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On The Backroads Of The World: Among The Kelpers In The South Atlantic

By: Mary Anne Reardon

In the world’s southernmost region of permanent settlement, below 50 degrees south latitude and 280 miles northeast of the southern tip of South America, lie the remote Falkland Islands. The archipelago consists of about 700 islands – some mere islets. Only fifteen are inhabited. According to the Falkland Islands Tourist Board, “It is probable that more people cross the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan each morning than have ever visited the Falkland Islands since time began”. In 2003 I chose to become one of those few.

A visit to the Falklands is a peaceful interlude, a chance to return to olden days. The Islanders are a hardy self-reliant people who live quite happily without many things so much a part of our lives: cell phones, ATMs, the morning paper, movie theaters, fast food restaurants, large supermarkets, pharmacies, and traffic lights. They did have a not very reliable dial-up internet service. A small newspaper, the Penguin News, was published weekly. Video movies could be rented. Prescription drugs were obtained at the hospital dispensary.

Although Stanley, with a population of about 2,000 was small in size, it was filled with places of historic interest as well as all sorts of intriguing oddities. The street names are connected with the settlement of the Islands. Names of several establishments piqued my curiosity: The Upland Goose Hotel, Sparrowhouse Guest House, Penguin Express, The Narrows, The Globe Tavern, and the Pink Shop which sold a local specialty – diddle dee preserves (pink, of course).

Diddle Dee — similar to heather

Many of Stanley’s original buildings are still in use today. None exceed 170 years in age.

Plot #1 — House built in 1844 by the first colonial surgeon

On Pioneer Row stand houses sent from England in kits in the 1840s.The Jubilee Villas are a row of typical English 19th Century brick town houses.

Jubilee Villas built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887

Christ Church Cathedral, the southernmost cathedral in the world, was built in the 1890s. Next to it stands a whalebone arch made from the jawbones of two blue whales, a gift from the whaling captains of South Georgia.

Christ Church Cathedral and the Whalebone Arch

The Falkland Islands Museum was a rare treasure trove. Their brochure invites visitors to “Come and enjoy the charm and informality…There is a deliberate policy of having no set layout. You are left to rummage and discover in the atmosphere of fascinating serendipity”. The Museum was packed with every sort of item from the earliest settlers onward. As the only visitor I had a terrific time taking full advantage of a truly unique opportunity. I’ve never had more fun in a museum.

The wind and the sea dominate the lives of the Falkland Islanders. From the sea comes the sobriquet “Kelpers.” Offshore the color of the sea is broken by irregular streaks of golden-brown kelp beds. The wind powers the turbines which provide 40% of the energy used by the only town, Stanley. The Atlantic salt air, blown inland by the wind, corrodes tin and wood. Therefore the tin roofs throughout the Islands are painted, often in bright reds, blues and greens. The wind and the salt air also make it necessary to grow all fruits and vegetables in greenhouses which are attached to many Stanley homes.

Greenhouses attached to Government House

From the sea has come the livelihood of the Islanders. Before the construction of the Panama Canal and our transcontinental railroad, it is estimated that as many as 20,000 ships a year rounded stormy Cape Horn en route to the California gold fields. These ships reprovisioned in the Falklands and those wrecked in storms often ended up there for repair or salvage, Passengers from ship wrecks became a primary source of early settlers, and pieces of these ships remain today as parts of older buildings. Stanley harbor is the final resting place for fifteen 19th Century wrecks.

The southwest Atlantic is one of the world’s richest sources of fish. Today the sale of commercial fishing licenses is more valuable to the economy than sheep farming. More riches may come to the sea as a result of exploratory oil wells begun in 2008. Should this happen new winds will blow from the Atlantic – the winds of change.

All farms and settlements outside Stanley and on the other fourteen inhabited islands are referred to as “The Camp,” a Falklands term for “country.” These areas are served by an inter-island air taxi service which transports passengers, freight and mail. There was a limit of eight passengers. Safety rules were strict. Passengers as well as each piece of luggage were weighed and seats were distributed based on your weight. The names of passengers for the next day’s flights were announced on the radio the previous evening. Flights landed on grassy strips or on the beach.

My first destination — West Falkland Island

Founded in 1866, Port Howard is one of the last large farms – 20,000 acres with 80 miles of shoreline and 40 miles of boundary fence.

Port Howard farm with housing for 40 farm workers

There was a small very cozy lodge. Guests had their meals with the family. This was the practice in each place I stayed in “The Camp.” In the evenings British guests would entertain everyone with ghost stories.

An hour’s drive off road to Fox Bay brought me to a large Gentoo penguin colony. In the late afternoon they scramble ashore after their daily fishing expedition.

Fox Bay Penguin Colony — at least 100 pairs of Gentoo

These penguins were amazingly tame and seemed quite oblivious to my presence. Having only seen penguins in captivity, I had no idea how entertaining they are in their natural habitat. Unless guarding a chick, they are constantly on the move. A favorite pastime seemed to be stealing from the nest of an unwary neighbor and waddling back to their own nest in as expeditious a manner as possible with their victim close behind. I suppose that the object of this sport was to obtain a delectable gift for a potential mate or to keep the affections of a fickle partner.

The thief returns with his loot

Four species of penguins have breeding colonies on the Islands. The Rockhoppers display their dexterity as, with both feet together, they hop from rock to rock up a steep cliff to reach their nests above.

Rockhopper Penguin Colony on Pebble Island

Sit quietly and these small curious penguins will come right up to you and peck at your shoes or take any food you offer.

Cautiously the curious Rockhopper approaches

Even after two hours a penguin colony did not get boring. A roll of film didn’t last long.

Every island has one or more penguin species. On the beaches are found Elephant and Fur Seals and Southern Sea Lions. There is nothing between Sea Lion Island and Antarctica but 800 miles of ocean.

The Islands are also home to a wide range of water fowl. Several species of birds indigenous to the southern oceans nest here. On Steeple Jason Island there is a colony of over 150,000 Black-Browed Albatross breeding pairs – the largest in the world. Like all birds on the Islands they have no fear of man and their nests can be observed at close range.

Falklands vegetation is described as “oceanic heathland” consisting of coarse grasses, dwarf shrubs, and cushion plants.

Oceanic heathland vegetation — whitegrass, diddle dee and balsam bog

Tussoc grass is the chief sustenance for the 760,000 sheep on the Islands. The most common plant is diddle dee, similar to heather. Its red berries are used to make jams and jellies and are a favorite food of the Upland Goose, a species seen nowhere else. Teaberry got its name from its use by sailors as a substitute for tea leaves. Another plant, sea cabbage, is found widely and was eaten by sailors to prevent scurvy.

Sea cabbage

The Falklands abound in peat bogs. Since there were no trees, peat was the main fuel for heating and cooking for 100 years. The locations of settlements, including Stanley, were often determined by their proximity to peat. On farms it would be stored in sheds.

Peat shed at Port Howard Farm

In Stanley a mounds of peat were stacked throughout the town. Now most use kerosene or diesel for heat and cook with bottled gas or electricity.

While driving around the two largest islands, East and West Falkland, one encounters numerous reminders of the 74 day war which followed Argentina’s invasion in 1982. Mine fields (135 in all) are fenced off with warning signs posted. Off-road on West Falkalnd pieces of a wrecked Argentine plane are strewn over several miles. Near Darwin I saw Argentine fox holes. War memorials and cemeteries commemorate the war dead (649 Argentine, 255 British, and 3 Falkland Islanders).

As a postscript to my visit, I returned three weeks later as Stanley was a port of call for my Antarctic cruise. It seemed fitting that, like the lives of the Falkland Islanders, my brief return visit was ruled by the wind and the sea. Scarcely an hour after coming ashore gusty winds became a gale, whipping up the waters in Berkley Sound. This caused our ship’s anchor to drag. Promptly the captain called all to return to ship — thus abruptly ended my memorable sojourn in the South Atlantic.