I disagree, Charles

Some 183 years ago, a certain Captain Fitzroy was aboard his boat in Berkeley Sound (the site of last week’s whale watching trip) with his relatively unknown passenger and it is inevitable that the two discussed their location. Fitzroy’s unimpressed passenger, the 24 year old Charles Darwin, was not complimentary about his situation and declared that “the whole landscape … has an air of extreme desolation” and later commented that “this is one of the quietest places we have ever been to”. His comments on the landscape here were similar in nature to his observations on the people (Darwin had arrived shortly after the Port Louis murders, where 8 gauchos/South American cattlemen had run amok and murdered the British representative and several others – I’ll update about that if/when we get to Port Louis and I find out more). Darwin changed his thoughts on the discovery of key fossils here that helped shape his ideas and became rather liked by the community, lending his surname to the settlement that marked the furthest distance he rode from the Beagle.

I can see why he made the mellow observations that he did but I see little call to be as negative. Easter Monday isn’t a bank holiday here but we still get a long weekend with Good Friday so we decided that the recent storm had abated enough for us to chance a camping trip to Kidney Cove. This probably wasn’t overly intelligent as there has been much storm damage as a result of the extreme winds (108mph recorded on top of Mt. Alice) but the forecast was good so we parked at the Murrell Farm House and walked the 9 miles into the “desolation” to find a camping spot.

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Stanley in the background (yes, cruise ships can be bigger than it) with another minefield blocking another beach

We had hoped to camp on the beach but foresight should have told us that a shallow beach close to Stanley wouldn’t be accessible for the old 1982 reasons but we were still blessed with a beautiful spot, a Gentoo penguin colony at sunset and some inquisitive horses for the evening.

Many of you have noticed from what the cameras can show here that there is something about the light in the Islands that lends itself to this landscape. The expanses of grass, diddledee bushes and rocky outcrops are predictable, yes, and you could be fooled into calling it desolate but if your eyes are open to it, there is something about this place. It is stunning. Frankly, Mr Darwin, I disagree with your interpretation and here’s a few reasons why:

If you’re interested in Darwin’s visit, find out more here: Charles Darwin in the Falkland Islands.

A Sound Journey

Falklands development has been through a number of gruesome stages in its history and the early tales of sealing and whaling have left their scars and evidence around the Islands. The pictures and descriptions of the sealing are particularly graphic, but thankfully there has been a shift in thought processes both internationally and locally. The Falklands now protects its wildlife fiercely and is amongst the most sustainable environmental countries in the world; 30-40% of its power is generated by the wind turbines on the MPA road and its sustainable fishing policies are internationally recognised, allowing it to account for a surprisingly large percentage of the World’s squid production).

The result of all of this is that, slowly but surely, numbers of previously hunted species are rising and the little-studied whale population has been seen to increase (though no-one quite knows the extent of this). We had hoped to see them on our crossing to the West Island but to no avail. The large inlet North of Stanley known as Berkeley Sound (see the new/old map at the top of the page) has been filled with them lately so we hopped on a last-minute boat trip in the week to see what we could see at sea. Turns out, quite a lot:

After several hours chasing the whale blows only for them to disappear, we headed in at sunset happy to have had a great day with the dolphins, seal and albatross. It was then that we caught up with two whales (either Fin or Sei), one large and one smaller so we guess a mother and calf. Well worth the time and temperature of the trip. Photo credits to Han as she a) has a DSLR and now with a zoom lens and b) actually takes photos.

Lately, I’ve found with some situations (like seeing the first whales of my life), I’ve been worrying more about me being focussed on what’s happening than the camera being focussed on it. Perhaps that’s a good thing, but it makes for a poorer blog.

We couldn’t resist

Just one week after our trip to Whale Point to test the new Pajero we decided to solidify our knowledge of the route (easily forgotten with the nature of off-road tracks here) and guide some friends on their first off-road outing to the peninsular again. This time, however, we also went to see the shipwreck of the St Mary. One of many ships wrecked locally, she struck an offshore reef in 1890 on her maiden voyage while carrying a cargo of coal, whiskey, iron pipe, boxes of tacks, and toy trains from New York to San Francisco, what remains of her today lies on the beach easily accessible at low tide. A large section of the St Mary was removed by the Maine State Museum in 1978 and taken back to America where it is now displayed but we went to see the remains and search for any of her cargo that is rumoured to wash up on occasion (a shipwrecked toy train from 1890 would make a fine keepsake). Sadly, much debris remains but none was found that was as impressive as a toy train so we left it all in its place.

It is easy to become accustomed to shipwrecks here, but the idea of our ‘adventure’ to the Point becomes somewhat overshadowed when you think of the people aboard who originally walked the same wooden boards being wrecked there in 1890 with few supplies, little knowledge of how long they might be there or how to find rescue, communication severely limited and having survived the destruction of their ship in what we can assume to be wildly breaking waves (or not survived, of course). History is, and should be, very often humbling.

The St Mary’s story is a fascinatingly sad one, wrecking on her maiden voyage following collision with the Magellan (itself sinking with all hands lost), her crew fought for their lives for 3 days before she was finally driven ashore where her Captain subsequently added to the tragedy with his suicide. To read more about it see: http://www.shipstamps.co.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=10221

 

Misleading Point

It has been no secret that we/I killed our Hilux. In itself, it was a feat many saw as difficult but it had had a hard life and the chassis just gave way, locking the steering out and rendering it of little use to anyone. We have, finally, replaced the beast with a smaller engined but equally hardy Mitsubishi Pajero (which, I am reliably informed, is mildly insulting in Spanish and had its name changed for the South American market). Last weekend, in a doffing of the cap to our old ride, we swapped the tyres off the ‘new’ car and replaced them with the old Surf tyres for a more off-road friendly transport and headed out to somewhere we’d been itching to go for a while; Whale Point. Following our extremely hungover guide, whose pain was both visible and exacerbated  (you know what’s REALLY fun when you’re hungover? Off road driving!), we drove 30 minutes down the infamous MPA road, then turned off onto the off-road track for an hour. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between the two.

Whale Point lies on the land of Fitzroy Farm and holds the nearest Elephant Seal colony to Stanley. We’ve seen small colonies of Elephant Seals before, in creches where the young play, but I’d not yet seen any adults. The babies are sweet and generally unfussed by your presence (quite often you can accidentally stumble upon them as you get so close) but the adults grow up to 4 tonnes and aren’t exactly blessed in the looks department. They are, however, equally unfussed by your presence so you can have an amazing experience with these most ridiculous and noisy of pinnipeds. No whales at the point though, they still escape me.

The Point also the sight of the wreck of the St Mary; a large shipwreck of which half remains as the other half found its way to a museum in Maine, USA. I’ve heard tale that it was carrying many iron/steel goods and small toy trains and boxes of nails still wash up. I’ve been searching for shipwreck treasure since arriving but we didn’t have time to visit the wreck on this occasion, so a return journey is on the cards. Possibly today, in fact. Watch this space for update part 2 (and don’t forget you can sign up to follow the blog in the box on the right).

Post Apocalypse

We know we’ve moved to one of the most remote communities in the World. We’re no Tristan Da Cunha (with their 9ish boats a year), but we’re up there. Oddly, though, that’s sometimes easy to forget. With some internet, diesel at 37p per litre, shops, a functioning albeit basic hospital and SOME tarmac roads it’s easy to be fooled by the red telephone boxes and slip into home comfort. Every now and then, something does a good job of reminding you just where you are. Post did it this week. Post! It’s something we used to take for granted: 6 days a week, arriving next day. Post to the Islands is either all flown in on the RAF Airbridge, coming in via Chile on the LAN flight or shipped down on the containers. These each have their quirks:

The container ships take somewhere between 3-4 months door to door and generally only leave once a month. Then you’ve got to wait for the container to come into town from the military’s Mare Harbour before collecting your goods from a man in a shed on the seafront (your word is your proof of posting).

The LAN flight from Chile only flies once a week at Argentina’s grace and has been so full of late that they have simply held many goods there (much to the chagrin of those paying extra for DHL to ship their goods only to have them sit at Santiago). The flight was so busy over the Christmas period that some friends of ours on it were told the flight wouldn’t be taking off until three passengers volunteered to stay behind for a week until the next flight. When no-one did due to work commitments or cruise bookings, random people’s bags were thrown off the flight without warning and passengers were left to deal with the consequences the other end (where, handily, no LAN staff are posted).

Finally, there’s the RAF Airbridge. The post can take just a week to get down from the UK. It can, as we saw this week, take significantly longer. The ladies at the Post Office where you collect your post assured us that, quite often, parcels can take a long time naturally. Alongside this, they informed us that parcels are often sent by mistake to the Faroe Islands (kind of understandable), Iceland (I don’t know why) and apparently, as happened to a Christmas present sent kindly from Han’s parents in early December, the British Virgin Islands. So it was that this week we got a late Christmas present and a reminder of just what we’ve let ourselves in for.

As always, there is a bonus to all of this. The novelty of Falkland Island stamps has seen us receiving some wonderful and much appreciated post from friends and family and I’ve been very much enjoying exchanging letters so thank you to everyone who has written! Particular novelty came from Carolyn’s letter arriving simply addressed “David Bailey, the History Teacher, Falkland Islands”. (Love your work Carolyn! Reply to your most recent letter is coming soon).

Sad as it is, it’s the little things like Mail that get me thinking about our new life (and blogging, evidently).

Trialling times

The much-maligned death of our Hilux left us facing half term this week with limited options for adventure. This week marked Camp Sports Week (Camp being the countryside, so a week of Sports such as horse racing out in the country not to be confused with a week of effeminate games). We had a prior engagement in Stanley over the weekend so missed the Goose Green races but were able to join some friends out at Darwin for a night’s camping (our first since arriving here) before making our way to the Goose Green Dog Trials. The abundance of sheep farms here breeds an abundance of working dogs which are always a pleasure to see in action, but they clearly weren’t used to the idea of containing just 5 sheep in such a small enclosure. Still, it was a great couple of hours to spend immersing ourselves in Camp life and learning more about the differences between Stanley and Camp (just 2500 people here but divisions do exist in the two worlds).

We’ve done our best to explore our new home but still many places remain on our hit-list. I’d planned to take Han up to Wireless Ridge (taken by 2 Para in ’82) but the weather was so good that our friend Rob had a better suggestion: hit Two Sisters. This pair of peaks dominates the skyline around Stanley but we’d not yet seen the summit so 20 minutes’ off road drive down what, unbelievably, used to be the main road out of Stanley gave us the afternoon we’d been looking for and also some future scrambling spots to play on.

While we were out, we also picked up a significant quantity of the native Diddle Dee berry. It grows in abundance here and does get used for jam but it’s incredibly bitter, similar to a sloe berry in that sense, so we’ll just have to think of a different use for it.

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Diddledees aplenty.

We had expected a fairly sedate week but Thursday night we got a message that a friend of ours had some car space on one of our very favourite trips: Volunteer Point. This is the largest and closest King Penguin colony to Stanley. Close is a relative term, it’s a good 3 hours in total and over half of that is completely off road in a featureless and barren landscape. We’ve blogged about it before so I won’t waffle but there’s a very good reason why we can only go there when others are driving. I drove last time but I was a little relieved to be a passenger this time around with the slightly wetter peat track. Another amazing day that the photos still won’t do justice. Last week marked 6 months since I arrived here and the constant visits to the various species of penguins has left us in tune to their life cycles so it has been amazing to see the penguins return, call/attract mates, breed, incubate and hatch eggs, rear the chicks, gather them in creches and then ultimately disappear leaving just the chicks to molt and then ultimately disappear themselves as many are now doing. The Kings have 18 month cycle of this and so operate on their own timescale to the other breeds so there’s still eggs and chicks around, whereas the Gentoos, for example, are now molting ready to leave. Quite what either of us will ever do with our new-found encyclopedic knowledge of the breeding/migration cycles of 5 different species of penguin I’m not quite sure of yet but it’s one of the things we’ve gained from these Islands whether we need it or not. As I said, the pictures won’t do justice to the time spent at Volunteers but here’s some anyway:

Thistle Bashing

It’s been a long time coming but it’s time I added my next post to this. While I’ve been trying to sort out work, I volunteered my services to both SAERI and Falklands Conservation. Fortunately for me, I headed off to Saunders Island with Conservation (and without Bailey as he had work) to help with thistle eradication (of the Scottish thistle). The weekend started off nervously as the mist had closed in for the small FIGAS flight and our pilot solved this problem by

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The pilot’s view – eek!

simply flying low enough to follow a river North between two peaks, with the plane nearly touching the sides and we were able to picture a James Bond scene featuring our very selves.

We would be spending the weekend staying in some self-catering at the famous ‘Neck’ – a beauty spot between two peaks on Saunders Island, an hour from the landing strip at the settlement. The weekend was going to be spent outdoors so it could go one of two ways, depending on the weather. As it was, we were blessed with stunning sun and barely a breeze so sunburn was the order of the day (it happens quite a bit here with the hole in the o-zone layer).

We started off our trip by heading to the very first (British) settlement. Bailey informs me that the French were in fact the first to settle the Islands at Port Louis, some 6 months before the British on Saunders Island. The two communities co-existed for over a year by not realising that the other was there. Following that, the British were ejected but later reclaimed the Islands, obviously. There are still ruins of the buildings present and I irritated Bailey by going to see them all.

From the Neck we walked about 25 miles on the two days, carrying hoes to remove any thistles we came across and GPS marking them for future reference. It seems primitive but it’s also the best way to remove them out here. The thistles here are an invasive species and can be over 1m tall. We bashed 875 thistles in all over the two days. We were lucky enough that the majority of the thistles were along the coastline and on the Saturday there was no wind with endless blue skies. Keeping an eye on the horizon while thistle bashing we were hunting for whales. We were lucky enough to hear a blow, which then led us to see 4-5 fin whales (we think) playing in the water.

After very long days of walking we had the opportunity to go and spend some time with the wildlife that surrounds the Neck (which includes all 5 species of penguin here in a colony of over 10,000, a dashing of elephant seals and the black-browed albatross; my first encounter). We saw two beautiful sunsets with glowing red skies, but I also got up to brave the early morning and saw sun rise on Saturday at 4:30am.

We spoken quite a bit about the penguins on here already so I’ll let the pictures do the talking for them and  a few more from our trip 🙂

One thing that was new to us was that, where we stayed at the Neck, we counted 27 striated caracaras (also known as Johnny rooks). They were all sitting around the hut, waiting for leftovers from our meals and for us to use the taps so they could drink the run-off in the gutter outside. We’ve since learned that there is a packing order (no pun intended) in their groups and that they gain more yellow feathers on their heads as they age.

When we walked to the other end of the Island on our thistle adventure we went to Elephant Point. Far from being home to elephants, but very much home to the elephant seals. Up until now we’d only seen young pups and the adults are over 3 times the size of them (sometimes growing up to 4 tonnes). They are always so chilled out and docile that elephant sealfies were easy:

The other new experience for me was, of course, the albatross colony. The albatross mate for life and are incredibly affectionate animals, spending hours grooming each other. This might explain why they are so white despite their nests being surprisingly muddy. They have the most beautiful markings and are known for their smokey eye, that every girl tries to achieve for a night out:

We were lucky enough to have Jake from the community satellite TV channel  (FITV) along with us so here’s his video report on the weekend (I star at 1.19):