The Falkland Islands — A Little-Known Gem
by Marshall Snider
Docket writer travels to the Bottom of the World
As a place to visit, the Falkland Islands are a little-known gem, located 400 miles off the southern coast of Argentina. Although tens of thousands of cruise ship passengers spend a day at the islands’ capital city of Stanley every year, only about 4,000 travelers annually take the weekly flight from Chile to explore the history and wildlife of this British Overseas Territory that is being called "the new Galapagos."
The human population has not been a threat to the abundant Falklands wildlife and, as a result, visitors enjoy close contact with the unique birds, seals and penguins that populate the islands in great abundance. Given that so few tourists get away from Stanley and visit the countryside, once away from the capital visitors pretty much have the place to themselves.
Many will associate the Falklands with the 1982 invasion by Argentina. As wars go, the ensuing conflict that waged between Argentina and Great Britain over the Falkland Islands fell well short of a world changing event. One commentator described the war as a battle fought over "a pile of rocks." And a pile of rocks it is. Once of strategic importance to seafaring nations, the Falklands (known to the Argentineans as Las Islas Malvinas) are now an afterthought of European expansionism at the bottom end of the South Atlantic Ocean.
Stanley, the Capital City
Stanley is what you would get if you took a small fishing village from northern New England or Canada’s maritime provinces and plopped it off the southern tip of South America, about 800 miles north of the Antarctic peninsula. Only 2,700 people live in the Falklands, and 2,000 of those souls reside in Stanley. This little capital is a town of vividly colored houses painted in vibrant blues, brilliant reds and intense yellows. There is even a flamboyant purple house with a purple car parked outside. The town boasts a quaint rural English atmosphere: local pubs, red glassed-in telephone booths, British-sounding accents and Land Rovers driving on the left side of the road.
As with most small rural towns, everyone in Stanley knows everyone else, as well as everyone else’s business. Rumors abound and word spreads quickly. The small-town atmosphere provides an incredible friendliness. For example, after I mentioned to a local that I wanted to play a round at the Stanley Golf Club (one of the most southerly golf courses in the world), it seemed that everyone in town was working to arrange a golf game for me. Our battlefield guide stopped the club custodian’s car in the middle of the road to discuss the matter with him. Then, a lady at the town museum spoke to her brother, who was a member of the golf club. As a result of a chain of similar contacts I was able to play a round with the golf club president. We were the only two people on the course. The club rules added to this unique golfing experience: you get a free drop out of bomb or shell craters and vehicle tracks, and you can move the ball on the green if it lands in the indentation of an animal hoof print or burrow mark. Basically, you are playing golf on a sheep pasture.
Penguins, Seals and Birds, Oh My!
Majestic birds are equally accessible. Striated carcaras, which are eagle-like raptors, perch on cliffs just a few feet from you without moving. Petrels nesting on the ground with their chicks are untroubled as you approach. Upland geese, kelp geese and steamer ducks are prevalent, and you can check off hundreds of types of birds from your life list that you won’t as easily see anywhere else.
Then there are the seals. The most unusual variety is the huge elephant seal with its trunk-like nose. You can wander the beach with elephant seals, and watch as the young males learn to fight. But don’t get too close. At up to 8,000 pounds (no, that is not a misprint; they weigh twice as much as a car), they still move pretty quickly. Resist the temptation to get between them and the water for that perfect photograph.
The Falklands War
The war with Argentina is a matter of living history in the Falklands. Though it occurred 27 years ago, this conflict is still present in the minds of the islanders. Events are classified as being either "pre ’82" or "post ’82." The history of the competing claims to the islands by several nations, the strange political events in both Argentina and Great Britain leading up to the war, the 74-day occupation by Argentinean soldiers, and the battles themselves will engage you even if you didn’t have an interest in this history before you arrived.
We had the good fortune to be guided through the battlefields (and the still present minefields) by an islander who stayed in Stanley throughout the occupation. He was intimately involved in the war and has subsequently enhanced his knowledge of the conflict by visiting battle sites with both British and Argentinean war veterans. Ultimately, he was decorated by the Queen of England for his actions in maintaining the islands’ radio station throughout the conflict.
Working with such a knowledgeable guide gave me an interest in this war that I did not previously possess. Reading about the war now, with the backdrop of having physically followed the progress of several major battles and having met several of the participants who still live on the Falklands, makes this history seem real and present (for example, I have now read that the fellow I played golf with got into serious trouble in 1982 when he spit at an Argentinean general).
Fly Whenever, But Don’t Forget to Take a Jacket
Stanley is on East Falkland Island, but there are more than 700 mostly uninhabited islands to visit if you have the inclination. The Falkland Islands Government Air Service island-hops in small planes and on a most interesting schedule. Well, actually, there is no schedule. You sign up to fly to a certain island on a particular day, and then listen to the Falkland Islands’ radio station the night before to learn when your flight will depart. The radio announces not only the flight times and destinations (which vary depending on who wants to go where that day), but as an added service the radio station mentions the names of the passengers, in case you forgot you were flying the next day. It is indeed a small town.
Truth be told, this is a cold place even in the Austral summer: high temperatures are only in the mid 50s, there can be a brutal wind much of the summer, and the weather changes every 20 minutes. One moment you are wearing a wool hat, gloves, four layers of fleece and wind gear, the next you are down to a T-shirt, and then it rains. After all, you are within spitting distance of Antarctica. But dealing with the weather is a small price to pay for the privilege of visiting such an exotic and unspoiled land near the end of the earth.