Position: 51:49.56S 058:58.27W
Date: 29 November 2011
Time: 1430 LT 1730 UTC
The first I realised we were doing something rather unusual was the look of startled surprise on the Customs officers face. We were clearing out of Stanley and he needed to know where we were to visit in the islands on our way south west. “Goose Green, Port Stephens and New Island” I replied. “Goose Green?” he queried. “I’ve been in this job six years and this is only the second time I have known a boat go to Goose Green”. The only reason for the few visitors to this famous 1982 battlesite is that it is 25 miles up the Choiseul Sound and most boats just go past. Not my boat. The Absent Downstairs Skipper is Argentine and 1982 was a traumatic time for us. The Falklands conflict completely dominated our lives and the memories of this tragic campaign were still fresh in my mind. John, too, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the conflict. We both needed to visit the site of the first big land battle; meet the people of the first settlement to be liberated by the British troops, and to pay our respects at the site where Colonel “H” Jones VC was killed.
Making our way through the narrow twisting channel that leads to Goose Green we approached the large jetty and tied up. There were a couple of dozen houses dotted around the small bay together with numerous sheds and barns. It was mid-afternoon and the place was deserted. Eventually a Land Rover turned up and I went and asked permission to stay on the jetty. “You will be very welcome” was the response.
We were enjoying our anchor nip, when a young man appeared, introduced himself as Colin and welcomed us to Goose Green. In his mid-30’s he was born and bred in Goose Green, went to work in Scotland for a while but returned six years ago. He is a joiner and works as the handyman for the settlement. He came on board and told us all about Goose Green past and present. He was a mischievous seven-year-old when he was playing on the beach back in 1982 and was surprised to see a soldier appear from behind the tussock grass. He’d never seen a soldier before. Excited he rushed back home to tell his Mum. Within minutes the Argentine troops were ushering all 140 inhabitants to the Community Hall where they said a meeting would take place. When the last of the inhabitants filed in, the door was slammed shut behind them and locked. They were held prisoner here for 32 days. For the first two days they were given no food or bedding. Colin may have found the whole thing quite exciting, but the adults did not.
Colin has a detailed knowledge of the local history and kindly offered to borrow a Land Rover the following day and take us round to see San Carlos Sound, “Bomb Alley”, and all the memorials for the fallen including that at the site that Colonel “H” was killed. Colin is philosophical about their treatment at the hands of the Argentines. “They were soldiers. It was war. They had a job to do”. So he quite understood my desire whilst here also to visit the sad lonely graveyard of the Argentine soldiers who lost their lives here. Young conscripts. Some of whom hadn’t even been told where they were. Just told that they were defending their country from “invaders”. It wasn’t their fault, but the fault of desperate, misguided politicians. Whilst we may feel pride on behalf of the British soldiers who gave their lives, I will be paying equal respect at the graves of the Argentine soldiers.
Goose Green settlement has changed a lot since 1982. Then it had 140 inhabitants. Whilst the enormous farm that the community supports remains the same size (a staggering 50 mile radius with an even more staggering 80,000 wool sheep). Now fewer young people wish to live in the “camp”, the technology is better (quad bikes for rounding up the sheep for instance), and the price of wool has slumped, so now there are only 42 people in the settlement. But it still has its own primary school with five pupils aged three to eight. The primary school teacher, Jackie, was the next to arrive to welcome us with a delicious cake. She asked if there was anything else we needed. “Apart from a good bath, not much” joked John. “I have the best bath in Goose Green – cast iron” said Jackie, “and a good shower with no shortage of hot water. Come along anytime. Just let yourselves in – nobody locks their doors here”. What a fantastic welcome.
Colin confirmed the Customs officer’s claim that few yachts visited Goose Green. He said that in the six years since he returned here, we were the first yacht he had seen.
In the evening we went up to the community café (open 9am to 9pm 7 days a week) and had a really excellent mutton pie with chips.
This morning I awoke to a bitterly cold and still very windy day. This is the season when all the 80,000 sheep are rounded up, sheared and then released, shivering, back onto the land. We went to the shearing shed where a gang of six shearers were working, wearing singlets in the freezing cold, showing off their well-muscled arms and extravagant tattoos as they sheared one sheep after another. In an 8-hour day shift they will each shear about 320 to 330 sheep. She pointed to one of the shearers. “He broke the record last year – 420 sheep in one day”. (That’s nearly one a minute for every minute of the eight hours). In the same shed they sorted the good bits from the offcuts, shoved them into a machine that compressed them into one-ton bales and stacked them up for transport back to Stanley to be shipped to the world’s markets.
I saw striding across the hills towards us a hiker in shorts. “You must have cold shins” I remarked as he walked down the jetty. “I’m Scottish” he said. “For me this is almost tropical”. Stephen had had a successful career and decided to have a mid-life gap year and has been travelling and walking down the entire length of South America. After a warming cup of tea on board, he joined us on a long walk across the hills to an extraordinary, long suspension bridge across an inlet which presumably opened up enormous acreage of additional grazing land the other side. It has the distinction, apparently, of being the southernmost suspension bridge in the world. It was built well over a hundred years ago it had rusted to the point where it looked close to the point of collapse. The wool price must have indeed been high to justify the building of this substantial structure. It’s just a shame that nothing can be done to save it.