Seasons change

Nearly four years ago I announced to friends and family that I had taken a job in the Falkland Islands and would be moving there in the upcoming Summer. It met with mixed reactions, some of which I’ll never forget. One common theme was the demand to be kept up to date on our adventures and to hear/see what life was like here. This is what led to the reluctant creation of the blog but it was something I understood; these islands represent a far-flung land that most people will never get the chance to visit and a basic curiosity about other places and cultures is embedded in the vast majority of people out there (apart from Americans, of course). I say the reluctant creation of the blog, as I’d never written publicly about my life before (never having considered it worth such attention before, nor do I now) but I do admit to holding a lasting concern that our daily goings-on wouldn’t really offer up much in the way of literary inspiration. In short, I worried I’d have nothing to say and this would soon spiral into every other social media feed you see whether you like it or not (namely: here’s our dinner, here’s a video of a cat/alternate creature, here’s what meaningless activity I just took part in, rinse and repeat). Luckily, the Falklands seems to turn up a little of the humdrum along with something a little different for me to turn my trusty laptop (Bernard) to.

We’re drawing to the close of yet another Summer here in the Falklands and the passing of time is marked by several key things (some no doubt familiar to you, some not): the steady darkening of the mornings and evenings, the thinning out of the cruise ship schedule and the commercial move from summer opening hours. This is also marked by the other annual schedule that we have tuned into here: that of the animal world. The adult penguins, now complete with their breeding and rearing, disappear out to sea and leave their juveniles to fatten up and molt into the feathers they need to survive the Winter. The juveniles, for their part, make their way to the beaches en masse and start learning to swim (far more successful than their attempts to fly) and the other birds and mammals follow similar threads before we say goodbye to most of them until next September/October. This would make the penguin appreciators out there a little glum, so Mother Nature takes this in her stride and offers something of a pick-me-up to make each March/April that little sweeter:

img_9912

Teaberries

And sweeter it is! Teaberries are native to the Falklands and grow extensively across most of the islands, including handily close to Stanley. They’re also naturally very sweet, with a unique and inexplicable flavour. Some relate them to candy floss, some to Fruit Salad sweets, others just give up trying. They take their name from the fact that sailors used to also make a tea from their leaves. One source I read mentioned that this tea “had a funny effect on them”, but I tried it and felt nothing but a nice taste – no widespread hallucinogenics here! It’s altogether possible that those sailors were scurvy-ridden and that funny effect was ‘health’. Who knows. Anyway, we’ve been making full use of them, enjoying them on cereal each morning, with our Easi-yo yoghurt in the evenings and, of course, in the mandatory way:

img_9916

Teaberry buns

This time of year, as if to signal that people are starting to have a little more free time after the tourist seasons, the Falklands likes to start ramping up the social side of things. The annual Horticultural Show takes place (picture every stereotype of a UK village horticultural show you can think of or have seen on Countryfile and add a team of gardeners from a former colonial Government House). Its charm isn’t lost on us and Han fed her competitive habit by entering the odd grown and baked goods for a little smugness:a21ffe6f-4543-4f02-821f-8baef4d849cbObviously, as a thoroughbred Irish woman, receiving only second and third prize for her potatoes did cause outrage and widespread disapproval across her family but she has promised to try harder in future. How embarrassing for her.
We were also delighted to go and support our friends in some local amateur dramatics by watching FIODA’s production of the witty and timeless The Importance of Being Earnest:img_9920I don’t think it’s unfair to say that amateur dramatics can be a little hit and miss for those of us not appreciative of the finer nuances of theatrical arts, but this was genuinely great; very funny and a really enjoyable way to spend an evening. It also reminds me of the first time I watched a FIODA production just over 3 years ago, catching myself having an odd moment realising the absurd way that life can turn out when you don’t expect it; spending my evening watching a play in the Town Hall in my home city of Stanley; a place I never¬† expected to even visit.
It hasn’t all been easy for us here. Last week, we made the tough but fair decision that our beloved and highly popular pet sheep Milo was simply getting too large for many of the gardens and their owners in town and that he deserved to spend some time out at a farm with other sheeps (actually being a sheep, rather than his usual disguise as a dog). It was difficult to decide on, but we had a kind and reliable offer of a good home for him at Estancia Farm where Milo could spend some time with other pet sheep. He had a few enjoyable days with us in town being spoiled before we took him out:

We were taking Milo to spend time at Estancia, which is not far off the North Camp road (see the map page) where we knew he would be happy and would be able to adjust well in the capable hands of our friends who own the farm:

img_9955

Picturesque Estancia

img_9963

Milo meets Shaun

It’s not the end for Milo and he may well make a return to town one day, but we wanted to give him a good place to spend the Winter without being tethered and having the space to roam for a while. If all else fails, he can always hop back in the car and come home:img_9950

The road to a friend is never long

I saw this phrase on a sign at the door to Port Edgar Farm, West Falkland island. It seemed an appropriate phrase for two reasons that day. Firstly, the road to Port Edgar was physically quite a long one:

 

Secondly, and most importantly, for the past two weeks we’ve had a friend swing by and visit us from the UK. Last year, Ellie surprised us by stating that she’d been saving up and wanted to come and visit (the blog had clearly been working some magic on someone, at least). It would be a massive understatement to say this was no minor effort for any friend given the distance and cost involved in ‘popping by’ so Ellie was more than welcome and summed up the true spirit of the title.

Indeed, the high winds that struck Punta Arenas for the day of her connecting flight tested this concept even further by diverting her to Rio Gallegos for just enough hours to miss out on the only weekly flight from Punta to Mount Pleasant so she was stuck in Punta for an extra week while she waited on the next available flight. Not all ended badly; Falklands friends can always be called upon in times of need and we put her in touch with another friend of ours who took her down to the stunning Torres del Paines National Park for most of the week and we reshuffled her three week itinerary into a two week variant so here’s what we’ve been up to recently:

Due to the wish to avoid ‘cruise ship days’ (where the larger cruise ships that stop into Stanley for day visits can double the population for the day and detract from the wonder of some of the more serene sights in the Islands) we decided to head straight out to one of the highlights of the Falklands that regular readers will be familiar with: Volunteer Point. Driving 45 minutes out of town (on road) you reach the settlement of Johnsons Harbour (home of the Bake Safe – a mandatory stop for all passers-by that runs as an honesty box of baked goods) before you switch to your low range gearbox and head off road into a largely featureless plain for an hour and a half of some very soft driving conditions. We’ve done it wetter that this trip once before, but this was a great introduction to Falklands driving for our new arrival. Too bad she waited a few days before telling us she got car-sick!

Poor Ellie was treated to some of the worst weather that we’ve had in a Falklands Summer so we had a few instances of rearranging plans but one effect of coming somewhere so far away is that you quickly develop a ‘wrap up and get on with it mentality’. As you can see, the strong Southerly wind didn’t stop us taking the short but steep walk up Mount Harriet to learn about the battle for the peak (and the surrounding ones) and look for leftover 1982 detritus, of which there is a significant amount.

As much as the sights in and around Stanley are interesting (one day, honestly, I will talk more about Stanley itself), we wanted to show off what we consider to be the real attractions of the Falklands and most of those are out in Camp so we planned a couple of day trips but also some extended trips away. The first of these was a slightly odd return to my recent workplace as a guest. Sea Lion Island is close to Stanley, small enough to explore quite easily and offers the best all-round experience according to the Tourist Board (and we happen to agree as being looked after in the Lodge is very relaxing). So off we went for two nights to show off the islands. I don’t need so many photos of Sea Lion as my previous post covered it, but we did encounter one or two not-so-little highlights despite the odd bit of atrocious weather:

It was soon becoming clear that we were going to have to plough on regardless of weather and, importantly, Ellie didn’t seem to mind too much so the day after landing back in not-so-sunny Stanley we slotted in another of our favourite day trips: Whale Point. This one has it all: isolation, a nice beach, penguins, elephant seals, whale bones, off-roading and a shipwreck with a cool history. It even offers a much easier intro to off-road driving in the Islands so we’ve tended to get guests to drive us out there.

From there, we packed up our cars for a long-awaited trip that we had planned, now with the fortuitous addition of Ellie: the West! We love the West. It’s hard to describe it: half the size of Northern Ireland with a population of some 200 people, you can drive for hours and see no-one and nothing but the road and landscape. It’s even stranger to realise that the roads were only built in the 1990s so, until then, it was off-road, by air or around the coast to get between settlements. It’s more hilly, more sunny and more green than the East, with it’s own distinct feel. I love it for the whole experience. The ferry across is a wonder in itself: check out the Gentoo colony by the ‘dock’ at Newhaven, reverse onto the ferry (not always easy after a muddy drive restricts your view), whale watch from the bridge on the way across then admire the Commersons dolphins as you arrive at Port Howard (which, because of the geography, you can’t actually see until you turn into it so the whole time it feels like the ferry is steaming toward the hills dead ahead). There are various settlements and places to stay on the West (mostly with farmers) but this trip we had opted for Port Edgar (self-catering) for two nights then Fox Bay (catered) for two nights.Port Edgar is just a serene place to be, stunning views, nice walking and a great experience. It’s not rammed with wildlife, but there are penguins if you fancy the drive and we were treated to some Peales dolphins in the bay in front of our cottage both days we were there.

Part of our reason for going to Port Edgar was that it offered the possibility of a day trip to Port Stephens (see the map page to get some sense of it). It’s about an hour and half to drive, then you can walk around the coast until you reach Wood Cove, site of a HUGE Gentoo colony (with some Kings thrown in beside).

We had hoped also to reach the ‘Indian Village’ (named after the unusual geological formations found there) but the weather was against us. In the end, this paid off as we spent all of our time at Wood Cove instead, where we witnessed dozens then hundreds of Gentoo penguins gathering out to sea. It seemed odd that so many were gathering and, having spent so long studying the behaviour of all of the penguins here, we suspected that there must have been a predator around to make them gather in such numbers. Sure enough, this guy appeared patrolling up and down the enclosed bay along with a second male spotted shortly after:

DSC_0670

Inevitably, the numbers grew enough to make the Gentoos more confident and finally make a run into shore, leading to us being lucky enough to witness this breathtaking spectacle:

From Port Edgar, we moved further up the coast to the main settlement at Fox Bay (technically two settlements, East and West on either point of a cove). We were staying at the downright swanky Coast Ridge Cottage with Nuala, who supplied us with hearty home-cooked food and a warm welcome. Fox Bay is a very scenic area, with great birdlife to enjoy (between the hail storms and terrible winds we had, obviously):

We had a less eventful crossing back over to the East, only a couple of whale sightings but plenty of albatross buzzing the ferry. We did stop to have a nosey around Port Howard before we got on board, giving a little explanation about the workings of Camp settlements including the shearing sheds

Back in Stanley, there was obviously time to enjoy the outstanding Museum (though I would say that) and to stock up on penguin souvenirs (though it brings me great sadness to report that not a single souvenir tea towel was purchased) before we finally managed to get on a Kidney Island trip. So terrible has been the weather that almost all of the boat trips to Kidney have been cancelled of late, so we felt extremely lucky to get out at last and show off one more impressive bird spectacle. Approximately 160,000 Sooty Shearwaters nest on Kidney, alongside the Rockhoppers and Sea Lions that use the island. We were also lucky enough to be able to see some whales from the cliffs on the far side before we returned to the beach to watch all of the Shearwaters return in the evening:

And for her final day, we gave Ellie one more opportunity to see her favourites: the Gentoos of Bertha’s Beach. This time of year the juveniles from this year’s eggs are just starting to head down to the beach and are becoming much more curious so they’ll happily wander up to people and disobey the ‘keep 6 metres’ rule on wildlife:

We can only hope that the difficulties of reaching these islands were worth it for our good friend and that she had a suitably enjoyable once-in-a-lifetime trip to see us. We were more than happy to show off our home and it does us a lot of good to get a reminder of how unusual our home is. I, for one, have been getting a little blas√© about living here and it’s good to have a return to ground level, to be reminded that we’ll remember this forever.

Thank you for visiting Ellie!