Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Falklands

I’m jumping ahead in my journey as the Falkland Islands were fantastic. Far exceeded my expectations and I'm so glad I did it! The Falklands are actually an island chain of about 740 islands located 400 miles off the south-eastern point of South America. Our journey brought us to Stanley, the capital, on East Falkland. The island has many unique features, one of which is the presence of unexploded land mines left over from the 1982 Falklands Conflict. There are 117 mine fields across the island and all are well marked. The locals have taken the initiative in educating themeselves, their kids and visitors so no civilians have been hurt. As the world tries to rid itself of land mines, the Falklanders routinely insist that money and resources intended for land mine removal be spent in areas of the world without clear maps of existing mines. You have to like a people who are willing and able to take care of themselves and who place an importance on taking care of others, too!
The weather was mostly overcast and the seas were choppy as we approached the Falklands.

We could see that the day held great potential to give us some beautiful sunshine if only the winds would drop enough for the tenders. It is not uncommon for ships to miss out on the Falklands due to conditions so it’s something I’d prepared to miss, but deep down really really wanted to do. There was a fair amount of rock and roll to the ocean in the morning and many were speculating that we would either miss out completely or have our time here cut short.

But there wasn't any hesitation in the Captain's voice when he gave the go ahead for us to go ashore at Stanley. We were all pretty happy to put up with a moderately bumpy ride to shore for the chance to see the penguins and to explore some of the island.

Thanks to a little confusion during the embarkation process, we were late getting on the tender vessels to head in to Stanley, but the day improved rapidly. Jo and I got cozy in the tender as it was four to a bench and the benches aren't all that big!

At the dock, we were hustled up the ramp with no time to get a nice shot of the town. The crew insisted that the dock was unsafe due to the choppy seas, but really I think they just wanted to keep the line moving!

We were met by Patrick's team of drivers and split up into groups of four per 4 wheel drive vehicle. Amber, Cheryl, Jennifer and I were in one car and we were all in a festive mood already, we were all just happy to be here. It was going to be a fun drive! Most of the vehicles were SUV types and ours was very comfortable; Amber said that last year the vehicles were smaller and less comfortable so we had been prepared to rough it..this was better! Our driver, Christian, seemed a little reserved at first, but once we all started chattering he loosened up and came up with some excellent one liners when we'd least expect it.

Getting to Volunteer Point is an adventure in itself. It is about 75 kms, with the last 17kms of that over unmarked peat bog. One driver said there were about 28 different paths out to Volunteer Point, but it looked like those were more like guidelines than actual paths as there was frequent stopping and head shaking. The road leading to the cross country terrain is mostly gravel and can also be quite exciting! The peat bog is a rough, windy, unpredictable path to the shore and we could really see why Princess recommends that those with back problems skip this particular excursion. It was excellent fun and was as enjoyable as the time we spent with the penguins themselves. The vehicles travel in convoy so that no driver is alone and so that there is plenty of help available when someone gets bogged or when a new "bridge" needs to be put down.

Convoy grouping up as a new bridge is placed and each vehicle takes it easy going over.

A temporary bridge

We were surprised at how many significantly steep hills there were!

They provided excellent platforms for viewing the gorgeous countryside, though!

And the island is beautiful. Wide open plains, rolling hills, unexpected rock formations, bays, cliffs and other magnificent vistas over every bump.

No one really knows how these big fields of rocks were formed. Evidently there are multiple theories and geologists continue to visit the Falklands searching for a definitive answer.

Once the drivers got comfortable with their charges, it seemed like our once sedate convoy turned into a mini-rally! Christian was making up his own path, gunning it to get in a better position and talking a bit of smack about the other drivers. We were, of course, cheering him on, offering helpful suggestions and flashing victory signs at other cars as we flew past! Friends of ours had another rally-wanna-be driver who tried to be a cheeky monkey and get around us a couple of times, but Christian was just too good! It took a bit of skill to not only navigate over the uneven terrain, around the muddy rivulets caused by the rains the day before and to not get into first position - the guys up front had to stop to open all of the gates!
Getting up in it

A driver tries to make a move


We had a beautiful day with alternating overcast and blue skies, a warmish temperature but howling wind. I'm glad I rugged up in my new parka, knit cap, mittens and wind pants over a thermal layer. Yes, I am a wimp!

Volunteer Point is a gorgeous stretch of land and beach surrounding by Caribbean Blue waters on one side and rolling countryside on the other. The Gentoos and the Kings each have a colony up in the pasture land and Magellanics make their burrows in the strip of land between these colonies and the sparkling white sand beach.

The King Penguins are simply gorgeous with their glistening black and white feathers highlighted by bright yellow and orange on their heads. These are the largest penguins here and often waddle around the beach in small groups.

None of the penguins seemed particularly keen to actually get in the ocean, though many did venture to the water's edge, stick a toe and and seemingly decide better of it.

All of the penguins had youngsters, but the wind was so fierce that many of the bubs were tucked under a parent or snuggled deep in the mouths of their burrows.

The King penguin parents keep their youngster tucked into a special belly pouch most of the time. One chick was out for quite a while, continually squawking for more food.

There was a little group of Kings away from the main colony. All of these pairs had chicks and most parents spent a lot of time trying to tuck Bub back under.

There are lots more penguin photos and more penguin stories to come, but I'm falling way behind in getting anything up at all so I'd better save some for later! After our tour, we headed back in to Stanley for a short look-see. Coming around the bend we could see our ship, waiting patiently for us

There is an active military presence on Stanley and it is rumored that the pilots have no real altitude restrictions during training!

Not sure you can see, but the two guys in the doorway are waving to us

Have to like a town that clearly marks its two roads!

A pretty church behind a monument to the town made of whalebones

The Falklands Conflict still has ramifications, such as live land mines in fields across the islands, and there is a memorial wall over looking the bay to those British and Falklanders who lost their lives

Every port needs a newspaper and this one has the Penguin News

We were a little confused by some of the street signs...not sure why one can't wear blue from 8-5 on Monday through Friday!

And then there's this sign giving some sort of directions

Or this one showing how to shear a sheep...Falklands style

My favourite was the rabid looking Rockhopper penguin sign outside one of the gift shops. Could he look more evil?!

The conditions were much more pleasant on our return trip on the tenders. I was even able to stick the baby Olympus camera out the door behind me and take some shots of the houses lining the bay.

As we waited for the Star Princess to pull away from Stanley, the seas became like a mill pond and a lone sailboat cruised serenely along the coast for one final wave good-bye to the pod people.

I was happy to have been one of them today!

BTW - I apologise in advance if any of the links are broken...if you drop me an email, I'll try to get them fixed next time I'm online!

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