Monday, February 15, 2010

Circle South America: The Falkland Islands

Dear Family and Friends,

Just 300 miles northeast of Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina, the Falkland Islands (also known as Islas Malvinas) are an archipelago with two main islands, East and West Falkland, and 778 smaller islets and rocks….emphasis on the rock part. The total land area is 4,700 square miles, or about the same size as Connecticut. Three east-west trending mountain ranges, with the highest peak being only the 2,312 foot Mt. Usborne, form the back bone of this desert-like, treeless land with low scrub brush, tall grass and peaty moss moors being the only vegetation. Stanley is the capital and is home to some 1,900 people which is three-fourths the population of the entire island chain. To put that in perspective, Graham, TX has over 8,000 friendly folks. The Falkland Islanders are friendly too, in fact, very much so. Probably because they are just so glad to see anyone from the outside world during the two months that a stray cruise ship or two comes to visit. Our 32 year-old driver, who was from England, came to visit his grandmother, a Falkland native, at age 18 and never returned home. He loves it here and Lord knows you would have to, given the nine month long inhospitable environment of this place.

Don’t get me wrong. The Falklands have their own kind of beauty, but doesn’t it kinda beg the question, why would Great Britain go to war with Argentina for sovereignty over this pile of rocks back in 1982 at the cost of over 400 lives? Could it have been because of the abundant marine wildlife? There are hoards of Peale’s and Commerson’s dolphins, fur seals, and sea lions. Homeward-bound king, gentoo, rockhopper, and Magellanic penguins call the Falklands “home” for a portion of the year. And who could forget the sight of huge black-browed albatross, their eight foot wing span spread, soaring majestically two feet above the waves.

The Argentine military junta, in an effort to distract their citizens from their discontent over domestic economic crisis, invaded based on a claim which dated to Spanish colonial times when all they had in “The Malvinas” was a penal colony and a cattle ranch. Great Britain responded because the British subjects, who made up 95 % of the population of the Falklands at the time, asked the Queen to protect them from the invading Argentines and their bellicose military dictatorship. Margaret Thatcher, equally eager to distract a population beset by their own set of domestic woes, declared war to protect Great Britain’s claim of sovereignty which dates to 1592 when Elizabethan navigator John Davis first sighted the islands. The Argentines had no particular presence in the islands, but they did not want the British to control this area right in the back yard of Argentine Patagonia. Obviously, Great Britain won, but remnants of this bloody war are still evident. We saw orange-suited men with heavy body protection and face shields still out in the fields clearing land mines, buried by the Argentine soldiers to keep the British from re-taking Stanley by land. These stray mines continue to wreak havoc with people and cattle who wander unawares into remote areas surrounding the city.

We took a tour out to one of these remote locations and boarded 4X4 Land Rovers for the most bumpy, harsh, bone-jarring , albeit mine-less, off-road adventure down to a penguin reserve at Bluff Cove Lagoon. There over 1,000 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins and a growing colony of King penguins occupy this rocky point. They are beautiful, gentle-looking animals and we were able to get up close and personal with them. Sharing the cove with all those penguins were over 100 breeding pairs of Ruddy headed geese, Upland geese, Snowy sheathbills and skuas. We got up close and personal with them too. A little too personal, actually. It took us 15 minutes to get the geese poop and penguin down off our sneakers, but it was worth it. We didn’t see any breeding going on, but I hope you like the all G-rated pictures anyway.

Not much going on in Port Stanley itself, but the town does have a New England flavor or might even remind you of a Scottish fishing village with its houses built from wood salvaged from storm damaged ships and their brightly painted corrugated metal roofs as well as gardens full of summer flowers.

Next, a day at sea will bring us to the Patagonian city of Puerto Madryn (pronounced ma’DREEN), Argentina at the back of Golfo Nuevo, a huge gulf protected by the Peninsula Valdes, at the Atlantic edge of the vast Pampas, land of the Gaucho.

Until then, God bless you all,

Jud and Vicki

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