Falkland Islands charm despite troubled past
The charred remains of a helicopter lie like darkened bones strewn about the landscape. They are grim reminders of yet another senseless war. Landmine fields, surrounded by barbed wire and danger signs, are in sharp contrast with the bucolic scene unfolding just feet away. Sheep now dot the land where, in 1982, British and Argentine soldiers engaged in 74 days of fierce combat after Argentina invaded the islands; giant petrels soar where fighter planes once ruled the air. Another bounce of our four-by-four jolts me to the present. This trip is not about war—we’ve come to the Falkland Islands to see penguins.
The war, however, still reverberates. We are here on our way back from Antarctica on the Crystal Symphony, on a pleasure cruise with various stops along the coasts of Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina. Cruise ships are now making scheduled daylong stops on the islands, which are located about 400 kilometres east of mainland South America. Yesterday afternoon, out on the open sea, we were mystified by the appearance of a military plane roaring above our cruise ship and making low reconnaissance passes. Geoff Renner, the ship’s expert lecturer on Antarctica and the surrounding region, explained that it was an Argentine plane patrolling the country’s sovereign waters. While the islands have been under British rule since 1833, tensions with Argentina still run deep.
Both warships and fishing boats are present in Stanley, the capital city, located on the island of East Falkland. We gather in small, excited groups around the four-by-fours that will take us across the island to Cape Dolphin, a sprawling private farm with an abundance of wildlife, including the Magellanic, gentoo, and king penguins that are the object of our visit.
Our tour guide, Dave, a former British policeman, takes the wheel and reveals a deep-seated passion for this land as he shares tales of its residents’ resilient and proud spirit. Dave is a “belonger”, as British citizens who have obtained Falkland Island status are known. He moved to the islands 20-odd years ago after meeting his islander wife in London. He makes a living from the thriving tourism industry and is also in the military reserve—something he, along with many other islanders, takes very seriously.
Falklanders are a proudly independent bunch. The islands in the archipelago are a self-governing territory of Great Britain, which is responsible for its defence and foreign affairs. The Falkland Islands’ population hovers at about 3,000 and islanders enjoy full British citizenship.
Leaving Stanley, we pass by several landmine fields. According to our guide, approximately 20,000 live and lethal mines still exist undamaged, but they pose no great danger as they are well marked and fenced. “Just obey the signs,” he says.
On our way to the penguin colony, we pass quaint, colourful cottages, many of which sport hothouses; the inclement weather and poor soil conditions, Dave says, conspire against food crops. Fresh produce is expensive, as most of it comes to the islands by air or sea, so many residents grow their own. Government plans to promote food self-sufficiency are fuelled by fears that rising tensions with Argentina may lead to shipping disruptions.
The town’s paved roads quickly give way to open land, and we’re soon driving on private roads, crisscrossing hectare upon hectare of rugged farmland. Sheep and cattle roam freely; fences are seldom seen. Rivers of rock, leftovers from the glacial age, scar the land in multiple parallel rows, some scarcely a few feet wide, others so vast as to resemble the surface of the moon. Dave points out some of the battlefields where the war of 1982 was fought, a war that touched the lives of all Falklanders who remained under the British mantle in the face of Argentina’s centuries’-old—and never relinquished—claim of sovereignty. Recent economic squabbles between the two countries concerning the islands have led to an increase in tension marking the conflict’s 30th anniversary. What is there to fight about? Offshore oil, of course.
While he talks about the challenges facing such a small, isolated population, Dave tells us about meeting his wife while she was attending university in London. This is a perk of being a Falklander, he says: high-school graduates are entitled to pursue higher education in the United Kingdom, paid for by the British government.
Dave’s narrative has made this long ride go by fast. After some serious off-roading, we finally make it to Cape Dolphin. As we crest a small dune, we spy the birds—what a treat! We step out of the vehicle and slowly become aware of two distinct sounds: the familiar low rumble of the waves breaking on the shore, and a disconcerting, loud braying noise. The latter comes from nearby groups of Magellanic penguins, aptly nicknamed “jackass” penguins. Off in the distance, two birds stand out, surrounded by several hundred of their gentoo cousins; the metre-tall king penguins are conspicuous in their brilliant golden neck feathers and majestic strut. Gentoos waddle about; orange beaks and feet lend them a cartoonish look, and chicks still moulting their baby feathers trustingly approach the human visitors.
Penguins number in the tens of thousands and live in a natural, untouched habitat where no roads, fences, or roped-off areas exist. We walk in the surf, drinking in the raw beauty and tranquillity of our surroundings, our footprints mingling with the penguins’ until the next wave washes them away.
As we make our way back to Stanley, we talk, not just about the penguins but about how unexpectedly rich this one-day port stop turned out to be.
When I was growing up in Peru, there was no such thing as the Falkland Islands; they were “Las Malvinas” and they were Argentina’s, as a popular Argentine slogan proclaimed during the war. On this trip, I learned that a country is defined not by longitude and latitude but by the heart of its people. These islanders’ hearts are Falklander through and through.
Access: You can fly to the Falkland Islands from Santiago, Chile, or visit by sea; several cruise and expedition ships make daylong stops on their itineraries through South America or Antarctica. For more information, see the Falkland Islands website.