It’s only been two weeks of catching up on email, feeds, updating websites, fixing bugs, tidying up, plodding through to-do lists, having meetings and generally avoiding writing, and already the fortnight we spent in the Falkland Islands seems like months ago. Before more memories leak from my head here’s What I Did On My Christmas Holidays.
If you’ve heard of the Falklands, chances are it’s because of 1982’s Falklands War. I realised recently that, like many of my formative memories, there are grown adults alive now who weren’t even born when these things happened. So I guess there are people in the UK who haven’t heard of the place. Weird.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Falklands is that it’s a long way from London and a pain in the arse to get to. There are two practical choices. The quickest is to fly with the RAF from Brize Norton, an 18 hour trip including a two hour re-fuelling stop at Ascension Island, for around £1,600 return. While you won’t be sitting on a bench with a helmet and parachute, the planes still aren’t particularly salubrious. And the RAF is picky about flying conditions so you may end up waiting at a dull Brize Norton for way too long with little information.
The second choice, and the one we took, involves a much longer journey via Madrid, Santiago, Puerto Monte and Punta Arenas. While this is cheaper you need an overnight stay in Santiago or Punta Arenas to make the connections, turning the journey into a two day, three plane, ordeal. Either way it’s a trek and if you’re as much of a bleeding heart greeny as me, you’ll be trying not to worry about the enormous damage your lengthy flights are doing.
But hey, wake up! We’ve arrived in the Falklands now!
I was told the Falkland Islands are around the size of Wales, although this appears to be entirely wrong (Falklands: 12,173km2, Wales: 20,778km2). Still, it’s pretty big for the number of people there. Around 2,000 live in the capital, and only meaningful town, Stanley (which is never referred to as Port Stanley, despite us veterans of the 1982 media coverage remembering it that way). Another 900 or so live outside Stanley, this sparsely-populated countryside being referred to as “camp”. There are two main islands, East and West Falkland, and several smaller islands with a few people living on them. The military base at Mount Pleasant, thirty miles from Stanley, might have a couple of thousand people on it, but they rarely seem to leave the base. There are also a lot of sheep.
Conversations in the Falklands are peppered with acronyms: FIPASS, FIRS (formerly FIBS), FIDC, FIC, FIDF, FIGAS, BAS, MPA, BFBS, etc. Another bit of local lingo: Apparently when troops arrived there they referred to locals as “Bennies”, after the simple-minded chap in Crossroads. When they were ordered to stop using this term, the locals became known as “Stills”, as in “Still Bennies”. Although “Bennies” seems alive and well.
Enough of the Factbook, what’s the place like? Surprisingly nice actually. I didn’t know what to expect but the Falklands turned out to be more appealing than whatever I’d been expecting. We spent just over a week in Stanley between Christmas and New Year (thus getting the impression that no one does any work) and five days visiting Saunders Island and Sea Lion Island to see the wildlife.
Stanley is small and, especially when the sun comes out, very pretty. There are cute houses, often white, maybe made of wood, with coloured roofs. Small, quiet roads. A view over Stanley Harbour and its picturesque wrecks. Green, hilly countryside all around. A few shops (groceries, souvenirs, not much else), pubs, a handful of places to eat (including a couple of very tasty restaurants, the Brassserie and the Malvina House Hotel). The town appears to be undergoing considerable expansion, with the graveyard that used to mark the eastern end of town now approaching the middle. I’ve never been to Scottish islands but Stanley, and the Falklands in general, are much like how I imagine them, in both look and feel.
Most of all it seems a very sociable place. No doubt social connections in any small town or village are pretty tight, but when it is as cut off from the outside world as Stanley, they must be stronger. It feels like everyone knows everyone else, particularly among those who grew up on the islands. As my dad said after visiting, at times it can be like being in the enclosed social world of a soap opera. On our last night we ate at the Brasserie and it seemed like the place was full of people we’d met over the previous fortnight, much like the limited social hubs (the Queen Vic, the Rovers Return) in any soap.
It may be that the lack of media helps make it a sociable place, making it feel even more cut off from the world. Newspapers sometimes find their way in via the planes but otherwise printed local news comes via the weekly black and white magazine Penguin News. Unless you subscribe to the limited satellite TV offering you’re stuck with a single BFBS “family” channel which broadcasts a selection of programmes from the UK terrestrial stations. Given the international and military nature of BFBS the weather forecasts are a surprise, covering Germany, Cyprus, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Gibraltar, Iraq and some place in Canada as well as the Falklands.
On the radio there’s BFBS’s two stations, one with popular music, the other with mainly talk and “classic”/classical music. Incidentally, someone told me that country music is big in the Falklands — if there’s a disco for school kids they want to dance to old country tunes rather than whatever’s in the charts. I have no idea why. There’s also the local, amateur-sounding, Falkland Islands Radio with music and local news/events.
It was only when I left the Falklands and reached Santiago that I realised one aspect of media that had been missing: advertising. I couldn’t recall seeing any outdoor ads and I think this is a major reason why Stanley feels so idyllic and calm. We become so used to our public spaces being polluted by companies selling us stuff that unfortunately it becomes normal. Go somewhere that is free of this constant shouting and you begin to realise the effect it has on you. It’s much easier to relax without it.
Which brings us to mobile phones. These are a new technology in the Falklands and the population is going through the usual social teething problems. They haven’t reached the point where most people have a mobile so the devices are still exotic and unnecessary items that owners feel they must justify. People can now turn up to appointments late because they can call at the last minute to apologise and schools wonder whether to ban mobiles.
But enough of the big city living. Outside Stanley, camp is a remarkably beautiful place. My only mental image of the Falklands countryside was of soldiers yomping across cold, bleak rocks. But, particularly when the sun’s out (the war was in winter), there are some great sights. Clear, blue seas, sandy coves, picturesque hills to climb. And, perhaps best of all, wherever you are there’s hardly anyone else around. Although we were there in summer it did get pretty cold at times. The Falklands are a similar latitude to London, but the wind is pretty constant and conditions change rapidly.
But you’re unlikely to travel to the Islands solely for the landscape. I’ve never been one for animals and birds but I was won over on this trip and we met plenty of people who’d travelled around the world to photograph the Falklands wildlife. We saw an awful lot of penguins: Gentoos running in and out of the sea; Magellanics popping out of their burrows; King penguins standing around looking elegant; and Rockhoppers jumping up and down cliffs and coming up close to investigate. There are many other kinds of birds to see — albatross, oyster catchers, cormorants, etc — but you can’t beat watching hundreds of penguins from a few feet away.
Being able to sit and watch seals was also amazing. Forget cute little sad-eyed baby seals. Seeing a group of huge elephant seals throwing their weight against each other on the beach in front of you is quite a sight.
It’s possible to walk from Stanley to see penguins but for the the best experience it’s a bigger journey. There are several flights each day from Stanley’s small airport to the other islands in small eight-seater propellor planes which deliver great views if you’re not, ahem, busy throwing up. (I didn’t do well and in the few hours it took me to recover it appeared that everyone on West Falkland had heard about Sue’s brother and his flight.) The planes form another part of the close social fabric, shuttling people, mail, farm produce and other items around the remote settlements.
In camp roads are patchy. There are a couple of paved or gravel roads, although driving them at night must be a fearsome experience. Otherwise you’re on muddy tracks or, to get to some of the best places to see the sights, simply off-roading across the rocky, boggy, lumpy landscape. Consequently everyone, in and out of Stanley, drives a 4x4. I don’t mean “everyone” in the sense of “simply everyone drives an SUV these days darling!”. I mean it really is rare to see a vehicle that isn’t a Land Rover or some curvy Japanese variant. I was frequently amazed by what Rovers (as they’re known) could get over or through and I have fallen in love with their stubbornly boxy and practical shape.
The islands are well set-up for tourism. The major wildlife spots have very comfortable catered lodges or self-catering homes among the farm buildings. Cruise ships stop in occasionally, and Stanley will transform suddenly and briefly when a crowd of tourists in matching jackets come ashore for a few hours. Most of the Islands’ economy is based around sheep and selling fishing rights however, with oil exploration a possible future source of income.
As you might expect the Falklands are a very British place in that slightly old-fashioned, expatriate kind of way. Queen Elizabeth II is on the money, much of the food in the stores comes from Tesco or Waitrose and most of the inhabitants’ closest links are with people in UK (never “the UK” for some reason). I can’t help thinking it must be one of the least sustainable ways to live in the world: It takes at least one flight to get anywhere, never mind the number of flights to get back to the UK; Almost everything must be imported, usually from the UK (and how far did it already travel before arriving in the UK?); Everyone drives their 4x4s everywhere, even just round the corner. Having said that it feels like a “small”, “light” or simply easily old-fashioned way to live, particularly to this Londoner: Stanley’s small enough that you can just pop round to friends’ houses; There’s little consumerism (what would you buy?); The countryside is just next door. I fear this is a seductive illusion of self-sufficiency however.
Before I went I couldn’t tell why someone would choose to live there but it didn’t take long before I could see the appeal. If it wasn’t so arduous (and expensive) a journey a part of me would be tempted, as a drastic way to escape the real world. Well, maybe if they had broadband.