Falkland Islands: Britain's southern outpost

By Susan Buckland

The main drag is called Thatcher Drive and the inhabitants are mostly feathered, reports Susan Buckland from the capital of the Falklands.

The waterfront in the Falkland Islands' main town of Stanley. Photo / Susan Buckland
The waterfront in the Falkland Islands' main town of Stanley. Photo / Susan Buckland

The Falkland Islands, the country where Britain and Argentina plunged into war in 1982, seemed apologetically small from the deck of our approaching ship.

Houses along the shore looked like brightly coloured dolls' houses against the sky. Stanley, where most of the 2900 islanders live, resembled a fishing village made up of a huddle of red, blue, yellow and green buildings. Strategic location, not size, has driven the destiny of the Falkland Islands and this year marks the 25th anniversary of that battle.

Sitting off the seahorse tail of Argentina, the island country is within striking distance of Antarctica and has ready access to rich marine resources. And, as I discovered, Falkland Islanders are finding new ways to punch above their weight.

Inside the visitors' centre on the quay a copy of Penguin News gives a taste of things to come - and a lead on local sentiment.

"The Falkland Islands is a United Kingdom overseas territory by choice," reads the statement. No surprises there, nor that the battlefields of a quarter century ago are included in the list of tourist attractions.

But for people arriving in the Falklands with the notion that they are mostly wind-wracked and God-forsaken, the scenic photo spreads in Penguin News of coast and marine wildlife throw surprising new light on the islands.

Before setting off to dispel my own preconceived ideas I asked at the visitors' centre about meeting people who had experienced the 1982 war.

The Penguin News editor, Jenny Cockwell, was a launching pad. Cockwell, a New Zealander (her Falkland Islands father moved to New Zealand where she was born) married a Falkland Islands man and moved to her father's birthplace.

The Falklands remind her of a staunchly British version of the small New Zealand towns of her youth where people left their houses unlocked and their keys in the car. But her social life is more active than it was in Auckland, with lively nights out in Stanley and wildlife excursions in the Camp, the Falklands name for the countryside.

As for the Falklands conflict, Jenny admits that scars have not entirely faded. "Imagine an invasion of foreign troops on a town like Taihape; people suddenly wrenched from their lives and within close proximity to battles," she says.

British sovereignty was restored 10 weeks later but Argentina's sovereignty claims continue to hang over the islanders. The locals believe, as does Britain, that they should be free to choose their own future.

Jenny's husband, 8 at the time of the war, was held hostage with his parents for the duration. But the experience strengthened the resolve of his generation to make the Falklands a success. Today there is no unemployment, the islanders enjoy free healthcare and education, and the Government funds the final two years of secondary school and university abroad. The islanders invariably return home to settle. Britain may be the mother country but home is deep in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Consisting of two large islands and at least 700 smaller ones, the country covers an area about the size of Wales. English navigator John Strong landed in the Falklands in 1690 and named the channel dividing the two main islands after the Royal Navy Treasurer, Viscount Falkland.

Half a century later, Britain established a base there for exploring the South Atlantic Ocean. And when Argentina began rattling sabres Britain cemented its claim to the Falklands in 1833.

Seventeen years later Shirley Goss' grandfather arrived with a flock of sheep to establish a farm a world away from his home in Britain. I met Shirley at the visitors' centre when I confessed that I hadn't counted on the sparkling day that greeted our ship's arrival.

"We get our fair share of sunshine," said Shirley. Her grandfather had broken in his farm in 1850 when there were no roads, doctor or amenities the islanders now take for granted. The farm was in the area called Camp, i.e. anywhere outside Stanley. Bearing much closer resemblance to Patagonia than to England's gentler counties, Camp is now home to about 88 farms, some of which host paying guests.

During the Falklands War Shirley and her husband were escorted by Argentinian soldiers from their Goose Green farm, where the first battle for the Falklands took place, and imprisoned for a month in a community hall. But she holds no resentment against the Falklands' Argentine residents and regards intermarriage with British residents as a positive sign.

I next met Patrick Watts who had been running Falklands Radio when Argentina invaded. Watts had continued broadcasting on a wired rediffusion system in Stanley after the invaders closed his transmitters. When the war ended he said he got letters from New Zealanders who had listened to his war reports on the short-wave transmitter. He replied to each one, unable to hide feelings of shock at the loss of lives during the conflict, - a thousand people - 255 British, the rest Argentinians.

The meeting with Watts was cut short by a group of tourists who had booked one of his day trips. Watts is now a Falklands battlefields and wild bird guide and explained that I wouldn't have to walk far to see the 1982 Falklands war memorial monument, or members of the native bird population.

Sure enough, on Stanley's peaceful waterfront and prominently signed Thatcher Drive, the traffic was mostly feathered. Unperturbed by the occasional 4WD, the herons, native geese and Patagonia crested ducks pecked their way towards the museum. They were still pecking away when I returned from to the quay, this time in a car driven by Richard, volunteer museum guide, fire brigade assistant and British Armed Forces podiatrist.

There are five pubs in Stanley. And as the sun was going down over the yardarm I entered an English transplant called The Globe. Donald Wade shook hands from his stool at the bar. Quietly spoken and originally from the island of St Helena, he confessed to knowing little about the wider world because the Falklands were big enough for him.

Plugged in to the world, however, were Myles and Karen Lee, an enterprising couple who were enjoying a quick pint. They are fifth generation islanders and have a shop in Port Stanley that sells stylish garments produced from wool from their farm and neighbouring properties. When the cruise ships visit, which they are doing more often these days, their shop does a brisk trade.

Friendly advice was ladled out by The Globe patrons on how I should spend my short time in the Falklands. Gypsy Cove near Stanley was a strong recommendation, so I hired a 4WD taxi and set out in the late afternoon. The lowering sun burnished the tops of trees that had managed to grow above hedge height. Persistent wind had thrashed them to look like inverted umbrellas.

The golden sand of Gypsy Cove is home to magellanic penguins and I watched them huddling on the water's edge like nuns conferring at a tea party. However, these engaging, nest-digging penguins live dangerously. Their beach habitat is still pitted with mines. Human feet are strictly forbidden on the otherwise enticing foreshore.

On the other side of Gypsy Cove lay the wreck of a sailing ship, a forlorn reminder of many vessels that came to grief in the treacherous waters of Cape Horn before the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. Many such vessels ended their days in the Falklands. Their legacy lives on through sections of masts and yards which serve as foundation piles and floor joists.

A visit to the West Falkland Islands had also been recommended by the locals in The Globe. So the following morning I joined other passengers in a small vessel arranged by the ship that had brought us to Port Stanley. En route we were accompanied by albatross and dolphins. The aerobatics of the birds and the diving and racing of the dolphins had passengers spellbound for most of the way.

Our destination was West Point Farm where albatross and penguins make their home on the shore cliffs. Roddy and Lily Napier, the stalwart, fourth generation owners of the farm, think little of living 150km from the nearest doctor. "We've had electricity since the 50s from our windmill. The washing machine came in the 60s," said Roddy.

When asked how she liked living on a remote island farm, Lily replied with the characteristic directness of her compatriots. "I like it very much, thank you." She had a similar response when asked how she coped during the Argentine invasion. "The Argentine soldiers came and were polite, nice young men. I think they were afraid. I made them a cup of tea."

Later, sitting on the cliffs at West Point and hypnotised by the antics of rock hopper penguins and royal albatross, I found it hard to imagine such peace shattered by war. The spectacular display of the breeding colonies of marine birds included visits from stormy petrels, sooty terns, arctic skuas and fur seals.

Tour parties supplement the Napiers' farm income and when we returned to the farmhouse Lily's afternoon tea table groaned with a 1950s time warp spread of home-baked marble cake, ginger bread, scones, tea cakes, cup cakes, pikelets and fish paste sandwiches.

The thriving colonies of rare and endangered marine bird and animals are helping to turn tourism into a major income earner for the Falklands. And wildlife conservation awareness is increasing among the islanders, according to bird guide Sally Blake. She and her husband bought 22 small islands after residents were offered them for $2500 each in the mid-80s. The Blakes intend their islands to be an unofficial reserve free of predators.

Efforts to minimise the most serious threat to marine birds - long line fishing - are also increasing. Albatross reproduce slowly, making them especially vulnerable. They often die when they dive for a hooked fish and scientists believe the losses are not sustainable. The encouraging news is that setting lines through a tube below the surface and night fishing can significantly reduce the death of seabirds.

Until recently the sale of fishing licences has earned the Falklands more than $50 million a year. But fish stocks in the country's 200-mile zone have declined in the past few years and fewer licences are being sold. Offshore drilling for oil is the Falklands' next big hope. And as the search mounts for new ways to boost their economy the conservation-minded islanders will do their best to protect the goose that is laying a golden egg - their wildlife.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: LAN flies to the Falklands via Santiago (Chile), with stopovers in Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas. See falklandstravel.com for more information.

The Falklands receive more than 50,000 cruise ship passengers each year with around 35 cruise operators calling there. Vessels which visit the Falklands also go to South America, South Georgia, and the Antarctic Peninsula. For tours to the Falklands from New Zealand contact Adventure World or call (09) 524 5118.

Accommodation: There are two hotels and several tourist lodges and guest houses in and around Stanley. West Falkland and other islands in the group also have guest houses or tourist lodges. Darwin House (named after Charles Darwin who spent time in the islands), offers country hospitality.

Further Information: See visitorfalklands.com, falklandsconservation.com and falklandislands.com.

Susan Buckland travelled to the Falkland Islands courtesy of Cruise Vacations.

- NZ Herald

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