FALKLANDS (eTN) – Rockhoppers are to penguins, as Yorkies or teacup poodles are to dogs: they are a miniature variety of elegantly plumed, yellow-crested, tuxedoed fauna in the genus Eudyptes. Their bright golden eyebrows end in long champagne plumes projecting sideways behind ruby red eyes. A rookery of 400-some Rockhoppers live near the trout-rich Murrell River in sub-antarctic East Falkland, perennially nesting by the crashing sea on the slopes of open moorland known as Murrell Farm.
The Falklands are comprised of 777 islands, and (on a map) collectively resemble butterfly wings, fluttering away from Africa, whence they broke 400 million years ago. The ancient rocks bore witness to the natural beauty of these hinterlands, which lay isolated and uninhabited throughout most of humankind’s existence. Birds – which technically are avian dinosaurs – made their way to these rocky coasts thousands of years ago; some came by air and others by sea. Other winged creatures negotiated long flights to cohabit these verdant, pristine fields of peat with amazing Technicolor carpets of wildflowers. From amber lichen-covered cliffs, the rare and beautiful Queen of Falklands Fritillary butterfly rises and dances among cottony white sheep, in a silent song of celebration about nature’s best-kept secret: the glorious and scenic Falklands.
Tourist Board General Manager Paul Trowell said “the islands receive a relatively small number of international visitors” in the July 8, 2011 edition of Penguin News (the colony’s newspaper). The gentleness of controlled tourism, and aversion of stress upon the environment, is what makes this protectorate of the United Kingdom so inviting to the animal kingdom. Contrasting with the untamed abundance of wilderness is the highly-refined British sensibility for orderliness, cleanliness, and propriety; after a daytime excursion watching whales breach feisty oceans, one makes time to enjoy cookies, crumpets, and scones capped with Devonshire cream at high tea. It is oh, so civilized.
The islands were named after Anthony Cary, 5th Viscount of Falkland, and the Viscounts Falkland take their title from the Scottish royal residence Falkland Palace, Falkland, Fife, Scotland. In many ways, these lands resemble northern Scotland, and the people who toil on the land remind me of the hardworking Scots. Meandering over the peat fields are some half-million sheep, which provide wool for the gorgeous cable-knit sweaters found in island shops. The ranchers on Murrell Farm crank out thousands of fleeces and can transform a sheep coif shorn in a matter of seconds.
A visit to the Rockhopper penguins at Murrell Farm involves a bumpy ride in a Jeep to the rookery. One must hold tightly to the vehicle’s safety handles, lest one be tossed into the lap of a studly rancher in the driver’s seat, Heaven forbid. The farm doubles as a historical place of interest, as this is where a battle took place between the UK and Argentina in the 1980s. Some of the buildings and appurtenances still have bullet holes from the ill-fated conflict. Combined with some rough winds that blow across the fields, I sensed this territory is best for people who can tough out harsh living conditions. Here, penguins can enjoy a relatively undisturbed existence. When we arrived at the rookery, the birds did not appear stressed at all. We gawked at them, and they gawked at us. Unlike being in a zoo, there is no wall separating man from fowl; creatures great and small come face to face. Tourists are invited to enjoy hot tea and cookies in a heated shelter on the grounds, watching the chirpy aves tuxedos through the comfort of glass windows; I found this option most enjoyable.
For philatelists, this is a stamp collector’s paradise. Not only does the post office in Stanley sell commemoratives for the Falklands, South Georgia, and British Antarctic Territory, tourists can have letters and postcards franked at any of the protectorate stations. It takes longer to get a postcard cancellation from the British Antarctic Territory, because it has to be transferred to their post for processing, but the postmark is indeed special. In any case, postage is a reasonable 60 pence for postcards.
We met an Argentine citizen who was thrilled to be able to tour the Falklands, as they are generally inadmissible due to the war in the 1980s. As a crew member on a ship, he was allowed into Port Stanley. We asked him what the Argentine version of the story was; to our surprise he said: “Sometimes, really bad leaders make their way into powerful positions, just like your George Shrub did. A terribly crazy regime took over the country, and they were committing disgusting acts, like pushing nuns out of helicopters. Some [words censored] decided to invade the Falklands to fight an imaginary enemy that would take our minds off the economic misery in Argentina. It cost hundreds of senseless deaths, and our government went into financial default for failing to focus on what was really important. Now, commoners have to pay for crazy leaders’ mistakes.”
The Falklanders took incredible measures to avoid talking about the Argentines. I read in a guidebook not to even mention the word “Malvinas.” We managed to get a few words out of a Falklander about the war; all she would say was: “They told us in 24 hours the Argentines were invading, and we were supposed to evacuate the area. The Argentines military took over our house, trashed it, stole our personal belongings, and left the place riddled with bullets.”
It may take generations before the two sides to find peace with each other, with the war only a distant memory. Time does heal. After all, the United States was once bitter enemies with England, and now we think Brits are wonderful people… and we’ve always regarded the Argentine paesanos as wonderful people. Eventually, the two sides are likely to come together, finding fellowship and happiness.
For more information, visit the Falkland Islands Tourist Board at www.falklandislands.com, email [email protected] , or call 0207 222 2542. Become a Falklands fan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/naturesbestkeptsecret .
Friend the author, Anton Anderssen, at www.facebook.com/teddybears