Reflections on the Falklands
Reflections on the Falklands
Previous blogs have filled in the detail of what we have done and who we have met in the Falkland Islands. But these are our overall impressions of the Falklands as a place; its people and its attributes as a cruising ground.
My memories of the Falklands will always be tainted by the memories of the hours that Maria and I spent in 1982 riveted to the television screen as, first, the soldiers of her country took possession of the islands they had always claimed as their own and still, sadly, do. Then watching the drama unfold as the British Taskforce sailed down to the South Atlantic and retook the islands with such great loss of life on both sides. The barren landscape was therefore very familiar and it was with a sense of deja-vu that the windswept hills of east Falkland revealed themselves as we limped into Stanley, battered and bruised from the pounding we had received on the way.
But we were to find there were so many aspects of the island: its people, climate and wildlife that were not revealed in the newsreels and documentaries that followed. The friendliness of our welcome was overwhelming. After the tortuous, confusing and sometimes purely obstructive bureaucracy in Brazil and Argentina, the friendly welcome from the Customs officer – our first contact with the Falklanders - was a breath of fresh air. It was all over and done with in minutes, everything very clear and straightforward. Barry Elsby, the UK’s Cruising Association representative on the island who couldn’t have been more helpful with the barrage of emails I sent him during the planning stages, also greeted us on the dockside within minutes of our arrival, took us under his wing and generally made things happen. We had received a couple of introductions from Argentine friends and with this nucleus of contacts we were swept into Falklands society. Offers of the use of showers and washing machines (“Just come in and help yourself – no one locks their doors here – there’s no crime”); invitations to drinks and to meet the family abounded. On a couple of occasions both John and I, separately, asked someone on the streets of Stanley how to get somewhere. Immediately these strangers whisked us into their Land Rovers and took us wherever we needed to go, and then on to the next place and then delivered us back to the boat – complete strangers who became friends in minutes.
As we went round the islands we met more and more people, all of whom seemed to know everyone else in this friendly close-knit community, and every new person we met seemed to have a connection with most of the people we’d met before. By the time we left, we almost felt part of the community ourselves. It gave one a good, warm feeling.
Unlike the climate. Crikey, these people are Spartan. It is, after all, late spring / early summer and the same latitude south as Birmingham is north. For most of our time in the Falklands, the temperature struggled into double figures during the day and slumped, exhausted, into mid-single figures at night. And then there’s the wind. It was relentless. Spinning round from every point of the compass as the low pressure systems swept round from Cape Horn, it became quite exhausting. So when we got two days of clear skies, warming sun and low wind speeds it was like we had arrived in paradise. Everything in life is comparative.
But back to the people. I can’t think of anyone we met who didn’t give us a present of some sort. We were the recipients of loads of local produce from duck eggs, rhubarb, lettuce and spring onions (rare and valued commodities here), ultra-fresh chicken eggs, home-made cake, hand-spun Falklands wool, jerry cans, and the wonderful hand-turned wooden bowl from Colin in Goose Green. Barry and Bernadette’s son made us a long wooden pole to cut kelp off the anchor chain.
Most of the Falklanders still seem to have the conflict of 1982 and their relationship with Argentina still at the front of their minds, and no wonder. In the past there had been good, strong connections between Argentina and the Falklands. Many of the families who farmed the land in the Falklands also developed and farmed estancias in Patagonia. Many of the Falklands children went to boarding school in Argentina. Their relationship with the people of Argentina was, and to some extent still is, strong. But not their relationship with the politicians of Argentina, who have been using the Islands as a political pawn. It makes the Falklanders sad rather than angry.
An overriding impression was the devotion which everyone felt for the Falklands. But not in a jingoistic way. It is their island. It is their home, and in most cases has been for generations. On average, far more generations than the average Argentine family have been citizens of Argentina. Yes, most feel a very close connection to Britain, but they take pride in the fact that, apart from the cost of the defence of the people from the threat by Argentina, they are completely self-sufficient and always have been. The Falkland Islands, they point out, is a Protectorate of Britain – it is not part of Britain. It is the Falkland Islands and of that they feel proud.
They have a real fear of another invasion and its consequences to them and their families. Not surprisingly, given their past experience of when Argentina took possession of the islands in 1982. The Argentines imprisoned the entire population of Falklanders (in Goose Green) and looted their houses (in most places, including Stanley). Clearly there was no intention to win the hearts and minds of the residents. The clear message was that Argentina wanted the islands, but not its residents. But you can’t send the residents back home – the Falklands IS their home. Peter Robertson, with his wife Ann, with whom we spent probably two of the most memorable days of our lives on their farm in Port Stephens has grandchildren on the island who are seventh generation Falklanders. Before that, his family came from New Zealand. He is not British – he can’t even get a British passport – he is a Falklander.
The Falklanders feel particular bitterness towards the current president of Argentina, Christina Kirchner, who is once again stirring popular opinion in Argentina against them. She is slowly but surely trying to freeze them out economically. Until recently, apart from buying supplies from Britain and having them shipped here, the Falklands also received a monthly supply ship from Chile by way of the Beagle Channel, and other supply ships from Uruguay. The Beagle Channel is split down the middle – half is Chilean and half is Argentine. But the Argentines have recently and unilaterally forbidden any Chilean ship from passing through the channel bound for the Malvinas. So the Chilenos, bullied by their bigger, more powerful neighbour had no option but to acquiesce. The Argentine government has similarly coerced Uruguay to stop all shipping from Montevideo to the Malvinas.
It is purely vindictive. To the Falklanders it is an inconvenience but it will change nothing other than to make them even more resentful of Argentine politicians. These are not a people who are suppressed by the British, in need of liberation. These people have been surviving, contentedly, in a comparatively hostile environment in isolation for generations. They are supremely self-sufficient and used to sacrifices. They will survive.
Enough of that. The wildlife. Wow! Where does one start? The moment when one is escorted into every anchorage by several different species of dolphin or indeed, on a couple of occasions, by seals? The wheeling around of the boat at all times of numerous species of bird, some of the largest – the albatrosses , the smallest – the Wilson’s Storm petrel, and the prettiest – the Cape Petrel’s, all in their thousands? And the comical Imperial Shags, so inquisitive that they flew slowly along beside and in front of us, looking round at us to the point where they would almost bump into the rigging?
When ashore, it was the tameness of all the birds, their complete lack of concern about our human presence, that was startling. We waded through flocks of geese of so many varieties, ducked the aggressive approaches of skuas and the endangered striated caracaras (although it was we who felt endangered as they tried to scalp us). Numerous other species that Linda was ticking off so fast her pencil needed sharpening. But it was the penguins that were the highlight. The Rockhoppers that, well, hopped on rocks. The Magellanic penguins shyly burrowing in the peaty turf half a mile or more from the sea – one minute you see them, then they’ve disappeared safely underground. But the Charlie Chaplins of the penguin world – the one’s one can almost relate to, are the awkward comic Gentoos.
It was Miles Wise, skipper of Pelagic Australis with whom I went to Antarctica in February as a recce who said to me “If you’re coming south, don’t miss the Falklands – it is the best undiscovered cruising ground in the world”. How right he was. This has been a cruise that no end of superlatives can justify. Linda and John, fantastic companions on this epic cruise, and I owe Miles a great debt.