I just spent ten days on a boat owned by a cave man. The captain of the Tip Top II, Rolf Wittmer, is the only person that I ever met who was actually born in a cave. His parents, Heinz and Margret Wittmer, sailed from Germany in 1932 to carve a home out of a remote tropical island in the mid-Pacific.

The Galapagos Archipelago consists of about 11 islands located right on the equator, 600 miles west of Ecuador. They were well-known to Germans because of a Dr. Ritter. Ritter and one of his followers had moved to the island of Floreana several years earlier. German newspapers were carrying his accounts of the “Garden of Eden”. According to Ritter Floreana was a paradise where he could live without clothes, grow all his own food, and not have to deal with the negative effects a degraded civilization. This version of utopia appealed to many people feeling the moral decay of post-World War I Germany, the economic effects of the Great Depression and the rise of Nazism.

And it appealed to the Wittmers. Their twelve year old son, Harry was in poor health, and Heinz thought the tropical climate would be good for him. So with very few words to their friends and family, the Wittmers sold their house, bought supplies and headed to the Galapagos. Margret was five months pregnant. When they finally arrived at Floreana, they moved into a cave. This tiny cave had been carved out of the lava by pirates visiting the island hundreds of years earlier. It was located by one of the few sources of fresh water anywhere in the Galapagos, a spring where the giant tortoises had gathered for thousands of years. The buccaneers collected water and slaughtered tortoises. The water still flows but there are no tortoises left on Floreana.

After four months of struggle, setting up house and planting a few crops, Margret was ready. With no doctor or midwife to help, she suffered through a 72 hour labor and gave birth to a son. Now nearly 60 years later, little Rolfe was piloting our boat through waters he knows very well.

Soon another group of characters came to live on Floreana. A so-called Baroness from Austria and two of her male consorts. The Baroness planned to build a large hotel for yachting American millionaires to visit. A series of mysterious and violent events followed her arrival — beatings, a poisoning death, theft, and maybe even murder. This intrigue on Floreana makes Twin Peaks seem normal. But through it all the Wittmers kept building their island paradise. Margret has written a fascinating account of her life on the Galapagos; it is called “Floreana”. I highly recommend it.

If you can only afford one natural history excursion in your life, make it to the Galapagos Islands. It is exactly like the TV nature programs. Marine iguanas, sea turtles, blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds, giant tortoises and tropical fishes abound. Best of all, they aren’t afraid of humans! The government of Ecuador has done an excellent job of protecting this biological treasure. It is nearly all a part of the Galapagos National Park. Groups must be accompanied at all times by a licensed Park guide. Areas that the public can visit are strictly controlled. The number of tourists has dramatically increased in the last several years. But in spite of this heavy use I saw very little trash.

That is not to say that everything is hunky-dory. The ravages of introduced animals like rats, goats, cats, and dogs continue nearly unabated on some islands. And exotic plants are out-competing some of the native flora. But the international community is working hard with Ecuador to solve these problems.

One afternoon we stopped at Floreana and were taken by pick-up truck (the only one on the island) to the Wittmers cave, the birthplace of our captain. Later we ate dinner with Margret Wittmer. This feisty 86 year old woman had cooked the entire meal for fifteen people. She now has a nice house on the beach with electricity and modern conveniences, a far cry from the cave in the mountains. She had succeeded and created her own paradise on a tropical isle. She is a remarkable woman in a remarkable place.



Posted on

August 23, 2009