Saturday 1 March 2014

Falkland Islands


A last minute decision to go to the Falklands for a week paid off. Although incredibly small and sleepy, it was fascinating to visit a place that felt so British after 7 months away from the UK. We were greeted on our first day by Kay (a 6th generation Falkland Islander in her 70s) with a pot of tea, home made ginger snaps and many gnome friends at her B&B in Stanley. For most of our time on the island we slept in Kay's garden in our tent. Our first night which was a Saturday involved fish a chips for dinner (unfortunately not the type of fish and chips I am used to) and a pub crawl to three different pubs where the booze was cheap in comparison to London prices. Many of the young squaddies from RAF Mount Pleasant were in town for a night out so there were lots of wasted guys not looking their best by around 8.30! 

On the second day it was time to stretch our legs and see a bit more of the islands so we walked out to Surf Bay and the lighthouse at Cape Pembroke. As we sat on the beach the sun was shining and dolphins were playing in the surf, a massive contrast to the day before which had been grey, freezing and incredibly windy. There and back we walked 17 miles that day! Probably the longest I have walked in one day and a mini achievement. 

You don't have much of a choice, but to become a twitcher when you visit, so most of our time was spent watching humans and birds! I won't comment on the former but the latter were fantastic. Ty negotiated a great deal with a local farm owner for us to spend two nights on his land visiting the Rock Hopper and the Gentoo Penguin colonies. There were five of us (4 Brits and a Belgian) who headed out to the cliffs at a remote corner of the Murrel farm. We were able to get so close to the penguins without any other people being around. The Rockhoppers were sturdy little dudes with so much attitude perched high on the top of the cliffs chilling out after their fishing and rock climbing activities. After walking along the coast for two hours on a beautiful day we arrived at our second cabin where many young Gentoos, who were like inquisitive toddlers, were hanging out. They had no fear and if you stood still or sat down you were soon surrounded by them.  Nevertheless, once someone new came along they would soon lose interest and run straight over to them. I loved watching them run, especially when we followed some on their path down to the beach. The beach was beautifully pristine and busy with Gentoo and Magellanic penguins side by side. As we watched their activity I spotted one King Penguin walking towards us. We felt so incredibly lucky that he came over to check us out, what a treat!

Arriving in the Falkland Islands evokes an immediate sense of familiarity. It is analogous in latitude to the UK and not too dissimilar in appearance to some flat wind-swept British isle barren of trees with a bald surface covered by expanses of boggy peat and the odd outcropping of jagged stones.  Union jacks fly everywhere, and last year a referendum found that 99.8% of the votes cast by a turnout of 93% of the eligible population opted for "self determination" and "staying British". There's more Land Rovers than people, and it really feels a bit like a small rural farming community in the UK - albiet with all the pros and cons of remote village life amplified by being about 8000 miles further away from the nearest market town.

Truth is, they've not really got a bad thing going - the per capita GDP is the highest in South America and on par with the UK, post-16 education in boarding schools overseas in England is provided for free, the government runs a surplus each year based on huge fishing license revenues and only its defence is directly funded from Whitehall. And there's always the promise of oil....

Nevertheless, getting to the Falkland islands is a bit complicated and pricey. There is the "direct" option with the MOD "airbridge" service from RAF Brize Norton via Ascension island 2x a week for about £2300 return. And there's the weekly LAN flight from Punta Arenas, Chile each Saturday for about £600.  Many people visit on cruise ships, and it's crazy how the population of the islands doubles for a few hours when the little orange tenders are ferrying the punters back and forth to the liner in the outer harbour. We were lucky enough to take the LAN flight using air miles...

Ironically, the cheapest way to get there by air is from Argentina! Once a month, the LAN flight has a stop over in Rio Gallegos, Argentina on the way over and back. Argentine residents can get this subsidised ticket for something ridiculously cheap like £40 each way as they class it as a domestic flight to Islas Malvinas of course. Hmm...

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