In 1982, the British Overseas Territory of The Falkland Islands was the subject of a ten week undeclared war. In the second of four blogs, Brad Birch, the writer of a new play about the conflict, Falkland Sound, recalls what it was like to travel to the islands 8,000 miles away from mainland UK, and the sights and sounds he found there.
I flew out from the RAF base at Brize Norton. You fly as a civilian on a military plane. In terms of priority, you’re third behind the soldiers and their cargo. The plane itself is like the kind one would take to Malta in the 1990s. Except you’re on it for 18 hours.
When we touched-down at Mount Pleasant airport, the Islander civilians from the flight went off into their own cars, but the ‘tourists’ – myself and a handful of others – were taken in a minibus into Stanley. The other visitors comprised of two father and son pairs, and in both cases the fathers were veterans of the conflict. It seemed incredibly common for ex-servicepeople to visit the Islands.
The town of Stanley is beautiful and strange. The clapboard walls and corrugated iron roofs of the colonial style houses made me feel incredibly foreign.
Whether familiar or not, everything felt astonishingly of note. From the mundane red post boxes, a general store stocked with products from Waitrose, and fish and chips; to the more exotic such as the weather: intense Antarctic winds met with southern hemisphere sunshine; the landscape and the penguins.
Stanley is three things: an ordinary town, the legislative centre of the Falkland Islands, and a tourist spot. When the big cruise ships come in to dock the population of the town doubles. The largest building on the entire island is the Christ Church Cathedral in the town, also famous for being the most southernmost Anglican cathedral in the world.
Because the conflict was mostly concentrated on East Falkland I had decided I’d spend all of my limited time there. So I hired a car and was able to travel all over. It took about a tank of petrol in a 4x4 to get from Stanley to the end of Lafonia and back.
The island feels like it has four different types of terrain: mountain ranges, craggy coast, grasslands and the town. Camp, that is, everything outside of the town, feels vast and empty, save for the occasional settlement, which are essentially large farms. It’s very open. The landscape pours out ahead of you and the vast feeling of the place is exacerbated by the fact there are so few people.
And while the land itself undulates with great big mountains, what is immediately striking is the lack of trees. Trees struggle to grow because of the fierce winds. I think there’s a particular intensity to a place whereby the surface of the land is the highest thing you’ll see.
I found East Falkland very sensorially engaging. The sunlight feels different. It’s difficult to know whether that’s a hemisphere thing, or a seasonal thing, but the light always felt bright and clean. And that meant that the blue of the sea, the yellow of the gorse, the green of the mountains and the white of the clouds were always vivid and fresh. High winds are almost constant. Despite the fact the temperatures are cool and snow can fall throughout the year, because the islands are a similar distance to the equator as London, in the summer months the danger of sunburn is just as high, with very high UV.
There’s an acceptance in the Falklands that weather events can always change plans. In fact, my flight on the way home was delayed because of ‘vertical winds’. I was anxious to know when exactly I was going to get away as I had another flight to catch for a different project. I could tell the Islanders found my optimistically tight turnaround naive. When you're on the Islands there's a limit to how in control of your own time you are.
I spent time at almost all the main settlements on East Falkland. While visitors are welcome at most settlements, it is evidently rare and you are always aware that you’re a bit of a stranger. The B&B/cafe at one settlement requires you to call ahead a day in advance. Darwin and Goose Green felt the most developed places outside of Stanley.
For the duration of my trip, I stayed at a B&B in Stanley called The Pale Maiden, run by Tony and Teresa. Tony is an Islander who grew up during the conflict. Previously a mechanic on a farm in West Falkland, he now runs expeditions as a tour guide, and took me on a tour of some of the battle sites.
There is a lot of debris from the war scattered around East Falkland, especially up on the mountains where a lot of the intense fighting took place. I came across bullets, radios, old clothes and even the rubber soles of trainers. It has become common for tourists to try and pocket a piece of shrapnel or whatever, but of course these things are mostly retrieved back from the visitors when they try and get through security at the airport. A system is now in place for people like to Tony to pick up the confiscated materials and return them back to where they were found.
Once, when I was driving back into Stanley after a trip out into camp, I came across the wreckage of a helicopter about a football pitch away from the road. I pulled over and approached it and took some photos. When I got back to the Pale Maiden, Tony showed me his own photos, including one from when the helicopter had just been hit, still on fire.
It made me wonder about the effect of constantly living with history in this way. While Stanley was rebuilt and developed, and the settlements repaired, the landscape of the Islands still holds the scars and waste of the conflict, and the seeming detritus of war has now settled into a series of landmarks and monuments on the horizon...
Listen here to Brad Birch talking about Falkland Sound on BBC Radio 4's Today programme (from Friday 4 August).