March with the penguins
Forget Greece – on an island-hopping tour with a difference, Daniel Metcalfe is wowed by the wildlife of the Falklands
First published in the Financial Times on Saturday 21 May, 2011.
It is like a trip back to scout camp: the smell of weak coffee and detergent, the draughty iron sheds and barrack-room customer service. Arriving at Mount Pleasant Airport, the British military airbase, isn’t the warmest of welcomes but the Falklands are not for the average tourist.
Most visitors to the archipelago in the south Atlantic leave their cruise ships just long enough for tea and a piece of cake. A few spend a bit longer to experience an unlikely slice of British culture in the far southern hemisphere. But all are wowed by the flora and fauna. These blustery, empty islands, all 700 of them, are a veritable ark of sub-Antarctic life, boasting five species of penguins, 220 species of bird, 2,000 elephant seals and hundreds of Commerson’s dolphins, playfully escorting seagoing vessels. With few land-based predators, Falklands wildlife makes a noisy and absorbing spectacle, as unconcerned with the trickle of tourists as they are with the 2,500 kelpers (as locals are called) living among them.
The best way to see the local wildlife, and to explore the Falklands, is to go island-hopping, not by yacht, but using the tiny aircraft run by the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (Figas). These aircraft land on beaches and grassy airstrips and provide an indispensable link between remote farming communities and the capital, Port Stanley. My trip involves a circuit of the outlying islands, staying as a guest of the farmers. After a day or two, I fly on to the next, to find my new host waiting beside the airstrip in a Land Rover.
At Mount Pleasant, Terence McPhee, my first host, throws my kit into the back of his Land Rover and hits the gravel road to his farm in San Carlos, my first stop in “camp” (as everywhere outside Stanley is called). The landscape is bleakly inspiring, a Shetland-like expanse of tawny grasses that undulate without end. The only trees are a pair of cypresses planted outside his farmhouse, teased into a near right-angle by the unrelenting gusts. I’ll never forget McPhee’s warning: “You’ve got to park your car properly or else the wind will blow the door off.”
San Carlos Water, codenamed Blue Beach, was the main bridgehead for the British taskforce, which landed on the islands on May 21 1982 during the Falklands war: a lonely spot these days, where small waves lap towards the jetty in an almost Technicolour ultramarine. McPhee’s wife Sheila serves me a mountain of local mutton and organic vegetables from their garden. “If they hadn’t been so greedy, the Argentines would have had us by now,” she says, echoing the widely held belief that the UK government was trying to wash its hands of the Falklands in the years before the war. “All it had to do was wait.”
Right now there’s plenty more to think about than the conflict. Two events have revolutionised life here: fishing licences – the mainstay of the economy after taking over from sheep farming in 1987 – and now oil. Though everyone’s tight-lipped about it (including the local government, which insists the future lies in tourism), it seems there may be commercially viable reserves of crude oil.
My first hop is to Pebble Island, a large tract off the north coast of West Falkland, known for the translucent pebbles on its beaches. As I gaze from the air at these green expanses spread over an area the size of Wales, I am struck more than ever by the pioneering spirit of the 300 people who have chosen the camp life, living in settlements of one or two, running enormous farms on a quad-bike or from the saddle. “What would I want in Stanley?” one woman asks me on Saunders Island. It is a stoicism of a pre-internet age.
On Pebble Island, I know the penguins are near because I can smell them: the fishy miasma of a thousand rockhoppers, crowding on the edge of a cliff face. These fearless, bowling-pin sized birds have glided in from the sea, clawed their way up sheer rocks and have nested together in a vast gaggle of black-and-white baubles, grunting and squeaking like a broken cello. Unlike the more cautious gentoo and magellanic penguins, rockhoppers are unfazed by gaping visitors.
Another endlessly watchable animal is the elephant seal. Sea Lion Island, famous for the sinking of HMS Sheffield in its waters, boasts the largest waddle of seals in the archipelago. I arrive on this flat, grassy island with two war veterans and we make straight for the beaches where the seals bask. We take our places amid heaps of coiled orange kelp, like rubbery monster entrails. Just a few feet away lie nine neckless torpedoes of blubber, their skin nicked and stretch-marked, their moist black eyes flashing. Every so often an adult male elevates its giant proboscis and whispers to its harem with a throaty gurgle. Misjudging his distance, one veteran steps too close. With more agility than you’d think possible for an animal with no visible bones, the two tonner shoots instantly into a perpendicular position, poised to knock him down in a second. We all back away to the Land Rover.
These thriving penguin and seal colonies were on the verge of extinction at the end of the 19th century. Eagerly sought for their blubber, each penguin was said to render a pint of oil. They were eaten, too. According to Recipes for an Antarctic Cook (1959), “the meat of young shags, seals and penguins makes excellent eating but, in the natural state, it is rather too highly flavoured to be palatable”. The writer recommends adding Bisto gravy.
The bird that really takes me off my guard is the striated caracara. A scavenger of extreme rarity in Scotland, this falcon-like animal abounds on Carcass Island, a breathtaking little island in the far north-west of the archipelago. “The cawing drives you a bit potty but you get used to it,” says Robin McGill, in his languorous Falklands burr (somewhere between Australia and Somerset), as he drives me from the airstrip.
So large and powerful, caracaras remind me a bit of the roc of Sinbad fame, snatching objets trouvés in its powerful talons. Later I only just stop one from flying away with my clothes as I emerge from an ill-advised dip in the bay.
Predictably, the whole of Carcass Island teems with life: rock cormorants that swim as expertly as they fly; striped Magellanic penguins scurrying to their burrows at the first sound of feet; gentoo penguins, basking on their drum-shaped front bellies. Being free of rats and cats, Carcass is also a haven for small birds, such as the feather-ball shaped Cobb’s wren, which hops around the tussock grass with its sabre-like beak.
They don’t eat penguins or seals these days but islanders are proud of their food self-sufficiency. Walk on the windswept plains and you’re surrounded by edible plants, from wild celery and scurvy grass to the bushes of diddle-dee berries, a bittersweet species of crowberry used to make jam, and teaberries, which taste like a cross between mulberries and junipers, and are used to flavour teacakes. “Smoko”, or the “tea break”, is taken seriously here, in the English countryside manner.
I arrive in Port Stanley half expecting a yawning megapolis from the way the outlying islanders talk about it but I suddenly understand all the tourist talk of a “relic of a bygone England”. It has swept streets and shining cottages, sweet shops and red telephone boxes. Pubs offer darts and pints of bitter. Most striking of all is Jubilee Villas, a terrace with double-fronted bay-windows (complete with green corrugated-iron roof), built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887. It must once have seemed rather out of place in this impoverished rural community. But, perhaps, not for much longer.
There is a feeling of change in the air. Contract workers fill the pubs, prices are soaring, and developments are springing up in anticipation of the boom. Everybody’s talking about oil. If it really does come on stream, there will be little “bygone” about Stanley. Let’s hope the penguins remain unfazed.