Where penguins outnumber people
King penguins on parade at Volunteer Beach. (Michael Heffernan)
The last thousand miles of South America are a brushstroke, ending with a flourish at Cape Horn, where the Atlantic and Pacific meet. Yet off to one side, you notice a small group of islands, as if one last drop of ink had fallen, half forgotten, from the brush.
The flight to the Falkland Islands from Santiago de Chile tracks the mountainous spine of the Andes south to Patagonia before turning east for the last hour over open sea, arriving in a land that looks in many places almost like Britain. There is a red telephone box in the centre of the islands’ capital, Stanley. You can order curry and chips in a pub, which isn’t bad considering that you are already nine tenths of the way from Britain to Antarctica. Even the landscape could pass as one of the emptier reaches of Scotland’s Western Isles. But you can only take such comparisons so far: like when you see the first penguin.
The Falklands are home to five species of penguin: kings, gentoos, Magellanics, rockhoppers and the rarely-seen macaronis. There is something surreal in the congregations of flightless birds, as they seem to stand and wait for an important event that never happens. Like much of the wildlife here, they have made their home on a rare piece of land in an ocean rich in krill, squid and fish. Nowhere else are there so many of them living alongside a settled human population.
Apart from cliff-dwelling rockhoppers, penguins prefer grassy land by a beach for their colonies. For the one large human colony on the islands, the settlers chose a wide harbour, half-sheltered from the winds that whip around these southern latitudes. Nearly 170 years since it was founded, Stanley still has a pioneer feel to it. Weatherboard walls and roofs made of galvanised iron – known as ‘wriggly tin’ – are the building materials of choice. Plots of land are given over to vegetable gardens, horses crop the grass behind picket fences, and almost every vehicle that passes is four-wheel drive. For all the touches that suggest a piece of Britain in the southern hemisphere, there is also something Scandinavian in the red, white and green houses standing out against the muted landscape. Scattered farm settlements once defined island life, but now almost all Falklanders live and work in Stanley. A bank, a petrol station, a hospital, and a junior and senior school meet local needs, although there is more choice when it comes to eating out. There is even an annual horticultural show and, judging by the flower beds, keen competition.
By the waterfront, fronds of kelp wash in the waters of the South Atlantic. Stanley Harbour grew as a haven for ships mauled by storms while rounding Cape Horn, 500 miles away. The Lady Elizabeth limped into harbour in 1913 on her way from Vancouver to Mozambique, the year before the opening of the Panama Canal provided an alternative to the Cape Horn route. Today, she lies listing in the shallows of Whalebone Cove, on the fringes of Stanley Harbour.
Stanley may be no bigger than a large village, but it feels like a metropolis compared with ‘camp’ – the term for anywhere outside the capital. Fewer than 400 Falklanders live in an area roughly the size of Yorkshire.
Seventy miles from Stanley is the biggest camp settlement, Goose Green, and its near neighbour, Darwin, which preserves the name of the young naturalist who visited here on the HMS Beagle in 1833. Goose Green, however, was a name little known outside the Falklands until 1982, when for 74 days the islands found themselves at war. It was here, at the pinch-point where the two halves of the island of East Falkland meet, that some of the heaviest fighting took place between British and Argentinian forces. Memorials to soldiers from both sides dot the countryside, and the otherwise pleasant half-hour walk from Darwin to Goose Green passes several minefields left over from the conflict.