Falkland Islands (finally!)

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South America » Falkland Islands
January 28th 2010
Published: January 28th 2010
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What can we say about the Falklands? The pictures are the real highlight. We flew in from Punta Arenas in Chile on Dec 19th and were picked up at Mount Pleasant airport (a military airport where you aren’t allowed to take photos) by Ken who drove us to Darwin house where we spent our first night. This was our first experience with Falkland island roads, which are mostly gravel and very dusty. The landscape was absolutely windswept with no trees in sight except around the settlements. As you can see from the photos, there are gorse, Diddly dee, tussock grass and sheep as far as the eye can see! After meeting the people who were also doing a week-long tour and our hostess Sheena, we had a quick cup of tea and set out to explore around Darwin House. Well, there was not much to find. This area is primarily important because of military significance and honestly we couldn’t really understand why this was our first stop except the fact that it’s relatively close to the airport. We wandered through empty fields, checked out the local cemetery and headed towards the coast, only to be stopped from getting to the beach by the barbed wire and land mine signs! We turned around and headed in the general direction of Goose Green, the closest “town”. During these first couple of hours we were getting our first experience of Falkland Islands wind. It is incessant and chills you to the bone! Goose Green was a creepy place where the only inhabitants we could see were unloading mysterious supplies from the back of their Jeep and avoided eye contact. It could have been the set for a horror movie, complete with creepy swingset in rundown schoolyard! We headed back to Darwin House wondering exactly what we were getting ourselves into! The next morning, I slept in but Chuck got up early and went fishing, or as he calls it “catching”! He used Falkland Islands lamb meat as bait and these huge 3 to 4 pound mullet were jumping on the hook! He filleted them on Sheena’s back step and we packed them up for dinner that night!

The next day we were picked up by Ken and driven to the airstrip, which as you can see from the photos is just a flatter bit of field. We first drove along the runway to make sure nothing had died on it overnight (seriously!) and then waited for our plane. This was my first experience on a small plane and it was exhilarating! Like bouncing around in a small car but seeing the landscape spread out before you. We flew to Saunders Island which was our favourite place on the trip. Our hosts, David, Susan and Biffo (seriously!) were generous, informative and true blood Falklanders! We were excited to see our first Magellanic or Jackass penguins at the airstrip, but they turned out to be the least social type of penguin, darting into their burrows and hee-hawing at us if we got too close. We dropped our bags and the old cottage where we were to stay, and set out on the two-hour walk to the Rookery, being too cheap to pay for a land-rover ride. We’re still young, right? It was an overland hike across the previously mentioned tussock grass and peat bogs. One of the Falklanders had told us that the soldiers described the sensation of walking on tussock grass like “stepping on babies’ heads” and we couldn’t shake the image! We finally arrived at the Albatross colony where we had lunch and were amazed at these majestic birds. Their wingspan is something like 2 meters and we were able to get so close to their funny dog-bowl-shaped nests that we could see them feeding their young! They were dive-bombing us as we ate our lunch, really just out of curiosity as they never acted threatened. We continued along the coast to the Rockhopper colony, which was indescribable! We could walk right among these funny, curious penguins and they were just as intrigued! These were Chuck’s favourite penguins and they were truly entertaining, bouncing up and down this steep rock face, having showers, making out, getting in fights and also feeding their young at the nesting site higher up on the ridge. We headed back to the Settlement getting really excited about what we were to see at the Neck the next day! We finished the day with broiled mullet with a bit of lemon and oil, perfectly filleted by the surgeon Himself!

Day 2 on Saunders Island was the highlight for me. It was pouring rain first thing in the morning and we were feeling discouraged, but the weather let up just as David said it would and we set out for the hour-long, bumpy drive to the Neck. We were greeted by the sight of thousands of penguins, but decided to head out to find the Elephant seals. It was a four-hour walk to find them, but it was worth it! I had been looking forward to seeing these fat, farty, hugely entertaining guys and they didn’t disappoint! I was slightly disappointed to discover that it was the wrong time of year for the bulls to have the big floppy noses. After having lunch in a relatively sheltered cove while watching the seals snort, burp, fart, scratch themselves and bawl at each other for getting into someone else’s personal space, we headed back to the Neck. There we spent hours sitting on the outskirts of various colonies until the curious penguins would come to us just to see what we were up to. Chuck made the mistake of feeding a bit of bread to a Johnny Rook and it wouldn’t leave him alone. These raptors will also swoop in and steal penguin babies so the penguins kept a close eye on him as well. My favourites were the Gentoos as they are the funniest, looking like waiters rushing around with a late order. The most regal were the King penguins which were as tall as me sitting down. Though we could have sat among the penguins for hours more, we were pretty windblown by the end of the day. David picked us up in the Land Rover and drove us back to the settlement where we had a delicious supper of lamb stew made with fresh chops right off the farm.
The next morning Chuck and I took a quick walk to Port Edgemont, the oldest settlement on Saunders. We were then flown, courtesy of FICAS again, to Pebble Island. We settled into Pebble Island Lodge and then took an afternoon walk through the wetlands and sand dunes. We’re not really birders so the waterfowl weren’t super-exciting, but it was a totally different landscape from Saunders despite being only a 30-minute flight away. An interesting yet gruesome discovery was a dead pilot whale washed up on the beach. Pebble Island Lodge was catered, so we enjoyed a fish dinner prepared by our hostess Jacqui, and shared a bottle of wine before turning in early to rest for our day tour of Pebble the next day.
As with Saunders, the highlight of Pebble were the penguins. We spent several hours gathering photos and video of the Rockhopper and King Cormorant colonies and even saw one lone Macaroni penguin, who looks like a Rockhopper with hair gel! We also saw sea lions, which are quite intimidating and I was glad of the 30-foot cliff that enabled us to look down at them without too much worry about the big bull charging at us. He still kept a watchful eye on us as we observed some pups wrestling and the rest of the group lounging around in the sun. Pebble wasn’t as impressive as Saunders though, despite the hospitality of our hosts. It has huge military significance and I think that is its’ main draw for most tourists interested in the Falklands conflict.

The next day we moved on to Stanley, the only town in the Falkland Islands (the rest are called settlements or camps). We checked out the little museum and had an English pub lunch where I had chips and curry and cider! What amazed us about Stanley was the British-ness of the place! There were Waitrose products, Walkers crisps and other assorted cookies and alcoholic drinks that I hadn’t seen since our trip to Scotland last summer. Apparently most of the goods are imported all the way from the UK and there seemed to be virtually no South American influence at all. I guess the Falklanders like it that way after the “conflict”, although their relations with Chile are good. During our day in Stanley, we just couldn’t get it through our heads that it was Christmas Eve! The idea of a white, cold Christmas is totally ingrained into my head and I would have to think for a few seconds whenever I heard a Christmas carol on the radio. That night we had Christmas Eve dinner at the swanky hotel down the road from our B&B and checked out another pub called the Rose. The Londoners that we were travelling with said it is customary to have a pint at the local pub on Christmas Eve, a custom that we didn’t mind sharing in!

Christmas Day was by far the strangest one I’ve ever had! It started with another bumpy Land Rover ride to Volunteer Point where the main attraction is a large colony of King Penguins. These guys seemed to be less aloof than the Kings at the Neck on Saunders, and one year-old chick even tugged at Chuck’s shoelace! The chicks look like they’re wearing fur coats and the wind that day made me wish I had one. We bumped back over the Diddly dee and Tussock grass to Stanley, where we had a picnic Christmas dinner in the bar of the swanky hotel! Our fellow travellers had brought bread, cheese, meat, olives and a cucumber along with the requisite wine and champagne, and that’s how we celebrated Christmas 2009!

Boxing day was our day to fly back to Punta Arenas, but we checked out the horse racing and town fair before boarding our flight. It was very strange to arrive back in Chile after a strange week in a part of Britain, but we would definitely go back if given the chance. Our week in the Falklands will definitely be one of the best Christmases for me, mainly because of the amazing and diverse wildlife we were fortunate enough to see.

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