Port Stanley, Falkland Islands

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January 31st 2016
Published: February 3rd 2016
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Sunday January 31st, 2016. Port Stanley, Falkland Islands

We went for a posh breakfast and then waited patiently for the tender service to start. We were booked on our first ship's tour so we knew we would be able to disembark fairly promptly (wrong!). Just like last year the tender operation was shambolic. We sat in the cabin and waited for our tender (No 8) to be called. After what seemed like an age we found ourselves chugging towards land. Once off the tender in Port Stanley at the other side there was a large sign saying "Welcome to the Falkland Islands".

Also referred to as Stanley, this is the capital of the Falkland Islands. It is located on the East Falkland Island, on a north facing slope on one of the wettest parts of the islands. The islands have a population of 2,121 and the currency is the Falklands Pound. Prior to the construction of the Panama Canal, Port Stanley was a major repair stop for boats that travelled through the Strait of Magellan. The rough waters and intense storms forced many ships into the harbour. The original capital of the Falkland Islands was Port Louis which is located to the north of Stanley. Captains Francis Crozier and James Clark Ross were recruited by Governor Richard Moody to find a new capital for the Islands. Work on the new settlement began in 1843 Stanley became the capital in July 1845. It was named after Lord Stanley who was the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies at the time. In 1849, thirty married Chelsea pensioners were settled on the island to help with its defence and to develop the new settlement. Stanley grew to be a deep-water port which specialised in ship repairs and later became a base for whaling and sealing in the South Atlantic and the Antarctic. Later still, it was a coaling station for the Royal Navy which led ships here that were involved in the Battle of the Falkland Islands in the First World War and the Battle of the River Plate in the Second World War.

We were on the North Pond Penquins tour which was the one travelling the furthest on East Falkland. We found ourselves with two others from the ship, a local guide called Marilyn and a Mitsubishi Shogun for transport. We headed out to the "Camp". This is the local word (derived from the Spanish "Campo" meaning field or country) for countryside, or out of Stanley. We initially headed out on a metalled road (known locally as the M1) but after about a mile the road surface became gravel. Marilyn pointed out the major landmarks on the way, the first of which was Mount Longdon which played an important part in the Falklands War in 1982 when, on the 11th June of that year, there were two important battles which were won by the British Forces, the Battle of Longdon, the Battle of Mount Harriet and Two Sisters. Marilyn also pointed out the peaks of the Two Sisters. Marilyn had brought with her a bag of goodies to help her explain about Falklands life. Out of this bag she conjoured up a small sprig of red berries. She explained that these are local to the Falklands and are called Diddle Dee berries. They are used to make Diddle Dee Jam, a jar of which she also conjoured up from her bag. We drove out past Mount Kent, on top of which is located a radar station. In front of the mountain there was a 'river' of stones. Marilyn informed us that this is a "rock run". The rocks were formed by glaciation and are constantly moving even if just a few milimetres a year.

We drove on through a small settlement called Teal Inlet (population 3). In this settlement there is a derelict house that was once owned by a Norwegian which is evident in the house's style. After another 45 minutes or so we turned off the gravel track and went "off road" over the peat. This was at times quite hair raising. After about 25 minutes we reached the North Pond. We had to ford this pond to get to our lunch venue which was a building on the other side. We were the first ones to arrive. There was a convoy of 11 other 4-wheel drives which were behind us. Lunch was a sandwich (various flavours) M had cheese and pickle and D had cheese and ham, a bottle of water, a chocolate bar and an out of date packet of crisps. Marilyn had already told us what the form was for lunch and also to expect a visit from some local sheep who love the crisps. We had just settled at our table when 3 of these sheep came galloping up. We watched the guy who organises the tours feed the sheep while we ate our lunch and then M donated her stale crisps as well.

After lunch we forded the North Pond again and headed across the peat towards the coast. We were first to arrive again. On this beach was a large colony of penguins. There were 3 types of penguins here; Kings, Gentoos and Magellanics. World-wide there are 17 types, 5 of which breed in the Falklands. The majority of the birds we could see in this colony were Gentoos. There are 120,000 breeding pairs of these penguins in the Falklands which amounts to one third of the world's Gentoo population. These are the 3rd largest penguin, about 30 inches tall weighing 12-15 lbs. Their life expectancy is between 10 to 12 years. They are the fastest of the penguins and can swim at up to 22 mph. They are opportunistic feeders; their diet includes krill, squid, small fish and crustaceans. They feed close to the shore - normally within 5 miles. Gentoos can dive for 5-7 minutes to a depth of 600 ft. They are easily recognised by the white stripe above their eyes, a bright orange beak with matching feet. They also have a long tail.

Amongst the hundreds of Gentoos there were also some pairs of King Penguins. These are the second largest penguin after the Emperor. They are 36 inches tall, weigh 30 lbs and have a life expectancy of 30 years. There are 1.5 million pairs in the world, the majority on Crozet and South Georgia with 1000 breeding pairs in the Falklands. They are easily recognisable with orange patches on their heads and orange/yellow necks. They lay only one egg, which they incubate on their feet for 54 days. After hatching the chick is kept warm on the feet of its parents until it is big enough to stand alone. The parents take it in turns to go to sea to hunt for fish, squid and crustations. Kings can dive to 750 feet. The chicks are fed by the parents through the winter and into the spring. Raising a King chick takes a year and adults may breed every other year. They nearly became extinct as they were hunted for their oil in the 19th century, however, the population has recovered and now they are no longer endangered. We wandered amongst the birds walking slowly so as not to scare them off. We could get incredibly close to these lovely creatures. The beach where the colony was located was a beautiful bay with powdery white sand. We returned to Marilyn and her trusty Shogun (complete with cracked and chipped windscreen due to the gravel roads) and continued on towards the "Rookery". On the way we drove past a burrow containing a Magellanic penguin and its chick. This type of penguin is named after the explorer Magellan, who saw them in 1520 when circumnavigating the globe. There are 2 million pairs in South America with 100,00 pairs in the Falkland Islands. The Falkland Island birds breed in burrows on the East Island and are constant visitors to the north pond beach in summer, migrating to Northern Argentina and Southern Brazil in April. They are black and white with black feet and pink rings around their eyes. Their life expectancy is 10 to 12 years, they weigh approximately 10 lbs and are 24 inches tall. They can dive to 300 feet. The bray like donkeys so they are also known as "Jackass" penguins.

We continued on to the "Rookery" of Gentoo Penguins. Gentoos lay two eggs in shallow ground nests in October. The parents take turns to incubate the eggs which takes 35 days. The chicks are fed in the nest by regurgitation by both parents. After 30 days the fluffy chicks form crèches or rookeries. They are fed for a further 2 months by their parents. After 100 days they go to sea. Gentoo penguins do not migrate. They are classified as "near threatened". We have never seen so many fluffy penguins all in one place. For as far as the eye could see the ground was covered with noisy, fluffy, comical baby birds. They were all waiting for mum or dad to return with a delicious regurgitated meal. There was an abundance of a plant called Sea Cabbage with its bright yellow flowers. This plant used to be a source of vitamin C for sailors. After we had finished looking at the birds we returned to the car. D swopped with M and went in the front seat. We returned to the North Pond and headed to the gravel road back towards Stanley.

We drove back through Teal Inlet. Marilyn pointed out a clump of trees which she said were over 100 years old. These trees were not very tall - more like large bushes. Trees do not do well in the Falklands - taking years to grow the tiniest amount. One of the most striking thing about the landscape of the islands is the lack of trees. We continued back towards Stanley crossing a small bridge which Marilyn explained had only just been repaired having been totally destroyed. While waiting for the repairs to be completed it was necessary to ford the river. Our fellow guests asked if we could ford the river just for the experience. Marilyn duly obliged.

Next we stopped the rock run in front of Mount Kent in order to take some photos. Next stop was the wreckage of a Puma Helicopter which had been brought down by British missiles. We took some photos, watching where we walked as it was quite boggy. We continued our return trip through many areas of the camp that are still littered with live mines. Marilyn explained that there is a team of mine clearers here from Zimbabwe. They had already been here for two years and their children go to school here. They are experts at mine clearance and are slowly clearing the island of mines. The fields marked out with red flags are still live. We saw a small white cross which is a memorial to an unfortunate islander who trod in the wrong place.

We continued on to Boot Hill. The story behind this is that someone lost a shoe here some years ago and the person who found it placed it on a stick so that the owner could easily find it if they came back for the lost item. It has now become a tradition for visitors to the island to leave behind an article of footwear on a stick at this spot - which has become known as "Boot Hill".

Once back in Stanley, Marilyn took us to the "Whale-bone Garden". This is the garden of an islander who has a passion for whales. When a whale is beached on the island he tries to get it back into the water, however if this fails and the unfortunate creature dies, he waits until the bones have been picked clean by birds and then collects them to put in his garden. There were bones from Minke, Killer and Sperm whales and harpoons and a gun which was used to kill 20,00 Whales between 1927 & 1965.

Marylin next drove us down Pioneer Row which is one of the oldest streets in Stanley. The old part of town still retains its colourful charm with flower filled gardens and patriotic Union Jack flags adding to the vivid colours. We drove past the hospital which has pretty decent facilities. There is no scanner though - if anyone needs this type of expert equipment they are sent to Chile or the UK (all paid for by the Island's Health Service). The Old People's residences are located next to the hospital (so they haven't far to go if there is a problem). We briefly stopped to look at the Governor's House before continuing along Ross Road towards the port. Along this road there was a memorial to all those who lost their lives in the 1982 war (including the 3 islanders who also lost their lives).

The Falklands War began on 2nd April 1982 when Argentina invaded the Islands (having already occupied the island of South Georgia). Argentina's military dictatorship wanted to reclaim sovereignty of the islands to distract from problems at home. Argentina claimed that it had inherited the islands from Spain in the 1800's. The UK had ruled the islands for 150 years and the then PM, Maggie Thatcher, despatched a task force to reclaim the islands (which were 8,000 miles away) on the 5th April. On the 25th April the island of South Georgia was retaken. On 1st May Britain launched Vulcan Bomber raids on the enemy forces, on May 2nd the Argentinian ship Belgrano was sunk, on May 4th HMS Sheffield was struck by an exorcet missile and on the 14th May there was a raid on Pebble Island. On May 21st the British forces landed at San Carlos. We hadn't been to San Carlos on our tour - although we were within less than 15 miles of it - but we drove along gravel roads along most of the route the soldiers would have taken. There were no roads at that time so they would have had to travel on the dark, in foot across the peat-lands carrying huge packs. Between the 21st and 25th May 4 British ships were sunk, HMS Ardent, Coventry, Antelope and the Atlantic Conveyor. On 29th May the battle of Darwin and Goose Green took place. 8th June was the tragedy of Port Pleasant. On June 11th June the aforementioned battles of Mount Longdon and Mount Harriet and Two Sisters took place. The 13th June saw the Battle of Wireless and Tumbledown. On 14th June the Argentines surrendered Stanley and on 15th June they surrendered Fox Bay. During this short war 655 Argentine and 255 British servicemen los their lives along with 3 islanders.

Next to the memorial is Thatcher Drive where there is a bust of the "Iron Lady". We drove past the brightly coloured Police Station and some lovely old cottages in Ross Road, before reaching Christ Church Cathedral. This is the southernmost cathedral in the world with a distinctive whale-bone arch in the grounds. Consecrated in 1892, the church is featured on the Falkland's bank notes and its interior contains poignant memorials to men who died in the 1982 conflict.

We arrived back at the port and said our goodbyes to Marilyn. M went to the gift shop to get the mandatory FM and some Falklands coins while D went to take some photos of the church. We popped into the tourist office for a map before heading to the Globe Tavern. The queue for the tenders was horrendous, so having checked with Susan (the Shore Excursions Manager) who reckoned we had a least a "pint and a half wait" we headed to the pub. We were treated to a couple of beers by the locals. The barman and one of the customers were from St Helena, so M had a chat to them about Jacob's Ladder, Napoleon and the Military Base at Ascension Island which, it turns out the guy she was chatting to had worked at for over 20 years. D chatted to a born islander who cheerfully described himself as a "proper Benny". M was gifted a Falklands fiver to add to her currency collection. Susan came in shouting "Last Tender for Marco Polo" so we made our way to the dock. M took a picture of D at the Tender Station surrounded by Union Jacks. One lasting impression we shall carry away from these islands is that they still feel fiercely British. M called home from the tender as the call counted as being from UK so were included in her package with EE.

Once back on board we stayed on deck for the sail away. After dinner M went with Pam to Mr & Mrs which was rubbish. So rubbish in fact that they missed Daniel in the Scott's Bar! We were happy to have successfully knocked another thing off our 'bucket list'.

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