Never predictable

I’ve talked before about the unusual opportunities that living on a remote island throws up and how we’ve been unable to predict just what we’ll end up doing here from one week to the next. As we move into December and the madness of the Falklands summer, it’s interesting to look back on November and see what we’ve been up to this month. I often list some of the wildlife encounters that are becoming far too normal for us these days, like our recent trip to Volunteer Point on East Falkland:

Among the ridiculous amount of social occasions we find ourselves at in this small community, November was host to the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Ball and remembrance ceremonies that I covered two posts ago so won’t discuss in length here:

The social aspect of the Falklands also throws up some experiences for other members of the community here; poor Milo had a small crowd for this year’s much-needed shearing that he had, before some visitors wanted to help with transporting him to his next temporary home (we lend Milo out to help with people’s lawns as most people in government housing aren’t provided with a lawnmower, obviously):

The islands do have a very transient population, which has some benefits and some problems associated with it. For us, having so many people come and go on the islands means we make friends from all over the World and they often make us get out and do things that are new to them (and, sometimes, us). So it was with the month just gone when our Canadian friend Christine celebrated her Birthday far from home – she’d seen that the pool here had an aqua run so as a surprise, we rented the pool for her, with mixed success:IMG_6694The improving weather does change things up a little in a place that can see some real extremes. It’s blessed a couple of events recently; our friends Davide & Marinella got married in a touching ceremony in the sunshine on Bertha’s Beach (as it was their wedding, I don’t feel it’s my place to post photos of it on a public blog so I’ve included a representative picture of the cake that our friend James made for them – it was stunning, personal and uniquely Falklands, just as their Wedding day was). Hannah also had the opportunity to join a Football Association medic to keep an eye on the FA Representative team that was flown down to play the Stanley and Mount Pleasant teams in a football match. Football’s pretty boring so I’ll say no more about that, but it meant a lot to some people here. The improving weather keeps us busy, both getting out taking advantage of the outdoors but also we need to take advantage of some indoor spaces too:

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Get busy! Them vegetables won’t grow themselves!

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Soaking up the sun

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Han with the FA Representative team

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Davide & Marinella’s cake, made by our friend James

For me, the final major thing that November brought was my first foray into the lecturing scene here. Since arriving, we’ve attended a number of lectures run by a number of organisations (the Historic Dockyard and Museum, the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute/SAERI and Falklands Conservation mostly). It’s not something we did much in the UK, but we’ve seen some really interesting talks on everything from penguins to photography to specific boats (the Ilen project I mentioned before in a post). With my thoroughly geeky interest in all things historical and Falklands, I’d been meaning to contribute to this scene and the time I’ve gained by leaving teaching meant I was able to offer my services to a sold-out Museum to give my first lecture on the unique story of the Isabella and the Nanina (if you’re intrigued, buy and read the Wreck of the Isabella by David Miller). I enjoyed giving something back to the community we’ve come to embrace and I didn’t get any negative feedback so here’s hoping people enjoyed themselves. I’ve got another sold-out talk coming up this week and a few more to be given next year, so perhaps I’ve discovered a productive way to channel my inner geek.

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Powered by tea – setting up the talk (it was full to capacity, honest)

The lectures, I guess, run alongside my new-found Falkland Islands Tourist Board accredited Tour Guide status (used so far for voluntary tours for visitors that we know), so I’m carving out something of a niche in the highly limited sector of ‘geeks talking about old things here’ but you never know where things will lead and I’m enjoying myself so I’ll just keep on with my ramblings.
Here’s to seeing what else the Summer brings and, if you hadn’t already guessed, the moral of this post is simple; take that risk, move somewhere different and you never know what life will bring. You might even end up walking a friendly sheep on a lead. If you’re lucky.

Up on top

In 2012, two good friends and I (ably supported by Han) completed the UK Three Peaks Challenge for charity, summiting the highest peaks in each of Britain’s 3 mainland nations in one day. We’ve also been up Snowdon and Scafell Pike at other times and spent quite a few other weekends out on the mountains. Imagine my embarrassment, then, at realising that 3 years had gone by and I still had not been to the summit of the islands’ highest peak. Mt Usborne (705m) lies pretty central on East Falkland, which makes it not that easy to access as most of the Islands are utterly devoid of the footpaths and country roads that make the North Wales mountains or the Lake District peaks so comparatively easy to get to. Luckily, I’ve recently given up teaching and that has meant that my Sundays are now my own (which has definitely not been the case for the past 6 years). The Rambling Club here on the Falklands meets on a Sunday so I was recently able to join them for their Mt Usborne and Five Tarns walk. Seven and a half hours of walking in the strongest winds I’ve ever walked in didn’t make for the easiest day but I was glad to get it done and I’m looking forward to repeating it on a slightly nicer day:

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We’ve also been enjoying showing more visitors to the islands some of our favourite places and some of our favourite companions, like recent trips to Bertha’s Beach to see the nesting gentoo colony:DSC_4253

More interestingly, we recently ran another Kidney Island trip; chartering a boat for the 30 minute trip out to Kidney Island, where you can take a rib ashore and traverse the sealion-infested wild tussock grass to the rockhopper colony, before spending the evening on the beach watching the 200,000 sooty shearwaters return to their burrows on the island. Photos don’t do justice to the sight of the sky filled with these sizeable birds, but I tried:

Three years in and we’re both glad that we still take up these opportunities rather than shying away from repeat trips – like all places, the Falkland Island experience is what you decide you want it to be. Remote island living, I think, needs people to be outgoing and adventurous in their mindset. The benefits of having that mentality, for us, are that we get to see and experience some very memorable moments like those above.

Remembering

It will have been (rightly) hard to escape the fact that yesterday marked 100 years since the guns fell silent on the Western Front and elsewhere. It is also hard to escape the fact that the Falklands has seen blood spilled on its soil in conflict in living memory. I often say to visitors that you need to understand 1982 to understand the Falklands today. It sounds obvious, as history ultimately explains everything about our World today, but this is more pronounced and specific to one key event here. The effects of 1982 are wide-ranging and long-standing, but on a day like Remembrance Sunday, the conflict once again casts its light over the Falklands. The commemorations in Europe and elsewhere have received a lot of press coverage so for those wondering how this occasion passed in the Falklands Islands, the annual traditions were complimented by a local campaign.

Each year on Remembrance Sunday, a military parade makes its way to the Cross of Sacrifice overlooking Stanley Harbour, where the forces and civilians gather in as much of a crowd as a small population can muster. The Governor then begins the wreath-laying ceremony and the names of all those from the Falklands who have died fighting in major conflicts of the 20th century are read out before the Victory guns (two small calibre guns on Victory Green) and a bugler signal the start and end of the two minute silence. Wreaths are also laid at the many other memorials dotted around the Islands.

This year, I was privileged to be part of the There But Not There campaign, helping my students at the secondary school to research and write up whatever we could find about the 22 men from the Falklands who died on active service during WWI. As a result of this project, it was discovered that Robert Greenshields Douglas had been missed out and, for the first time, his name was read out alongside the others on the Roll of Honour at the service. The rest of the information is on display in the excellent Museum in Stanley and it was astonishing to see that such a small population lost such a high percentage of its men for those four years and after (many of them paying their own way to Britain). The There But Not There campaign also brought down some striking figures of WWI Tommies to represent these lost souls and their presence added a powerful backdrop to the commemoration. The photos below are from the British Forces South Atlantic Islands collection, as I tend not to take photos at solemn occasions like this; the presence of a ‘selfie stick’ at the memorial going quite a long way to proving pretty much everything wrong with the 21st century.

Image may contain: one or more people, sky and outdoor

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor

Credit: BFSAI Falklands

The only hindrance to the day was the fact that a multi-faith or secular approach was not adopted in this diverse society. Sadly, there was little escaping the Christian insistence on dominating occasions that should not be motivated by religion and I can only hope that the Falklands and other nations take a more progressive approach to this in future years.

Spring Garland

As the years roll by here we get used to the annual cycle, largely noticeable as a result of nature’s decisions and whims. For example, the Falklands’ national flower (the Pale Maiden) emerges to let everyone know that things are getting brighter (although not all IMG_5996of them are fully out and showing themselves off yet, obviously). Similarly, it gets to that time of year again when Milo, our beloved sheep, is showing signs that things are hotting up for him and it’s high time he had a trim before the o-zone depleted sunshine starts to rain down on him. Sheep aficionados will be pleased to note that he’s booked in for a trim this Sunday (potentially more on that story later). IMG_5888As well as Milo’s annual undertaking, Han is gearing up for another cost-saving experiment on the tomato and potato front as we prep our IMG_5801polytunnel for the upcoming shiny season. In addition, there was a significant cruise ship in today, marking the start of the tourism season that brings c.60,000 visitors to the islands each Summer and contributes significantly to the economy of the island (and, might I add, the queues in the Post Office and Bank).

These cyclical goings-on are becoming part of the norm for us now in our 4th year of living here and add to a very tangible sense of anticipation for the incoming Summer (the finest time of year to be here). We’ve not locked down our plans for the Summer yet, but we’re excited to take full advantage of the increased access to Camp and the mildly more predictable weather. Emphasis on the word ‘mildly’ there.

All of that being said on the routine front, we are always keen to take advantage of new opportunities and followers of the blog will note how many new experiences we’ve been lucky enough to experience. This year, we say goodbye to two friends leaving the Islands with something that had become something of a Birthday tradition for one of them – the Falklands Treasure Hunt! This game saw randomly-allocated teams charging around Stanley hunting all kinds of items, people, animals, photos and answers. As a member of last year’s winning team, I had a proud title to defend, as I was keen to highlight:

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Winners’ badge and cup from the last Hunt

Devastatingly, neither Han nor I were to place in the top 3 this year, which we can only put down to a mis-count or the fact the judges knew I would, admittedly, be insufferable with yet another victory to my name.

In order to help the mourning process as the loss of my treasured title, I wanted to achieve SOMETHING over the half-term week. Some regular Pengoing South addicts might recall that our trip to Saunders last year involved a return Islander journey with a view or two to admire:

The iconic Lady Elizabeth on the right is a daily site for us and I’ve seen it up close on several occasions, but the other wreck is the Garland, beached across the water from the settlements of Goose Green and Darwin. She was built in Liverpool in 1832 but in 1900 she put into Stanley with damage caused to her bottom plates by broken jars of acid. After a survey she was condemned and later towed to Darwin to be used as a coal hulk. I’d only seen her from afar and she’s not easy to get close to on land. There was only one thing for it:

As a once-keen whitewater kayaker, it was excellent to get back in a kayak again (albeit a sea kayak) so I look forward to doing more kayaking here when I can. It’s just a shame no whitewater exists among all this peat. The Falklands doesn’t have EVERYTHING, after all.

Open up, Sealion!

One key to the post-holiday blues is a pre-emptive strike. After 6 weeks off the islands, we thought it might be worth reminding ourselves of some of the reasons why we love this place so much so, before we left, we sent a message to Micky at Sealion Island; one of the jewels in the Falklands’ crown. Last year we were staying at Sealion Island on the first weekend of their tourist season, so we thought we’d begin a new tradition and open up their season with them again on the long weekend that is lovingly created by Peat Cutting Monday (the first Monday in October is set aside for this Falklands unique holiday).

Sealion Island isn’t a cheap weekend away, what with the cost of a chartered FIGAS Islander flight (£168 return each) but for the experiences you get there and the excellent hospitality, it’s always worth it. If you’re into your bird life then all of the islands hold a great deal in store for you (almost all photos by Han on this post):

Interestingly, the Rockhopper penguins also return to the islands after their winter away on the same date each year and it coincided with our visit (the 29th September) so we did come across 2 of them. They steadily increase in number as the days go on.

Sealion Island is also home to a huge colony of one of the funniest and oddest animals here; the elephant seals. The Elephant Seal Research group have an annual presence on the island (it’s well worth following them on Facebook) and provide a lot of information about the habits of these monsters but this time of year they’re giving birth and the males and gathering them into harems waiting to repeat the (far from elegant) breeding cycle:

The elephant seal pups also attract the orca whales to the island, but we were visiting with our cursed friend Helene. Some people visit Sealion and see the orca every time. Some people visit and only see them some of the time. Our record currently stands at about 50% of our visits. Helene has been 6 times and not seen them once. In fact, they’ve even appeared on the same days as her visit; the morning before she arrived and the afternoon after she left. She’s cursed, so we knew we wouldn’t be seeing them this visit but our consolation was that it gets a little bit funnier every visit she makes. Still, there were other treats to see:

We look forward to returning to Sealion again some time (perhaps opening the season next year) but if you ever find yourself here, be sure to add it to your list.

Followers of the blog will know we’ve been to Sealion many a time now. We’ve been extremely lucky to see and do most of what we have wanted to in our time here. We have, however, still got a few more items to tick off the to-do list so watch this space and make sure you’re ticking things off your own to-do list.

Home?

It’s often stated that the Falklands are one of the most remote communities in the World. It’s not that we’re physically that difficult to get to as such – we have an airport with weekly flights, after all. We’re in comparative connected luxury if you speak to our overseas territory friends on Ascension Island at the moment, or Tristan da Cunha. The thing is, logistically speaking, getting here isn’t all that simple. You need to jump on an 18 hour RAF flight from Brize Norton at a cost of £1600 for residents, £2222 for non-residents. You can also fly for 2 days via South America but there is only one flight per week from Chile and that is usually booked up. That means that people here don’t often get off the islands. Even the journey itself is a little unusual, you don’t usually get this treatment at Heathrow:

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Typhoons waiting on the runway at RAF Mount Pleasant

As a result of this, we’ve only been back to our respective home countries twice in the last three years and avid followers of the blog will recall that both were for reasons that didn’t lend themselves to a relaxing time. This winter/summer (depending on your hemisphere), however, we booked an extended trip ‘home’ (with some other jaunts thrown in for good measure).

Naturally, I guess, trips off the islands involve catching up (read: binging) on those things that you simply don’t get or see for the time that you live remotely. This could be anything from M&S Percy Pigs to attending events or whatever might take your fancy. The same goes with how you might choose to spend your time away so I disappeared North for some Lake District scrambling with some good friends that I haven’t scrambled with since before we made the move, which was incredibly wet but both the company, the green landscape and the climbing made a good change from the white grass wilderness of the Falklands. Han stayed in London also catching up on missed opportunities: a girly weekend of pampering.

 

From there, we headed South to where I grew up to catch up with family in Kent for a few days before flying across to Ireland to meet up with Han’s family and throw a party at the scene of our wedding one year on. Thank you to everyone who made the effort to come along, it was great to see so many people travel to celebrate with us.

It would seem that our trip home was to be characterised by several things: a lot of miles, a lot of walking and a lot of friends and family. We, of course, took the opportunity to see some of Ireland’s treats while we were there including the Clare Glens river walks and the excellent Spike Island historic fort/prison:

Ireland was able to provide greenery, historic sites and loved ones but it wasn’t able to provide one other thing that we have been lacking a little: sunny, sunny weather. For that we headed off to wonderful Croatia! We were spending two nights in Pula in the North, before chartering a yacht to spend some time sailing around some of Croatia’s small islands for a touch of familiarity for us. Historic Pula was first on our list and it didn’t disappoint for this keen historian:

From Pula, the outer islands beckoned so we zipped out to Cres, Losinj, Unije, Ilovik and Susak. Coming from a small island nation, it was great to see the individual characteristics of the different islands and it was oddly familiar seeing the ways of life on each one. In particular, the island of Susak has grown without any cars on so the alleyway-streets and olde world charm were reminiscent of another era (something we’re used to from the Falklands but not to that extreme):

With our annual sun exposure topped up, we flew back to Ireland for a few days, taking in a few more sights and then zipped back across to the UK to continue the theme of ‘things we don’t get in the Falklands’. Namely; professional development. As well as doing some work in a hospital, Han had booked into a course as remote island living can mean that you’re a little out of the loop when it comes to your profession so it’s important to make the most of time off the islands in that sense. We then dropped down to London for a night out with our Falklands friend James before a last-minute trip to Berlin to see our friend Kyra (of Zuckerfee fame). As a historian, my (shockingly) first trip to Berlin was spent taking in as much as possible of the history of Berlin but also enjoying the fascinating juxtapositions that this has resulted in today – stunning period properties seen alongside Soviet concrete blocks and very modern developments all co-existing with an arts scene that rivals any capital in the World. I liked Berlin and, luckily, we left enough unseen to warrant a return trip:

Add into the mix a return trip to London for a few days, before heading to Salisbury for our traditional few days with my brother’s family and we ticked off a few more things we couldn’t do or get here in our remote island home before flying back South. All in all, both Han and I have many things that we miss about our respective ‘homes’ but the return to the islands and our welcome back from so many good friends has been a lovely reminder of the benefits of living in a small community and does make it difficult not to think of this remote outpost as home too.
At least 22,260 miles were covered in our trip, so you would have thought that that would keep us going for a while in terms of travel, but we’d already lined up something a little special for our return so stay tuned for that.

All quiet on the Southern Front

Apologies that the blog has been significantly quiet of late. Fear not, we’re still alive down here. Truthfully, I’ve been focused on finishing up my work and I’m sorry to say that we’ll shortly be flying out from the Falklands to spend 6 weeks catching up with friends and family in the UK and Ireland. That means that I’ll realistically not be logging onto the blog to update it until I return to the Falklands in late September.

On the plus side, I should have a significant increase in the amount of free time I have available as a result of stepping away from my current job (but remaining in the Falklands) so you can expect an increase in news and posts from September onward.

Thanks for logging on and keeping up with the blog, it’s good to know we’re keeping it for someone other than ourselves.

Just a nice day

This evening, when I finished work, I walked out to a stunning mix of light and rare stillness. A perfect evening for a walk near our house before the light dropped. These islands do provide:

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Across Three Oceans

I’ve always been an avid reader and it’s often the best way to learn about the history of a place. With that in mind, I’ve read a great deal of books relating to the Falklands. Partly, this is about learning more about the place I live. Partly, it is about being well-informed for my teaching. Partly, it is because so many people that find themselves here are outgoing and adventurous in their travels so their stories make for an inspiring narrative. From Captain Barnard’s marooning survival story to Shackleton’s short stint here after his epic journey in the James Caird, right through to Michael Palin’s recent visit tracking the Erebus, these passing travelers have all been able to offer their own thoughts on the Falklands with a global perspective too.

Lately, after attending an interesting public lecture at the Museum (something we’ve been making a habit here lately, and an enjoyable one at that), I picked up a copy of Conor O’Brien’s Across Three Oceans. I confess to not having heard of him before the lecture, but this plucky Irishman designed his own ship (the Saoirse) and sailed her around the World (collecting the accolade of being the first Irishman to do so but largely as a result of Ireland only recently becoming a country).

Conor O'Brien, sailor, Kelpie, Saoirse, Ilen, Ilen School, Ireland

(l-r) Conor O Brien and Tongan mate Kiao on the final leg of their circumnavigation | Saoirse departing Dun Laoghaire, Dublin, 1923

Written in 1924 language with a strong focus on the sailing aspects, a lot of the book has been lost on me but rather than stopping in at Uruguay on his way home, O’Brien pulled into the Falklands. As he put it: “after all Montevideo was very much like any other large city, and the Falklands very much unlike any other small country, I made an amusement of a necessity and carried on to the north-eastward [from the Cape]”.

 

Like us, (though other resemblances are scarce) he stayed a little longer than he initially intended but his account offers a wonderfully charming example of how little some things change over time. With that in mind, I thought I’d include some of the noteworthy quotes from an Irish 1920s POV:

“There is very little visible from the anchorage in Port William except stones and wind. There is no soil, no warmth in the sun, no trees will grow, and only the hardiest weeds; though it is true that a few enthusiasts have constructed gardens in the lee of a stout fence and are even reported to have raised potatoes therein”.I make no comment on the Irishman’s concern over potatoes. He goes on to state “the people live pecuniarily on wool and gastronomically on mutton”. O’Brien’s observations of the people here continue on the next page: “In a country with only 2000 inhabitants all told everybody knows everybody else”.

It is interesting that I made my own notes on weather and scenery when arriving here (as have so many travelling to these shores), but they differ somewhat to O’Brien’s: “the wind dies down at night; and it is never very cold, though never at all warm. It would be fine weather with us [Irishmen] but here it was mid-Summer. The only difference between summer and winter is in the length of days”. He continues his similarly mixed feelings on the scenery when he states “the scenery of East Falkland is not impressive, for the hills, though of bold outline, as is always the case with quartzite, are small and scattered, and the whole looks a desolation”. He does concede that “I was forcibly struck by the colouring of it all”.

Like many visitors to these islands, O’Brien admits that he was here to see the seals and penguins. His testimony brings a strange feeling of familiarity for those who have spent time with the colonies here and it is bizarre to consider that he, who is no longer with us, was writing this on board a ship that no longer exists: “I walked, it seemed, a prodigious way up the hill on this side, and a very short way down on the other; I do not know how many feet I was above the sea when I came to the edge of the cliff and found the penguins, of all places…there seemed to me to be here two hard questions: first, why do Rockhopper penguins make their rookery on the top of a cliff, and second, how do they get up there with the enormous weight of food necessary for their children?”. Good questions both.

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The rockies living up to their name

He collects other species on the ‘big five’: “I saw yet another kind of penguin, the Gentoo, whose rookeries are established on the slopes, or even summits of grassy hills…two files are continually marching, one up, one down; the birds at regular intervals, with their heads in the air and their flippers slightly thrown back for the sake of balance; a fine show indeed, but you must not hustle them or drive them into the rough for their legs are very short and their feet very big and they cannot see where they are going and trip up…and scuttle away on all fours in a most undignified manner”.

As with everything in life, it is always worth at least hearing other people’s opinions and deciding for yourself. As it stands, we don’t always agree with others who have been here (Darwin’s bleak opinion doesn’t ring true for us) but their thoughts are often still valid today. O’Brien’s adventure is inspiring in so many ways, as with so many who have visited this place. Here’s hoping our own written record is accurate and stands the test of time like his does.