The founder of Bradt Travel Guides looks back on time in the Falkland Islands – and ponders its future
With the approach of the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, I feel like a parent watching helplessly as two grown siblings pursue a long and bitter feud.
It shouldn’t be like this. Britain and Argentina have a long history of friendship and cooperation; this argument about an isolated group of islands seems pointless. But not to the Falkland Islanders. And not to the Argentines.
In 1974 I spent a month in the Falklands, preceded by about three months in Argentina, and was back in both places just three months before the 1982 invasion. Joint visits like this were easy in those days; for more than a decade Argentina pursued a policy of wooing the Islanders through scholarships to boarding schools, free hospital treatment for the seriously ill, and twice-weekly flights between Comodoro Rivadavia and Stanley. The planes were packed with cheerful Argentines. Penguins had no appeal for them; it was the lure of British duty-free goods followed by a pint of beer in the Upland Goose.
But this olive branch was not taken – the Falkland Islanders were British; transfer of sovereignty was not an option.
To arrive at Stanley was to be transported back in time. Photos of the Queen hung in the Nissen hut that served as the airport; the Andrex paper in the pristine public loo brought tears to my eyes – well, I’d just spent a year backpacking in South America. There was no TV – only a few hours each day of local radio – and no international newspapers.
Families were avid for news of the outside world. Our plan had been to spend several days hiking to the king penguin colony at Volunteer Point, but we did little walking: each farmer radio-ed word of our approach to the next place, so as often as not we’d see a Land Rover bouncing down the track towards us when we were still shaking down our breakfast. We’d be offered a bed and yet another huge meal. No wonder we loved everything about the Falkland Islands.
So it was in Argentina. As we hitchhiked the country we met the same hospitality from people aptly described as ‘Italians who speak Spanish and think they’re English’.
There are more cultural bonds between Britain and Argentina than with any other South American nation, so when minister Nicholas Ridley visited the Falklands in 1980 to try to persuade them to accept a form of lease-back, he was offering a workable solution to the sovereignty issue. But the mission was doomed. I met no one who admitted speaking Spanish; ‘Argie sympathisers’ were regarded with suspicion. Argentina had tried, and failed, to use persuasion to secure its possession of the islands. A war, if won, unites people behind their leader. But they lost.
Now, once again, provocation in words and actions is stoking the anniversary fire. Yet I take heart from a Radio 4 interview with two veteran officers of the Falklands War – one Argentine, one British – who’ve become close friends. Seeing beyond nationality to the person who shares our joys and fears – isn’t this what travel is about?