Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Falkland Islands: A snapshot

Many of you have noticed my intense interest in remote destinations. I especially like secluded (and often uniquely different) parts of otherwise widely known and oft visited countries. In the past decade, I have visited Greenland and the Faroe Islands (parts of the Danish realm located thousands of miles away from Denmark), the Andaman Islands (sitting near Burma but actually part of India), Okinawa and Zamami (part of Japan though geographically much nearer Taiwan), Easter Island (celebrated for its Polynesian heritage yet part of Chile) and Madeira (part of Portugal and the most remote area of the European Union). The list goes on: I am also known for having visited over 40 different Greek islands and have found something unique on every single one.

It comes as little surprise therefore that I have always been keen to visit the Falkland Islands: an archipelago of about 800 islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, located some 13,000 km away from London but formally belonging to the UK. Despite recent decades of peace, the archipelago is still best known for being briefly invaded by Argentina in 1982. UK came out victorious in the conflict, but Argentina continues to claim the Falklands to this day.

Welcoming sign at Stanley passenger port is instantly visible to visitors by sea

Reaching the Falklands from the UK (and pretty much anywhere else) is tricky. The most reliable way is by the sole existing commercial air link – operated by LATAM, Chile's flag carrier – which runs once a week on Saturdays from Santiago to Punta Arenas and on to Mount Pleasant, the principal airport of the Falklands. Once a month the service stops over at Rio Gallegos in Argentina, with the door-to-door journey taking 7-8 hours – before you even get to Chile itself!

Believe it or not, there is also a direct air link between the UK and the Falklands, namely the twice-weekly non-commercial flight operated by the UK Ministry of Defence from Brize Norton, Oxfordshire. A one-way journey takes around 20 hours, including a short refuelling stop on Ascension Island en route. Most passengers on this route are UK military personnel but some seats are sold to the general public. The primary reason to operate this air bridge is military, and civilians can easily be bumped off to accommodate a sudden military need.

All this meant I had to visit

In April 2016 my future husband and I flew the LATAM (or LAN as it was then called) plane from Punta Arenas to Mount Pleasant. Like many of my predecessors, I had combined a visit to the Falklands with a 2-week holiday in Chile beforehand. While that is very much a different story altogether, spending a few days in Chile is a common introduction to the region for many visitors.

Chile was spectacular and deserves a blog post of its own

Our landing at Mount Pleasant was certainly interesting: to the rhythmical clicking of the passengers’ cameras immortalising our arrival, the flight attendant was quick to announce that any photography was illegal. Mount Pleasant is an active British military airport and base, and the closest anyone will get to having photographs of it is taking a quick snap from the airplane window before disembarking: anything else is likely to have moderate to severe consequences if noticed.

Arriving in the Falklands, before it became illegal

Luckily, there is not exactly much to take photos of at the part of Mount Pleasant accessible to non-military visitors. While the design of the runway approach is interesting and the sheer logistical challenge of constructing a large base in a territory so remote admirable, the sights potentially worthy of a visit remain hidden from view – such as, for example, the world’s longest corridor (800m long), which connects the barracks, messes, recreational and other parts of Mount Pleasant and is lovingly known as the "Death Star Corridor" among the personnel.

Needless to say that we went nowhere near it: upon arrival, we were swiftly ushered into a slightly claustrophobic terminal building where we collected our luggage and entered border control. A passport officer then stamped our passports indicating the permitted length of stay: yes, despite the Falklands being British territory, both British and other passports get stamped on entry and exit with the Falklands’ unique stamps. Given the area is a military base, the transfer to any accommodation – as the accommodation itself – has to be pre-arranged, and entry is likely to be denied to visitors otherwise.

Falkland Islands' entry and exit passport stamps bear a penguin and an albatross

Stanley, the obvious capital

Stanley, the Falklands’ main city, lies some 50 km east of Mount Pleasant. It is a pleasant enough settlement with several rows of colourful houses and a population of some 2,000 people. It has a distinct British feel, with iconic red telephone and mail boxes and Union flags on liberal display. As an aftermath of the war with Argentina, the Falkland islanders are intensely patriotic and do not shy of expressing their attachment to Britain by accessorising their clothes, cars and even roofs with British memorabilia.

Christ Church Cathedral and Whalebone Arch are Stanley's instantly recognisable sights

Waterfront in Stanley

Random residential home, Stanley

Stanley is a port city sitting on the picturesque Stanley Harbour and is visited by multiple cruise boats every year; the latter is an important source of income for the locals from souvenir sales and catering. While not the Falklands’ most picturesque location, Stanley is best suited as visitor base for exploring the archipelago thanks to its several hotels and self-catering accommodation. We stayed at the Malvina House Hotel and did not regret our choice: it is not only the best hotel in Stanley, but also has the best restaurant in town, visibly favoured by locals on weekend evenings. It is very important to note that the hotel was named after the first owner's daughter and is entirely unconnected to the Argentine name for the Falklands.

Malvina House Hotel was originally built in the 1880s

There are several sights of interest in and around Stanley. Most notable are several shipwrecks, each with its individual story. The best known of these is Lady Elizabeth (lovingly known as “Lady Liz”), which sits ever so photogenically in Whalebone Cove, its rusted hull in striking contrast to the calm waters of Stanley Harbour. Lady Liz suffered severe damage off Cape Horn in 1912 and was barely able to reach Stanley, where, in accordance with the convention of the times, she was left abandoned.

Totem Pole was created by the British troops and decorated with signs from their home towns

Lady Liz has been rusting away in Stanley Harbour for over 100 years

Pembroke Lighthouse was erected in 1855

War remnants

It does not take long for a visitor to notice the remnants of war anywhere in the Falklands. Most noticeable are the fenced off minefields marked with distinctive warning signs, mostly seen in the coastal areas where mines were placed by the Argentine forces to pre-empt Britain’s attempts to land from the sea during the conflict.

Mine field warnings are placed in many places in the Falklands

Several such minefields are located in stunningly picturesque areas such as, for example, Yorke Bay and Gypsy Cove near Stanley: while both are beautiful, pristine beaches, they cannot be approached for fear of unexploded ordinance washing up ashore. Even years after the conflict’s end, a visitor’s best bet is sadly to admire the views from an elevated narrow footpath.

Stunning Yorke Bay is a no-access area near Stanley

Magellanic penguins are Yorke Bay's only visitors

More interesting but far rarer wartime artefacts are aircraft wrecks still visible in parts of the Falklands. One would need a guide and a sturdy vehicle to approach most of such crash sites as they are usually far from settlements or even roads. Alan and I visited two military jet crash sites on Pebble Island, one of the largest islands in the Falkland archipelago. The island was briefly occupied by the Argentine forces in 1982 and became the centre of several assaults by British air and naval forces. Two Argentine fighter jets were hit and crashed in different parts of the island and debris, still bearing the Argentine insignia years later, remains scattered for miles around the crash areas to this day. As tempted as we were, it is actually illegal to remove any part of the debris from the sites.

Argentine "Dagger" crash site, Pebble Island

HMS Coventry Memorial, Pebble Island

Argentine "Dagger" crash site and a cow, Pebble Island

Driving is king

The best way to explore the Falklands is certainly by an off-road vehicle. Except the FIGAS (Falkland Islands Government Air Service) flights departing on an as-needed basis and a sporadically operating ferry between the two largest islands – East Falkland and West Falkland – there is no public transport anywhere on the archipelago. Having your own vehicle to explore is therefore a necessity rather than a luxury. It is possible to join an organised tour, but hiring a car is certainly superior, especially to travellers who prefer not being tied to a group or a set itinerary - and, needless to say, organised tours remain very expensive and rare in the Falklands.

Alan and I ended up hiring a car and spending two days driving along pretty much every major road on the East Falkland Island. While we loved every minute of it, it is important to remember that the Falklands may lack the spectacular sweeping views seen on other remote island groups in the Atlantic, such as the Faroe Islands or Tierra del Fuego, which I have personally visited.

Typical road view on East Falkland

Driving in the Falklands can also get fairly monotonous as very similar landscapes tend to interchange each other and settlements are rare and far in-between. Imagine boggy marshlands, low flowing hills and a rugged coastline, throw in an occasional farm house in the middle of nowhere and top it all up with literally thousands of grazing sheep hurrying away at every sight of disturbance - and you will get an idea of what driving in the Falklands can be like.

Very similar views interchange each other on East Falkland

Despite the common perception, the Falklands have a fairly dry climate

There are some 500 thousand sheep in the Falklands

It helps to stock up on food before leaving for an all-day drive around pretty much anywhere in the Falklands as catering in the so-called "Camp" (from Spanish "campo" to refer to the areas outside Stanley) ranges between extremely limited to non-existent. The only more or less sizeable settlement on East Falkland besides Stanley is Goose Green where a functional cafeteria, called The Galley, has been set up in somebody's home. Most other settlements will show few signs of life to a visitor, let alone provide refreshments or snacks.

Some places to recommend on a drive around the Camp on East Falkland are: (i) New Haven port from where ferries depart to West Falkland, which has a major colony of Gentoo penguins in its vicinity; (ii) Fitzroy memorial where three war memorials have been set up and a colony of rock shags (cormorants) happily resides; (iii) Port San Carlos located in a bay beloved by playful Commerson's dolphins swimming around in circles; and (iv) Goose Green with its Argentine cemetery and war legacy thanks to the namesake battle that took place here in May 1982.

There is a large Gentoo penguin colony in New Haven, East Falkland

Fitzroy site on East Falkland has memorials to Welsh Guards and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary

Rock shag colony resides near Fitzroy settlement, East Falkland

Port San Carlos on East Falkland stands quiet apart from the sounds of birds and dolphins

Many graves in Argentine cemetery near Goose Green are to unknown soldiers

Locals were imprisoned in this Community Hall in Goose Green during the war

Wildlife like no other

It isn't however wartime debris or sheer remoteness that draw most of the Falklands' visitors there. The archipelago is best celebrated for its rich wildlife that has concentrated many unique species on a territory not physically connected to any mainland. A visitor will instantly feel how the nature prevails anywhere in the Falklands: many an internal flight will depend on the whimsical weather conditions while sea lions frequently emerging onto Stanley's central jetty will do their best to chase away any curious human with a fancy camera – it has, after all, been the nature's habitat for years before any permanent human presence arrived on the archipelago.

Sea lion storms down Stanley's central jetty

While both East and West Falkland Islands have plenty of wildlife spotting opportunities, it is the Falklands' smaller outlying islands that truly awe its visitors with abundance of wildlife. Most visitors do little more in the Falklands than disembark from their all-inclusive cruise ships for a few hours of shopping in Stanley and, as a result, miss out on any major wildlife sightings. Visiting one or two outlying islands on a trip to the Falklands' is therefore absolutely imperative to every traveller: not only to observe the nearly undisturbed wildlife but also to understand how the most isolated of settlements survive in conditions of extreme remoteness.

Magellanic oystercatcher on Elephant Beach, Pebble Island

Rockhopper penguins moulting on Pebble Island

Elephant seals resting on a beach, Pebble Island

Turkey vulture balancing on a jetty, Pebble Island

Gentoo penguin colony, Pebble Island

Commerson's dolphins off Stinker beach, Pebble Island

Striated caracara, Pebble Island

Flightless steamer ducks on Elephant beach, Pebble Island

Using FIGAS' flight services can be a little pricey – a return flight to Pebble Island set Alan and I back 200 quid each for barely 30-40 minutes of flight time – and it is important to consider one's preferences if, say, not more than one smaller island in the archipelago fits the budget or time constraints. I chose Pebble Island after a lengthy consideration that took into account likely sightings of wildlife, historical background and available accommodation conditions. Some islands only have self-catering facilities while, on our semi-honeymoon, Alan and I wanted to reduce the "catering" bit as much as possible.

Islander planes are the only way to get to smaller Falkland islands

Flying an Islander plane from Pebble Island to Stanley was an unforgettable experience

With that in mind, Pebble Island proved absolutely perfect for us. Riki Evans single-handedly runs the Pebble Island Lodge where, at low season we visited in, he acts as a cook, a travel guide and an entertainer combined. The lodge is partly run on energy generated from wind power and is surprisingly comfortable given the sheer remoteness of the location. Consider this: Riki calculates his grocery and fuel needs literally months in advance to be able to have them delivered by ship in time while the island's only child of school age has the teacher visit every few weeks for a fortnight at a time and any homework in teacher’s absence is delivered via Skype.

Riki Evans was a perfect host to us on Pebble Island

Old jetty and Fish Creek, Pebble Island

Sunset from Pebble Lodge, Pebble Island

Elephant beach, Pebble Island

One thing is clear: having visited a location as surreal and unique as the Falkland Islands, Alan and I have been talking about revisiting ever since. We can hardly wait to walk down the waterfront of Stanley to the main jetty again, where we will certainly hope to meet the very same sea lion as last time. We look forward to re-visiting Riki on Pebble Island and discovering other outlying islands the Falklands have to offer, such as Saunders and West Point. We would love to take that elusive ferry across the Falkland Sound to drive every little dirt road on West Falkland, too.

And, above everything else, it would be a second-to-none experience to re-visit the archipelago where, on 12 April 2016, we became husband and wife.


View my photos of the Falkland Islands here and my photos of Chile here


Sunday, 15 May 2016

Eurovision 2016: Controversial victory for Ukraine

"Judges voted for Australia. People voted for Russia. And Ukraine won."

This statement best reflected the mixed media and public reactions to the result of the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest 2016. Hotly tipped for victory, Russia's Sergey Lazarev came first in the public televote, but only managed enough jury votes to come third overall. Australia's Dami Im, on the other hand, was a clear juries' favourite but scored modestly among Europe's voting public, finishing second. This is where Ukraine's Jamala came in: ranking as the second choice of both the juries and the public, she overcame the rest of the participants to be crowned as the winner of Europe's most popular (and most kitsch) music show ever.

This year marked a major change in the voting system of the contest. Previously, each country would award a combined set of its top 10 points, based 50/50 on the public televote and the opinion of a jury composed of several individuals believed to be music industry professionals. There were some special cases, too: for example, San Marino, a micro state that relies on the Italian telephone system and has no capacity to isolate votes to its own borders; the country has therefore always relied on jury voting.

However, 2016 saw a shift towards a mandatory separation of each country's national jury votes and the public televote. Under this system, every country awarded two sets of top 10 points, with the intention of spreading votes across a broader number of participating countries. Each country's jury, made up of five anonymous individuals, ranked the participants to come up with the overall jury vote. Unlike in the previous years, when each participating country would announce its three top scorers - the process taking a substantial amount of time that was nevertheless seen as traditional to Eurovision - this year the national presenters only announced their jury's top choice. The televote was in the meantime calculated. The Eurovision hosts then announced each participant's total televote score from all voting countries, starting from the bottom, which was added to the juries' scores, producing an overall final result.

While differing little from its predecessor, the new system vividly highlighted the differences between the juries' and the public's opinions and instantly earned criticism. Besides the obvious lack of jury sympathy towards the public's top pick - Russia - several other performers saw their results differ widely across the two scoring groups. Poland received close to no jury points at all, but came a whopping third in the televote - overall finishing eighth. In reverse, Israel and Belgium were both favoured widely by juries but scored disproportionately less with the public. Add to this the controversial lack of transparency over which five "national experts" exactly took into their hands the deciding of half of their countries' votes, and one can understand the generally sour public sentiment towards the announcement of the scores this year.

Sweden: perfect host

This year's contest was the sixth ever to be hosted in Sweden in Eurovision's 61-year history, following Måns Zelmerlöw's last year's Eurovision victory in Vienna with "Heroes". Sweden has always been highly successful in Eurovision and is generally viewed as the most triumphant performing country of the 21st century, having produced nine top 5 results and two victories. Sweden only lacks one victory to match the all-time record of Eurovision's current top winner, Ireland.

Unlike with the new voting system, the popular opinion was far less divided over the quality of this year's show. Masterfully presented by Måns Zelmerlöw and Petra Mede, Sweden's other spectacularly popular TV persona, Eurovision reached a new standard of hosting which any of the successor countries will find hard to match. Just one highlight included Måns and Petra performing a musical-style duet in the second semi-final, where the hosts explained, in a few cheerful lyrics, the very concept of Eurovision. That itself deserved the famous "douze-pointe" even more than some of the participants.

The 2016 contest was also the first one to be broadcasted live in the United States, perhaps answering the prayers of my several good US friends who are major fans of Eurovision. Justin Timberlake performed two guest tracks in the contest's interval and became the first non-competing artist ever to grace Eurovision with his presence. Besides Europe and the US, the contest was also shown live in China (whoever there was awake), Kazakhstan, Australia and New Zealand, thus truly gaining international scale.

Some highlights

Besides the obvious political overload, this year's contest certainly did not disappoint. If there is such thing as quality in Eurovision, then we were on to much higher quality in Stockholm compared to previous years. There were several serious candidates for the top votes, and a number of countries threw their maximum resources to make their performances memorable.

In line with the tradition, I would like to make several awards to songs in random categories. My worst on-stage costume award goes to Germany, whose 18-year-old Jamie-Lee impersonated a Japanese doll in the best traditions of decora-kei style. Unbelievably, her performance of "Ghost" made Bjork look like a perfectly normal person. Sadly, Eurovision is a singing, not a dressing up, contest.

My worst language choice award goes to Austria, who somehow chose to sing in… French. Now, it is not the first time for a participating country to choose a seemingly unrelated language to perform in: we all remember Iceland partially singing in French in 2010 and Latvia shockingly performing entirely in Italian in 2007. Frankly, multiple countries choosing to perform in rather primitive English over their national languages this year could have challenged Austria to this title. 21 of 26 songs in the Grand Final were performed entirely in English, while four more mixed English with another language. Austria could easily have won accolades for being the only country in the final to stick to one non-English language (even if singing for the wrong country), but no such luck: its "Loin d'Ici" was simply too annoyingly repetitive.

The night's worst on-stage dance award goes to Lithuania, whose Donatas Montvydas (aka Donny Montell) made Mick Jagger look beautifully coordinated in his performance of "I've Been Waiting for This Night". The singer last represented Lithuania in the 2012 Eurovision, and has visibly grown up since: his introduction video featured him posing in front of the Trakai Castle with a woman and a child, who, the presenters insisted, were his actual wife and daughter, not actors.

This year's best excuse for absence is shared by Romania and Turkey. The former was famously disqualified by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) 17 days before the contest due to non-payment by Romania of almost EUR 14 million of debts dating back to 2007. It is not clear when the country will be able to participate again. Turkey, on the other hand, has been on and off about Eurovision since its last participation in 2012, citing dissatisfaction with the rules, among other reasons, to justify its refusal to return to the contest. However, Turkey "sort of" participated this year, when its veteran star Serhat competed on behalf of San Marino, sadly failing to make it past the semi-finals and possibly producing the contest's most uncomfortably bad performance.

Onto more cheerful things, my best outfit award certainly goes to Poland's Michal Szpak. The singer only seemed to miss a parrot on his shoulder as he impersonated Captain Morgan in his long red uniform coat emblazoned with fully blown epaulettes. Some viewers have drawn parallels between the singer and a famous American parodist, Weird Al Jankovic - and I can certainly see where they are coming from.

The night's best lyric is awarded to Bulgaria's Poli Genova who proclaimed that "if love was a crime, then we would be criminals", leaving it to the audience to make the inevitable conclusions by themselves. Given the singer's preference for kitsch reflective clothing strips, it is only lucky that fashion was not a crime. Bulgaria scored its best ever Eurovision result in 2016, ranking fourth and receiving broadly similar acclaim from the public and the jury. I am also forced to award Bulgaria with the best on-stage dance move this year - look out for those catchy knee moves in Varna this summer.

Other notable moments of the night included the fifth ever Eurovision singer to perform pregnant: Ira Losco of Malta, who was also among the bookies' favourites to win. Having previously scored second for Malta in Eurovision 2002 in Tallinn, she ended up ranking 12th in 2016 with her very topically titled "Walk on Water". We know we were all wishing for her not to have to walk on water before her actual due date.

The controversy

Many of this year's Eurovision entries featured dreamy titles and lyrics. From Azerbaijan's "Miracle" to Greece's "Utopian Land", from Moldova's "Falling Stars" to Albania's "Fairytale", from Israel's "Made of Stars" to Georgia's "Midnight Glow", we were bracing ourselves for the classic happy-clappy, fetch-my-unicorn show that is the Eurovision. On that backdrop, Ukraine's victory with a dark, self-reflecting "1944" came not only as a surprise but also visibly outside the usual Eurovision format.

Several people have asked me how Ukraine's obviously politically inspired entry was allowed to participate in a contest that does not tire of emphasising its detachment from politics: indeed, in the past, other performers have been disqualified for attempting to introduce current politics into their lyrics. The answer here lies in the recency of the events in question. Jamala's "1944" was, according to the singer, covering the historical events of post-war Europe in the 1940s when thousands of Crimean Tatars were sent into exile by the then Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. Historical political events like that are allowed in Eurovision; never mind that, after a good night's sleep following her victory, Jamala woke up to realise that the song represented much more recent events in Crimea, too.

I myself woke up to widespread disappointment felt by Eurovision viewers across the world at this year's result. The majority have blamed the newly introduced voting system which, albeit different only in the presentation from the previous format, has failed to win hearts. Many of us hope it is not here to stay. Whoever remembers the ephemeral 2010 format change when the viewers were allowed to vote during the entire duration of Eurovision instead of the 15-minute time frame? It proved unpopular and was scrapped shortly after.

In any event, we are now left to look forward to next year's Eurovision Song Contest in Ukraine - and who knows which new participants we will have there following both China's and Kazakhstan's recent interest in joining the EBU. With Australia now an active member, very little can surprise an old Eurovision fan. It is clear though that the contest is growing to be a true international event. Stay tuned to find out!

Friday, 29 April 2016

Wedding destination: Falkland Islands

I cannot recall the first time I had the idea to get married in the Falkland Islands, but it seems like, in some form, I have always wanted to visit this remote archipelago. Conveniently, I also always wanted to travel to Chile, the country that happens to be one of the very few existing gateways to the Falklands.

After I met Alan – the man who very recently became my husband – I soon found out that he, too, dreamed of visiting the Falklands one day. Back then, I thought nothing more of it than a lucky coincidence for a joint holiday at some point in our lives.

Many associate the Falklands with penguins

I like to plan holidays literally years in advance and invested considerable time in devising a trip to Chile and the Falklands. Last spring, the plans had finally crystallised: the adventure would consist of two meticulously planned out weeks in Chile and one in the Falklands, and would likely happen around Easter 2016. Don't ask – travel planning really is one of my all-time favourite pastimes.

Then Alan and I got engaged in March 2015, and the looming trip gained an extra dimension. I do not like the concept of a "honeymoon"; bluntly, I find it somewhat outdated and redundant in modern times. However, we welcomed any excuse for a prolonged holiday, and decided to go with it – albeit still refusing to call it a "honeymoon" proper and using a "wedding trip" instead.

And what about the wedding?

Important things sorted, the next question was how and where to get married. A self-confessed introvert, I always dreaded even a small wedding (a big one would probably have me flee in minutes) and cared very little for any sort of party. Our first plan was therefore to sign a few papers in London some Saturday afternoon and be done with the whole marriage thing with minimal pain.

We generally like it peace and quiet

At the same time, it was tempting to do something a little more special and hopefully involving an adventure of some sort. It did not take long for us to decide to get married abroad (essentially elope), but where? Despite hailing from Latvia and having my parents there, I have lost most of my connections to the place. The wedding business in countries like Thailand and the Philippines is definitely on the rise, but we were not keen on following trends or spending our special day in obvious tourist locations. Moreover, we wanted to avoid dealing with translations or complications in the future should we pick an unusual jurisdiction.

The answer was nearer than we thought (though perhaps not immediately obvious to most readers): of course, the Falkland Islands! It is a UK Overseas Territory and, since we were already planning to go there, adding a wedding to the agenda seemed like a perfect solution. It would also pacify family and friends: we could excuse ourselves from inviting any guests as few people can reasonably be expected to fly half-way around the world for merely a wedding – especially to a destination they likely have little interest in.

Welcoming sign in Stanley harbour

Falklands where?

Most people have heard of the Falklands and have a rough idea where to find them on the world map. Just in case: the Falklands are an archipelago of about 800 islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, some 500km east of South American coast. The Falklands formally belong to the UK. Unfortunately, the archipelago shot up to front page headlines back in 1982 when it was briefly invaded by Argentina. UK came out victorious in the conflict, but Argentina continues to claim the Falklands to this day. Without taking any sides (difficult enough being British), I need to mention that the Falklands are known as "Islas Malvinas" in Argentina and generally the Spanish-speaking world.

Argentine plane debri on Pebble Island

Reaching the Falklands from the UK (and pretty much anywhere else) is not exactly easy. The most reliable way is by the sole existing commercial air link – operated by LAN, Chile's flag carrier – which runs once a week on Saturdays. This flight consists of 2-3 legs: from Santiago to Punta Arenas, then a short hop to Rio Gallegos in Argentina once a month, and finally on to Mount Pleasant, the principal airport of the Falklands. The door-to-door journey takes 7-8 hours – and remember you need to get to Chile first!

Believe it or not, there is also a semi-direct air link between the UK and the Falklands, namely the twice-weekly non-commercial flight operated by the UK Ministry of Defence from Brize Norton, Oxfordshire. A one-way journey takes around 20 hours, including a short refuelling stop on Ascension Island en route. The planes obviously aren't fighter jets, but rather civilian aircraft adapted for military use. Most passengers on this route are UK military personnel but some seats are sold to the general public. The primary reason to operate this air bridge is military, and civilians can easily be bumped off their flights to accommodate a sudden military need.

I digress however: it suffices to say that Alan and I could not risk missing our own wedding and opted for the LAN option. Conveniently, it was also significantly less expensive than the RAF's.

Flags in Christ Church Cathedral in Stanley; RAF flag is second right

Admin over romance

Understandably, we could not just show up at Stanley Town Hall demanding to get hitched. Since neither of us is a permanent resident of the Falklands, in order for us to get married there we had to apply for a special licence from the Falkland Islands' Governor. This consisted of a notarised written declaration from each of us about our intention to marry, proofs of address, notarised copies of our passports and a fee – nothing unusual compared to the rest of the UK.

The application took two weeks to reach the Falklands from London – by DHL! We received the Governor's licence another couple of weeks later, agreed the date and time with the Registrar in Stanley and were nearly set to get married.

Finally, internet search helped me to find a Stanley-based photographer, with whom I arranged to take a few shots of our special day – as well as double as our witness. Strangely enough, despite having acquaintances all over the world between us, neither Alan nor I knew anyone in the Falklands. The assistant registrar was going to be our second witness, and the matter was closed.

Our marriage certificate, the perfect Falklands souvenir

I do, I do, I do

Long story short, time flew by in a flash and our departure day came. Having a long trip through Chile in front of me – including a 5-day hike through autumnal Patagonia – I could not afford to pack anything non-essential, including such luxuries as a wedding dress. Thankfully, I didn't really need one for a simple civil ceremony.

For a laugh, I was going to get married in my full windproof / waterproof gear (Falklands can get chilly in April), but Alan (the wiser one) convinced me to bring one non-crease dress along. It was perfect – the dress being well worn, I did not have to worry about ruining it in transit. As for Alan, he donned black jeans and a white shirt – one of many identical ones he wears to work on a daily basis. We then chose the wedding date we could easily remember, namely 12 April 2016 (12 + 4 = 16). As you can see, we did not preoccupy ourselves too much with trivialities.

Already married and posing away

We showed up at Stanley Town Hall at the agreed time and found it surreal to be greeted by the people we had spent months communicating with but never before met in person. Having been somewhat overwhelmed by the importance of the occasion since morning, I found myself at ease at exactly the right time. Seeing how stressed I was, we once again knew we had made the right choice opting for a mini-wedding far away from the madding crowds. Anything more would have been torture, especially the mandatory wedding programmes so religiously followed in the UK.

The ceremony lasted for about 10 minutes, after which we had a good laugh being photographed pretending to sign the marriage certificate in the backdrop of the Falklands' flag – it is apparently illegal to have one's photo taken actually signing an original legal document under English law. Our photographer then drove us around to pose by the nearby landmarks including Christ Cathedral, Whale Bone Arch and Lady Elizabeth ship wreck. All of those are instantly recognisable sights of Stanley – though, understandably, only by a selected group of people!

Happy newlyweds in front of Lady Elizabeth ship wreck

And then? Then, to the pouring words of congratulations on Facebook, we grabbed a pint of the Peat Cutter – wonderful local stout – and disappeared inside Stanley's fascinating Historic Dockyard Museum. Because, frankly, nobody was expecting us to do that first dance.


View my photos of the Falkland Islands here and my photos of Chile here