Saturday, 19 December 2015

Patagonian explorations. Fin del Mundo...

Perito Moreno panorama, courtesy of google photos!
[One of the benefits of living in a very remote place, like the Falkland Islands, is that we have to pass through, or over, some very interesting landscapes.  Occasionally, we get the chance to linger.....]

Patagonia is the southern "cone" of South America, with Chile on the west of the Andes, and Argentina on the east (although it gets a bit complicated around Tierra del Fuego!).
Perito Moreno
 In October, we interrupted our return to the Falklands to see more of southern Patagonia,  We stayed in Puerto Natales, Chile, about 100 miles north of Punta Arenas, our gateway to the Falklands.  Near Puerto Natales is the amazing Torres del Paine National Park.

 Over the border in Argentina, about 5 hours drive away, there is more stunning scenery around El Calafate.  The Perito Moreno glacier is famous for its frequent calving, which seemed to happen about every 15 minutes while we were there.
Ice recently calved from Perito Moreno glacier.
 It's hard to give a sense of scale, but the front of the glacier is about 2 miles wide. The huge "Ka-Booms" as the ice separates from the glacier and crashes into the lake were startling. However, given the time it took the sound to travel, it was not immediately obvious where it had come from!  Hence the lack of action photos!
Seno Ultimo Esperenza, Sound of Last Hope!
 Meanwhile, back in Chile, we did a relaxing boat trip up the Seno Ultimo Esperenza, which was so-called as the sailors had exhausted all hope of finding a way through the maze of fiords and islands to the Pacific Ocean.   This was one of the last areas of the world to be "found" by Europeans.
Serrano Glacier, Torres del Paine.
The trip included two glaciers, and for the Serrano Glacier, we could walk around the glacial lake and gaze at the hundreds of iceberg bobbing about.  Very different from the Perito Moreno experience - no coach parties!

Torres del Paine
 The Torres del Paine National Park is huge, and we took a whistlestop tour to remind ourselves of its highlights.  It didn't disappoint. (We had previously spent a week in it in 2013 - see my blogs for April 2013 for more information on the park).
Lago Grey icebergs, Torres del Paine
 The beach (above) at Lago Grey (Grey Lake in English!) was formed by a huge glacier retreating.  But icebergs still float the 12 miles down the lake from its existing snout, which is part of the enormous Patagonian Icecap, which straddles almost the entire width of Chile.
Torres del Paine from Puerto Natales
 The small town of Puerto Natales has a frontier feel, cut off from the rest of Chile by the Patagonian Icecap to the north.   The road north goes through Argentina, and buses take about 30 hours to the next city.  The ferry north takes 4 days! We headed south for 3 hours to Punta Arenas, where we boarded the Stella Australis, Southern Star, to explore the Beagle Channel.
Stella Australis in a sheltered fiord
 This ship sails between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia (on Tierra del Fuego)  in the summer, calling at Cape Horn, weather permitting!  Captain Fitzroy, of the Beagle, and Charles Darwin, spent three years charting the waters here before moving on to the Galapagos!  It's a very unspoiled region, although whoever introduced beavers about 60 years ago, is probably regretting it now! With no predators, the original 14 have multiplied to over 100,000!
Landing at Cape Horn
 We were very lucky with the weather and managed to get ashore on Cape Horn Island without getting too wet.  The landscape was similar to the Falklands, with most of the same plants underfoot.
Cape Horn lighthouse
 Nowadays, a Chilean Navy officer and his family man the weather station.  A very lonely existence, except when the odd yacht or the Australis calls in.  A very moving place, when one considers the hundreds of  shipwrecks around it.
Cape Horn on a calm day.
 But the short cruise also educated us a lot about the indigenous people of the region, of whom there were 5 separate groups.  Some were seafarers and fishermen; some hunter-gatherers; some nomads.   It is thought, by some academics, that the seafarers arrived from Polynesia, and the nomads from North America - less than 10,000 years ago.
Wulaia Bay - in the 19th century, missionaries brought Fuegans from here to the Falklands, and the UK.
Some communities kept fires constantly burning in their canoes to keep warm. And when Spanish sailors reported back to their King that it was a land of smoke, he replied, "there is no smoke without fire, so it is the Land of Fire - Tierra del Fuego!"

Sadly, most indigenous people were wiped out after coming into contact with Europeans and their exotic diseases.  In the mid-19th century, missionaries from the UK established a mission station on Keppel Island in the Falklands, and brought over some Fuegans to try and "improve" the lot of the indigenous people. Different times.

Ushuaia, above, is the main city of Tierra del Fuego, and the embarkation point for most Antarctic cruises.  You might notice the Andes rising up to the north and east, yet this is Argentina - it should be on the other side of the mountains!  The border area around the Beagle Channel has been hotly disputed in the past.  It was only relatively recently resolved by Papal intervention....
Crossing the Magellan Straits, to mainland South America.
After leaving Ushuaia, our ship would return by a different route to Punta Arenas, arriving around the same time that our weekly flight to the Falklands departed!  So, we had to leave the ship in Ushuaia, and get a bus north, in order to catch that flight. Once over the Andes, we travelled across the pampas for 12 hours on a bus that had seen better days.  After 3 hours, we discovered the toilet door had no handle and couldn't be opened!  The highlight of the journey was the short crossing of the Straits of Magellan.  Named after the sailor who discovered them and opened up the New World, saving the dangerous trip around Cape Horn. They were suitable choppy.
Black-neck swans at Puerto Natales

After a brief refreshment (Cerveza Austral) in the Shackleton Bar in Punta Arenas, all too soon our Patagonian adventure was over.

At the Punta Arenas airport, we mingled with scores of passengers heading for Stanley to board their ship, the Akademik Vavilov - more of which in 2016!  They were sailing for South Georgia, where they were going to film a re-creation of Shackleton's famous walk across the island in 1916.  Camera teams were accompanying them.  Our enthusiasm about the project waned slightly when we realised that all their ski-ing and filming equipment would mean no room on the plane for fresh fruit and vegetables for the Falklands!  And so it proved! Back to Earth.

Fin del Mundo - The End of the World!


Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Saunders Island revisited!

[This is an intermittent archive of my life, with my wife, on the Falkland Islands, roughly 400 miles east of Argentina, in the South Atlantic].

There's a saying about London buses, that you might wait for one for ages, then three turn up at once.....  Well, I have lived in the Falklands for 4 years now, and until this month (January 2016), had not been on Saunders Island - one of the premier wildlife locations here.  Then, I visited it twice in one week!
One of several empty beaches
As I mentioned in the "Antarctic Adventures" post, the finale to an amazing trip to Antarctica was enjoying the spectacular scenery and wildlife on Saunders Island - long, sandy beaches and thousands of penguins and albatrosses.
Growing albatross chick
By a coincidence, my wife had booked, weeks previously, a weekend trip to Saunders for the following week.  We were saying farewell to some friends who were returning to the UK, and they, too, had not been to Saunders, either.
Port Egmont. Union flag raised in 1765.  Taken down again in ....1770.
 As well as the wildlife, Saunders Island is famous in these parts as the place where the British flag was first raised, in 1765. Unfortunately, a year earlier, the French had raised their flag on a nearby island....  Neither party knew of the other's existence for about another year.  After a few years, Britain withdrew from the islands, but returned in 1833, when the French and Spanish had also abandoned the region.  The garrison ruins are still clearly visible.
Watching the albatrosses at the Rookery
 We had enjoyed the wildlife so much the previous week, that we couldn't wait to see more.  We had been at the Neck when we had landed from the Akademik Vavilov, our ship.   This time, we got a lift to another part of the island, the Rookery, which had large Black-Browed Albatross and Rockhopper Penguin colonies.

As there were only about two other people in the vicinity, we had the birds almost to ourselves.  And we could sit and watch the parent and chick interactions for hours, without disturbing them.

Once the chicks leave the nest, they spend about 4 years circling the globe, living on the wing. They then return to the Falklands to breed.
Busy parents
 The birds are ungainly on the ground, but the almost-constant wind around the Falklands enables them to effortlessly soar and glide when they take off.
Note the feet!
 Whilst feeding their chicks, these beautiful birds might travel to waters around Tierra del Fuego to feed.  Around 1200 miles there and back in a couple of days.  We may well have seen some of these birds during our voyage from Antarctica, earlier in the month.
Rockhoppers with chick.
 Close by was a large colony of Rockhopper penguins, whose chicks were now old enough to be left in creches while the adults went out to sea to fish each day.
Rock shag and large chick
Another empty beach, or it might be the same one.
 After we had had our fill of flying and flightless wildlife, we set off back to the settlement along the Land Rover track.  I'm guessing it was about 6 miles.
Different empty beach.  Keppel Island across the water.
 We saw no-one else for 3 hours.  Blue skies, warm breezes... Enjoyed a picnic on the beach.  It's not always like this!
Good track
 The path gradually climbed up to a saddle, just below the summit of Mt Egmont, at about 1,500 feet, so we took a slight detour to the top and drank in the views.
Mt Egmont summit
 The views were extensive - the settlement and airstrip below us; West Falklands, to the south;   Keppel and Pebble Islands to the east, and the extent of Saunders stretching to the Neck, to the west.
Settlement below Mt Egmont
Back in the settlement, which is basically a farm with about 20 buildings, we could enjoy a veritable multitude of domesticated animals - pigs, ducks, geese, horses, lambs, cows, chickens - not to mention the wild Striated Caracaras, Upland Geese, Magellanic Oystercatchers, Kelp Geese, and so on.
Farm guard
The shearing gang were about to arrive to separate the 3,000+ sheep from their wool.  It was a busy time of year, with dozens of visitors coming and going every week, plus cruise ships calling in.
Saunders airport
All too soon, our weekend break was finishing.  Our FIGAS (Falkland Islands Government Air Service) flight arrived and we clambered aboard.  
Buzzing the ferry on its way to the West.
Ten minutes later, we dropped off a couple of passengers at Pebble Island, then headed back across Falkland Sound to East Falkland and Stanley.
Central Stanley 
Flying low over Stanley harbour, we could easily make out specific buildings in the town.    The blue roof covers the Town Hall, court and Post Office.   To the left, the bank.  To the right, Penguin News office, and Historic Dockyard Museum.
Had it been worth going back so soon?  Well, I would say so.  The bird colonies had been different, and we had been almost entirely alone for the day.  And instead of squeezing into a zodiac and zipping through the waves to our ship, followed by dinner with the Captain,  we had a convivial dinner, with wine,  listening to friends recounting their bumpy rides to and from the Neck and their close encounters with King penguins.

Same island, different experiences....    I'd go again!

Penguins Galore! New Beer!

[An intermittent missive from a British expat in the Falkland Islands.....Now completing our 4th year here..]


I realise it's been a while since my last update, and a lot has happened in the world and the Falkland Islands since then.......  A cruise ship, Le Boreal, was evacuated just offshore, and 357 people were looking for beds for the night! My wife and I have spent some time travelling in the UK and Patagonia, and are about to make another journey soon.   These and other activities have conspired to delay me updating this blog.  That, and I am a compulsive procrastinator!

So, to get up to date, here are some photos from the past week.  I thought I would revert to the penguin theme!
We came across this friendly fella, a King Penguin, on Surf Bay during one of our regular walks.  He approached us - not the other way around - and may have mistook us for friends!
Calling for friends?
 Often, penguins come ashore when moulting or if their feathers are oiled and have lost their waterproofness.  But this guy seemed healthy enough.
Walking with penguin.

Some other exciting news in Stanley was the bottling of beer from Falklands Beerworks, a local micro-brewery.  About 4 beers are made by the brewer, Jeff, and Rockhopper is my favourite, although the others are tasty, too.
 In an effort to combat the side-effects of beer, I regularly Nordic Walk, and have encouraged small groups to explore the environs of Stanley.
King and Magellanic penguins
 Yesterday evening was warm, sunny and calm, and as we hiked through the sand dunes, we were greeted by a vast swathe of beach covered in penguins!  Not only several hundred of the resident Gentoos, but 5 King penguins, and a number of migratory Magellanic!
Nordic Walkers and penguins on the shore.
 Previously, we had only ever seen Gentoo penguins on this beach.   It is very quiet and surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, due to the minefield - a legacy of the Argentine occupation in 1982.
 However, in this case, it is probably now beneficial from a penguin point of view.  They are too light to trigger the mines, and it means they aren't pestered by people or dogs being exercised on the beach!
Where else in the world can you watch penguins so easily? OK, apart from Cape Town.

Peter's Penguin Post!

Meanwhile, my birthday had been marked by a couple of trips to my favourite islands in the archipelago.  Photos to follow. And many thanks to the kind messages from friends.  Sadly, no free bus pass was forthcoming - there are no public buses here...

And a surprise package on the doorstep.  What can it be???!!

Must start writing the Christmas Card!  Season's Greetings to all!


Friday, 4 September 2015

Searching for Napoleon, in the middle of the South Atlantic.

[Hello, again!    As a change from the usual news of the Falkland Islands, I have enlisted a guest blogger this month.  Earlier this year, my best friend, soul-mate and darling wife travelled to the very remote islands of Ascension and St Helena.  For reasons too boring to go into, I stayed at home watching the PC, in case a Skype message appeared.  It didn't....until she arrived at Cape Town!

Below is her account and photos of her trip to find Napoleon's (almost) last resting place.....!]

RMS St Helena
 Until the new airport is opened next year, the only way to get to St Helena is by ship.   It is about 1,200 miles  west of the Angola coast and 2,500 miles east of Rio de Janiero.  The only ship that regularly calls there is the Royal Mail Ship, St Helena, which plies between the UK, Ascension Island, St Helena and Cape Town.
 Fortunately for residents of the Falkland Islands, getting to Ascension Island is relatively straightforward.  Twice a week, flights to and from the UK (RAF Brize Norton) refuel there.  Ascension is near the Equator and a fascinating place. See earlier blogs for more detail.
"Ascending Ascension"  >

Welcome Aboard!
So, in March, my wife and our friend, Bx, flew 4000 miles north to Ascension, to wait for the St Helena.  On the following Saturday, they boarded one of the last voyages of the ship to Cape Town.
John the Purser organising deck games.
 It takes almost three days sailing to reach St Helena.  On board, there are a wide range of activities to entertain passengers, despite this not being your normal cruise liner!
Calm waters in the seawater swimming pool
 Eventually, just when you are getting the hang of deck quoits, the looming hills of St Helena come into view.  As in Ascension, there is no harbour, so unloading cargo and passengers is a time-consuming business.
Arriving at St Helena
 Due to the irregular pattern of the ship's schedule, passengers could either stay 1 night on the island, or wait for the ship to return from Cape Town in 2 weeks, to take them back to Ascension.  My wife could only stay one night, so there followed a whirlwind 24 hours of touring to make the most of their time.
Raising the flag
Once ashore, they checked in to their hotel, then found the tour "bus" which would help them explore the highlights.
Wellington Hotel, Jamestown
 The island was discovered, uninhabited, by the Portugese in 1502, but most of its development happened in the early 19th century, when it was decided to use this remote re-victualling outpost, as the secure exile for Napoleon Bonaparte, recent loser of the Battle of Waterloo, and general troublemaker of Europe.
The tour charabanc!
 For more information about St Helena, try here >>
Distillery shop
Making use of the plants that grow there, the world's most remote distillery produces Jamestown gin, spiced rum, Cacti pear spirit and Midnight Mist coffee liqueur.

Longwood House - Napoleon's residence
 Napoleon served his exile in Longwood House, a plantation mansion.  He died there in 1821, and was originally buried in the island, but his body was re-patriated to Paris in 1840.
A corner of France
 However, the house and grounds were given to the French nation in 1858, in recognition of the importance this spot has in its history.
This way to the tomb
A vacant plot.  
Jonathan may have met Napoleon!
 The island is about the size of a sheep farm on the Falklands - about 10 miles by 5.  47 square miles or 120 square kilometres.  The population is just over 4000, but many "Saints" live and work in the UK or Ascension or the Falklands.
The Governor's Residence, Plantation House - with tortoise lawn-mower
 The old Georgian plantation houses still have their elegant gardens, kept trim by the roaming wild tortoises, some of whom may have been sprightly youngsters when Napoleon was around!
Beware of the Tortoise

Jacob's ladder
 The island was fortified to help repel potential rescuers of Napoleon, and a ladder of 699 steps was built to connect the capital, Jamestown, in the canyon, with the fort, on the hill above.
Top of the ladder
Jamestown from 700 steps up
 The main town, Jamestown, nestles in a narrow canyon.  Most of the island is covered with flax, which once supported an industry making rope and string. Now exports come from the distillery and from production of what is said to be the world's most expensive coffee.
Harbour view
Wifi and shade at the Consulate Hotel
The road to the new airport
But all this remoteness and solitude is about to be ripped apart by the arrival of an airport next year.  It will have regular flights from Johannesburg, from where travellers can connect with the rest of the world.   However, there are many people who would have liked to have seen a regular flight connecting the islands in the South Atlantic, not least those Saints who travel home to families at Christmas.  Now they will have to fly via London or Brazil to South Africa first!
All too soon, passengers and freight were brought on board, and the trip resumed.
Farewell to St Helena
Time to slow down and enjoy the trip.....
Back to the challenge of deck quoits
Life on the ship makes the most of calm sailing conditions and sunny days with traditional deck games and a pool to cool off in.
The Captain's sundowner cocktail party..
Deckchairs were rearranged.....and the pavilion made ready.
If you ever wondered what "rearranged deckchairs" looked like......
One eagerly-anticipated activity was the 'Crew versus the Passengers' cricket match.  Recalling the almost-forgotten days of slow travel before long-haul flights, when touring cricket teams had to spend six months on a ship to reach their opponents on the other side of the world....Oh, did anyone see the Ashes this year?
Crew vs Passengers cricket match
 Playing cricket on a ship really helps improve your game, especially if you are in the fielding side.  There were some complaints about dampness on the boundary, though!
The winning Quiz team!
Post dinner entertainment caters for varied interests and talents, bingo, darts, quizzes being more familiar to most than frog racing. 
Last night prize-giving and frog-racing
 The journey from St Helena to Cape Town takes 5 days, but they fly by and all too soon a familiar shape comes into sight.......
Sunrise over South Africa
Unmistakable Table Mountain
 Do you remember the Tony Bennett classic  "I left my heart in San Francisco....."

Well, Spike Milligan of The Goons wrote a tribute....
"I left my teeth, on Table Mountain..
High on a hill, they smile at me!"   :-)
Farewell to the RMS.  Only a few voyage left.....
The RMS finishes its regular schedule, providing supplies and a link to the outside world for the St Helenian population, in April 2016. After three special voyages that take in a trip up to London and a final trip to the even more remote British Oversea Territory of Tristan De Cunha it will sail into Cape Town for the last time on 15th July 2016 Flights will be the new link to the Island, but the joy of slow travel will be lost.

So, a fascinating and unique journey.  Now, all my wife had to do was to get back to the Falklands from South Africa.....easier said than done!