Sunday, 29 April 2012

Rambling again....

Last weekend was dry, sunny and windy.  Good walking weather.  And a new route was promised by the organiser.

Early bogging of car

Although the walk was less than 4 miles from Stanley, as the crow flies, it still took about an hour to drive there, partly due to the local enthusiasm for driving 4x4s across the countryside!  The car being towed above was the 7th to drive over that very spot, but somehow it managed to get "bogged", as the local expression has it.  But with so many life-long off-roading experts around, it wasn't long until the convoy was on the move again.
Breaking new ground....
Sunday drive near Stanley.  The dot in the centre is my car!
Keep to the track....
But seeing the depth of the ruts, we left our dainty Freelander at the gate and grabbed a lift in a monster Pajero...We were there to walk, not dig out stranded cars...
New fences. New signs. Old problems.
The walk was on an area that had been cleared of ordnance (ammunition, etc) from the 1982 Falklands War.  We had been to the "opening" ceremony a few weeks earlier, but this was a chance to walk around the whole area - a novelty even for locals.
Happy walkers
The walking was on the wiry undergrowth, as there were no paths.  A bit like walking through heather - quite tiring, and difficult to relax and admire the view:  you are always looking at your feet!
Managed to find a space on the beach for lunch
A cold southerly wind was blowing, but it stayed dry and good walk was enjoyed.  There was a brief stop for hot drinks and cake on a beach, where some curious plovers came for a close look at the unusual visitors to their patch.  No people had been there for 30 years.
Two-banded plover
During the walk, I met several people for the first time, including a few from the medical profession.  One doctor was on his 7th visit to the islands, but rarely saw anything outside of Stanley as he had to remain within an hour of the hospital in case of an emergency.
Pristine beach 
All too soon, our 6 mile ramble was back at the cars, and after digging out a couple more, we got back to Stanley in time for a late lunch, ears tingling with the windburn!
A few weeks ago, I mentioned discovering the Solar System sculpture walk around Stanley....
The Earth, Moon, and Sun about 200 yards away
I thought a look at Earth might help get the size of the Solar System into perspective.  The Sun is about 200 yards behind the Earth, in the above photo, while Pluto is about 4 miles in the other direction!

And to make up for the lack of penguins this week, here is another sunset with the Lady Elizabeth.  (I have several hundred to see me through the winter!)
Lady Elizabeth
Activities this week have included a big quiz at the Community School, where we came an honourable 4th (ie we didn't cheat).  The highlight there was the catering - the teachers cooked curries and made desserts.  There were about 9 different curries including a couple of Vietnamese dishes.  I hadn't realised until I tasted the food that it's about 4 months since I sampled a curry.  Mmmm.

The weather has been showery this week, but not on a scale as in England, I understand.  Some locals in a pub were commenting that there hadn't been serious rainfall here since last October!  Farmers are worried they may run out of water for their sheep!  Could someone organise a tankerload from England?


Monday, 23 April 2012

"Happy Birthday, Your Majesty!"

A very bright and cold day dawned on Saturday.   As you will no doubt know, it was HM Queen's birthday, and like loyal subjects everywhere, we were heading off to the celebrations....

First frost of the year

Walking down the hill, we could see HMS Clyde in the harbour, bedecked with bunting. As we approached Victory Green, the crowd grew as we waited for the arrival of the Governor and the military commanders.

Victory Green, with former Upland Goose hotel behind

The green is about 500 yards by 50 yards, lying between the sea, and the main road along the front of Stanley.  It's usually empty, but for some ceremonial cannon, a mast from SS Great Britain (which lay in the harbour for decades), and dozens of Upland Geese enjoying the high-quality grass and the tranquility.  

HMS Clyde and spectators

At one end of the green are a couple of good shops and the West Store, which stocks mostly Waitrose products.  Facing the Green, are Stanley House, a boarding facility for children from Camp attending school in Stanley; the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) office; the former Upland Goose Hotel; the Police Station (and prison!).  At the west end of the Green, on the shore side, is another great gift shop; the Bank; Town Hall; and Post Office.  Downtown!    

Geese enjoying the quiet.....
Around Stanley House and the BAS office is probably the highest concentration of trees on East Falkland.
Vultures - do they know something?

Punctually, His Excellency, the Governor, arrives in a shiny Range Rover.  (By the way, he doesn't govern! He is the Queen's representative.  A Foreign Office diplomat who works closely with the Falklands Islands government on policy matters.  The UK is responsible for the Falklands' Defence and Foreign Policy.  Everything else is run by the Falklanders themselves.)

Accompanied by military commanders from the British Forces, South Atlantic Islands  (BFSAI), he takes the salute as Flags are raised and lowered.  The guard of honour - made up of members of the Falklands Islands Defence Force and counterparts from BFSAI - is inspected.  All seems in order.

Inspecting the troops.

Feathers fly
I've heard gun salutes in London a couple of times, but they were probably a few miles away from me - perhaps in Hyde Park.  You would notice  them, and think "What's that?  Oh, it's the Queen's Birthday", and get on with your sight-seeing.  It was less intrusive than a car horn warning you not to step off the kerb.
Not in Stanley.  Not when the guns are 20 yards away.  I heard the first command "Fire!", and that was about the last words I heard for about 15 minutes... The geese got the fright of their lives and flew off cackling for all they were worth.   20 more explosions followed, echoing off the hills, and filling the green with smoke.
RAF and Royal Navy make an appearance
Eventually, the guns fell silent.  Someone, I think it may have been the Governor, suggested "3 cheers for Her Majesty...Hip, hip...".   The guard of honour sloped arms and marched off.  The Governor's entourage made their way back to Government House for a reception, and some of us wandered around waiting for the geese, and our hearing, to return.....
Job done
As we were dispersing, we bumped into a couple of ladies we'd met on Sea Lion Island in February.
Ashford Spinning Wheel
One of them invited us into her cottage overlooking Victory Green.  It was formerly part of the Upland Goose Hotel, which was the watering hole for senior Argentine officers in 1982, and, subsequently, members of the British press like Max Hastings.  The historic building has recently been converted into a row of cottages, keeping this part of town alive and attractive, although  there is still the occasional knock on the door from a visitor looking for the Upland Goose bar!

Warship in the harbour; Upland Geese on the Green
Our hostess was a retired travelling teacher.  On the sparsely-populated West Falklands, farms are so remote, primary schools are not viable, so teachers moved every few weeks from family to family.  Face-to-face lessons are supplemented by radio, and now Internet, teaching from the school in Stanley.

As she produced much-needed hot coffee and home baking, we couldn't help admire the many examples of her other skills in profusion around the house.  As winter was approaching, the spinning wheel was being brought out for the long, dark nights.  Crocheting, cross-stitching, felting, patchworking, knitting, weaving, basket-making, tapestry,embroidery and more was also in evidence.

There's quite a thriving craft "industry" in the Falklands, although it's definitely at the cottage level.  Cruise ship passengers usually snap up the high-quality, stylish  products, but I feel it could also benefit from a high-profile "Falkland Islands" brand - such as Fair Isle jumpers enjoy.  

Some reviews of shopping opportunities can be found here -

As I write, on St Georges Day, it is a Bank Holiday (for the Queen's Birthday) on the Falklands.  Here's hoping the traffic isn't too bad.

The Queen is 86 years old.  Who can remember another British Monarch?  Not many of us.  I wonder if the next monarch will get the crowds out in far-flung corners of the globe?

Happy St Georges Day to my English friends!


Friday, 20 April 2012

Fitzroy: Sheep Show, Beagle and Sheep Chill Factor!

Another pleasant weekend was forecast (thanks partly to a certain Captain Fitzroy) and a Sheep Show was planned at the settlement named after him.  Back in the UK,  I'd never been much of a Sheep Show aficianado  (Sheep Dog Trial?  Guilty! -   the lot of them!), but when in Rome....

Fitzroy home, with quad bikes parked outside.  Not sure if the phone box works.

Fitzroy was named after the Captain of the famous Beagle, which called in on the Falklands in 1833.  To combat loneliness on the long voyage, Fitzroy had asked the Admiralty to find a gentleman companion with whom he could share scientific discussions.  A young Charles Darwin volunteered to sail with him.

Boot Hill

Fitzroy went on to become Governor of New Zealand, helping to start the First New Zealand War with the Maoris, and also developed the first weather forecasts.  He would have been kept busy in the Falklands.  "If you don't like the weather, wait 5 minutes....".  He also features in the UK Shipping Forecast, as a sea area is named after him.

Fitzroy settlement
To reach Fitzroy, we drove about 20 miles towards Mount Pleasant airport, and took a left turn onto a single-track road for about 6 miles.  The settlement of about 20 houses was nestling in the low hills, with the sea on 3 sides.  Beside the shore was a large sheep shed.

Sheep shed by the sea-shore. Say 3 times, quickly!

When driving around, I'd noticed the sheep behaved very differently from their cousins in remote parts of Scotland.   In the Scottish Highlands, the sheep can be exasperating - leaping out of the heather in front of your car without warning, or more infuriatingly, standing in the middle of a narrow country road, oblivious to your pleading or banging of the horn; only moving when gently nudged with the front bumper.
Here's looking at ewe!
Here in the Falklands, people and cars are much less numerous, so sheep seem to be very wary and the few I have seen on the road have galloped off as soon as I came into sight.
Ever felt penned in?
So, apart from the scores of carcasses I'd manhandled onto ships in February, my only close encounters with the majority of inhabitants of the islands had been as mutton chops or lamb shanks!  ( The dead sheep were supplies to the Asian jiggers which were stocking up for the fishing season.  See  )
Maiden Bitter from Falklands Beerworks
But it was not only the thought of some pretty sheep that attracted me...there was also the promise of some craft stalls, and rumours of draught beer!

They all looked good to me.....
As well as the embryonic Falklands Beerworks (how historic was that? - the first ever tasting!), with the delicious product, there were artists, designers, weavers, knitters, soapmakers, etc, etc.  Many of the craft people were multi-talented, so didn't actually take up much room, which was just as well, as the sheep were meant to be the stars of the show...

Spinning Wheels

Woven by hand

These sites are showcases for a couple of superb artists and designers living in the Falklands -

 Homeward bound......
The bump on the horizon is Mount Pleasant airport
After the prize-giving ceremony (there seemed to be eighteen categories of prizes -  best sheep... by breed, age, sex, whether for wool or mutton, etc) people met up with old friends, exchanged news, sampled the home-baking or brewing, or bought  some craftwork.  Farmers and visitors had come for miles..

Stanley - that way! (Typical Falklands-flagged transport)

Too soon, it was time to go home.  But we will return shortly, as I want to see the memorial to those killed on Sir Galahad during the Falklands War.  The disaster actually happened at Fitzroy and not Bluff Cove, which is a few miles further.  It was a complex situation and I will hopefully explain the background in more detail later.

The pot-holed road to Stanley
The road to Stanley winds past the mountains of Challenger, Harriet, William and Tumbledown - all fought over 30 years ago.  To the south lay rolling, peat moor, dotted with sheep and a few Belted Galloway cattle, originally from south-west Scotland, as I am.
Going off-road can be dangerous.
The weather held and we had another of those amazing, and unpredictable, sunsets.  The camera really does have to be to hand at all times here.  A minute or two delay can mean a missed opportunity.
Stanley sunset 
This weekend (21st April) is a Bank Holiday in the Falklands, celebrating the Queen's Birthday!  The wind is turning cold and sleet is forecast.  Captain Fitzroy would have been pleased his idea of weather predictions has been so universally adopted!

Every day here, the local radio station gives the weather forecast, the shipping forecast, and the Sheep Chill Factor - warning of the cold felt by newly-shorn sheep.
Have a good Queen's Birthday, and wrap up warm!


Thursday, 12 April 2012

"Slow. Minefield" ! And now for the good news.....

"Slow. Minefields"

Although many visitors to the Falkland Islands arrive via cruise ships, most residents and longer-stay visitors arrive by air at Mount Pleasant Airport.  They are then usually driven the 35 miles to Stanley, and after admiring the rolling scenery for about 20 miles, the last 10 miles into Stanley brings the road closer to the hills where the final stages of the Falklands War were played out.

The road from Stanley, with Mts William, Tumbledown, and Longdon.  All battlefields.

 It is then that visitors may notice the most obvious and dangerous legacy of the war - road signs warning "Slow - Minefield"!
Grass wren on minefield fence
Sadly, it is the case that over 100 minefields remain in the Falklands, many of them dotted around the countryside near Stanley.  Happily, though, I don't think there's a been a single civilian injury caused by mines here in 30 years.  The reasons why these minefields remain, and why no-one has been hurt recently is largely down to the vision of one man.
Minefield 28, with Mt William behind
 Recently, there has been a lot of activity by a team from a company called BACTEC (motto - "Making the World a Safer Place"), which was founded by Guy Lucas, MBE.  Guy was a Major in command of the Royal Engineers' Explosive Ordnance and Disposal (EOD) efforts in 1982-83.

Gypsy Cove and Yorke Bay. Stanley airport beyond the (mined) dunes.

After leaving the Army in 1990 he formed a company, BACTEC, to continue the work, worldwide, of clearing up explosives.  There's no shortage of work.... Recently, a  team of BACTEC Zimbabwean explosive disposal  and demining experts,  have worked for 3 months to locate and destroy unexploded ordnance.  Quite simply: finding, and safely destroying, ammunition, grenades, missiles, mines, rockets, explosives etc, which had been abandoned in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Immediate Aftermath -

Immediately after the surrender of the Argentine forces on 14th June 1982, it became obvious that the clearing up of war debris would be a mammoth and dangerous task  Millions of shells and bullets had been fired by both sides.  It was said that walking around Stanley, it was not possible to walk 5 paces without stepping on ammunition, spent or otherwise.

Worse,  it very quickly became clear that many mines had been laid by Argentine troops to prevent British forces moving over the low-lying terrain towards Stanley.  Worse still, after interrogating many of the captured teams of mine-layers, it emerged that, as the war neared its end, desperate measure were employed and detailed maps of the minefields had not been produced!  It was discovered that some mines had been laid from helicopters.

Mined sand dunes at Yorke Bay, near Stanley

Most of the captured Argentine mine specialists were happy to co-operate with British Army engineers to help locate and document the minefields, but after 2 British soldiers were badly injured by mines while following Argentines through a minefield, the decision was made to not risk further lives and limbs.  The edges of the minefields would be located, and then the minefields fenced and clearly signposted. The Argentine engineers were repatriated with the thousands of other prisoners.  Before boarding the troop ships, the engineers were asked how they had intended to clear the undocumented minefields if they had stayed in the Falklands for the long-term.  "With sheep!" was the reply!

The Falklands soil is mainly deep, damp peat and this allowed buried mines to sometimes move at a later date.  Also, a bulldozer working on a beach near Stanley was damaged by a mine that had been planted in the nearby dunes.  It's assumed the mine had been washed from the dunes by rain (or washed up on the tide).  So, these beaches have been cordoned off since 1982 and only penguins now stroll along them.
The beach to themselves...

Yorke Bay.  Only penguin feet tread the sand.
Magellenic pengiuns at Gypsy Cove.  No humans allowed
Tranquil Yorke Bay
Restoring the cleared minefields -

Surf Bay

Two years ago, BACTEC cleared ordnance from around the beautiful beach at Surf Bay, about 3 miles east of Stanley, near the airport, and one of the most-heavily defended (by Argentine forces) parts of the Falklands.  This, and Yorke Bay, was where invading troops were expected to land.

Surf's up at...Surf Bay!

The cleared dunes were fenced off and replanted with native grasses - partly to stabilise the dunes, and also to restore the ground cover with native, rather than alien, species.

Replanted grasses on reclaimed sand dunes

This week, I have been helping monitor the progress of the restoration, working with Falklands Conservation as a volunteer.  Much of the work involved assisting a scientist record the size of the plants and whether they had seeds, or had been grazed by (introduced) hares or rabbits.  We also recorded the presence of all other plants in the trial site.

Signs ask that the new grasses be undisturbed.

More details of Falklands Conservation work here -

The beach at Surf Bay is now enjoyed by many Falklanders, and is the scene of the mid-winter swim!  Brrrrrr!  (On Monday, I wore 2 fleeces, a thermal vest, thermal trousers and a windproof jacket, and was still cold - the wind was gusting!)

RECENT Clearances -
Map showing Stanley (top), and minefields (red).  Cleared area in green.

But, the most stirring event recently was the clearance of almost 4 million square metres of land, just south of Stanley.  Within this area was an old stone corral, built by Jacob Goss in the 1840s.  His descendant, Eric Goss, was in attendance at the Land Release ceremony, when the BACTEC representatives officially handed over the land to the Governor, Nigel Heywood.  Musicians played local folk songs and beer and snacks were liberally consumed by some.

Thick walls of stone corral
One local I spoke to said he'd played in the corral as a child and it was a popular picnic spot, not least because its thick walls are windproof!  He had last stood there as a teenager on 15th June 1982, when Army personnel had announced that the whole area was off-limits.  Now people can go for walks here, and reach an unspoilt part of the coastline that has been cut off for 30 years.

Musical entertainment
Guy Lucas recalled that he'd worked at that very spot 30 years ago, fencing off the minefield, and it gave him great satisfaction to return and see formerly-blighted land handed over to the community to enjoy once more.
South American TV news team and Zimbabwean mine clearer.

For more on the clearance, Penguin News has details -

The corral is about 0.5 mile in circumference.  Mt William in distance.

I know some people (both in the Falklands and in the UK) are rightly horrified at the situation about the minefields, but it just goes to show that, even if the minefields can't be completely removed, improvements can be made.
Social consequences.

As well as the immediately-obvious danger to life and limb that these minefields presented to the Forces and local population, there were also some subtle but significant changes to Falklands life.

Pay rates in Stanley, and in Camp, were generally low, but this was offset by access to free peat nearby, for fuel, and a seemingly-unlimited supply of Upland Geese, which grazed on the grasses throughout the islands.  No-one went hungry.

However, much of the peat was now in the middle of minefields, as were the geese.  Heating fuel (propane and kerosene) and more food now had to be imported from the UK.  Wages had to be increased to pay for the extra costs.  The economy had to grow to pay for the rising wages.....

I'm told peat stoves are difficult to light and, once lit, need to be monitored to avoid going out.  For this reason, almost everyone in Stanley would return home at lunchtime (or is it "dinner"?),  to check on the stove.   But, even with the advent of mains electricity, it seems most people still return home at lunchtime.  Some traditions are worth keeping!

Enjoy your dinner, whenever you have it!

[PS. I gleaned a lot of interesting information from this book - "Falklands Aftermath",  by Maj-Gen Edward Fursdon. Well worth a read if you want to know what happens after a small war in your back garden!]