Lorraine McGill scanned the South Atlantic Ocean from her window, the morning sun shining in her brown eyes.
“Sometimes they come right up to the garden, and you find the little fellows burrowing under the plants,” she said about the playful penguins near her house in the Falkland Islands.
The view wasn’t always so tranquil. She recalled an incident three decades ago when an Argentine soldier aimed a gun at her and “gave me such a fright.”
Such contradictions aren’t unusual in the Falklands, a British territory off the east coast of Argentina.
Abounding in wildlife, this cold, remote and sparsely populated (about 2,500 residents) archipelago about the size of Connecticut was visited by Charles Darwin during his Beagle voyage. Amidst the flora and fauna, though, are decaying signs of the 1982 war between Argentina and the U.K. for control of the islands.
Lorraine and I were on Carcass Island in the archipelago’s northwest section. She and her husband, Rob McGill, both Falkland natives, are the owners and only year-round residents of the 4,680-acre island. They’ve opened their sheep farm for visitors, an indication that tourism has supplanted agriculture as their main source of income.
Rob says the gentoo penguin colony in Leopard Beach is his favorite part of the island, and I can see why.
The area is protected by 15- to 20-foot-high dunes covered in tussac grass. It was molting season when I visited and the colony was blanketed in snowy feathers covered by a paste of penguin droppings.
Penguins belly-flopped down the dunes and I followed their paths to a sandy cliff overlooking the beach. Caracaras, with wing spans of almost three feet, screamed and hovered inches from my head. The tussac was so high that it hid a group of slumbering elephant seals. As I stood there, reluctant to disturb their dreams of yummy squid, tiny tussac birds used their elongated snouts as landing pads.
From there I head to Sea Lion Island in the southeast corner of the Falklands. It’s home to Sea Lion Lodge, often called the southernmost hotel under British domain. Beyond, there is only open ocean to Antarctica.
Near the water’s edge, I hear loud snorting coming from dozens of sea lions that blend in with the rocks they’re resting on. They are as curious about me as I am of them, tilting their heads for a better look, sniffing the air for my scent and using their flippers to scratch above their eyes.
The island is also home to a memorial for the HMS Sheffield, which was sunk during the Falklands War. It contains a steel cross in a horseshoe-shaped rock enclosure, a few plaques and a glass box.
The monument sits on an oceanside cliff, surrounded by a rockhopper penguin colony. Yellow and black feathers spike from their heads and they have sunglass-like bands around their eyes, making them look like avian versions of Rod Stewart.
Because of lingering resentment over losing the Falklands, which Argentina calls Islas Malvinas, the country restricts travel to the islands.
Last year, Argentina approved stricter registration requirements for cruise ships traveling from its shore to the islands. Argentina also allows only one flight per month to the Falklands. It goes from Rio Gallegos in southeastern Argentina to the Falklands so veterans can visit the graves of fallen comrades there.
On my flight I met Falklands War veteran Luis Aparicio.
“We were just conscripts,” he said. “Think of it like the people in your country who went to Vietnam.”
A few hours later I was walking around the cemetery with Ken Greenland, who owns nearby Darwin Lodge.
Names of the 649 Argentine soldiers who died in the war are listed on memorial plaques, but most bodies were never identified. Inside a nearby foxhole we see a faded, rotting blanket that was used to keep a soldier warm.
The setting sun cast a golden tinge on the hills cascading toward the settlement of Goose Green. Cold drizzle fell as we approached a lone cross, the grave of British Royal Air Force pilot Nick Taylor. Suddenly a rainbow appeared, one of many I saw during my visit.
On my last full day nature photographer Derek Pettersson gave me a tour of Mount Longdon, which is still dotted with shelters used by Argentine soldiers during the war. Some are made of wood and tin, while others are slab-shaped boulders forming Flintstones-like houses. Gun mounts rust near the shelters, but I’m struck most by the scattered sneakers and leather boots once worn by the soldiers who fought there.
The mountain summit is covered with crosses, plaques, candles and offerings. The moment we reach it, the skies break into a torrent of sleet. We hide under the rocky outcroppings but my legs stick out and get soaked.
As we headed back to the capital of Stanley, Derek paused and said, “I prefer wildlife tours because I think that is what the islands should be about.”
Americans heading to the Falkland Islands can connect through Santiago, Chile, via LAN airline. But there’s only one flight per week, and it’s on Saturday. The return flight to Santiago has the same once-a-week schedule.
For ideas on where to stay and what to see, visit the Falkland Islands Tourism Board website, which also has information on government-run flights between the islands.
(Michael Luongo writes on travel for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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