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The island that inspired Robinson Crusoe

Off the edge of the world

Daniel Defoe’s novel about a ship-wrecked sailor has fascinated readers for centuries. Simon Willis got a taste of Robinson Crusoe’s life when he visited its island inspiration

Daniel Defoe’s novel about a ship-wrecked sailor has fascinated readers for centuries. Simon Willis got a taste of Robinson Crusoe’s life when he visited its island inspiration

Simon Willis | August/September 2016

When I emailed the airline, they told me it did not have a timetable. They hoped to fly on Tuesdays and Fridays but, as summer turned into autumn and wind and rain arrived, they couldn’t be sure. Nevertheless, one hazy morning I turned up at a private aerodrome in the Tobalaba district of Santiago, which the airline shares with, among others, the airborne division of the Chilean police. My bag was weighed – and then so was I. This was micro-tourism that extended to the transport: outside was my ride, a twin-prop plane with five seats and four passengers.

Our destination was Robinson Crusoe, an island in the Juan Fernández archipelago 700km (435 miles) off the coast of Chile. This little-known Pacific outpost is closer to the mainland but remoter than the more famous Easter Island, which is served by daily flights. The difficulty of getting there strengthens the lure. Other than the tiny planes – a flight costs almost as much as a ticket from London to Santiago – the only option is a boat, the Antonio, which visits twice a month from Valparaíso. The tourism business is not large, and in 2010, when a tsunami destroyed the only village, San Juan Bautista, and killed 16 people, it dried up. But things have picked up since, and in 2016 the numbers of visitors will match those from before the disaster – around 2,500 a year.

The romance of the island is literary as well as natural. For four years it was home to Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish mariner marooned alone in 1704, whose tale of survival – with only goats, rats and cats for company – inspired Daniel Defoe. His book, in turn, inspired PR men to change the island’s name from Más a Tierra in the 1960s. But the island’s role in the making of the first English novel is only the second most interesting thing about it. Shortly after it was formed by an undersea volcano 4m years ago, seeds began arriving on the wind, greening the landscape with ancient plants like the Lactoris, a species which predates all the continents. Birds like the gloriously named tit tyrant flew ashore; fur seals formed colonies. Many of the immigrants that flourished on Robinson Crusoe died out elsewhere, and today the archipelago has one of the richest concentrations of endemic wildlife on the planet – richer than the Galapagos for botany and birds, with a marine ecosystem second to none. It is the last place on Earth to see more than 600 species, a living museum where you can hike and dive among the exhibits.

It is also home to what might be the world’s most beautiful airport transfer. On a mountainous island sculpted by Pacific storms, surfaces flat enough for runways are in short supply. The airstrip and San Juan Bautista are an hour’s boat ride apart. We landed on a dusty plateau with sheer drops at either end – an approach described by a friend in Santiago as “exciting”. Our connection began from a jetty at the bottom of a sea-filled caldera, where chocolate-coloured fur-seal pups slept and played on the beach. We rounded the island close to the shore, below thickly vegetated turrets of stone and high cliffs laid down in layers of lava, their giant drips and globules lending them the appearance of fossilised patisserie. The natural wonders, though, were counterpointed by our cargo. Positioned in the prow was a giant grey bag held steady by two men. As we heaved over the rollers I asked what was inside. “Un ataúd,” came the answer: a coffin.

It was a reminder that, however majestic the surroundings, life here is difficult. The islanders depend almost entirely on fishing for Juan Fernández lobsters. Everything else, from food to funerals, requires deliveries from the mainland. Approaching San Juan Bautista you can see that the wounds left by the tsunami have not yet healed entirely. There is wooden wreckage by the water, and an outdoor basketball court that used to be indoors.

When we arrived at the pier, the coffin was carried up the iron steps and delivered, with consolatory back slaps, to the waiting family. A man in an orange boiler suit was fishing from the end of the pier, flinging out his line by hand and bringing in quantities of plump and glinting vidriola, which he dispatched by stamping on their heads. There was a stack of lobster traps, one of which contained a pink lure tied to a rope. It was the tiny amputated arm of a plastic doll. The spirit of Crusovian ingenuity seemed alive and well.

I was staying at Barón de Rodt, a family-run B&B and restaurant where Juan Torres does the cooking, presenting guests each evening with something simple, delicious and unannounced – a lobster with lemon mayonnaise, a plate of octopus in a garlic sauce, crab lasagne. The place is named after Alfred von Rodt, the Swiss immigrant who founded the settlement in 1877. Most of the island’s 900 inhabitants are descended from the first families. The comfortable wooden cabin I had rented, with a terrace looking down the dirt road to the ocean, was across the street from a white clapboard church. As I settled in that afternoon, a funeral procession more than a hundred strong filed out, carrying the coffin from the boat. It was led by two men on horses to the cemetery by the sea. At the graveside a man with a guitar sang the praises of Rafael, fisherman and father, while a boy on a primary-coloured tricycle scooted among the mourners.

The only way to explore the island is on foot, and early one morning I set out with Marcello Schiller, guide, fisherman and native to the island. We passed the deep “Caves of the Patriots”, named after a group of revolutionaries fighting for Chilean independence who were incarcerated on the island in 1814, when it was used as a penal colony. Climbing the hill behind the village we entered the tsunami security zone on our way to a notch in the rock high above, where Selkirk used to watch for ships. Navigating the switchbacks, we passed the remains of what is thought to have been his house, its low walls and hearthstone hunkered down in a clearing. We snacked on murta berries as we climbed.

Head in the clouds 

The ancient Juan Fernández cabbage tree (Dendroseris litoralis)

From the top we descended into Valle de Villagra, where the grasslands of a Scottish moor mix with tropical banks of endemic ferns and pangue – or “Robinson’s umbrella” – its stem spiky, its leaves more than a metre wide and as thick as parchment. Ochre firecrown hummingbirds darted about. The uninhabited island of Santa Clara was visible in the distance; beyond it there was nothing but sea until New Zealand.

A rare bird

The aptly named firecrown hummingbird

The walk was a form of ecological time-travel. Below peaks shaped like incisors, Villagra has a Jurassic air. Philippe Danton, a French botanist who has spent years studying the local flora, estimates that a new species arrived here naturally about every 8,000 years. With so few competitors, they were preserved in a kind of evolutionary steady state. But then settlers arrived with fast-growing plants such as murta and blackberry, which swept over the island and killed endemic varieties. Humans brought in as many species in a century as nature managed in over 2m years. Today more than 80 species face extinction.

But of all the migrants that have washed up here, one of the oddest and most endearing is from Chicago. Bernard Keiser, who used to work in textiles, is in his 60s. His grey hair, receding at the front, long at the back, takes its style cues from Thomas Hobbes. He is a treasure hunter who, for the last two decades, has spent eight months a year and tens of thousands of dollars looking for booty left by Spanish galleons and English privateers.

I took a boat round the headland from San Juan Bautista to Puerto Ingles, the site of his excavation. In a shallow cave beside the hole in the ground that is dug by the men he employs six days a week, he explained the series of Xs that he is convinced mark the spot: mysterious monograms scratched into the cave walls, a paper trail in Spanish archives, coded messages between English opportunists. “It’s the only logical explanation!” he said, sucking on his umpteenth Kent cigarette of the morning. His diggers looked on wryly, as do Chile’s archaeologists. But Keiser fits in on Robinson Crusoe, home to blow-ins, oddities and natural curiosities. He assured me that this October he would leave with chests of gold and precious stones worth $10 billion. The following day, I satisfied myself with a box of lobsters.

How to get there Flights to Robinson Crusoe from Santiago are operated by LASSA. They have no website, but you can email them on lassa@tie.cl. ATA fly from a runway next to the city’s main airport aerolineasata.cl. Return tickets are 550,000 pesos ($800). Space is limited; book early. The Antonio, a ship operated by Transmarko Shipping, delivers supplies to the island twice a month and has six berths for tourists. It leaves from Valparaíso, an hour and a half by car from Santiago, and takes between 30 and 48 hours, depending on the weather. A return ticket costs 170,000 pesos. transmarko.cl

When to go The best weather is from October to March. After that storms begin to roll in, and travelling to and from the island becomes less predictable. Leave a few days as a buffer either side.

Where to stay There are 220 beds for tourists, scattered around San Juan Bautista. A cabin at El Barón de Rodt costs 50,000 pesos a night. For more accommodation: experiencerobinson.com

Lobsters emerging from the pot

What to eat This is the only place in the world you can eat the clawless Juan Fernández lobster fresh from the sea – simply boiled or in an empanada. Try El Yunque, a restaurant on the far side of Cumberland Bay. But call ahead to make sure they have lobsters. If not, they’ll get them directly from the fishermen for you.

Hiking and diving The island is a National Park, and to explore it you have to pay a one-off fee of 5,000 pesos. Highlights include the Mirador de Selkirk and Centinela hill, where you can find the remains of the island’s first radio station. Longer hikes include Valle de Villagra and Ramplones, where there’s a colony of fur seals. Diving is also a draw, with 87% of underwater life endemic to the island. Diving and snorkelling expeditions can be arranged through hostels and B&Bs.

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