IN AN EFFORT to impress the Idaho girl who was to become my bride, I used to carry with me a small white pebble. I told her it was precious to me because it saved my life. I explained that I was swimming one day in a little cove in the sleepy village of Simonstown, the naval base 30 miles south of Cape Town, when I spotted something white on the sandy floor and dived for it. It turned out to be nothing more exotic than a stone, so I dropped it. But as I did so a large shark that had been coming straight toward me lunged down toward the stone instead, and I took the opportunity to scramble out to safety on the rocks.
I went back the next day, made sure the cove was free of sharks, and picked up the white stone. Always thereafter I carried it with me for good luck.
Regrettably, there wasn’t a word of truth in that tale, and it was several years before I confessed. Meanwhile, the lady concerned had become my wife. She apparently decided I was worth keeping, despite my blatant falsehood, and mentioned casually that she had never been quite convinced that an attack by a large and ferocious shark could be staved off by an insignificant pebble.
Nevertheless, a few years ago I went back to that charming little cove in Simonstown. I wanted to show my wife the place that gave me so many wonderful childhood memories. To my dismay it no longer existed. It had been filled in, paved over, and incorporated into the adjacent naval dockyard.
It is almost always a mistake to go back to a place you remember from your childhood. Even if it still exists, it’s always smaller, duller and less exciting than it seemed before. In some strange way connected with this feeling, I have always wanted to sail my own boat to the Galapagos Islands — and always not wanted to, at the same time. My fear has always been that they will be spoiled by the time I get there, that nature in its most pristine state as Charles Darwin found it in the 19th century, the timelessness and innocence of the place, will long ago have been sacrificed to Mammon and the gods of tourism. My fear is that after all the effort it takes to get there, I would be disappointed, as I was in Simonstown. Another fear I have harbored is that there is no point in sailing around the world any more. All the good spots have been despoiled in one way or another.
So I was more than reassured when I read a blog by Aaron and Nicole, a Seattle couple who have just started to cross the Pacific on their 33-foot cutter-rigged Hans Christian sailboat. They have recently arrived in San Cristobal, the former Chatham Island of Darwin’s time, where they are having a wonderful time. Their blog expresses delight in the way the Ecuadorian authorities are managing the natural resources of the islands, and their enthusiasm reminds me that things were not exactly delightful when Darwin was there, and Yankee whalers slaughtered hundreds of whales and giant tortoises with no regard whatsoever to conservation.
Perhaps it is my perception that is at fault. Perhaps there have never been any new places to explore on this earth. Perhaps there are only new and happy ways to perceive them.
It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner to discover what is of most interest in any locality, than they are hurried from it.—Charles Darwin
TailpieceThe nice thing about kleptomania is that if you’ve got it, you can always take something for it.