Follow the call of the wild

Two British students tell Simon Midgley about the wonders of the remote Falkland Islands

Thursday 31 October 2013 04:06
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Fancy a gap year with a difference? How about spending six months with several million penguins. That's more or less what 10 enterprising British school leavers are doing every year when they choose to travel halfway round the world to work in the Falkland Islands.

For the past decade, Gap Activity Projects, a Reading-based non-profit-making organisation, has sent young people out to the remote archipelago of 700 South Atlantic islands where they work in Port Stanley in various roles or help out on farms in the countryside known locally as "Camp".

Travelling so far for your gap year may seem like a bit of a hike, but many young people relish the experience. Clare Bolton, 19, from Nottingham, took the 18-hour flight from Brize Norton last October. She left an autumnal Britain to arrive in the wintry, snow-covered Falkland Islands. "It was snowing heavily," she says. "You had to wear gloves and scarves and really big coats to keep warm."

Clare, who had just completed a two-year art and design course at Nottingham New College, wanted a break before she went to university. "I suppose I just wanted a little bit of a change from the whole education thing of primary school, secondary school and going on to college. I wanted to break it up a bit and also to save some money."

She was attracted to the Falkland Islands by their picturesque scenery and the opportunity to draw interesting animals and landscapes. She deferred her place to study fine art at Staffordshire University for one year and spent nine months working in the islands.

Her first six months were spent first as a receptionist for the Falklands Islands Development Corporation and then, when the tourist season started, as a what-to-see and where-to-go adviser to visitors decamping from the visiting cruise ships.

After acquiring a local boyfriend, she stayed on for a further three months working as a barmaid. "It has been one of the best experiences of my life," she says. "Because, for one, it has prepared me for university. I survived on my own. I went half way around the world and I managed to live without my family.

"Christmas was hard. The mail service there is quite poor. I got my presents three months after Christmas because the ship was delayed. It came in at Easter."

Clare looked at what opportunities were available for gap year experiences overseas on the GAP website - www.gap.org.uk. She filled in an application form, sent in a deposit of £100 and was then interviewed by GAP to ensure that she was suitable for her chosen destination.

She saved up £1,400 for the cost of her flight and the GAP fee of £725. While away she was paid £70 for working from 8am to 4.30pm for a five-day week.

Much of her spare time was spent visiting islanders in their homes, or playing pool and table tennis in the Seaman's Mission, going bowling or to the cinema at the Mount Pleasant military base, or to one of the three pubs in Port Stanley.

She also spent a month on Pebble Island where she saw colonies of penguins, sea lions and many species of birds. "I was lucky enough to see Gentoo, Magellanic and Rockhopper penguins as well as one King Penguin which I nicknamed Elvis. I also saw porpoises," she says.

"The whole experience was very worthwhile. I would recommend it to anyone. It is one of the best things to do because it gets you used to the world and what life is actually like out of education."

Alice Jarvie, 19, from near Bewdley in Worcestershire, also went out last October and spent her six months working at a guesthouse on East Falkland. She had just left school after taking A-levels in chemistry, physics, biology and general studies. She is going to read biochemistry at Bristol University this September.

"I wanted to travel," she says. "It was a good opportunity - somewhere unusual and somewhere you don't often get the chance to go to. I enjoyed my time there very much. There's a very good community and everyone is very friendly and helpful. And because I was working in a guesthouse there were a lot of visitors from all over the world, so I got to meet interesting people.

"I went to the islands and saw a lot of wildlife - penguins, black-browed albatross, elephant seals, night herons and thousands of sheep! Being in different situations has probably increased my confidence in talking to people. It has made me realise that there is a lot to see in the world. It was definitely a worthwhile experience."

Sukey Cameron, the Falklands Islands UK Representative, says that new generations of young Britons are being introduced to another way of life. It also shows them how the islands' economy has changed 21 years after the Falklands War.

The fishing industry is now as important as sheep farming, if not more so. "It is a very British but a very unique way of life," Sukey says.

"It is safe, friendly and there are very few places where one can see such an abundance of wildlife in its natural environment." She adds that she hopes that as a result of their experience the young people will return to Britain as goodwill ambassadors for the Falklands.

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