He is a male of advanced years, the last of his kind and a fellow regarded by many as an indelible symbol of the way things used to be.

What more suitable figure, then, than Lonesome George, the world's most famous tortoise, to greet the Prince of Wales on his first visit to the Galapagos Islands?

The Prince and Duchess of Cornwall encountered him on Monday, the first full day of their visit to the Galapagos, the climax of a 10-day tour of South America.

On regular tours, the visiting royal usually starts with a courtesy call on the head of state at their presidential palace; on Galapagos, one calls on Lonesome George in his enclosure at the Charles Darwin Research Foundation.

If that implies a certain lack of formality, it is in keeping with a visit that is one of the most idiosyncratic and remote ever undertaken by the Prince on an official tour.

After their arrival on the islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the royal couple were taken by ferry across a narrow channel of the brightest turquoise water to the island of Santa Cruz before being driven in a gold-colored people carrier to the Royal Palm, the Galapagos' most luxurious hotel.

A sparse, scrubby landscape gives way to lusher vegetation on the higher ground, where the Prince's car had to keep to a sedate 20 mph while he was driven through the feeding ground of the famed Galapagos finches; there are enough threats to the local wildlife without them being hit by cars as well.

Aged 80, or thereabouts, George is the last surviving giant tortoise from the sub-species that used to inhabit the island of Pinta and, as such, an individual whose mating habits have been subjected to the sort of intense scrutiny normally reserved for giant pandas. Or, indeed, heirs to the throne.

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