Falkland Islands: Far and wild in the Atlantic
Traces of the past are ever-present in the Falklands, but the islands' wildlife provides the deepest memories says Graeme Green
Saturday 17 December 2011
In a quiet corner of Stanley, just beyond the cemetery on the edge of town, there's a small park. It's a peaceful spot, overlooking Stanley harbour, with wilting daffodils lining gravel pathways; unremarkable, except that at the base of each tree and bush are small crosses and plaques bearing the names of British soldiers who lost their lives in the Falklands War. Many of the names come from the HMS Ardent, destroyed by Argentine planes during May 1982's battle for Falkland Sound.
I am here in November, at the start of the southern summer. Next April marks 30 years since the start of the conflict. Together with the recent announcement that Prince William is to be stationed in the British colony, the spotlight will soon be back on this otherwise quiet, sometimes forgotten cluster of 778 islands.
The Falklands lie 8,000 miles from mainland Britain, and some 300 miles from the coast of Argentina – which has not relaxed its claim to the islands. I walk from the Memorial Wood along the seafront. The skies are grey. A strong wind blows rain against me. I pass the Whalebone Arch outside the Christ Church Cathedral, constructed from the jawbones of two blue whales, then the offices of the local newspaper, the Penguin News, to arrive at the local museum.
The conflict is well covered inside, with photos, newspaper clippings, guns, military equipment and copies of letters – military and civilian – on show. The museum feels like a tribute to Britishness, its exhibits ranging from a Queen Victoria stoneware jug and a George VI "Empire" tea service to silver pocket watches and cigarette tins. The walls are decorated with Union flags.
The patriotic fervour of the Falklands, often called "a little piece of England", feels strange. The cars, mainly Land Rovers, drive on the left. The language and accent are English, as are the food and drink in pubs and restaurants. Streets and landmarks are named Thatcher Drive and Victory Green. The climate, often described as bleak, feels very British, as does the look of the capital, Stanley, and the weather-beaten countryside.
So why travel so far to a place that, in terms of both culture and landscape, could be far more easily experienced in northern Scotland or Shetland, for example? For me, the answer is simple: wildlife. Nowhere in the UK can you see four-ton elephant seals flopping on beaches among hordes of gentoo, magellanic and king penguins, with the chance of an orca surfacing just out at sea.
After driving in from Mount Pleasant airport, however, the only creatures I see on my first night in the tiny settlement of San Carlos are sheep. On the way, I stop near Darwin at the memorial for Argentine soldiers killed in 1982, the graves marked simply with "Known Unto God". In San Carlos is another memorial, this one to the British war dead.
The next morning, a nine-seater plane taxis me over to Sea Lion Island – a national nature reserve, 10 miles off mainland East Falkland. Jenny, the manager of Sea Lion Lodge, gives me a quick spin around in her 4x4, pointing out upland geese and their goslings, finches, king cormorants and striated caracara – the world's rarest bird of prey, but a common sight across these islands.
At the base of some cliffs, we see a fat sea lion lazing on the rocks. We drive out to the HMS Sheffield memorial. The British ship was sunk by Argentine missiles 50 miles south-east from here. Further on is Rockhopper Point, where rockhopper penguins, with their funky yellow hairdos, jump up steep steps (hence their name) from the ocean to their cliff-side colonies.
At Elephant Corner, giant blubbery elephant seals and their pups stretch, laze, roll, yawn and snort on the sand. "They are coming to the end of the mating season," Jenny tells me. "There aren't many females left, so the males are getting grumpy. Most of them don't get to mate. It's a sad life, really." The penguins come out of the sea in little troupes. They're familiar enough with humans not to mind my presence. I join in their march up the beach, gentoos going one way, magellanics the other – it's pretty organised. The island is alive with different calls, caws and whistles.
There's a bitter wind early the next day, as I hike down from the lodge to the beach. A single round little penguin waddles across my path. There had been reports the previous morning of orcas hanging around the shores, but I don't see any. I don't stay out long. People use expressions here like "jolly draughty" and "a bit breezy", but really the summer wind is strong enough to knock you over and cold enough to numb your face and hands.
In the evening, life cranks up outside so I brave the conditions again to see fat sea lions body-popping along the beach, blubber rippling as they propel forward. Then, one penguin after another flaps and flops out of a wave and runs up the shore, falling into line behind his companions to waddle up the sand in single file. This is a regular evening parade, as hundreds of penguins return from the sea after feeding like chubby, suited businessmen on their way back from work.
While Sea Lion Island is flat and windy, Carcass Island is craggy and hilly, like a Scottish mountain transplanted into the South Atlantic Ocean. It's also warmer and more sheltered, though the rain follows me from Sea Lion Island. From here, I sail across to West Point Island and drive to Devil's Nose, where cliffs teem with hundreds of happily cohabiting rockhopper penguins and albatrosses.
"They don't mind people as long as you don't go in on them," the captain, Mike, tells me as we walk through head-high tussac grass. Occasional turkey vultures glide around the cliffs beyond us. We sail back to Carcass Island under dusky skies, cormorants and dolphins swimming with the boat, leaping out of the bow wave. Penguins race across the channel like little torpedoes breaking the surface.
Back in the warmth of Carcass Island Farmhouse, Lorraine, one of the owners, counters the common perception of the Falkland Islands as bleak. "I wouldn't trade it for anywhere else in the world – on a good day, there's nowhere more beautiful." Indeed, I am told that before my arrival there were six weeks of glorious summer sun. And yet the weather while I'm on Carcass is bad enough to stop the plane from landing, stranding a few tourists here for another day.
I wait for the heaviest of the rain to fizzle out, then set out on a boggy path across the island to Leopard Beach. It's windy and wet, the hills lost in deep grey fog, with only geese and oystercatchers animating the hills. As I walk across a thin stretch of land from Leopard Beach to Dyke Bay, sun breaks through the cloud.
The island is transformed: grand blue skies open up over a warm, glistening landscape. I walk along the dunes, catching sight of vultures, geese, oystercatchers and gangs of paddling penguins. The shift in weather lasts all of 20 minutes, though, before thick fog descends, cold wind howls and the island is grey and cold again.
Redemption comes on my last day, with clear blue skies above on the drive out of Stanley. The road fizzles out at a settlement of white and pink buildings around Johnson's Harbour Farm; from there, it's 90 minutes of rough-and-tumble off-roading, navigating around waterlogged ditches, ridges and holes, and avoiding getting "bogged", to arrive at Volunteer Point. I get there early, long before the crowds arrive from a cruise ship docked nearby. A long beach of soft white sand, glass-green water crashing in white waves, is all mine for a couple of hours.
It's hatching season for the gentoos; tiny chicks and eggs are visible in the colonies. Hundreds of kings stand around, sleek yellow and white chests glowing in the sun. Barrel-like infants, still to lose their brown outer layers, look like tiny, tubby women in fur coats. There's a storm of rain and hail in the middle of the day, grey skies battling the blue. It's the wildlife, rather than the weather, that you come here for, after all.
Travel essentials: Falkland Islands
Getting theren The main approach using commercial flights is via Santiago in Chile, from where LAN (0800 977 6100; lan.com) flies to Mount Pleasant airport. You can reach Santiago on a combination of British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and LAN from Heathrow via Sao Paulo from £888 return, or via Madrid.
* Alternatively, a direct civilian charter flight operated by the Ministry of Defence departs from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, with a stop at Ascension Island. Returns start at £2,222. Flying time is about 20 hours. To book, contact the Falkland Islands Government Office in London (020-7222 2542; falklands.gov.fk).
* The writer travelled with Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) which offers a week's trip to the Falkland Islands, taking in Sea Lion Island, Carcass Island, West Point Island and Stanley from £2,551 per person, starting in Santiago. The price includes flights from Santiago, accommodation (half-board in Stanley, full-board elsewhere), and all transport.
Falkland Islands facts
Area: three-fifths the size of Wales
Opening lines of national anthem: God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen
* The Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS) flies to farm settlements and some outer islands. These Britten Norman Islander aircraft are the quickest way of moving around the many islands that make up the Falklands archipelago (00 500 27 219; firstname.lastname@example.org).
* There are over 30 accommodation providers across East and West Falkland and the outer islands, ranging from self-catering cottages, guest houses and B&Bs to full-board lodges and hotels.
* Falkland Islands Tourist Board: 020-7222 2542; falklandislands.com
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