A Visitor's View of the Falkland Islands

By Pearl Inglis
January 2000

Journeying to the Islands

My daughter, Alison, lives and works as a lawyer in the Falkland Islands.  She arrived there in November 1997 on a two-year contract to work for the Falkland Islands Government, settled in and very quickly became highly enthusiastic about life there.  My husband and I became interested in visiting Alison as we learnt more about the Islands from her many letters, and once she became engaged to Jason, a Falkland Islander, we had good reason to meet Jason’s family and see where she had decided to live.  (We had already met Jason, as they became engaged while on holiday together in Ardrishaig in May 1999.)  

Having booked our flights, we prepared excitedly for our long journey.  We knew that the Falklands Islands are in the antipodes and hoped for sunshine in early December.  Our flight left from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, the RAF’s ‘Heathrow’ – no civilian airline flies direct from Britain to the Falkland Islands, although there are weekly return flights to the Islands every Saturday from Santiago, the capital of Chile.  

It took a long eight hours to reach Ascension Island where the plane was to refuel and the crew change.  We expected to spend one hour in the airport compound – a grim stretch of concrete surrounded by barbed wire with access to a small grimy terminal with minimal facilities – before reboarding and travelling onto Falkland Islands.  However, we were required to spend many more hours in Ascension, as one of the new crew had been in an accident, suffered slight concussion, and needed to spend 12 hours resting before flying.  We were all bussed to ‘Bunk Bed City’, an RAF transit camp – long blocks of bunk-bedded rooms, concrete floored, with a toilet/washing block some distance away – very primitive.  After a cafeteria lunch I had a brief siesta then David came rushing in with the news that a bus tour of the island was on offer, leaving immediately.  Needless to say we caught the bus. We returned to our accommodation, were given dinner, slept, and shortly afterwards bussed back to the airport to await our flight.  Another eight hours in the air and we landed at approximately 2.30 a.m. Falklands time.  Jason was there to meet us, so we collected our luggage and were gratefully driven through the dark to Alison’s house.  

Ascension Island  

Ascension is a very small island close to the equator, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles from anywhere.  It has no native inhabitants, but is used as a US Air Force base, RAF refuelling point, BBC World Service transmitter station, and European Space Agency tracking station.  The surface of the island is composed of red sand and rock – rather like a moonscape – but with a few patches of scrubby grass and low shrubs.  The sun shines hotly all day, and there is very little shade anywhere.  But there are glorious golden beaches, and somewhere (though we didn’t see them) native green turtles and wild donkeys, the latter descendants of 19th c. pack beasts introduced by early settlers.  I am told that the higher one goes on the island the greener and lusher the vegetation becomes, hence the name Green Mountain.  Driving around we were amused to see that an enthusiast had created a nine-hole golf course on a patch of scrubland, no grass!  The principal settlement (and there are less than a thousand inhabitants in all) is Georgetown where there is a typical 19th century colonial office, white-painted and with a covered, shaded verandah running around the building on the ground and first floors, Union Jack flying and black-painted cannon outside.  

Geography

The Falkland Islands lie in the South Atlantic approximately 300 miles to the east of the tip of South America.  There are two main islands, East and West Falkland, which are divided by Falkland Sound, and approximately 200 smaller islands of varying size of which about 30 are inhabited.  The total land area is about the same size as Wales.  The Islands have a deeply indented coast and possess many natural anchorages.  The surface is hilly, the highest hill being Mount Usborne on East Falkland at 2,312 feet.   

Flora

Much of the upland is comparatively bare of vegetation, mostly covered with wild moorland interrupted with scree and outcrops of rocks, and stone runs or ‘rivers of stone’, long runs of very large rocky boulders.  The lower ground is extensively grazed by sheep and covered with rough grass.  Where no sheep are to be found the ground coverage is a mixture of miniature ferns, low-lying ground plants including several edible berries and, in summer, a selection of delicate wildflowers, mostly white.  Outside Stanley there is no cultivation except in the immediate vicinity of the farmhouses, and even here kitchen gardens have been neglected as travel to Stanley becomes easier and frozen and canned food more readily available.  There are no native trees, and few have been planted, but around every farmhouse and settlement there are large stretches of gorse hedges, introduced by Scottish settlers.  

Climate

The climate is temperate, with similar winters to the UK but cooler summers.  The sun shines for an average of 1,650 hours per year, compared to a UK average of 1,484 hours.  Winter days are still, sunny and dazzlingly clear – apart from during vicious southerly snowstorms – but in summer a strong wind blows all day to die away at night.  The Islands are famed for their wonderful sunrises and sunsets.  They are increasingly affected by climate change, because of their proximity to the Antarctic, with summers becoming colder and wetter and winters milder over time.  The annual rainfall is still far lower than the UK, particularly in the west of the archipelago.  During the antipodean spring the Islands sit beneath a hole in the ozone layer, and the residents are very careful in their use of sunscreen and sunglasses.  

Population

The present population of the Islands totals approximately 2,400 of whom about 1,800 live in Stanley.  The first settlers arrived from Britain in 1833, and by 1900 the population had increased to about 2,000.  There are a few large farm settlements and the rest of the population live on small family-run farms.  Over the past decade the population has gradually shifted into Stanley, as the booming economy has created new jobs in town while changing patterns in agriculture have lessened the demand for farm workers.  The population of the largest farm settlement, Goose Green, has dropped from about 100 in 1982 to about 40 today.  The population is largely British in origin, with substantial numbers of Chilean and Saint Helenian workers, some of whom have settled permanently in the Islands.  

Early History

The Falkland Islands were discovered by John Davis on 14 August 1592 and became known as Davis Southern Land, although the Argentines assert that the discovery of the Falkland Islands was made by Estaban Comez, one of Magellan’s captains.  The first recorded landing was on 29 January 1690 by Captain John Strong, who named the Sound between East and West islands ‘Falkland Sound’ after Viscount Falkland, the Treasurer of the Royal Navy.  During the mid-18th century Britain maintained a marine depot on Saunders Island on the west of the archipelago.  Meantime French settlers established themselves at Port Louis, East Falkland in 1764 before selling their interest in the Islands to the Spanish in 1767.  For a time the British and French/Spanish inhabitants were unaware of the other’s existence.  Both withdrew towards the end of the 18th century, leaving the Islands uninhabited apart from visits by whalers and sealers of all nationalities.   

Argentine Claim  

Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands is threefold: the first is geographical; the second is based on the Papal Decree giving new lands in the Americas to Spain; the third is that she considers herself a successor to Spain as the territorial authority of the 18th c.  Argentina’s name for the Islands of ‘Las Malvinas’ is a hispanisation of ‘Iles Malouines’, said to be after St. Malo in Brittany, home of the early French settlers.  

British Settlers  

In 1833 Britain decided to settle the Islands as a supply and maintenance depot for ships rounding Cape Horn.  In 1841 Richard Moody, aged 28, was appointed the first Governor of the Islands and in 1845 he moved the capital from Port Louis to Stanley because of the latter’s superb natural anchorage.   

The first industry was the exploitation for their hides of wild cattle, descended from beasts introduced by French settlers.  In the 1870s the cattle industry gave way to sheep ranching, and by 1885 the territory was self-supporting.  The sheep still form the backbone of the Islands’ agriculture and are kept for their wool which today is exported to Bradford, UK.  The flocks number thousands of animals, but motorbikes have largely replaced horses as the shepherds’ principal mode of transport.  Many of the shepherds came from Mull and other parts of Scotland, and also from the sheep districts of Somerset, but there were also South American gauchos whose influence is still seen today in the distinctive horsegear.  

Stanley grew into a busy port, repairing and provisioning ships rounding Cape Horn en route to California and Australia, and also acting as a base for the whaling and sealing vessels attracted by the lure of the Southern Oceans.  That by-gone era is recalled in the ruins of Ajax Bay whaling factory on East Falkland and by the well-preserved buildings on South Georgia, three days travel to the south of the Falklands.  

The crossing round Cape Horn proved too rough for many vessels, and over two hundred ships were wrecked off the Islands’ rocky coastline.  Today Stanley is the finest graveyard of 19th century shipping in the world.  For some years the port had a more unsavoury name, as Stanley shipwrights and chandlers, not content with charging high prices to visiting ships, gained a (perhaps undeserved) reputation for encouraging owners to abandon their vessels so that the wood-starved colony could profit from the hulks, many of which were turned into floating warehouses.  The most famous wreck was Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s vision, the SS Great Britain, the first ship with screw propulsion and in her day the largest ship in the world, now restored to her home port of Bristol, although the mizzen mast remained in Stanley.  

The naturalist Charles Darwin called at the Falkland Islands in 1833 and 1834.  He recorded the flora and fauna and his visits were commemorated in several place names.  Darwin Settlement, Beagle Ridge and Fitzroy Settlement are named after the naturalist, his ship and captain respectively.  The names of four ships closely associated with the Falkland Islands – including the Beagle – are picked out in white-painted rocks on the hillside opposite Stanley.  

World War One  

Wireless communication with the outside world was opened in 1912, and in December 1914 the Islands were the scene of a famous British naval victory when a small British flotilla destroyed a large German fleet under Admiral Graf von Spee.  Each year, early in December, the 1914 Battle of the Falklands is commemorated by a Public Holiday.  There is a church parade, attended by the Governor who later travels in procession from the Cathedral to the 1914 Monument (built by and at the expense of Islanders after the end of WW1, just as the 1982 Monument also in Stanley was erected by Islanders after their Liberation).  At the Monument the Governor takes the salute of parading contingents from the Falkland Islands Defence Force and the naval guard ship, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, and others, before in a solemn moment wreaths are laid in commemoration of the dead of both fleets.  

World War Two  

During the Second World War the Falkland Islands proved their value as a naval base, and this is where Jason’s grandfather Jim, a Hull fisherman who volunteered for service on a naval vessel at the onset of war, met his grandmother Jean, whose ancestors were among the early British settlers.  After their victory over the German Navy at the Battle of the River Plate in 1940, the British cruisers returned to Stanley to land their wounded, who were cared for in the local hospital for several weeks.  Over 150 Falkland Islanders served in the British armed forces during WW2.  Ten Spitfire aircraft were purchased with money voted by the Falkland Islands Legislative Council in 1940.  The generous spirit of charitable giving is still found in the Falkland Islands today – in early 1989 Islanders raised £20,000 in one week for displaced persons in Kosovo.  

The 1982 Conflict with Argentina  

Argentina still maintains its territorial claim to the Falkland Islands, a claim first propounded by Peron as a way of uniting post-war Argentinian society.  On 2 April 1982 Argentina invaded the Islands along with two other small British territories in the south-west Atlantic – South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.  Britain immediately broke off diplomatic relations with Argentina, imposed an arms embargo on the country, and introduced trade and financial restrictions.  Diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful solution were unsuccessful and Britain sent troops and equipment to repossess the Islands.  The Argentine forces surrendered on 14 June 1982.  The conflict lasted only 10 weeks but was hard-fought.  Unfortunately the terrible legacy of this invasion is the large number of minefields, many on beautiful beaches.  

All over the Islands are memorials to British servicemen and sailors who fought and died in 1982, and in Stanley there is a large memorial giving the name of every Briton who died in the conflict including three Islanders killed in the last day of the fighting when a British shell accidentally hit a civilian house.  David and I spent a weekend at Blue Beach, where the main thrust of the British forces landed, and visited the beautiful circular-walled graveyard where Colonel ‘H’ Jones (one of two British paratroopers to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the Conflict) and his companions are buried.  

The Argentines first action on invading was to capture the small detachment of marines stationed on the Islands, and to forcibly repatriate them along with Governor Rex Hunt and other senior officials including the Chief of Police.  Other British expatriates such as teachers and engineers were given the opportunity to leave, although most of the medical staff remained to man the hospital through the war.  

Economy  

Today the economy is small and undiversified.  The days of cattle exploitation, sealing and whaling are gone, and sheep ranching for wool production is waning as demand for wool drops in the face of cheaper man-made fibres.  There are few natural resources, the population is small and the Islands are remote from external markets.  Exploitation of the Islands’ rich kelp beds has repeatedly failed, and the many craft items produced by talented Islanders are sold only in the local shops.  Oil exploration commenced in 1993, and although the results are encouraging full-scale production has not yet been attempted.  

Almost all the land is covered with rough pasture of low nutritional value, but pasture improvement schemes are underway, and agricultural diversification is being encouraged into guanaco (a wild llama), cashmere goats, pork, breeding sheep and cattle for beef production, and smoking the local wild upland goose breast.  One of the most innovative ideas is the importation of young reindeer from South Georgia, the only herd in the world untouched by radiation from Chernobyl.  Salmon ranching has been tried in the past, and current experiments are on-going into oyster and mussel production.   

The largest source of income is derived from the licensing and control of fishing within the Islands’ Fisheries Conservation Zone.  This is a rich source of income and, apart from the military base at Mount Pleasant, the Islands are entirely self-supporting.  The money from fishing is reinvested into the Islands’ education and health services, and into improving the infrastructure, including the construction of a network of dirt roads on East and West Falkland and the building of new jetties which form a lifeline to the outer Islands and more isolated farms.  Sea deliveries are made by the supply ship Tamar, locally owned and crewed.  The Falkland Islanders are also actively investing in the fishing industry, both through commercial activity – running locally-registered fishing vessels and acting as agents for foreign boats – and government’s research and management programme which includes the maintenance of two armed fisheries vessels as protection against far eastern poachers.  

The Falkland Islands are a popular destination for cruise ships, cruising the shores of South America or venturing onto the Antarctic.  In the antipodean summer season 1999/2000 32,000 cruise-ship visitors came ashore on day trips, mostly in Stanley but a few smaller ships anchored off some of the outer Islands to allow visitors the opportunity to see the Islands’ wonderful wildlife.  Cruise-ships visitors are important customers in the Stanley gift shops, and are also attracted to the world-famous Falkland Islands Philatelic Bureau.  Many new stamps are issued each year, and demand for these is world-wide.  Land tourists, on two-four week holidays, are warmly welcomed and are slowly increasing in numbers, drawn by the wildlife, fishing (the Islands reputedly have the best trout fishing in the world) and by specialist interests such as stamps, shipping or the 1982 Conflict.  There are two hotels and several guest-houses in Stanley, and a growing network of tourist lodges in the countryside.  

Education  

Young children have a wonderful time on the Islands – there is space to play and few restrictions.  In Stanley there are two private nurseries for babies and toddlers.  The Government offers 10 hours a week of free nursery (pre-school) places to 3 year olds.  Education is free and compulsory for all children between the ages of 4 and 16.  Children who live outside Stanley receive lessons by telephone, and are visited by one of a team of travelling teachers for one in every three weeks.  All children are encouraged to come into Stanley for secondary education, although this is not compulsory, and free lodging is provided in the School Hostel.  For senior secondary education, academic pupils are sent as boarders to the Peter Symonds Sixth Form College in Winchester to study for their A-levels, returning to the Falkland Islands three times during the two year course.  The Falkland Islands Government runs an excellent apprentice scheme in many different trades, and has close links with technical colleges in the UK.  All young people are encouraged to train and qualify in their chosen fields.  College and university education is encouraged, and upon completion of their training successful students are welcomed home to the Islands to take up suitable posts in Government and industry.  It is the policy of the Falkland Islands Government to fill all vacant posts with suitably qualified and/or experienced Falkland Islanders.  All education, including maintenance grants for A-level, college and university students, is paid for by the Falkland Islands Government.  

The Churches  

The first Christians worshipped in a warehouse above the dockyard, but today Stanley has a non-conformist church, a Roman Catholic chapel, and an Episcopal Cathedral.  Bishop Stirling, a missionary with the Patagonian Missionary Society, was ordained as the first Bishop of the Falkland Islands in Westminster Abbey on 21 December 1869.  Bishop Stirling served the people of the Falkland Islands for 30 years, later becoming Canon of Wells Cathedral.  Until well into the twentieth century the Bishop of the Falkland Islands had episcopal authority over the whole of South America, until the Bishop’s seat shifted to Buenos Aires.  In 1982 Argentinian episcopal authority over the Falkland Islands was abolished, and today the Rector of the Cathedral reports direct to the Archbishop of Canterbury while receiving pastoral guidance from the Bishop of Chile in Santiago.  The resident Monseigneur of St. Mary’s, Stanley is responsible for the Roman Catholic Prefecture of the South Atlantic Islands, and travels as required to Ascension, St. Helena and Tristan da Cunha.  The priest and rector played a vital part in strengthening community morale in 1982.

Change in Farming Patterns  

The development of the Falkland Islands was closely linked with the Falkland Islands Company, founded by Royal Charter in 1851.  The FIC invested heavily in land, and by the 1970s was the largest farm owner in the Islands.  Each farm would cover 100,000 acres plus and was based around a large settlement housing dozens of single farmhands in the bunkhouse, and several families in tied houses.  There would be many outlying shepherds’ houses.  The farm managers were autocrats who managed large numbers of employees, and enjoyed good salaries and pension schemes, overseas education for their children, and spacious accommodation run by several servants.  Some farms were owned by overseas interests – who unlike the FIC did not reinvest in the Islands – while others were owner-run.  

In the late 1970s the UK Government commissioned Lord Shackleton – son of the famous Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton – to conduct a comprehensive survey into the Islands’ economy.  The Shackleton Report made two major recommendations: the subdivision of the large ranches, and the introduction of a fisheries licensing regime.  Although the waters around the Falkland Islands had been exploited by Soviet and Polish fishing vessels since the 1950s, the fisheries licensing regime was not implemented until the mid-1980s.  With Government support and encouragement, large landowners began tentatively to subdivide their farms into family-sized units, and this process was accelerated post-1982 culminating in the sale in April 1991 by the FIC to the Falkland Islands Government of its remaining farms.  The new farm units were awarded to successful bidders according to a points system – proven experience, business acumen, family support (most farms are run by a husband and wife team), financial backing etc.  Only about 5 per cent of the Islands’ total land area is now owned by overseas interests.  

The splitting-up of the farms permanently changed the way of life outside Stanley as large settlements were abandoned to two or three families whose farms were based around the settlement, the other successful bidders erecting houses, barns and sheds – sometimes by dragging the buildings from the settlement – on their farms many miles from the settlement.  Farming became very isolated, although this is easing with the growing road network.

Trade

The Falkland Islands Company had always had interests in trading, as well as farming, running Stanley’s principal grocery store.  It has diversified its retail interests into clothing, footwear, furniture, household goods, building supplies, books, stationery, toys, electronic goods and tourist gifts.  Magazines are imported by sea and arrive two months late, but the only newspaper is the local Penguin News.  There are another twenty shops in Stanley, many operated part-time only.  There are many successful tradesmen.  The Islands have always attracted naturalists, photographers and artists, many of whom have settled in the Islands, and produce craft items for sale in Stanley’s gift shops.  The most popular is the ‘Falklander’ jumper designed with the help of Jeff Banks from BBC’s The Clothes Show.  A hydroponic market garden was established some 15 years ago in Stanley, and now supplies salad vegetables to residents, hotels, visiting cruise ships and even exports produce to Ascension Island.  Many of the fishing boats which visit the Falkland Islands are from Korea, Taiwan or Japan (the other major player is Spain) and the market garden supplies the fishing boats with fresh Asian vegetables.  It also imports garden supplies and plants for residents.

Life in Stanley  

Stanley is the administrative centre of the Falkland Islands, and its only town.  Its focus is Government House, the residence of the Governor and his family, and the offices of his staff.  The Governor is a UK diplomat, and the current Governor Donald Alexander Lamont has connections with Ardfern in Argyll; both he and his wife Lynda are Scots.   

The primary and secondary schools, nurseries, swimming pool and sports centre, hospital, police station, courthouse, fire station, town hall, post office, tourist centre, shops, churches and the offices of the Falkland Islands Government are situated there together with a small detachment from the army’s Explosive Ordnance Division and a branch of the Standard Chartered Bank.  Legend has it that Margaret Thatcher was a personal friend of the chairman of the bank and persuaded him to open the branch in 1983.  Before then banking services were offered by the Government.  

In the heart of the town are rows of pioneer cottages, built by the early settlers, many of whom were Chelsea Pensioners – retired soldiers in their 30s and 40s who came out to the Islands to start a new life with their families.  These cottages were imported in kit form in the 1850s, just as most houses today are built from timber kit.  The non-conformist Tabernacle and St. Mary’s R.C. chapel were also built towards the end of the 19th c. from timber kits, while the Cathedral was built from imported red and yellow brick.  The remaining bricks were used to build Jubilee Villas, an imposing terrace on the waterfront.  The nearby Cape Pembroke lighthouse – the only one in the Islands – was also a Victorian kit, this time in iron.  Also close to the harbour is the Philomel Store, an old shop which sells an eclectic mix of goods and was named for one of the great sailing ships associated with the Islands.  

The Internet arrived in Stanley in November 1997, just days before Alison, and has transformed life in the Islands.  ‘Surfing the net’ and Internet shopping are now popular pastimes, although catalogue shopping – particularly for clothes or through the local agents for Argos and Ikea – remains popular.  The military provide one television channel, showing the most popular British shows culled from all five UK channels.  Video hire and purchase is popular, as are computer games.  BBC World Service is available.  The Falkland Islands Broadcasting Station broadcasts for 8 hours a day, and breakfast radio is live from the military base at Mount Pleasant.  The military also provides BFBS 2, an amalgam of Five Live, Radio Four and ‘made for military’ programmes.

Groceries  

Shopping in the Falkland Islands is a rather different experience.  The shops stock a good selection of frozen, tinned and packet food but shortages on certain items are not unknown – particularly frozen goods.  Meat is ordered direct from the farmer – when Alison wanted to buy meat for her freezer she found she was expected to buy half a cow or a whole mutton, and butcher it herself! –or bought from a new farm shop, selling fresh local produce.  Deep-sea fish (squid, toothfish, kingclip, hake) is ordered by the kilo from a local fishing agency, and delivered ready for the freezer.  Trout and mullet are caught (trout requires a licence) from local streams.  Some fresh salad and root vegetables come from the hydroponic nursery and local farms respectively, but most vegetables and almost all fruit is imported.  All food prices are higher than the UK, except local meat and fish, but this is particularly marked with fruit and vegetables.  Perhaps this explains the booming trade in vitamin and mineral supplements.  Food is often sold past its sell-by date, frequently from unknown brands, and I was astonished to find corned beef from China.  There are two local bakeries and a dairy, but many people bake their own bread and cakes.  Generally residents are proud of their culinary skills.

Health Care  

I discovered that many simple medications are unavailable in the shops, but prescriptions are free (even for visitors) and it is possible to phone and consult a doctor the same day.  Alison enjoys free medical and dental care, with regular appointments with visiting dental hygienists and opticians.  The King Edward VII Memorial Hospital in Stanley is small but first rate with modern equipment including an operating theatre, a high staff to patient ratio, and many ancillary services.  If required, consultants are flown in or patients are flown to the UK for specialist treatment.  Sheltered housing is close by and there is special care of the elderly.

[Editor's Note: some health care is free for visiting residents of the United Kingdom with whom the Falkland Islands have a reciprocal healthcare agreement; however, all visitors including residents of the United Kingdom are strongly advised to ensure they have adequate medical insurance including cover for the cost of repatriation if taken ill.]

Housing  

Housing is in short supply in Stanley, because of the increasing population (both from immigration and a high birth rate by European standards) and the move into town from the farm settlements, many of which stand largely empty.  The Government is helping to alleviate the situation by building houses to rent and by developing a large area to the east of the town as building plots with services and access roads.  Building plots are in demand, and are allocated to local residents according to their priority of need.  Jason was lucky to be allotted a spacious site opposite the harbour entrance with stunning views to west, east and north (the direction the sun shines from) and a private rocky garden to the rear full of native plants.  Jason lived with his parents until he obtained a plot – which luckily became available shortly after he and Alison became engaged, his name had been on the waiting list for some 3 years – and many young people find their only other option is to rent a mobile home from Government or find somewhere to site a portacabin.  Like all professionals hired by Government, Alison was fortunate to be provided with a spacious house, which she gave up when their new house was completed only weeks before the wedding.  Building costs are much the same as in the UK, the cost of shipping the house-kit being off-set by the absence of VAT, but land is much cheaper.  Almost all houses are built of wood and have corrugated metal roofs.  The houses are painted in bright colours – Jason and Alison’s new home is painted mid-blue with a bright red roof – and several sport Union Jacks or the Falkland Islands flag on their roofs or walls.  In fact, more Union Jacks fly from private flagpoles and car aerials in the Falklands than I have seen in Britain.  

Our Holiday

On our first evening Alison and Jason drove David and I to Gypsy Cove, a local beauty spot which is famous for its magellanic, or jackass, penguins.  They nest underground, coming up to walk down to the sea, dive and feed, then return to feed their young.  They make a hee-haw noise, hence the nickname jackass.  This was the first time David and I had seen penguins outwith a zoo, or so many, and we were fascinated.  It was a wonderful experience.  

We spent our first weekend in a cottage at Port San Carlos, with Alison and some of her friends (Jason is a telecommunications engineer and was on call with Cable & Wireless that weekend, so he couldn’t leave Stanley).  This time we travelled in a convoy of three vehicles, and had a wonderful time visiting remote beaches inhabited only by steamer ducks, kelp geese and oystercatchers.  We also saw rockhopper penguins, the smallest of the species, and very lively.  They live in large colonies on rocky outcrops far above crashing waves, and jump from rock to rock down to the sea, generally diving the last few feet, then waiting on the crest of a wave before jumping back onto a rock and beginning their long journey up.  

Another day Alison arranged an overland trip in a large four-wheel drive vehicle to Volunteer Point where the Islands’ only large colony of king penguins – about three hundred of them – is to be found.  There were also several hundred gentoo penguins nearby, another small penguin which lives in colonies on grassland anything up to a mile from the sea.  The gentoos walk each day down to the sea in single file, always seeming to take the same route.  Their nests are roughly made of twigs and grass and it was amusing to see thieving penguins being chased by another.  Always, however, there is danger to the chicks from birds of prey and the parents do not leave the nest together.  The journey to Volunteer crossed miles and miles of moorland, through small streams and peat bogs.  ‘Bogging’ is a popular pastime among young Islanders and soldiers, but not something I would recommend!  We found the king penguins all standing to attention (they never seem to lie down) with dozens of chicks, who seemed larger than the adults in their fluffy brown down.  The chicks were in various stages of change to becoming adult, which entails the shedding of the brown downy ‘baby’ coat and the appearance underneath of the adult black and white coat with the distinctive orange flashes around eyes and throat.  King penguins are the largest of the species to be found in the Islands.  Adult kings have a kind of long skirt which hides their eggs which they balance on their feet.  Eggs come singly, incubate for 54-55 days, and the chick is reared for 11 months.  

Later in our stay we drove with Alison and Jason to Darwin where there is a new lodge, or small hotel.  This is a conversion of the former settlement manager’s house, and is five-star accommodation.  Darwin is a small settlement with scattered houses, unusually some of them made of stone.  There is a small old graveyard and the Argentine cemetery.  After the 1982 conflict Argentina refused to remove her dead from the Falkland Islands, claiming that Argentine soldiers had died on Argentine territory.  Relatives of the dead have been visiting the Islands for over ten years.  Few of the graves carry names as many of the soldiers were young conscripts without name-tags.  Each grave is marked by a white cross, with the name of the soldier where known.  The other crosses marking the grave of ‘a soldier known only unto God’ have been adopted by grieving family members who have left flowers, rosaries and personal momentoes.  There are many walks around Darwin and it is a quiet, peaceful place.

The highlight of our holiday was a visit to Sea Lion Island, a small island and nature reserve south of Stanley, where we stayed in the tourist lodge (hotel) for three days.  The Falkland Islands are famed for their birdlife and sea mammals, and nowhere is this more apparent than on Sea Lion.  In every direction there were penguins, geese, ducks, gulls and moorland birds by the thousand, with the beaches full of hundreds of sealions and huge elephant seals.  On walking down to the gentoo penguin rookery we were attacked, or dived on, by skuas as we passed too close to their nest and chicks.  The gentoo chicks are small fluffy grey creatures who seem to eat everything they are given.  Elephant seals can reach up to 20 feet and are huge masses of blubber.  They lay in the sun and heaved around to find a comfortable spot then flipped sand over themselves in an attempt to keep cool.  Offshore killer whales patrolled, no doubt on the lookout for a stray penguin or sealion.  The sealions are really fierce mammals, who eat penguins, and frequently attack humans, particularly if the human is between them and the sea.  In many places the coastal tussac grass was 8 feet high.  Sea Lion Island is a ‘must visit’ four tourists, and all too soon it was time to fly back to Stanley.  

We spent our last few days in Stanley wandering round the town, visiting the fascinating museum, the gift shops, the welcoming Seamen’s Mission (which is open to all and has a wonderful café with superb home baking) and saying goodbye to Jason’s parents and grandparents, other family members and friends who made our stay so memorable. The community spirit is to strong, the social life so vibrant, and the landscape so wild that we find it easy to see what has attracted Alison to the Falkland Islands. We will return to the Islands and next time visit some of the other places which Alison and Jason so highly recommend.

Pearl and David Inglis are now frequent visitors to the Falkland Islands, drawn not just by her grandchildren but also by the lure of long hours of summer sunshine during the Scottish winter

 

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