Amid the still-potent legacy of war, these South Atlantic islands offer vibrant and varied wildlife and many, many stories to tell
I was half expecting a Wallace and Gromit moment. Would the penguins simply explode or be fired upwards like a row of champagne corks? They had certainly taken no heed of the wire fence or the little red signs that hung along its length emblazoned with the warning: ‘Danger – Mines’. The dozen or so gentoo penguins just shuffled straight past like a line of black-suited businessmen resigned to their daily commute.
There is something wonderfully reassuring about the tenacity of nature: you can slap a minefield across the centuries-old path of a penguin highway (from rookery to sea) and it won’t make a jot of difference to their behaviour.
There were no bangs, no sky-rocketing penguins. Apparently the 20,000 or so mines that still pepper the Falklands have a 45kg threshold. Penguins are too light to trigger them, but cows – and people – beware.
I had travelled to Britain’s remote South Atlantic outpost to experience its wildlife, but the legacy of the 1982 conflict is too potent, too pervading, to ignore. It has seeped into every corner of this cluster of 740-odd islands.
Everywhere has a story to tell, a barely healed battle scar or a memorial to the 252 British and more than 700 Argentine troops killed during the 72-day conflict.
I was barely a teenager when the Falklands War broke out. My parents took me to see the Task Force set sail from Portsmouth and I can still picture the grey hulks of the aircraft carriers and other warships slipping out of the harbour, borne into the Solent amid a flurry of Union Flags. It had all seemed tremendously exciting. But then I wasn’t waving goodbye to a father or brother.
Standing next to a minefield at Kidney Cove 26 years later, I found myself staring past the penguins to the open sea, grappling with the tragic reality that several of those ships were still out there – as sunken war graves. It wouldn’t be the last time on this trip that I would blame the bitter sub-Antarctic wind for my smarting eyes.
Bucking the cruise ship trend, I had decided to explore the Falklands more intimately, as a land-based tourist. Arriving by air, the islands suddenly appear below you like stubborn autumn leaves snagged 640km off the tip of South America.
When Darwin arrived on the Beagle in 1833 he declared that ‘the whole landscape had an air of extreme desolation.’ He cheered up later when he discovered some fossils, but there’s no denying the austerity of Falkland scenery.
Leaving Mount Pleasant Airport (where security were quick to wipe the memory cards of some camera-blazing Dutch tourists) I was driven out of the military compound into a wilderness of peat moorland – an ochre canvas flecked white with an occasional sheep or upland goose. The gravel road wound between scree-cloaked hills. No trees, no buildings – just wind-combed grass and the sea with a faint filigree of surf far to the east.
An hour later we crested a ridge to find the world’s most southerly capital spread beneath us: rows of brightly coloured wriggly tin’ rooftops, dazzling and invigorating in the sunshine. Stanley had the innocent, cheerful look of a town made from Lego blocks.
There were old-fashioned red telephone boxes, a row of Victorian terraced houses, gift shops selling cuddly penguins and Government House, spick and span behind its white picket fence. I counted half a dozen pubs in the hour it took me to stroll from one end of town to the other, but it wasn’t imported English beer that kept stopping me in my tracks.
For a settlement of its size (inhabited by 85 per cent of the Falklands’ civilian population of around 2,500), Stanley is crammed with character. The small cathedral, for example, has an archway crafted from the jawbones of two blue whales, while just across the road, in a small seafront park, you’ll find the mizzen mast of the SS Great Britain, salvaged when the great ship was beaten back from Cape Horn and took refuge in the Falklands. But it’s the Liberation Memorial, marking the losses of the 1982 conflict, that sears the mind.
“The Marines felt at home here,” battlefield guide Tony Smith told me the following morning as we yomped across springy peat turf on the northern flank of Mount Tumbledown. "It reminded them of Dartmoor.”
Far behind us, Stanley looked like confetti flakes scattered beside the sea. Troops from the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards would have seen lights in the town on the night they stormed Tumbledown and wrested it from the Argentines, “winkling them out of the rocks at the point of a bayonet.” Tony was about to lead me through the battle, step by gruelling step.
“They were freezing to death,” he explained. “They were actually keen to go into battle, they were so cold.”
A brutal wind snatched the words from his mouth. I squinted up at Tumbledown, rearing above us like a natural fortress, and tried to comprehend what Tony was telling me.
“Attack started at 9pm; pinned down by sniper fire; hand-to-hand trench fighting.” It seemed inconceivable that the British soldiers attacked such well-defended slopes – yet the proof was there, shockingly palpable, in the first Argentine bunker we came to. Littered around the remains of a mortar-shattered wall was a shredded blanket, a soldier’s boot and rocks splintered by shrapnel.
As if Tony’s battlefield tour wasn’t supercharged with enough emotion, we were halfway up Tumbledown when a pair of Tornadoes took off from Stanley Airport, screaming across the valley below us. It would have been Harriers or Mirages during the war, but simply being on Tumbledown with the sound of warplanes echoing across the lonely, wind-strafed interior of East Falkland somehow made the experience all the more tangible.
Penguins, on the other hand, don’t appreciate low-flying jets. They get flustered and scatter, stumbling into each other like skittles. It’s one of the things Hattie Kilmartin is keen to impress on the British Armed Forces whenever she can.
Not only is her farm at Bluff Cove (south-west of Stanley) home to 2,000 gentoo penguins, but kings are also starting to breed there. When I arrived, one of the dapper adults was admiring its reflection in the shallow lagoon behind the beach.
The biggest colony of king penguins in the Falklands is at Volunteer Point (600 pairs), but I have to confess it was my belly, as much as my binoculars, that lured me to Bluff Cove. Sitting right on the beach, Hattie’s Sea Cabbage Café serves the best cream teas south of Torquay: home-baked scones, farm-fresh cream and jam made from locally harvested diddle-dee berries.
It seemed rude not to stay for dinner as well – after all, where else can you eat sea trout and slow-roasted lamb, sip a decent Chilean chardonnay and gaze through picture windows at a penguin panorama? Birdwatching just doesn’t get any more civilised.
It has to be said, though, that you don’t exactly need to be Bill Oddie to track down birds in the Falklands. On Sea Lion Island, lying 16km off the southern coast of East Falkland, you’re practically tripping over the things at every step.
Jenny Luxton, owner of the only lodge on the 9 sq km island, pointed out the highlights: 6,000 gentoo penguins here, 1,000 rockhoppers there; hundreds of elephant seals on this beach, sea lions on that beach; southern petrel, king cormorant, steamer duck, Magellanic penguin, kelp goose, striated caracara; a ticket to Sea Lion Island is like being handed a big box of chocolates.
Spoilt for choice I found myself sitting quietly by a gentoo highway, mesmerised by the steady two-way traffic: one line of penguins heading to sea to fish, the other returning with full bellies. And in case you were wondering, penguins in the Falklands always pass each other on the left.
Listless blobs by comparison, but still utterly engrossing, the elephant seals ranged from wide-eyed, snotty-nosed pups lolling on the strandline like defunct torpedoes to enormous, battle-scarred, three-tonne males, belching and farting in the dunes or rearing up and snorting foetid fish breath at you through their party-balloon hooters. What delightful creatures.
There was one species not found on Sea Lion Island that I wanted to see above all others in the Falklands. To find it, I would have to fly north-west to Carcass Island and take a boat from there to West Point Island. Trouble was, Carcass was fog-bound the morning I was due to arrive.
“We’ll have a go and see what happens,” said the pilot of the twin-propellor, eight-seater FIGAS Islander that landed at Sea Lion Island to pick me up.
Within minutes we were tracking north-west, blue sky yielding to milky tendrils of mist. West Falkland was gradually smudged out below us until we were flying through a grey cocoon. The next thing I knew there was sea outside my window. I glanced at the altimeter – nudging 50ft (15m).
The pilot was leaning forward, peering through the murk and, with a jolt of bemusement, I realised he was straining for a glimpse of coastline. We were trying to sneak in under the bank of fog. If a whale breached we’d hit it, I remember thinking just as the pilot hauled on the joystick and sent the Islander into a stomach-clenching climb.
We broke above the fog and circled for a while; then the pilot nodded and smiled – and suddenly we were dropping like a stone. He’d seen a hole in the fog, a window that framed not sea but land. Moments later we were bounding along a grass airstrip.
“Welcome to Carcass, sir. A good flight, I trust?” The island’s owner, Rob McGill, carried my luggage from the plane to his beaten-up Land Rover. We bumped and juddered over the island’s hilly spine before dropping down to Rob’s sheep farm – a cluster of tin-roofed houses nestled amongst cabbage palms and luxuriant hedges like a well-hidden bird’s nest. Beyond stretched a wide, turquoise bay, its shoreline freckled with tussac grass and gorse.
Rob was adding the finishing touches to an outbuilding, with extra toilets for visiting cruise ship passengers. His dilapidated workshed was piled with mirrors, tiles and washbasins. Outside, propped against a wall, stood a rusty 1960 BSA motorbike. “Still goes, sir,” he said, following my gaze. “Just waiting for a spare part to be shipped from England.”
I warmed instantly to Rob; he seemed to embody the versatile spirit of the Falkland settler – determined to face the future, reluctant to let go of the past.
I asked him how the war had affected them on Carcass Island. “It was a feeling of being rather helpless,” he said. “No Argentines landed here, but you could hear the planes going over. Every day there would be a 15-minute radio broadcast. They would say life should go on as normal. You will speak Spanish and you will drive on the right-hand side of the road. Anyone disobeying will be dealt with by the military code of conduct.” With a wry smile Rob cocked his thumb and pointed a forefinger to his temple.
A boat arrived to collect me the following morning. It was a two-hour crossing to West Point; the wedge-shaped island condensed from the mist, 380m-high seacliffs looming above our yellow trawler. The base of the cliffs was worn smooth in places where rockhopper penguins had scrabbled from the sea to begin their Herculean ascents to clifftop rookeries.
But it was to the sky that my eyes were drawn – a sky filled with black-browed albatross. More than 14,500 pairs of these magnificent seabirds nest on West Point Island and at that moment it seemed that every single one of them was soaring, cartwheeling and pirouetting above me – a ballet of albatrosses revelling in the wild South Atlantic wind that filled their wings and squeezed tears from my eyes.