The Falkland Islands is a wild and unspoilt archipelago of 776 small and mainly uninhabitable bits of land, with two large islands deep in the South Atlantic Ocean on the Patagonian Shelf. This British Overseas Territory has been the subject of ownership disputes between Great Britain and Argentina for many years, which led to the Falkland Islands war in 1982.
Arrival in the Falkland Islands
I arrived at Mount Pleasant Airport, the British military base in the Falkland Islands, on a mild October day with the sole purpose of finding solitude and an escape from an untenable existence elsewhere in the world. What I found in the Falklands Islands gave me so much more than that.
After acquiring a 4WD (there is nothing else) vehicle, I headed east on the Darwin Road, a 30 mile stretch of treacherous gravel and scree. Alarmed by the sticker inside the door warning me to hold on to it when opening at all costs (doors regularly get ripped off in windy conditions), I took a slow drive to the capital, Stanley. Lining the road are cavernous drainage ditches, the depth of which made me wonder about rainfall and how wet the islands must get. I found out later in my trip that the engineers building the road miscalculated and built the trenches deep enough for a years' worth of rain to fall in 24 hours!
The surrounding landscape is not unattractive in a stark and savage way; I could not step out of my vehicle and admire the view across the wilderness to the ocean. Not unless I wanted to clamber over the enormous grey boulders whilst dodging boggy ground and diddle-dee bushes that make up most of the Falkland Islands landscape. The one geological feature of note are the 'rock runs'; huge swathes of grey rocks tumbling down the hills and mountains, resembling the flow and routes of rivers as they head to the distant sea. I was intensely curious about these but it is said that no-one knows what forces of nature created these rocky rivers; certainly during my time on the islands, I could find no-one who could tell me.
Arriving in Stanley is a joy. Red and green tin roofed houses stretching down to the waterfront promise hospitality and warmth and look pretty in the afternoon sunshine. There are just two hotels in town, the Malvina House and The Waterfront Boutique, so it's best to book ahead. A great alternative is to stay with a local family and get a true sense of island life. As I walked around the small town I was in no doubt about which flag flies here. Sometime after the conflict which the British won, the population voted overwhelmingly to stay British and have fiercely defended their right to self-determination.
The hospitality is legendary and I was not let down. Smoko (tea and home-made cake) is always offered and on several occasions, I enjoyed a full Sunday roast with all the trimmings. A visit to a remote homestead is company for the people that live there and helped me get a sense of what life is like in 'camp'; hard and pretty relentless but gloriously unfettered by materialism and fake news!
I flew with FIGAS (an aircraft taxi service) to Weddell Island in the far west of the archipelago, stopping to drop off the GP and collect mail at several small islands en-route. After clambering over the luggage, parcels and other passengers I understood why I had to let the pilot know of my weight; all cargo has to be balanced scrupulously. After a hairy landing where we had to 'buzz a few sheep out of the field' in the pilot's laid-back words, we arrived above the airstrip at Weddell ready for smoko. Circling, the pilot shouted over his shoulder that we were unable to land 'the fire truck's not at the strip' he yelled. Suddenly, the passenger next to me shouted that he saw the 'fire truck', I looked out to see an old Land Rover hurtling along a make-shift track towards the strip where there was a trailer laden with fire-extinguishers, a water bowser and hose. I have no idea why I expected to see a red fire engine!
Four-wheeling Across the Island
Weddell is one of the bigger islands and has several colonies of Gentoo Penguins (one of five species on the Islands), Sea Lions and Elephant Seals. To see these animals in the wild, with no fences or constraints, other than your own common-sense is an incredible privilege. Stalking through the Marram Grass covered dunes at Elephant Cove, hoping that a rogue sea-lion was not taking a well-camouflaged nap was terrifying but exhilarating! The overwhelming smell of the penguin colony will be something I will remember for a long time! Returning to the homestead for a delicious home-cooked meal followed by the house dessert of Bailey's bread and butter pudding was a welcome treat after a day's hiking and sea-lion dodging. Star-gazing later than night, into a sky clearer and less polluted than I have ever seen was a life-defining moment; I felt more alive and visceral than ever before.
A trip out to Volunteer Point, in the far east of the island, was another highlight of my trip. A 'proper' 4WD trip, which required us all getting out several times so that the vehicle could be dug out, is the only way to get there. But all that effort and digging (and yes, the passengers are expected to help) is so worth it. The magnificent, miles long stretch of white sandy beach is home to a 1000 strong colony of King Penguins, the largest species on the Islands. These beautiful creatures happily promenade along the sands, unperturbed by the humans around them. Photogenic and sleek in their white and black feathers, watching the interactions and engagements between these penguins convinced me they knew they were on film!
Across the islands are small homesteads and settlements where you can visit and meet the people that farm the land. One such settlement is Port San Carlos, a two hour drive from Stanley and the first landing place of British forces during the 1982 conflict. Comprising several small farmers' houses and a lot of sheep, I stayed there in a small shack with a green wriggly-tin roof for a few days. I mention the roof, because it rained during my time in the shack; the sound of the rain on the tin roof was comforting, I was warm, safe and a long way from the 'real' world.
The following day the sun shone and I took another 4WD trip to Paloma Beach with the landowner Bob, for the princely sum of Â£10. No roads, car-parks or ice-cream vans there; it was hard going to even get there but when I did, oh boy! The beach is backed by a wide estuary with shallow, snaking rivers of fresh water coming off the mountains to meet the ocean. As we drove across the white sand and turquoise waters, I was incredulous to see sheep and cows on the beach! Not only sheep and cows, but with penguins strutting their stuff from sea to colony, through the farm animals with not a care in the world. I took a seat on the dunes as Bob pulled out a bottle of ice-cold Bud from a fridge in the back of his wagon, like a magician pulls a rabbit from a hat. He opened the bottle with the catch on the Land Rover door like we were in a wild west movie and I watched in awe as he pointed out whales crossing the bay. I sat and savoured my beer, enjoying the solitude and wonder that comes with looking out to the vast ocean and knowing there is nothing else for thousands of miles.
The Falkland Islands Experience
I left these wonderful islands feeling refreshed and re-invigorated. The isolation and raw wilderness, coupled with the realness of life, the lack of pretense and posturing, had given me a new perspective which I carried with me as another door opened into a new life.
When you go:
You can get to the Falkland Islands by flying or taking a cruise ship. It is possible to fly from the UK with the Royal Air Force on their twice-weekly flight from RAF Brize Norton. Flights cab be booked through the Government Office Travel Co-coordinator emailing https://www.falklands.gov.fk/. Flights cost around Â£2,200 for non-residents of the Falkland Islands.
You can also fly to the Falkland Islands via South America. There is a weekly flight from Santiago de Chile, which also stops at Punta Arenas in Chile, operated by https://www.latam.com/en_un/. This flight is not considered a transit flight, you may need a visa to enter Chile.
Stopping at the Falkland Islands as part of a cruise ship voyage can be a great way to get a snap-shot. Most companies offering Antarctic or South Atlantic cruises will include the Falkland Islands in their itineraries.
Written by: Izzy Nicholls
Izzy Nicholls is one half of The Gap Decaders, a blogging couple who quit their jobs and sold their house to travel full-time in a motorhome. Having road-tripped 30,000 miles and visited over 28 countries, their thirst for adventure remains unabated. They met in the Falkland Islands! Follow her at: www.thegapdecaders.com/