Lobster fishermen in the Juan Fernandez Archipelago, Chile
Lobster fishermen in the Juan Fernandez Archipelago, Chile
Winfried Schumacher

SAN JUAN BAUTISTA - For days, Teresa Maldonado has only had bad news for waiting passengers. "No room on the plane today! We’ve got to fly the lobsters out!”

Showing the lady a valid ticket issued by the plane company does not help. The lobsters have priority; they have to get to Santiago alive. Nobody wants prematurely dead lobster with their Champagne.

Still, Maldonado tries to give the passengers some hope. "If the weather cooperates tomorrow, you’re on that plane for sure," she says. She is used to refusing people although that doesn’t mean she’s indifferent to their plight. She will even offer them a place to sleep for the night in her wooden hut above the harbor “if you don’t mind that I haven’t had a chance to tidy up.”

Welcome to Robinson Crusoe Island – the island of castaways, where even today, nobody knows for sure when they will be able to leave.

Planes don’t follow regular schedules, and when they do fly it’s not only a shipment of lobsters that might keep ticket-holders off them –bad weather may also be the problem. But what are two or three days compared to the four years and four months Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk spent here in the early 18th century?

His fate inspired Daniel Defoe to write his famous novel. Since 1966 the two main islands of the remote Juan Fernandez Archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean have been named Robinson Crusoe and Alejandro Selkirk. Located 600 kilometers west of South America, they have belonged to Chile since 1818. Alejandro Selkirk is only inhabited part of the year – by fishermen. Some 800 people live on Robinson Crusoe, earning their living from lobster fishing and a little livestock farming.

If you’re shy about taking up Teresa Maldonado’s offer of a room, your only other option is Ramon Baeza Rubilar’s place. At his Hostal Petit-Breuilh, the island innkeeper is used to tourists showing up at the last minute. A former policeman, he looks after them well, serving up wonderful fish dishes and exquisitely prepared lobster.

About the stuffed bear decorating the premises he tells the story of the mainlander who came out bringing bears with him to breed on the island. The mainlander soon got tired of the isolation – and bear meat – so he let the animals loose and went back to Santiago. Bears live in the wild on the island now; “their meat tastes like wild boar,” says Rubilar.

Things have changed a lot here since Alexander Selkirk’s day in 1704. Forest used to cover large parts of Robinson Crusoe, but the only jungle remaining today is on the north face of Cerro El Yunque mountain that juts up nearly a thousand meters (3,281 feet) above the South Pacific. The forest with its many native species is now a UNESCO biosphere.

Juan Fernandez, who discovered the group of islands that bears his name, introduced foreign animal species in 1564. In fact, it was the Juan Fernandez goats that gave Alexander Selkirk food to survive on. But for the island’s native flora and fauna, the goats along with other imported animals like rats and rabbits soon posed a threat and today many native species are threatened with extinction. A large part of the island is now grassland where horses, cows – and hundreds of rabbits – graze. Soil erosion has become a problem in some areas, since there is so little forest and tree roots to hold back the earth.

"Lobster is this island’s gold"

Two islanders are taking a break at the Selkirk Lookout. From this vantage point, you can see over the dense dark forest to the deep blue of the Pacific. Selkirk is said to have come here daily to lookout for ships.

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Cumberland Bay - Photo: Profe Lester

Two bearded men, their two horses and two dogs, are out hunting goats. Their guns and lassoes are fastened to their saddles. Michael Perez and Manuel Kotzing are drinking canned beer and are in the best of moods. "My grandfather was German and he came here as a pirate," says Kotzing. "He seduced my grandmother when she was only 14."

Germans have left another reminder of history on the island. In March 1915 the warship SMS Dresden was anchored here after escaping the British navy in the Falkland Islands Battle. But the British tracked the ship down and started firing. The Dresden sunk. Behind the island cemetery near Cumberland Bay there is a grenade supposedly from the British warship. The wreck itself, 60 meters (197 feet) under, is now a Chilean national monument.

"After Alexander Selkirk the Dresden was the second most important historic event here," says Guido Balbontin. The 62-year-old craftsman has spent years building up the island’s museum, where he has gathered objects from the doomed German warship. Balbontin also named his band Dresden. He writes both the music and lyrics of the songs he and fellow group members perform. They sing not only about the fate of the ship, but of lonely Alexander Selkirk, greedy treasure hunters – and the crustacean responsible for keeping many a present-day traveler marooned here: "Lobster is this island’s gold," says one of the songs.

At 19, curiosity brought Balbontin out here from mainland – and he ended up staying for good. "After 43 years in this isolation, I couldn’t live anywhere else,” he says. His four children were born here, and today his wife – about to give birth to their fifth – is being flown out to Santiago. His neighbor, Claudio Matamala Morales, also settled here. After coming here 15 years ago as a tourist and loving it so much, two years later he got a local government job and returned. Morales is also the island’s beer brewer – maybe the most isolated one in the world, and he doesn’t come across as unhappy. "I don’t mind the solitude, on the contrary I relish the quiet life here," he says.

His Cerveza Artesanal Insular beer is a success story, and it’s well known beyond the island. The Robinson Lager and Alejandro Selkirk Stout Ale have both won prizes. "It’s probably down to the unique purity and properties of island water that the beer turns out so well," he says. He imports the malt from Belgium. In 2014, to commemorate the outbreak of World War I, he’s launching a new brand called – of course – Dresden.

A new day – and another attempt to leave the island. Teresa Maldonado has some bright red lipstick on today, and she’s beaming. Leaning against the wooden wall of the airline company hut, she offers the two waiting passengers cigarettes. "No worries! No lobsters today, it’s your turn," she says. Then she tells the story of a Japanese couple that flew in just to have dinner and ended up being stranded for two weeks because of bad weather. Islanders provided them with everything from underwear to food because they didn’t have enough cash with them. But that was a few years ago, Maldonado says. Nobody has to wait that long nowadays.

Maldonado leads passengers personally to the motorboat that is going to get us to the airstrip at the other end of the island, an hour away. Juan Fernandez fur seals are swimming in the water. Two fishermen are pulling a boat ashore. Above the green El Yunque rock face the sky opens up; the sun shines. I wouldn’t have minded being marooned here a little longer.

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