TRAVEL / In Crusoe's footsteps: You don't have to be shipwrecked to visit the island in Defoe's story, says Tony Perrotet

TO REACH the Juan Fernandez islands with your nerves intact, it helps to have a religious nature. I learnt this early, at the small private airport in Santiago in Chile, where a twin-engine Cessna was about to take off directly over the Pacific. The only other passenger was a 15-year-old island girl, who took me by the arm, nodded towards our blond Italian-Chilean pilot and said: 'Don't worry about anything. I have absolute faith in Mario.'

It wasn't long before I saw what she meant. Barely had we left Santiago than the cabin was filled by a thunderous whoosh: the cabin door had popped ajar. 'It won't open up completely,' Mario yelled over the rushing wind, and I thought to myself: Absolute faith. Yes, absolute faith.

Mario was right and this assurance may have helped when the tiny Juan Fernandez islands appeared some three hours later. The three jagged specks looked as tall as they were wide. The landing strip was a short stretch of red dirt. It was, of course, a perfect landing - and perhaps the ideal way to arrive on what is one of the most famous of islands: the Isla Grande of the Juan Fernandez archipelago, halfway between Easter Island and the coast of South America. Few people might be able to locate it on a map, but this corner of the South Pacific holds a permanent place in imaginations.

It was here that a rather obnoxious Scottish sailor, Alexander Selkirk, was marooned for four long years at the beginning of the 18th century - an experience that his contemporary Daniel Defoe turned into Robinson Crusoe.

Rescued from the island, Selkirk became a minor celebrity on his return to London. Defoe took the basic elements of the story, tidied up the more debauched side of Selkirk's character (he suffered from all the classic sailor's vices, and was usually interviewed in seedy waterfront taverns) to create the beloved figure of Crusoe. In the process, the largest Juan Fernandez island has became our popular conception of a desert isle: a lush semi-paradise with plenty of food, water and game.

Today, the archipelago is home to some 1,000 people, all of whom take the Defoe connection in their stride. Air tickets from Chile are enblazoned with a drawing of Crusoe ambling along with a parrot on his shoulder; the main island was officially renamed 'Robinson Crusoe' in the mid-Seventies; and every second male in the archipelago seems to have been christened Robinson. But, thanks to the isolation, few tourists actually make the journey.

Most of those who do are lured by the Crusoe connection but stay for other reasons. Much of the archipelago remains a pristine wilderness of astonishing beauty (which prompted its listing as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in the late Seventies), while its small human settlements retain the beguiling atmosphere of a forgotten seafaring world.

Selkirk was just the sort of seaman that no self-respecting captain would want on his crew. Loud-mouthed, foul-tempered and stubborn as a mule, he always spoke his mind with a hail of baroque curses. Thomas Stradling was the sort of captain that no sailor would want to serve with: as quarrelsome as Selkirk and an incompetent. The two loathed each other and when on the Cinque Ports during a privateering expedition to South America, it was not long before they clashed.

The fictional Crusoe was shipwrecked, but Selkirk only had himself to blame. In the heat of an argument, he demanded to be let off at the nearest dry land, and Stradling set course for the Juan Fernandez islands. Selkirk stuck to his absurd plan until the last moment: he later admitted to plunging into the ocean after the departing boat, screaming that he had changed his mind. 'Well I have not changed mine]' spat the captain (according to Selkirk). 'Stay where you are and may you starve]'

By his own account, Selkirk spent weeks wandering up and down the beach, bewailing his fate, staring at the horizon and, at night, terrified by a deafening chorus of sea lions.

Before long, Selkirk's supplies and ammunition gave out, and the test of survival began. Wild goats, introduced by passing ships, became his staple food. The goats provided meat and skins - useful for clothes and to line two huts Selkirk built.

Finally, after 52 months of isolation, he spotted the English privateers Duke and Duchess heading towards his island. The wild-eyed Selkirk cut an extraordinary figure, croaking more than talking: the captain was inclined to shoot the wild man until an officer recognised Selkirk and confirmed his story.

Selkirk, it seems, had few qualms about returning to his old life of privateering and debauchery. Appointed a mate on the voyage, he took part in the pillage of various Spanish-American ports before returning to London and spending the profits on some spectacular bouts of drinking. Occasionally, the inebriated Scot did wax sentimental. Confessing that he had spent most of his time reading the Bible, he told one journalist that he had been a better Christian while in this solitude than ever he was before - or, he was afraid, than he should ever be again. 'I shall never be so happy as when I was not worth a farthing,' he said.

It was these ideas of the virtues of isolation that Defoe developed in Robinson Crusoe - changing the location to the Caribbean, extending the time period to 28 years and throwing in Man Friday for good measure. But Selkirk's remorse apparently dissolved with the hangover. He signed up for another privateering expedition, caught fever in the tropics and died on board in 1723.

After my hair-raising flight, it turned out that the only settlement on the archipelago, San Juan Bautista, was several hours' rough ride away in an open fishing boat. Luckily, it was a rare sunny day, and the half-dozen crew made the most of the journey: a makeshift metal drum was set up to smoke succulent lumps of cod caught on the way over. The engine stalled after about an hour, so the driver broke open a bottle of gin and we all stretched out for a short siesta as the boat bobbed out in the sun. Schools of fish zigzagged through the clear blue water below, while obese sea lions sunned themselves on the rocks or coolly appraised us from the water.

From the water, San Juan looks splendidly tropical, although its weather is in fact fairly cool all year round. A rain forest-covered fist of rock rises directly behind the tiny village, its peak almost always shrouded in clouds.

Exploring the town on foot does not take long: there are a few tidy bungalows lining the main street; a bar run by a genial, well-fed man with a pencil moustache; a soccer field; some family-run guest houses for travellers; and a small cemetery with ship's anchors above many of the graves. The roads are unpaved since there are only five cars (when I was there, only one of them worked).

After lining up some accommodation in a family house, I was able to lap up the island's slow pace of life. Surprisingly, the islanders - who are descended from European settlers who arrived via Chile last century - betrayed none of the dissatisfaction or restlessness found in other equally isolated spots. Lobsters breed in the cold, shallow waters and almost everyone derives a good living from the large crustaceans that are packed off live to the South American coast. Thanks to the trade, islanders can easily afford to visit mainland Chile, although they often do so only once - and, like the middle-aged woman who rented out my room, come straight back, disgusted by the dirt and chaos of the outside world.

Today, one of the finest of the many walks on the island is to follow Selkirk's trail to the Mirador - lookout - where he hiked every morning to scan the horizon. The trail became a virtual tunnel through the thick rain forest, where some 70 species of fern have been identified and a spectacular range of hummingbirds. The path finally opened out beneath a jagged peak with sweeping views.

After a couple of days in San Juan Bautista, I was beginning to get used to this desert island idea. An unnatural calm had fallen over me, and I'd picked up some of the islanders' more sedentary habits, such as taking a seat by the foreshore at dusk to watch the lobster catch being brought in, and nursing a beer at the Bahia bar - the local version of Cheers - and chatting about fishing and dogs with the barman. A small black-and-white television was immediately snapped off as soon as the news came on. And, strangely, I wasn't bored.

Perhaps predictably, the islanders who drifted into the bar would insist that their small home is a unique type of paradise. Definitely not your typical South Pacific version - it's too chilly and rainy for that - but it was easy to romanticise as a place where there is no pollution, crime, unemployment, poverty or obvious social tensions. Its people seem to take what they want from the 20th century - medicine, music, radios, TV soap operas - and leave the rest, creating a strange sense of nostalgia for a lost way of life.

But in the end you have to be born into this version of paradise to belong there, or even seriously want to live in it. The islanders may be castaways who no longer want to be rescued, but the rest of us have no choice: before long I was flying back to the mainland, to be awoken by the harsh smells of pollution when the plane's doors opened in Santiago.-

TRAVEL NOTES

FLIGHTS to the Juan Fernandez islands from the Chilean capital, Santiago, are operated by two small companies: Taxpa (Avenida Larrain 7941, La Reina, Santiago, Chile; tel: 273 4354 and 273 4309); and Transportes Aereos Isla Robinson Crusoe (Monumento No 2570, Maipu, Santiago, Chile; tel: 557 3642). The trip also involves a boat ride from the airstrip to the main township of San Juan Bautista. There are several guest houses on the island that charge around pounds 40 per person for bed and board, including the Hosteria Pangal and Hotel Daniel Defoe (meals almost always include lobster). Private accommodation can be arranged for a slightly lower rate.

(Photographs omitted)

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