East Falkland, Saunders Island and Bleaker Island
I arrived in Chile at the end of September 2011 and by April 2012 I still hadn't left. The last time I spent more than six months in one country, it was 1999. So even though this six months has been spent in a foreign country, I've still been getting ever itchier feet. But a nightmarish situation with a herniated disc meant that for a few of those months I could barely even leave the house let alone the country.
With the back situation easing a bit, and having just completed my first solo night shift at the observatory, I decided the time was right to hit the road again. I'd long fancied a trip to the Falklands, had started actually planning it a few weeks ago, and finally a week before I wanted to go, I booked the flight.
And what a flight it was. I came down from Paranal on Thursday, had Friday to get used to daylight again and pack, and then at 4am on Saturday I headed out into the streets to grab a taxi to the airport. I had a fun ride with a friendly driver who thought it was really funny that I was going to the Falklands. "There's nothing there, right?", he asked. True enough, I said, but I was in the mood for getting away from it all and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. More or less my whole life these islands have been in the news every now and then, but I had no idea what they actually looked like, didn't know anyone who'd been there, never met anyone from there.
The flight took off just as the dawn sky was beginning to brighten, and we had spectacular views of the country as the sun rose. As we got down to Patagonia the weather was amazing and the landscapes below were mindblowing. I'd been to some of those places, six years earlier, and looked down nostalgically on the Moreno Glacier and Torres del Paine.
For the last six months I've been enjoying Santiago's incredibly stable weather. More or less every single day has seen clear blue skies and temperatures in the thirties. And when I haven't been in Santiago I've been in the Atacama. Between early October and last week's incredible downpour, the only rain I'd seen was literally a few drops which fell in January.
So I knew, really, that it was going to be cold in the Falklands, way down south just a few hundred miles from Antarctica. I knew that. But I had forgotten what cold really was. I rediscovered the phenomenon as soon as the plane door opened after we'd landed at Mount Pleasant airport. By the time I got to the terminal I was shivering. I'd seen snow on the high ground from the plane as we descended, but much worse than the snow was the wind, a wild icy blast which sapped my body heat and swept it away over the hills. I suffered on the day that I arrived in Stanley, and I suffered much more the next day, when the snow had come down from the high ground all the way to sea level.
There were two other tourists on the islands while I was there, Claudia from Germany and Lynn from Singapore. Claudia was staying in the same place as me, and we decided to share the cost of a trip to Volunteer Beach. This beach is not far away from Stanley, in terms of distance, but at this time of year it feels amazingly remote, as it requires some serious off-road driving. We got a lift there with Keith, a local with some impressive driving skills. It was an awesome journey there, over the snow-blanketed hills via road to Johnson's Harbour, and then off road over rough terrain to get to the beach. We were the only visitors today, and probably the last until spring because the track was about to close for the winter.
This was the first time I've seen penguins in the wild. Straight away we could see that not all penguins are the same, as the tall and dignified king penguins strolled out of the way of Keith's car, while the smaller gentoo penguins scrabbled away frantically, sometimes tripping over as they ran. If we had been here in the summer there would have been magellanic and maybe rockhopper penguins as well - they'd migrated away for the winter. But we had plenty enough penguins to entertain us. We wandered around the huge colony of kings. There were lots of young ones, ugly, fluffy and brown in absurd contrast to the elegant adults.
On the way back from Volunteer Beach we drove back past Mount Kent. The hills near Stanley were the scene of fierce fighting during the war, and even now, 30 years later, relics still remain. We made a stop at the wreckage of an Argentinian helicopter. Keith told us that in the later stages of the occupation of Stanley, when British forces were shelling the town, senior Argentinians would leave at night for safer refuges in the hills. This helicopter had been ferrying officers away from Stanley for the night when it was attacked and shot down by a British aircraft.
I spent my first few days in the Falklands in a state of destitution. There was just one bank, and it didn't have a cash machine, so visitors arriving on a Saturday like I did would have to wait until the bank opened on the Monday before they could get any money out. Except that the Monday was a public holiday, on account of the Queen's birthday apparently having happened. And on top of that I'd only managed to get hold of 40 pounds of sterling in Santiago before I arrived, and those 40 pounds turned out to be old bank notes that were no longer valid. My first few days in the islands required me to impose on the charitable nature of the Falkland Islanders.
The Queen's birthday is something that we would never dream of celebrating in the UK and it certainly isn't a public holiday. But here, before I'd arrived on the Saturday, there had been parades and ceremonies, and most things were closed on the Monday. Fortunately I was staying at Kay's B&B, and Kay was very kind and lent me enough money to last until the bank finally opened on the Tuesday morning. I would have been in dire straits without her help.
I had booked a flight to Saunders Island for the Tuesday. Flights in the Falklands don't follow a fixed timetable - they just go where and when people need to travel. They normally fly at 8am, but luckily today there was a second flight, which meant I had time to get to the bank and get some money, at the offensive cost of 4.5% plus a sickening £1.50 for a phone call to the UK to validate the transaction. If I had wanted Sterling instead of Falklands pounds they'd have charged me an outrageous 1% extra.
Angry but financially independent once again, I headed to the airport. The Falklands Islands Government Air Service aircraft are tiny eight-seater planes, they fly low over the rugged landscape, and our journey out to Saunders was spectacular. We stopped at Port San Carlos, Port Howard and Pebble Island on the way as we chugged over the snow-covered hills in the tiny prop-engine plane.
I've never been anywhere like Saunders Island. I spent three days there, in a hut at the other end of the island from its 7 inhabitants. I was in complete isolation, with just a radio to contact the settlement if necessary. Just me and the penguins and the karakara and the dolphins and the wind and the rain.
There was a huge colony of gentoo penguins and a small bunch of king penguins. Each morning I'd walk down to the beach and watch them heading out to sea, and each evening I'd go down again and watch them coming in. Penguins coming in from the sea is something extraordinary. From a long way out they were leaping from the water. I'm not sure if they do it just for fun or to see better where the land is, but it looks like fun. Then as they got near, huge groups would surf down the insides of the waves, then make a sharp turn and leap out of the water onto the beach. Always it looked like there were just a handful about to emerge and then suddenly there would be 20 or 25 penguins bursting out of the wave, shaking themselves down and waddling off towards the colony.
I'd have happily stayed for weeks but I had a flight back to Stanley to catch. So after three days I radioed the settlement, arranged for them to come and pick me up, and headed back to Stanley. It seemed like some kind of metropolis after Saunders.
I hired a car and drove around East Falkland. I passed the downed helicopter on the Mount Kent Road again, and then headed on to Elephant Beach Farm. I stopped for a cup of coffee with Ben, the owner of the farm, and then he gave me a lift to a beach, a few miles from his farmhouse.
I'd thought that nothing would equal Saunders, but Elephant Beach Farm came close. Here there was no hut to stay in so I was camping, and once again I was the only person for miles around, just with a few hundred gentoo penguins to keep me company. As I watched them coming in from the sea, I caught a glimpse of a movement a long way out to sea. I wasn't sure what it was, but a few minutes later I was looking in the right direction - a dolphin leapt high into the air, heading straight up, hanging in the air for a second and catching the evening sunlight, then splashing back down.
I had one major disappointment at Elephant Beach. I set up my tent, and it was fantastic to be camped in such a remote place. I'd stocked up well in Stanley and I was looking forward to cooking up some hot food, but once I'd got the stove and my soup and my pasta out, I realised there was one thing, just one little thing, that I had forgotten in Stanley. A stove is not much use if you can't light it.
In the morning I packed up and started hiking towards the farmhouse. I stopped for a little while outside the penguin colony, sitting down a little way away from them. They noticed me, and soon they were getting very curious. I sat and watched as two groups of penguins slowly edged towards me, looking as if they were absolutely torn between fear and excitement. As I watched one group, the other would move a bit closer, and if I looked at them they would stop and the first group would start moving. Eventually I was surround by penguins, just an arms length away. They actually look pretty big if you're sat down almost on eye-level with them, and I thought if they decided to attack me I'd surely come off second best. But they just stood and watched, giving every impression that they were just completely amazed to find something as exciting as a human on their territory and they just wanted to be close to this incredible thing. So they watched me, and I watched them. And then, to their surprise and mine, I sneezed. They fled. I picked myself up, and headed back to the farmhouse.
I headed for Goose Green. Between Elephant Beach and there I only saw a couple of other cars, and there were hardly any settlements or even houses for a lot of the way. The Falklands are incredibly empty. Mongolia is a vast howling wilderness and it has twenty times the population density.
I didn't do much at Goose Green. All was quiet in the Falkland's second largest settlement when I arrived, but not long after I got there it starting getting windy. It got windier and windier until the walls of the house that I stayed in were shaking and rattling, and it stayed windy for two days. Trips outside required major effort. Walking out of town into the wind required me to force myself forward at an angle of 45 degrees. Walking back, it was all I could do not to lose control and end up cartoon charactering through the door of the house.
Not far outside Goose Green is the Argentinian war cemetery. I went there one evening. An icy cold wind was blowing down from Mount Usborne, and there was no-one else there. Under the twilight skies, I wandered the rows of crosses, thinking what an obscene thing it was to start a war over these islands. The madness of nearly a thousand people losing their lives over this is impossible to comprehend.
I drove back to Stanley, and caught a flight to Bleaker Island. It was just me on the plane, so I sat in the front and chatted to the pilot as we flew south. A ship had run aground just outside Stanley harbour just as we took off.
There were two people on Bleaker while I was there - one permanent resident, and me. On a hot, sunny and calm day, I wandered all around the island. In absolute peace I found my way to its beach, empty in the midday sun. The sea was turquoise, the sun beat down, and Bleaker felt more like a tropical island than a windswept South Atlantic one.
The beach which had been empty during the day took on a whole different character as night fell. Thousands of gentoo penguins came in from the sea and gathered there before heading inland to their colony. All across the bay, penguins were leaping as they came in, bursting from the waves in huge groups and running up onto the sand. A full moon rose just as the sun set.
On a little map of Bleaker Island that I had, a line between the beach and the penguin colony was marked as the "gentoo highway", which I thought sounded pretty funny. But actually it was a pretty accurate name - at rush hour on the gentoo highway there was a huge column of penguins all heading inland, waddling up the hill.
The flight to Bleaker had taken about 25 minutes. The journey back was a whole different story. The planes start and finish in Stanley but they go wherever in the islands they are needed, and today there were people in West Falkland who needed to get around.
So we took off from Bleaker and headed directly away from Stanley. We stopped at Fox Bay, Port Edgar and then Shallow Harbour and at each stop a few people got off and a few people got on. They all seemed to know each other and exchanged friendly greetings, before slightly suspiciously acknowledging the outside in the back of the plane.
We finally got back to Stanley nearly three hours after leaving Bleaker. My ears were buzzing from the propeller noise and my legs were cramped, but I was pretty happy I'd had the chance to see a whole lot of West Falkland.
I went for a walk into the hills outside Stanley. A few spots of rain fell as I passed minefields just outside town, and the skies looked threatening. I climbed up Sappers Hill, and looked out along the road to Mount Pleasant. Mount Tumbledown looked epic and threatening and I wanted to go there, but there was no time. Before I came to the islands I was pretty sure that one week wouldn't have been long enough but I was worried that two weeks would be way too long. It definitely wasn't. Already I was thinking about all the things I hadn't managed to see and wondering how long it would be before I could come here again.
On top of Sappers Hill stands a memorial to the British who died in the final, fierce fight for Stanley. I watched the sun set from there on my last night in the Falklands, and thought again about the madness of war and the hundreds of people who died here thirty years ago. A lot of the people I'd met had lived through the occupation of the islands. On Saunders, the Argentinians had never landed but the residents there watched as they flew overhead and sailed past. A hundred islanders had been held hostage in Goose Green. And I'd met someone whose aunt had been one of the three islanders killed in the war, hit by a British shell during the battle for Stanley. And all for islands so bleak and desolate that they are barely even populated outside Stanley.
I think that the government of the Falklands should pay all the costs for any Argentinian who wants to visit these islands. I cannot seriously imagine that many would go home still believing that there was any sense in Argentina claiming them.