Volcano of giant tortoises.
A C Highfield
The mist hangs like a halo in the distance. The rim of the distant crater lies hidden, obscured by thick cloud. It is early morning and the sun has not yet attained it's zenith. Later, the coastal reaches of this place will boil in searing temperatures topping 53 degrees C. The tortoises are not to be found here. They live higher, on the approach slopes beyond the lava flow where each morning the ground is bathed in gaura moisture as it drips from the lichen draped Palo santo trees. The ground here is dry, baked and scorched. A few Tropidurus lizards, the odd mockingbird, ever watchful of her nest. We carry our own water and begin the long climb. We will need that water as the day wears on, as the dehydration in these conditions strikes quickly and acutely.
After several miles we begin to notice an increase in the lichens harboured by the stark white Palo santo. Greenery is also becoming abundant, fresh grass and clover-like shoots at first merely dot the slope, but are gradually transformed into a verdant carpet stretching as far as the eye can see and disappearing into the thickening mist ahead. The temperature has fallen noticeably from the searing heat of the lower approaches, to a comfortable 26 degrees C. Then, before us - our first Alcedo tortoise! Magnificent and awesome, primaeval and incredible. No matter how many tortoises - even giants you may be familiar with in the comfortable surroundings of a zoo or park - to meet these animals head on in their own domain is an experience which cannot truly be described. They are of course big. But that alone does not account for their impact, for there is something else; a presence. In more ways than one we humans seem small, weak, and transient beside them. In the deepening mists of the ancient volcano the tortoises are very much masters of their secret domain, and we, the few humans who pass their way are the interlopers.
Our climb now takes us higher, for we are intent on reaching the rim of the crater. Gradually , we leave the tortoises of the slopes behind, but not before encountering many juveniles - a sight to bring relief and joy to all who love these magnificent beasts from an earlier world. A foot or more long, the youngsters roam the slopes munching on the fresh greenery along well worn tortoise trails, following in the huge footsteps of their elder relatives.
The climb is long and arduous. only the thought of the scene awaiting us drives us on. But we have come too far to give up. At last, we break the crumbling ridge and among the dead bones at the top the mist briefly clears. The sight across the crater is incredible. The temperature here is 20 degrees C and the air feels damp and chill. Far below we see a huge tortoise feeding on the lush growth within the crater. Even the stale water we have carried for so long feels good as we relax and take in the scene. Feeling on top of the world and surrounded by tortoises, we record temperatures, take photographs, and finally begin the descent. On the way down we discover a freshly dug tortoise nest, then more juveniles. Eventually after several hours of weary, but elated trekking, we reach the stark shore. Gone now, left far behind. But never forgotten.