Friday, 8 April 2016

Hello from the Falklands

This is an extract from my diary in the first few days of getting off the plane:

Hello to me, from me. Its really good to get outside myself & get a different perspective on things. For a start, its sunny here being austral summer (solstice), so we have long days which stand in stark contrast to the Tupperware gloom from which I came all those hours ago. It seems like another world. And there’s plenty of FRESH AIR here and the water tastes PURE, as its unflouridated. The Falklands reminds me of how the UK used to be before it became overpopulated & over ran with namby pamby EU bollocks legislation & plastic retail parks. There’s no gaudy ‘street furniture’ or ‘warning signs’ here, except to avoid the minefields, and even then you get the feeling its more of a polite courtesy rather than a keep- off- the- grass admonishment. Wanna blow yourself up? Fine! Liberty rules. But you can afford to do that with a population of 2500 and a playground the size of Scotland at your disposal.

The vast majority of the population are cosseted in small tin huts in Stanley. A small minority live in what they call ‘camp’ from the Spanish for field. So the population density is something like you would see in Iceland. Stanley is quaint and lazy, with vibrantly painted roofs, small vegetable cultivation in polytunnels, and an array of scuttled shipwrecks lying in the natural harbour which is Port Stanley.

Lady Elizabeth, an iron barque, Whalebone Cove 1875-1913

The Plym, an iron tugboat, 1903-1930's

There are no trees here (too windy & exposed) so wooden structures are virtually absent apart from the occasional piece of reclaimed wood from a shipwreck, or deliberately imported timber. Stanley has the occasional introduced tree, but plantations are out of the question, even in hollows or mountainsides. Even Christ church at Stanley, arguably the showpiece building on the island, has four giant whale bones arranged in a dome- shape, rather than forming any arch of wood. This leaves a kind of bare or raw sensation to a Celtic heart, like something vital is missing in the landscape, like a parent gone off to war, or a lover who has upped and left suddenly.

Above are photos I took of the shipwreck of the St Mary at Whale Point. Wrecked on an offshore reef in 1890 on her maiden voyage while carrying a cargo of coal, whiskey, iron pipe, boxes of tacks, and toy trains from New York to San Francisco, what remains of her today lies on the beach easily accessible at low tide. A large section of the St Mary was removed by the Maine State Museum, Augusta in 1978 and taken back to America where it is now displayed. Beautiful pens and bowls made locally from the wood of the St Mary can be purchased in the Historic Dockyard Museum in Stanley. It is without doubt the most evocative shipwreck I have ever seen. You can walk the boards and clamber freely around this natural museum.

Summer on Falkland is short lived. There are no bees, flies are few. Ironically this Caledonian clime has few midges like mother Scotland. Kicking a football in the garden, feeling the breeze, pollen of Antarctic hawkbit gets stuck between the toes in my sandals. Garden of golden yellow hawkbit heads rise to greet me in the Sun.

The sun is fierce here, in the thin ozone of the South Pole. And the weather fronts are capricious and bold. No English bowler, taking three days to run up to a delivery. Winds and rain are rapid and lash in straight from the sea, but then quickly disappear and sublimate into sunshine, beating down radiation. And the winds! Rugged, excoriating in sandpaper swirls, they impart a ruddy and vigorous complexion which lasts a day at the most. Then there are the indolent days of mist & blanket cloud where the mountains speak! Bearded in their fog & mystery, they keep their wisdom selfishly like a wizard dwelling in dark mines or caves.

Yesterday we drove to Cape Dolphin, which was an epic trek over endless pot holes and scree- ridden slopes to be rewarded by a bog- swamp off road experience to rival an African safari expedition. There we saw sea lions in an impressive breeding colony, and a host of Patagonian coastal heath species which I photographed avidly until I ran out of battery power. I have become quite an amateur naturalist whilst out here, having read through the following tomes:

The Falkland Islands & Their Natural History- Ian J Strange
Wildlife of The Falkland Islands & South Georgia (signed copy) by the same author
Plants of The Falkland Islands- Ali Liddle (Falklands Conservation).

Ian J Strange: Doyenne of Falklands Wildlife Writing

I have also swam with Commerson’s dolphins! And come eye to eye with broody Gentoo penguins with their chicks. The whole experience has far exceeded my hopes. I always thought wildlife photography was for other more fortunate people, but this experience has really given me sense of fulfillment which stretched right back to my Ecology degree days. I am inspired to carry on this experience and make more use of my conservation/ natural history knowledge. I feel an awakening of my deep love for nature once more after a long period of being landlocked in an urban area. I should use the momentum of this moment to do something more positive with it.

The only frustration I have encountered here is a lack of opportunity in capturing and representing the landscape with my camera. It is bleak, but far from featureless. It would challenge me to portray it and take some time to compose good shots, ideally at sunrise/ sunset. But I am effectively confined to barracks! Large parts of the Falklands are owned either by the crown, or private landlords, or are under the control of the military. Getting permission to gallivant around is not easy. In addition to that, you need a 4x4 and to have done at least one days advanced off- road driving skills training. I am lucky insofar as when we do get out, my sister has got access to nature spots which others just can’t get, owing to her high up RAF connections & familiarity with the locals. As we drove to a far away & concealed penguin colony the other day, we drove by squaddies on foot, no doubt making the most of their day off, but with a hopelessly long trek ahead of them just to get to the coast. With a car, permission to explore, and a set of gate keys, we sailed on by. For my landscape project, I would have been content driving around the ring road which circumnavigates the island. In fact, the circular road is the only road on the island; ironically called the M25 by the locals. We drove for over 90 minutes in one direction and didn’t see a single vehicle or living soul. Except the sheep.

Note: I didn't manage to get on West Falkland at all throughout my stay. Separated by approximately 10 miles of  the Falkland Sound, it presents austere vertical cliffs to any visitor, with only a few relenting coves or channels. It is virtually uninhabited with no roads. I almost got to go to Carcass Island by helicopter which is an island at the NW point of West Falkland, but alas there were strong winds that day & safety had to take precedence.

Many Welsh and Scottish settlers came to Falkland in 1833. They were given incentives to do so, and start sheep farming enterprises. It was thought given the rugged and exposed nature of their home countries, they would be well adapted to the similar environment of the Falklands. Apart from being wonderfully romantic, this strikes me as a bit Lamarkian or Haeckelian. Was it assumed life in the highlands had somehow imparted a genetic proclivity for life in the Falklands? I can’t see that happening in this age of positive discrimination, but it is Falkland and as mentioned it does have an old school feel down here. Yes, like a people could be adapted to live here, like a breed of sheep or cattle. That there is an exact match in nature; an archetype. A spiritual home. 

North Utsire

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