Falling for a 100-year-old

Some days, I know, I never really grew up.

I still suffer from childlike excitement. The kind where you catch your breath and clap, then laugh and try not to look too sheepish.

There are moments when I want to simultaneously laugh and cry and remain mute, my head shaking. I know I look serious. I feel exactly the opposite.

I had a moment like this when I first saw a turtle in the Great Barrier Reef. I was so desperate to see one, desperate enough to overcome my lingering fear of sharks.

It happened again when that baby giraffe, finally, skidded across our path in Kenya.

Heck, I even felt that way during my Christmas-present dance lesson with Anton du Beke (I know, I know … but it’s true)

I could only hope the giant tortoises would generate that same ‘die happy’ paralysis.

We’d decided to set off shockingly early, for a Saturday. We helped ourselves to breakfast and met Pam before wandering down to find a cab.

The plan was to drive up to El Progreso – the highland town nearest to Baquerizo Moreno, our home down on the coast.

There we planned to have a nose around, before hiring a car or hailing a cab to the lagoon, el Junta and ultimately, Galapaguera, where the creatures flourish.

We knew El Progreso would be a one-horse town, but we weren’t expecting a one-dog town and were forced to persuade our poor driver to stick with us for the day.

Armed with chocolate pastries, he agreed – bless his heart.

It was gloomy and overcast – so unusual for the island, but we paid for it later because, yes, everyone knows you can still burn through cloud (cough).

But who cares? Who cares, who cares, who cares?

We were on top of those magic, near mythical creatures before we’d even jumped out of the car (you can insert a searing gurgle of excitement in your chest here, if you’re so inclined).

I should probably explain why I love them so much.

You already know I love turtles (there aren’t many creatures that would get me out to sea – I can tell you – that horrible theme tune from Jaws rings in my ears every time)

Well, I love tortoises even more. Because they are so damned contrary.

Who wants a fluffy, cute, friendly little animal, snuggling in their palm?

Not me.

I am inexplicably drawn to grumpy, unpredictable beings. I love to see slightly stroppy, screwed-up faces. Sullen eyes. Wary watchfulness.

So it is with the giant tortoise.

If he catches you looking, he regards you with that deliciously baleful, mildly irritated, proudly haughty glare.

It’s a look of practised disdain. It shines down through the centuries.

He thinks: “I don’t really care that much about you, but I’m watching. So watch it.”

Sit too close to a giant tortoise and he hisses. It’s angry, it’s indignant.

He looks like a peeved old man. His skin is slack and leathery but his eyes are bright and frankly, he has years of overcoming mild irritations on his side.

How can you not be utterly absorbed?

I could have sat with those guys for hours and hours. Trying my luck. Feeling like a cheeky, annoyingly chirpy little interloper.

I like thinking about history, just pop-history but once you start you can’t stop.

“You lived through the sinking of the Titanic, all those wars… Kennedy, the Beatles… the liberation of women… my camera in your face.”

It’s impossible to take in. No wonder they look so wary, so grumpy.

No wonder you have to fight the urge to do something silly, to make them laugh.

It’s funny to think of them up there now, somewhere in the highlands.

“What on earth was that child about, the one with the vacant grin?” says one.

“Hmphhh, couldn’t give a damn,” says the other, lowering his neck with an effort.

“But I fear the humidity has got to her hair.”

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