Southern exposure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2008, 12:00am

It has been more than a quarter of a century since Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, turning the British colony into a combat zone, yet news images of barren, snow-covered battlefields linger in the minds of television audiences around the world.

On a cruise around the South Atlantic Ocean, it becomes obvious these isolated islands have plenty to offer civilian visitors. The haunting treeless landscape has an unspoilt rock-strewn beauty, with white sandy beaches, moss-covered rolling hills reminiscent of the Scottish highlands and an abundance of wildlife. Summer days are long and sunny while winter brings only a sprinkling of snow. These days, the former battlefields attract tourists who appreciate their off-the-beaten path appeal.

Cruising the Falklands (made up of more than 700 windswept islands about 480km east of the Argentinian mainland) on luxury expedition ship the Minerva from Ushuaia, in Argentina, allows visitors to explore remote areas of the islands without forgoing comfort. There are no casinos or Las Vegas-style stage shows to keep passengers entertained. Instead, days at sea are filled with lectures delivered by ornithologists, historians, geologists and research scientists. Topics range from Southern Ocean birds to life on the Falklands, from military history to fishing and marine life. Here you'll discover, for instance, that the male anglerfish fuses to the female's body and eventually withers to become a minor appendage.

Passengers can make use of an extensive library, watch a movie in the cinema or sway unsteadily on deck while photographing seabirds, under the guidance of the ship's photography coach. Sea days are interspersed with days on land, after inflatable rubber dinghies have transferred passengers ashore.

Some mornings, passengers are roused by the soft Brazilian drawl of expedition leader Suzana Machado D'Oliveira Harker, coaxing them out of bed with an overview of the morning's landing spot. On others, the brisk tone of South African cruise director Jannie Cloete runs through the schedule.

The first wet landing is made on New Island, the westernmost inhabited island of the Falklands archipelago. Here, some passengers pull on waterproof pants, extra socks, rubber boots and a thermal undershirt provided by the ship's crew - the weather has a habit of changing without warning - for a three-hour hike.

Walkers make their way along the sloping terrain, past fragrant ferns and yellow blooms of sea cabbage. One of the ship's naturalists points out a striated caracara - its hooked beak and black plumage reminiscent of a falcon - staring curiously as the intruders struggle up a steep section of path. Both New Island and Carcass Island, the next landing spot, are paradises for smaller birds, thanks to the absence of rats, which have been introduced to many of the islands.

After a steady uphill slog, most walkers, dripping with perspiration, are relieved to reach the top of the 400-million-year-old sandstone bluffs, which tower above the South Atlantic. From on high the tourists strain against the gusting wind to peer at hundreds of plump fur seals flopped on the flat rocks below.

Further along, at the bird rookery, black-browed albatross, rockhopper penguins and blue-eyed shags nest comfortably together. A blue-eyed shag with bright yellow caruncles (warts) on its bill feeds a ravenous grey chick, which thrusts its head inside its parent's mouth.

Rockhoppers are easily distinguished from other penguins by their long yellow head tassels, which bounce as they hop from rock to rock. Fluffy penguin chicks gather in tight clusters known as creches. The ship's ornithologist, Patricia Silva, explains that the chicks usually join the creche at three weeks of age, after having been incubated by both parents. The male guards the chick first while the female goes fishing. Rockhoppers are the smallest polar penguin; weighing only 2.5kg and standing 55cm tall, they are dwarfed by the 30kg, 115cm-tall emperor penguin.

In the following couple of days, those on board the Minerva will see black oystercatchers with bright orange beaks, jackass penguins and waterfowl wading along the shores, and a colony of more than 1,600 gentoo penguins. Gentoos have slaty black heads with a white, bonnet-like strip reaching from eye to eye and a bright reddish-orange bill. Adults waddle a long distance from the sea - probably a couple of kilometres - to return with krill for their chicks.

But there's more to experience on the Falklands than the wildlife. Human inhabitants, such as Rob and Lorraine McGill, have opened their homes to tourists. The McGills are third-generation islanders who live in a New Island seaside farmhouse set among Monterey pines and flowering shrubs. Each summer, the McGills do a roaring trade in afternoon teas. It's no wonder; their table is laden with about 30 kinds of mouth-watering homemade cake - they even make their own lamingtons.

'The very first cruise ship to pop in here for afternoon tea was the Explorer. That was back in the 1970s,' says Rob McGill, referring to the Canadian-owned ship that made headlines when it sank in Antarctic waters in November last year. More than 150 passengers and crew had to be evacuated by lifeboat.

Other locals who love a chat are Ian Strange and Tony Chater. Both run souvenir stalls in a 19th-century hut once used by American sealer Captain Barnard on remote Carcass Island.

From Stanley, the capital, on East Falklands, you can tour the battlefields of the Falklands war and visit a farm to see demonstrations of sheep shearing and peat farming. Alternatively, visitors can wander among the brightly painted buildings of the town. Stanley's main sights are within walking distance of each other and include the Christ Church Cathedral, with its distinctive arch of four blue-whale jawbones and vibrant lupin garden; the 1982 war memorial; and the Falkland Islands Museum, which brings to life the history of the community. There are several souvenir shops stocked with fluffy penguin toys and other knick-knacks, craft shops and, like any good British outpost, no shortage of pubs.

Even though trudging through penguin colonies, boggy plains and sheep farms can be thrilling, after each landing, the comfort of a cocktail on board the ship before adjourning to one of the two dining rooms for good food, fine wine and excellent service is most welcome.

Getting there: British Airways (www.britishairways.com) flies from Hong Kong to London then on to Buenos Aires, where you can connect to Ushuaia on LAN Airlines (www.lan.com). The Minerva (previously known as Explorer II) has a 20-day itinerary that includes the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica. See www.cruisetraveller.com.au.