The Falkland Islands are about as far as it’s possible to reach from the UK, but they somehow feel like being at home too.
Lying about 300 miles East of South America in the South Atlantic Ocean, and facing open seas to the South until you hit Antarctica, this British Overseas Territory is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever travelled to and is simultaneously one of the most controversial.
Rugged and desolate, this place has the feel of an upside-down Scotland, complete with British cultural feel to boot. Solidly under British rule since 1833, the islands are subject to a dispute with Argentina, their closest neighbour, where they are known as Islas Malvinas. Highly publicised and within living memory, the Falklands War began after Argentinian invasion in 1982, and lasted a little over two months ending with British victory. The cultural ramifications of these tensions are still felt today; a recent referendum on sovereignty resulted in almost all Falklanders voting to remain a UK overseas territory.
I reached the Islands via an RAF trooper flight from Brize Norton to Mount Pleasant air base, a regular crossing which goes twice a week for military and contractor personnel. It’s a long old journey, including a stop for fuel in Cape Verde off the coast of Senegal. It’s also not an easy destination for travellers to get to – there aren’t any non-military flights from the UK, or any other European or North American country either. At the time of visiting, one private Brazilian airline was starting a route from Sao Paulo for South American tourists to use; it remains to be seen how successful that has been. Argentina does not offer flights to Islas Malvinas, for obvious diplomatic reasons.
As my flight nears to land, rich turquoise waters and colourful rocky coastline gives off a more exotic vibe than the Islands’ foggy interior will later on in my trip.
The capital, Stanley, is a small town with a frontier feel. People stock up on routine supplies in long intervals, a habit I’ve associated more with the Canadian wilderness. It’s a small slim settlement that hugs the South side of its fjord-like inlet, on the Eastern side of the islands. There’s a shipwreck of the Lady Elizabeth in the inlet, and if you look back over the town, the mountains of the interior rise bleak and green-grey over the low town.
Stanley itself is a juxtaposition – red telephone booths, British pubs, and a memorial to Margaret Thatcher highlight the territory’s colonial culture, but the Malvina Hotel for example is not only named in the Argentinian, but serves up local delicacies like the Patagonian toothfish. This is a contrast and a reminder: you are in South America, remember. Many of the houses are painted in bright colours, a la Scandinavia. Although where they opt for pastel shades there, here in the Falklands, Stanley looks to me more like a box of liquorice allsorts. There are deep purples, copper-washed green tones, and a dark dirty coral colour which is striking against the gloomy cloudy backdrop of the wilderness out of town.
Some aspects of life in Stanley feel like going back in time. There is no internet available, and even the telephone network is not 3G. I took an old 2G Motorola for emergencies; it didn’t get used much but having a battery last a week was a novelty. There are also ongoing plans for further oil exploitation – vast reserves under the South Atlantic that Britain could avail itself of – but coming from a country well versed in the climate emergency debate it all feels rather old hat.
The lighthouse at Cape Pembroke is certainly a sight worth visiting. East of Stanley, jutting out at the Eastern-most point, it is weathered and salty, as you’d expect, but the black and white paint stands stark against the blue hues of the sea behind it, the lashing waves, and the mix of greens along the coast.
I get to spend some time inland, 4x4ing around East Falkland visiting some battlefields and military history sights. The islander culture is definitely alluring, with the gravel roads and rough terrain a simple fact of life for those who live here. Our guide, Curly, is a Brit by birth but has remained firmly linked to these unique islands since fighting in the conflict in 1982. Unable to escape said links – positive and negative – he now calls Stanley his home for good.
One perk of life in these islands is the wildlife. Many birds, horses, and sheep with apparently the purest fleece and skins in the world, all set against the most vivid yellow gorse. As I said, we could be in Scotland at first glance. In a small way it also reminded me of Northern Iceland, with Stanley very much like the fishing port of Akureyri – long, thin, salty and sea-washed with it’s own strong sense of identity. The sun feels like it beats down stronger too – perhaps a self-induced feeling once I learn that the hole in the Ozone layer sits above the Falklands, making the UV rays more harmful than otherwise. My skin certainly feels more exposed than usual.
The locations we visit in the Land Rovers are names you may have heard in the news and in modern publishing – Goose Green, Mount Harriet, Mount Tumbledown, Teal inlet. We stopped at Port San Carlos – another Hispanic name – and of course the military cemeteries of San Carlos and the Argentine Cemetery too. I live in hope the families of those Argentinians killed will one day be able to travel freely to this cemetery, even if the land remains in British hands.
A downed Argentinian Chinook helicopter, which has remained in situ, in ruin since 1982
Before I left for this trip I told my children I was going to the “Penguin Island”, and the day before I depart this magical place, I get to see loads of these curious creatures in the wild. There are Magellanic Penguins at Gypsy Cove, north of Stanley, where some minefields left over from the war remain active. After that, some colleagues and I head to Bertha’s Beach which has flocks of Gentoo Penguins. The timing is perfect – we get in close with the cameras just as the sun is setting, whilst the rare species of oystercatchers join us there too.
As night falls, I leave my camera out on long exposure. Being at the bottom of the Earth, you see the most amazing night sky and near-minimal levels of light pollution. I’m sure I’ve seen the Southern Cross and stars like this before, in Australia or South Africa maybe, but this time it feels even more exceptional.