Monday, 26 March 2007

Marooned (in a garden shed)

I returned on Friday from the place you have probably not heard of, but you definately have heard of.

Up until 1966 this island, part of the Juan Fernandez archeopeligo, was called Masatierra. After this the island,s name became far more memorable.

Welcome to Robinson Crusoe Island.

Alexander Selkirk was born in Largo, Fife, Scotland in 1680. He was the son of a tanner, and was expected to join his father's trade once he had grown up. Circumstances, however, set him on a very different course. His father once remarked that Alexander's temper would "cause him to lose his life", and certainly his early years were somewhat tempestuous. Aged just 15, he was accused of indecent exposure in his local church, and was duly summoned to appear before church elders for punishment. He never did appear before them. Instead young Alexander made his way to the Forth and joined a ship heading to Central America. The goal of the voyage was to establish on the isthmus of Panama, in the Darien, a Scottish plantation. The voyage was not a success as the Darien is a swampy, jungle infested area, that even today is a significant obstacle to land transportation between Panama and Colombia. However, Alexander quickly learned his seamanship, and returned to Scotland qualified as a ship's master.

At home, trouble hit once more, with a major argument occurring between himself his brother's and his father. Once again as a result, he was called to attend a hearing of the church elders, but once again he fled to sea, rather than endure the public humiliation that awaited him.

He joined the ships St George and the Cinque Ports, under the command of Darmier, the goal being to plunder Spanish shipping in the South Seas. Queen Anne sanctioned their buccaneering voyage, as Britain was at war with Spain and France. The crew were hungry for gold and the riches the Spanish controlled.

The journey to the West coast of South America was not a happy one. Insufficient food and water had been loaded, and what had quickly became rotten and weevil infested. Furthermore the ships condition quickly deteriorated, with the ships timber becoming weakenned by worms. Scurvy broke out amonst the crew and many lives were lost to this mysterious sea bourne disease. The two ships also had very little luck in encountering Spanish galleys, and the crew became increasingly restless. Talk of mutiny was a constant topic.

As ships master Selkirk was very concerned with the state of the ship. He argued with his Captain, Stradling, that the ships should moored up for a long period for repairs to be made and for fresh food and water to be loaded. They headed for the Juan Fernandez islands, discovered in 1574, and stocked by the Spanish with goats, for the purpose of meeting their ships needs. Whilst moored in Cumberland Bay, the disagreements between Selkirk and Stradling reached their peak. Stradling wanted to move on to the coast of Peru quickly, to plunder Spanish shipping, Selkirk argued that the ships were unsafe. In temper, Selkirk demanded to remained on the island. Stradling gave him his wish.

Selkirk expected others to challenge Stradling, but he was mistaken. A boat was arranged to carry him and his sea chest to the beach. He pleaded that he had changed his mind, and would now accept Stradling's leadership. But Stradling was as determined to teach Selkirk and any others who may have displayed disobediancy a lesson.

On the beach he watched as the ship set sail and out of sight. He was marooned and alone. Thinking that the ship would soon return, he remained on the beach, also fearing the dense forest would be full of dangerous beasts. It was beast of one sort that forced him to abandon the shore. The sea lion mating season brought the aggressive males antics. In the forest Selkirk built and hut, learned how to catch goats, and read his bible. Rats plgued him, biting him whilst he slept. To counter these he domesticated ferral cats. These were his only company for four years and four months.

Each day he would climb to his look out, ready to light his beacon if a sail was spotted.

One day he did see a ship, heading directly for his island. He lit his beacon and waited for the ship on the beach. His excitement at the prospect of rescue was high, but was quickly dashed when he realised the ship was Spanish. Capture by the enemy would mean slavery, a fate worse than death, forced to work in silver mines or worse. He fled to the forest, pursued by Spanish sailors. He evaded them by climbing a tree. Once they had gone he found his hut burnt and his few possessions in tatters. He fell intro great despondancy, thinking he would die on this island, receiving no Christian burial, to be eaten by his cats.

His beard grew, his language lost. He became savage at best. But still he maintained a vigil for a hoped for rescue.

The British galley, The Duke, approaching the island, saw his smoke signal, but feared a Spanish garrison. It took days before a boat headed to the shore, where Selkirk welcomed them with roast goat and fresh water and vegtables.

He was at last rescued, by British bucaneers. The ship carried on up the coast of Chile to Peruvian waters to wait on the arrival of the Spanish Manilla galleon. This ship, a great prize, was taken. Selkirk and the crew were overjoyed at the riches they would now share in.

On return to Britain, Selkirk's story quickly became became notorious. It was his story that gave Daniel defoe the idea to write a novel of a castaway on a remote, uninhabited island. The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe quickly became a massive international bestseller.

Alexander Selkirk continued his tempestuous life, marrying two women, and running away back to sea to escape the consequences. He died of yellow fever aged 41 off the west coast of Africa.

My journey to the island was far easier. I flew. It was off and on whether I could travel there. Only at 5pm on the Friday was it confirmed I had a seat on the return flight, and that the weather for Saturday 17th was forecasted as good for a landing on the islands airstrip, and for calm seas (as the airstrip is only linked to the island's one settlement, San Juan de la Bapiste, by and hour and a halves boat ride)

My confirmation of the flight included the mobile telephone number of the pilot, just in case I was delayed in getting to Santiago's airport. The plane I took was a twin engined propeller plane with just four seats. A young family occupied the other three seats, behind us a cargo of wood and other essentials needed by the island 600 strong inhabitants.

The island was swathed in cloud after the two hour flight. The airstrip was located on the far eastern peninsula, in a totally volcanic and stark landscape. We walked 30 minutes down to the boat pier, and headed out of yhe bay in a small fishing boat. The family I journeyed with were islanders returning home. Even though they had lived there for 5 years they still were taking photos of the 300 metre high basalt cliffs.

The boat ride was fantastic as the low clouds lifted to clear skies. Above the cliffs the islands jagged peaks emergeds from the clouds. The island is very small just 23km by 7 at it's widest. The peaks of the island are high, topping 900 metres, and covered in cloud forest, comprising ingigenous plants found no other place. The sound of the sea mixed with the barking of numerous "fur seals", a species of sea lion found no where else.

Arriving in San Juan, I met Pedro, a dive master, returning from a trip with other visitors. He spoke great English and offered me the use of his cabin in his homes garden just above the sea. This was to be my garden shed for the next six nights.

On my birthday I had travelled to one of the world's most off the beaten track destinations. Sitting on the veranda of my hut, sipping Chilean wine, gazing at the twinking southerns stars I was very very happy to be here.