Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Pottering around San Carlos

[More tales from the bottom half of the Atlantic.  We are living in the Falklands and  Christmas is approaching, despite the summer weather - how about some hand-painted pottery as gifts?}

Last weekend, a group of us decided to try our hand at pottery, or, to be more precise, painting pottery.  The pottery was in San Carlos, about 70 miles to the west of Stanley by bumpy road
Mt Usborne from Darwin. (Lodge, centre,  has green roof).
 To break the journey, my wife and I decided to drive down the night before and stay in the comfortable Darwin Lodge.  This is situated in a very peaceful and pretty corner of the Falklands.  Next to the sea, it overlooks the range of mountains that traverse East Falklands - Mt Usborne being the highest.
Looking north to Mt Usborne
 It is also adjacent to a significant battlefield from the Falklands War, where the first land battle took place between 2 Parachute Regiment, and the Argentine forces.  The British Commanding Officer, Colonel "H" Jones, was awarded a posthumous VC for his part in the battle.
Blue Beach cemetery, San Carlos
The next day, we were able to visit the small British war cemetery at San Carlos, where Col. H Jones is buried.  The cemetery is next to the beach where the British forces landed in June 1982, to re-take the Islands
Ruddy-headed ducklings
 However, if you were not aware of the history around you, you might be forgiven for thinking that these tranquil places have always been as calm and peaceful as they were last weekend.
Over the hill....
So, after breakfast at Darwin, we drove the 30 miles or so north over the mountains to San Carlos, and the White Grass Ceramics pottery.
My coaster, right, takes shape.
 The pottery is the brainchild of the owner, Andi Neate, a popular singer-songwriter who hails from the north-west of Scotland and is now enjoying life on the farm in the south-west Atlantic.   She runs a cafe, and makes the raw clay pieces which people can paint and buy.
A study in concentration
 After trying to find inspiration for our commemorative plates, we decided that each of us would paint whatever we liked.  So, I decided to try to paint a penguin, before finding out how tricky they can be.... Maybe elephant seals would be easier....?
The shy black-necked swan....
Albatrosses, vultures, sheep, whales - all were candidates for the plates, but I finally realised that a black-necked swan would be much easier!
San Carlos Water
 The afternoon flew by as we worked on our designs.  Certainly, I had never done anything like it, although there were a couple of talented craft folk in our group who knew the benefit of quietly knitting or sewing or spinning wool.  Very relaxing
70 miles of gravel to Stanley.
Andi gathered up all our creations and promised to deliver them soon, after firing up the kiln.  
 All too soon, we were heading over the pass again, with a backward look down to San Carlos Water, and then downhill across the vast plain of East Falklands.  The British troops in the war "yomped" (walked), fully-laden, across this terrain in 3-4 days (as they had no air transport).
Approaching Stanley
The only other traffic we saw was a lorry! In about 2 hours, we were back in the relative bustle of Stanley.  It was nice to be back on tarmac again!

A Grand Day Out!

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Round Robin

This is an occasional diary of life on the Falkland Islands for  British expat.  This week - a long-awaited birthday present becomes reality!......

Bravo November FIGAS flight awaits....
About a year ago, a received a very welcome Birthday present from my wife - a voucher for a Round Robin scenic flight on the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS).  This fleet of small Britten-Norman Islander aircraft run an essential service carrying people, post and penguins throughout the archipelago.
Pilot's view of the apron at Stanley Airport
However, before I could enjoy my birthday present, I had to be unexpectedly evacuated to the UK to fix an eye problem.   I was away a couple of months, and the problem recurred in March.  So, enjoying a scenic flight drifted down my list of priorities until September, when, while on a weekend break on Sealion Island (see recent post), I met a lady who works for FIGAS .  She suggested I send her some dates and they would see if they could fit me in.
Will we be as level after take-off?
 The planes only hold 6 passengers, but can be almost empty on some flights.  The Round Robin ticket allows a passenger to travel on a quiet flight, for a reduced fare, but with the restriction that you stay on the plane!  However, my resurgent interest in the flight coincided with the tourist season and heavy rain, which made landing at some grass airstrips tricky.  Extra weight, in the shape of me,  was not welcome!
No complaints here about aircraft noise!
 Eventually, on October the 31st, I got a call to get to the airport the next day as there was room on a flight!  November 1st dawned, and carrying only a camera, I checked in and found I was still the same weight as last year - all passenger are weighed before the flights!!
House at the end of the runway.  No long journeys for flights!
 As a special treat, I sat beside the pilot and could hear the chatter with the control tower through the headphones.  First stop was a small settlement in the north of East Falklands.  The pilot warned me that we get a bit close to the houses, but, having lived under the Heathrow flightpath I was fairly relaxed....until I saw the roof of a farmhouse rushing towards us.  With all the space available in the Falklands, it seemed bizarre to have the airstrip almost in the back garden of a farm!
Smylie's Creek
And I doubt many pilots get the advice from the ground control team..."Wind, 25 knots, gusting 30. Surface dry, but lots of cow and horse shit"!  Very accurate, though!

Paloma Sand Beach
After picking up our passenger, we headed over some beautiful countryside I had never seen before, towards Saunders Island.  We were flying over the route that British troops "yomped" or "tabbed" (depending on whether you were a Marine or a Paratrooper), during the Falklands War.  With Remembrance Sunday approaching, many veterans have returned, and all of the Islanders are extremely grateful for the sacrifice of these brave men and women.
Approaching Saunders Island's airstrip
 Saunders not only has a historic settlement, but is also often the location for many brilliant wildlife documentaries, such as BBC's "Spy in the Huddle".   One of the jewels in the Falklands' crown, but one which I had yet to explore.
Saunders' terminal
Sadly, as mentioned, I had to stay on he plane.  In any case, we were only landing for a few minutes, while passengers jumped off, and people leaving the island jumped on.  These might have been tourists, workers, schoolchildren (it was the end of half-term), doctors visiting patients, and so on.

Saunders' terminal
So, turning into the 25 knot breeze, and revving the engines, we were quickly airborne again, heading for Carcass Island.  This is another gem.  Throughout its 150 years of habitation, the  owners somehow have kept rats and cats off the island. (Many rats swam ashore onto islands after ships wrecked on reefs. And there are many reefs and shipwrecks in the Falklands).  This means the birds are extremely tame, and very easy to photograph.
The Neck, Saunders Island
Unfortunately, the approach to the landing strip on Carcass seemed to involve a very steep turn close to a large hill, and I found myself staring down at some boulders which seemed far too close for comfort.  Needless to say, the pilot could have landed on a sixpence in thick fog, and probably has, many times.

Unusually straight road, West Falklands
 Within minutes, we had exchanged passengers with the friendly host, who played the role of a flight attendant by offering the pilot and I a Mars bar.  Very welcome, as we had been flying for about 90 minutes.   Formalities completed, we turned to take off over that same hill, and headed south-east to Sealion Island.
Stanley runway, with harbour and town beyond.
With the wind now behind us, we skimmed over the waves, and into a bank of low cloud....  :-(
In effect, my scenic flight was just about over.  I saw some elephant seals basking on the beach on Sealion, but we zoomed over them before I could focus my camera.   All too soon, we were approaching Stanly again, where the cloud cleared.

Three hours had, quite literally, flown past.  And my lovely wife was waiting to take me home.  But, since I hadn't been able to leave the plane once during the flight, a quick trip to the toilet was in order!

A great day out.  Sometimes good things are worth waiting for!



Wednesday, 5 November 2014

A Long Walk on Princes Darwin's and Shackleton's footsteps.

Continuing the tales from the South Atlantic.  October brought gales, fog, snow, penguins, memorable dinners, stunning walking, the return of the tourists, and much more.....!
White Horses, Long Island Farm (courtesy of wife, and landowners)
 Spring has arrived in the South Atlantic.  Lambs are being born, birds are laying eggs, the days are getting longer, penguins, seals and albatrosses are returning to breed, and the weather is gradually improving.
Black-capped night herons nesting
 October - the April of the southern hemisphere - sees winter finally relinquish its grip on the weather, with just a few snow flurries to remind us we are only 600 miles from Antarctica.
HMS Iron Duke visits Stanley
However, the Falklands are the same distance from the Equator as London, so despite the slightly cooler weather, the islands receive plenty of daylight in Summer.  This, and their remoteness, makes them ideal breeding grounds for sea-going birds and mammals of the southern ocean.
One of the first Magellanic penguins to return to their burrow and await their partner.
 Every Spring, thousands of birds, seals, etc return to the place of their birth to continue the cycle.
Outdoor exhibit at the new Museum.
On the human side of life, a new museum has opened its doors just in time for the tourist season. It covers the Natural History of the Falklands, as well as the social history of the people here.
You don't want to get this close to a live Leopard Seal! Note the 3-pronged teeth!
There are excellent exhibits of Victorian-era shops and homes; coverage of the 1982 conflict; modern life, including the Fishing and Oil industries.  There is a room set aside for Antarctic exploration, much of which used the Falklands as a supply point.   A hut, which was used by British explorers  in the 1950s, has been transported to the Museum, and offers a great insight how men survived that harsh climate for months on end.

Ramblers on the ridge.
Just as a Postscript to the Museum, a couple of recent tourists made some very blunt comments in the Visitors Book, suggesting that the Falklands belonged to Argentina.  There was also some anti-British graffiti left around Stanley at the same time, and in the same handwriting!  As these visitors had signed their names, it was quite easy to check their Facebook pages, and see them boasting of their exploits there...
Energy-sapping whitegrass
Meanwhile, the Ramblers group organised a very long and scenic walk in the hills to the west of Stanley.  Unlike most of the hills a few miles to the south, these slopes did not see any fighting or mine-laying, but they had panoramic views that made the effort of ascending them worthwhile.
Mt Vernet summit
On a very cold Sunday, a group of us set out from near Estancia Farm, while another group took some cars to the end of the walk at Long Island Farm, where we would all meet up 4 hours later.
Watching for stragglers
We estimated the walk was about 12kms (8 miles), which may not sound massive, but the ground underfoot had no paths, and was either ankle-twisting swards of white grass, or very tiring boulder fields, known as Stone Runs or "Rivers of Stone", as Charles Darwin described them when visiting on the Beagle's voyage, which would later make him famous.
Stone runs are unique obstacles.
These Stone Rivers are formed by repetitive freezing and thawing over millennia, and are not found anywhere else, I believe.  The one we crossed is also the longest, and known as Princes Street, after the long, broad thoroughfare in Edinburgh.  By coincidence, I was to fly over Princes Street a few weeks later.  More of that flight soon....  A lovely, if tiring, walk!
Princes Street (grey)  from the air.
Also in October, saw the rescue of several oiled King Penguins.  These were being looked after by Falklands Conservation near where we live in Stanley, and volunteers were sought to help with the feeding of the birds.   After a few weeks, the birds are released back into the sea, and hopefully swim back to the beaches before the tourists arrive in numbers!
Feeding time for oiled King Penguins 
 I mentioned at the start that there were some memorable dinners in October.  On Trafalgar Day (October 21), I had the privilege of dining with the Commanding Officer, British Forces, South Atlantic Islands.  He is in charge of all the troops  based in the Falklands in order to defend the islands.  A fascinating evening, but sadly, no photos.

 Like London buses, a second unusual dinner invitation came along that week.  This time as guest of His Excellency, The Governor, who hosted a dinner at Government House.  We had a short tour of the historic building, with its conservatory housing the most southerly grapevine in the world!
Signing the underside of the table is a popular tradition...
But, for some guests, the highlight of the tour was the snooker table on which explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton played whilst trying to organise a rescue for his men stranded on Elephant Island.  A few enthusiastic people felt the need to examine the underside of the table where thousands of visitors, including the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Andrew and many others,  had left their messages for posterity.

A memorable evening in a memorable week!