A castaway among the humming birds, goats and lobsters

Jamie Ross follows the trail of the real Robinson Crusoe in Chile
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The Independent Travel
In Chile, geography dictates that you can go either north or south. I went west. Someone heading in this direction usually has sights set on Easter Island, a mid-Pacific, five-hour hop from Santiago. However, often overlooked by those poring over their atlases, bemused by the country's extraordinary shape, is a small archipelago, called Juan Fernandez, 700 kilometres west of Valparaiso.

Here is Robinson Crusoe Island. It is not a theme park nor an old Disney set, but a National Park and home to a host of plants and humming birds. There are about six hundred people, too, most of whom are dependent for a living, one way on another, on lobsters.

The real Robinson Crusoe and role-model for Daniel Defoe, the castaway's creator, was the early 18th-century seafarer Alexander Selkirk, a native of Largo in Fife. History relates that in 1704, while serving on an exploratory mission in the Pacific, Selkirk became embroiled in a quarrel with his captain. As a means of terminating both argument and acquaintance, Selkirk made what turned out to be a rash move. He requested to be put ashore on the uninhabited island of Mas a Tierra. Evidently he assumed rescue would be imminent, but he had to wait four years and four months before being picked up.

During his stay on the island Selkirk chased, befriended, ate and clothed himself in wild goat. Upon finally being rescued by the Duke, a privateer, he was speechless.

Aerial navigation to Robinson Crusoe Island is straightforward: from Valparaiso head into the setting sun. Approaching, banking round its cliff faces, you shudder at the enormity of what the island represents. It is the peak of an oceanic mountain range, possibly of Andean scale, just breaking the ocean's surface.

A six-seater Cessna is about as big a plane as the island's earth strip can accommodate. The wind-buffeted landing feels distinctly tight. My fellow passengers were all zoologists. Large seal populations (much depleted since Selkirk) attract students from afar. By a windswept shack, amid improbable swathes of red poppies, other regular users of the air service were waiting in boxes: live lobsters bound for the markets of Valparaiso and Santiago.

There are no proper roads and few, if any, vehicles on Robinson Crusoe. For reasons of topography, the sole town, San Juan Bautista, is situated at the other end of the 12-mile island from the airstrip. The only way to get there is by boat, and the island's fishermen provide the taxi service.

San Juan is green. Trees, foliage and flowers appear to have the upper hand in the town's development. Large, white lilies grow down the centres of grass streets. Here and there tethered goats keep things in check. Buildings are modest, wooden and one storey. National Park rangers wander around on horseback.

The effects of isolation on life, which adapts, fills niches and evolves, are more apparent on an island than on mainland. Hence huge tortoises on the Galapagos. And on Robinson Crusoe, golden humming birds and 57 endemic plant species, 31 of which are "endangered" and 16 "vulnerable" as a result of man, goat and immigrant mainland species.

I stayed at one of the San Juan's central guest houses, owned by the Green family. On arrival at Villa Green, travel-weary guests are greeted with a large plate of lobster, accompanied by a glass of white wine. Senor Green's father came from Glasgow before the war and settled on Crusoe. And his son, Robinson, was my guide.

On Crusoe you almost feel obliged to explore. Selkirk's cave is still there. But forget the notion of palm trees and the bleached white sands of Defoe's Caribbean fiction. Robinson Crusoe is a temperate island. Selkirk may even have felt at home with the vista of grey boulders and shingle.

The focal point of the Robinson Crusoe story and a place of pilgrimage for any castaway spotter is Selkirk's look-out place. From San Juan, where Selkirk established himself, a well-beaten path winds its way up to a practically sheer mountain face. At the top you find yourself in a cleft two-thirds of the way up the island's highest peak. From here, both ends of the island are just about visible. And a lot of sea.

Unexpectedly, you find two tablets embedded into the rock up here. One, large and of iron, is a tribute from a Commodore Powell and crew of HMS Topaze, cast in Valparaiso in 1868 and lugged up from the shore line. The other is small, of polished granite, a memorial evidently brought from Scotland in 1983 by a descendant of Selkirk's brother. It is inscribed with some lines of Robbie Burns that curiously seem to resonate with the spirit of the place: "till a' the seas gang dry and the rocks melt in the sun".

When to go

The northern winter corresponds with the southern summer, so the best time to go is between now and March.

How to get there

The only airline with direct services from the UK to the Chilean capital Santiago is British Airways (0345 222111), and the lowest official fare is pounds 879. Lower fares are available through discount agents such as Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108), which sells BA tickets for pounds 626, or flights via Caracas on Viasa for pounds 588. At Santiago you have to transfer from the international to the domestic airport in the suburb of Cerrillos for the air-taxi flight to the island. Contact Lassa (00 56 2 273 4309) which has scheduled flights in January and February, costing $375 (about pounds 250) per person round-trip. For the rest of the year, Lassa operates an air charter service - five people staying for three days would pay $2,000 (about pounds 1,350) in total.