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Doing It Lonely As Robinson Crusoe

February 8, 2014 Destination Feature, Headline News No Comments Email Email

 TINY San Juan Bautista on Robinson Crusoe Island; just 800 people live here today.    (Wikimedia)THE “real” Robinson Crusoe had a unique way to stop himself going whacko during his years marooned on an island in the South Pacific: he taught feral cats to dance on two legs, parrots to sing questionable sea shanties, and himself to slay wild goats on the run for food and clothing.

And while there’s conjecture about his supposed pal Man Friday, it‘s possible to take a holiday on his remote island home, today named Robinson Crusoe Island. You just need to be a bit adventurous.

Originally named Mas a Tierra and the largest of Chile’s Juan Fernandez Islands 700km out in the Pacific, its name was changed some years ago in a bid to encourage tourists.

It hardly attracted the hordes, as getting there is just about as problematic today as it was in 1704 for the arrival of Robinson Crusoe, actually a Scotsman named Alexander Selkirk who was Mate aboard the British privateer Cinque Ports, that had been enjoying some plundering around South America until developing an unhealthy leak.

Robinson Crusoe’s cave-home where he lived for four years and four months.  (Wikimedia)

Robinson Crusoe’s cave-home where he lived for four years and four months. (Wikimedia)

Selkirk demanded the Captain beach the galleon for repairs, and when rebuffed asked to be let off at the next sighting of land. When he realised this was to be the miniscule and then-uninhabited Mas a Tierra he pleaded remorse, but nonetheless found himself alone on a beach with a hammock, hatchet, muzzle-loader, knife, kettle, matches and Bible.

Chortling, his Captain sailed off for Cape Horn – never to be heard of again: Cinque Ports sank from the leaks Selkirk complained about.

Today small planes fly to Robinson Crusoe Island from Santiago, with no guarantee you’ll get there quite on the advertised hour. It depends on the weather over 700km of open ocean, the island’s notorious mists, and how rough are the seas for the ‘water taxi’ transfer to town.

Camped on a beach with rain, sea lions bellowing night-long, and rats nibbling at him, Selkirk slept fitfully before finding a dry inland cave to call home. He kept a fire going there 24-hours a day for cooking and to keep wild animals at bay when his matches ran out, made clothes from the skins of goats he ran-down and slew with his knife, and built a hilltop look-out with a goat-skin cover to daily watch for hours for passing ships.

And he supplemented his goat meat diet with fish and lobsters he caught with his bare hands, plus wild turnips and native cabbages.

STATUE of Alexander Selkirk as Robinson Crusoe, by Thomas Burnett in Lower    Largo, Fife Scotland, 1885. (Wikimedia)

STATUE of Alexander Selkirk as Robinson Crusoe, by Thomas Burnett in Lower Largo, Fife Scotland, 1885. (Wikimedia)

In between he taught the local wildlife tricks including those cats to dance on their hind legs, parrots to sing those rude songs, and told a London newspaper after his rescue how he would “spend hours singing and dancing with them…”

For today’s visitors there are several small hotels that are basic, clean and comfortable in the only town, San Juan Bautista, and which offer bountiful fresh seafood meals including Selkirk’s favourite plump lobsters.

But don’t expect too many CBD facilities: under 800 people live here and visitors are counted in the few hundreds each year.

You can trek to Selkirk’s cave, walk the rainforests, swim with sea lions (if that’s your go,) and climb to the hilltop from which Selkirk spied the arrival of the British privateer Duke, aboard which William Dampier helped rescue him in 1709.

You can also study the many native plants endemic to the island, and from the 800 locals get nearly as many versions of Man Friday. Most agree though, that Daniel Defoe who wrote the book The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 after hearing of Selkirk’s talks in British pubs to earn drinking money, penned Friday into the yarn from a totally separate incident in which a black seaman named Wills found himself on Mas a Tierra after his ship sank.

And Defoe had Robinson Crusoe on his island for 28 years, 2 months and 19 days – not Selkirk’s 4 years and 4 months.

To find out more, Google-up Robinson Crusoe Island – but don’t confuse it with the one in Fiji.

FOOTNOTE: Alexander Selkirk never settled down, and even when he went home could not live indoors for long periods, preferring instead a rough backyard hut. He eventually went back to sea, and died of fever off Africa in 1721 aged in his mid-40s.

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