Monday, 31 December 2012

A cash-free Xmas; New job; Ships and dolphins!

[Occasional reports of life in the South Atlantic.  This week, the ONLY Bank in the country closes for 6 days, and visitors include Father Christmas and 3,000 cruise ship passengers....Hurrah! ]

Was anyone else excited about finding a tangerine in their Christmas stocking???  :-)

Santa and elves dishing out gifts. No Elfin Safety here!
I hope everyone reading this had a peaceful and Happy Christmas.  So many friends sent cards and letters, which was a wonderful way to catch up with their news.  I'm a big fan of social networks, but there's something about a paper message which Facebook or Twitter can't replace.  The last flight from the UK  before Christmas arrived in the Falklands around 5pm on Christmas Eve, and some Postal staff brought the bags of mail to Stanley for sorting.  As there is no delivery service here (and we don't have a postbox in the Post Office), we popped into the Post Office about 9pm to pick up the final mail before Christmas.   I liked the "last-minuteness" of it all.  My thanks to all those involved with making it happen.
Various beachwear styles on Christmas morning.....
Christmas Day in Stanley dawned  overcast and windy.  The temperature was, according to one weather site, "6C, but feels like 2C"!.  So much for enjoying a southern-hemisphere Xmas BBQ on the beach....Instead, we'd agreed to meet other brave folk and try a refreshing dip in the sea. Unlike the mid-winter dip in June, this one had no tents for changing,  no bonfires to stand beside, and no cheering crowds.  So, it was strip off and run in, and stay upright for as long as possible...
Wearing hi-vis hat to aid air-sea rescue..
Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!  It was COLD!  After what seemed an age, but was probably about 30 seconds, we escaped to dry land and made a dash for the cars.  (I wish I had had a towelling penguin suit!).  A brief 5 minute drive saw us back at friends who had kindly prepared mulled wine and mince pies.  I could feel the blood returning to my toes.
Kelp was a problem
Christmas dinner was a quiet affair:  a quarter of a tender Falklands lamb, slowly roasted for 4 hours, accompanied by roast (and new) potatoes, and roasted Brussels sprouts and a parsnip. The new potatoes and parsnip cost more than the lamb!
It was cold.....
Settling down afterwards to watch the traditional Queen's Message and  "The Great Escape", we noticed some flurries outside. The wind had changed to a southerly, and we could feel Antarctcia was only 600 miles away! A White Christmas!

Santa's little helper checking if it was a white Christmas?
Boxing Day marked the start of a 3-day festival of sport and horse-racing:  the 100th holding of the Stanley Sports Association Annual Race Meeting.  The social event of the year.  Just about the entire country was holiday, and Stanley was busy with horse trailers as hopeful owners brought their steeds into town for the week.  
Boxing Day Brunch washed down by excellent home brew.
Imagine a  mix of Badminton Horse Trials, Ascot, and It's a Knockout, but attended by the whole population of the UK.  Gymkhanas, horse-races and tug-of war events, not to mention the competitive egg-and-spoon race!   If all that wasn't enough, Falklands Beerworks had produced a special new beer for the event.
Race day hats were in evidence....
Well, I'm afraid you will just have to imagine what it was like, as, alas, it was not to be.  The weather, as in the UK, had been very wet in December, and the Racecourse is in a valley.  The course was declared waterlogged and the racing cancelled for the day, and later, for the week.
Tom Cruise makes an appearance....
However, we had been invited to a pre-Race Brunch at 10 am, and were unaware of the state of the course.  After a Bucks Fizz or two, and some delicious food, we were eager to get to the racing and the main event - The Governor's Cup.  It was then we found out that it wouldn't be happening this year.  So, we stayed and commiserated with several other erstwhile racegoers, who were busy drowning their sorrows at the lost opportunity.  We sneaked out at about 5pm, as the "Brunch" started to liven up.  No stamina, these days...

I felt a bit of a wimp leaving after a mere 7 hours, but I was due to work the next day, as a large cruise ship was expected in the harbour.  The Veendam had been due to visit twice before in this season, but had stuck to Argentine ports due, one assumes, to political pressure from Argentina's politicians.  (No doubt, thanks are due to our (UK) diplomats for behind-the-scenes activities, too).
Gypsy Cove after a passing thunderstorm
However, on this occasion, it appears that the ship has decided to give its passengers, and Falklanders, a pleasant surprise, and call in.  As there were about 1300 passenger likely to come ashore, Wardens at the local penguin beaches would be required, and I received a text asking me to attend at Gypsy Cove the next morning, in my new role!
There is a penguin chick in that burrow...
It was a great experience, meeting people from Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Zimbabwe, Australia, USA, Canada, Russia ("Drazvoutchya! No smoking, please!")  etc, etc, who were happy to have been able to spend a few hours seeing a bit of the Falklands, and some penguins, despite their lack of adequate clothing....  I tend to have a spare pair of gloves in my daysack, but even two pairs were not enough.
Star Princess appearing through the mist
Penguins sheltering from the rain...
I have to say, the penguins were a bit nervous to see so many people in a day, but this may also have been because they now have chicks to protect.  I saw 4 Magellanic chicks (the first this year), but the parents were so protective that I couldn't get a photo of any, despite being there for 8 hours!  So imagine how pleased is a visitor, who only has an hour at most, to capture one on their memory card!
Kite-surfer and Lady Liz.  See below to see below the waves......
And 2012 fizzles out with a final ceilidh... and I celebrate "The Bells" (bringing in the New Year) 11 hours after my sister in Perth, Australia......I leave you with some amazing scenes captured in Stanley Harbour.

We bumped into a kite-surfer in a cafe the other day, and he told of us his great encounters with dolphins.  In fact, he'd filmed them on his helmet-cam!  Enjoy!   See you in 2013.

"Should old acquaintance be forgot, and  Auld Lang Syne..."

Happy New Year


Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas Reflections

[I arrived in the Falklands in January with my wife.  Just reflecting, in the calm period around Christmas, on aspects of life here.  Feel free to ask questions, if your curiousity is piqued].

It's almost a year since we moved 8,000 miles to this remote outpost in the South Atlantic.  Life has generally been good and it was easy to settle into habits like daily shopping, and having lunch at home most days.  I consider there are three "luxuries" in life - Health, Money and Time.  In the past, I've occasionally enjoyed times when I had two out of three of them, but here, I'm  fortunate enough to have adequate amounts of each.  I know I am lucky.
Commanding Officer of British Forces, and HE Governor, taking the salute on Battle Day, December 8th.

So, I can bake (a new skill for me) and cook, and when bored with home cooking can splash out on a St Helenian curry or a Chilean Toothfish dish in a local restaurant.  

 Food, although very limited in choice (compared to the UK), is plentiful and meat, in particular, is very cheap.  (Tomatoes are 75p each, though, and today we baulked at a watermelon at £13.77.  Onions are about 60p each, and most vegetables are individually-priced!).  Sometimes, months go by without seeing basic items, like eggs or bananas, but you just adapt, or make discreet enquiries as to who has squirrelled some away.....  I've never been a picky eater, anyway.
Wild Mushrooms.  Would be about £10 in the shops.
TV and Radio services are limited, and are broadcast by the military, so there is a preponderance of soaps and "Top Gear"-type programmes, and updates from Afghanistan (which is probably not a bad thing if men and women are risking their lives on our behalf.)  Access to the Internet is restricted by high cost and slow speed.  Salt is rubbed into the wound by receiving all the forwarded junk snail mail from BT and Virginmedia offering a Superhighway, free phone calls and 300 TV channels at our old house for the same price that we pay here for a cauliflower each week!
Royal Marines commemorating Battle Day, December 8th
However, with very few exceptions, we are not missing TV or fast Broadband.   UK TV programmes are broadcast "as live", 3 or 4 hours after their actual broadcast time in the UK, which can lead to interesting situations as you try to avoid someone telling you the result of a big sporting event which you are hoping to watch at home later!  Radio gives us a (good) local radio station, BBC World Service, BBC Radio 5Live, and British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) equivalent of BBC Radios 1 and 2!  That's it.
Wrecks in the harbour
 One delightful link to the UK and friends, is the Kindle I was given as a leaving present, and the Guardian subscription which downloads around 10pm every night. (THANK YOU!).   It's a great piece of technology, requiring little intervention from a Luddite like me.  Only when reading British newspapers do you realise how little is actually reported on TV.  Although we also have a Sky News channel (live!), it only (and repeatedly) covers about 4 news items during a day.  The rest is adverts.
A rather co-operative Snipe
What the Falklands does have a lot of!  And fresh air!  So, much time has been spent enjoying those aspects of the islands.  Added to that is the wildlife, which can only be rivalled, I believe, by that of the Galapagos Islands.  Very few birds or animals here have lived long enough beside Man to realise what a threat we are.   It can take thousands of years before their behaviour changes, and they flee from us.  So, despite wiping out the native and unique Warrah ( a type of fox) soon after Charles Darwin saw it here, and almost doing the same to Upland Geese and  Rockhopper penguins and various seals and whales, these creatures still show little or no fear of Man.  Makes for some great encounters and photos!
Long-tailed meadowlark
The War, 30 years ago, has also radically shaped present-day Falklands.  Its impact is inescapable here, not that we avoid it.  Very few people now use peat stoves or travel by horse, which was the norm before the war.  But, like most island communities, Falklanders can be reserved and hospitable at the same time.  Friendly, but wary that you might be disappearing on a plane in the not-too-distant future.
Silvery grebe
The tensions and issues surrounding the war (eg, sovereignty, ownership of mineral and fishing resources, etc) are, unfortunately still raising their head, or rather, being raised by the Argentine president, Christina Ferdinand de Kirchner (CFK).  And so, pressure is put on any companies that cooperate with the Falklands - whether in fishing, oil exploration or tourism.
Le Boreal, luxury cruise ship.  Sailing away......

Some companies hear the noise and stay well away from the area;  while others continue their regular operations, eg cruise ships, only to find Argentine ports are now off-limits to them, or worse, they are blockaded in a port until they agree not to visit the Falklands.
Falklands Flightless Steamer ducklings.
The latter tactic has caused the cancellation of several ships' appearances in Stanley Harbour with the inevitable hit on local services, from pubs to gift shops to tour guides.   The population of Stanley is about 2,200, and this can double when a couple of big cruise ships arrive.  The local market garden supplies most of its best produce to the ships, and more of this has been appearing in the shops in the last week.  Good for the local diet, if not the market garden.
Argentine cemetery, Darwin
I visited the Argentine cemetery last week, as part of a tour of Darwin.  Although much is now made of re-patriating those killed in action, the Falklands War was, I understand, the first when British casualties were not routinely buried near their battlefield.  British soldiers' families were given the choice of whether to bring the body home, and many took this option.   Argentine families were not given this option, possible because,  for a period after the war, it was difficult for British authorities to obtain a sensible dialogue with Argentine counterparts.
Antarctica-bound charter yachts
Eventually, it was agreed to build a cemetery on the Falklands for Argentine dead.  However, this causes issues of its own, as many Argentines see this as proof that their soldiers have been laid to rest in what is part of Argentina....Some relatives want an Argentine flag to fly over the cemetery....
Cape Pembroke Lighthouse, and Atlantic Conveyor memorial
And so, past events are shaping the present and future in the Falklands.  As a newcomer, and non-local, I'm puzzled as to how France and Germany could co-operate soon after the Second World War, and form the Common Market, and then the EU.   But, 30 years on, there is still anger, bitterness and recriminations here.  I was taught that history is usually written by the victors, but it doesn't seem to have permeated to schools in Argentina.  There, it is promulgated that the locals in the Falklands have been kept captive here by the garrison for decades, and that the islands were originally Argentine.  You can do your own homework and decide for yourself!  Suffice to say, visitors are often surprised by the number of flags with the Union Jack on it, and the cheerfulness of the locals!
Christchurch Cathedral, & Whalebone Arch.
This year, the Falklands were in the news for the visit of Prince William.  We are not expecting any high-profile visitors next year, but there will be a referendum in March on whether the Falklanders wish to keep their current political status - an Overseas Territory of the UK.  Watch this space, but I wouldn't bet too much on the outcome.  I'll probably mention the referendum again in a few weeks time, as democracy is very important here, but there are a few anomalies as to who can participate in it....
Sealion resting in downtown Stanley
But despite some drawbacks with remoteness and fresh fruit, living here is very rewarding, and I tend to carry my camera at all times, as you never know what is going to turn up from day to day.
Sealion waiting for the church on Sunday
Within a few metres of the centre of Stanley, I've seen penguins, dolphins and seals.  Typhoons and VC-10's often fly past, as well as many helicopters.
Any guesses?
And although there aren't the hundred of bird species that you find in some countries, those that are here are fairly special.  I was just cursing the neighbour's noisy cockerel again yesterday, when I heard I hint of panic in its crow.  Looking out from the kitchen window, I could see that the local vultures were taking a great interest in the chicken coop!
Turkey vulture on neighbour's hen coop.
Although I used to see suburban foxes in my garden in London, the wildlife here is just a tad more exotic.
Anyway, time to get the sun-cream on and join the carol-singers outside the Cathedral
Oh yes - we get some amazing sunsets...
When I started this blog, it was mainly to keep some dear friends and Nordic Walkers in the UK up to speed with how we were coping.  I see that the blog has now had over 10,000 hits and viewers are from all parts of the globe.  This week, Latvia is in second place after the UK!  Then it's the USA, and followed by  Russia, Peru, Brazil, Germany, France, Sweden, Ukraine!
So, wherever you are from, thanks for reading and I wish you a Peaceful Christmas and Happy New Year.
Christmas scene, Stanley
"We three King (penguins) are,
Bearing gifts, we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star...."

Unfortunately, we only have Rockhopper penguins, not Kings.  Poetic licence, anyone?

Merry Christmas,


Thursday, 20 December 2012

Battlefield Tour

The story so far.....Am currently living in the Falkland Islands, somewhere in the south Atlantic.....

This week, I had the pleasure of going on a tour of a couple of the Battlefields (of the 1982 Falklands War) with an expert guide, and with someone who had been involved in the war.
Friendly sealion in the centre of Stanley.
Around 8am last Sunday, saw me walking past a deserted Christchurch Cathedral, when I noticed a dozy sealion hauled out at the side of the road.  (He stayed there for a few days.)   I would have liked to have watched him for a while, but I had to meet up with the others, and head off to the hills.
South to Mt Harriet, from Two Sisters
The final battles of the war took place in the hills to the west of Stanley.  Three hills were attacked in one night (Mt Harriet, Two Sisters and Mt Longdon) and 3 other hills were attacked the following night (13th June), leading to the surrender of the Argentine forces.  Our guide drove for about 5 miles on the main (gravel) road, and then headed for a couple of miles across the peat bogs to the base of Two Sisters.
North to one of the Two Sisters.  Note the craters on the saddle.
These two peaks were attacked by men of 45 Commando, and the co-ordinated attacks on neighbouring peaks meant defenders were isolated, although they had strong defensive positions.  However, British forces also had devastating artillery fire from land and naval guns.  Some 1500 shells rained down on the Argentine troops on Two Sisters that night, continuing a nightly bombardment started 10 days earlier.
Cairn to 45 Commando, Two Sisters. Stanley in distance.
 28 men were killed on the mountain that night, and another 13 died when the supporting ship, HMS Glamorgan, overstayed at her firing position and was hit by a  Exocet missile, fired from near Stanley.  The ship, however, did not sink: the first to survive an Exocet hit.
On the southerly summit of the Two Sisters.
Our excellent guide brought the events to life with his detailed knowledge.  He could point out exact positions where fighting took place as he has visited the battlefields many times, often with men who had fought there.
Razor blade, probably Argentine.
 Also with us was a visitor, who had been attached to a helicopter group during the war.  He had also spent time in Argentina, and knew some of the combatants from there.  His first-hand insights were riveting.
Clambering on a shelf on Two Sisters.  Easy when no-one's shooting at you.
As we walked round, we often came across debris from the war - shrapnel, boots, machine-gun supports, radios, ammunition boxes.  Much has been left in situ, if it was not considered dangerous.  Shell-holes littered the rugged landscape.
Looking west, past buttresses, to where the attack started.
Occasionally, we had to use both hands to hold on to rock walls beside narrow ledges.  How soldiers held heavy weapons, and clung to cliffs, while being shot at was beyond my comprehension.  And, apart from the flashes from shells and tracer bullets, the battles all took place in total darkness.....
A Marine's memento
Under one large overhanging rock, we found a suitcase that seemed to have been recently placed there by a returning Marine. (I googled the name on the suitcase and found an article about the ex-Marine in the Biggin Hill News!).  Inside were maps of the Falklands, and photos, presumably of his comrades.  Rocks weighted it down to prevent it blowing away.
Crags and Balsam Bog (green plant).
Like many (but not all) of the battles, the casualties were lighter than might otherwise have been expected.  But reading some accounts of the Argentine soldiers, it seems they were expecting the British forces to attack by amphibious assault on the beaches east of Stanley, or from the south.  The defences facing west were thinly-stretched, and, standing on the slopes, I could only imagine what a miserable time conscripted soldiers from sub-tropical Argentina would have had up there for over a month, in winter.   A bit like Roman soldiers facing north on Hadrian's Wall:  far from home and at the end of the civilised world....
Empty ammo boxes, possibly left by Scots Guards.  Goat Ridge behind.
Argentine morale would not have been helped by the nightly shelling from the Royal Navy, so it is no surprise some chose to surrender.  On seeing the terrain in daylight the next day, one British officer is reported to have said that if he had been defending the hill with 50 men, he would have died of old age, so impregnable seemed the position....
Mt Harriet cluster bomb casing, dropped by Harrier.
From there, we headed a few miles south to Mt Harriet, which rises steeply from the roadside.  It saw a battle on the same night as that on neighbouring Two Sisters.  But here, men of 42 Commando walked circuitously several miles in the dark, through minefields, to arrive on the southern slopes of the hill, almost to the rear of the Argentine positions.  (Nightly patrols had surveyed the route and Argentine positions beforehand, but it was still an incredible feat of navigation and stamina).
81mm mortar, Mt Harriet., behind natural rock protection.
They continued uphill to about 100 yards from the Argentine positions on the ridge before they were detected.  Again, heavy shelling from the Navy guns assisted the troops, and pinned down the Argentines.
Mt Harriet, looking south
But it was no picnic, and 2 British and 18 Argentine soldiers were killed.  300 Argentines were taken prisoner.   Much equipment was abandoned, including a Mercedes all-terrain vehicle, which was put to use by the British after the war was over.  I'm told that someone from the Ministry of Defence contacted Mercedes to ask if they could supply spare parts for the jeeps that had become spoils of war.  Mercedes replied that they'd be happy to, if someone would complete the payments for the vehicles.....
Argentine radio equipment
After our exertions, we enjoyed a packed lunch  at the summit, soaking up the 360-degree views over East Falklands.  Certainly, these hills could not have been attacked in daylight without a huge loss of life on the attacking side.
Steep gully to the summit
On a mild summer day, in good company, it was a pleasant spot.  But, for the combatants 30 years ago, it must have been a frightening, noisy, and freezing hillside.  For some, it was the last place they saw.

What saddens me, though,  is that the ultimate sacrifice these men made, seems to have been in vain.  The current Argentine president appears to use the issues around the Falklands as a distraction for the economic troubles faced by her country.  The recent tactic of banning cruise ships that call here, seems to have backfired, as some cruise lines have announced that they will boycott Argentine ports, as they fear intimidation and unpleasantness for their passengers.
Lupins and Whalebones in Stanley.
No doubt, other tactics will be deployed.  Already, the fishing industry has been targeted by trying to destroy stocks of migrating squid while they are in Argentine waters.

But, if anything, these annoyances merely stiffen the resolve of Falkland Islanders that the sacrifices made by  the British Task Force on their behalf should not have been in vain.

In general, it is the politicians, not the people, of Argentina that are disliked.  Last week saw a group of Argentine rugby players ,  "Rugby sin Frontera", (Rugby without Borders), play a match in Stanley.    I'm not sure many Islanders were keen on the event, and the guys did rather upset some people by wearing jackets with a map of the Falklands on the back, below the word "Waiting".  Apparently "Waiting"  is the brand-name of their kit supplier....  All a misunderstanding.   Hmmmm.

More soon, as we pass the Summer Solstice and our days start to get shorter!  (Assuming the World doesn't end!!).