FOTBOT Committee Member visits the Falkland Islands
By Elizabeth Anderson, Charity & Fundraising Coordinator
Visiting the Falkland Islands for a week is an epic journey, especially flying commercially. Nearly as much time is spent on travel as it is actually visiting the fantastic islands themselves, as we found when we embarked on the trip for our honeymoon this year. But nothing you read really prepares you for what it is like when you arrive.
Between us fascinated by penguins, military history and remote places, we settled on the unusual location so that we (I) could have the opportunity to see penguin chicks and all five penguin species that frequent the islands before the winter kicked in (of course being in the southern hemisphere, their winter is our summer).
To fly you have two choices: the RAF Airbridge, or the cheaper option of economy class via six different airports all via LATAM - our journey out took us from London to Sao Paulo, to Santiago, to Punta Arenas (at the tip of Chile), to Rio Gallegos (at the tip of Argentina), to finally Mount Pleasant RAF airbase close to Stanley on the Falklands. The stopover in Argentina is mandated in order to have permission to use Argentinian airspace, and only happens once a month - and passengers don't leave the plane during the stopover unless that's their end destination. Even booking the flights was an adventure in itself, as many commercial flight comparison websites don't recognise Mount Pleasant as an airport, nor Stanley, nor the international MPN airport code.
From Mount Pleasant, you are transported to a completely different world immediately - a world where you are weighed, and then strap into a tiny Britten Norman airplane to the island you are visiting first of all. These tiny airplanes are completely amazing, giving you the most beautiful view of the islands as you smoothly glide across the groups of islands, which collectively make up about the size of half of Wales. As a nervous flyer, this was the part I was least looking forward to - and it turned out to be completely enjoyable. The planes aren't pressurised, and aren't that high up. Once you've figured out the strange seat-belting and how to use the earplugs (needed because of the sound of the propellers), you are in a world completely of your own, gazing down on the rock formations, coastlines and tussac grass.
We started on Sea Lion Island. Arriving after an epic journey, the tiny plane lands on an airstrip, next to a couple of buildings - one a purpose built Lodge on an island that is completely given over as a nature reserve. As we walked up to the Lodge, we saw our first glimpse of penguins - two large Gentoo colonies just yards away. I'd always imagined penguins as beach birds, but they aren't always. Magellenic nest in burrows in the grassland, gentoos in large groups on grassland. Both were to be found in very close proximity. We were shown to our room (rooms don't lock, why would they - there might only be a handful of guests on any island), provided with tea made on the spot for us, and then taken out in a 4x4 for a very quick tour of the island, taking in seals, the eponymous sea lions (who are huge!) and rockhopper penguins. Inside three hours of being in the Falkland Islands I had already seen hundreds of pengins which made me really happy! These islands don't have roads outside the capital, so you have to be ready to be thrown around a bit as you tour.
By dinner it became evident that you arrive with people that you will crisscross on your week - the flights off are only once a week - Saturday to Saturday for commercial, Wednesday to Wednesday for the Airbridge. Leaving our room at the time we were told dinner is served, I spotted a table set for two and walked over to it - but was soon corrected by the Chilean Lodge manager. In "camp" (the countryside around the islands), you don't dine from a menu or by yourselves - as honeymooners married less than a week this was a slight surprise but everyone was really nice. You dine with all the other Lodge guests on a group table, and eat the food that the chef has cooked that night. (Fortunately we had said that I am vegetarian, and I was provided with a meat free option.) This was also where I found that mobile signal is very patchy (you can just about get texts through, but not phone calls) and that WiFi is slow and expensive, so over the course of the week I learned to use my supply of £5 Wifi login cards with care whenever I was near a hub!
We had only booked to be on Sea Lion Island for one night, so the next day we went for a brief walk, before heading off. The rhythm of the islands is set by the weather and by demand, so we found out the night before we would have an early morning flight onto Pebble Island, our next destination, where we would be for two nights. The pilot apologised to us that we would have a long journey as there were a number of stops to be made. The flights are like pre-booked car-shares dropping off and picking up along the way - with little internet, passenger names are confirmed the night before on the local radio station and by fax to the Lodge of each island. Satellite calls then confirm landing time and wind direction.
Our long flight was brilliant - basically a tour of the islands from the air, with fantastic views. We then reached Pebble Island - which was pivotal in the Falklands War, and was where the SAS raided first to destroy Argentinian aircraft, as they occupied the island during the war as an airbase. We had a 4x4 tour of one end of the island on day one, and the other on day two, with the opportunity to get out and walk around as we wished. Pieces of Argentinian aircraft litter parts of the island, and turned away from the sun to ensure they don't fade, you can clearly read instructions written in English from the enemy planes shot down by the Navy. We also visited the HMS Coventry memorial, sunk by Argentinian aircraft with the loss of many lives. The memory of the war is still clear for locals, and sentiments remain strongly against Argentina who continue to cause issues around trade and connectivity for the islands.
Pebble Island is far bigger than Sea Lion Island. The beaches of Pebble Island are unreal. In the UK we would never see such glorious sunny, sandy beaches so completely deserted. Setting off we saw dolphins jumping in the waves, and our guide showed us how to look out for whale blows way out in the far, far distance using binoculars. We saw more dolphins, more penguins, and more birds - upland geese, steamer ducks, finches, meadowlarks, cara caras, all sorts. For anyone who loves wildlife, it's an incredible opportunity to see really tame birdlife relatively close up. We also saw three macaroni penguins - fourth of the five species, and not every visitor finds them.
Our next island was Carcass Island (named after a boat, not bodies!). This was the first island we explored alone, finding sea lions, more penguins and lots of upland geese and exceptionally friendly and curious tussac birds - small brown birds, happily jumping around our shoes. The freedom to explore was excellent, although it led to our first sunburn on the trip - the sun is exceptionally strong in the Falklands, and having been in 4x4s for most of the time going around the other islands, we hadn't yet appreciated this.
The next day was a half day boat excursion to West Point Island to see the nests of baby albatross - standing behind tall grass just feet away from the huge but fluffy chicks, who were oblivious to us. The island is small, but the boat was also able to take us all round, to craggy rock faces where we could see the majestic flight of these huge birds, wheeling through the sky.
And that was the end of the camp islands. We then moved onto Stanley. Completely different, the capital is still small but home to a handful of gift shops, pubs and a supermarket - where you will find Tesco and Waitrose products side by side on the shelves, and Boots beauty products as special gifts to buy. In Stanley everything is different to the countryside, and it is almost a stepping stone back to civilisation. This was a proper 4* star hotel, not a Lodge. We had a power shower, a choice of meals, unlimited electricity - it was amazing! And best of all we hadn't completely left rural isolation - because from here we were able to go on the hour and a half drive (briefly on a tarmac road) to Volunteer Point, to see the biggest of the Falkland penguins - the King Penguins. Looking most like the regal penguins that every child imagines, it was an amazing experience to see them and their chicks, and for them to stroll around us without a care in the world, mingling with gentoos and magellenic friends on the beach.
Stanley itself is a beautiful town, with iconic brightly coloured roofs, a massive satellite dish powering the internet for the whole island, and a fascinating museum telling the tale of the Falklands, their history, their settlers and the war itself. The names of ships that have protected the islands are displayed using massive rocks on one side of the sound, painted white every so often by school children to thank the Royal Navy for their protection of the islands. Margaret Thatcher's statue stands proudly opposite, as the lady who ensured the islands didn't fall - and took action where, in the Falklanders' opinion, others had not.
The next day we packed up to leave, a long drive to Mount Pleasant airport and a long wait for the delayed plane as a storm howled around us. The power of the winds over the South Atlantic became evident when we heard our plane had been forced to turn back to Chile and had been cancelled. We were lucky - because of how the trip had been booked, we were given our room back at the hotel, an expensive addition to our trip, but at least we had accommodation in a town where hotel rooms are limited. Not everyone had that option. Two days slightly stressful days later - waiting to hear whether a replacement to the weekly plane had been put on, when it would leave and whether we would get tickets for it, through the lashing rain, we were then able to leave. To us it seemed just as windy, but my husband realised the wind had changed direction - critical for the flight to make its way to us and out again.
And so it was over. It now seems a slightly surreal experience, especially looking on a map, to have been there, to have been in such an openly desolate but stunning landscape, to see so much wildlife, and travel three days each way for the genuine privilege of such an amazing and awe inspiring week. There are truly no words to capture how it felt to be there, or the strange double sensation upon leaving of being so glad that the plane had made it versus being so sad to be going. The people are some of the most hospitable, friendly and welcoming I have ever met, anywhere, and residents just want to feel that you are as inspired as they are by their homeland.
To anyone thinking of a trip - go. From November, a new air route is billed to come onto timetables - direct from Sao Paulo to Mount Pleasant, with the mandatory monthly stopover in Argentina. This should make it both quicker and cheaper to visit the Islands.
There really is nowhere like it, and I feel truly lucky to have been there.