Gus stopped the Landcruiser, got out and walked over to a couple of sheep that were lying on the boggy ground, struggling. He grabbed them by their woolly coat, pulled them on their feet and let them run away. “What happened?” I asked Gus when he returned to the car. “Oh, we scared them. They fell over and couldn’t get up.” “And the sheep would have died if you had not pulled them up?” I asked, appalled. “Guess so!” Gus replied. Later, we passed some sheep carcasses. This time it was my wife who asked: “Guess those were sheep that fell and couldn’t get up?” “Yup!" was the answer. “It’s just nature taking its course.” Lesson No. 1 for Falkland visitors: Don’t frighten sheep with wet and woolly coats.
It was that kind of a summer day in the Falklands: 7 degr C (45 degr F), windy and rain coming sideways. The roads are only paved in Stanley, the only town in the Falklands. After that, be prepared to cross rivers in your 4x4, drive through wet and boggy grasslands and get stuck in the mud. From port, it was a 2-hour drive to the penguins and 2 hours back. We crossed the entire northern half of East Falkland Island and did all of the above. And when Gus was not placing boards on the ground to help us overcome a particularly muddy spot, he answered my questions about life on the islands: politics, family life, the 1982 war with Argentina, wildlife and the economy.
The Falkland Islands, a remote South Atlantic archipelago, is a British overseas territory. WIth rugged terrain and cliff-lined coasts, its 778 islands and islets are home to sheep farms and abundant birdlife. The capital, Stanley, sits on East Falkland, the largest island. The city's Falkland Islands Museum has themed galleries devoted to maritime exploration, natural history, the 1982 Falklands War and other subjects.
Gus is about my age. He was a young man when Argentina invaded his little island paradise. The Argentinians had long claimed the Falklands (they call the islands “Islas Malvinas”) as their own territory. According to them, the Malvinas were handed over to Argentina by Spain when the country achieved independence from the Spaniards in 1833. The British, of course, consider this nonsense and claim that the Falklands had always been theirs. In 1982, at a time when Argentina’s ruling military regime was in trouble and the economy was in shambles, the junta decided to invade the islands and to “liberate” the inhabitants from British rule. To their surprise, the local population did not greet them as liberators. Then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent more than 100 war ships to the Falklands and, after a 73 day long war, sent the Argentineans packing, following a humiliating defeat. The war cost the lives of 255 British, 649 Argentinean soldiers, sailors and airmen and 3 civilian Falkland Islanders.
With a proud 70% of the almost 3,000 inhabitants being of British descent, there is little chance that Falklanders will ever agree to Argentinean rule; as Gus put it: “There is little love lost between the two countries.” And now, 30 years after the war, Argentina is again making noise about its claim. The “enemy” is harassing the islanders in every way they can: Falkland-bound aircraft are not allowed to fly over Argentinean airspace, cruise ships that have visited the Falklands and sail under British registry are turned away from Buenos Aires, Falkland fishing fleets are harassed at sea and prior agreements that were signed by Falklanders and Argentineans are no longer honoured. I asked Gus if, in his opinion, Argentina would try to take Falkland again. “Definitely!” he said. Recently discovered oil deposits just off the Falkland’s coast have renewed Argentina’s interest in the territory. Oil Production is supposed to begin in 2014. Falkland does have a light infantry unit ready to receive the enemy, if it came to that, but militarily, the Falklands still (and always will) rely on the UK for defence support.
Evidence of the 1982 conflict is easy to find: signs warning people to stay away from un-cleared mine fields and wreckage of downed Argentinean helicopters are constant reminders of a decisive victory 30 years ago, but also of a real threat that still exists. It would not be smart for Argentina to try to invade the Falklands, again.
There are 500,000 sheep roaming on 1.1 million ha (4,340 sq mi) spread over the two principal islands! Sheep farming used to be the number 1 industry here, but falling wool prices have made the business only marginally profitable. Fishery has taken the number 1 spot and with a growing number of cruise ships visiting the islands each year (this year 80 cruise ships anchored off Stanley) there is hope that tourism will take off as a viable industry. And, of course, there are great expectations that the islands will benefit from the upcoming oil boom.
From an outsider’s perspective, life here is rough but quaint. “The Penguin News” and the “Teaberry Express” are the only newspapers. There are 7 pubs in town, there are no ATMs in the Falklands, land lines have 5-digit phone numbers and there are no chain stores. Wind turbines produce 40 % of the islands’ electricity, while the other 60% come from diesel generators. Travelling teachers make the rounds across the islands to teach the children at home on the farm. There is a boarding school in Stanley for older students. After high school, the government pays for the young people to attend college in England.
Gus drove us over 200 km (130 mi) that day. It was Sunday. He waved at everybody and anybody we saw on the road, but when we approached the first (and only) oncoming vehicle of the day, Gus stopped and rolled down his window. “Oh hi, how are you doing?” he shouted to the other Landrover. “Where are you going? Ok! That’s great! Drive carefully! Bye! Love you!” He rolled up his window and we resumed our way back to Stanley. Gus must have noticed my puzzled look. “That was my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. And their dog, Shrek.”
Out here, it really is a small world.