1. First Stop, Falkland Islands

The bleak landscape of East Falkland Island came into clear view as I pressed my cheek against the plane’s cold window, surveying this remote island. Scrubby bushes peppered rugged hillsides, and one paved road dribbled off over a rise. Next to a few lonely airport buildings at Mount Pleasant Military Complex, a British flag flapped straight out, caught in a stiff wind. I had waited a long time to realize this dream trip, and at last, it had begun.

Yay! I’m so close to one of the most remote places on earth. Next stop, Antarctica!

When our plane touched down, my spirits rose. No more plane rides. It had been a long haul to reach this remote place. When we stepped onto the tarmac, the British term for asphalt, a balmy summer wind whipped our clothes and hair. Since the seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, it was a nice change from the chilly November weather we had left at home in Portland, Oregon. The British Royal Air Force had built this small international airport after the Falklands War in 1982. The friction with Argentina over the possession of these islands remained after the brief war, so to protect the Falklanders who are mostly British, they made the airport part of a military complex located 37 miles from the capital, Stanley.

My first impressions of the Falklands were fuzzy after our two-and-a-half-day trip from Oregon. My only break occurred between flights in Santiago, Chile where I saw my first Andean Condor sailing high above a ski resort at the end of a steep mountain road—a most impressive sight.

After landing, we rode on a small bus for half an hour toward Stanley, home to most of the Falkland inhabitants. The landscape looked barren, but our chatty bus driver pointed out the short shrub heath, and the tall tussock grass, a coarse white grass with broad leaves that thrashes in strong breezes. The bus driver told us her family heats their house with peat, the partially decomposed tussock grass that forms in acidic swamps, abundant in the Falkland Islands. The acidic swamps are also the reason why there are no native trees. The few farms we passed sat near well-grazed pastures, and depended on prickly gorse planted around the houses and barns to break the near constant wind.

Occasionally, formations called stone runs or stone rivers, broke the monotony of the landscape. They are a curiosity found throughout the Falklands and scientists have studied them for years. When granite froze and thawed repeatedly during the last Ice Age, this geological activity created the stone runs by breaking apart the rock and rounding the edges into smaller chunks. The runs have the appearance of water seeping down the gullies, only instead of water there are heaps of rounded stones that form a flowing pattern.

The polar expedition ship, Clipper Adventurer, waited in the next bay east of Stanley. The crew prepared for our arrival while all the passengers stopped for lunch in Stanley. This left us plenty of time to see the quaint and very British capital that was only a block long.

For a birder, the best thing about travel is that you can easily see birds that are locally abundant in a new environment, but often scarce or nonexistent elsewhere in the world. This was true in the Falklands, which is home to 59 bird species that habitually breed on the islands. Most of them are water birds.

Directly across the street from the Upland Goose Hotel, our lunch stop, a finger of the sea stretched toward the town, creating an ideal spot for water birds to congregate along the shoreline. Several unfamiliar birds immediately drew the attention of my Portland Audubon group.

Falkland Islands, Stanley upper right, Carcass and Westpoint Islands upper left

This was my first international birding trip and I knew I had a lot to learn, so I shuffled up close to the three birders who seemed to know the names of the birds on the water. Bill pointed to quite a large gull that fluttered a foot above the shallow water. After the third shallow dive, the bird came up with a small snail and flew off. Bill said, “Kelp Gull. Found only in the southern hemisphere. We’ll see that further south.”

“Oh, look,” John said, jutting his chin toward a small grey goose with a brownish head walking along the shore. “That’s a Ruddy-headed Goose. Threatened, and most of them live here in the Falklands.”

“A steamer-duck,” another birder quietly chimed in, loud enough for us to pass on to the others in a very soft voice so as not to spook the bird.

“Boy, it sure is, but which one?” John agreed. “Both the Falklands Steamer-duck and the Flying Steamer-duck live here.”

A pair of dark grey ducks floated on the water as the subject of the birders’ discussion about field marks and behaviors. Their observations boiled down to, “If only that duck would fly, we would know if it’s the Flying Steamer Duck and not the Falkland Steamer Duck, but even they don’t like to fly in spite of their name.”

Maybe annoyed by the discussion, the two birds suddenly jumped up and churned their way ten feet out into the water, as if trying to fly, but not quite taking off. The splashy and frantic movements reminded me of a paddle steamer.

“Well, that’s what steamer-ducks do, but it didn’t help with the I.D.,” Bill sighed.

The experts got out their books, and I listened while they tried to determine which duck we were observing.

Steamer-ducks have shorter than usual wings and are quite heavy, easily up to ten pounds. Scientists are still debating whether their weight evolved before or after the evolutionary change in their shortened wingspan, which rendered all but one species flightless.

My brain soon filled with birding minutiae and refused to take in any more. So, I pulled away from the discussion to watch those rare and peculiar ducks paddling around in their home territory. I felt jittery with glee; the breeze on my face, the sun on my back, and in a remote place far from the crowds. Perfect.

My stomach grumbled. As I passed the experts on my way to the hotel, I overheard one of them say that he knew a researcher who studied steamer-ducks. While out in the field one day, the researcher stepped too close to a pair of the ducks and got a good crack on his shin. These flightless ducks defend themselves by using two keratinized knobs that grow on the middle joint of their wings, great for whacking a potential threat. That researcher got a firsthand experience with those wings. I studied the ducks for a moment longer looking at their wings, but their red knobs were tucked under their feathers.

The author on the streets of Stanley

The Upland Goose Hotel put on a luncheon spread for all 75 of the eager Antarctic passengers who arrived in waves, our Audubon group among them. The buffet overflowed with creative dishes. The scent of baked bread and sweets fresh out of the oven wafted through the dining area with a yeasty fragrance. We feasted on several kinds of quiche, baked fish covered with cucumber slices, potato salads, and green salads trimmed with sliced hard-boiled eggs. We may have been on a remote island far from urban comforts, but this buffet was as plentiful and savory as any culinary spread in a good restaurant back home. The hotel employee keeping the platters replenished explained that some local farmers built green houses on the island that defy the winds and cool weather in order to provide an ample bounty during the tourist season, their summer months from October to April.

After lunch, I decided to visit the Land Mine Museum situated near the Upland Goose Hotel. The Falklanders had built this museum after their war with Argentina, and I wanted to learn more about this little understood conflict.

Land Mine Display

Walking along the picturesque waterfront felt divine, a great way to stretch my legs. Caught up in the moment, I almost passed the obscure small museum. Once inside the dark lobby, I studied the displays that explained the history of the 72-day war. Great Britain first claimed the Falkland Islands in 1690, and then lost control to Spain. Britain reclaimed the archipelago in 1833 and installed a governor, which initiated the first permanent settlement. Argentina is physically the closest country and the logical claimant, and has disputed Great Britain’s sovereignty for years. Some say that internal unrest in Argentina spurred the invasion of the Falklands on April 2, 1982 after claiming the islands as theirs, again.

During the war, troops from both Britain and Argentina planted almost twenty thousand land mines throughout the islands, including thousands along the coastline near Stanley, thus the reason for this little museum. Great Britain prevailed and after the short war, the few attempts to disarm the landmines resulted in too many injuries. The British military fenced off the 117 minefields and set up the Land Mine Museum to educate the townspeople on how to recognize and deal with mines they might find in the ground. At the museum, a dim display of about a dozen types of landmines included labels with each mine’s name and its potential dangers. The heavy mines, often buried in the soft peat, could still be dangerous years later to anyone digging in the peat.

Restricting access to the minefields had been a boon for the shrinking penguin population. During the whaling years, workers used penguin bodies as fuel to render whale blubber, diminishing the penguin population. In more recent years, overfishing in the area depleted the penguins’ food supply, further devastating their numbers. But penguins are not heavy enough to set off the land mines, so they have survived in areas where people, cows, and sheep have been prohibited for their own safety. I love that this unintended outcome of the war benefited the penguins nicely.

Economy of the Falklands
Archeologists have not identified any artifacts indicating that indigenous people lived on this land. The only signs of human existence in the Falklands are from people who came to the islands in more recent centuries. Since the 1700s, ships stopped at the Falklands for supplies and repairs, whalers on their way to whaling grounds in Antarctica and trade vessels preparing to round the tip of South America.

From the beginning, Falklanders have led a hard and lonely existence. The current inhabitants are all transplants, mostly rugged British settlers. The first permanent settlers arrived after Great Britain installed a governor in 1833. Britain established a land-based whaling station there in 1909 to process whale blubber for oil, but the small number of whales in the area did not support the whaling station. The hunters added elephant seals and penguins to the rendering vats, but the numbers still proved inadequate. Britain opened another processing plant on the South Georgia Islands and closed the one in the Falklands in 1915, leaving the workers to find other ways to survive.

Many islanders consider the 1982 war as the event that defined the beginning of the Falklands’ modern history. At the time of the war, fewer than 2,000 people lived in the Falklands permanently, mostly on East Falkland Island in and around Stanley. When we visited in 2001, the population was 3,053, which did not include contractors and military people living on the island temporarily.

Products from sheep continue to be important to the economy of the Falklands, and income from fishing and tourism is increasing. After the war, the burgeoning interest in Antarctica prompted the arrival of huge ocean liners full of tourists that stopped in Stanley on the way south. In the year I visited, more than 22,000 tourists passed through. Some tourists came to see the remnants of the Falklands War; others were on their way to Antarctica.

East Falkland Island

Tussock Grass

After everyone finished a hearty lunch, our group enjoyed a quick tour around East Falkland Island to see more of the surrounding environs and learn more about the residents. Our local guide told us she fell in love with the Falklands when she arrived on a cruise ship in 1980, and decided to move to the island. During our visit, her family was one of the few still heating their home with peat, the only local and plentiful source of fuel. She helped her family cut peat blocks out of the bogs and stack them for drying. Our guide noted that burning peat formed from tussock grass smells like burning hair, which is probably why the rest of the island’s inhabitants switched to oil for heating. The imported oil is pricier, but less work to obtain, and emits no unpleasant odors.

On our tour, we passed small settlements, some consisting of one farmer’s house and outbuildings, protected from the wind by head-high, prickly gorse. Beyond the wind barrier grew additional thick clumps of tussock grass we had seen all day on the barren, windswept expanses. Fitzroy, one of the settlements, is located on the ring of roads that touch the battlefield sites throughout East Falkland Island. During the war, Fitzroy Settlement had been the site of Britain’s greatest blunder. During an air fight that left their base unprotected, 51 soldiers died and nearly 100 were injured. That story reminded me of the stories of our Civil War, where elderly ladies watched the battles from their farmhouse windows. I wondered, Did those remote Falklanders stay for the battle, or did they wisely seek the safety of Stanley? Our guide had so much to tell us that I didn’t get a chance to ask her about that.

As I often do, I tried to imagine myself living there. With such a small population, everybody would know everyone’s business, something that made me feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, the community would be tight, tolerant, and helpful since they all had to depend on each other. I have enjoyed living in communities like that for short periods of time, which was enough for me.

In a small bay, out of sight from the town, we climbed off our small bus where our ship waited at the pier. At last, we were about to embark on our journey to Antarctica!