Splendid isolation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 April, 2012, 12:00am

It is deja vu. At least, it feels that way at first. I stare at the cold sea, topped by white horses whipped up by the unrelenting west wind. Over on the north bank of the sound is yellowish grassland, arid-looking and gently undulating. In places it is sheep-strewn. But mainly it is lonely and empty. Behind me the houses seem to huddle together on the dozen or so streets. They look like the homes of pioneers, eccentrics, dreamers.

It reminds me of the South American mainland: low scrubland and tall stories. I lived for a decade in Buenos Aires and have been to the pampas and steppes many times. There's the same clean, crisp air, the sensation of being in a near pristine wilderness. But I am actually in Stanley, the tiny capital of the Falkland Islands, and I'm on my way to the pub.

At the Stanley Arms, I order a pint and chat to the locals. This includes an historian, a judge, a gold miner, a salmon expert, an office worker from St Helena and a Chilean chef - and the daughter of the woman at whose guest house I am staying. I see her again the next day at the post office, where she works. In Stanley, you keep bumping into people.

It all sounds a bit like the Dylan Thomas radio drama Under Milk Wood, with a South Atlantic twist. To begin to make the connections, you have to spend a morning at the Falkland Islands Museum. On display are maritime memorabilia, fossils, stuffed birds, a replica of a 1930s grocery store and, of course, exhibits relating to the 1982 conflict. This is still a major theme for islanders, and the 30th anniversary which kicked off on Monday will see all manner of commemorations across the archipelago. I pause to read the newspaper reports and to look at islanders' photos from those days. There is even a reconstruction of a typical Argentinean conscripts' bunker, which is poignant and pathetic. Outside is a recent acquisition - a restored Argentine Panhard armoured vehicle.

The South American mainland memories are not my mind playing tricks. The birds, the whales, the tussac grass and the rocks are a vital link. Historically, the Falklands have a long-running South American narrative, from quarantining sheep to harbouring Charles Darwin and Robert FitzRoy on their great HMS Beagle voyage. Britons travelled to Patagonian hospitals and schools right up until the 1970s. The war put an end to most of the ties, but the continental shelf is still there.

Historian and guide Tony Smith takes me out to see the Camp - as the Falkanders call the rural interior - and the main battlefield sites. I never did much in the way of battlefield tourism in Europe; it just isn't my thing. But listening to Tony and standing in the drizzle at Tumbledown, Darwin and Goose Green, seeing where legendary paratrooper Lt Col 'H' Jones was shot down, and then paying my respects at the Argentine cemetery is moving as well as fascinating. I was 16 in 1982 - not an age when far-off wars necessarily press on life. But I remember the war and now the story has become real.

In the evening, I have a delicious dinner of Patagonian toothfish at Lafone House, where I am staying. Arlette Betts, the owner of this spacious yet homely B&B, is a fabulous cook and wine buff, and most meals evolve into parties.

That night, she has a film crew staying and a lone yachtsman arriving late. For a tiny town, there always seems to be a lot going on. For dessert we have a pie filled with diddle dees - a native berry - which I can't eat enough of. It is incredibly delicious.

Away from Stanley and the memorials and monuments, the Camp is a natural wonderland. During the warmer months - from November to early April - the islands teem with wildlife, and on drives out of Stanley you can see king and rockhopper penguins, southern sea lions and many kinds of seabird feeding and nesting.

The Falklands are home to more than 750,000 penguins, and on some of the outer islands observers have spotted five species in a single day: Magellanic, king, gentoo, rockhopper and macaroni.

On Pebble Island - which I fly to on one of the Falkland Islands Government Air Service eight-seater Britten-Normans - I get up close to the punky-looking macaronis, who share a bluff with thousands of cormorants, as well as steamer ducks, speckled teals and upland geese. Over the three days I spend on this tiny island, I ease my way into the rhythms of island life. I chat to the sheep farmers, bottle-feed their lambs, go on slow, quiet walks to spot waders and eat lots of tea and cake. (Smoko, or 'elevenses' is a cherished tradition out in the Camp.) Stanley, from this vantage point, starts to seem like a city.

The sky is clear on my flight back and all the islands are spread out below. Although the inland landscape is not much different from what I've seen in Punta Arenas in Chile, the jagged coastline adds a dramatic touch.But that is only the physical aspect: the Falklands' spiritual and cultural isolation gives it a special quality, and, if anything, makes it even more magical than Britain or Argentina. There is a famous Patagonian berry which, once eaten, say the native Tehuelche, ensures that a visitor returns. I hope diddle dees do the same for the Falklands.


Getting there

There are two air routes to the Falklands.

- LAN operates weekly flights from London Heathrow via Madrid and Santiago de Chile (lan.com). The journey takes 24 hours or more.

- From RAF Brize Norton, the Ministry of Defence flight via Ascension Island takes 20 hours.

- About 35 cruise lines include the Falklands in their itineraries. A trip to Stanley can be combined with the small islands, South Georgia and/or Antarctica.

For more info

Go to falklandislands.com


The smaller islands

At 12,712 square kilometres, East and West Falkland have plenty to offer in terms of landscapes and locales to explore. But if you want real isolation, take a trip to one of the many islands and islets that make up the archipelago. From Stanley airport, whether there's rain, fog, mist or wind (and there's usually wind), eight-seater Britten Norman monoprops take off every day for the outlying dots around the main islands.

Pebble: familiar to historians as the island where the SAS blew up Argentine aircraft during a daring night raid early in the 1982 conflict, Pebble has war memorials as well as remains of some of the aircraft. To the north of West Falkland, it has high cliffs and moorland. There are many Magellanic penguins, as well as rockhoppers and king cormorants. The Pebble Island Hotel is a lovely place to stay.

Saunders: often selected as a stopover by cruise companies, Saunders is a great place to see colonies of black-browed albatrosses, as well as rockhopper penguins and elephant seals. The island has self-catering cottages and a small shop.

Carcass: on the white-sand beaches of Carcass Island are teeming populations of gentoo penguins as well as flightless Falkland steamer ducks bobbing in the surf. There are cottages to rent and mutton can be bought locally for barbecues.

Sea Lion Island: south of East Falkland, this small, remote island is very popular with visitors because it's one of the best places to see southern sea lions and elephant seals, as well as the endangered striated caracara, a hawk known locally as Johnny Rook. Sea Lion Lodge has central heating.


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Splendid isolation

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