The Falkland Islands: A Birder’s Grail Destination
The otherworldly, windswept Falklands are home to such a vast and diverse array of wildlife--including five species of penguins--that the archipelago has become a grail destination for adventurous birders and nature lovers.
The shearwaters also began to gabble, each bird making a slightly manic laugh, a series of rising, two-note calls: a-ha a-HA A-HA! Soon it was too dark to see them. But now the chorus of lunacy was ringing in our ears; when we shone our headlamp beams straight up, layers of shearwaters were still slicing through the air.
The headlamps also showed a fine, drifting curtain of fog rolling in from the sea, obscuring the sky--and, we realized, eliminating any chance of navigating by the stars back to the old cabin. We were surrounded by grass clumps nine or ten feet high and as much as 200 years old, enmeshed in thickening fog. There was no high ground from which to see, and no paths to follow except for the meandering tracks of the sea lions, which crisscrossed the island with no rhyme or reason.
I, for one, was completely lost in this confusing world of grass and mist. Craig scrambled up onto a low tussac clump, though, cocking his head. "Hear that?" he asked, gesturing to our right. "That way I can hear the surf, and that way"--he pointed off another way into the darkness--"I hear a lot of sea lions. Most of the sea lions were around the cabin, so as long as we keep the surf to our right and the sea lions more or less ahead of us, we should be okay."
Still, it took another half-hour to work our sodden, sweaty way back to the old grass cutters' cabin, ringed by complaining sea lions whose eyes shone flat and glassy in our headlamps. But once we'd shed our rain gear, Craig lit a camp stove and whipped up an amazing batch of beef and rice with fresh veggies and Thai curry, spicy and hot, and almost miraculous, given the setting.
I was still a little stunned by what we'd just witnessed, and Craig nodded his head in sympathy as he dished up steaming bowls for each of us.
"I know just what you mean," he said. "It's like that here in the Falklands. Just when you think you've seen the best, you go to some new place and realize, 'Oh, well, actually . . .' "And with that he produced a final miracle--a couple of tall beers from his food bag. With them we toasted the Falklands while the sea lions growled and the shearwaters laughed. It was just another night in Eden.
Making the Trip: Falkland Islands
Getting there Because Argentina restricts travel to the Falklands through its airspace, the only flights for Americans are via LAN Airlines in Chile, which provides once-a-week service on Saturdays from Santiago via Punta Arenas. When searching for flights, use the airport code MPN (Mount Pleasant, the main Falklands airfield).
Entry requirements No visa is required for U.S. citizens, but you'll need a passport, a return ticket, and proof of sufficient funds. Chile charges a reciprocity fee for Americans (currently $140, cash or credit card), payable upon entry and good for the life of the passport. The Falklands charges a PS22 (currently about $33) departure fee; note that there are no ATMs or currency changers at the airport, so have cash on hand.
Getting around The FIGAS air-taxi service allows visitors to island-hop as needed, with flight times determined the prior evening (your host will call to confirm). Weather is always an issue, and fog frequently grounds FIGAS flights. Plan to spend at least a night in Stanley prior to your homebound flight, so you're not stranded on an island and miss a jet that won't be back for another week. FIGAS also has a 20-kilogram (44-pound) limit for all baggage, including carry-ons.
Accommodations Stanley features several hotels and motels, as well as B&Bs (also known as homestays) and a hostel. In the outer islands there are a few lodges, like those on Pebble and Sea Lion islands, but more common are homestays, "settlement houses" (farmhouses, where you stay with a farm family), and "remote houses" (cabins), some of which are still heated with peat. Remote houses and many settlement houses are self-catering, meaning visitors must provide their own food; bring everything you need from Stanley. There are no formal campgrounds, but primitive camping can be arranged with private landowners or homestays.
"Smoko" and "camp" "Smoko" is a midday break for tea or coffee and snacks that started as a cigarette pause for sheep shearers. And Falklanders refer to anywhere outside of Stanley as "camp," from the Spanish word campo (countryside).
This story originally ran in the May-June 2013 issue as "Land Before Time."