Friday, 15 March 2013

Rambling along the Fitzroy River and Bridge

[This is a snapshot of life on the Falklands Islands, as experienced by someone who arrived in January 2012......While the world's media descend on the place, some of us like to get out into the countryside...]

Referendum Day had arrived, but The Ramblers had a monthly walk to undertake.  With luck, we should get back to Stanley in time to vote (if one was on the Electoral Roll), or to see the planned  rally of several hundred cars through the capital, Stanley.
Welsh Guards' memorial, Fitzroy

 Our walk was a 10-mile circular route around the Fitzroy River, to the Fitzroy Bridge, and past the Fitzroy Settlement. All named after Capt. Robert Fitzroy, who chose Charles Darwin to accompany him on a 5-year surveying voyage, on his ship, The Beagle, which, before reaching the Galapagos Islands, spent some time in the Falkland Islands..   What a good choice of companion that turned out to be!  How different might the world have been if Fitzroy had chosen someone else?  .  Fitzroy was a remarkable man, who went on to develop a system for weather forecasting!
Stanley Growers, Airport road, Stanley.
Our start point was about 25 miles down the main (pot-holed) road from Stanley to Mount Pleasant Airport (MPA).        It was a grey day, but, at least the recent heavy rain had desisted for a while.  However, the streams running down from the hills were swollen, and had no bridges, so local knowledge, in the shape of a couple of people who knew the area like the back of their hands, was invaluable.
Low tide on Fitzroy River
After jumping a few streams without mishap, we came to the wide tidal estuary of the Fitzroy River, where we could walk on the exposed shore.  It was sometimes stony underfoot, sometimes sandy, as the sandstone cliffs crumbled over millennia, under the battering of water and wind.
Exposed sandstone cliff
The sea appeared to reach to the base of the cliffs, so I'm not sure how pleasant a walk it would have been at high tide! However, after about 4 miles walking we came to the narrowest part of the estuary, which was crossed by the Fitzroy Bridge.
Fitzroy Bridge looking north-east.

The bridge was built in the 1930's to avoid a long detour around the estuary between the settlements of Bluff Cove and Fitzroy. It could take sheep and vehicles, and had concrete supports with a wooden platform.  I found out here >   
<  that some of the wood came form the SS Great Britain, which lay rotting in Stanley Harbour for many years, before being saved and restored to its new home in Bristol.

Doesn't quite reach the far side.
However, it seems the bridge itself is now in need of repair, as storms have destroyed one end of it.  It is now home to resting cormorants, and hasn't really been in use since the new road to Mount Pleasant was built about 25 years ago.
Parts of the SS Great Britain were used to build the bridge
However, during the Falklands War in 1982, this bridge played a pivotal role in the single biggest loss of British life.   On the night of the 7th June, the Welsh Guards were moved by ship from the beachead area of San Carlos to their new position at Bluff Cove, but, as that was overlooked by Argentine positions, the ships stopped at Fitzroy as dawn broke on the 8th.

(For details of the event, try here > )

The concrete supports provide a sheltered lunch spot
Several factors then combined to create a tragic loss of life.  Those in charge of the landings ordered the men ashore to walk the 5 miles to Bluff Cove, via the bridge, as the ships were so vulnerable to daylight attack.  The Guards' officers refused as there were rumours that the Fitzroy bridge had been blown up (or at least mined by the Argentine forces), so an extended walk might be too much for their men, and, in any case, they had been told they would be taken to Bluff Cove.

Meanwhile, the Rapier anti-aircraft missile system had been shipped ashore, but not completely set-up.   As predicted, Argentine aircraft soon appeared and bombed the ships, crammed with fully-kitted soldiers.  56 were killed, and 150 wounded, many of them, like Simon Weston, badly disfigured by the ensuing fire.
3 Argentine aircraft were shot down, with 3 killed.
Pink granite fence posts, from Aberdeen?
Using the bridge as shelter from the breeze, we enjoyed hot drinks and sandwiches.  Once replenished, we turned south, up and over the Fitzroy ridge, passing very unusual granite posts, almost like neolithic standing stones found in Europe, except these were of imported stone, and had been trimmed by tools.
Beach, with Fitzroy Ridge ahead.

The uphill stretch opened up views along the hills which ran towards Stanley, 25 miles away to the east.  Soon, we were on the crest of the ridge, and could see beyond the hangars of Mount Pleasant Airport, 10 miles to the west.
North to Wickam Heights, across Fitzroy River. Bridge at narrowest point
We could also see the sheep-farming settlement of Fitzroy to the south-east, nestling between sea inlets.  The sheep which grazed the land we were walking over ran off at our approach.  But some of them were not so mobile.  We passed several dead sheep, presumably killed by the cold.  Along with the weather forecast, the local radio station broadcasts daily warnings for farmers about the sunburn or windchill risk to sheep.
Shear the sheep too early, and they risk being burned in the fierce sun.  Shear too late in the summer, and there's a risk to newly-shorn sheep that the temperature drops below what they can cope with.

Striding over grass and diddle dee.  Fitzroy settlement in distance
As there is little or no shelter, many sheep succumb to the weather.  The vultures clean up the carcasses and prevent diseases.  One of our group was a taxidermist, who is always on the lookout for fine specimens of Falklands' fauna.   One skull we saw had a full set of teeth, and was just what was needed for a display in the Museum!
Someone is  happy to find smiling sheep.....
Eventually, we returned to the cars, just as hail was starting to sting our faces - a reminder that summer is well and truly over.

On arriving back in Stanley, we were in time to witness the huge parade of Islanders demonstrating their desire to remain British.  See recent posts for details and pictures.

An eventful and enjoyable day, allowing us to see parts of the Falklands not many people have seen.  Thanks to Mike and Greta for organising.


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