Latin America

The Falkland Islands Nature’s Last Stand

written by | Posted on January 31st, 2012

Picture a place where sunsets swallow up the horizon like an endless panoramic caldron pouring molten colors of orange and red to douse out the daytime, and where the vast windswept and empty landscapes grudgingly give up space to herds of thousands of sheep and the occasional small group of cattle, all sharing the bounty of its grassy plains, while the coastal shores embrace armies of penguins, sea lions and seals.

Where hundreds of islands wear skirts of untamed blue- and turquoise-colored waters, with petticoats of booming surf hemming the shorelines and where its most distinctive attribute is its stubborn rustic environs, refusing to bow to a world where humankind feasts on fewer and fewer plots of unspoiled geography.

The Falkland Islands are a rarity—bucolic and pastoral in one breath and wild and untamed the next, with a climate that’s as unpredictable as the temper of a volatile drill instructor. Located about 288 miles from the Patagonia coastline, its rarity is due to the fact that despite the fact this archipelago has a total land area of 4,700 sq. miles and 800 miles of coastal bounty, with two main islands—West Falkland and East Falkland—and another 776 smaller islands, the total population consists of only about 3,000 people.

The 2006 census—the latest available—recorded 2,115 people in Stanley—its capital—and 477 in Mount Pleasant, 194 in the rest of East Falkland, 127 in West Falkland and 42 people on all the other islands. The CIA stated that in July 2008, the population was estimated to be 3,140.

Which is exactly what makes it one of the most unspoiled places left on Earth. For visitors, it’s an unhurried Nirvana where serenity reigns and relaxation is a gift of its environment, made all the more special by its wealth of wildlife, all enjoyed at an unhurried pace in the rustic, but friendly and warm tourism accommodations found in the sparsely populated island destinations.

Visitors fly in from Santiago on a weekly flight aboard LAN Airlines (lan.com) into Mt. Pleasant International Airport, located on a British military base, the only airport on the islands that can accommodate a commercial airliner. Upon arrival there’s a mere handful of immigration and customs people, but the scene can get a little chaotic with more than a hundred tourists searching for their bags and jostling to get their passports stamped inside a room not much bigger than a medium-sized restaurant. But be aware, it’s the last place visitors will be in a hurry in this idyllic region.

Outside the tiny terminal, we were met during our recent visit by Terence McPhee, who, along with his wife Sheila, are owners of the Kingsford Valley Farm, a sprawling 17,000-acre sheep ranch in the settlement of San Carlos, made famous during the 1982 “conflict”—as the islanders refer to it—as the site of the British landing. En-route, we traveled for over an hour along a dusty dirt road, which McPhee proudly pointed out makes traveling in East Falkland much easier than it had been three years earlier before the road had been completed.

Bouncing along the road, we drove through mile after mile of undulating terrain with a gorgeous coastline on the left and low-lying mountains on the right, while sheep bleated in annoyance as they cavorted off the road, their lambs scurrying after them, with geese and other fowl following suit, waddling away in a tiff or flying off like a helicopter on a mission. McPhee stopped occasionally to get out to open a gate, and then got back into his 4×4 to drive through, to then stop yet again to close the gate. We found out later the passenger in the left front seat is expected to get out and do the gate ritual, but he was too polite to mention it.

As he drove, he pointed out that most of the islanders were third or fourth generation Falklanders—later we even met a seventh generation guide—as were he and his wife, although they left briefly and lived in London for a time. Tradition runs deep here and while many of the younger ones get to take advantage of free technical and collegiate education in the U.K., most, he said, come back. “Not necessarily right away, but many do return.” Which tells you a lot about the quality of life here.