nature and for the peace of this isolated island. Equally hospitable, he offered us what he had on hand—hard boiled eggs accompanied by a delicious maize bread. I recall thinking gratefully how lucky we were that he was not a strict vegetarian like his brother, for none of us could have eaten any more fruit that day.
When we left the Cruz brothers, we had still not found a solution to our food problem. In fact, we had nearly lost hope of doing so, as the year had been a dry one, and the crops poor. Furthermore, we were in the season when vegetables are at best scarce. While we talked about this, we arrived to a place where some century plants were growing. Tobías pointed in their direction, informing us, “They say that it was here the Baroness Wagner lived. Those century plants are all that is left of her garden.”
The Baroness Wagner keeps appearing sooner or later in all conversations about Floreana, and quite often in those about Galápagos in general, despite the fact that she lived on the island less than two years. There are a number of theories about her disappearance, nearly all based on a belief in foul play; but it is very unlikely that anyone will ever find out what really happened to her. This woman, Eloise von Wagner, was slightly built, and had none of the beauty that has often been attributed to her. Her most outstanding feature was her rather large mouth, which showed a strong set of teeth whenever she smiled.
According to my father, she was charming and capable of a pleasant and entertaining conversation. According to Kristian Stampa, she was vulgar and mentally deranged. Both were undoubtedly right—they had seen two very different sides of the same unbalanced personality. My father's experience with the Baroness was as her guest, a welcome visitor who could talk to her fluently in her native German. Stampa however—and the Austrian who accompanied him at the time—were less lucky. They had shot a head of wild cattle, which the Baroness was convinced was one of her heifers. Out of herself with rage, she had threatened them with her revolver. Though the matter was cleared up some time later, Stampa never changed his opinion of this strange woman, avoiding her like the plague.
The Baroness Wagner arrived shortly after the Wittmers, earning at once the ill will of the few inhabitants of the island. One of her first offical acts was to wash her feet in the spring at Asilo de la Paz, from which the Wittmers got their drinking water, and then opening all of Dr. Ritter's mail, before sending it to him by the hand of Heinz Wittmer. Luckily, Dr. Ritter saw through her attempt at sowing enmity between the two men.
The woman and her court, consisting of Robert Philipson (her husband or lover—his position is a bit unclear), Rudolf Lorenz and Felipe Valdivieso, settled at a place to the northwest of the Wittmers. From here, she frequently went to spend a few days at the seashore, staying in the large wooden house left by the Norwegians, of which she had more or less taken possession. Philipson, who always accompanied her, was a tall, rather handsome young man with wavy brown hair, whom the Danish traveler and writer Haakon Mielche describes as looking like a cheap gigolo; but Mielche was always inclined to caricaturize people. He even went to the extent of claiming that Dr. Ritter and Dore had a single set of false teeth made of stainless steel, which they shared by using it one day each. This is of course an anatomical impossibility, but it certainly sounds funny.
Lorenz, on the other hand, was small and slight, and was suffering from a rather advanced case of tuberculosis. He had been the Baroness' partner in a fashion business in Paris. Though they still were supposed to be in partnership, he was treated like a servant. It is said that his parents sent him money occasionally, this being one of the very few incomes the three of them had. Philipson also sold occasional articles, which he wrote under various pseudonyms, mainly to give the Baroness sensationalist publicity. It is claimed that it was he who set in circulation all the wild stories that appeared at the time about the “Mad Empress of Galápagos”, who had surrounded herself with a court of young, handsome males, who obeyed her every whim. The fourth member of the group, Valdivieso, did not stay long on Floreana. He is supposed to have come with the trio from Europe, where he had remained for a while after a spell in the merchant marine. It was also told that he had worked some years earlier as a laborer on Isabela.
It seems that the Baroness and Philipson held Lorenz by force, at least during the last few months of his stay on the island. When my father visited the three in their house, on the 11th of February of 1934, he spent the night there, sharing Lorenz's room. When they were alone, the latter pleaded, “Captain, I want to get away from here. I want to go back to Germany to see my parents before I die. I beg you, please take me with you, even if it is only to another island, where my chances of getting a ship to the mainland are better than here; but please don't say a word about this to the Baroness or Philipson.”
My father agreed, “You are welcome to come with us, and I assure you that this matter will remain between the two of us. Nothing will be mentioned to anyone else.”
However, on the eve of sailing, the Baroness came down to Post Office Bay. When she talked to my father, she brought him greetings from Lorenz, who seemed to have changed his mind. He sent his thanks, informing through the Baroness that he was not leaving the island yet. At the time, my father gave little thought to the matter; but he heard some time later that Lorenz had made the same request to the masters of other ships, with the same result. This made him suspect that the little German was locked up whenever a ship was about to leave Floreana.
Lorenz was also subjected to mistreatment, both by the Baroness and Philipson. It was after a particularly brutal beating by the latter that Lorenz finally sought shelter with the Wittmers. Strangely, the Baroness made no issue of the matter, and tried instead to cajole Lorenz into returning to her. One day, she came to look for Lorenz, but he had gone into the woods with Heinz Wittmer. She told Mrs. Wittmer that she and Philipson were leaving with an English yacht, and that she wanted Lorenz to look after the property and the animals until she had decided what to do with them.
When Lorenz came back and heard this, he was in no hurry to go to the Baroness, and even thought the whole story was a ruse to get him to come to her and have Philipson beat him up again. The latter had even threatened to kill Lorenz. After he had taken his time to eat, Lorenz walked over to the Baroness' place and approached it cautiously, but there was nobody there, nor at the Norwegian house in Post Office Bay. This was in the month of March. It is strange that nobody had seen the English yacht that was supposed to take the couple away, for it was not only usual in the islands to watch for approaching ships, as Ritter always did form his oasis, but it was also usual that all visitors coming to Floreana went to the highlands and/or the oasis, where the vegetarian couple lived.
The supposed voyage of the Baroness and Philipson soon became the subject of much worldwide publicity and speculation, as the pair had simply vanished. One thing is certain, a person so overly fond of publicity as was the Baroness could not have resisted the temptation of reappearing to become, even if only for a short while, the center of attention of the world press. Thus, it is obvious that the couple died in some manner, and there are even those who have given some importance to what she once said, “When there is no more hope, we'll smoke our last cigarette and take our last drink. Then, we'll go down to the beach, hand in hand, and walk into the ocean.”
In fact, things could not have been much worse on Floreana at the time, for that year there was a drought in Galápagos, and, when that happens, Floreana is always worse off than the other inhabited islands. Even the coffee bushes on the island died out that year, something I have never witnessed elsewhere in Galápagos.
The tragedies did not end with the Baroness' disappearance. In July, Lorenz was taken to Santa Cruz by Trygve Nuggerud, a Norwegian whose boat had been chartered by the Swedish author and traveler Rolf Blomberg. The Swede had come to Floreana to meet the “Mad Baroness” and to interview Dr. Ritter. Once back in Academy Bay, Lorenz managed to talk Nuggerud into taking him to San Cristóbal, where he was sure he would be able to board the plantation schooner, which they had seen on its way to Isabela. Nuggerud tried to talk Gordon Wold into coming along, but Wold refused, considering the trip decidedly dangerous. “You're leaving on a Friday, which, to make matter really hopeless, is the 13th, and you have a German aboard. You're crazy if you think I'll risk coming with you under such conditions.”
Wold, of course, referred to two well known seamen's superstitions, plus a third that was commonly held by Galápagos Norwegians. Wold probably feared the last one most of all, especially after the disastrous voyage we made in 1933, when he, who was my father's partner and mate, sailed very much against his will, expecting the worst, since we carried three German passengers. I believe he came along only because my father pointed out to him that two of the Germans were Jewish and the third held American citizenship, so they could not, after all, be considered truly German.
Thus it was that Nuggerud left without Wold, accompanied by Lorenz and a mulatto boy named Pazmiño. They never reached San Cristóbal. Two or three months later, the Santo Amaro, a California tuna clipper, found the dried out remains of Nuggerud and Lorenz on arid Marchena, one of the northern islands of the archipelago. Neither the Dinamita, Nuggerud's boat, nor Pazmiño were ever found.
One more death was to complete this tragic year. In November, the famous Dr. Ritter, philosopher and vegetarian, died after eating some spoilt chicken. Undoubtedly, this is an ignominious manner in which to pass away after renouncing with so much publicity the enjoyment of animal foods. But it is likely that food was scarce on Friedo at the time.
Dore packed her suitcases to leave for Germany, while Heinz and Harry Wittmer made a hardwood cross and gave burial to the German physician. Watkins' Oasis returned to the loneliness and peace of the past, barely disturbed by the whisper of the breeze among the fronds of the palms that Ritter had planted and the calls of the finches in the thickets. In fact, the whole island returned to peacefulness. The Wittmers were left completely to themselves for a few years, in the Floreana highlands, at Asilo de la Paz—the Haven of Peace—which for once really lived up to its name.
None of us was prepared for a long hike. Tobías and I had left everything that could have passed for shoes on Santa Cruz, as we had expected to walk only on the deck of the Falcon and on beach sand, going constantly in and out of the water. Fortunately, the trail to the Floreana highlands does not cross any lava fields, and the soles of our feet were hardened enough by walking on the rough shell sand to manage the inland trail in comfort. Our companion, José Pincay, however had with him a pair of wading boots, which he had rolled down to his knees. In the highlands, unable to stand any longer the heat and their weight, he took them off, carrying them slung over a shoulder. When we approached the Wittmer homestead, he put them on again, though Tobías and I made fun of him for holding on to mainland customs and prejudices.
On the mainland it is a shame to go barefoot, as it is considered a sign of abject poverty not to own at least one pair of shoes. On Santa Cruz we used shoes only when the ship from Guayaquil was in port or when we went hunting. Even at parties, we would take them off, leaving them at the door, as we felt that dancing without them was more comfortable. The most usual male attire in Academy Bay at the time was a pair of shorts or swimming trunks, a belt and a hunting knife. The knife was never used in anger, the rare times an argument went beyond offensive language.
Reaching the gate, we began shouting, while a pack of dogs barked deafeningly at us from the other side of the fence. They were beautiful animals, descendants of Lump, the faithful German shepherd that had kept watch at the entrance to our cabin, back in 1932. Even the wild dogs of Floreana show clear signs of descending from this noble though evidently promiscuous animal, making them very popular pets around the islands.
Attracted by the tremendous noise, a tall, slim young man appeared. He was Harry, Mr. Wittmer's eldest son. Harry greeted us heartily, becoming quite excited when I introduced myself. At that moment, a mature gentleman, wearing glasses and a goatee, appeared. He was tall and slender like Harry, who turned around to inform him happily, “It's Jacob!”
The warmth of their welcome was quite moving, for it was, after all, many years since they had seen me. I had been less than four years old the last time we had been together; now I was about nineteen. With their usual hospitality, the Wittmers invited us to their home, a house built of stone and lime, made by themselves almost entirely from local materials. What this family had done is truly remarkable. Heinz Wittmer was a city man, a former captain in the German Army, who had been Konrad Adenauer's secretary when the latter was mayor of Cologne. Thus, all his previous experiences were as far removed from manual labor as was possible. He had had only the help of his wife, a lady raised and bred in a great city, who was equally ill prepared for this sort of life. Despite this complete lack of a suitable background, Wittmer managed in a surprisingly short time to become a mason, a shoemaker, a carpenter and a farmer, competent in all of these trades and several others. Both he and his wife are an extraordinary example of what can be accomplished by human ingenuity, accompanied by the decision to make the most of what an ungenerous land can offer.
After spending some pleasant moments in that cozy home, we were invited to take a tour of the property, including a visit to the cave in which the Wittmers had lived during their first months on the island, and to the spring, which is formed by fresh water seeping through the porous rock of a low cliff, at the foot of a hill. Here, the cool, refreshing liquid collects in a shallow depression below. Harry was particularly eager to show us a boat he was building, which he had given a flawless finish, though he was already nearly blind.
The Wittmers, with characteristic generosity, gave us some potatoes and a few vegetables, though production had been poor that year, and we were well into the warm season, when vegetables are scarce. Excusing themselves for the smallness of their potatoes, affected as they had been by the drought, they refused to receive any payment. With this gift, and half a sack of beef which had been cured in lime juice and dried in the sun—a gift from don Ezequiel Zavala, whom we met on our return to Black Beach—we solved our food problem, making it possible to leave the larger of the two motor boats at Las Cuevas.
I did not have an opportunity to visit Asilo de la Paz again until May of 1950, while on a cruise of the islands with the schooner Chance, a yacht from Los Angeles, skippered by her owner, Captain Larry Blanc. It was the last time I would see Harry Wittmer. The Wittmers were building a new, larger boat, which they later named Inge after their daughter Ingeborg, who is better known around the islands as “Floreanita”, which is her second name. The year after our visit, the Inge capsized, and in the ensuing confusion, while Rolf Wittmer and an Ecuadorian boy were struggling to save the boat, neither noticed that Harry was missing. He was never found. It is believed that his heart, which was in a poor condition, failed him, and that his lifeless body was carried out to sea by the current. The news caused considerable sorrow among the islanders, and there were many who, recalling past tragedies, claimed that a curse lay over Floreana and its inhabitants.
But time brings relief to painful memories, and Floreana too had its moments of great happiness, such as Inge's marriage to Mario García, the first radio operator on the island. Later, came Rolf Wittmer's wedding to Paquita, Mario's charming sister. It became possible to believe that Floreana had become like any of the other inhabited islands of Galápagos. Of course, like in any other human community, there were also moments of grief, and the 1960's took away Heinz Wittmer, who died of a stroke. But the old patriarch was by then a grandfather well into his seventies, with a medical record of heart trouble and an otherwise precarious health.
The same decade took also away another old settler, Felipe Quiroz, who had lived long on Isabela, before settling on Floreana. In his case, it was a tragic accident. It was his turn to provide meat for the small settlement, and, as so many times before, he followed the trails in the wilderness, to search for a head of wild cattle. Finding a young bull, he fired at it without hesitation. The unusual happened—he missed. The beast, wounded and full of rage, rushed Quiroz, sinking one of its horns into his throat. The wounded settler was carried as soon as possible to the health station at Black Beach, where he received antibiotics and tetanus shots. Because of the wound's location, Quiroz could not eat and had trouble breathing. After eleven days of agony, he found relief in death.
Though this was a most tragic loss, it is the sort of fate any Galápagos hunter could have met with. In fact, it is surprising that hunting accidents were so infrequent on the islands, considering that pigs were often hunted with dogs and no other weapon than a light machete, and cattle were occasionally downed with a .22 caliber bullet in the heart. The great majority of us were undoubtedly lucky to have got away with nothing worse than a few thorn scratches.
The colonization of Galápagos started in earnest on Floreana, at Asilo de la Paz—the Haven of Peace—in 1832. Though the colony would become a failure, and the island was eventually abandoned, we can still say that this is the beginning of the conquest of Galápagos, that mysterious archipelago far out in a lonely ocean, with treacherous currents and unstable winds, which had contributed together to their name of the Enchanted Isles. After 1832, Galápagos would rapidly cease to be the source of seamen's superstitions, born from their frustration at the difficulty of navigating in the insular waters.
It all started with General José Villamil, a Louisiana Spaniard, who moved to Venezuela. Here, his liberal and revolutionary sympathies eventually caused him problems with the Spanish officials. He was forced to flee to Guayaquil, where he soon became a prosperous businessman. In Guayaquil, he eventually played a prominent role in the independence of the city, and soon after in the freedom of the whole country. Shortly after Greater Colombia broke up, General Villamil began his work to interest the Ecuadorian government in taking possession of Galápagos. In October of 1831, he sent a group of men, at his own expense, to investigate the possibilities offered by the archipelago, especially regarding the exploitation of archil, a lichen that was in great demand in the dyeing industry, before the invention of anilines. This lichen turned out to be abundant in Galápagos.
Filled with enthusiasm because of the reports he had received, and after assuring himself that the government would take possession of the islands, Villamil filed a claim on the lands he reckoned would be needed for his project, in the name of the recently created Sociedad Colonizadora del Archipiélago de Galápagos. This document was dated November 14, 1831. Before the end of the year, General Juan José Flores, President of the Republic, sent orders to the Prefect of Guayas Province, don José Joaquín de Olmedo, ordering him to organize an expedition to the islands. This group of people sailed from Guayaquil on the schooner Mercedes, on January 20, 1832. The expedition was under the command of Colonel Ignacio Hernández, the colony's justice of the peace. Two of Villamil's partners also went along, as well as the colony's chaplain, Dr. Eugenio Ortiz. The small group of settlers consisted of some soldiers who had been sentenced to death for paticipating in a plot to oust General Flores, and whom Villamil had saved from execution by talking Flores into deporting them to Galápagos.
On February 12, 1832, Colonel Hernández took formal possession of the islands. He changed their name to Archipiélago del Ecuador, and gave several of them new names, the only one still in use being that of Floreana, which was named in honor of the president. The settlers did not waste time, establishing themselves soon in the vicinity of the largest spring, in a place they named Asilo de la Paz. It is said that they began to work with great enthusiasm, but this must have been mainly clearing land and building dwellings, for little else could be done at that time of the year. Planting is done upon the arrival of the fogs and drizzles of the cool season, in June-July. In April and June, a few more settlers of both sexes arrived, being followed in October by eighty more people, headed by General Villamil himself, who had been appointed governor. It is said that he took a keen interest in the welfare of the settlers, and the enthusiasm with which everyone seems to have worked promised a good future for the colony.
Villamil introduced a quantity of domestic animals, and it is likely that rats and mice as well can be traced to these early years, when considerable cargo was unloaded on the island. The presence of all these new animals, and the activities of the settlers, made a tremendous impact on the flora and fauna of Floreana. The forests on the upper parts of the island were nearly destroyed, being much later replaced by orange and lime trees, as well as other species introduced by man, and it is quite possible that the grassy, open spaces that were to be found in the moist region of this island in later years were also the result of human activity, as they were in areas one would have expected to be covered by the original forests. The guava trees that have invaded the moist region are of a more recent date, as well as the lantana that has in later years taken over extensive areas in the same region. The lowlands, though unsuitable for agriculture and pasture, also suffered considerable changes, many once abundant plant species becoming less dominant because of the destruction caused by introduced goats and donkeys.
Much of the original fauna of Floreana disappeared or was drastically reduced. The race of tortoises belonging on this island was extinct by the middle of the century. It must already have been scarce as early as in 1835, for it was in that year that Darwin met with a group of tortoise hunters on Santiago, and there existed by then a trail that went up from a beach on the northwestern side of Santa Cruz to Santa Rosa Hill, in the highlands, where giant tortoises were to be found in great numbers. If we remember that the settlers had to travel to these two islands in boats that were propelled by oars and sail, we can safely say that they were quite distant from Floreana. Even today, the average island fishing boat must reckon with a ten- to twelve-hour trip from Black Beach to the northwestern side of Santa Cruz, and Santiago is even much farther away.
Of the Floreana reptiles there is today only one surviving on this island, a small gecko, whose natural habitat and choice of hiding places—under rocks and in small crevices—may have saved it from extinction. It is said that marine iguanas are still to be found on the cliffs of the south coast; but I have never visited this exposed, rugged shore, so I cannot testify to the fact. Like the Floreana mocking thrush, some of the species that have disappeared from the main island still survive on the neighboring islets.
In the case of the tortoises, we cannot blame the settlers alone for their disappearance. The whalers had been exploiting this species ever since they entered the Pacific in 1787, and Floreana was one of their favorite ports of call in Galápagos. However, it should neither be forgotten that tortoises were reported as being fairly numerous on Floreana as late as in 1833, when Commodore John Downes called there, while in command of the frigate Potomac.
It may seem strange that the flora and fauna of Floreana suffered such enormous damage in such a short time, especially if one considers that domestic animals were introduced barely a decade later on San Cristóbal, without an equally disastrous effect on the environment. This can be explained by the fact that the latter island is much larger—166 sq. miles to Floreana's 53 sq. miles—and that it has extensive areas of difficult access, which has undoubtedly saved its tortoise population from disappearing. The difference in altitude may be too small to have a noticeable effect—2350 feet to Floreana's 2100. However, the moist area of San Cristóbal is also considerably more extensive than that on Floreana. On the latter island, the moist region consists of a central plateau which has on the average a lower altitude than San Cristóbal's moist region. Still, these advantages have not prevented San Cristóbal from undergoing great changes, such as having its highland forests replaced by the all-encroaching guava trees.
Villamil's colony began early an active trade with the whalers, it grew most of the food needed for its survival, and produced archil, salted fish, and tortoise oil for export to the mainland. At first, all seemed to go well. Unfortunately, the government would not leave things as they were, and committed a mistake that would be repeated several times in the future—it made the island into a regular penal colony. As early as in 1833, prostitutes and criminals began to be added to the shipments of political exiles. This created growing problems within the colony. Though General Villamil protested repeatedly to the government, he got no response. The undesirables not only continued arriving, but their numbers increased at an alarming rate. However, if the government was only set on increasing the population at any price, it succeeded. The island reached a population close to three hundred, which is somewhat too large for Floreana's limited resources. But it did not last long. Disintegration was about to set in.
Towards the end of 1837, Villamil resigned his position as governor, claiming that his economy had taken a bad turn, and that he had to travel to Panama to attend to some business there, in order to solve his problems. He left one of his partners, General Mena, in charge of his interests in Galápagos. The government appointed Colonel José Williams to replace Villamil as governor. Williams did not take long to surround himself with deserters from whaling ships and other undesirable people, who helped him establish a ruthless dictatorship over the colony. Even admitting that a hard hand was needed to keep order at this stage, this cannot justify the new governor's way of running things. He monopolized all trade with the whalers, exploiting the settlers to his own benefit. The difficult times through which the government was passing and the remoteness of Galápagos made it possible for Williams to continue his misrule for almost four years, despite General Mena's repeated protests. Finally, the latter got together some of the more resolute settlers and a quantity of domestic animals, moving over to San Cristóbal, thus beginning the settlement of that island.
The fear of the cudgel, the whip, the chains and heavy fines kept Williams in power; but despair and hate eventually outgrew fear, and, on May 6, 1841, the inhabitants of Floreana revolted, forcing Williams and his accomplices to flee, to save their lives from the anger of the settlers.
General Villamil came back as governor in 1842, making an attempt to save the colony from disappearing altogether. He tried for nearly three years to build up what had been broken down by his predecessor and his gang, and bring back order to the settlement. Failing, he took with him some of the best people and some of the domestic animals, joining General Mena on San Cristóbal, in 1845. It was not long after this that General Villamil was recalled to active duty, as Commandant General of the Guayas District. By 1849, barely seventeen years after the founding of the Floreana colony, there were only twenty-five people on the island, all convicts.
Floreana continued to be a place of banishment, but it seems that the number of convicts shipped out was small, and that they were left more or less to their own devices. The Swedish botanist Nils Johan Andersson, who visited the island in May of 1852, mentions a house on the shore, at Black Beach, and a group of four houses at Watkins' Oasis, one of them with a wooden floor and several pieces of furniture in it. This last, he suggests, may have been the governor's dwelling. In the highlands, he found several groups of huts, and the remains of cultivation. He does not mention that the few inhabitants of the island had escaped from it earlier that year, under the leadership of Manuel Briones, who has gone down in history as el Pirata del Guayas—the Pirate of the Guayas.
This Briones was a bandit who had been captured and deported with his gang to Galápagos. To escape from Floreana, he and his accomplices seized the George Howland, an American whaler, leaving most of her crew on the island. The criminals reached San Cristóbal, where they sacked General Mena's house, taking everything of value. The general was captured, as well as the small garrison and the only woman on the island, whom several of the convicts raped. General Mena and the four members of the garrison were murdered and thrown into the sea. On arriving to the Peruvian coast, some of the fugitives met two women on a beach, a mother and her daughter. After raping them, they killed both.
In the Gulf of Guayaquil, the bandits approached two small sailing vessels. One of these managed to get into shallower waters, where the whaler could not follow on account of her greater draft. The other vessel was seized and most of her crew murdered, including a Colonel Tamayo. These two vessels formed an expedition that had been sent by General Juan José Flores, to start an uprising. Flores, who had been deposed in 1845, during his second presidential term, was hoping to regain power.
The captured vessel and the George Howland anchored up in the inner gulf, where their only route of escape was blocked by the Swedish frigate Eugenie. Finding themselves cut off by a large man-of-war, unable to flee into open waters, the convicts abandoned the vessels, but were captured soon after by the Ecuadorian authorities, who sentenced them all to death. A group of Swedish seamen and the botanist Andersson, who had sailed up to Guayaquil on the George Howland, to hand her over to the American consul, were able to witness the public execution of Briones and several of his men.
I was sitting in my office in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. It was a hot afternoon, and I was enjoying the shade and a refreshing breeze that came through the back door. I felt deeply grateful that I had no need to go outdoors at that moment, as the sunlight was falling like molten lead on the white sand and the black rocks of the arid landscape. Unexpectedly, my peace was disturbed by the arrival of an enlisted man from the Second Naval Zone, faultlessly dressed in white, with his service Colt .45 at his side, and the initials of the harbor police on his right arm. Greeting me politely and very gravely, he informed, “The Commandant wishes to see you in his office as soon as possible. It's about a most urgent matter.”
I did not bother to ask the reason for such unusual hurry, for I know well that officers do not give more information to their subordinates than strictly necessary. Besides, it could very well be some personal matter. Still, the situation puzzled me. Lieutenant Commander Fausto Alvear Vázquez, though he was at the time our Civilian and Military Governor, was not in the habit of throwing his weight around. Usually, he would have come to see me in person, which he very often did, whether he had a special reason or not. In fact, when we both were on the island, it was unusual for more than two or three days to pass without our visiting with each other.
I placed a straw hat on my head and we left. Walking next to the seaman, I set course for the stone building where the offices of the Second Naval Zone are located. While we were passing the Navy's commissary, I had to take off my hat to wipe the perspiration from my forehead, as it was threatening to enter my eyes. Replacing the hat, I looked longingly out over the cool waters of the bay, catching sight of the barkentine Yankee, which was anchored in its middle. She had returned from a cruise of the islands. I assumed she had come to get her clearance for the Marquesas, her next port of call. This beautiful vessel had visited Galápagos several times under the command of her original owners, Captain Irwin Johnson and his wife Electa. Now, her American flag had been replaced by that of the Bahamas, and she was owned by a British tourist organization, according to what Commandant Alvear had told me earlier.
Upon arriving to our highest official's office, I felt a great relief to find myself in a cool, shady place again, temporarily safe from the strong sunshine and its reflection on the water and white sand. The Civilian and Military Governor rose to meet me with his usual friendliness; but his thin, dark face looked worried. With him was a foreigner, whom he introduced as Captain Derek Lumbers of the barkentine Yankee. This increased my puzzlement, for the Commandant needed no interpreter for the English language. In fact, a very few years later, both of us would be working together at the American School of Guayaquil, teaching our subjects in English, he as instructor in Calculus and Physics and I as teacher of Natural Sciences and Biology.
But I soon found out what was going on. Lt. Commander Alvear talked to me more or less in the following terms, “We have a very great problem, Jacobo, and I need your help. You know the islands well, you have spent much time in the bush, and your experience would be most useful in this particular case. Besides, I know I can trust you'll do your very best to carry out your mission.”
He stopped as if to seek for suitable words, then he seemed to decide that it was best to go straight to the subject. “Captain Lumbers has lost one of his tourists on Floreana. I would be most grateful if you could take charge of the search. None of my officers has the necessary background to carry out this sort of mission, so that makes you the only person I can entrust it to.”
His trust in me was very flattering; but, without being immodest, I could agree with him, at least in part. The Naval Academy does not prepare officers to operate in such places as Galápagos wilderness, where I had hunted goats and looked for cactus specimens for years. On the other hand, it was nice of my friend to ask my cooperation in this manner. Someone with less tact might have demanded my help, for the Civilian and Military Governor was, after all, the representative of the military dictatorship that was running the country at the moment. However, the ruling Junta, presided over by Admiral Ramón Castro Jijón, had shown considerable respect for existing laws, except where political activities were concerned.
It was obvious that I had no choice. Not so much because of the Commandant's request as for the fact that a fellow human being was in danger, lost in the bush, suffering the torment of thirst and hunger, with death at her side. “You can count on me, Fausto,” I said, feeling as if an enormous weight passed from his shoulders to mine.
“You'll have to make do with the crew of the yacht and the settlers on Floreana,” he warned me. “The personnel you could have taken with you from the base are all engaged in refloating the patrol launch.”
“I know,” I replied. The vessel had sunk right next to the pier, upon returning from a trip to Santa Cruz. This personnel, could undoubtedly have been of some help, but would also have created an enormous logistic problem.
With what Captain Lumbers told us, and the data obtained from questioning the settlers on Floreana and the crew of the Yankee, it was possible to reconstruct the events that had taken place between the disappearance of the lady tourist and the arrival of the barkentine to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, where she had come to seek help.
The Yankee first arrived at Black Beach on April 7, 1964, at about noon. At three o'clock, four of her paying crew went ashore, where they visited Mrs. Margret Wittmer. Three of them continued later to La Lobería, a place in the southern part of the roadstead. Among these was a lady of over seventy, who was unusually active and full of interest for everyone and everything surrounding her. She was Miss Saydee Reiser. The three were accompanied by Eloy Quintana, who was in the employ of the Wittmers.
Next morning, at seven, six people came ashore from the ship—three men and three women, among the latter Miss Reiser. They planned to visit Asilo de la Paz, and Mrs. Wittmer accompanied them to the beginning of the trail to the highlands.§ Soon, the group broke up because of the different rate at which its members were walking. Ahead, were two men, while a man and a woman came behind them. At the rear, were Miss Reiser and Miss Martha Hurt [sic, Mrs. Martha Hunt]. After reaching the moist region, on the plateau at the center of the island, Miss Hurt had to stop to take a stone out of her shoe. Miss Reiser insisted on continuing, explaining that she had reached her best gait, and did not wish to break it.
§ In Margret Wittmer's letter to Miriam Reif (Saydee Reiser's sister), she indicates that she simply wished them to have a nice time, but did not accompany them to the beginning of the trail.
Soon after, the two who were slightly ahead noticed that Miss Reiser was coming behind them all by herself. The two, Miss Mary Waterson and Edward Vinson, decided to keep an eye on her, for there were many cattle trails crossing the main trail, making it difficult to follow it in some places. When they arrived to where the trail divides, they saw a sign that pointed to the right hand fork, reading “Wittmer, 20 minutes”. Looking behind them, they assured themselves that Miss Reiser was still on the right trail. Certain that there was no danger of her getting lost, they worried no more, increasing their pace.
A little after noon, when the Yankee was about to sail for Post Office Bay, everybody had come aboard except Miss Reiser. Nobody had seen her after Miss Waterson had looked back over her shoulder to confirm that the lady was walking towards the fork in the trail. Nobody had seen her arrive at Asilo de la Paz; nobody had met her on the trail from the interior. Captain Lumbers and three of the crew, accompanied by Chief Petty Officer Macías, who was the port captain and head of the garrison, hiked inland, following all the trails that lead to the various farms. They were unsuccessful. As night fell, they returned to the ship, for it was much too dark to continue the search.
On the 9th, as soon as the day cleared, the head of the garrison—who had no men under him at the time—Captain Lumbers, and seven of his crew set out again. The settlers also joined the search, having heard of what had happened. Some of them went out alone, some accompanied the people from the Yankee. Several parts of the island were explored without success. But one group, headed by Rolf and Inge Wittmer, found footprints on Pampa Larga, a small plain to the south-southwest of Asilo de la Paz. The pattern left by the prints was different from any made by the shoes of the settlers or crew members, so it was assumed that they could only belong to Miss Reiser.
The footprints crossed the plain to its eastern edge, from where they returned in the opposite direction, descending afterwards to Poza de Pampa Larga, a pool that forms during years of heavy rainfall, and which was then completely dry. It is situated to the northwest of the plain. Then, the footprints returned to Pampa Larga, crossing it diagonally, and entering the rocky terrain to the south of it, where they were lost in the thickets of spiny shrubs.
The searchers spread at this place, hoping to find more footprints or the missing lady, as they were certain that she could not have made much headway in that sort of country. They were unsuccessful. In the afternoon, they returned to Asilo de la Paz, disappointed and exhausted. Captain Lumbers thought that the direction of the last footprints that were discovered could indicate that Miss Reiser had headed for the shore. He left in the late afternoon aboard a small boat, together with one of his crew and don Eliécer Cruz, following the coast all the way to Saddle Point, the southwestern end of the island.
On the 10th, several groups went out to explore the interior, heading in different directions. The Yankee sailed along part of the coast, leaving Eloy Quintana, Santiago Paredes, Walter Cruz—don Eliécer's eldest son—and one of the crew on the southern shore of the island. After landing in the breakers, the four explored this part of the coast all the way to a beach that is near Saddle Point, where they were picked up by a boat. Rolf and Inge Wittmer, Juanita Gutiérrez, and don Eliécer Cruz explored once more the Pampa Larga area, where they discovered more footprints, identical to those found on the previous day; but they soon lost them in the rocky terrain below the plain.
As the radio station in Black Beach was out of order, it was impossible to notify Puerto Baquerizo about what had happened or ask for help. Thus, the Yankee sailed for San Cristóbal in the afternoon, taking along the port captain, while leaving six of her crew to continue the search together with the settlers. However, the following day, some of the settlers had to return temporarily to their usual tasks, as they had largely neglected to look after their animals and farms due to the search. Besides, everybody was more or less worn out by the long hikes under the burning sun and the intense heat. Still, a few people continued with the search. The following day, the 12th of April, which happened to be a Sunday, even less happened, for most people were awaiting the return of the Yankee. While the majority of the islanders worked on their farms, Rolf Wittmer went out to hunt, as food supplies were getting low. A small party went out to explore the vicinity of Pampa Larga. This was the only group that continued the search on that day.
The 12th was also the day of our arrival to Black Beach. We had sailed from Puerto Baquerizo at half past nine the previous evening. With us were the Navy's medical officer, Dr. José Ochoa, and the chief of police, Lt. Humberto León. Chief Petty Officer Macías returned, bringing along a mechanic to attempt repairing the garrison's power plant. On landing, we left Macías and his mechanic at the garrison, while we continued towards the Wittmer houses, which was the only place showing signs of life. Mrs. Wittmer had seen us come ashore, and came out to meet us. Her blue eyes had a touch of anguish, her face was unusually grave, filled with worry. There was such an atmosphere of gloom over Black Beach that we hardly noticed the beauty of that sunny day.
Mrs. Wittmer embraced me tightly, whispering with a deep sigh, “Ach, Jakob!” Those two words were loaded with the despair that filled her soul. In them were her feelings for the lost tourist, as well as the ghosts from the past that had returned to haunt her with memories of the happenings of 1934, when death had stalked Floreana.
Our intention had originally been to hike into the highlands almost on arrival, but Mrs. Wittmer insisted that we wait for her son Rolf. We agreed, for it was impossible to make any worthwhile planning with the sketchy information we had at that stage. Rolf could not only report on the search, but he also knew the terrain intimately. While we waited, Dr. Ochoa and I went to the dispensary, to get some medicine to relieve the symptoms of the strong cold we both had. I knew Juanita Gutiérrez, the nurse, rather well, as she was from San Cristóbal. She was the daughter of an old settler, don Manuel Gutiérrez, who had come to the islands as a teenager, back in 1908. While looking for some medicine, she gave us a useful report on the search. By the scratches on her arms and legs, I could tell that at least part of it had been made in the drier regions, where much of the vegetation is thorny. At the garrison, we were told that the port captain and his mechanic expected to get radio contact with San Cristóbal in a very few hours. Unfortunately, they were mistaken in this, for it was not only the power plant that had silenced the radio station. The transmitter itself was also out of order.
We continued waiting for Rolf Wittmer. Don Eliécer Cruz arrived, adding to our information on the search. Before going home to Watkins' Oasis, he asked us to go by his house there on our way inland, for he wanted to accompany us to Asilo de la Paz. Soon after he had left, I walked with Paul Cook and Jaydee Jones, two of the men from the Yankee, as far as the oasis. They were on their way inland with supplies for the searchers. They also carried with them some radio equipment from a life boat, which Captain Lumbers wanted to use for communications between Asilo de la Paz and Black Beach. Later, it was discovered that this equipment was completely useless.
At noon, we were still waiting for Rolf Wittmer. Mrs. Wittmer tried hard to cover up her worries. However, her anxiety did not prevent her from showing us her usual hospitality, serving us an abundant and delicious meal, cooked mainly from island produce, and accompanied with ice cold Guayaquil beer. Fleetingly, I recalled that not many years had passed since this drink was an almost unobtainable luxury on the islands, and that in those years we had to drink it at room temperature, which on Galápagos meant lukewarm.
After eating, the three of us began to feel uneasy and restless. It is doubtful that all of Mrs. Wittmer's eloquence could have held us much longer. As we were about to get our things together and leave, the little, active Eloy Quintana arrived with the hind quarter of a wild pig. He told us that Rolf had decided to remain at Asilo de la Paz, figuring we would be going there anyway. Without delay, we went to the dispensary to fetch the nurse, and headed towards the interior.
At a good pace, we continued along the dusty, sun drenched path that winds over the tuff that was thoroughly desiccated by the intense sunshine of the warm season. Moving through a spiny vegetation of acacias, mesquite and Jerusalem thorns, we arrived to the oasis, where don Eliécer told us that he would be making a detour by his farm before continuing to Asilo de la Paz. Before we went on, his wife served us some huge glasses of lemonade, which we received with great pleasure. On the trail again, we felt as if the burning sun was in the process of robbing our bodies of all their moisture.
We finally entered the moist region, which on Floreana lacks the luxuriant appearance of the corresponding regions on Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal and Isabela, or uninhabited Santiago. Their greater altitude and size allow these islands to capture a higher rainfall. Besides, the central plateau of Floreana has the added disadvantage of an almost uninterrupted chain of hills to the windward, which stops part of the moisture-bringing fogs of the cool season, reducing even more the island's rainfall. To the east, where don Eliécer has his farm, there is a break in the chain, which allows the passage of more moisture, making his the most fertile land on the plateau.
To reach Asilo de la Paz, on the south-southwestern side, we had to descend a slight slope, following a narrow trail that winds among the guava trees, going over a brownish, moist ground. Here, as in the dry lowlands, the animal tracks run back and forth across the human path, being often so broad and well worn that they could easily be mistaken for the trail we wanted to follow. Soon, we reached a fork, where there was a wooden sign pointing to our right, reading, “Wittmer, 20 minutes”. “The one to the left goes to don Eliécer's farm,” the nurse informed us without slackening her fast pace.
Shortly before arriving to Asilo de la Paz, we turned to the left, following a fork in the trail that was almost completely hidden in the rank undergrowth at the edge of the guava forest. What appeared to be the main trail continued under the trees, slightly to our right, kept free from the encroaching undergrowth by the dense shade of the forest. This second trail was a detour used to reach the main spring avoiding the Wittmer houses. Should one have followed it, one would have come to yet another fork farther ahead, the left one leading to the spring, the other going straight ahead to Pampa Larga. The former of these two forks also leaves the trees, nearly disappearing in the undergrowth at the edge of the forest. As we crossed the gate to the Wittmer farm, it occurred to me that Miss Reiser must have followed the most visible two trails, thus reaching Pampa Larga. This mistake is easily made, for the Wittmer houses are not visible until one enters well into their property, hidden as they are by a stretch of high ground and some vegetation. We learnt later that Mary Waterson and Edward Vinson, the only people from the Yankee who went all the way to Asilo de la Paz, had located the houses by the noise made by the barnyard fowl.
Upon arriving to our destination, we were heartily greeted by Inge, Rolf's sister. Her husband, Mario García, was away on the mainland, as was Rolf's wife, visiting with their parents. Inge, her husband and their children lived in a new concrete block house, a type of building that has become popular in the islands. The old stone house was no longer used as a permanent dwelling, and had become a storehouse and a place for occasional guests. We were soon sitting around a large table with Rolf and several of the people from the Yankee, completing the information we had so far received, and discussing the search. Two facts became at once evident—the search must be concentrated around Pampa Larga and the surrounding country, and our headquarters must continue being at Asilo de la Paz.
Monday, April 13, at daybreak, we made ready to go out, after a large breakfast. Knowing how fast one loses moisture when hiking in Galápagos wilderness on hot and sunny days, I put a large plastic container filled with water in my rucksack, besides the canteen I usually carried in my belt. There was also a handful of dried bananas in my pack. Aside from my clothing, my hiking shoes and my straw hat, I also carried a light hunting machete and a Smith & Wesson .38 Special. The latter was meant only as a means of making signals, as I foresaw no other use for it.
We left the nurse and Florimar Cruz, don Eliécer's eldest daughter, in charge of base camp and the García children. The islanders with us were don Eliécer and his son Walter, the two Paredes (father and son), and the Wittmers (Inge and Rolf). From the Yankee we had Paul Cook, Edward Vinson, John Stewart and Mary Waterson. The Afro-American cook, Jaydee Jones, a young man of excellent character, was sent to Black Beach with a message to Captain Lumbers, requesting more supplies, and that a boat be sent to explore the coast along the southwestern shore of the island. Both these requests were duly attended to. From San Cristóbal, we had Dr. Ochoa, Lt. León and myself.
The trail from Asilo de la Paz to Pampa Larga follows a terrain of compact soil, running almost parallel to the base of the Asilo Hill, winding among the stunted trees and small bushes. Farther on, it slopes gently towards the plain, after deviating some from the base of the hill. Its last part goes through a vegetation that consists mostly of Croton bushes, with some undersized uñagato (cat's claws) scattered throughout. This latter becomes increasingly abundant as one descends to the lower, drier parts. The vegetation is low—from four to six or seven feet high. When we entered this part of the trail, the morning heat had barely begun, and we were enveloped by the slightly pungent aroma from the grayish green Croton leaves. This aroma, at first pleasant, became stronger as the day's heat increased, until its intensity was almost suffocating in the early afternoon.
Quite suddenly, we stood out in the open, on the edge of Pampa Larga, an expanse of completely open land, consisting of loose soil on which were scattered numerous small, smooth stones. The only sign of vegetation were the clumps of dry, stiff straw that stood up from the brown soil, as if waiting patiently for a rain that would never come. While I remarked to Lt. León about the forbidding appearance of this desolate landscape, my eyes went instinctively towards Asilo Hill, to take a bearing so as to position the entrance to the trail, which was completely hidden from view among the Croton bushes. I realized at once why Miss Reiser had been unable to find the trail and return from Pampa Larga.
We crossed Pampa Larga in a southwesterly direction, going out on the other side, to enter the Croton again. This bush or small tree forms on this island a belt between the moist inland region and the dry, lower areas. Soon, there was an increase in the frequency of the uñagatos and, farther down, these were joined by the Jerusalem thorns, their long, flexible branches giving us a greater problem than the uñagatos. The sound of ripped clothing and the muttered swearing that was caused by painful scratches, became rather frequent. Here, my experience hunting wild goats proved most useful, as I dodged this hostile vegetation with so much success, that I only ripped a sleeve during my whole stay on Floreana.
Finally, tired and drenched in perspiration, we arrived to the place where Miss Reiser's last footprints had been found. Near by stood a conspicuous pile of rocks which we chose as our meeting place, before spreading out in twos to explore the area. As a precaution, I proposed that each group should consist of an outsider and a settler, my companion being don Eliécer Cruz. As we were an odd number, young Santiago Paredes went alone. We spread towards the lowlands below, meeting with a tangle of thorny vegetation that formed in most places an impenetrable barrier with its grayish, contorted branches, often recumbent on the rocky ground. This sort of vegetation and terrain continues almost down to the shore, forming a region of difficult penetration, with very limited visibility, and an atmosphere that is oppressive even on relatively cool and overcast days.
This was my first visit to that part of Floreana, but I knew many similar places elsewhere around the islands. One glance at the landscape made me lose any reasonable hope of finding Miss Reiser. She could not have survived in such a place more than a couple of days, if that long. Most likely, she had, exhausted from the effort and the heat, sought the scant shade offered by the low, entangled vegetation, remaining there, drowsy at first, finally unconscious, losing her life to the effects of the heat and dehydration. We could have walked right by her side without as much as guessing it, in this kind of vegetation. Finding her, even with a hundred men, would have been an almost miraculous bit of luck. Furthermore, any footprints would have been erased by the intermittent rains of the previous night. Not that there would be any prints in this rocky waste.
But I kept my doubts to myself. It was necessary that we continue the search beyond the faintest hope. The groups returned one by one to our meeting place, until we were all gathered by the rocky mound. I filled several of the canteens of my companions, and my own. After a brief rest, we spread out again, moving inland. Don Eliécer and I explored thoroughly the area between our rendezvous and Pampa Larga, then turned west, from where we continued down to Poza de Pampa Larga, where we followed a line of low cliffs, which my companion examined constantly though his binoculars, while I made side trips into the various animal trails. After this, we went into the forest, where we took a short rest under some trees. From here, we could hear voices in the direction of the trail to Asilo de la Paz, the beginning of which was to be our final meeting place. While we were drinking some water, prior to going on our way again, we heard a shot in the general direction of our rendezvous. “They must be calling us,” I said to don Eliécer, a slight hope appearing in my mind. “Could they have found something?”
“Maybe,” replied my companion hopefully. We got up quickly. Half on the run, I fired an answering shot. We ran up the slope leading to the beginning of the trail, where we discovered Dr. Ochoa and Mr. Paredes, who were resting under some Croton bushes. They had heard the two shots, but knew nothing, except that Lt. León and Rolf Wittmer were still missing. All the others were on their way to Asilo de la Paz. I fired another shot, getting no reply. About twenty minutes later, our two missing companions appeared in the distance, at the southern edge of Pampa Larga. Though they must have seen us, we decided to wait for them. They had no news. Lt. León had fired a shot merely to check if anybody was at the meeting place. After a few drinks of water, we continued together to Asilo de la Paz, where a cold shower and a good supper, prepared by the two capable young ladies we had left behind, awaited us.
After our meal, I was sitting at the table, cleaning the revolver. From an early age, my father had taught both Eric, my brother, and me that one should never put away a gun that has been fired without cleaning it thoroughly, lest the salts left by the burnt powder corrode the bore. Suddenly, I noticed that someone was standing next to me. I looked up. As I met Mary Waterson's grave eyes, she told me, “I want to leave the search. I'm completely worn out.”
From her appearance, I could tell she was not exaggerating. It was clear to see that the heat and the unusual exertion of the last few days had taken their toll. I advised her to go down to Black Beach with Mr. Paredes, who was about to leave. I asked him to take it easy on the way down, considering the condition in which the American lady was. Soon after they left, Edward Vinson requested consent to abandon the search, giving the same reasons as Miss Waterson. As he was leaving, after thanking me, I shrugged, telling myself resignedly, “One more casualty.” If they were exhausted—and they had more than enough reason to be—they would be of little use out in the field. But when Paul Cook also approached me, my resignation turned to alarm. Cook must have guessed my thoughts, for he smiled reassuringly, saying, “Don't worry. I've run out of cigarettes, and I'm going aboard to get a carton. I'll be back tomorrow, in good time to start out with the rest of you.”
Later, while talking to Dr. Ochoa and Lt. León, I found out that both shared my doubts about finding Miss Reiser. Both were convinced that she could not be alive. In fact, the physician was certain that she had lost her life even before the Yankee had sailed for San Cristóbal to seek help. “With the heat we are experiencing, she must have become exhausted and sought rest under some bushes, where she collapsed from dehydration,” he stated. “I'm quite sure she couldn't have survived beyond the second day.”
Still, we were in complete agreement to make another try. Thus, we went out again the following morning, on April 14, in a final attempt at finding some trace of the missing lady. Jaydee Jones was with us, and Cook had arrived on time, as promised. Juanita Gutiérrez and Eloy Quintana had increased our numbers so that, despite the loss of two companions, we were fourteen altogether. We headed again for Pampa Larga, from where we set course for the east, arriving at a smaller plain, Pampa de Alvear, where we again broke up into twos, after agreeing to meet in a dry watercourse to the east of Asilo Hill. Don Eliécer had mentioned to me the previous day that there are many animal trails in that area, which extends from the southeast to the east, some distance northeast from Pampa Larga. We decided to explore the area, for it had hardly been examined before.
After following a few wild donkey trails without any results, we came out to an open, flat expanse that is completely surrounded by Croton bushes, interspersed with stunted guava, uñagato, and somewhat undersized guayabillo (Psidium galapageium) trees. Suddenly, my companion stopped, pointing at a distant tree, where something white was to be seen against the grayish green background of the surrounding vegetation. We both agreed that this could be a handkerchief tied to a branch to attract attention.
We crossed the small plain to investigate, and while don Eliécer climbed a tree to get a better look, as we had lost sight of the white object in the tangle of uñagato and Croton, I headed for some guayabillos beyond the low vegetation. Nothing. I climbed into a tree to try to locate the white object, but could not see it anywhere. Communicating by shouts, we agreed to return to the spot from which we had first seen the white object. We had no trouble rediscovering it. Don Eliécer handed me his binoculars, walking again towards the tree where we were seeing the object. I followed behind, with the field glasses glued to my eyes, so as not to lose sight of the object. I arrived thus to the edge of the open terrain, where I stopped, as the white object was about to disappear behind the Croton bushes.
From this observation spot, I shouted instructions to don Eliécer whenever he deviated from his course. Suddenly, a cloud crossed the sun and the white object vanished. I realized at once that the white object was just sunlight reflecting from the grayish, smooth bark of a guayabillo branch. I shouted to don Eliécer that he should return. As we walked towards the east-southeast, I explained to him what had happened. We were then on our way to inspect a series of small plains and low cliffs. We carried out a very thorough search of that area.
It was time for us to head for our rendezvous. The dry stream bed that guided us there is hidden under a great mass of tangled vegetation. This gives the bottom of the gully a greener appearance than is the case of the surrounding country. I noticed this in the periphery of my attention, observing even that there is a difference in the composition of the flora at the bottom of the dry stream and that outside it. But I could not tell what the difference was, being deeply affected by our failure.
A woman who was full of life had been lost, a woman who was unusually aware of the world around her, interested in everyone and everything. Jaydee Jones had told me about her—how she helped him in his chores, how much he admired and worshipped this kind, old lady, whose soul was still young, whose heart was filled with generosity. The other people on the Yankee only confirmed what this loyal and forthright seaman had told me. It was hard for me to accept that such a person should have come from so far away to die alone, lying under some thorny shrubbery, without a friendly hand to give her assistance. At that moment, I felt the full weight of my own helplessness; the rage and the intense frustration at being unable to change what had happened.
Don Eliécer and I walked silently along a trail that runs more or less from south to north, nearly parallel to the eastern bank of the dry stream. We arrived at a seca tree (a large-crowned tree of the bean family), settling under its shade to rest and sip some water from our canteens, surrounded by the buzzing of bumblebees and the cloying smell of Croton. The sound of voices began to reach us from the northwestern part of the gulch. I fired the revolver once, to announce our presence, bringing forth the Wittmer dogs, which undoubtedly believed we had shot a pig. Behind them, appeared Walter Cruz, who told us that the whole group was at the meeting place, except for ourselves, Lt. León and Dr. Ochoa. We continued with him, following the stream bed, to find the others where they had taken refuge from the burning sun, under the shadow of an enormous seca tree, which grows out of the sandy bed.
Here, I had to make the painful decision of putting our failure into words. I explained the reasons for my certainty that Miss Reiser was dead, and for believing that any further search was useless; that we could only at best, by some extraordinary chance, find her remains. The search had covered an enormous land area, in suffocating heat and often under difficult conditions. The participants, especially those who were in the search from the very first day, had made a great effort. I proposed that we split up again, covering the ground from there to Asilo de la Paz, in a last attempt. Everybody present accepted my words without objections.
After ascending the slope that rises between the dry stream and Asilo Hill, we split up again in twos, to cover the areas to the east, northeast and north of Asilo Hill. Don Eliécer and I went towards the southeast of the hill, covering the slopes on that side, then moving south to reach Pampa de Alvear. We returned to Asilo de la Paz about four in the afternoon, after having gone by Pampa Larga, where we were joined by Lt. León and Dr. Ochoa, who informed us that the people from the Yankee had headed back to Black Beach.
Early in the morning of April 15, we too returned to Black Beach, accompanied by Ingeborg, her two children, Juanita Gutiérrez and Florimar Cruz. That afternoon, we held the official inquiry among the Floreana settlers, leaving the people on the Yankee for our return to San Cristóbal, where we sailed that same night. We did not arrive to our destination until early next evening, having met with unfavorable winds and currents on the way. The inquiries were therefore completed on the 17th.
When the Cristóbal Carrier arrived in the afternoon of the 18th, I had to devote all my time to my duties as agent, and to make myself ready for the trip around the islands. Thus, I had to write the official report on the search while traveling with the ship. Upon our arrival to Santa Cruz, I heard a series of farfetched stories about Miss Reiser's disappearance. The most widespread one was about the lady carrying with her eighteen thousand dollars in travelers checks, which she kept in her camera bag. According to one version, one of her shipmates had murdered her to get hold of the checks. A second version accused one of the Floreana settlers of the misdeed. I never found out where this total of eighteen thousand dollars came from, but everybody seemed to agree on the amount. Another thing that puzzled me was how people thought the checks could be cashed, after their owner had been reported missing. (There were no banks in Galápagos at that time, so cashing them quickly was out of question). Though the lady's checks were found on the Yankee along with her other valuables, there were those who continued insisting that there had been foul play.
Though Galápagos authorities had officially given up the search, a U.S. military transport plane landed on the Baltra airstrip two days after the Cristóbal Carrier had started her cruise of the islands. The plane brought with it a helicopter, which flew to Floreana on the same day. That afternoon, with Rolf Wittmer as guide, it started to explore the island, repeating this operation on the following day. What could be accomplished by this is hard to say, as the whole country is covered with tangled vegetation which makes it impossible to see the ground from the air. Two weeks later, part of the crew of the Ecuadorian Navy's transport ship Jambelí went out on another unsuccessful search, when that ship called at Black Beach.
At no time did we who took part in the main search, nor any of Galápagos officials, ever consider the possibility that Miss Reiser could have been murdered. There was nothing to be gained from such a crime, and the lady was well liked by everybody. Our point of view was to be confirmed some years later,§ when one of the settlers, who was out hunting, came across her remains quite by chance, where she had sought shade under some low, tangled bushes. As for the barkentine Yankee, this was to be her last voyage. The old sailing vessel ended her days sitting on a Polynesian reef.
§ According to 1964 newspaper reports, Ms. Reiser was 70 years old (b. ca. 1894) at the time of her disappearance. Her remains were found in 1980.
Letter, Statement and gravesite photo pertaining to Saydee Reiser.
Floreana has changed considerably since my Galápagos days. Here, as elsewhere around the islands, the changes have originated mainly from tourism, which built up from the 1960's on. Visitors no longer fall on their faces in the wet sand of the landing beach, for there is a pier where one can get ashore dryshod. However, the marine growth on the lower steps makes it hazardous to get ashore at low tide. Some of the wooden houses have been replaced by concrete block buildings; but the number of inhabitants is still small—about eighty on the whole island, I am told. There has been little if any immigration to Floreana, and some of its former inhabitants have even moved elsewhere. For example, Paquita, Rolf Wittmer's wife, lives now in Quito because she needs constant medical attention. Some of the younger Wittmers have been going to school on the mainland, and it is not unlikely that they will return to their native island only as visitors.
Mario García, Inge's husband, is no longer there. One day, he went hunting as usual; but this time he failed to return. Despite all the searching that was done, all that was ever found was his cap. I do not know how many of the Cruz family remain. Don Eliécer died in 1998. His son Walter owns a boat yard in the Miami area, where he lives with his French wife and their two children. One of his younger brothers is director of Galápagos National Park. In 1976, while I worked in Australia as a translator for an Italian pipeline construction company, I ran into Walter's cousin, who had moved to Floreana shortly before we left the islands. He was working in Sydney as a house painting contractor. Typical of us islanders. Far too many of us have scattered to the four winds, leaving the islands to be taken over by strangers from the mainland.
Mrs. Wittmer, the old matriarch who for so many years was the most important and best known person on Floreana, is no longer there. Doña Margarita, as she was called locally, died on March 21, 2000, at the age of 95 years. All of us who knew her will miss the grand old lady, and Floreana will of course never be the same without her.
However, my good friend Rolf Wittmer is still there; but his life has changed drastically.§ He spends so much time taking tourists around the islands, that he seldom has time to spend Christmas with his family. His yacht is always booked up many months ahead. This brings back the memory of the last time we were together. We were standing on the deck of the Cristóbal Carrier. It must have been because I was leaving the islands that Rolf took time to remain with me longer than usual, taking a break from his normally feverish activity. While we stood there, looking at the island, where Cerro de la Paja rose its conical outline against a blue sky that was decorated with a scattering of small clouds of the purest white, he told me in a tone that sounded more like a statement than a question, “You'll be back after a year or two?”
§ Rolf died September 11, 2011.
“Maybe,” I said, feeling suddenly a painful emptiness in my heart, for I had a vague feeling that I would never come back to live on the islands. Trying to take the whole matter lightly, I went on, “In any case, I'll return when I get my pension. I'll buy myself a yacht, and I'll spend most of my time cruising around the islands with tourists. I suppose there'll be a few of them by then—enough to make a reasonably good living with my pension and the extra income from the tourism.”
Rolf looked at me with a humorous expression. “Maybe you're right. Perhaps there'll be a few more tourists, twenty or thirty years from now—if they haven't disappeared altogether.”
There were still many years between me and my old age pension when the number of tourists had increased to the stage that five or six planes a week had to carry them to the landing strip on Baltra, and there was a weekly flight to the new air field on San Cristóbal. Rolf had by then changed his yacht Tip-Top to a larger one, the Tip-Top II, which was equipped with all sorts of modern navigational aids, including radar equipment with a 24-mile range—those aids that we barely dared dream about in Galápagos only a very few years earlier. He had six double cabins and three bathrooms for his passengers. Even so, he could not accept more than half the reservations that came his way, despite there being plenty of competition.
In fact, the tourist trade built up quickly, once it got going in earnest. My conversation with Rolf took place at the beginning of 1965, and by 1969 I had received three different offers to work as a tour organizer. One of these offers was very good—in income as well as in most other conditions. The job was just made for me. There is nothing better than to be paid well to travel in a region that never ceases to fascinate you, and to talk about your favorite subject to an audience that is anxious to hear all about it. But there was a catch. I would have had to be away from home ten months out of every year, without seeing my wife and our children. There is no money worth such a sacrifice.