It would be fair to say that I wasn’t overly excited about our pending trip to the Falkland Islands. Paul has these silly ideas every so often and usually if I lie low they seem to disappear. But having played the ‘maybe’, ‘we’ll see’, ‘we can have a think about it’ card for more than six months, I decided I’d better just go along with it.
As we flew further and further away from the equator, on our fourth flight of the journey, I really wondered how I had managed to find myself looking at snowy mountains on my big winter trip to escape cold, cold England.
And arriving at the RAF base on the islands, looking out at gale force winds, dark grey clouds and miles and miles of bleak, bare landscape beyond rows of barbed wire, things didn’t really improve. The things we do for love.
But ten days on and I find myself, in any spare moment, researching these desolate isles miles from anywhere, in the stormy Atlantic ocean. Dare I say it, researching property websites relating to these islands. I am totally and utterly hooked. Something about them connected so strongly with me and all I want to do is book our next trip out there straight away.
So, ‘was it the gardens?’, I hear you ask. Well, there was one garden on East Falkland: the garden of the Governor’s house. But we were assured this was the only garden in the Falklands; indeed the soil was so bad (sheep farming was calculated as acres per sheep instead of sheep per acre) and the climate so harsh, that no-one else had yet managed to create one. We later found this wasn’t entirely true but having seen many a house with tomatoes filling the full height and width of every downstairs window and virtually no trees anywhere at all, it was clear gardening was somewhat of a challenge.
So why did I like this un-gardened, cold, wet, windswept place so much? I’ll take you on a quick tour of the Falkland Islands we saw, to see if their appeal jumps out at you, too.
At about 4pm on our day of arrival, we went for a bracing walk along the coast with a guide from the house where we were staying. I thought he might help us dodge the land mines that still dot the islands. [I only later discovered this really wasn’t a concern at all.]
The coast was very pretty: full of ever changing colours as the weather blew through.
And what is the phrase about pots of gold at the end of a rainbow? This ferry was definitely our pot of gold. Some three hours from seeing the last car, person or building, with no means of communication and some 30 miles from the nearest house (the one we were supposedly staying in), our guide’s four-wheel drive got bogged on the soft, peaty ground. After a full hour of creative problem solving (with me as the lightest person being roped in to all sorts of activities I wasn’t so sure about), at 8pm, we finally admitted defeat. With empty tummies, we started the 30 mile walk home with just a bottle of water each. The extent of my love for Paul was somewhat being put to the test.
Just after an hour into our long march home, we discovered the ferry was in port. I say ‘port’. It was tied to the side of a wharf at the edge of some fields. But it had people, and communications and even a very willing sailor with a four-wheel drive. Our magical pot of gold.
We were so relieved, we took a detour to dinner via Goose Green, a pretty coastal village with a terrifying history during the war. The ripping winds and dark clouds had since vanished and it was hard to imagine this peaceful collection of idyllic houses at the centre of military action.
In the morning, we had time to explore the area around the house and start to learn about the native flora before heading off to the airport. A bit like the ‘port’, the airport consisted of a field of geese (which we drove at in said rescued four-wheel drive to prepare the runway) and one shed. From the shed emerged the windsock, which was attached to a pole and a trailer of fire fighting equipment, which was attached to the four-wheel drive. One airport complete.
From here, we headed over to Carcass Island. You can fly anywhere you like in the Falkland Islands, on any day you like; just don’t ask to plan any further. The Falkland Islands Government Aviation Service (FIGAS) looks at who wants to go where the following day and works out when it will pick you up. They inform your host the evening before, who then feed you before taking you to a field, building an airport, putting you on the plane, disassembling the airport and going home again. Oh, how much nicer it is than a Heathrow aviation experience (sorry, Heathrow, I’m a traitor of an ex-employee).
At the other end, Rob, the owner of Carcass Island came to pick us up from his very own private airport. And that’s where the trouble began. You see, it all sounds very grand, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. We were picked up in a beaten up Land Rover Defender and taken through the fields (there are no roads on the island) around 3 miles to our ‘simple’ accommodation. According to Audley Travel’s categorisation scheme, the rooms are not ‘opulent’, or ‘deluxe’, or ‘first class’ or even ‘medium’, but ‘simple’. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was all part of the charm that captivated me.
Rob has lived on, managed and owned the island since the early seventies and seems, unfortunately for my dreams, inseparable to it. He asked us about the flight over from Chile, commenting, ‘ah, no bananas this week. We can have visitors or bananas, but not both’. The Australian sitting next to us on the flight was setting off on a cruise from the islands and her fellow sailors’ baggage had filled the hold on the one commercial plane coming into the Falklands that week.
Our days on Carcass Island were magical, from start to finish. One lady was visiting from the UK for the eleventh time, which just about summed it up. You just never wanted your days to end. There are just six rooms on the island, all at the ‘Manager’s House’; Rob already has bookings for 2020.
The island is around seven by five miles, and each square inch is a total delight. Rob has ensured it has not been overgrazed by sheep and even replanted many tussac grasses (Poa flabellata) to restore the island’s natural balance of wildlife. The beaches and coastal areas teem with penguins, seals, ducks, geese and other birds: sit still for a moment and different animals pop up from their burrows or emerge from the sea, wandering a metre or so from your side. It’s just you, in a spectacular bay, and all the wildlife going about their daily business. It’s hard to describe how privileged you feel to be sharing it with them.
We managed to prise ourselves away from Carcass for one day to visit West Point Island. There are just two human inhabitants on West Point Island, and Alan and Jackie were equally welcoming hosts for the day. They even helped me leave something for my friend, Caroline, who by some extraordinary co-incidence, happened to be visiting tiny West Point Island later this month from the US.
Here, we hid behind the tussac grasses watching albatross glide gracefully in from the sea to feed their adorable, fluffy grey chicks, just a few feet from us. Paul and I explored every nook and cranny of the island we could, discovering colonies of sea lions and penguins and stunning plains of flowers. It all felt a little unreal to be there. As if we shouldn’t really be disturbing life on this island. But walking slowly and talking in a whisper, nothing was in the least bit interested that we had joined them for the day.
If it was a wrench to leave West Point, it was even harder to leave Carcass Island the following day. We had made lovely friends at meal times each day, with other guests, the island family and even the utterly charming Chilean chef, Roldan.
But Volunteer Point and its king penguins were calling, so off we went to the airport and on to the Falklands’ capital, Stanley.
A pristine, sandy beach, with three types of penguins in residence, was a lovely end to our holiday. It wasn’t the brightest weather for our visit, but there is a saying in the Falklands that ‘if you don’t like the weather, just wait half an hour’. The forecasts suggest it rains everyday, but the reality is that rainbows (and pots of gold) appeared many times most days. It was a constant cycle of sun, dramatic clouds, a few drops of rain and then sun again. We were told it’s never as cold as England and I read that it gets less rain and more sunshine hours than the UK.
Yet I felt so at home here, no doubt in part due to its British history and influence on its culture. An England with more sun is hugely appealing to me.
So much so, that our subsequent week in Chile didn’t in any way live up to our Falklands’ experience, despite…
…finding my first (and second) ever four-leaf clover…
…seeing spectacular glaciers…
…wonderful trees with permanent, natural, perfectly round Christmas baubles in them…
…staying in beautiful hotels…
…and going for beautiful walks…
…and lazy lunches in stunning surroundings.
It was the penguins, I think, with their people-like personalities, their adorable waddle and the enormous gravitas they hold for such small creatures, humbly presiding over these islands.
And the people and their way of life. Not constrained by the processes, rules and bureaucracy that larger communities gravitate towards. Everyone treated as a person, not a number. The true joys in life truly appreciated above all material things.
I think, it would be fair to say, I’m well and truly hooked. But it really is quite annoying when husbands turn out to be right all along.