February 5, 2011
Stanley, Falkland Islands
Patrick Watts advertises a very nice Falkland tour in 4 wheel drive vehicles. He commissions locals who own the cars to take us around, four people to a car. Our driver was 21 year old Petra. She was born on a farm about 45 minutes by 4WD from Stanley. Her schooling was by telephone and then on line with a teacher visiting the farm every three weeks to check up on Petra and her sister. She spent one year in High School in Stanley and 3 years in school Viña del Mar, Chile, coming home for summers on the island. She is a delightful guide. While we saw a lot of interesting stuff the best part of the tour was learning about her life on the 40,000 acre (about 65 square mile) farm. They raise sheep, cows and horses. Her younger sister will continue farming it while she and her boyfriend get another “allocation farm” owned by the government but leased to individuals adjacent to the family owned farm. She says farms go cheaply because most people want to leave the farm and go to Stanley. She does not.
She was raised in one of the oldest stone houses on the islands. She says it has loopholes on the ground floor for defense. I asked her about farming. It used to be they sold only wool. For a while they couldn’t commercially sell mutton, lamb or beef because there was no abattoir on the island that met EU standards (yes this is the EU). There are up to 2,500 mutton eating soldiers on the island and millions of sheep but all the meat they consumed had to be shipped from Europe. Now there is an EU approved abattoir so they have somewhat of a mutton market on island. Between the soldiers and locals they have perhaps 5,500 people. They sell their cattle for beef but there is no approved creamery on the island so they cannot sell dairy products. Each farm consumes its own product and, from the way Petra phrased it, I suspect there may be some informal trading going on.
The Falklands are doing well enough economically because the UK is supporting the islands as a way of maintaining sovereignty after the Argentine affair. There is fishing, although I didn’t see a fleet in the small harbor. Apparently the island sells fishing rights to outside boats. Of course there’s wool to export and there may be oil off shore. The islands have abundant wind power and there are a lot of wind turbines going up. Farms collect their own rainwater while Stanley has a water system.
The Falklands have a parliament and pass their own domestic laws. Whitehall has control over defense and foreign policy. The islands use the UK pound but print their own money and have their own coins. The penny has penguins. There is a commemorative two pound coin marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Falklands in World War One, in which the German South Atlantic Squadron was defeated by the Royal Navy.
The tour lasted a little over 5 hours and took us about an hour and a quarter out of Stanley, past the British military base, to Bertha Beach, named after a ship that foundered there. On our way we passed the Falkland’s “stone rivers.” They look like rivers, flowing down hill, but they are stone, they are natural and no one really understands how they got there.
At several points along the way signs warned us of mines. There are several types of mine signs. One reads simply “danger, mines” with a skull and crossbones. Another skull and crossbones sign reads “Slow, minefield.” A third reads “Suspect Area, Out of Bounds” and a forth says “Warning. Although this area is believed to be clear of mines, it is possible that a mine may have washed ashore from a nearby minefield. Please be careful. Do not touch any suspicious object, but place a marker nearby and report it to the JSEODOC Stanley.” We saw several demining crews of Tanzanian workers in day glow green vests. The mines are plastic cased and not easy to find with metal detectors so the crews use trained African rats to sniff out the explosives. Importing yet a new breed of rat into the islands is a strange proposition because Norway rats are a problem. They are invasive species that hitchhiked on ships. They eat eggs of birds that have no other land based predators so the birds do not know how to hide or protect the eggs. People on the islands keep cats, I don’t know if they’ve become a problem for the local bird population.
At Bertha Beach there is a colony of Gentoo Penguins with the occasional stately King Penguin wandering around looking like a snooty waiter. There are also some Magellanic Penguins (called Jack Ass Penguins because of their braying call) on the beach, we didn’t see them as much as hear them. The birds were in different stages of the molt. Feathers are what keep penguins warm, they do not have blubber. Once a year the birds molt. During that time they can’t swim in the cold waters so they cannnot eat. They have enough fat stored to allow them to go three weeks without food if they do not expend much energy, so while molting they sit very still and we are asked to stay clear of a molting bird. When they have their feathers they head for the shore and dinner. Penguins no have natural land based predators (seals and killer whales attack them in the water) so they don’t fear people and let us walk among them. I’m thinking of a paraphrase of an old song “I sing of my happy condition, surrounded by acres of penguins.” Some of the birds were on the grass above the beach but many were on the beach. Some were surfing, swimming into the surf and riding it back in. A particular song came to mind and I can’t get it out of my head. I am posting Penguin pictures separately.
After biscuits and tea from the back of Patrick’s Land Rover we convoyed out to the main highway and, while we were mostly all going to the same place, the convoy kind of disintegrated. Our next stop was scheduled to be Gypsy Cove but I wanted to stop at Whalebone Cove to look at some old shipwrecks, including the three masted Lady Elizabeth built in 1879 and damaged on a passage around Cape Horn in 1913. She limped into Stanley where she stayed. There are two other wrecks in the cove.
Gypsy Cove has a large colony of Magellanic Penquins. We walked past the burrows where adult penguins were tending to their chicks. On the sandy beach we saw more “Surfin’s Birds.” The Falklands have some very nice sand beaches, although Petra tells me that it is ALWAYS too cold to swim. At the top of the trail we found an old World War II artillery piece looking out over the harbor.
Stanley looks British, not just because of the Union Flags everywhere and the stuffed penguins decked out in Union Jack hats and red white and blue bunting (after the Brits won the Islands back they had a referendum on whether the islands should remain a British Overseas Territory, more than 1,500 yes, three no) but because many of the buildings look British.
There is Christ Church Cathedral, and some of the row houses that look like they were transported from a London suburb. Of course there are red telephone call boxes and people drive on the left. Unlike Britain there are a large number of corrugated metal houses that are very much like those in Ushuaia, Argentina. Stanley is a growing town with new suburban style houses and a new school. In front of the cathedral is an arch made from the jawbones of great blue whales. The town is full of war memorials from different wars, including the most recent 74 day war against Argentina in which the Argentines occupied the Falklands and the Brits threw them out again. Across from the harbor, in big letters spelled out using stones, are the names of British warships that have protected the Falklands over the years.
We stopped for scones, but instead of tea I had a cappuccino. We caught the last tender back to the ship just as the wind was picking up. I was sitting near the entrance to the covered tender and took in a bit of salt spray. It felt good.
For a look at Falkland Island Penguins click here.