Robinson Crusoe Island

Thursday, 4 March 2010

I was in Haiti in 2007, less than two years before the disastrous earthquake hit the Caribbean Island. Back in 1998 I was on another island that’s recently suffered earthquake damage, Chile’s Robinson Crusoe Island. Eight people on the island are known to have lost their lives when the tsunami resulting from the Chile tremblor struck Robinson Crusoe Island. The dramatically mountainous island lies about 700km offshore and gets its name because of the visit by Alexander Selkirk, the British seamen who was marooned on the island and inspired Daniel Defoe’s famous novel. Selkirk only stayed on the island for four years, not 28 years like his fictional counterpart. Selkirk’s name is attached to the other island in Chile’s Juan Fernández Islands group.

Robinson Crusoe Island
▲ View of the island from Alejandro Selkirk Lookout

I stopped off on Robinson Crusoe Island on a trip with the Russian Antarctic ship Akademik Shuleykin. I’d joined the ship at the Chilean port of Valparaíso for a voyage that would take us to Easter Island, Pitcairn Island and a number of remote islands of French Polynesia before finishing in Tahiti. I wrote a book about the trip, which has never been published. The Robinson Crusoe Island chapter, with the full story of Selkirk’s stay and the wreck of the German cruiser Dresden, sunk here by the Royal Navy during World War I, follows.


Selkirk was thoroughly fed up.

It was 1704 and he was the mate on the Cinque Ports, an English privateer on a run up the South American coast in search of Spanish ships to mug. The ship was a leaky piece of junk, the captain was another Bligh and Selkirk was not happy. He’d announced to the captain that if they were not going to stop and at least plug the worst of the leaks, he wanted off at the next stop. Fair enough, agreed the captain, heading towards the uninhabited Juan Fernández Islands. Juan had dubbed them with his name back in 1574 but the only inhabitants were a bunch of goats, either the leftovers from an earlier settlement attempt or, more likely, deliberately left to feed any shipwrecked sailors who might have ended up on the islands.

Carrying a Bible, some tobacco and clothes, a knife, a musket and a pound of powder Selkirk was rowed ashore and quickly reached the conclusion that a leaky ship was a better bet than an empty island.

As the boat pulled away from the shore Selkirk raced down into the surf shouting, ‘stop, stop, I’ve changed my mind!’

‘Well I haven’t,’ was his captain’s reply.

For a year or so Selkirk moped around, before deciding he might as well try and hang on until another ship dropped by, preferably not a Spanish one as English privateers, shipwrecked or not, were not exactly flavour of the month. It would be four years before he was rescued but Alexander Selkirk’s spell as a castaway was the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s famous novel. Defoe moved the site of the action from the Juan Fernández Islands to somewhere in the Caribbean, extended the enforced layover from four years to 28, changed the arrival method to a shipwreck, added Man Friday to the character list and changed the main character’s name to Robinson Crusoe, but otherwise Defoe’s ‘strange surprising adventure’ is the story of Alexander Selkirk.

Selkirk built himself a couple of nifty little cave homes, climbed up to a hilltop lookout every day to keep watch for passing ships and developed a highly buffed physique by dint of chasing down goats and killing them with his bare hands; the pound of powder was soon used up. After football (always number one in South America) the island’s number one sporting event is still an annual goat chasing contest in memory of Selkirk’s Olympic standard in the event.

Selkirk also discovered that the island’s seal population were totally unaware that a raggedy looking guy dressed in goat skins approaching them with a large wooden club did not have polite conversation in mind, so seal meat was also added to the island cuisine.

Eventually in 1708, four years and four months after he was dumped on the beach, two more English privateers, the Duke and Duchess, anchored off shore and were more than a little surprised to find the goat-skin clad Selkirk rushing out to meet them. Selkirk sailed off to a renewed career in piracy and, recast as Robinson Crusoe, on to the 18th century bestseller lists. His original concerns about his ship’s seaworthiness were well founded, however. It did indeed go down soon after leaving Selkirk on the beach. The crew were rescued but, unfortunately for them, their rescuers were Spanish so while Selkirk was enjoying the fresh island air and some healthy goat-chasing they were quietly rotting in a Peruvian jail.

Curiously enough the island had hosted an earlier castaway, although the prior visitor’s stay had never been novelised. In 1681 the famed English pirate and explorer William Dampier had stopped at the island, but had to depart in a hurry when a Spanish ship chanced by. Dampier left with haste but without ‘Will’, a Miskito Indian from Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast. Will, the name he had been dubbed with by the English crew, also had a gun and a knife (but no Bible) and survived very comfortably for the next three years, knocking off the occasional seal, fishing with rather more success than Selkirk later managed and, in Selkirkian fashion, running down the island’s much exercised goats. Dampier himself came back to collect Will, although why he waited three years is not explained. He wrote that Will had spotted his ship the day before it arrived at the island and:

‘… did believe we were English, and therefore kill’d three Goats in the morning … and drest them with Cabbage, to treat us when we came ashore.’

Clearly Dampier could not keep away from the island as he was also the pilot for the Duke and Duchess when it rescued Selkirk.

In 1688, way before Cook’s famous trip down under, Dampier made the first of two notable exploratory trips touching upon the western coast of Australia and endeared himself to future generations of Australians by pronouncing it:

‘The miserablest place with the miserablest people in the world.’

The town of Derby in Western Australia, where he made his landfall, has a sign proudly proclaiming this historic praise although in fact it was Dampier’s captain, Read, who deserves the credit.

Of course Robinson Crusoe Island hasn’t always gone under that novelistic name. Until 30-odd years ago it was hard to beat the two major islands of the Juan Fernández group when it came to what-you-see-is-what-you-get names. About 650 km off the Chilean coast, more or less due west of Valparaíso, lay Isla Masatierra, which translated as Closer In Island. Continue another 190 km further from the coast and, hardly surprisingly, you’d reach Isla Masafuera, Further Out Island. Closer In and Further Out were simple and descriptive but in the mid-60s the Chilean government suddenly woke up to the tourism potential of their remote islands and decided to cash in on the famous visitor. Closer In became Isla Robinson Crusoe.

In fact Selkirk’s visit is not the only chapter in the Isla Robinson Crusoe history books. Later that century seal hunters turned up to emulate his success at seal bashing, but on a much larger scale. In just 20-odd years in the late 1700s and early
1800s they managed to reduce the endemic Juan Fernández fur seal population from five or six million to the point of extinction. The fine-haired fur proved to work just as well for insulating humans as seals and single ships sailed away with cargoes of 100,000 seal skins. Today the population has recovered to 6000 to 10,000 fur seals.

Still a little jet-lagged I was up at dawn and watching from the bridge as the island filled the view. It was an impressive vista with dramatic cliffs rising sheer from the sea, punctuated by a handful of black stone beaches. We anchored in Bahía Cumberland, Cumberland Bay, the centre of pretty much everything on the island. The entire population is concentrated in San Juan Bautista, the island’s only town. Lobster boats bobbed in the waters between us and the beach; tourism may be a major contributor to the island’s economy but it is lobsters which really reel the cash in.

The previous evening we’d been given our Zodiac landing instructions, but this ship was so full of repeat customers, recidivists Samantha called them, that most of us knew all about Zodiac groups, lifejackets, wet and dry landings and so on. Zodiacs were what we had instead of docking facilities. Only in Tahiti, the final conclusion of the trip, would we find ourselves at a port where the ship could be tied up beside a wharf and we could get on and off by strolling down the gangplank. At our dozen or so stops en route the landings and boardings would be made with the ship’s four Zodiacs, the purposeful looking, inflatable, black-rubber dinghies invented by French underwater guru Jacques Cousteau. Powered by  40 horsepower Mercury outboard motors they were ideal for getting ashore on inhospitable coastlines.

Each Zodiac could carry 10 passengers, five down each side, plus the Zodiac driver, although in rougher weather they might carry less. Rarely were all four Zodiacs in operation at the same time so the 44 passengers were divided up and group A would land first on one island, group B on the next.

Lifejackets on we would assemble on the bow of the ship and one by one get ticked off on Jen’s leaving-the-ship and returning-to-the ship list, descend the ship’s steps which had been lowered down the side, step in to the waiting Zodiac and, once the full complement was aboard, head for shore.

The actual landing might be wet or dry. If we came into a beach then landing would be wet, you stepped out of the Zodiac into the water and waded ashore. If, on the other hand, we pulled up beside a neat wharf or pier or even beside some convenient rocks the landing might be dry, you simply stepped out of the Zodiac on to dry land.
‘All landings are wet,’ Geoff had advised.

It was an accurate statement, even if the actual stepping ashore was perfectly dry you might already be soaking wet from head to toe, courtesy of an errant wave which had leapt into your lap on the way to shore. In the weeks to come there would be plenty of errant waves.

Stepping ashore was not, however, the critical Zodiac step. Stepping into the accursed Zodiac in the first place or stepping out of it at the end of the day was the difficult one. In the weeks to come calm, sheltered anchorages would be the exception rather than the rule and choppy waves could make getting in and out of the Zodiacs a fraught affair. I’d certainly experienced that in full cold weather gear on the Antarctic trip I’d made on the Shuleykin the previous year. Many of our passengers were, to be polite, elderly so the loading and unloading operation was not a case of fit young athletes tripping confidently down the steps and leaping agilely into a dinghy being tossed around at the bottom. And jumping out onto the steps with equal assurance at the end of the day.

Waves, however, choppy or not, would not be the big problem in the couple of dozen arrivals and departures to come. Swells was the scary word. Very often we would be anchored at sea, perhaps a few hundred metres off shore, sometimes a half km, on a couple of occasions well over a km out. Anchored out there we would be riding the rise and fall of the Pacific Ocean. We would be going up and down with the same open ocean swells that would eventually turn into the king size waves surfers ride ashore when they met the coastline of Hawaii or Australia. Time after time in the subsequent weeks we would return to the ship to see the couple of thousand tons of the Akademik Shuleykin looking reassuringly steady while two metre swells yo-yoed us up and down beside the stairway.

Stepping was not the right verb in such a situation, the initial ‘step’ off the ship or the final ‘step’ back on was more often a desperate leap and for some of our stiffer and less steady passengers getting on and off was clearly a terrifying business. Forty odd passengers and a couple of dozen arrivals and departures would add up to around a thousand of those initial and final steps before we finally walked down the steps and simply strode ashore at Papeete in Tahiti. Only one of those thousand individual arrivals and departures would be disastrous.

That first landing of the trip at Robinson Crusoe was not one of the fraught affairs. We were comfortably anchored in the sheltered waters of Bahía Cumberland so no towering ocean swells complicated getting on to the Zodiacs. We made our first landing at Puerto Ingles, the next valley along the coast, and there were no tricky waves to pounce on us as we motored by the island’s imposingly sheer and rocky cliff faces. Finally a convenient rocky ledge provided an easy, and dry, debarkation. If only they were all like that.

Puerto Ingles was the site of Selkirk’s shelter, and we dutifully gazed at the rough cave facing the sea. Perhaps he’d made a comfortable home of it, cozily lined with goatskins and with the odd whalebone knick knack hanging on the walls, but it had clearly never been a Disneyland shipwreck island mansion and today it looked as if Cro-Magnon man would have had second thoughts about moving in. Quite why he’d build his shelter in this bay is a bit of a mystery since the other prime Selkirk site, his mirador or lookout, from where he made his daily watch for rescuers, is at the top of the valley above San Juan Bautista.

I walked on around the bay, studying the hills rolling back from the bay for signs of goats whose ancestors had escaped Selkirk’s depredations. A crumbling shepherd’s shelter was prettily surrounded by the pink flowers known as naked ladies. I walked right on to the end of the bay and climbed up the confusion of boulders and rocks at the end, hoping there might be a stray fur seal in the area.

Our first homage to Selkirk taken care of we zodiaced back to San Juan Bautista and landed at the pier. By the time the sealers had begun to work over the island’s seal population the Spanish had firmly established themselves on the island, building a fort in 1749 to dissuade any further visits by nasty English pirates. We climbed up the hill behind the town to inspect the fort’s sturdy walls.
The island was still periodically uninhabited until 1877, when a permanent Chilean settlement was established. By the end of the 18th century English privateers may have disappeared from the troublemakers’ list, but the unfortunate Spanish had quite enough troublemakers of their own. Their vast Latin American empire was in the process of disintegrating and in the run up to formal independence in 1818 the island became a prison for 42 Chilean patriots, exiled to the island after the Battle of Rancagua in 1814. Tunnels were dug out of the cliff face below the fort to house the prisoners, today they’re known as the Caves of the Patriots.

The local museum, the cemetery and the cliff face just beyond the cemetery all told the tale of another chapter in the history books. During WW I the 3700 ton G
erman cruiser SMS Dresden escaped from the German defeat at the Battle of the Falkands and then evaded its British pursuers for three months in the maze of island and fjords along the Chilean coast. The cat and mouse game finally came to an end on 14 March, 1915 when it was cornered in Bahía Cumberland, right in front of the town. The ship’s armament was no match for the firepower of the three British ships Glasgow, Kent and Orama and eventually, to avoid capture, Captain Ludecke blew up the ship’s magazine, sending it to the bottom in 70 metres of water, just a stone’s throw off the pier. His First Lieutenant, Wilhelm Canaris, went on to become chief of the German army’s secret service in WW II and was part of the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944. Rommel, considered to be one the leaders of the plot, was allowed to commit suicide, but Canaris was strangled with piano wire.

Much of the museum was dedicated to the tale of the Dresden’s demise and the cemetery had a memorial to those who went down with the German warship. Just beyond the cemetery, British shells which missed the Dresden are embedded in the cliff face.

We paused  for lunch in the waterfront Hosteria Daniel Defoe, yet another example of the island’s dedication to its most famous, even if fictional, inhabitant. You can fly to the island with Transportes Aéreos Isla Robinson Crusoe and the name Robinson, not exactly a common moniker in English, let alone Spanish, is one of the most popular on the island.

In the afternoon some of us climbed the steep track up from the waterfront to Selkirk’s lookout. The island is noted for its many endemic plants and animals (dictionary definition: a species unique to the island) but the most common plant on the way up was clearly the blackberry. As in Australia the blackberry is another of those unwise introductions which works fine in its original home but has proved a disaster elsewhere. Without any natural predators and with a benign climate to speed growth blackberry bushes simply go wild, overpowering every competing vegetation, scrambling across paths, climbing up the hills and generally being a confounded nuisance. Of course the blackberries taste very fine, but they appeal equally well to the local birds’ tastebuds which helps to propagate the pest even faster. David-the-bird had tracked down the island’s numero uno endemic bird species almost as soon as we arrived for the Juan Fernández firecrown, a noisy little hummingbird, flits from flower to flower all over town.

The island has other endemic species including the fur seals, which we didn’t get to see either here or, the next day, on Alejandro Selkirk Island. Blackberries and goats don’t bring the exotic irritation list to an end either, rabbits are also a bloody nuisance.

The islands’ unique fur seal and hummingbird may be very different species, but both are unusual for their high degree of sexual dimorphism, that is the male and female are remarkably different. A male Juan Fernández fur seal can weigh nearly 200 kg and stretch out to over two metres in length. His svelte companion typically weighs less than 50 kg and is about 1.5 metres in length. There’s no size difference between male and female hummingbirds, but the male is a glowing reddish brown colour, his partner green, white and blue.

Selkirk certainly chose his viewpoint, the 500 metre climb from the town pushed its way through lush ferns and greenery and while the climb may have worked up a bit of a sweat it was amply repaid by the fine views back over San Juan Bautista with the lobster catching fleet and the good ship Shuleykin moored beyond; there were no English privateers or German warships on the horizon.

The view was equally good in the other direction, looking towards the west end of the island where the airport is located. The airport can’t actually be seen and given the island’s incredibly mountainous nature it’s hard to believe there’s enough flat land anywhere on the island to build an airport.

‘So how do they drive from the airport to the town,’ I wondered out loud, tracing the rough  (4WDs only please) road that runs across the island from the airport with my binoculars.

‘I’ve no idea,’ said Theresa, also studying the terrain through binoculars. ‘I can see a jeep heading in our direction but you would have to cross this ridge to get to the town and this walking trail is obviously the only way over.’

Down below us the road disappeared behind another ridgeline and didn’t seem to reappear on our side of the ridge, although we could see that the precipitous footpath continued down from the lookout.

Later, back down out sea level, Marcelo, an island resident who was working as a scuba diver on a new pier being constructed at the airport end, cleared up the mystery.

‘There is no way of driving from one end of the island to the other,’ he explained. ‘There are a few cars in the town, mainly 4WDs, and a couple more at the airport. But they are isolated colonies, the only way to get all the way from the airport to the town on land is by foot.’

‘When passengers arrive on the flights from the mainland,’ he went on, ‘they’re driven down the steep road, it’s quite a drop, to the pier at Bahía del Padre and then brought around the island by boat.’

‘Have you ever been down to the Dresden?’ I asked, having discovered he was a diver.

‘No,’ he replied with a grin, ‘life’s too short.’

‘Of course the ship would be a major attraction, a 112 metre German cruiser from WW I,’ he mused. ‘And it’s only a couple of boat lengths in front of your ship.’

‘Unfortunately it’s in 70 metres of water, that’s certainly beyond normal sport diving depth limits, just close enough to be very enticing, but just deep enough to be very unsafe.’

‘In fact,’ Marcelo concluded, ‘a young diver from the town was killed trying to reach the Dresden just last year. There’s no way I’m going to try it.’

Descending from the lookout I caught up with Art, whom I’d dubbed Mr Magoo because he looked uncannily like the cartoon character. Art, who despite his Canadian nationality clearly started out life in England, had a peculiar way of talking. I never managed to put my finger on what was so strange about the curiously civilised and genteel way he spoke, but once you’ve got beyond it he was a thoroughly likeable character.

‘Go on ahead,’ he suggested.

‘No,’ I said, ‘you’re going quite fast enough for me.’

‘I try and do some walking every week,’ he explained. ‘My wife isn’t so keen on really active trips so usually I go somewhere each year on my own. Like this trip.’

‘I remember, oh it was a few years back now,’ he went on, ‘soon after I retired, I signed up for a walking trip in the Andes. Most of the other people in the party were in their 20s and I think they were a bit shocked when they saw me, but I kept up pretty well.’

We came to a steep and muddily slippery bit and Art did indeed keep up, very well in fact.

‘So how long ago was that?’ I queried, intrigued at exactly how old this spritely gentleman was.

‘Twelve years I guess,’ he said after thinking for a moment, ‘I’m not sure I could do it today. I was a schoolteacher and I retired when I was 65.’

That made him 77 I calculated as he jumped nimbly from one rock to a
nother across another muddy patch. Impressive.

The Zodiacs were shuttling everybody back to the boat but I hung around until it was 5 pm, 7 am the next day in Australia, so I could phone home at a reasonable hour. Chile is reputed to have one of the world’s state-of-the-art privatised phone systems, but despite competition, low prices and high tech phones I didn’t get through. One of the town’s two phoneboxes was totally inoperative and the other spat the dummy at every credit card I showed it. I must admit I was secretly relieved, if I didn’t phone home I felt guilty, but the way things were going at home when I left I was none too enthusiastic about getting through. Trying but failing was almost the best of both worlds.

When I did go back to the Shuleykin there was a woman from the island coming back from the ship with her small child, whose ear infection had been treated by Gennady Chervyakov, the ship’s Russian doctor. There is no doctor in San Juan Bautista.

Adam-the-kitchen had been wheeling and dealing with the lobster catchers, eventually trading prime Argentinian beef for equally prime Isla Robinson Crusoe – or Caruso as Rob would have it – lobsters. They were soon being barbecued for dinner, up on the bow of the ship. Disconcertingly, from the way their legs wave around, it looked like even chopping a lobster in half didn’t kill it.
‘It’s just spasms in the muscles as they cook,’ Adam insisted.

‘We could bring the TV set out on deck and show them the Chilean tourism video we watched last night,’ David-the-room suggested, ‘that would quickly bore anything to death.’