Monday, 24 September 2012

"The Sun has got his hat on.....

....Hip, hip, hip Hooray
...The Sun has got his hat on,
And is coming out to play!"

Hello &  Greetings from Stanley, on the Falkland Islands, somewhere in the South Atlantic.  The Equinox has passed and we are now entering Spring. (Unless you are reading this in the northern hemisphere, in which case, you'll be having Autumn!)
Penguins with Stanley in distance.
Although the above photo was taken in March 2011, it was on this beach that I saw 2 Magellanic penguins last weekend, the first there since April.  They've been out at sea feeding, and now are starting to return for breeding.
Lone gentoo penguin
On the same weekend, but at a different beach, we were watching a pod of dolphins just a few yards off-shore, when we nearly tripped over a lone Gentoo penguin, and a sleeping seal, in amongst the kelp thrown up by the storms.
Sunrise is at a decent hour, now
But, it's good to see the sun is up before us now, and the days are getting longer.  I'm able to introduce people to Nordic Walking on the beach in the evening, which is a pleasant change.
Practising rescues.
I must say that our first winter here has not been as bad I had thought it might be.  There were several days of snow, but really wild days were rare.  Also, many days were still and calm, which is not that common here.  I'm told "summer" tends to be when most rain falls, and the wind blows.  We shall see.
Quiet anchorage, and final resting place for some.
I've even started cycling, and am managing not to get blown into the deep ditches at the side of the roads.  The key to getting out and about, is some decent windproof clothes.  Rain tends to be in brief showers, and, even though I lead walks several days a week, I have yet to be drenched in 4 months.
Smoke in the hills - grass burning.
But, when the wind blows, it can reduce your temperature pretty quickly.  Last Sunday, I walked about a mile to a Craft Fair, and left the house without a hat, for only the second time since I arrived here in January. After about 5 minutes, my head was cold, and I could sense my body heat disappearing into the breeze.   Luckily, there was great choice of hand-knitted woollen hats to choose from at the Fair.  You can't have too many beanies.
Christchurch Cathedral
But now it is getting slightly warmer, and the grass is beginning to grow.  People are buying seeds from the garden centre - we were in there last Sunday when we found a long queue for recently-arrived fresh fruit from Chile.  The weekly flight usually, but not always, brings bananas, apples, avocados, pineapples, kiwi fruit and other exotic delights to help keep scurvy at bay!
Waterfront in central Stanley
We also had the fun last Friday of attending the annual Falklands Conservation Ball, where a charity raffle and auction raises funds for this local charity.  The top prize was a Antarctic cruise for two people, worth about £18,000.

We were hoping to pick up a bargain holiday, but many others had the same idea, and we were outbid as soon as the auctioneer started with, "..and do I hear £5,000?".  Last year, someone grabbed the cruise for £4,000.  This year the opening bid was £5,000, and it eventually went for over £10,000.  A lot of money, but if you were in the region and had always wanted to experience Antarctica, the Falklands and South Georgia, then it was a bargain for a trip of a lifetime!

As an aside, we left around midnight, but the bash carried on till 2am.  The next day, I met one of the organisers who told me that 7 cameras had been left behind by revellers.  She expected all of them to be returned to their owners.  Luckily, I had left my camera at home!

More soon,


Friday, 21 September 2012

Ajax Bay & Rick Jolly - a remarkable man

As the legendary Jim Reeves might have put it...."Welcome to my World"!

Continuing our tale of a couple of incoming Brits to the tiny community of the Falkland Islands, in the turbulent South Atlantic.  The census results published this week say there are 2,121 residents in Stanley and another 500 souls scattered around the rest of the islands, although this didn't include the 2,000 military and civilians based at Mount Pleasant.  Whatever the headcount - there is still a lot of space here!
Darwin sunset
What there isn't a lot of, is accommodation.  Many residents camp if they go away for the weekend, but with snow a possibility at any time of the year, and gales a probability, we prefer solid walls around us.....
Darwin Lodge
We choose to have a night in Darwin Lodge.  It has a lovely position, nestling on a sea inlet in the small settlement of Darwin, and about a mile from the neighbouring Goose Green.  These communities were established to house the farm-workers who worked on the vast sheep stations ("farms" doesn't convey the size).  With mechanisation and a more "self-starting" workforce, some accommodation has been converted into self-catering cottages, or, in the case of larger, former managers', homes, into small hotels.
For some reason, the car park is nor near the Lodge!
 Darwin is about 70 miles south-west of Stanley, and we arrived in time for afternoon tea, accompanied by delicious home-made cakes and scones.  After being shown our large room with picture windows facing north and west, we set off to explore the surroundings.  What struck us immediately was how quiet it was.  Now, Stanley is hardly a bustling metropolis, but here the nearest road was about a mile away and traffic infrequent.  We could faintly hear dogs barking, but couldn't see any.  We found out later, the dogs lived in kennels in Goose Green, but on still evenings, the sound carried.
We watched the sun set, and the stars come out, and saw herons and hares enjoy their last feed of the day....

Rockhopper penguins, enjoying the view
The Lodge had an honesty bar, and - I cannot tell a lie - we used it!  Our hosts served us (there were 10 guests staying that night) with delicious cream of tomato soup followed by chicken pie, washed down by a carafe or two of house Chilean red....
2 Para memorial
Next morning, like the weather, we were up bright and breezy for another traditional meal of Full English breakfast, before heading off to explore the area.  First stop was the poignant memorial to those British paratroopers who lost their lives in the first land battle of the Falklands War.  It is situated on a gorse-covered ridge which separates Darwin from Goose Green, and  it was here that some very fierce fighting took place during a battle that lasted about 14 hours.  The Commanding Officer, Col. H. Jones, frustrated at the lack of progress, decided to lead from the front and was killed attacking Argentine positions on this ridge.   He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Goose Green community hall
When the British  troops eventually reached Goose Green, and took the surrender of the 1200-strong Argentine force, they found that  every member of the settlement (about 100 people of all ages) had been locked in the Community Hall for over a month!  As the battle raged around them, they had been forced to cram into a hastily-constructed bunker under the floorboards.
Sheep shed, Goose Green, with "POW"  just visible.
 Leaving our car at the Hall, we walked south to what we'd been told was a local attraction.  It was a long walk of about 3 miles to Bodie Creek Bridge - the most southerly suspension bridge in the world!  But it was even longer coming back into the teeth of a gale.  Luckily, it was sunny, but I could feel my ears turning red with the combined action of sun and wind!
Bodie Creek Bridge
The bridge was built to shorten the journey of the vast flocks of sheep that were annually herded into Darwin for shearing.  It crosses a broad inlet, and saves about 40 miles of walking.  However, the bridge has fallen into disuse, and is no longer deemed safe.  We didn't fancy checking if it would take our weight, although we had been told several hundred sheep regularly used to be on it at the same time!
The Golden Gate of the Falklands....for sheep only. 
Lafonia - the south half of East Falkland.  Big horizons.
 After a refreshing lunch in the Galley cafe, Goose Green, we drove back towards Stanley for a few miles, then turned north towards San Carlos.  This was the inlet that was to be known as "Bomb Alley", where the British troops were landed and the Argentine aircraft tried to stifle the invasion at source.  There is an excellent museum, and a poignant cemetery, at San Carlos Water, which was one of the beaches used in the landings.
San Carlos Water.
Another beach was at Ajax Bay, directly opposite, across the inlet.  It had once housed a meat processing factory and it was felt the buildings could be used as a field hospital - dealing with casualties, before they were evacuated to hospital ships, out in the Atlantic.
Old meat factory, Ajax Bay, San Carlos Water
Royal Marine flag?
Even for the Falklands, Ajax Bay is a remote and sombre spot, with the roofless concrete buildings slowly crumbling into the beach.
"Operation Corporate" was the name for the British invasion of the  Falklands
 Only a few reminders remain to show a war was fought, and men died, here.

"If you are able to save them a place inside of you and save one backward glance when you are leaving for the places they can no longer go".

I've discovered that Lance Corporal McKay died, aged 19, on the 27th May 1982.  Reading the excellent and uplifting "Red and Green Life Machine",  by Rick Jolly, OBE, I find that the 27th was the first day that the field hospital was attacked by enemy bombers, leaving seven dead, and two unexploded bombs in the roof of the hospital.  The bombs remained there throughout the war.  Unfortunately, as much equipment, including ammunition, was stored beside the hospital, it meant a large red cross couldn't be painted on the hospital roof, as this was against the Geneva Convention.
Memorial to 44 victims of the War.
Rick Jolly is a remarkable man, and I recommend his book about the Falklands war.  It is a revelation about the logistics of war, and also man-management, as war, as in so much of life, is often about persuading someone else to do something against their will.   But there are many humourous episodes amongst the tension.  The tale of  the UN observers beggars belief - they arrived by helicopter to check that Argentine prisoners were being well-treated.  They were, so the observers then asked for a taxi to take them to a local hotel.  Rick explained that there were no taxis, and no roads, and the only hotels were in Stanley, and it might be a hairy ride arriving there in a British military helicopter!
Birdlife in the Bay
It is thought that Rick Jolly OBE, is the only person in history to have been awarded medals by BOTH sides in a conflict!   He is also proud of the fact that no British soldiers died after arriving at his hospital.  Sadly, some Argentine conscripts did die of infections, which were a result of very poor medical attention in the field, before they arrived at his hospital.
Climbing the hill. Two gentoo penguins.
"Are we nearly there, yet?"
 As we read the memorials to the fallen, we noticed a couple of penguins approaching us from the beach, about 100 feet below.   They headed straight for us, and I thought they were just being curious, but they kept walking right past us, on up the hill.
Well hidden colony
Apart from low bushes and rocks, I could see nothing that would attract penguins up a hill.  But suddenly, they arrived in the middle of a well-camouflaged colony, hidden among the foliage and stone runs.  Stone runs are a unique feature of the Falklands.  Charles Darwin called them, "rivers of stone", and they resemble lava flows, except they comprise solid boulders.  Very difficult to walk across. 
Stone run, San Carlos Water
But, with a bit of care, we managed to cross the stones without turning an ankle.  We sometimes had to have  both hands on the boulders to keep our balance.  How heavily-laden soldiers crossed these barriers, silently, in the dark, was mind-boggling.

We had the convenience of a car, and about 2 hours later we arrived back in Stanley, slightly shaken by the very bumpy road.  But when we considered it had taken the troops who landed at Ajax Bay 4 days to walk the same distance, (and then fight fierce battles), I felt a bit pathetic whining about the potholes in the road!

More soon,

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Bolivia - Bananas, Butch, Bowlers, Boats....


If you've stumbled across this blog while searching the Internet for photos of  rusty steam trains, this is your lucky day!  [I'm jotting down my experiences whilst living on the Falkland Islands with my wife, and this is a continuation of our report of a trip to Bolivia and Chile.  (The previous instalment is here - ).]

But there is a lot more to Bolivia than some old trains.......
The end of the line....
These locomotives are in an abandoned "train cemetery" on the edge of Uyuni, in south-west Bolivia.  It had once been an important junction for passenger and freight trains - exporting valuable tin and silver via Chile and Argentina.  (My school Latin lessons are coming in handy - "argent" is silver in several languages.  The River Plate or Rio Plata, is from the Spanish for silver!).
Run into the desert
The railways were vital to the economy of the country, but tin is less valuable these days, and oil and gas are now the mainstays of this landlocked country.  The tin was often in the hands of a few "tin barons", a fantastically wealthy elite, who employed thousands in their mines, sometimes without pay!  They could control governments and did very little to drag Bolivia out of  the agrarian backwater it had been when the Spanish conquistadores arrived around 1540.  The  trains were to get the tin to the market, across deserts and mountain ranges, not to transform the country.
In need of some repair.
In nearby Pulacayo, there had been a massive silver mine, employing about 20,000 miners at its height.  We were told that the owner had also been the President of Bolivia in the 1920s, and only provided food and lodgings to the miners and their families - no wages!  The mine is worked out, and only a few miners remain, showing tourists around.
Butch Cassidy was here!
Some of the earliest trains to arrive in Bolivia remain here, including one robbed by the legendary Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  One of the carriages has bullet holes in it from their attack!

One of the earliest locos.
From Uyuni and Pulacayo, we continued east, through mountains and valleys that corrugate between the high Altiplano in the west and the sub-tropical lowlands of the east.  I'm not sure if corrugate is a verb, but it was as if the land had been scrunched up by some giant force, into thousands of undulations - about 3000 feet in height.  We saw a couple of cyclists, but these seemed dispiriting roads for cyclists.Up for 5 miles, down for 5;  up for 8 miles, down for 6, and so on.

Brown = Altiplano, Lt Green = lowlands, Dk green = central mountains. White = Salar de Uyuni, Blue = L Titicaca or Pacific.
Potosi is marked on the above map.  We had just crossed the huge salt flats, marked white.
Potosi - once the world's largest city
 After a few hours, we came to the city of Potosi at 13,240 feet (4090m), the biggest in the world in the 1600s..  It sat on the slopes of the Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) mountain, from which vast quantities of silver were extracted, destined mainly for the Spanish monarchy.  From about 1546, thousands of indigenous Indians were sent to Potosi as a tribute to the Spanish conquerors.  When the miner inevitably died or broke down, (usually after a few months) another family member had to be sent.  Eventually, the local supply of labour dried up, and thousand of slaves were imported from Africa.
Shop for miners - alcohol, detonators, matches, dynamite.....
 It's reckoned a third of all silver in Europe came from here, but eventually the silver ran out and the Spanish monarchy ran up huge debts fighting wars.  Even with all that "free" silver, they owed millions to German bankers.  Just as well lesson were learned, and history didn't repeat itself!
One of the many mine entrances.  The discolouration  is not from smoke!
 We took a guided tour of the outside of the mine - not brave enough to venture underground with our gifts of dynamite and strong alcohol to appease the spirits that protect the miners.  Catholicism may have arrived with the Spaniards, but most Bolivians stick to the ancient beliefs.  Near the mine entrance above, we noticed a strange smell and the blackened rocks.  Apparently, this was where llamas were ritually sacrificed, and their blood smeared over the entrance, to help ensure the safety of the workers.
Cathedral of St James
Elsewhere in the city, a few streets had architecture that would not be out of place in Andalusia.  And the churches were reminiscent of European buildings, except in a few details, like the rare carving of a local Indian, with her broad skirts.
Carving of local Indian
But we found hilly Potosi a struggle to walk round, so were happy to continue the journey to the much lower and more comfortable capital of Bolivia, Sucre.
Sucre is a World Heritage Site, and the buildings in the centre are all whitewashed, again giving a very Andalucian feel.  And being at "only" 9,000 feet above sea level (2750m), it was relatively easy to wander around the streets and squares.  The market, especially, was a sight for sore eyes, or for people who haven't seen  large number of vegetables for a few months!
Sucre fruit & veg market:  slightly better choice than we were used to in Stanley!  
Stallholder and fruit and baskets, Sucre
As I may have mentioned, Bolivia has hundreds of different types of potatoes - some for roasting, others for mashing, pureeing, baking, making chips, etc etc.  Many of these were for sale in their own section of the market.  In Stanley, we have recently seen 2 types of potato in the shops - big or small!
Some of the 500 potato varieties in Bolivia
There was also a large fruit section, with alleyways of nothing but banana stalls.  A far cry from our early experience in the Falklands when bananas were as plentiful as hens teeth....
Banana stall, in the banana section of Sucre market
So, it was a joy to see the beautiful and plentiful abundances in Bolivia.  Several people had told us that no-one need go hungry here, as the food is so cheap.  Certainly we always seemed to get lots of change when we bought bananas!
Fruit, fruit, fruit......mostly unknown to me!
The stylish streets were full of restaurants and bars, as the residents and visitors brought a cosmopolitan air to the city.  One of the earliest universities in South America was founded here in 1624, and there are many language schools in the town.
Whitewashed streets, Sucre
The Supreme Court and many lesser courts are also in Sucre, and the streets around the court area are filled with legal offices, open to the street.  Sometimes lawyers sit on the pavement with a typewriter on a desk, drawing up letters for clients.
"St Rita - LAWYER for impossible cases"!?
Sucre had been the capital of Bolivia (or Alto Peru, as it was known at independence in 1825), but had lost out to La Paz for most of the governmental functions in 1898, as the dwindling output from the silver mine at Potosi meant the region was no longer the powerhouse of the country.
And so, it retained its colonial architecture, and elegant buildings and plazas, without obtrusive industries or unsightly squalor that can be a feature elsewhere.
Clock Tower, Sucre
And, apart from 2 blots on the landscape, (both, apparently, built by the same man who built our unsightly modern hotel in Potosi), the city retains its charm and a feeling of affluence unusual for Bolivia.
Sucre square

At night, the well-lit streets are full of strolling residents and visitors.  The restaurants were plentiful and reasonably-priced, most with a good range of very drinkable Bolivian wine.  It was as good as most other wines I've tasted, but I don't think they produce enough to compete in the export market against  neighbouring Chile and Argentina.

Tour operator.
All too soon, we had to move on from seductive Sucre for the delights of La Paz, another 4,000 feet higher.  En route to the seat of government, we made a scheduled stop at the city of Cochabamba - a major agricultural centre.  On landing, we had to leave the plane, walk across the tarmac to the terminal, walk the length of the terminal and out another door back on to the apron again.

Presidential Guard of Honour relaxing
Outside the terminal were hundreds of soldiers and a huge band in ceremonial dress.   Looking like extras from a film of my youth - "The Alamo" - they were in fact a guard of honour for Argentina's President Christina de Kirchner, who had just concluded a deal with Bolivia's President Evo Morales about buying some of Bolivia's surplus oil and gas.....
Illyama, overlooking La Paz.
President Morales is a hero to many Bolivians.  The first President in Latin America of native Aymaran origin (rather than of European descent), he has implemented many changes to benefit the indigenous peoples - we saw new schools in almost every remote village we passed.  He is very much a man of the people, and has revived ancient cultural events.  After being sworn in as President, he attended an indigenous spiritual ceremony at the ancient complex of Tiwanaku, and was created Supreme Leader of the Aymara people.  Possibly a bit like David Cameron being anointed by a Druid at Stonehenge.
Presidetial palace, La Paz.
Bolivia has a Diversity flag of 35 differently-coloured squares, each colour representing a different ethnic minority.  And, compared to neighbouring countries where the indigenous populations were either virtually wiped out or suppressed, it is obvious to any visitors that the pre-Spanish cultures are alive and thriving in Bolivia.
Local resident with ubiquitous mobile phone and bowler

However, exploring La Paz was not that comfortable, given the altitude and steep gradient on every street!  Added to that was the choked and choking traffic, comprising mainly of minibuses, and large, ancient 50-seaters, which seemed to have been donated by other countries, decades ago, as they updated their own transport options.  The city also sits in a valley, and the air is trapped by the high Andean peaks all around.   To escape the smog, we headed UP another 800 feet to Lake Titicaca, and the amazing site of Tiwanaku.

Carved heads in temple wall
Tiwanaku is a temple complex, and also the name of a people who inhabited the region before the Incas.  (Some people think the Incas took over Tiwanaku towns and buildings and claimed them as their own, and when the Spaniards arrived, the Incas got all the credit.  I couldn't possibly comment......)
Solid stone (one piece) steps
The buildings that have been excavated in the last 50 years or so, show an incredible skill at handling and dressing massive stone blocks.  And unlike Inca buildings, these were held together by metal ties for solidity. The walls are perfectly aligned and smooth and square for hundreds of metres.  Gateways are carved out of huge solid blocks of stone, which would cause problems to move today, never mind in a society without the wheel, or draught animals.
Giant figure with 2 left hands
There is so much of interest at Tiwanaku and about their culture, that I can only touch on it here.  One aspect that is still impressive is the output from the specially-designed fields.  These were raised and surrounded by water-filled ditches, which created a micro-climate in the arid region, so much so that a population of 100,000 was being fed at the peak of the city's power.   However, a long, 30-year drought around 1,000 years ago saw the water levels of Lake Titicaca drop and the shores recede from the city, by about 20 miles.
Bolivian, Diversity and La Paz flags.
Without food to feed its people, the society broke up and dispersed to more fertile areas to the south and west.  Around 1460, the Inca empire expanded into what is now Bolivia, and utilised many of the buildings as Sun Temples, only to find Europeans arriving, looking for gold, a few decades after them.
Open-air model village, L Titicaca
One of the few aspects of culture that continues unchanged is the traditional reed boats on Lake Titicaca.  Some of you may remember the Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl, attempting to show that cultures from South America and Egypt may have been connected, or at least, communicated ideas with each other, such is the advanced architecture and astronomy that is found in both regions.  With the Ra 2 expedition, he demonstrated that it was possible to cross the Atlantic in reed boats, and actually did this in one built by a Bolivian, who is still building these boats today.
Dawn over the Andes from Sun Island
Using a slightly more modern hydrofoil, we continued on to Sun Island, which was a traffic-free haven in the lake.  Mules helped carry bags and water and beer up the steep slopes to simple hostels with stunning views - east to the Andes and the rising sun, and west towards Peru and the setting sun.  Easy to see why it was a sacred spot for more than one civilisation.
Reed boat 
The island is crossed by good paths, part of the network of roads built by the Incas to allow easy access to the outposts of their empire from their capital in Cuzco.  But this good network also assisted their speedy downfall, allowing the Spaniards to travel quickly throughout the empire on horses, which the Incas had never seen.  And by taking hostage and killing the Inca king, Atahualpa, the conquistadores imposed their will on a subjugated people.
Cordillera Real from Moon Island
So, it is all the more remarkable, that only in the last decade have the indigenous people re-asserted themselves and elected one of their own in Bolivia.
Across the Andes by frog plane
Travelling back across the Altiplano plateau and through the huge shanty town of El Alto, which surrounds La Paz airport, we could only marvel about the peoples who had lived for thousands of years at an altitude that our puny lungs could barely cope with.  During  a very long take-off through the thin air, we had time to glance down to La Paz in the valley, and over to the high Andes, as we crossed them into Chile, or, as Bolivians would say," Bolivia!".  Bolivia lost its coastal region to Chile in the War of the Pacific in 1898, including the worlds largest copper mine.  It still rankles.
Gardens in Vina del Mar, near Valparaiso
Central Chile was another contrast, with verdant vineyards, and balmy coastal resorts.  Santiago could have been in a Mediterranean country - good transport; great food and wine; ski-ing, and swimming in the ocean within 2 hours....
Easter Island resident
I might say more about Chile another time.  We intend to go back, if we can.  But we might not manage to return to Bolivia - one place that won't ever be confused with somewhere in Europe.
Santiago Cathedral.
Hasta la Vista