Where penguins outnumber people
‘When I was first here, you probably left the farm only once a year,’ he says. In the old days, deliveries came by boat to the jetty just a few steps from his front door, but now the farm is linked by road to Fox Bay – a three-hour round trip. Before the arrival of telephones in the 1980s, remote camp settlements would pass messages around by radio as everyone else listened in. It created an odd kind of community spirit, despite the distances between farms. ‘Even if you’d never met someone, you’d know them from the radio,’ Ann says. ‘You’d even know if they were desperate for a nightdress.’
The cliffs and headlands around Port Stephens make up some of the most dramatic terrain in the islands. Climbing a hill to get a better view of a colony of rockhopper penguins, I discover that sheep are among the most skittish creatures in the Falklands. Even a cautious approach sends them bounding across moors covered by clumps of waxy, red diddle-dee berries and strange cushions of balsam bog, like springy, living rocks. When safely far-off, they turn to fix me with what I take to be a taunting look. Returning to the farm, the tables are turned: perhaps a thousand sheep wait in a pen. The Robertsons’ son, Paul, enters the enclosure and they scatter in a fluid movement, like a shoal of fish escaping a shark. Ann and another herder drive the flock into a narrow channel, where Paul slides a gate back and forth, sending shorn sheep right and woolly left, into further holding pens.
When Stanley residents want a quick holiday, many take the hour’s flight to Carcass Island on the western fringes of the Falklands. In a way, it is to the Falkland Islands what the Falklands are to the rest of the world: on the edge of the map, home to remarkable wildlife, and a place that’s about as isolated as you can get before it becomes uncomfortable. The unfortunate name comes from the HMS Carcass, which surveyed these waters in 1767 and was named after a kind of early incendiary bomb. Carcass is free of rats and the tall tussock grass has not been overgrazed, which makes it a haven for birdlife.
Rob and Lorraine McGill have owned the island for nearly 40 years, and run it from a red-roofed bungalow sheltered by a palisade of Monterey cypresses. They lived on Sea Lion Island before, but found it too flat after the hills of the western islands where they both grew up, and to which they longed to return. ‘Every day goes by in a flash,’ says Rob. ‘I don’t suffer from boredom.’ With Brock, his collie, at his heel, he climbs the hill behind the house where his cattle are grazing. With great patience, he herds them back down into a pen, separating out the calves, and applying healing cream to some of the cows’ udders. There is no better day to be outside, overlooking the glorious sweep of Port Pattison bay and the scattered islands beyond. The landscape seems to be full of possibilities.
I ask Rob if he is ever tempted to take a boat out around his island. ‘If I had a boat I wouldn’t do any work,’ he replies. He borrows one from a neighbour, seven miles away on West Point Island.