Home Blog Gary’s Guide to The Falklands, part one

Gary’s Guide to The Falklands, part one

Friday, 3rd February 2017

Destination Specialist

antarctica falklands gary

Gary, Polar specialist and penguin enthusiast, tells us about his visit to the Falkland Islands

The Falkland Islands were a place that I had never really known too much about. Due to the 1982 war, I was vaguely aware of their location in the South Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of Argentina, but beyond that, all I had to go on were the washed out, greying images from the newsreels of my childhood. The 74 day battle left some deep mental scars on the traumatised troops involved, not to mention the unsuspecting, under siege locals, but it also presented those back home in Britain with an unappealing impression of the islands that has proven difficult to shake off. It was therefore, with tempered expectations that I set off on my journey to find out what all the fuss had been about and discover if one of the crown’s most remote territories had really been worth defending.

antarctica chile santiago building garden

It must be said that it is not an easy location to reach from the UK. All flight options are lengthy, but the one I took enabled me to combine my final destination with a hugely worthwhile exploration of the Chilean capital Santiago – a bustling city rich in history and culture. My journey also took me via Punta Arenas, the gateway to the jaw dropping landscapes of Torres del Paine National Park – one of Patagonia’s most celebrated and visited regions. Regretfully I didn’t have time to stop, but having glimpsed the impeccable peaks of the region from the air as we flew overhead, it has certainly risen sharply on my increasingly long travel wish list.

antarctica chile santiago bustling street

Having finally arrived at the Mount Pleasant military base that doubles as the Falkland’s international airport, I was somewhat surprised to find myself needing to put away my beloved Christmas jumper in favour of my rarely utilised sunglasses. There was not a single lonely cloud in the bright, sun drenched sky. It was at this point that I began to twig that the picture I had painted in my mind of these seldom visited islands would need some very extensive reworking.

antarctica falklands stanley

The capital ‘city’ of Stanley lies around a 45 minute drive from the airport, along a lengthy, gravel laden road. It is home to over 2,100 people which is almost 75% of the entire population of the islands. Stanley is a fabulously quaint little town, with all the hallmarks of a small English village, frozen in a more innocent and simple time. Walking down the main street which runs adjacent to the waterfront, you could be forgiven for thinking you were wandering along the seaside shores of Dorset or Devon.

antarctica falklands stanley coastline

It is only when you reach the end of the boulevard and encounter the offices of the small local newspaper that you realise that all is not as it seems and that the red pillar boxes and telephone booths are masking a very different world to the one you have left behind. You see, while we get our headlines from tabloids such as ‘The Mirror’, or broadsheets like ‘The Times’, The Falkland islanders get their local updates from the offices of the fantastically named ‘Penguin News’.

antarctica falklands stanley penguin news

You need not travel far out of town to witness the wobbling waddlers that are helping to establish the Falkland’s as a genuine wildlife wonderland. Just a 20 minute drive away is Gypsy Cove. This is a region of sparkling white sand beaches whose dark past has inadvertently transformed them into a haven for playful penguins.

antarctica falklands gypsy cove

The Argentine invasion led to the laying of landmines that were soon strewn across this zone in anticipation of a British fight back.Whilst the clearance of these continues, fences ensure that humans can only observe from afar as the birds, safe from the mines because of their lightness of foot, go about their busy lives.

falkland islands magellanic penguins on rocks

The distant sight of a few magellanics and even a couple of colourful kings was energising and exciting, but it was nothing compared with what was still to come…

While the capital is well serviced by roads and ships, the lifeblood of the outer islands is the local airline ‘FIGAS’. Their small army of crimson propeller planes transport locals, goods and tourists over the scattered seas, offering up a veritable feast of vistas for those lucky enough to be on board. It was on one such aircraft that we made our way southwards to the speck of land known as Bleaker Island. Its name could not be less appropriate.

After making a perfect landing on a grassy plain, we unloaded our luggage and were immediately introduced to some babbling balls of white fluff that turned out to be giant petrel chicks being closely monitored by their eagle-eyed parents.

antarctica falklands bleaker island gary

A short drive then took us to Sandy Bay where I lay on the beach below a sweltering sun, with three different species of penguin swimming, squawking and shuffling just inches from my feet. It was difficult to imagine how the day could possibly get any better, but after dropping off our luggage and being served a sumptuous meal at the unexpectedly outstanding lodge, we made the 15-minute trek to a nearby colony of ridiculous rockhoppers. These little rascals, with their distinctive yellow brows and oversized feet, were the most inquisitive of all the wildlife we were to encounter. For obvious reasons, visitors are asked not to get too close to the various cute critters they come across, but if you are patient and peaceful, those cute critters are more than happy to come to you. For hours, while the daylight dimmed and eventually the darkness dawned, we sat and smiled as we were pecked and poked, first by the fuzzy fledglings, then by their more cautious carers. After the twinkling stars had guided us back to our beds, I fell asleep unable to dream of a more perfect day than the one I had just had.

As soon as we woke, we headed back out to make the most of what was to be another cloudless day. This time our focus was to be the all action colony of imperial cormorants. Over 8,000 breeding pairs are located in the centre of the island, but all of them are under the eternal observation of hundreds of sinister spies. As their partners return from the sea boasting bellies full of fish with which to feed their young, the mother cormorants shift sideways on their nests enabling their babies to eat, but exposing them for just a moment to the skuas soaring above. That was often enough. Time-after-time, we looked on as horrified, helpless parents watched their unfortunate offspring get snatched away and take their lowly place in the circle of life. While the penguins had amused and entertained us, the harrowing theatre that played out in front of us here was a drama so absorbing, so spell binding and so mesmerizing that you just simply could not take your eyes off it.

antarctica falklands bleaker island skua

The FIGAS flight schedules are unpredictable and changeable. They are only drawn up the evening before they are executed and their order of service is dictated by the location of all passengers that need transferring that day. Therefore if you have only one night on an island, it is possible that you may arrive at dusk and depart at dawn. This was to be the case with our flying visit to Pebble Island. Despite the shortness of our stay, Pebble – named for the semi-precious stones that once graced the shores, still managed to shine.

It is a much larger and more mountainous island than Bleaker and so requires transportation to reach the best of its bounties. It is home to all 5 of the Falkland’s penguin species, as well as sea lions and many rare birds. However, the big difference between this island and all others, with the exception of the main island of East Falkland, is that it played a significant role during the war and it has plenty of mangled metal to prove it. Shortly after the initial invasion, the Argentines established an airbase, created a garrison for around 150 troops and effectively held the inhabitants hostage. The British Special Forces liberated the island a month later without loss of life, but the scattered scraps of bullet peppered planes that still remain, along with the memorial for the HMS Coventry which was lost along with 19 of her men just north of the island, tell a human story that must not be overlooked.

antarctica falklands pebble island coastline

Carcass Island, which takes its name from a ship that visited its shores in the late 18th century, was our next port of call. Its wonderful lodge is located in an idyllic setting, sheltered by tropical trees, just a stones throw away from a tranquil cove. Striated caracaras nest nearby and vast colonies of gentoos are a 45 minute walk along the craggy coastline. It was an animal of a much larger scale that we had really come to see though. As we crossed the crest of the muddy mound which took us from a grassy field to the sand and sea, there was an audible gasp as our first elephant seals came in to view. These ginormous beasts, which can grow up to 16 feet long and weigh upwards of 3 tons, have an enchanting ability to somehow be both mysteriously handsome and hideously ugly at the same time. The propensity of the adolescent bulls to take part in vicious, bloody battles, seemingly with very little need for provocation of any kind, led to many a magnificent and majestic sight. As a keen disciple of David Attenborough and his work, it had long been an ambition of mine to see such an event unfold, but in fact it was the startling sound that was the most impressive aspect. The thuds and thumps and thrashes and crashes were drowned out by the even more thunderous, throaty roars that reverberated through the air, alerting the entire island to the brutal brawl that was taking place.

Overnight, a murky mist descended meaning our planned trip to Darwin and its nearby battlefields had to be cancelled and we were instead, invited to stay a second night on Carcass. The weather also hindered any attempts to make the 5 mile boat trip to West Point Island, home to thousands of pairs of black browed albatross. Happily, by the afternoon the fog had dissipated and we were able to head back down the coast to the gentoo colonies. We plonked ourselves on the beach and obsessively observed as hundreds upon hundreds of orange beaked torpedoes launched themselves from the sea, into the air, and onto the sand in front of us. They would dust themselves down and regain their bearings before marching off in search of their chicks.

antarctica falklands carcass island gentoo

Of over a thousand photos I took that day, I believe I have just one that even begins to adequately capture the routine. Sometimes it is best to just put the camera down and watch, but you find yourself immediately picking it up again, determined to get that one immaculate image that will bring all of Facebook to a standstill.

The following day we were able to make our final FIGAS flight back to the capital. From here we set off by super jeep for one of the Falkland’s most renowned and visited sites, Volunteer Point. It is a bumpy two-and-a-half hour bone rattling ride over back-breaking topography, but those who brave it are rewarded with a sight of barely believable beauty. The region is home to the second largest colony of king penguins in the world and even when one might expect a touch of penguin fatigue to have started to take hold, it was the scene that still drew the biggest breath of all. Approximately 1,000 breeding adult pairs raise around 500 chicks each year here and I was fortunate enough to see representatives of all the stages of maturity, from white pristine eggs to big brown bundles of fur looking like well-wrapped warriors from Winterfell. Another thousand photos later and the time had come to head for home.

antarctica falklands volunteer point king penguins beach

Life has a horrible habit of ebbing away so subtly, so discreetly, and yet so quickly, that it is often all too easy to forget what it is for…revelling in the happiness that its fleeting moments of pure perfection can bring. Of course, different people will always have different priorities, different ambitions and different desires – but more than anywhere else I have ever experienced, the Falklands can provide those flawless freeze frames of existence that you will never ever forget.

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