Falkland Islands: living on the edge of the earth

Mark Stratton discusses life on the 778-island archipelago that is the Falklands Islands and where tourism is an increasingly significant part of the economy  (article reprinted courtesy of Wanderlust Magazine)

penguinsmarchIsland survival doesn’t come much tougher than on the Falklands archipelago, the place to meet a wealth of wonderful wildlife and the equally resilient human residents

By the wreckage of an Argentinean Chinook, my guide Patrick Watts MBE, passed me a black-and-white photograph. Taken in 1982, it showed a droopily droopy moustachioed Watts in Stanley radio station – where he was a DJ at the time – being handed a sheet of announcements by an Argentine officer with a holstered firearm.

“I was on air when Argentina invaded the Falklands,” he said. “I was ordered to announce things like curfews and blackouts. I wasn’t spreading their propaganda; I had to warn islanders how to stay safe.” Recordings of his live broadcast capture him saying: “I’m not going to communicate your information with a gun at my back.” He’s too modest to mention such coolness himself.

Life on this 778-island archipelago on the other side of the world has moved on since the conflict. But the natural elements remain unforgiving. Seas are towering. The westerly winds can knock you sideways. Few flights land, compounding the geographic isolation. And Argentina fervently presses her claim to Las Malvinas. But with fisheries wealth and the expectation of oil, the Falkland Islands’ economy is booming.

So too is Falklanders’ confidence in their place in the world since 2013’s referendum on whether to remain a UK Overseas Territory was a 99.8% YES.

“We’re resolute, tenacious, proud to be staunchly British, and determined to retain our right to self-determination,” said Watts. Such fortitude characterises today’s Falklanders. I hoped to experience how their microcosmic society thrives and to learn how the events of 1982 shaped them in a setting of otherworldly remoteness.

Part of the Falklands’ new wealth comes from wildlife tourism, an experience that is, I was to discover, every bit as intimate as visiting the Galápagos. Without overly anthropomorphising, there are shared qualities between man and beast here (even if a million penguins don’t give a flying fish whether the Union Jack flutters or not). From the thick skin of the elephant seals to the courage of the rockhopper penguins – which jump into seas full of killer whales – endurance rules the waves.

As the international flight from Chile runs just once a week, that’s how long I stayed. This gave me time to venture from the main islands of East Falkland (home to Stanley) and West Falkland to the archipelago’s extremities: tiny islets where tenacious locals eke a living from tourism. The government-run light aircraft service (or FIGAS) connects these islands. At 6.15pm each evening, the following day’s passenger lists are announced on the radio, guaranteeing everybody in this close-knit society knows everyone’s business.

Mother Nature’s theatre

“Hold on tight, this landing can loosen a few fillings,” said pilot Andrew as we descended to 20 sq km Bleaker Island in the south-east Falklands. Buffeting winds strafed the flat, grazed, treeless grasslands as Bleaker’s owners, Mike and Phyll Rendell – the sort of self-sufficient islanders I’d encounter all over – came to greet me.

“We’ve got 1,100 merino-wool sheep, 67 Herefords and a human population of four… no, make that five – we’ve just hired Cecilia the Chilean cook,” Mike told me.

British-born, he came to the Falklands as a Royal Marine and met Phyll. “I’ve been here since 1983 and I’m still on trial,” he joked. Phyll herself was actually dashing off – to pursue her role as member of the islands’ legislature. “We punch well above our weight,” she said. “Sometimes I’m dealing with the fallout from Argentinean diplomacy; other weeks it’s the grass not being mowed in Stanley.”

I stayed at Cassard House, a homely red-roofed bungalow with five rooms overlooking a coastal headland. In between eating (afternoon tea and cake, homemade sausages for breakfast), there was ample time to explore Bleaker’s wildlife-drenched plains.

I hiked alone, watching jet-propelled clouds cast ever-changing shadows across the grassland. Fending off the avaricious Antarctic skuas that coveted my picnic, I settled by mile-long Sandy Bay for my first taste of penguin-mania. Small Magellanics (called jackasses because of their braying) were the court jesters, moving as if glued together in mortal panic before diving into peaty burrows. More robust gentoos were curious and approached closely after torpedoing from the surf.
I wandered inland to an animated colony of 8,000 pairs of tall imperial cormorants, which were huddled together to nurse their chicks. They chattered noisily, but not for fun – these were harrowing warnings. Predatory skuas (my wannabe sandwich thieves) encircled the cormorants, picking off ailing chicks and harassing returning adults, forcing them to regurgitate the food intended for their offspring.

Wildlife-watching here is pure theatre, but it’s of the genuine life-versus-death kind.

Don’t sit on the seals…

When I arrived on Sea Lion Island, lodge-manager Jenny Luxton related a cheerier tale of survival. “A juvenile orca was stranded on our beach. Its mother was frantic, squealing offshore. It took us two hours to turn the youngster back into the ocean,” she explained. “Then the mother resurfaced and waved her flippers towards us. I’m sure she was saying thank you.”

Although a similar size to Bleaker, Sea Lion Island sits in deeper ocean, a 15-minute flight south. Without grazing livestock, this national nature reserve supports a luxuriant thatch of clumpy tussock grass and diddle-dee bushes. The lodge is the most southerly British hotel in the world.

It had been a harsh summer on the island. Jenny drove me northwards, past a withering vegetable garden built over a pit once used by early settlers to render penguins. “It was seven rockhoppers to a gallon of oil,” she said.

Near a memorial to HMS Sheffield, sunk 40 miles offshore in 1982, we stopped by a rockhopper colony. These 50cm-high penguins have punk Mohawks, yellow eyebrows and the countenance of mad professors. They didn’t seem too bright though: their cliff-top roost was over 20m high and, rather than choosing a nice smooth beach from which to bellyflop into the sea, they bounded hazardously down between ledges, waiting to be swept up by the ocean’s ferocious swell.

They’d had a bad breeding season. “Almost no chicks have been raised,” said Jenny. “Unseasonal storms soaked and chilled the chicks, then skuas moved in to annihilate the survivors.” Damn those skuas. But today, sunshine bathed Sea Lion Island.

I walked for six hours without seeing anybody, adrift of the modern world. I visited sea lions and looked wave-wards for killer whales amid the russet-brown kelp. I also learned that it’s imperative not to sit on anything resembling a boulder amid the tussock grasses because it may have big eyes and folds of blubber.

Preposterously inelegant tubs of lard, the elephant seal bulls had beached themselves to moult: a process that involves lazing around for a few months rasping, belching and groaning.

I paced out one large bull: he was 3.5m long. “It’s nothing,” Italian researcher Filippo Galimberto later told me. “A young bull, six years old, not so big. They can weigh 3.5 tonnes.”

Living in a small hut with his wife, small baby and limited funding, Filippo has been researching elephant seals for 19 seasons. His love of the islands and his passion for these fatty blobs imbues him with the fierce determination needed to prevail in the Falklands.

“Post-moulting, elephant seals hunt over hundreds of kilometers of ocean to depths of 1,500m,” Filippo continued. Those he’s studied in Mexico have a more chaotic social structure with harems easily splintered and pups neglected. “Not here,” he explained. “The bulls have control of the harems (some 130 females strong) and the pups are fully weaned. They’re typically British,” he laughed, “so very organised”. Yet there’s a subversive irony about them: Filippo suspects many have migrated here from Argentina. Perhaps I should’ve alerted naval patrol?

Born survivors

The following morning I crossed the archipelago to the largely uninhabited West Falklands. I buzzed over scattered farmsteads and swathes of bleak moorland punctuated by black tarns and whitesand coves before bulbous grey massifs rose on the western isles.

With a humour as arid as Carcass Island’s three-year drought, farmer Rob McGill is perhaps the hardiest septuagenarian I’ve ever encountered. Owner of this 17 sq km island for 40 years with wife Lorraine, their remote fiefdom is named after the 19th-century HMS Carcass – arguably the most unromantically named vessel in naval history.

At the base of a rounded 200m outcrop, their two-storey weatherboard-clad farmstead snuggles within a wind-contorted shelterbelt – the first trees I’d seen in days. The tireless McGill is either milking his dairy cows at dawn to put fresh milk on the breakfast table, driving visitors to penguin colonies or moving his beef cattle around – inevitably with his sheepdog, Sidney, chasing behind.

“I’m an outdoors person,” he said. “Whenever I go to Stanley I want to get out. We have Skype here so I can keep in contact.” He left Stanley on the morning of the 1982 invasion to return to Carcass. “The governor said we weren’t going to be invaded so should go about our business. So I did, and my wife and children were left trapped in Stanley. Not his best piece of advice,” he remarked drily.

Lorraine could look after herself though. She was part of a mercy convoy of vehicles evacuating schoolchildren back to their families in ‘Camp’ (the countryside outside Stanley). “It was surreal,” she recalled. “We had to siphon petrol and use local boats to deliver the children. But islanders are resilient. You improvise here and get on with life.”

Carcass’s unmissable foray is to West Point Island, an hour’s boat ride away, to see its 14,000 pairs of black-browed albatrosses. As I boarded the Condor, boatman Michael Clarke and his wife, Jeanette, were on tenterhooks. “My grandson Stefan has sheared 116 sheep before breakfast,” Jeanette announced. “He needs to do nearly 50 an hour today to break the record [461]”.
Sheep shearing is the national sport. They may lose to Greenland at football but Falklanders are premier league at removing fleeces.

The Clarkes later told me that, during the invasion, they’d been confined by Argentine troops in a building in Douglas. When commandos ended their ordeal, they were ecstatic. “We had 14 soldiers at a time sleeping in our living room,” said Jeanette. “I baked them cakes all day and washed their socks.”

On West Point, where 45°-angled cliffs crumble into the ocean, I sat among hundreds of utterly trusting albatrosses. They were preening and feeding their furry chicks, already the size of Christmas turkeys, which chirped on potty-shaped nests. Utilising strong gusts, the parents unfurled their 2m wingspans to effortlessly lift off, before returning so close overhead that the draught of their wingbeats ruffled my hair.

On the Condor’s return journey, Jeanette was disappointed: Stefan had sheared 433 sheep, missing out on the record.

A bit of Britain

Back in Stanley, a farrago of enduring Britishness exists. Union Jacks rustle over brightly roofed dwellings; the governor’s house has a lawn ripe for tea parties; there are red telephone boxes, and Deano’s Bar offers fish ’n’ chips ’n’ darts.

The editorial of the Penguin News leaves you in no doubt of allegiances: ‘Argentine policy on Falklands is doomed says FCO minister’. I wondered how often it had run that headline. Yet it would be lazy to stereotype Stanley as a stagnant throwback. A modern hospital and school have been paid for out of the islands’ own fisheries money. With zero unemployment and petroleum speculation, there is an influx of labour, particularly from Chile, to supplement an already significant Chilean Falkland community.
Opportunities exist for those embracing self-reliance. A policeman told me he’d recently arrived in Stanley seeking a less stressful existence from investment banking in London: “Crime is ridiculously low. I just spent the afternoon searching for a lost sheep.”

On an excursion from Stanley to Volunteer Point, Patrick Watts and I drove past Sapper’s Hill, one of the spartan outcrops where Anglo- Argentine battles raged. Now, 200 new homes are being built here. “It’s important to see signs of progress so when veterans return they’ll see they fought for something,” Patrick said.

The war still seemed to simmer in his soul. “Those last days were the worst,” he added. “There was so much shelling, you didn’t know where they were going to fall.” We talked war, nature and radio broadcasting during an off-road journey over boggy moorland with granite-topped hills.

At Volunteer Point, the landscape melted into a pearl-white beach that was peopled by kings. Bearing golden stains on their necks – like treacle slopped down a child’s white bib – the world’s second-largest penguin species obligingly mingled within a circle of stones set aside for penguins; this time it was humans, not menacing skuas, that encircled them, snatching the easiest wildlife photographs imaginable.

Over 1,000 pairs raise their chicks here between November and April. Sometimes they leave their safety in numbers to form lines and waddle down to the soft white foreshore. Entering the ocean they trumpet loudly, heads held high. They look proud, defiant – more characteristics shared with the hardy humans who survive at the edge of the earth.

We are grateful to the Falklands Islands Tourist Board who have sponsored our Falkland Island page in the Ethical Travel Guide.


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