Family: The young explorer

Tom O'Reilly (13) was lucky enough to realise his dream in a forthcoming TV series, The Young Explorer, screening this summer

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 4 May 2012, 11:43 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 09:16 BST

'I woke up hungry'. Every morning during my travels through Ecuador and the Galapagos, I would write this in my diary.

Yes, the time difference meant I woke up feeling I had missed breakfast and lunch and my stomach was making grumbling noises, but it was more to do with how much my guide crammed into each day. There was so much, I wrote a postcard home each day to remember the highlights.

A journey through Ecuador and the Galapagos is like an exciting natural history lesson, transporting you back to prehistoric times. Rainforest, active volcanoes and amazing wildlife are all here and I wanted to see it all. The cities are full of culture and colour but I'd come to see the wildlife. The Amazonian rainforest covers the east side of Ecuador and meeting one of the indigenous tribes, the Secoya, was fascinating. We stayed in a lodge in the forest which was our base for a few days. One morning, I met a shaman — the wise man of the village — and discovered the red paint they use to dye their hair comes from a plant. I spotted multi-coloured parrots, toucans and macaws as well as monkeys and tapirs. I'm told there are also jaguars but we didn't see any although we waited silently for what seemed like forever. Our guide explained the plants provide excellent camouflage and they were probably there watching us.

From Ecuador I flew to the Galapagos Islands to learn about Darwin and see how close I could get to the iguanas, the giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies. Unlike other animals, none of those I met moved away when I walked towards them. I moved amongst the grey and shimmering iguanas — sitting like statues on the rocks, it's easy to step on one by accident. It was just like walking into a prehistoric movie, only the dinosaurs were in miniature. The boobies were huge birds that looked like dodos, with enormous bright blue feet, just like something out of a Disney film. And then we came to the tortoises, the huge wrinkly creatures that make my two Hermann's tortoises at home look so small. I sat next to the oldest one in the world and learnt how they are bred and cared for, holding the eggs and a baby tortoise. They seemed to be far less impressed with the human visitors than we were with them.

I have read so much about the Galapagos in my history and geography books, and have seen it on TV documentaries, but eyeballing the tortoises, their heads only a few inches away, was so incredible and unexpected. Lonesome George, the last of his species really did look very lonely and I learnt how the introduction of domestic animals such as goats to the island had gradually destroyed many of the original species and their habitat.

I climbed up active volcanoes on Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos Islands, as birds with bright orange chests swooped down over us. Our guide told us this bird was called the 'vermilion flycatcher' which made absolutely no sense to me at all. I nodded like everyone else so that my mum wouldn't give me a lecture. She did anyway. Now I know 'vermilion' means red and a vermilion flycatcher is one of the distinctive birds of the Galapagos.

The waters around the Galapagos are equally full of wildlife. Dolphins raced our boat when we sailed between islands. We went swimming in a lagoon among mischievous seals who played chicken with us, darting back and forth.

But the highlight of my trip was diving with the local children in the waters around Isabela. We had been told there were giant turtles but that they were shy. The water was quite clear, but I had been told there were also sharks about, so I had to be very careful. Peering through the reeds I thought I saw something move. And there it was: a turtle about two foot long swimming slowly and gracefully, glancing over at me. And then another one, and another one, looking as though they were flying. They didn't speed up but let us follow them, not allowing us to get too close, as they swam around us, looking like fat ballerinas. I wonder what we looked like to them.

Published in the Summer 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family

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