THE FALKLANDS FLIGHT

Once, the way to Stanley was with the RAF out of Brize Norton or on a wind-buffeted Twin Otter crewed by Croats. Now, a sparkling new Boeing conveys wildlife watchers, military historians and the curious to the islands in style. Hugh O'Shaughnessy reports
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I'd better make one thing clear from the start. This journey is not for everyone. To put it at its crudest, you fly with the Croats in a second-hand aircraft over hostile water and some of the most desolate places on the planet, and across ground covered by the gun emplacements and missile batteries of three nations. You land with a frightening bump in terrible cross winds and driving rain which makes the view from the plane like that from a nuclear submarine. (The real nuclear submarines are probably in the stormy sea below you, but you can never really be sure.)

After landing you run across a windswept expanse of concrete towards a door where you fill in a long form and have your passport scrupulously checked. Then you are given the once-over by beefy men in uniform before you drive off from the air base past minefields marked by noticeboards. They bear a representation of a human skull, lest you think it's all a joke. There aren't many people to see when you get there (though tourism is growing fast: the number of package tourists and individual travellers increased by 50 per cent last year, which sounds impressive until you realise that less than 200 people in all actually made it here last year). And remember, when you get stuck, your only help will come from the Royal Air Force. The Falkland Islands won't suit Mr and Mrs Torremolinos. It's for the traveller rather than the holidaymaker. But it's the journey of a lifetime.

You can start tamely enough with a flight from Heathrow to Santiago de Chile, collecting your air miles. The journey really begins when you walk out of the splendid new air terminal in the Chilean capital, which rivals Stansted in beauty and convenience. You head towards the domestic terminal where you pick up the flight to Stanley and put yourself in the hands of the tiny airline Aerovias DAP and the enterprising Mr Pivcevic.

DAP was once a small operation which flitted between its home base in Chile's southernmost city, Puntarenas and Tierra del Fuego and tiny airstrips around the Straits of Magellan. Pivcevic seemed to get tired of running his countrymen round the tip of South America. (Everyone in Chilean Patagonia seems to have a Croat name like Tomic, Vuskovic, Vodanovic or Poklepovic). A few years ago he started a service from Puntarenas to the Falklands in little Twin Otter aircraft. They had to fly below rather than above the clouds and took four hours if the winds were favourable, considerably more if they weren't.

The aircraft had no toilet facilities and so demanded a strong bladder, not to mention an iron will to resist vomiting. It was helpful if you could summon the faith to imagine that Argentine air-sea rescue would trouble to pick passengers - or what remained of them - out of the South- west Atlantic if they ditched in Argentine waters on their way to or from territory seized from Argentina by the British usurper.

I avoided that service, preferring the other route from Brize Norton in Oxfordshire to Port Stanley on the RAF Tristar, where the seats all face backwards for safety and part of the cabin is equipped to take stretchers. They feed you on Huntley and Palmer cherry cake and fly you via Britain's secret island of Ascension in the mid-Atlantic.

From January there has been a better choice. Pivcevic's sparkling Boeing 777 which he bought the other day from American Airlines awaits you at Santiago for the through service to Stanley, with an intermediate stop at home base in Puntarenas - and it's packed full. Chile is in the middle of an economic boom and Santiago-Puntarenas is a very popular domestic route. If the sky is clear the flight is one of the world's most spectacular, showing you the Andean peaks and jigsaw fjords of southern Chile where majestic glaciers inch into the water and freeze the Pacific Ocean for miles around.

But today it is overcast virtually all the way and we see nothing. The compensation is that a few of us, including the ageing pop legend Mercedes Sosa and her managers, off to a gig in Puntarenas, are used as guinea pigs for the Business Class that Pivcevic is planning. We are sitting in wide American Airlines leather seats, while chatty cabin staff serve us all the seafood, lyonnaise potatoes and Chilean white wine we can consume until we bump down through leaden skies at Puntarenas beside the straits Magellan navigated centuries ago. Given that war nearly broke out here not long ago, it is a heavily defended airfield where Chilean pilots are doubtless ready to scramble to their jet fighters in a moment at any sign of threat from over the Argentine border a few miles away.

As the majority of the Chilean passengers disappear in their taxis towards town, there's a weird sense of the cosmopolitan and the exotic in the lonely departure lounge. Eighteen of us are going on to Stanley - British soldiers returning from trips in Chile; a businessman or two; Nadina, an elderly lady travel agent from Puntarenas, her contenance adorned with a cupid's bow of bright lipstick; an excited group of Chilean schoolgirls on an exchange visit; two Chinese fishermen; and an American in shorts. The crew of a Peruvian air force Hercules tell me they are on their way back from supplying Peru's base in the Atlantic. If a squad of yellow and blue Martians appeared in a mauve UFO, Puntarenas would undoubtedly take them in its stride.

We pile back into our Boeing for the last hour and a half to stare down at the heavy seas in the straits and Tierra del Fuego beyond. Paths and gun emplacements mark the sensitive Chilean-Argentine frontier line.

As dusk falls in driving sleet and buffeting gales, we land, after several abortive attempts, under the missiles of RAF Mount Pleasant, the purpose- built base from which Britain defends the Falklands. After customs and passport control and a weary wait until the last passenger is through, we pay pounds 13 and pack into the minibus for the last hour's journey in the dark across the blasted heath of East Falkland to Stanley, the village capital.

In the Falkland Islands few trees resist the constant driving wind, but the place repays the trouble of visiting it in all sorts of understated and unlikely ways. Apart from the possibility of seeing myriad birds, penguins, killer whales, dolphins and elephant seals, the principal one must surely be that of being in a tiny British community of 2,200 people living at the other end of the earth in an archipelago the size of Wales. This is Lilliput, a Lilliput which has grown rich in recent years by selling fishing licences to Koreans and Japanese, Spaniards and Poles. Such is the attractiveness of the Falklands' teeming waters to the world's fishing fleets that the number of fishermen afloat around the islands often outnumbers the population living on them. And the islands may well be on the edge of an oil boom similar to that in the Southern hemisphere. The Falklands have come a long way since the post-occupation years when they were described as "pieces of land surrounded on all sides by advice".

At the far end of Ross Road, between the memorial to the First World War Battle of the Falklands and the memorial to the 1982 Falklands War, lies Government House with its flagpole and Union Jack - home to a governor. Pretty much everything happens along Ross Road with its constant procession of Land Rovers. Half way along it, the Legislative Council (Legco), with eight elected members, meets in a room in the Town Hall overlooking the inner harbour and its collection of 19th-century hulks of ships which didn't make it round the Horn or through the Magellan Straits. Legco has all the feeling of a parish council in one of the wilder parts of Northumberland, but it is grappling soberly with the prospect of oil prosperity of unimaginable proportions.

A little farther on, beyond the Catholic church and just before you get to the Anglican cathedral, is the West Store. The islands' only supermarket, it is today the most public face of the Falkland Islands Company founded under Queen Victoria's royal charter. The FIC was in sleepier days owner of half the land and vast herds of sheep which provided the Islands' principal livelihood. At the store, Sibbie Summers will offer you Bird's Custard and cans of Boddington's ale, Cadbury's chocolate biscuits and Chilean wine. "No one wants to buy Argentine wine here, you understand," she says.

A man called John Smith runs an excellent museum here, and the Globe, the Victory and the Stanley Arms are where you can meet shy but friendly Falkland Islanders. The BBC news is regularly relayed on the official Falkland Islands Broadcasting Service, better known by its initials, FIBS.

Nobody would visit the Falklands without seeing some wild life. The uncleared Argentine minefields around Stanley form the nearest de facto nature reserves. Kidney Island, with thousands of penguins, is not far outside Stanley Harbour. The Falkland Islands Government Air Service can buzz you in its Islander aircraft to outlying places. Across the Falklands Sound, where the British task force landed to recapture the place from the Argentines in 1982, lies the majestic, mountainous Port Howard of West Falkland. There, Robin Leigh runs an excellent lodge powerfully reminiscent of what the Scottish Highlands must have been like in Queen Victoria's day.

As we fly back to Chile, Nadina's eyes are alight. "This place has a great future. Such nice people. Stanley, the Antarctic, South Georgia, mountaineering in the southern Andes ... " she rhapsodizes. "Keep quiet about it till I get my tours organised."

Mr Pivcevic, too, is planning to buy another Boeing aircraft. God knows what he, the other Croats and Nadina have in store for the Falkland Islands. !

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: British Airways (0181 897 4000/0345 222111) fares from London to Santiago range from pounds 869. DAP returns from Santiago to Mount Pleasant range from pounds 632; their British agent is the Falkland Islands Company, 0171 377 0566. RAF fares via Ascension go from pounds 1,340, contact the Falkland Islands Tourist Board (see below).

STAYING THERE: Stanley's two hotels are in Ross Road. The Upland Goose (00500 21455, fax 21520) is pounds 72.50 per night. I prefer the Malvina House (00500 21355, fax 21357) at pounds 65.50 a night, run by Mike Rendell, a former Royal Marine married to Phyllis, the islands' director of education. It has en suite bathrooms, a bar and meals in the conservatory. There are a also number of cheap, clean guest houses.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Falkland Island Tourist Board, 14 Broadway, London, SW1H OBH (0171 222 2542).

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