A visit to the Falklands is attractive for most visitors for the nature and the wildlife. For a smaller number of tourists, it is a conflict, which took place 20 years ago, but which is still astonishingly present in everyone's memory, which attracts enthusiasts of history.
The first impression of the place is one of isolation and solitude almost to the point of anguish and the almighty power of nature over man, who to reassure himself tries to produce models of organisation a particularity of our Anglo-Saxon friends where everything is codified.
It's also islands composed only of private land, the rights of which were acquired more than 100 years ago. A wild land but strictly controlled where the least profit may be made.
Simple people, such as farmers, living close to nature, must since 1982 face a too rapid artificial development: the military presence has allowed modernisation and extension of the island's infrastructure. Economically, the traditional activity (sheep rearing for wool) is losing ground. In the short term the sale of licences for the fishing industry gives the government sufficient resources. In the middle term, there don't seem to exist any other possibilities than the development of tourism but in what form and with what means? In the longer term the future is uncertain with some people dreaming of revenue from oil, without thinking of the drawbacks. The prosperity of these islands would seem to depend on the normalization of relations with its big South American neighbours and establishing commercial relations. Time will tell!
This society lives without a real future, it's life blood dependent on a country 14’000 km away, cut off from Latin America and in particular Argentina which is so near and which could bring so much to it.
Visiting these islands leaves many strong impressions: of the sea, of the land, of the light, of the wildlife but so few memories of its inhabitants who hide behind a national identity inherited from a very present conflict. More time would certainly be necessary to pierce this latent mistrust, also inherited from this conflict.
From our arrival at the airport of Brize Norton (England) until our departure from the air terminal at Mount Pleasant in the Falklands we were completely taken care of, directed, fed and lodged (at Brize Norton, the night before departure and during transit on Ascension Island) by the Royal Air Force. You mustn’t think of anything and even worse, thinking would only give rise to really useless problems so we followed the instructions given by the RAF like sheep. Looking back it was a pleasant trip, the only problem being how to get our excess baggage (100kg) through without having to pay too much excessive surtax.
You are hit by the army being everywhere on arrival in the Falklands. Immediately history catches up with you and the conflict, 20 years old, is really alive. Before landing at Mount Pleasant airport we were escorted by two Tornado jets who accompanied us for the last 15 minutes of the flight. Just after touching the Falklands soil and before going through customs, an R.A.F. sergeant informed us of the dangers of mines and other ammunition which could still be present on the islands. It is interesting to know that this very military warning is only given to travellers arriving by RAF Tristar and not to those arriving by Lan Chile from Chile. Actually we suppose that these warnings are especially aimed at soldiers who constitute most of the aircrafts passengers. For us the ambiance is a bit strange and shows us dearly that these isles still lives under the shadow of the Anglo-Argentinian conflict.
On the road between Mount Pleasant and the town of Stanley we fully realise we have arrived. The weather is grey and it's fairly cool. The isolation of these isles at the end of the world gives rise to feelings of anguish and questions such as What are we going to do here for three weeks? or Was it really a good idea to come here? Also the road is never-ending, with the only decor being monotonous, dry countryside which increases the feeling of a lost desolated land. You wonders what made men come here to fight 20 years ago. Nothing here can attract interest and the wild nature seems to rather push men to unite in order to survive.
Stanley, the almost deserted capital with a population of 2’000, is very calm but well organised, perhaps too much so. There are danger signs and things forbidden everywhere and the police, though friendly, are very present. It is a micro-society which seems, at a first glance, to be impenetrable. In the bay there are several wrecked ships, the remnants of a much more active port, which increases the rather sinister atmosphere. Further on, a strange surprise, in the window of a shop there is a sign with writing in big letters addressed to the Argentinian people as if the conflict had only just finished. It says that the Argentinians should stay at home as long as their government and people do not officially recognise the British sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. Is this sign just one person's opinion or is it a reflection of the general mentality here. One thing is certain, judging by the number of British flags flying in Stanley, attachment and patriotism towards Great Britain is very clear, but how much tolerance is there with regard to Argentina?
This is not easy! Though small, this society has its own rules and it considers tourists to be a source of income rather than partners with whom one could share a moment of life (this is also applicable to certain regions of our country!). We had already got this impression during our internet contacts for the preparation of the journey. Most of these contacts were only commercial and not easy. It seems that few have the command of business and tourism.
If the difficulty of approach remained present during our whole stay it allowed us to appreciate all the more meeting people who were not at all typical of the general impression. We can only thank these people and advise all future visitors to reserve a bit of time to meet them. Kay, the grandmother who runs a Bed & Breakfast, greets her guests simply, which puts everyone at ease immediately. Mick, the diver, and his friends who, without knowing us, lent us some very costly equipment without any hesitation. Nick, the farmer who received us enthusiastically and opened his land to us while others have made the right to cross their land their main source of revenue. Robin, fully occupied with his sheep, did not hesitate to give us a little of his time to explain warmly his job, his difficulties and his plans. There were also other meetings, more brief, with open people delighted to be able to exchange a few words with some foreigners. After meeting these people we can say there seem to be two kinds of opposed mentalities: one linked to simple values and spontaneity and the other obsessed by commercial exploitation of tourists.
Discovering the terrain
Our first exploration was on the peninsula to the east of Stanley. It was amazing to see in such a small area (about 7 km long by 2 km wide) such a variety of countryside: dry land, grass or brush fields, ponds, rocks, cliffs, beaches and sand dunes.
The big white sandy beaches give this place a touch of paradise. All it needs is some palm trees! Unfortunately the beaches are not accessible as they are riddled with mines which the Argentinians put there fearing an English invasion around Stanley in the 1982 conflict. All are clearly indicated and closed off and don't seem to be a problem to population.
The discovery of the three masted ship Lady Elizabeth took us back into the past. Formerly at the time of sailing boats, Stanley was a port of intense activity. It was a stopping place where one could take on fresh supplies and also a terminus for boats in a deplorable state which had failed, after trying for weeks, to go round Cape Horn. Today, as a witness of that time, numerous wrecks are scattered around the Falklands Isles. The whiff of adventure haunts these boats. Exploring these carcasses of shimmering rust and discovering their fantastic history is an unforgettable experience.
Going away from Stanley and its coast, the country becomes more monotonous. Moors covered with flowers and bright green pasturage give to the Falklands a little air of Ireland. We drove for hours without meeting the least vehicle or seeing a living soul. There was a sensation of being the only people alive in this immense countryside but there was also a feeling of total security which is unfortunately more and more rare in our world.
Approaching a small settlement, lost in the middle of nowhere, sheep farming predominated. These timid animals feed on the grass of the plains right up to the sides of the coasts sometimes accompanied by penguins. The farms are modest and seem from another time but the domains are so large that the shepherds move around on motorbikes, with quads or using 4x4 jeeps.
During our exploration of the terrain we noticed that the network of roads is limited and that the state of the track requires a 4x4 vehicle. The solitude of the wide open spaces swept by winds is our travelling companion. So where do the people hide? Some settlements offer us a spectacle of desolation, broken-down farm buildings with invisible inhabitants, real ghost towns. The Isles still hold the scars of the 1982 conflict and all the time reminders of this war, which refuses to be forgotten, are present: monuments, cemeteries, wrecks of aircraft, helicopters and more than 150 minefields protected by barbed wire.
Discovery of the wildlife
If an animal appeared on the Falklands flag, it would be the penguin, without hesitation. You find them almost everywhere on the island where their observation is always a refreshing pleasure. However it is not at all on the beach where he is most seen: he is the main subject of all conversations. Beware he who has not revised his ornithology book for he would soon be lost in the discussions of the initiated between professional and amateur ornithologists. And besides, the ornithologist is in number the second species living on the islands and the only one not threatened with extinction! More seriously, the Falklands offer an exceptional opportunity to observe animals like sea lions, sea elephants, penguins, cormorants and albatrosses just to name the most well-known. The relative difficulty of access to them - most colonies are found either in places far from roads or else on little islands accessible only by plane - limits the number of tourists and allows one to approach in great tranquillity animals which are hardly at all suspicious.
When we arrived in the Falklands we thought we would find penguins everywhere. In fact, apart from Gypsy Cove, near Stanley, they hide in far places which are difficult to get to. To observe them a powerful 4x4 or a boat was necessary; to our great regret, our little Suzuki jeep, even though very useful, was not sufficient. Because we wanted to observe the biggest colony of king penguins in the Falklands, at Volunteer Point, it was necessary to rent the services of a driver and his vehicle. During this excursion to one of the most touristic spots on the isle we had occasion to experience a very unusual event: that morning, three drivers had to go to Volunteer Point but the three drivers did not think of all going together. Bob, our guide, even got his son to come in a second vehicle to help us in case of getting stuck in the mud. It was only after two hour's driving and a lot of radio discussions that the three drivers decided to wait for each other and group up! This was well-rewarded wisdom as on the return each vehicle got logged down in turn. Without the help of a second vehicle we would still be trying to get our jeep out of completely soaked ground. This story shows well that the organisation of tourism is faulty and irrational.
Even though Volunteer Point is of a certain interest, the fact of depending on a third person to get there, reduced our freedom of action a lot: timetables to keep to, the place of arrival was imposed on us, too short a time at the place to explore it well and dependence on capricious weather without the possibility of cancelling or postponing the excursion. It would have been ideal to stay there a few days but the only roof capable of sheltering us was rented at completely prohibitive prices by the owners who, in passing, already demand £10 a person for the right to cross their land. The only solution is, like a couple of Frenchmen we met there, to try camping. Seeing the deplorable state of our two friends and their material, it did not seem advisable to expose our cameras and video equipment to the violent weather.
Returning to the subject! To freely observe wildlife in the Falklands a stay on a small faraway isle seems to be the ideal. We were lucky enough to get to Sealion Island. After flying over several inlets in our little plane of the Figas we arrived at the southern extremity of the archipelago. After a bit of a cold sweat landing on an earthen strip there we were already on this little island, 7 km long by 2 km wide: seven inhabitants, fifteen tourists and thousands of animals.
During our stay we discovered, just a few paces from our comfortable lodging, some surprising wildlife. There were numerous birds, one of which, the striated caracara was very agile and it took a sly pleasure in taking our caps. Among the three species of penguin, the gentoo is our favourite. It is quite mistrustful, watching us while ready to clip-clop off towards the ocean. However if we lie still on the ground it runs up, curious to observe the strange creatures that we are. Once eradicated from a field of tussock (a grass clump of the sub-antarctic isles) we walked along a cliff eroded by wind and the power of the sea. The country is very beautiful, wild and dry. At the bottom of the cliff some menacing sea lions were observing us. This big seal deserves its name with its imposing mane, enormous rapidity and great roar. There was no question of our entering their territory; they were protecting their young. The island should rather be called "Sea Elephant Island" due to the considerable number of sea elephant present on this isle. Impressive by their weight but attaching by their attitudes the sea elephants are very amusing to observe. Lying in water or on the sand, they scratch themselves delicately with quite human attitudes! Underneath their airs of great lumpish beast there lies a sensitive animal, sometimes timid or even afraid.
Sealion Island gives a very beautiful glimpse of the Falklands wildlife and the nearness of the animal colonies makes it an ideal place of observation. The four days spent on the isle were enough for us to take almost all our animal photos which is proof of the richness of the place.
When we left, on the way to the airport, we came across again the road which had brought us to Stanley 20 days before. The feeling of malaise had gone, feelings of happiness and regret persisted. The discovery of these unknown lands and their exceptional wildlife brought us intense moments of emotion. Regrets were also present: too few souvenirs of their inhabitants. A different organisation of our journey would have perhaps allowed a better approach to the islanders, but how could we know beforehand if not from tourist agencies established in the Falklands or in England. Unfortunately these consider the Falklands as an interesting place to visit for its nature and wildlife and not for its inhabitants with their way of life which is too close to our western world. They may be right?
Text: © M.Chabod / F. Bettex • Photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra