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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.