South Atlantic cruises often offer brief stops in the Falkland Islands, and yet there’s so much more to this remote spot than you can see in just a few hours. The adventure begins even as you’re making your way there.
If you don’t want to go far to see the penguins, you can stick with Tony Smith. Totally at ease, the tour guide steers his jeep through the potholes to Yorke Bay.
Then, a short walk through the dunes, and the black and white birds stand in front of you by the hundreds. In the mixture of snow and sand, they look almost comical. Then Tony taps me on the shoulder and points to the surf. “It’s a South American sea lion,” says the man in his late fifties.
“It’s hunting the penguins.”
It’s patrolling the beach in the shallow water. The penguins have noticed the hunter and are trying to avoid it. But then it happens: the sea lion grabs one. It’s a bloody spectacle of nature – only a few kilometres away from Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands.
The islands at the end of the world – hundreds of kilometres off the Argentine coast in the South Atlantic – are a paradise for wildlife watchers and nature lovers.
“It’s amazing: We have everything almost on our doorstep,” enthuses Anne, who moved here from Britain for work and, like everyone else here, only introduces herself by her first name.
“We saw king penguins at a picnic the other day and orcas the day after that,” Anne says. There are also numerous bird species such as the black-browed albatross with a wing span of up to 2.5m.
Unlike for the approximately 3,400 inhabitants of the islands, who in many cases only have to overcome a few kilometres of gravel road to be among the animals, the journey for ornithologists and nature lovers is much more lengthy.
After a two-year break, cruise ships are calling at the islands again. Tens of thousands came to the British Overseas Territory this way each year prior to the pandemic. They are taken in small boats to the king penguin colony at Volunteer Point on the north-eastern tip of the archipelago.
Stroll along the waterfront in Stanley, maybe have a coffee at the Waterfront Cafe and buy a penguin T-shirt at the gift shop. Then it’s onwards.
But if you want to spend a longer holiday on the islands and get stuck in nature, you need time – and also a lot of money as an independent traveller. The Falklands are an expensive place.
In the camp, as the Falklanders call everything outside of Stanley, accommodation usually costs less than in the island’s capital. But getting there is not easy. There is no public transport. The only option is to rent a car, or book a driver. The distances are much too far to walk.
“Tourists are always surprised, they think the islands are much smaller,” says guide Tony with a laugh. But a look at the map is deceptive. The islands look like blots of ink on the globe, but the Falklands are actually about half the size of Wales.
If you want to stay longer, you have to travel by plane, and there are now two possible routes again. As of mid-2022, the South American airline Latam has been flying once a week from the Chilean capital Santiago to the islands with a stopover.
Many Britons and Falklanders visiting relatives in Britain, however, use a more direct connection. A plane takes off twice a week from the Royal Air Force base at Brize Norton near Oxford. After a flight of about six hours, the Airbus A330 stops on Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa – for refuelling and a change of crew.
Depending on the plane’s schedule, travellers can stretch their legs in the airport terminal. “Please do not consume alcohol,” the crew warns several times. There are always British soldiers on board who are on duty in the Falkland Islands for a period of several months, and there are said to have been repeated incidents with them in the past.
From Cape Verde it’s another 10 hours across the Atlantic to the Falkland Islands. The flight, operated by the charter company AirTanker, is also open to civilians. They call the connection in the Falkland Islands an “airlift”.
“Before, we were very cut off,” says car dealer Simon in Stanley. Thanks to the “airlift”, at least people are no longer dependent on long sea journeys.
Memories of war
On another day, we travel through a picturesque landscape across the main island of East Falklands from Stanley to the village of Goose Green. The winter sun hits the white snow.
Today is not about the impressive nature, but about history. For on the Falkland Islands, the memory of the war against Argentina 40 years ago is everywhere.
Argentina has claimed the British-owned islands off its coast since 1833. After negotiations failed to produce a breakthrough, Argentine troops occupied the territory on April 2, 1982 on the orders of dictator Leopoldo Galtieri. The few British soldiers on the islands had to surrender.
A good 12,500km away in London, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would not accept invasion. She sent an expeditionary force to retake the islands. As many as 255 British and 649 Argentinian soldiers died, together with three civilians. Hundreds were injured.
The war still shapes the islands, which almost unanimously declared their allegiance to Britain in a 2013 referendum. This is partly due to the fact that around 1,000 British soldiers are now permanently stationed here and defence has been significantly strengthened.
There is hardly a conversation without the ongoing conflict with Argentina coming up after a few minutes. “We don’t want to be Argentinian,” says sheep farmer Michael, representing many of the islanders. Even now, the government in Buenos Aires has not given up its claims.
If you want to understand the Falklands War, Goose Green is a good starting point. The small hamlet in the middle of spacious sheep pastures has only a few dozen inhabitants. But its recapture was a symbolic first success for British forces.
In the community hall, the Argentine troops held more than 100 Falklanders captive for weeks. The small Goose Green Museum – you can get the key in the nearby cafe – describes the time in detail. A memorial has also been set up in the community hall, which is still in use today.
Winter days are short on the Falkland Islands, but that shouldn’t stop you from taking time for a short detour to the Argentinean war cemetery. The dead lie here in rows, plastic flowers and rosaries covered in frost are tied to the crosses. The view stretches far across the countryside.
For Tony, it’s important that the Argentines also have a place of remembrance here. – dpa