Hostile Place, Neighborly Ties

“We found a penguin here once,” Wayne, our host at Port Howard Lodge, said, gesturing at a bend in the gravel road, where it crosses a small creek. I looked around at the barren West Falkland countryside — undulating and featureless under a big, blowing sky. The road stretched off over the horizon. It was a bleak, strangely beautiful landscape.

“We reckon he must have wandered about 30 kilometers inland,” Wayne explained. “So, we picked him up and put him in the back seat of the Land Rover. Drove him to the coast at Fox Bay.” He paused, concentrating on navigating a tricky curve, the wheels skidding on loose stones. This is not a place you would want your car to slip off the road and get “bogged.” Neighbors in “camp” (which refers to anywhere outside Stanley, the small capital town) are few and hundreds of kilometers between.

“Funny thing was, he seemed perfectly at ease,” Wayne continued, chuckling at the memory of the plucky penguin. “Just sat there unperturbed, looking out the window, until we dropped him off near the sea.”

The story says more about Falkland Islanders than it does about penguins. The people here are self-reliant, independent, gutsy and neighborly, but then, they have to be. The 700 or so islands that make up the Falklands are, literally, in the middle of nowhere. Some are inhabited, many not. Vast tracts of empty land or dangerously choppy waters separate one farm from another. The wind blows hard. The weather changes hourly.

Most places are run by a handful of people, sometimes only a couple. If there are four school-aged children in a community, then they get a teacher. If not, they have to go to Stanley, or travel “north” (often to Britain) for their education. Yet, despite the sparseness, the links are strong: to the land — where many trace their ancestry back to the British sealers and whalers of the 1830s — and to one another.

The red and blue nine-seater planes of the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (Figas) form one such link. There is no set schedule. The flight plan is determined by need, as are the seating arrangements: One flight we took was two seats short because the pilot had to pick up 300 kilograms of fresh lamb on the return journey. Each afternoon, the radio announces the passenger list for the following day. “Makes it hard to have an affair,” joked one rugged character, an itinerant farmhand heading out to a “camp” to help with the sheep shearing.

The landing strips are often nothing more than uneven swaths of turf, cleared of sheep by the first vehicle to arrive before a flight. Whoever gets there first is the one to hook up their 4x4 to the small water tank on wheels, kept in a tiny corrugated iron shed at the side of the airfield, to be used as firefighting equipment in case of an accident. Each strip has one.

Apart from gravel roads, the only other local link is the small ferry providing a regular connection between East and West Falkland for two to three weeks each month, often accompanied by a platoon of dolphins leaping in its wake as it docks at Port Howard. The ferry service devotes the rest of the time to provisioning the outer islands with goods too heavy for the small Figas planes.

Such links are crucial to survival on the Falkland Islands — which is why the decidedly un-neighborly attitude of their nearest neighbor both puzzles and troubles Falklanders as the 30th anniversary of the Argentine occupation approaches. The islanders are concerned that the ferry, which goes to Punta Arenas, Chile, for its yearly servicing, may no longer be allowed through Argentine waters. Rather than the more direct route through the Straits of Magellan, it would have to navigate around Cape Horn, where vessels far larger have come to grief, or travel north more than 1,800 kilometers to Montevideo in Uruguay.

Emergency medical evacuations are generally routed across the Andes to Santiago, Chile, or to Montevideo. There are also reports that the Chilean carrier LAN Airlines is being pressured to cancel its weekly flight to the islands. As the only commercial operator to fly in and out of the Falklands, it provides a vital bridge to the Americas and beyond: As well as being crucial for the delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables, the flight also enables an average of 80 patients each year to receive critical diagnostic or surgical treatment in Chile.

And then there are the tourists — relatively few but nevertheless vital to the local economy. In recent years, they have included a fair number of Argentine veterans of the conflict that began on April 2, 1982. “There are still some people who resent them,” said the landlady at our B&B in Stanley. “But on the whole, we are happy to welcome them.” She showed us her guest book, which contained a number of Spanish names and Buenos Aires addresses.

Argentine governments and politicians may make forceful comments about their country’s right to the islands — but those sentiments are not shared by all. Most of the Argentine visitors’ comments were unfailingly positive. “People are just people,” our hostess said, pointing to one of the entries. “Volveremos,” it says. “We will return.” But it’s meant in a neighborly way.

By Catherine Lengyel, a freelance writer currently based in Greece.

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