Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Parading the penguin highway in the Falklands

Monday, 3 June 2013

Holiday ideas in the Falkland Islands
Holiday ideas in the Falkland Islands
Suzanne Holiday discovers world-class wildlife in an understated British Outpost.
Crouched on a pristine, white-sand beach, not a soul in sight, I could have been in the Caribbean had it not been for the gentoo penguins waddling past me in their droves. I was in penguin paradise, in the remote Falkland Islands. Literally hundreds of these curious creatures were parading along the gentoo 'highway': an unmarked track these entertaining animals use to traverse the island.

This was a far cry from the windswept, bleak and desolate labels that are so often attached to this British outpost. A first-timer to the islands, I was here to find out for myself if such labels were justified. My companion and I were the only guests on Bleaker, a tiny privately owned island in the south west of this 740-island archipelago. Other island inhabitants comprised rockhopper, Magellanic and gentoo penguins, plus the occasional sea lion making a guest appearance.

Residing here until our cherry-red eight-seater FIGAS (Falkland Islands Government Air Service) plane was due to retrieve us the following day, there was plenty to occupy in the way of long walks and penguin viewing in abundance. But penguins are not the only avian attraction in the Falklands. There's some 227 recorded species of birds, most memorable being King Cormorants and Skua birds with their awesome wing span (3-4 feet), plentiful on Bleaker.

Gypsy Cove (photo: Falklands Tourism)

As well as the wildlife I caught up with some other inhabitants, Elaine and Robert the island's caretakers. This sounded like an idyllic job, until Elaine soon dashed my fantasies: "Oh we get back to Stanley once a year for Christmas," replied Elaine, deadly serious, after I had enquired how often she visited the capital. Working from sunrise to sundown, she tends to the island's 1,000 sheep and 120 cattle plus the odd intrepid tourist.

Besides playing farmer and hotelier, also in Elaine's job description is the illustrious task of appointed 'airport' fire Warden. I watched in amazement as this steely woman hitched her weathered 4WD onto a trailer loaded up with a hose and extinguisher to combat any problems with the plane's landing on the island's grass airstrip. Thankfully in all the time FIGAS has been running (established in 1948), incidents have been few and far between and there's barely a day in the year these robust planes don't take off.

As well as an exhilarating way to get around for tourists, FIGAS is instrumental to the islanders' way of life, acting as a sky high taxi service. Having 'boarded' the plane, our pilot - call sign 'steady Eddy' due to his cautious pace - informed his passengers that we would be touching down in Fox Bay on West Falkland to pick up a sheep shearer and collect some eggs, before flying onto our next night's location, Pebble Island.

Pebble is the third largest offshore island where the sheep population far outnumbers human residents - 10,000 to five! Since 1846 the island has been run as a sheep farm but was a mighty metropolis after Bleaker, with a small settlement.

On closer inspection during a walk from the accommodation lodge, the settlement consisted of abandoned, rusting iron huts and outhouses; a reminder that this was once a thriving community of 23 residents, prior to the Argentine's invasion during the 1982 conflict. As well as the pristine beaches, wildfowl, obligatory penguins and endless photographic opportunities, the island is imbued with history.

Each of the outer islands (and there are many more - Saunders, Carcass, Sea Lion - to name but a few) has its own personality, character and wildlife draw card. Incorporating at least two, ideally three, into any Falklands itinerary is a must.

Saunders Island (photo: Falklands Tourism)

I rounded up my island-hopping adventure in the capital, Stanley. Brightly coloured houses dot the skyline, with frequent reminders of the Islands' British and maritime heritage - red phone boxes, flags proudly flying, military monuments and, not forgetting, some great local pubs. Stanley is also the place to stock up on penguin paraphernalia.

From here I took an exhilarating 4WD tour to Volunteer Point - a highlight for any Falklands itinerary. Home to around 2,000 King penguins, it is the largest colony of this species in the islands. Kings, Gentoo and Magellanic penguins mingle with a few sheep in a surreal squawking animal commune.

Half the size of Wales with charming landscapes, The Falklands is a perfect close-knit community of circa 3,000 people, 770,000 penguins and 600,000 sheep.

Did my visit to this intriguing destination dispel the misconceptions of windswept and bleak? It is raw and can certainly get pretty windy but it is also, without doubt, one of the greatest wildlife destinations on the planet.

For birdlife and wildlife lovers, photographers, historians and those on a quest for somewhere that little bit different, the Falklands is the holy grail of destinations.

by Suzanne Holiday

Fact box:
For more information visit the Falkland Islands Tourist Board.


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