Mike Wells travelled around the Falklands in February, walking and wildlife spotting on this fascinating archipelago in the South Atlantic.
To the average Briton, the Falklands conjure up images of heavily armed soldiers trudging through almost impassable peat bogs in high winds, freezing rain and snow. It may have been like this when the task force, sent to liberate the islands after invasion by Argentina, landed and crossed East Falkland in the winter of 1982, but this is not typical of the weather in summer months. During two weeks on the islands in February, we experienced temperatures as high as 23 degrees with only one wet day, though the wind was omnipresent. The ground was dry underfoot and the firm peat a joy to walk across. The summer season is between October and March, when remote guest houses and lodges are open, although most visitors arrive in the four months from November to February.
Getting there and around
Since the end of the Falklands’ War in 1982 the islands’ economy and infrastructure have developed. From a monoculture of sheep farming (bred solely for wool, not meat), the islands now gain most of their income from off-shore fishing (by Taiwanese mega-trawlers that pay to fish within a 200-mile protection zone), oil exploration (currently suspended awaiting an increase in oil prices) and tourism. Two direct flights per week connect the UK with the Falklands and there is a weekly flight from Chile which, once a month, flies via Argentina. Large cruise ships call regularly at Stanley (the islands’ capital) and Antarctic expedition boats with up to 100 passengers put visitors ashore on some of the smaller islands. On the two main islands (East Falkland and West Falkland) a network of good quality all weather compacted gravel roads now reach even the most remote settlements.
Journeys that previously took several days by horse or off-road vehicle can now be undertaken in a few hours in a normal car.
A small vehicle ferry (a converted landing craft) operates between the two main islands.
FIGAS inter-island air services
There are 778 islands in the Falkland archipelago. In addition to East and West Falkland, six others have tourist accommodation and one can be visited by boat on a day trip (West Point Island, with an albatross colony). Almost all the rest are uninhabited, though a few have remote sheep farms. The principal means of transport between the islands is FIGAS (Falkland Islands’ Government Air Service), a small state owned airline that uses five Islander planes to provide an on-demand service that criss-crosses the territory. There is no fixed timetable. Bookings must be made by 10am on the day before departure and at 4pm a schedule is released showing all flights for the following day. This is broadcast by the local radio station several times each evening, along with passenger names for every flight, and is e-mailed to all the settlements.
It is quite surreal to be sat having dinner in a remote island lodge and hear your name being read out on the radio with tomorrow’s flight details.
Flights are often circular in nature and those to outer islands usually make intermediate calls at other settlements en-route to both collect and disembark passengers. The most important person in the Falklands (after the governor, that is) is Mark, who is responsible for the daily FIGAS schedules! Because the weather may be variable, the schedule can change on advice from the pilots as the day progresses. The flights also carry mail and small supplies.
The outer islands
We spent 10 days in the Falklands during the summer month of February (the equivalent of August in the Northern hemisphere). Our objective was to walk on a variety of islands and visit wildlife colonies to see four breeds of penguin, elephant seals, sea lions, southern petrels and brown-backed albatross. We succeeded in visiting East Falkland (impossible to miss as all incoming visitors arrive there) and four outer islands using FIGAS flights and a boat trip. We were unable to reach West Falkland as the daily ferry is diverted every sixth week to carry larger supplies to the outer islands, which coincided with our visit. The outer islands are surprisingly different; the main factors being the presence or absence of sheep and/or of rats. Rats arrived on board sailing ships but did not reach all islands. Where they are absent, ground nesting birds thrive while on other islands there are few such birds as the rats eat their eggs. Most of East and West Falkland and many of the outer islands are used to pasture sheep. Sheep eat tussock grass, which without their presence grows to a considerable height and provides nesting places for many birds.
Sea Lion Island, which lies 14km south of East Falkland and has neither rats nor sheep (an earlier sheep farm has been abandoned and converted into a guest lodge), has the most prolific variety of birds and sea-going mammals. Moreover, as the lodge is closed completely during winter months, the native wildlife is left alone to thrive for six months every year. A small island (8km by 2km), it can be walked around in a day though head-high tussock grass makes the going difficult in places. Elephant seals bask lazily on secluded beaches, while the large sea lion colony beneath the rocky cliffs has seen the birth of 83 pups this year.
Magellanic penguins (which nest underground) and playful gentoo are present in large numbers on the beaches, while rockhoppers bounce up the cliffs to their clifftop nests, cliffs that they share with extensive but odorous king cormorant colonies.
Nearby Bleaker Island (another island with a guest lodge) also has penguin colonies but as this island has rats there are few ground nesting birds.
Much larger Pebble Island, just north of West Falkland, with both a guest lodge and a large active sheep farm, has more challenging walking. The spine of the 20km-long narrow island has a chain of three modest hills with rocky and windswept summits. A wildlife tour of the northern coastline (more penguins and a breeding colony of southern petrel) can be combined with a walk back along the ridgeline or more likely just below the ridgeline to escape the wind.
The eastern end of the island, an area of dunes, lakes and beaches, is a nirvana for wildfowl with many types of duck and geese present.
Remote Carcass Island and its even more remote neighbour West Point Island, both have sheep farms. A boat service connects the two (there is no airstrip on West Point) which also provides a scenic excursion around the sheer cliffs that front the island. These cliffs are host to a breeding colony of brown-backed albatross and a stop can be made to visit this colony. The birds appear unperturbed by human presence and their huge chicks can be seen and photographed from close quarters.
Stanley, the islands’ capital
It is not only the outer islands that attract visitors. Stanley (population 2500), though small by international standards, has all the trappings of a major town, with government house, an Anglican cathedral, tourist office, national museum, two hotels, a number of guest houses and two supermarkets. Usually very quiet, it becomes busy when cruise ships are in the harbour, their international cargo heading for a variety of bars and restaurants to sample British style beer and eat fish and chips.
The harbour front has a number of old wrecks from the days when sailing round Cape Horn was a dangerous and often deadly pursuit.
Artefacts include a mast from the Brunel designed SS Great Britain, which was laid up here from 1886 to 1970 until being towed back to Bristol for restoration. There are also memorials to both World Wars including one to the Battle of the Falklands (1914) when the Royal Navy attacked and sank a German naval squadron commanded by admiral Graf Spee. Pride of place goes to the Liberation memorial, in memory of 255 members of the British armed forces and three Falklanders who were killed freeing the islands from the Argentinians in 1982.
The tourist office produces a guide to walks around Stanley. Two of these are short walks in the town, but more interesting are a number of walks into the hills rising beyond the inhabited area to visit hilltops that were the scene of fierce fighting in the closing days of the conflict. It was from Mount Tumbledown, one of these hills, that a white flag of surrender was seen flying over Stanley on 14 June 1982. There are minefields in this area but these are clearly marked on walking maps and fenced off on the ground, so pose no danger to walkers.
Main island settlements and walks
Outside Stanley, there are few other settlements on East and West Falkland. The largest, Goose Green, 95km from Stanley by good-quality gravel road, has only 40 inhabitants. This was the scene of a fierce battle in 1982 when 690 members of the British second parachute battalion defeated an Argentine garrison of 1083 men. Memorials to the combatants and graves of Argentinian casualties encircle the hamlet. An easy 9km round-trip walk from Goose Green on a 4wd track across barren heathland leads to a spectacular suspension bridge over a wide creek. Despite its substantial size, this bridge was built only to herd sheep across the river and has never been connected to the road network. It is the most southerly suspension bridge in the world.
Near to Goose Green the even smaller settlement of Darwin has what is probably the best guest lodge in the Falklands, with the added benefit to walking visitors that this is the obvious start point for an ascent of Mount Usborne, at 705m the highest point in the Falklands. Al, who manages the lodge, will advise you on the best route and lend you a 1:50,000 OS map of the mountain. Although this is an old edition (contours are in feet and the grid in degrees and minutes), it is the best available. He will also offer to drop you off near Cerritos corral, at the end of a 4wd track near the base of the mountain and lend you a mobile phone to arrange a pick-up later in the day. The mountain itself, the highest part of the Wickham Heights ridge that runs right across East Falkland, is trickier than it looks at first sight. Approaches are guarded by successive ‘rivers of stone’, large parallel boulder fields that run down the mountain side. A series of these must be crossed, a tedious business, to reach a ridge leading up onto the mountain. Moreover, the mountain is often swathed in cloud, making navigation difficult. The top, which is marked by a large cairn with a visitors’ book tucked in the rocks, is at one end of a long, nearly level summit ridge.
West Falkland is very sparsely populated with a number of small scattered farm settlements, though the post-1982 network of gravel roads makes it relatively easy to get around. There is only one guest lodge: at Port Howard near to the pier where the ferry arrives from East Falkland. This is also a very large working sheep farm where visitors get a chance to see wool farming in action, from the birth of lambs to shearing the sheep, depending upon the season. If you have a hire-car, the only filling station on West Falkland is in Fox Bay on the opposite side of the island to Port Howard, a three-hour round trip to fill the tank.
Though far away and difficult to reach, a visit to the Falklands is a rewarding experience, The local Falklanders are warm and friendly towards visitors, even Argentinians who are coming in increasing numbers using the monthly flight from southern Patagonia to visit Las Malvinas (as they call the islands) for a week’s holiday. Let’s hope this leads to a better long term relationship between the two countries.
- Twice weekly overnight direct flights from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire on Sundays and Wednesdays cost £1100 each way and must be booked through the Falkland Islands Government in London (t +44 (0)207 222 2542). Booking opens six months in advance and early booking is advised as these are military flights with only 15 places available to civilians. The service calls at Ascension Island en-route, which can be visited for a three or four night stay.
- Commercial flights operated by Lan Chile (part of British Airways One-World consortium) fly to the Falklands every Saturday from Santiago via Punta Arenas. On the second Saturday of each month this flight calls additionally at Rio Gallegos in Argentine Patagonia, returning via there on the third Saturday. British Airways fly direct from London to Santiago and Tam (a Brazilian sister airline of Lan) fly to Santiago via a connection in Saõ Paulo. Other European airlines also fly to Santiago.
- All flights arrive at Mount Pleasant airport, 56km from Stanley along a good but quiet gravel road. Transfer buses (which cost £14) are operated by FITT (www.falklandtravel.com) and Penguin Travel (www.penguintravel-falklands.com).
- Internal flights to remote island airstrips are operated by FIGAS (www.fig.gov.fk) from Stanley airfield. Booking required by 10am the day before with flight times provided after 16pm. Be flexible, flight times are liable to last minute changes.
- There is a range of accommodation in Stanley and guest lodges on East Falkland (Darwin) and West Falkland (Port Howard) plus five outer islands (Bleaker, Carcass, Pebble, Sea Lion and Weddell Islands). Detailed list from Falkland Islands Tourist Board (www.falklandislands.com).
- Other than FIGAS, there is no public transport. Car hire can be arranged through Stanley Services (www.stanley-services.co.fk). The inter-island car-ferry is run by Workboat Services (www.workboat.co.fk) with schedules changing daily due to tide conditions. For one week in every six there is no service. Schedules are published about three months in advance.
- There is no up-to-date guidebook to the Falklands. Brandt published a guide written by William Wagstaff in 2001, and Lonely Planet a guide by Tony Wheeler in 2004, but these are both out of print and no updated editions have been printed. Secondhand books can sometimes be found in Stanley or on Amazon.