One year later

I landed in the Falkland Islands on 24th August 2016 (just one week before my 29th Birthday).

First impressions

First sightings, if only I knew…

As it’s technically half way through the two year contract that I initially arrived on (Han arrived in October), it seems an opportune moment for me to reflect on what that year has meant and what these islands mean for people taking up life on the furthermost frontiers of the British Empire.

Initial impressions on landing in the South Atlantic Winter were quite daunting with Typhoon’s guiding our plane in and then machinery for removing baggage freezing up and causing delays. If this was to be a sign of things to come, the outlook was ominous! Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for me to get a taste of what life here would bring.

On the one hand, the time has flown by and it doesn’t feel like it’s been an entire year since last seeing our families. It doesn’t feel like a year since the last time we tasted fresh mango or watermelon, drank non-UHT milk, bought a takeaway or sat on a bus or train. On the other hand, the last 12 months has been a long journey, both professionally and personally. I came here as a teacher but have found myself being taught a great deal in living here.

I’ve talked before about the manner in which things here have started to become normal but it’s hard to over-estimate the way that the islands have changed my outlook on a lot of things. Driving, for example. Before coming here, I’d never driven anything about a 1.6 litre engine and on nothing but tarmac. Realistically, I know there are few other places where I can drive like this but the fact that you can run a 4×4 cheaply and make full use of it in the wide open landscapes here has completely revolutionised what I considered to be ‘normal driving’. Highlights including driving to Volunteer Point, up Mount Tumbledown and spending hours off-road on the West have left me getting tyre-envy for some of the phenomenally fat tyres you see around town:

On that vein, we’ve had the opportunity to experience some things that we might never have thought about before coming down. That list includes, but is not exclusive to, shooting revolvers, climbing a lighthouse, crossing a pre-WWII suspension bridge, drinks receptions at the old colonial Government House, flying in tiny fixed-wing aircraft, exploring old war positions and even riding a missile:

We’ve even developed a completely unpredicted but much-talked-about relationship with  our pet sheep Milo:

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Then, of course, there has been the absolutely unforgettable wildlife experiences that have marked our time here. They’ve been far beyond what we ever thought would happen and have, I assume, been a large part of the popularity of this blog. It will be difficult to look at a zoo (or even live back in the UK) in the same way ever again after knowing you can have experiences like this with wildlife:

But by far the most profound effect this place has had on us has been one that I never predicted and one that is bizarrely related to the terms of employment upon which we find ourselves here. It is the nature of many people’s jobs here that we find ourselves on a comparatively short-term contract: two years. This has had the odd effect of making us very conscious of our limited time here and therefore trying to take up any opportunity that comes our way for fear of not getting another chance to experience it, from trips to Camp, meals out, events going on, places to visit, people to meet and things to see. We’ve also been reflecting on the fact that a small, remote, intimate island population often with a similar outlook on life forces much more social life into the calendar; our last village in the UK had double the population of Stanley but I think I only knew about 10 people there whereas between us we must know half of Stanley with a constantly growing list of people always up for adventures of any form.

This perfect storm of knowing many more outgoing people and being overly aware of our short-term status here means we’ve been suffering a great deal from what Han likes to call ‘fomo’ (fear of missing out). We are so conscious of this that it’s had a far more positive impact on our attitude to life and we’re doing so much more with our time. A recent TV program I watched featured a dying patient in a hospital use the quote “when you know there is an end, it forces you to live”. Oddly, I found this to be a fine summary of the effect of contractor life here on the islands (the living bit, not the dying bit; it’s not that bad!). Hopefully those of you reading this living somewhere more permanent are now questioning how many of the local sites you’ve visited, how many nearby museums/historic sites you’ve truly taken in, how much you know about your local history and how often you’ve genuinely explored where you live. If you knew you only had a year left there, what would you do in that time and, more importantly, why aren’t you doing it now?

Mount Pleasant by name

Since 1982, the Falkland Islands have seen an increased military presence from the 36 Royal Marines previously stationed here. Following the sad realisation that the rhetoric of the Argentine government was to come to fruition, the British were understandably reluctant to leave the Islands as unprotected as they had been. This involved a monumental logistical achievement of over 1 million tonnes of supplies being unloaded 24 hours a day on the famous ‘B Slip’ slipway in Stanley between 1982 and 1985. The goods were destined to end up at RAF Mount Pleasant: the newest purpose-built RAF airfield in the World. Home to between one and two thousand military personnel, 4 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft and several helicopters of various purpose, Mount Pleasant maintains the military deterrent of BFSAI (British Forces South Atlantic Islands).

It doesn’t take a mathematician or a sociologist to figure out that, for an entire community of 2500 Falkland Islanders, having a similar number of military personnel on a base 36 miles from the capital has the potential to have a major impact on life here. The Falkland Islands are, of course, extremely grateful for the military support offered by Britain and are happy to see the impressive Typhoons out and about and guiding the Airbridge planes in to land. That doesn’t, however, mask the other effects of having such a high civilian/military ratio. Informally, conversations we’ve had with many people here suggest that the relationship with the military is akin to the relationship with the contractors such as ourselves; there’s no choice but to have them here but that doesn’t mean it’s always a good thing for the local people. Standing outside one of a number of bars on a Friday or Saturday night when the Paras (in particular) are in might give some hint as to why this might be the case.

Still, the respect remains and there are many other positive impacts to be taken advantage of. With a British passport in hand, civilians are allowed on to the base and have access to the numerous employment opportunities provided by such infrastructure, as well as the entertainment available. As it was Han’s Birthday on the 2nd we spent the day at MPA, playing two games of bowling and then making our way to the Southern-most Go-Karting track in the World for a mini-tournament amongst 19 friends:

I should point out that, as the base is subject to the Official Secrets Act, we did have permission to take these photos. It was a great day out and it’s great to have the opportunity to do something a little different living in such a small city as Stanley. There’s also paintballing available so we’re looking forward to taking advantage of that some time soon too. It was a little difficult to re-adjust to driving home on the infamous MPA gravel road after that, with our 2.8-3 litre turbo engines not helping matters. We also got a nice little reminder of where we were on the drive home when we passed a river and Han spotted this little girl hanging about in the water:DSC_0885(I’m pretty sure this was a young female sea lion if you’re not sure)

We’ve taken our mid-contract flights to get to the South American mainland for a fortnight so we’ll be leaving the islands for the first time in a year this week. A scary but exciting prospect and we’ll report back on that in a few weeks’ time. In the mean time, you’ll have to be satisfied with the backlog of 60-odd posts from Pengoing South in the year since we began it.