Thursday, 6 August 2015

Explore a lost world of wonder

The island in Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo’s description was ruled by Califia, a magnificent negress by all accounts. Her domain, like the Amazons, was a matriarchal dominion where the few men were subjugated and enslaved.
When it suited her, Califia would muster her troops and raid neighbouring lands, seizing men and territory. Her warriors wore gold armour and rode fierce steeds.
Some researchers are convinced a fearsome black queen of either African or Polynesian origin once existed on these shores, and de Montalvo, like Shakespeare, had adapted legend and lore for his own purposes.
The Spanish novelist, a contemporary of Christopher Columbus, whose lurid prose described these lands in great detail, was sufficiently convincing for the Mexican Governor, Hernan Cortes, to send ships in search of this land of plenty. Like so many Spanish follies of the time, they ended in disaster for the explorers and all those they encountered. The island of California, however, persisted on maps for more than 100 years and wasn’t conclusively disproved by land explorers until almost the 19th century.
Today this giant spurlike peninsula, the second largest in the world, is part of Mexico and called Baja California. It is divided into two ‘free and sovereign states’; Baja California and Baja California Sur (south). The Gulf of California enclosed by the peninsula is also known by its alternative moniker, The Sea of Cortes (or Cortez).
At the very tip is the resort town of Cabo San Lucas (Cape Saint Luke), which has grown progressively from a grubby mining village and tuna cannery to one of Mexico’s premier tourist locations and aquatic playgrounds.
Much of the credit for this popular acceleration is due to the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizewinning author, John Steinbeck, whose account of a marine biology expedition in 1940 with his biologist friend, Ed Ricketts, spawned the 288page nonfiction book The Log From The Sea Of Cortez, published in 1950. Steinbeck describes this lost world as “ferocious with life”, often citing his fear of man’s potential for destruction through urban development and careless fishing techniques. Even as the pair travelled, a hotel was being built along with the
airport and railway. And develop it did. Cabo San Lucas quickly became the playground for Hollywood A-listers and celebrities like John Wayne, Chuck Connors, Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, Jacques Cousteau and Ernest Hemingway.
Cousteau, who visited some 35 years ago coined the tagline “the world’s aquarium”, often re-used by the new wave of adventure cruise operators probing much further north than any of the floating behemoths visiting Cabo San Lucas.
The undisputed leader in this field is Lindblad Expeditions, who have been exploring the Sea of Cortez since Cousteau’s time. In 1977, a young Sven Lindblad was travelling from Argentina to Mexico on his late father’s ship, the MS Lindblad Expolorer. They had a few days to spare and decided to call in to the Gulf of California to explore.
“I was particularly attracted to this large island just up from the southern end in the Gulf of California,” Lindblad recalls. “I’ve never seen anywhere so beautiful, so irresistible.”
Lindblad began commercial voyages in 1981 and UNESCO bestowed World Heritage status on the region, stating the “diversity of terrestrial and marine life is extraordinary and constitutes a unique eco region of high priority for biodiversity conservation”.
Today two of the company’s 62-passenger vessels operate side-by-side on itineraries of either one or two weeks’ duration, plunging guests into an experience that includes observation and encounters with all manner of whales, sea lions, marine birds and land reptiles.
I’m aboard an itinerary that probes deep into the gulf as far as Isla San Esteban. For a full week, we explore the inside leg of the Gulf of California, going ashore for nature hikes, early morning yoga, town visits, snorkelling in the coves, photography classes as well as kayaking along the craggy shores.
Our expedition team of naturalists are unrelenting in their enthusiasm and desire to share and impart their vast knowledge and in this respect, I place the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic crew consistently among the very best in this arena.
Our ship, the National Geographic Sea Lion, is cosy, comfortable and unpretentious. While it’s ideal for the destination, cruise snobs would remark on the compact cabins and lack of lavish accoutrements. But none of my fellow travellers lament the lack of big ship, mass market niceties.
I’m certain even the feared Queen Califia herself would welcome us into her domain.