No, not off Scotland

As previously explained, I quite like to share the odd tidbit of Falklands trivia. This appeared on Facebook this week and it rings true of many visitors’ comments that we’ve heard here (along the lines of “you don’t realise how big the Falklands are until you get here”). Now comprehend the following with a population of 3,300 people (about the same as a UK village).

Contrary to popular belief the Falkland Islands are not somewhere off the coast of Scotland but this is how big they’d look if they were. The Falklands are actually about the size of Wales (UK) or Connecticut (USA)

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That Monday feeling

Not long ago, I posted a video made by a travel blogger. As a historian, I know all about how projected images can and do often (usually) skew reality: it is, after all, the basis of all social media and the reason why such platforms are so toxic at a social level. Still, we take part in it and, hopefully, remember that everything that we are seeing is what the creator wants us to see (or we don’t and our mental health has been repeatedly proven to suffer). It’s nothing new: I recall running a lesson on images of a monarch from over 500 years ago. My class of 13 year-olds were able to create a set of criteria that was being used to project a particular image (facial expressions, clothing, background, objects etc) and it took a surprising amount of time before they realised that the very same criteria could be applied to almost all of their friends’ social media profiles to prove that we have always and likely will always project images in a way that benefits us. Thus, this blog is just like one such object that happened to be in one of those images: a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we want to keep friends and family members up to date on what we’re doing and preserve our own experiences for future reference (already it is nice to look back on). On the other hand, we live in a small and isolated community with many close links and are contractually obliged by Falkland Islands Government (the largest sole employer in the country) to not say anything negative in public media about said employer. If you’re thinking that, perhaps, such a policy could stifle innovation or accountability then my only response can be an ambiguous “who can say?”. So this IS a projected image; a highlights reel of our life in another place. Why doesn’t this matter to me today? Read on:

There are, of course, downsides to living anywhere (especially Milton Keynes). While the Falklands is an amazing place to live, it can also be very frustrating as the potential of the place doesn’t always match the reality. When you see what some other small islands are doing taking advantage of their small populations to make mind-blowing progress on environmental issues, it gets a little irritating: taking Orkney as a case in point. Today, however, such irritations were kept well in check. I finished work and was driving home when I noticed what a nice evening it was (nothing unusual so far, the winter sunrises and sunsets are often the best) so I decided to check out a tip-off that I’d seen about some sightings off of Cape Pembroke so I extended my commute by about 15 minutes (that’s four-fold, mind). I soon pulled over at the edge of the road, halfway to Cape Pembroke Lighthouse to see several Southern Right Whales in the shallow waters between the Cape and the nearby Tussock Islands (I tried to photograph the coast so you can get some scale):

southern right2southernright3southernright4The mighty Southern Right Whales  (an excellent infographic on them here) are distinct for the calcification on the head and for the time they spend in comparatively shallow waters, so it was stunningly close to shore to be watching these mighty giants.

As if an after-work free whale-watching session wasn’t enough, they were joined by other cetaceans along for the experience (Commersons Dolphins) :Southern Right and DolphinSouthern Right and Dolphin2southern right and dolphin3Here I was thinking that just the sunset in this maritime setting was going to be cool enough:ladylizAs the blogger in the video so rightly put: there is something about this place that makes the outside world drift away. When you’re standing in a shirt and tie 20 minutes after finishing work watching whales and dolphins from the roadside on a cool Monday evening as the sun leaves an amber hue on everything around you, it’s hard to think about anything negative at all. We do live far from some of our friends and family and this place does have its daily irritations, but for all of that we can have other-worldly experiences like this. For nothing. Regularly. I’m finding it hard to argue with that projected image today.

Our Home

For friends and family that perhaps struggle to understand why we live so far from ‘home’, hopefully videos like this will give you a better idea about why we have chosen to live our lives in this remote corner of the World:

Ayo Gorkhali

It may seem odd to title a post from the South Atlantic in Nepalese, but regulars to Pengoing South will know that I am rarely inexplicable. If you can’t wait until the end of the post to find out why then various online translation services are available that can enlighten you. It’s late in the month, I know, to be getting around to updating and usually I’d have some explanation such as a stranding on an island or the general hustle and bustle of Falklands life. This is, after all, the most social place we’ve ever lived and makes island life extremely attractive. It is little coincidence that so many friends have left this transient community and found themselves on other islands (hello to our friends on the Islands of Man, Wight, Jersey, Guernsey and the Shetlands to name but a few). Still, looking back over our most recent photos, I realised that we hadn’t actually been as busy as we have been in previous years. Could it be that, after nearly four years on this remote outpost, we are finally calming down our time here? Certainly we’ve been away a little less than previous years and we’ve spent less time adventuring in the latter half of summer. The high season, such as it is here, has certainly ended and there are key symbols of that to be seen across the islands. img_0002The final cruise ship of the Summer closes the season by sponsoring an evening of free music in the Town Hall (ambitiously calling itself Falkfest, but I guess it’s all relative). The annual Tourist Board Tourism Awards take place, which I have to confess is usually an event that utterly passes us by but this year I was invited to collect my Tour Guide certificate (and also perhaps as part of my work on Sea Lion Island) so another fine evening reception at Government House beckoned. With the summer season ending, so we also said goodbye to several friends who had been working here (some repeat visitors that we’ll see again, some we may not), which has been a constant theme of our time here (still, we’re not ones to complain as I dare say we’ll be doing the same to others someday).

We’ve become adjusted to this constant turnover;; it is one of the nuances of living here. There are plenty of those! For example: the Queen’s Birthday is, unlike the UK, a public holiday here in the Falklands. A parade of the three armed forces plus the Falkland Islands Defence Force takes place on the seafront, with a fly-past from Mount Pleasant’s Typhoon jets and a 21-gun salute from the Victory Guns (two guns stationed on Victory Green only fired on key ceremonial occasions). It is always a reminder of just how ‘British’ this British Overseas Territory is.

In order to commemorate the Queen’s Birthday, Stanley played host to the Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas (there it is!). They flew all the way down to assist in the celebrations and were warmly welcomed by the population. The Gurkhas are one of several Brigades with a familial connection to the Islands and these relationships are even more pronounced at this time of year. 2nd April marks the anniversary of the Argentine invasion and almost each day for the 74 days that followed has some significance to those who lived through it. There’s an excellent day-by-day unfolding for Twitter users here: https://twitter.com/hthjones but we are re-reading ’74 Days’ by John Smith. John is a good friend to us (with a surreal family link to home) but to those who don’t know him: he’s a local historian who recognised the historic nature of the events taking place in his home, remained in Stanley and wrote a diary of the day-to-day experiences of the civilian in wartime that has since been published. It is well worth a read, especially as people commonly do here: one diary entry per day from 2nd as the 74 days unfolded.

Anyway, back to the Gurkhas. Hailing from Kent, with an Anglo-Indian (and short) ex-military father, the Gurkhas have often intrigued me and it’s always good to see them here. img_0229The band were kind enough to put on a well-attended public performance in the FIDF Hall where we found out that, unlike most military bands, the Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas aren’t musicians before they join the Gurkha Regiment (I did wonder how many tuba and cornet players would naturally emerge from the hills of Nepal) so their performance was even more impressive and further proves the adaptability of the Gurkha soldier. I don’t think I’d cope too well with being handed a brass instrument and told to learn it to band standard within a couple of years while also completing soldierly training and duties. Somewhat bizarrely, the conductor was a native of Kerry in Ireland so there was some familiarity for Han there too.

My run-ins with the Gurkhas didn’t end there. The following day I was in attendance at the unveiling of a recreation of a Mani wall (a type of wall found in the high Himalayas with Buddhist symbolism) that was to act as the first local memorial to the role of the 7th Gurkha Rifles in 1982. If you fancy a laugh and are also quizzical about the role that the Gurkhas played in 1982, it is well worth looking at some of the fanciful Argentine propaganda concerning them from the time. It is also interesting to note that Argentina, somewhat ironically, attempted to launch an objection to their deployment with the UN.

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The band add a poignancy to the proceedings

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The memorial is unveiled

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The memorial with Mount William in the background, where Argentine soldiers ran from the Gurkha offensive denying them active combat

Sadly, shortly after the unveiling of the memorial to 7th Gurkha Rifles I attended the unveiling of a second memorial nearby to a member of the Queens Gurkha Engineers:Cpl Krishnakumar Rai (QGE) small Corporal Krishnakumar Rai QGE was killed on 11th November 1982 in this spot while clearing the battlefield and setting off an Argentine booby trap. As you can see, the landscape that he was involved in clearing is no longer denied to the people of the islands (as some areas still are) and is now used to bring renewable energy to the population. It is hopefully of some tiny comfort to his family and friends that some good came of his sacrifice.

This ceremony had an added significance as my Dad served in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and was involved in bomb disposal for much of his 22-year military career. I couldn’t help but wonder how many times he too could have been in such a precarious position (particularly on very active duties such as his Northern Ireland deployment) and how fine the line between life and death must so often be for those whose professions are inherently bound to armed conflict.

37 years may seem a long time for any community, but sadly conflict doesn’t seem as easy to shake off as peace.

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:

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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:

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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:

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Picturesque Estancia

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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:

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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 blasé 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!

Summer on Sea Lion

For the past six weeks, I have been living on Sea Lion Island at the Southern end of the Falklands archipelago. I’ve posted about our several trips to Sea Lion Island before, always as tourists looking for a relaxing getaway in Summer. We’ve spent up to a week on some of the islands here, but this time things were going to be a little different.

Sea Lion Island is an island of just over 2200 acres lying 10 miles South of the mainland East Falkland. It is accessed only by a FIGAS Islander flight of approximately 40 minutes, landing on a clay and gravel airstrip 400 metres long. Unlike almost all of the other inhabited islands of the Falkland group, Sea Lion Island is owned by the Falkland Island Development Corporation, itself owned and run by Falkland Island Government. Micky, the MD of Wild Falklands Limited, leases the Island from FIG and operates it as a National Nature Reserve with hotel lodge-style accommodation. The Falklands criteria for Nature Reserve status are strict, so no sheep or cows can be farmed on the Island (making it almost unique among islands we are able to visit; New Island being the only other one).

Similarly, no cats, rats or mice are present on the island, which means that ground-nesting birds (which the Falklands has in abundance given the almost complete lack of trees for nesting in) can thrive, including the species that are endemic to (only found in) the Falklands: the curious Tussacbirds and the petite Cobb’s Wren. Alongside the bird life, Sea Lion Island hosts three (though sometimes five) species of penguin, a sea lion colony that almost allows it to earn its name and approximately 95% of the Falklands’ elephant seal population (over 1000 individuals). All of this squeezed into a relatively small area means that it’s easy to find exciting wildlife opportunities. Oh yes, and those seals attract two pods of orca whales, made famous by the BBC with a little help from Attenborough for one particular individual’s hunting technique (the BBC didn’t mention it, but she’s ‘Puma’ by name).

The elephant seal population and the orca habits here have been the focus of the tireless and trying work of the Elephant Seal Research Group, who spend their entire day outside come what may to observe, record and analyse the seal population. They’ve been doing this for over 23 years, which I may be correct in saying makes the Sea Lion Island elephant seals the longest continually studied marine mammal population anywhere in the world. The updates provided by their intimate knowledge on their Facebook account are well worth an in-depth look, especially some of their videos. These guys see all of what this island can throw up.

Although we’ve been living on a remote island for some years now, this was to be a different kind of remote island living. East Falklands has an approximate permanent population of 3000, Sea Lion Island: 6. This was to be a life led without keys, a wallet or a phone, with even more limited internet access (a blessing if ever there was one) and (by choice) no television. Stores were all shipped in every 6 weeks (hauled up a gap in the rocks on a trolley), but the lodge had a chef so I was also to live without the need for shopping or cooking for my time there; no great difficulty on this remote island!

My time on the island began earnestly enough, with a day to get myself acquainted with my new role (the environs of which were a far cry from a classroom of teenagers). As if to signal that this was going to be a month of the unexpected, this poor fellow had turned up to moult and was battling the elements on the South Beach:

 

Similarly struggling with the weather, stumbling on this young pup that day seemed to herald the thought that ‘you know you’ve been in bed too long when…’DSC_6055

It’s not easy to summarise a six week experience in one post. So much can change and happen in what seems like such a short time. Especially here on small islands, the weather, wildlife and guests are constantly changing. It’s hard to decide if the weather or the guests were more frequent in their turnaround. I have to admit that I had some hesitance about starting to work with so many tourists in such a luxurious setting, as I wondered how many would be frustrating, overly demanding or even ignorant but I was pleased to enjoy meeting so many people from all over the world. Almost without exception, the visitors were worldly, environmentally aware, interesting and interested. I met everyone from an Argentine journalist to a Chilean TV crew right through to British veterans and enjoyed conversing with them all. That was easier said than done in some cases as I was living and working with three lovely Chileans who were very patient with me. Starting from zero Spanish, it’s amazing how much you can learn in such a short space of time when you’re fully immersed in it.

One thing that really came through from that was that so much of what we say and do transcends language and is so very international. If you’ve never lived with people whose first language differs to your own, it’s amazing to see how body language, intonation etc often cut across lingual boundaries – we’re all fundamentally human, with the same ideas, humour and interests but we just happen to use different words sometimes. In the current political climate, it’d be nice if more of the World realised that.

As I mentioned, Sea Lion Island isn’t large. Driving around it each day for tours and in my spare time, it didn’t take long to get to know the island and the various spots that might draw my attention and time. One of those is Rockhopper Point at the West end of the island. Regulars will already be familiar with the charms of the Rockhopper penguin but, with its steep cliffs and insane route in, this is one of the most dramatic penguin rookeries I’ve ever visited:

Alongside the Rockhoppers, there was also one Macaroni to be seen. Despite being the most numerous penguin on Earth (South Georgia, for example, is estimated to have 2.4 million of them) the Macaroni only rarely appears in the Falklands. Always nesting with the Rockhoppers and sometimes hybridising with them, the Macaroni was a little elusive but I did spot it a few times and it was also seen feeding a chick so there was likely, at one point, a hybrid in that creche (a Rockaroni and/or Macahopper, if you will). Still, it was nice to see all 5 species on one island:

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Macaroni Penguin

The Macaroni wasn’t the only one to be sharing the spot with the Rockhoppers. You’ll see in the photos above that there were also a few Imperial Cormorants nesting with the Rockies. While there were only a few nesting, that didn’t stop several thousand making the point their roosting spot for the evening. Combined with the sun setting in the West, it made for quite a scene each night after dinner:

The point is also home to the memorial to HMS Sheffield. She was hit by an Argentine Exocet missile 40 miles off the coast of Sea Lion Island during the 1982 conflict and the cross lines up with the point of impact (she later sank while being towed to safety). Sadly, twenty men died on board. It’s a poignant as well as beautiful spot:

The 1982 link turned out to be one of the few things that were known for certain about Sea Lion Island’s history so, as something of a Falklands historian, I took it upon myself to start gathering and writing up what we could find out. Soon enough, random historical documents began arriving addressed to me on the flights coming in and not too long after I’d produced a short booklet for Micky to display in the lodge. It’s available here: Sealion Final 02-2019 if you’re particularly interested in the social history of the islands. Given the stories outlined behind them, it was an honour to have one of my duties being to tidy the two graves found on the island.

Sea Lion Island is open from October (each year it has become something of a tradition for us to open the season with Micky) through to March and there’s something different going on at all times of the year as the annual breeding cycles take place. During my stay, the elephant seals were done breeding but had appeared on the beaches to moult and spent most of the day trying to warm up to help the process along. In the evenings, however, they were a little more active and the adolescent males were often to be found sparring to improve their skills ready for any fights come breeding season:

The elephant seals are slightly unusual as they breed October/November, but pretty much everything else was on a Summer cycle and so the islands were alive with offspring almost everywhere you looked:

Of particular interest on this front were the sea lions that so kindly lent their name to the island, as the males were fiercely territorial and could often be seen fighting to defend their harem. Thankfully, their colony was below a short cliff so there was no possibility of getting much closer to the action (not that I think I would have taken it):

They weren’t the only impressive predators to be found on the island:

Red-backed/Variable Hawks, Peregrine Falcons (seen several times but sadly, no photos), both types of caracara and short-eared owls all made me look up and pay attention to the bird life that was surrounding me. With so many people coming to visit the islands for the bird life, it was almost inevitable that I would gain much more knowledge about the other birds to be found there and it was surprisingly interesting to spend more time learning about the birds that so often surround us here. I’m not a twitcher, but it’s easy to see why they choose to come to the Falklands:

As if the island during the day wasn’t giving me enough to walk around for, quite a few nights allowed me to get out and see skies like I’ve never been lucky enough to witness  before. Being so far South and so far from light pollution, I couldn’t help but practise my night shots:

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Gentoo penguins

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The house I stayed in

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The Lodge

Finally, it wouldn’t be a trip to an island here without a few extra penguins thrown in for good measure, right? I mean, it’s only fair that the photos here reflect the time spent there:

Guardians of the South Atlantic

It’s always hard to communicate what life in the Falkland Islands is like so when I come across something that helps, I like to pass it on:

I’ll be leaving Sea Lion Island shortly, so you can expect an update on that soon but, for now, enjoy this helpful look at life in the Falklands.

Marooned once more

Following our much anticipated trip last year (and with our ever-indefinite decision about the length of our time in these islands), Han and I had been keen to use some of the Summer to return to one place that we saw as being particularly special. So it was that New Island beckoned once more! New Island is the most Westerly of the Falklands archipelago and is therefore subject to some of the roughest seas, the most interesting geography, some alternate wildlife and some of the more fascinating history (as mentioned in our previous post). Unlike most of the other inhabited outer islands, New Island is not a working sheep farm. Instead, it is owned and run by the New Island Conservation Trust primarily as a nature reserve and scientific research station, with the occasional bit of tourism from a few passing expedition vessels and itinerant islanders like ourselves.

We’re lucky to have been to New Island once before and we’re very glad to have had the opportunity to return as it isn’t always that easily done. The short airstrip means you can only land 2 people at once and only on a north westerly wind at a decent speed. This is understandable as the frighteningly short landing is a separate skill for the very talented pilots here.

As with much of the Falklands, in some ways it is hard to explain what makes New Island so special. In part, the proximity of the Settlement Rookery must play a part. This is a significant and very scenic colony of Rockhopper penguins (with the odd Macaroni thrown in), Black-browed Albatross and Imperial Cormorants set to a battered yet beautiful coastline with an atmospheric bowl providing shelter. It’s an easy place to wile away many hours, as we have done on almost every day that we’ve spent there. Visiting at this particular time of year adds an extra affiliation for the natural world as the annual breeding cycle is well underway and it seems that, in the chaos and gloom of so much of the world today, new life is to be found thriving here at every turn.

The Settlement Rookery is a short and picturesque walk from the small settlement in the harbour on New Island, which in itself holds its own charms at all times of the day.

New Island differs to some of the other islands in other ways, too. It is rare among the Falklands archipelago for hosting a colony of Southern Fur Seals (more numerous on South Georgia, but 3 years in and that island still eludes me). Much like the Rockhopper penguins that they share the cliff with, Southern Fur Seals astound you with their ability to scale cliff sides and cheerfully reside in the most awkward (if pretty) of locations. As if this wasn’t enough, the geography of this Western end combine with the lofty height to allow you to view both New Island and the South Atlantic, either for many miles if you wish or simply for a few hundred metres to observe the seals in their own environment. It’s hard not to allow such sights to force a new perspective on captive animals.

If the main settlement at New Island is a little cosmopolitan for you, the Conservation Trust have alternative accommodation available. The Northern end of the island, accessed by a one hour off-road drive, plays host to the honeymoon suite; a scaled back hut with a bed, a camping stove a toilet and an old outdoor mesh-sided meatsafe turned nesting site for some very protective Striated Caracaras. Striated Caracaras (local name the Johnny Rook) may well be one of the rarest birds of prey in the World, but not on New Island they’re not; it has something like 70% of the world population. The hut is conveniently located in the midst of a significant Gentoo penguin colony, which isn’t the first time a hut has evidently been erected here for the penguins.

The sad fact about this is that, while we were spending time here to admire them, those staying here previously were here to exploit them, boiling them down in trypots to extract penguin oil. Some devastating accounts exist of this most gruesome of industries.

I wonder whether our predecessors admired the dramatic promontory that extends out to sea and overlooks the albatross colony and the Rockhoppers that walk over a mile to nestle alongside them.  This unique location allows the closest of encounters with the most majestic birds to breed on these shores. I wonder, too, whether they were able to appreciate the stunning beach and the sealions that patrol there hoping to take penguins for themselves.

Penguin oil and sealing missions aside, I made reference to New Island’s unique history in my previous post about the island. In chronological and curiosity order, the highlights are firstly that New Island was the scene of the dramatic and mindboggling theft of Captain Charles H Barnard’s ship by the passengers of the wrecked Isabella that he was in the process of rescuing, leaving him and four others to unenviable deaths in 1813. Barnard defied the odds and survived two winters in the Falklands before his rescue, allowing him to record his tale in his memoirs Marooned (and for David Miller to then give us the big picture in The Wreck of the Isabella, both well worth a read if you can get your hands on them). Barnard’s achievement is commemorated in the Barnard Museum Building (the supposed site of his hut, following some questionable historical research) and, most memorably, in a recent sell-out lecture I gave to the Historic Dockyard and Museum in Stanley.

A little over one hundred years later, New Island was chosen as the site of the Falklands’ only land-based whaling station before it was moved to the more horrifically productive waters of South Georgia. Still, some remains of the station are to be found and walking among it gives an odd feeling of just how different the site would have been.

Ironically, New Island’s whale population turned out in force to be seen from the cliffs as if in some demonstration of defiance at the Island’s morbid past:

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Finally, as if to truly show the global extent of the twentieth century, World War II saw unfortunate lookouts posted on the hilltops of New Island to give warning of the perceived Japanese threat. Erroneously named in several publications as one of Barnard’s lookouts, the WWII lookout hut still exists and the view has undoubtedly changed little since.

All in all, the human impacts on this island are almost as memorable as the natural. Nowhere is this more significant than The Settlement. To those who haven’t visited the Falklands, it is difficult to explain the Settlements. They are often composed of one main house with several peripheral farm buildings, but they do vary in size. On the outer islands and on East and West Falklands, they have been historically isolated but often remain the centre of all human activity for that island or farm (remembering that farms in the Falklands can be over 200,000 acres of purely grassland and fences). The settlements are almost all located on the coast as this was the only option for transport to and from the farms for goods and wool respectively. New Island harbour’s most frequent visitors, however, are a pod of Peales Dolphins that grace the azure waters in front of the jetty, offering an enviable view while you have a cup of tea on the dockside.

Han was lucky enough to borrow a wetsuit and slip into the nippy waters for what I can only imagine was a pretty special swim:

As with our last trip to New Island, we ended up spending several extra days on the end of our trip as the weather decided to do us a favour and not allow flights to get in. On many other trips, this would have added stress to a holiday but with two extra days on the island with little other option, it’s easy to relax into it and enjoy whatever New Island throws on you:

Sadly, the time had to come for us to depart but, either because we know all of the FIGAS pilots or because they enjoy New Island trips as much as we do, we were in for an impromptu tour of the Western cliffs at low level before some aerial whale watching off the coast, finally rounding to unpopulated Staats Island on our way home to admire its dramatic coastline and see the introduced guanaco (a form of South American wild llama) population that has resided there since the 1930s.

Our thanks go to Alec and Giselle (the Wardens of New Island) and the New Island Conservation Trust for allowing us to visit the island and for embedding this remote corner of the South Atlantic firmly in our hearts.

Time on remote islands, it seems, can become addictive. I’d advise anyone offered the opportunity to spend any time on South Atlantic islands to seize it, as you’ll see I did in my next post.

Absence makes the blog grow fonder

I know, I know. We’ve had a much anticipated second marooning on New Island with its standard deluge of experiences and yet Pengoing South is oddly silent on the matter. The fact is, I’m currently living on Sealion Island for 4-6 weeks and the internet is relayed here at a rate that can only be described as irritating. Expect absence from the blog until well into February, I’m afraid, but there will follow a burst of beauty in both written and photographic form. I had hoped to give you a taste of things to come, but I am unable to upload a single photograph on the internet here, so that should give a pretty damning explanation of the blog’s silence. Still, good things come to those who…

UPDATE: I figured out a way to upload A picture!dsc_6316 small