One Year Ago

I’ve been meaning to write this for a whole year, so I thought it was better to write it now before Christmas dawns upon us again. On 13th December 2016, one year ago, my parents arrived in the Falklands to be our first family visitors here (which is of little surprise given the cost of the flights). It was incredibly exciting for us to show them our home and I thought it would be a good idea to write up their trip and provide a good outline of how to spend a few weeks in the Falklands. Hopefully they had a good time, so perhaps this might be of some use to anyone who might find themselves here one day. They arrived to a sunny Falkland Islands, though as it turned out that wasn’t to be the precedent. Within their first few days, they were treated to the sights of Stanley: the excellent Museum, a lecture by local historian John Smith (whose book, 74 Days, is well worth a read), dinner at the unfortunately-named Malvina House Hotel and, of course, their first penguins at Gypsy Cove.

 

Within their first week, we were lucky enough to catch a low Summer tide. I say lucky as we’d heard it was possible to walk out to the Lady Elizabeth shipwreck, so when we spotted the tide was low enough, we surprised Bailey on his lunch from work with a picnic on the sand-bank in the shadow of the iconic shipwreck of Stanley Harbour. Not your usual luncheon spot, even we’ll admit.

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Lunch with the Lady

In order to feed my Dad’s fishing obsession, we left Bailey in work and made our way across to Newhaven (the ferry port/concrete ramp with tyres) to spend some time among the gentoo penguin colony there before hopping on the Concordia Bay ferry to the West Island. Following our departure at Port Howard (as ever, accompanied by the dozens of Commersons Dolphins who seem to love the ferry’s arrival), we made our way West for Hill Cove but only after a stop at the Port Howard Museum (which is a little more hands-on than most museums filled with the remnants of conflict). We arrived at the stunning settlement in unusually-wooded surroundings.IMG_3165 Hill Cove’s Peter Nightingale opened his home to us in the classic Falklands welcoming way and we enjoyed spending time with him and Duck – possibly the only pet Falklands Flightless Steamer Duck in the World! We spent our days fishing in the areas surrounding Hill Cove in order for John to take advantage of the Sea Trout fishing here that, we are told, is among the best in the World. Bailey flew in Friday after work and joined John for a spot of fishing on Saturday morning, catching the first fish of the weekend! But it was only a mullet, not the trout we’d been hoping for. John was fishing for bigger game. The pools at Crooked Inlet saw John bringing in some success so trout was finally on the menu (a 2.5lber and 4.5lber).

 

We headed back to Stanley to await the arrival of my brother and sister (the return ferry wasn’t uneventful: it showed my parents their first albatross spotting). Unfortunately, as is the way so often with Falklands flights, they were delayed both at RAF Brize Norton and on Ascension, leaving them to enjoy the finest mass accommodation that the British Military can offer. Reviews from Scott on arrival were 1* for their first place, then things went downhill on Ascension.

 

With the whole McKechnie family finally with us at 51 degrees South,it was time to show them why we live so far from Ireland. First port of call was the lengthy Bertha’s Beach for Jess and Scott to see some Gentoos up close and personal. On the way, Bailey showed them the start of the track to Whale Point, where Mum wasn’t sure the car would make it up the short slope to BEGIN the off-road drive. They were in for a shock over the next few weeks as we had some remote destinations in mind! We ventured, then, to one of Bailey’s favourite places on the Falkland Islands: Whale Point. The Point lies about an hour off-road from the MPA road and has more penguins (of course), an elephant seal colony and the wreck of the ship St Mary. The family were amazed by how close they could get to the wildlife. It seemed that photos don’t do it justice and you have to see it to understand, especially when you’re sitting feet from a 4-tonne elephant seal burping and farting. On the way back, Jess and Scott got a taste of TRUE off-road driving in our Pajero. Scott, in particular, was hooked and spent much of the return journey offering to take over at any point. I think that was a good introduction to what lay ahead.

 

Back in Stanley, due the awful weather that was to plague us for the next few weeks, Christmas carols under the Whalebone Arch on Christmas Eve were moved to the Parish Hall but we were treated to the Zimbabwean de-miners choir (who missed a trick in not calling themselves the D-Minors).

As has become our Falklands Christmas tradition, we hosted a drinks party at Midday, followed by a walk to the Cape Pembroke Lighthouse (after Bailey had been able to source the key by collecting one of the Museum workers from her home to open up the Museum: only in the Falklands!). Sadly, the Boxing Day races were flooded out so we kept things local with a swift walk up Mount Tumbledown to see the view, get a little bit of history (of course) and see some remnants of the ’82 conflict. We followed this with some drinks in Stanley’s cheapest pub (the Stanley Arms) to witness the shock from London-based siblings on getting a round in.

 

Having been here for quite a while now, we know the place fairly well so we’d planned a good few trips to help the family see the highlights.Next up was a day-trip to the settlement of Goose Green to take in a circular walk including the daunting Bodie Creek Bridge and some wreckage from a downed plane from the conflict. This also gave Jess another chance to drive in Camp and shake off her London shackles.

The next day, we then went out to spend the night at the settlement of San Carlos. As well as being the sight of the British landings and a small British cemetery, it is also home to White Grass Ceramics where you can paint your own souvenir pottery from the Falklands. We had a great time with Andi and Matthew there and even better to have some take-away gifts to remember the trip with.

From San Carlos, we met up with our friends Regi and Pete to provide the good-practise second car on a further off-road journey to the most Northerly point of East Falkland: Cape Dolphin. I’d wanted to take my family there as it’s beautiful, is a fun trip and also because of the sheer number of sealions breeding at the end of the point. We had a fine day, for a change, and the sealions didn’t disappoint by putting in many an appearance.

As many of you will have seen before, if there is one place that is high on every visitor’s list here in the FI, Volunteer Point is seen as a must. I think it’s the combination of the adventure it takes to get there and the photogenic flat beach leaving excellent reflections for photos. Oh, and the largest King Penguin colony in the Falklands, of course. Where gentoos, Magellanics and even Rockhoppers are relatively common elsewhere in the Falklands, the stunning Kings aren’t found in too many places en masse so Volunteers combines a great opportunity to see these guys, as well as others, with a real off-road experience across Falklands wilderness (I seriously don’t know how people navigate there) and the chance of other encounters like the occasional sealion. Once again, I’ll let the pictures do some justice to the memorable moments you get at Volunteers;

There was not time to be wasted on this trip, as you’re probably starting to get a sense of. When people have traveled so far and paid so much to be somewhere, I figured it was best to squeeze as much into the trip as possible, so a pricey-but-worth-it trip to Sealion Island had to be included in the itinerary! Of course, Sealion has the chance of seeing the orca pods made famous  by BBC’s Life, but it also has the largest elephant seal colony in the Falklands, excellent relaxing accommodation, gentoos, magellanics, rockhoppers and all kinds of other birdlife. I also wanted the family to experience one of our favourite things about the weekends away: flying on the Islanders! It’s still crazy to think that we ring up/email and a flight is put on for us to get places. A charter plane isn’t so expensive after all! We had two nights on Sealion, spending New Year having great craic with Micky and the team there. Sadly, the orca were off having their own NYE party elsewhere, but the Rockhoppers gave us enough entertainment just by trying to make their way up the cliffs and back to their nests through the turbulent seas. Why they choose/have evolved to take on such risky nesting habits we will never quite figure out, but you can spend hours watching them coming in and scaling the cliffs themselves. Another thing we’ve learned coming here: Penguins are excellent climbers! Who knew?

After the madness of the last few days, we took a couple of days back in Stanley, enjoying the nightlife with Scott fixating on the pool at Deanos Bar (with it’s infamous penguin-in-a-top-hat carpet) and taking some leisurely walks around Stanley to take in the views from Sapper Hill. It seemed this wasn’t to be enough for my family, though, as Dad had had a taste of the Islander flights and wanted more. We hadn’t planned on it, but Dad had spotted a gap in the itinerary after Jess’ departure so we decided to fill it with an impromptu trip to Saunders Island. I can’t figure out if the major draw was the chance to see albatross up close at The Neck or the chance to just hop on the Islander again, but a few phone calls later and we were booked and ready to go! For what it offers, Saunders does work out more expensive than the other Islands, but a night in the settlement wasn’t restrictively priced and, once again, the ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ mentality kicked in so off we went to show the family just how big sea birds can get:

As all great holidays must come to an end, we had a couple of days to stock up on all of the penguin souvenirs we might need for the rest of our lives and prepared for departure from the Islands. This wasn’t so bad, as I was flying back with the family this time.

Hopefully this gives you an idea of how a few weeks here can be spent, the kinds of memories you can make and why a little bit of an adventurous spirit can go a long way in enriching your life.

The Social Scene

There are approximately 2500 people here on the islands. This makes it similar in size to a village in the UK and therefore there are social expectations far removed from the silence, smartphone-glaring and eye contact avoidance of a London tube train, for example.On a day to day basis there’s the hellos and waving at all you pass on the road, but there also comes with this a surprising number of events and social occasions that we find ourselves attending. In the past few weeks Han had her first opportunity to visit His Excellency the Governor’s official residence at Government House for an evening celebrating the Spanish language (no, neither of us speak Spanish but it’s not what you know…) where two Doctor friends of ours were performing some readings and we were treated to some free drinks and tapas:

Following that, the perks of being a History teacher saw us invited to the opening of the new Shackleton exhibition at the excellent Stanley Historic Dockyard Museum featuring some items borrowed from South Georgia (the closest we’ve got so far, sadly):

We’ve also, as mentioned, had the Liberation Day celebrations, which involve a parade at the 1982 Memorial followed by several hours of free food and drinks supplied by the Government in the Town Hall for the whole of Stanley to attend (and, of course, private events througout the day). We took the opportunity to also visit the Liberation Room (the site of the surrender) and the Museum again for some apt historic intake:

While we were at the Museum with some new arrivals to the islands we did one of the many things that you just wouldn’t be allowed to do in so many other places; we picked up the key to the Cape Pembroke Lighthouse and took a sunny walk out to the Eastern-most point in the Falkland Islands:

It is telling that, in previous trips to Cape Pembroke, we’ve come across a small group of elephant seals and the occasional sea lion and none were to be seen this time around; Winter sees so much of the wildlife leave that only the gentoo penguins really stick around to be seen. Thankfully, our concerns about there not being much to see and do over Winter are so far proving unfounded.

New experiences have been a consistent theme of our time here and that continued last weekend, but that’s a story for another day.

New discoveries

This is a very long overdue post on my new discoveries here in the Falklands:
The restricted flights from South America cause the previously mentioned high cost of fresh fruit and vegetables. This has several side effects and one is the widespread gardening that occurs across town and Camp. There are more hours of daylight than the UK here but the predominant wind means that many a polytunnel adorns a Stanley garden. This has led to gardening, among other traditional hobbies, becoming a surprisingly competitive past-time. As many of you might have seen on the TV series ‘An Island Parish’, set here in the Falklands, one of the big events of the calendar is the annual Horticultural Show.I was lucky enough to receive a tall standing polytunnel for Christmas which I had placed in the garden but the wind soon saw to it that that didn’t stay together. With our pet sheep, Milo, having then gleefully eaten the one tomato plant we had going and our topsoil being all of a few inches deep we weren’t able to enter the gardening section but the baking category beckoned! This year I entered three categories in the baking: meringues, loaf cake and brownies. As I had only just arrived on the Islands at the time of the Show, my previously unknown name obviously caused a bit of curiosity as our entry into the raffle saw some comments of recognition at the new name in town. Small island life.

The traditional past-times don’t stop there, however, as I have also joined the local Quilting club which, to my surprise, I have become very addicted to. There is a local haberdashery shop (Sew What) that is open on Saturdays which I have spent at least 2 and a half hours in on several occasions chatting to locals and discussing upcoming projects.

I’ve also made my first quilt, that I’m extremely proud of but is on route to Ireland to my beautiful God-Daughter Rosie and I am looking at a slightly larger project to accommodate the cold Winter down here.FullSizeRender

Next up, we’ll be needing to get Milo shorn and I’ll be in touch with the Guild of Spinners and Weavers to see what we can do with his finest Merino fleece. Hopefully from sheep to…well, to be confirmed next season. Watch this space for quilting updates!
I’ll try not to leave it so long until my next update this time and stop letting Bailey hog all the posts.

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):

Good eats!

One of the things we didn’t consider when moving down was the diet. The difficult diplomatic relationship with Argentina means that the airspace, and therefore flights into Stanley from South America, can be precious. Combined with the local produce and the packaged goods that can be shipped in, this has the effect of driving some food prices to a bizarre level.  Going shopping for the first time does give you a bit of a shock as things that you would normally get cheaply in the UK (like a lettuce or some tomatoes) tend to be triple UK prices.

Having said that, what it costs in food is more than made up for in the lower tax rates, the diesel being 45p per litre, the lack of council tax, TV license and water rates. There is an abattoir on the Islands and there is a lot of local lamb and beef available, so you end up in the bizarre situation that a steak or cut of lamb will cost you less than the lettuce to go on the side of it. Also, fresh fruit isn’t easily available so the simple things become complicated – like the small print on the Banana Split in the cafe IMG_2675 It was a treat, then, to be surprised by Bailey with my first peach since arriving.IMG_2575

I was also very happy to find a bit of home comfort when walking around the shops.

 

Speaking of food, we also took delivery of two hens to keep us going with eggs and a Merino lamb called Milo (only kidding, he’s not for food; we just don’t have a lawnmower and sheep are easier to get hold of).

This is quite common, don’t worry. When driving around town you will often see a small front garden with a sheep or horse that’s been borrowed to keep the grass down, it’s not just us! We’re becoming Falkland Islanders, slowly but surely.

We’ve had an upsetting weekend due to an incident that we won’t write about here out of respect for those involved and having to say goodbye to some close friends who will be sorely missed, so to take us away from it all and remind us about enjoying life we went to a place that you can never be sad at: the white sand dunes of Yorke Bay and its Gentoo penguin colonies. Watching them in their little tuxedoes, watching them belly flop into the water and fart around in the clear blue surf will  always put a smile on our face. Unfortunately, you can’t get too close here as you can see:IMG_2790IMG_2794IMG_2787IMG_2797Fear not, the penguins are too light to set off the mines so this really is the ultimate conservation project: no human interference possible!

Snaps from the walk:

My first post! I thought I’d better jump on the blogging bandwagon and get a post in there before Bailey gets too far ahead of me, not that we’re competitive. These are just 5 shots from the trip we went on yesterday. I still get excited every time I see a penguin. This little guy was all on his own playing around in the surf. However we did spot quite a few in their burrows, nesting away.

One little Magellanic Penguin, Gypsy Cove

Looking out through one of the shipwrecks. There are many shipwrecks in various states around the Falklands, both wooden and metal.

A Falklands Thrush, apparently. No zoom needed, they’re quite friendly like the rest of the wildlife.

A Magellanic Cormorant/Shag, nesting near Gypsy Cove

Bailey getting closer to the Night-herons, with Cormorants nesting in the foreground. The gorgeous beach in the background is Yorke Bay, sadly littered with landmines and only accessible to the Magellanic penguins that inhabit it.