Hello Falkland Islands, a cluster of 778 islands in the South Atlantic that remain resolutely British despite their geographical closeness to Argentina, the country that fought a war in 1982 to claim them. With some 3,000 residents, most originally of Scottish or Welsh descent, the population is vastly outnumbered by sheep, penguins and seabirds.
Cruise ships are not my favorite mode of travel, but they do have two positive qualities. One, they allow – in fact they encourage – solitude. Being in a cabin, with no company but the sea and sky outside, is a realm for the idlest kind of dreaming. Also, cruises open up wild, lost, lonely coasts, take you into places airplanes really can’t be bothered with. If travel is about discovery, the angle from a ship’s deck provides, for landlubbers, a fresh viewpoint on the planet.
When I wake up to the Falkland Islands, these two qualities combine. The Akademik Sergey Vavilov – an ice-strengthened Russian vessel built as a spy ship at the end of the Cold War but refitted for tourism and scientific research – is closing in on Carcass Island off West Falkland. The night crossing from Ushuaia has seemed long.
After we left the Magellan Strait the sea became choppy but now is dead calm. A warm, green bay appears with the dawn and embraces us. The stillness is exhilarating. This must be one of the cleanest, clearest skies in the world, and I can see far to the horizon, layers upon layers of smooth, low hills, and wisps of lenticular cloud. The passengers, still mellowed by sleep, move around slowly and silently.
After breakfast, the activities begin. We hop into inflatables to take a walk on white-sand beaches among teeming populations of gentoo penguins. Out in the rolling surf bob flightless Falkland steamer ducks. Even keeping a respectful distance, I feel myself to be in the thick of things; the gentoos see so few visitors that they show little fear of humans. I lie down beside a patch of tussock grass, put down my camera and watch the toing and froing, the chatting and mating, the swimming and the shaking off. The shiny feathers of the gentoos – black with white chests – are startlingly defined, glowing against the backdrop of a greenish, roiling ocean that creates its own haze of spray. They look placid and cute, tempting the usual anthropomorphisms: cheeky waiters, Charlie Chaplin.
“Don’t be fooled by their onshore persona,” says John, the ship’s ornithologist. “These are the fastest underwater-fliers in the penguin world and are quite brilliant hunters, taking roughly as much fish in their diet as krill.” But then we watch a male gentoo offer a female a small pebble – it is for nesting but is also a kind of love offering. She seems impressed. This is unfolding all of two meters in front of me.
We have cream cakes, sandwiches and lots of strong tea
I have to drag myself away to take in the wider view – a magnificent penguinopolis on the beach with, now, a grey storm rising in the north – and join the group for a long but easy hike to a farm to eat some “smoko” or elevenses. The venue is half-ranch, half English country house. We have cream cakes, sandwiches – and lots of strong tea. The woman serving us looks and sounds very English, but there are two men helping. They look like South American mainlanders and are mestizo. One is wearing a football shirt of the Argentine soccer club River Plate. I say hello to him in Spanish but he seems uncomfortable. I ask him where he is from. He says he is a Falklander. I say, yeah, sure, but are you Chilean? His accent suggests as much. He shrugs off the question, evading me, and goes round pouring tea.
It is time to go back to the ship, leaving the gentoos in their gorgeous isolation. There is a grey sky now and a soft light all around – and I think, momentarily, of England. Arriving in the Falklands fills me with small but very personal questions. I was 16 when the Falklands War broke out in 1982. A close neighbor’s son a year older than me fought here in the infantry; a girlfriend’s brother patrolled the South Atlantic in his submarine.
In 1991, I moved to Buenos Aires and remained there for a decade, teaching at first and then joining a local newspaper. I rarely experienced war-related tension with Argentines, and appreciated the general disdain for “La Thatcher”. Most Argentines laughed at the “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” road signs that “welcome” you to many Argentine towns. In a bar with a pool hall, I did once meet a more irate than normal taxi driver. “You English pirates, with your Gurkha murderers,” he said, staring into my face. “You’re thieves. You have no right sending an army halfway round the world and killing hundreds of Argentines.” He walked off in a temper. When I saw him again later outside he seemed to have calmed down. “I lost my younger brother in the conflict,” he said, still bitter but sad also.
After my years in Argentina, and many journeys the length and breadth of the country, I wrote a book on Patagonia. In the process, I learned that the Falklands had actually once been busier than this huge southern region of South America, providing safe harbor for ships bound for Cape Horn and serving as a quarantining center for sheep on their way to the vast Anglo-Argentine estates of Santa Cruz and Punta Arenas.
This landscape is beautiful, but it is harsh too
The Argentines often invoke a geographical logic as part of their claim on the Malvinas. They say the islands lie on their continental shelf. This is true. However, the common history and the sheer practicality of being connected with Argentina are surely more forceful arguments. The war, and the subsequent anti-Argentine feeling it prompted, seems absurd to me, and rather depressing. I wonder what the people will be like now. Will they be Little Englanders, insular and wary? This landscape is beautiful, but it is harsh too, and a very long way from England. I understand how, in the 19th century, sealing and whaling and imperial ambition brought people so far from their homeland – but why do they remain? And what do the Falklanders think of Argentines and Chileans? Has the war – which took place more than three decades ago – generated an enduring mistrust and antipathy?
The next landing, in the afternoon, is on Saunders Island, a beauty spot for anyone with a misanthropic streak. There is no smoko. There seems to be no one living here at all. Instead, we hike along a hillside to visit colonies of black-browed albatrosses nesting on the bluffs, above communities of rockhopper penguins and elephant seals. From the top, there is a sweeping view over a sandy isthmus known as The Neck. In 1764, the French landed at Port St Louis on East Falkland, the origin of the name Îles Malouines after the Breton port of St Malo. Spain gained control of the settlement in 1767 and translated this to Islas Malvinas. In January 1765, however, John Byron had landed at Port Egmont on Saunders and claimed the island for King George III. Each colony was initially unaware of the existence of any arrival, but it was on Saunders that the British escapade in the Falklands began.
As we sail round Volunteer Point and Cape Pembroke, I stare at the cold sea, topped by white horses whipped up by a westerly. From Blanco Bay, I see a landscape of yellowish grassland, arid-looking and gently undulating. In places, it is sheep-strewn, but mainly it is lonely and empty. My mind says: South America. I think of Patagonia, of the great southern steppe, coirón and mata negra. But, suddenly, above a spit of land there appears a townlet. Stanley’s houses huddle together on a dozen or so streets, as if in fear of the elements. They look like the homes of pioneers, eccentrics, dreamers.
At the Stanley Arms, I order a pint and chat to the microcosm. I meet a historian, a judge, a gold miner, a salmon expert, a St Helenan office worker and a Chilean chef – and Arlette, who runs a guesthouse, and introduces me to her daughter, Glynis. I see Glynis again the next day at the Post Office, where she works. I see the judge in his robes standing outside a building having a smoke. In Stanley you keep bumping into people. If it all sounds a bit like Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, well it is, but with an exotic and distinctive South Atlantic twist.
Violent, wind-howling, skin-drenching squall
To begin to make sense of the place, I spend a morning at the Falkland Islands Museum. On display is maritime memorabilia, fossils, stuffed birds, a replica of a 1930 grocer’s store and, of course, exhibits relating to the 1982 conflict – still a major theme for islanders. I read some newspaper reports and look at islanders’ photos from those days. There is a reconstruction of a typical Argentine conscripts’ bunker – poignant and pathetic – and, outside, a recent acquisition: a restored Argentine Panhard armored vehicle. On my stroll back into the “center” of this tiny town I see a street called Thatcher Drive. Many may hate Maggie in the UK, dead or alive, but they love her here.
Historian and guide Tony Smith takes me out to see the Camp – as the Falklanders call the rural interior – and the main battlefield sites. I have never done much in the way of battlefield tourism in Europe – it is not my thing. But listening to Tony and standing in the drizzle at Tumbledown, Darwin and Goose Green, seeing where Lt Col H Jones was killed, and then paying my respects at the Argentine cemetery is moving as well as fascinating. I have my teenage memories of the war but now the story becomes real.
The weather helps. At Goose Green, the rain arrives, first as drizzle, but soon as violent, wind-howling, skin-drenching squall. “This is exactly how the weather was during many of the battles, including Darwin and Goose Green,” shouts Tony. “I’d love you to see the islands on a lovely summer’s day, but at least now you can imagine what it was like for the soldiers.”
Away from the memorials and monuments, the Camp is a natural wonderland. During the warmer months – from November to early April – the islands teem with wildlife. On drives out of Stanley to small coves and lonely beaches I see king and rockhopper penguins, southern sea lions and many kinds of seabird feeding and nesting. But the drab looking inland, which local birder and nature expert Alan Henry tells me is called “whitegrass habitat” is also busy with upland geese, as well as white-bridled finch and Falkland pipit. “It’s also a great place to see some of more unusual native plants,” says Alan. “These include Gaudichaud’s orchid and yellow violet, the food of the caterpillar of the Falklands’ only breeding butterfly.” Its wonderful name: the Queen of Falklands Fritillary.
A lone yachtsman arriving late in the night
In the evening, I have a tasty dinner of Patagonian toothfish at Lafone House. Arlette, my friend from the pub, is the owner of this spacious yet homey B&B. She is a fabulous cook – she has won the island’s Best Catered Accommodation Award – and wine buff, and most meals evolve into parties: that night she has a film crew staying and a lone yachtsman arriving late in the night. For a tiny town, there always seems to be a lot of action. For dessert, we have a delicious pie filled with a native berry called, cutely, diddle-dee.
Arlette has been to Argentina, Chile, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Over brandies, she tells me about growing up in the Falklands. “We were free spirits,” she says. “We did not have television until the early 1990s and so you made your own entertainment, which would always involve something outside. Riding horses was something I enjoyed doing as we had little transport in the 1950s and 60s, so it was a way of getting around, especially in the camp. We would ride for eight hours just to go to a dance on one of the other farms. This is still a haven for bringing up children, as they’re not exposed to all the pressure and hype of the big cities.”
She believes Falklanders take the wildlife for granted. “As a child it meant nothing to me, but I’m more interested in it now,” she says. “From my kitchen window I can see seals and dolphins in the harbor and sometimes penguins – and all sorts of birds.”
Arlette says the Islands have changed for the better since the conflict. “I don’t think anyone would want to go back to grants and aid. This is now a thriving community and very exciting. People here have money now and are able to travel and enjoy a better way of life. Life was very hard in the Falklands pre-’82 and people struggled.”
Arlette, Tony, Alan, the salmon farmer, the shopkeepers I meet, the farmers I talk to, the crowds of family and friends who descend on Lafone House every evening – these are educated, cosmopolitan, kind people. They are anything but Little Englanders and, if they are far friendlier than 21st century Britons, then they are all the better off for it. The war has left a mark on memory, and on the political present, but the Falklanders, and those who have settled there, only ask for self-determination, and peace, and to be left alone to get on.
The night sky in the winter is amazing
I decide I would like to return to the Falklands in other seasons. It is a moody place even when the sun is out. According to Alan, there is always something going on. “Spring and summer are obviously the breeding time for most of our birds and mammals,” he says. “Magellanic and rockhopper penguins and albatrosses return to the islands in September and October after spending the winter at sea. Female elephant seals come ashore to pup and, after a very brief 21 days suckling their pups, they mate and depart. But the wind drops off in the winter so we get fantastic calm bright sunny days with clear blue skies without a cloud in sight. The night sky in the winter is amazing with very little light pollution. Quite often we can clearly see four planets.”
But the pull on me is more complicated than mere topography. I feel, here, as if I have one foot in South America – especially Patagonia and another in a place that could be home. The gale that beats you up as you hike around Stanley is the same one that blew Antoine de St-Exupéry’s plane backwards over Tierra del Fuego. But there on the corner is a cozy pub and some Victorian redbrick houses, and a Land Rover Defender going past – the Falkland Islands are said to be the highest concentration of Land Rovers in the world. As I make my way back to the Vavilov, I think of Darwin and FitzRoy on their epic Beagle voyage, dropping in just as Britain took over the islands. I think of busy, bothersome Buenos Aires and how the politicians and military men had lacked the imagination to wonder how their crass invasion might go down in a place so other, so quiet, so free of crowds. I think of the Chilean and his teapot and the gentoos – the tiny hawks of the icy sea. Plenty of material for idle dreaming.
I am still not fond of cruises. The airless cabins, the 24-hour proximity of people, the lectures in the bowels of the vessel – and the nauseating roll. But I thank them for taking me to places, and the edges of places, I might never have seen. There are flights into Mount Pleasant airport in the Falklands from Chile, from Argentine Patagonia – by United Nations decree – and from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. But if you go, try to go by ship – the old way, the slow way, the island way.