Saturday, February 6, 2010


The way ashore from the ship to Port Stanley, two miles from the ship, is by tender, a compact little craft that bounces in the rough waters at about 20 knots.

The weather in the Falklands did literally change by the moment. There was snow on the tender even as the sunlight shone. And then there was rain dripping through the ship’s seals prompting our companion mariners to duck and move about to be dry. It was cold then warm, dry then wet.

But mostly it was fun.

There are several points of interest at this squid fishing port surrounded in the countryside by 500,000 sheep.

A British intelligence officer came to Stanley to see the battlefields. He couldn’t tell me exactly what he did in the Falklands during the war there. But he was highly interested in lectures about battlefields on the island.

Holly and I took a look at the home where Sir Shackleton stayed plotting how he would save the 22 men he left behind at Elephant Island when he fled at risk of life and limb for King George island to recruit ships to help him save his men.

I wrote a little about Shackleton in an earlier posting.

This was a guy who set out to cross the Antarctica continent from the South American side to the Australian side stopping at the South pole along the way.

But the ice trapped, crushed and sank his ship and his men escaped with three lifeboats they carried over the ice until they reached water and made their way to Elephant Island.

But the island was uninhabited, would never be visited except extraordinary luck, and so Shackleton took off with four other men for King George Island where they knew there were some whalers.

Several whalers did help at first on King George Island but they had to get back to work when they couldn’t get to Elephant Island. The seas were terrible and they just couldn’t get through.

Shackleton was working his way through the British and Argentina and other nation states to help. He finally found a Chilean tugboat captain who believed he could do the deed.

It was interesting to think of Shackleton pacing the beach on nearby Ross road by the piers there (as reported by local historians), desperate to get to his men who were eating who knows what back on Elephant Island.

Like I said, he finally found a Chilean navigator who made it happen. Meanwhile his men were eating what seal and penguins they could find.

Elephant Island is shaped like an Elephant ear but it is really named after the Elephant Seals once found there.

It is where we are headed presently aboard ship.

As for the Falkland Island, we can testify it only takes a few people to overrun the inhabitants. There are about 2,300 natives.

We’d heard and seen so many pictures by this time, and there was so much talk about them, we went off to see the penguins for ourselves.

We took a short hop on a local bus to Gypsy Cove where there were hundreds of Magellanic penguins (see pix from an earlier post to see the variety one can expect to find). The ground leading to the beach is somewhat like walking on a boggy carpet. There is peat everywhere and a thin cover of short cropped grass, found that way naturally. Of course, there was sand as well.

We found them preening in the sun and there were a few holes in this lumpy landscape where the molting young were hiding protected until they were old enough to strut the white beaches themselves.

Off shore there was a school of dolphins and diving sea birds including the albatross.

Old school lessons die hard. I kept thinking of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, have since the first sighting, and the Albatross in that rhyming story that led the ship through the ice, only to be repaid by being shot, sacrificed by the Captain’s crossbow.

Bad luck then cursed the ship, the wind stopped blowing, and the death of his ship mates followed.

The Captain’s guilt, he wore it, like an albatross about his neck.

In the poem, as I may imperfectly recall it, the albatross is a savior, a Christ-figure, sacrificed like Christ, and the Captain wore the albatross afterwards rather like a cross round his neck.

The Captain was alone on the open sea.

The albatross we saw also gave delight.

But our Captain showed no inclination to fire a cross bow or unkind word at this south sea bird.

We wandered off the beaten path when we were at Gypsy Cove and we do believe we came upon a land mine that we had the sense to leave where it was and try to describe afterwards where it could be found.

It was mostly underground – as you’d expect – and there were two copper like prongs protruding from the earth.

This may not have been as unusual as you’d think.

We drove past teams, in unprotected gear (in my opinion), crawling across the island looking for these mines, years after the 1982 war. I assume they’d be blown away if they handled one wrong.

One island family thought they’d lost their mare to a mine field. It went past the signs that proliferate on the island, marking off where you should NOT go. This mare jumped a fence and for weeks, they thought the mare was lost to a mine. But then it escaped, jumped back, returned to its own field, and the horse was a favorite after that at races for its luck – although its luck didn’t extend to horse racing; the mare lost all the time.

Over time, the mare’s survival made some of the locals suspicious that perhaps the mines were not dangerous after all.

That’s what they thought until there was a fire in that same field and it went on for days, and the closest landowner reported that there were 26 explosions he counted. So the locals respect the land on which they carefully walk.

We found a large World War II artillery gun and got some shots of ourselves (foto of course).

The adventure was fun enough so we tried another cove called Bluff Cove farther out from Port Stanley.

We took a bus from the Stanley out near the privately owned 34,000 acre sheep farm. Then we transferred to these rugged 4-wheel drive safari vehicles. The reason was that we had to cross these peat bogs to get down to where the penguins were by the shore. That’s right. No roads. You may drive across a field in your four wheel drive but you probably haven’t done much like this. The bog is a wet muddy oozing field of dark brown-black peat mixed with grass in a climate where rain and snow come and go and so the driving chaos is well maintained. You get kicked around these vehicles like jiffy popcorn in a tin bag on your heated stove. We dropped several feet into holes and popped out seemingly intact, crossed creeks and climbed hills. As we came to the water, the terra was firmer.

The largest penguins are the emperors and, when we walked across this fine green grass, think short curly hair, entwined in peat and sand, we saw the second largest of the penguin family, a group of King Penguins.

They were males and they were incubating the eggs that are their young. (You must have seen one of the dizzy flicks by now in which the men actually rear the young.) They had their backs to the somewhat cold wind. For conservation reasons, the area is marked off. But they were fairly close to us and the wardens came over to tell us what we might otherwise miss. Warden Richard was both enthusiastic and informative and it’s what we found generally on the island.

We then went on to see the hundreds of Gentoo penguins who were closer to the water, quite active and visible in every direction. We watched them plan their beach activities, and wander over curious, perhaps looking for a treat.

As I try to tell why you might enjoy this, it’s like trying to catch a sweeping vista with a camera to show your friends, you only mark the memory of what you observed in person – as you can’t capture the scope and dimension of the event.

Having said that, you can well imagine and be amused by the different personalities these birds exhibited. They strut, wave, thrust out their white stomachs and pose, run, flap their wings, groom, swim and sleep. If you like people-watching, you’d like penguin watching.

The woman who runs the ranch that we visited had a cottage nearby and made fresh tea and exquisite diddledee (low-to-the-ground berry) jam, with homemade butter and scone.

Afterwards, we discovered that they used whiskey to kill all their germs, to purify their milk containers. This is what they do instead of what Pasteur “suggested.” Maybe that was the calming effect we enjoyed on the jiffy pop ride back to Stanley and our love me tender.


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