Sunday Express, January 8, 2012

The liberating Falklands

DUNCAN CRAIG heads south with his father, a veteran of the conflict that put these South Atlantic islands on the map 30 years ago, to discover a tranquil, thriving archipelago teeming with wildlife

HE WAS the most unlikely of Lotharios. Obese, flatulent and toe-curlingly ugly. Yet around him gathered a crowd of admirers waiting patiently for his blubbery, passionless advances. Rivals loitered a short distance away, vainly wobbling their bits. They were wasting their time. The ladies only had eyes for the “beachmaster”.

Looks, it’s fair to say, don’t really cut it in the world of the elephant seal. It’s more a question of size. Who’s got the biggest proboscis, if you will, the stunted, trunk-like appendages that dangle beneath beady eyes.

Sexual exclusivity is a cruel characteristic of the species but rival bulls will only tolerate so much. Periodically they will launch a challenge so body-slammingly brutal that even David Attenborough would struggle to describe it in hushed tones.

I’m in the Falklands, which knows a thing or two about conflict. Thirty years ago a Margaret Thatcher-dispatched task force sailed 8,000 miles to liberate this remote British territory after an invasion by its Argentine neighbours.

For 74 days, a hitherto overlooked archipelago was lit by artillery shells and the global spotlight. The campaign scarred, but also galvanised, the tiny population determined to make the most of what had been returned to them.

Accompanying me is my father Chris, a veteran of the conflict. His is a poignant journey, to pay his respects to fallen comrades and see the fruits of his endeavour. For me, it’s about colouring in a vague mental picture formed as a six-year-old waving off the warship he captained from Plymouth Hoe.

His journey south was direct and at full throttle; ours is more circuitous, via a succession of progressively smaller airports: London, Madrid, Santiago, Punta Arenas (the gateway to Patagonia) and, finally, Mount Pleasant, the military airport that receives the Falklands’ only weekly commercial flight. Several indigenous species are red-eyed. Make that the visitors too.

The landscape, like the strangely indistinct accent of its inhabitants, offers hints of everything from West Country to Western Isles to Outback

The first surprise is scale. I’m expecting something akin to the Isle of Wight. In fact East and West Falkland and their 750 outlying islands have a combined area the size of Northern Ireland. During our seven days here, we are to criss-cross a landscape that, like the strangely indistinct accent of its inhabitants, offers hints of everything from West Country to Western Isles to Outback.

The second is climate. Charles Darwin wrote of the “air of extreme desolation”; Ronald Reagan preferred “that bunch of icy rocks”. Winters are certainly savage but visit between November and March and you’ll likely be greeted with benign, if perpetually blustery, conditions.

Bright sunshine accompanies us to Darwin, an hour’s drive west along an unsealed road that spits pebbles at our weathered 4×4. It’s a typical islands’ settlement: a few brightly roofed houses set on an inlet and delineated by strips of burnished yellow gorse.

The lone lodge is run by former bobby Graham Didlick with a masochistic (given the wind) penchant for smoking rollies. Like most Falklanders he wears several hats. One is battlefield tour guide.

We trace the route along which British paratroopers advanced in the battle for neighbouring Goose Green and I stand on the spot where Lt Col Herbert “H” Jones was killed in a battle so intense it ignited a nearby copse. Delicate white Pale Maidens, the national flower, speckle the windswept terrain like tiny crucifixes.

Later, we visit Goose Green’s cramped community hall from which 104 locals were freed after a 29-day incarceration, as well as the immaculately tended Argentine cemetery. Here, many inscriptions read simply “Solo Conocido Por Dios” (known only unto God).

Next up, Sea Lion Island, necessitating a flight in one of the Falkland Islands Government Air Service eight-seaters. I sit up front with affable pilot Andrew Alazia, who wears Top Gun shades and the relaxed demeanour of a man who has found his personal Shangri-la.

“The Falklands is the safest place in the world,” says the father of three as he eases the Britten-Norman skybound past a crossbar-rigid windsock. “You let the kids out in the morning and they come back when they’re hungry.”

Nowhere better encapsulates the Falklands’ blend of the familiar and the exotic than Sea Lion, a 15-minute flight south. Its 13-room lodge is the most southerly in the world but wouldn’t be out of place in the Home Counties.

There’s a drip-feed of Earl Grey tea and Waitrose cake, a bar serving John Smith’s and the distant sound of braying donkeys. Only they’re not donkeys. They’re penguins, Magellanic to be precise, a whole mogul field of them, burrowing, bustling and, yes, braying. That’s just for starters.

Beyond, on an island no bigger than an urban park, are colonies of their photogenic gentoo cousins; white beaches overrun with elephant seals; Atlantic-sprayed bluffs teeming with imperial cormorants; and rock pools studded with sea lions. Following the flight of a striated caracara, the world’s rarest bird of prey, we pick out a brace of killer whales arcing serenely through the bay on the way for a seal pup takeaway.

That night after dinner, a nature trek group colonises the sitting room to work through its daily checklist. “It’s our anorak moment,” says the leader pre-emptively. Moment? Listening to the list of extravagant animal and birdlife being ticked off, it’s a wonder they don’t have RSI. I can’t resist a smirk when “Falkland thrush” follows “rock shag”. I’m the only one.

As we’re leaving the following morning, a Sea King lands in the adjacent field, its search and rescue crew granted a few hours of well-earned R&R. Come March, Flight Lieutenant William Wales could be among them. Are the islanders excited by the future king’s deployment? “If we did excitement, then we would be,” one tells me.

During the war, the rockhopper penguins would tip over watching the jets scream overhead. Apocryphal, of course, but it’s easy to see why the myth endured

The rest of the week zips by, indelible memories being stockpiled greedily. There is Pebble Island, where we watch playful Commerson’s dolphins and hang out with a 10,000-strong colony of rockhopper penguins. During the war, they would tip over watching jets scream overhead. Apocryphal, of course, but watching these spiky-haired characters waddling around, as haphazard as they are industrious, it’s easy to see why the myth endured.

That night we share a table and lodge with a US Air Force colonel, a scientist from the former East Germany and a missionary from the Congo. Geographical dislocation, it seems, is a wonderful filter of the ordinary.

They’re no less fascinating on the “mainland”. Terence is sixth-generation Falklander, as learned as he is loquacious. From his and wife Sheila’s front room at Kingsford Valley Farm we take in sweeping views across serene, mountain-encircled San Carlos Water. In 1982, they would have had a ringside seat as 27 task-force ships squeezed into this narrow body of water, disgorging men and equipment under an Argentine air barrage. The shore-edge cemetery attests to the heroics that unfolded.

Then there’s Volunteer Point, site of the world’s most accessible colony of king penguins. They prove luminously beautiful, their shimmering blue-grey cloaks enlivened by splashes of crepuscular yellow. What I take to be bushes transpire to be infants, squeaking from deep within downy fur.

We finish, as the liberating forces did, in Stanley. The capital and only town threads along the harbour front, small yet surprisingly pretty. Locals call it “the big smoke”. They’re being ironic. I think. The feel is unmistakably British, from the red phone boxes and ubiquitous Union flags to the eccentricity. One gentleman has turned his garden into a whale ossuary, around which a tethered reindeer snuffles, while Kay McCallum has assembled an army of more than 100 gnomes around her tiny, eponymous guest house.

At the jetty-edge Pod Gift Shop, Sybie is still reeling from the 6,000 cruise passengers who landed in one day the previous week, doubling the local population. Preternaturally jovial with, it turns out, a talent for sniffing out veterans, she won’t hear of us paying for our gifts.

“I have six grandchildren and I tell them they must always, always defend the islands,” she says as we bid her, and the Falklands, farewell.

A destination, in every respect, worth fighting for.

* GETTING THERE: Windows on the Wild (0208 742 1556/www.windowsonthewild.com) offers a nine-night Falkland Islands package from £3,065pp (two sharing). Price includes return flights with LAN via Madrid and Santiago (with overnight, outward and return), two nights in Stanley (B&B), two nights on Pebble Island (full board) and a night each in Darwin, Sea Lion Island and San Carlos (all full board) and transfers.
Falklands Tourist Board: 0207 222 2542/www.falklandislands.com