Cool birds and punk rockers

The characters are many as Kerry van der Jagt explores the Falkland Islands on foot.

OF ALL the things I expected to experience when planning my trip to the Falkland Islands, dealing with loud-mouthed crowds was not one of them. Arriving at the beach on Sea Lion Island to find hundreds of locals lounging about as though they were at a Club Med resort was a complete surprise; some were complaining about the food, others were bickering, young ones raced around teasing and tormenting each other. I found a vacant patch of sand and hunkered down for a real bird's-eye view of a Falkland Islands domestic dispute.

Despite their name, there's nothing genteel about gentoo penguins. With their white eye patches, flamboyant red beaks and a habit of pilfering their neighbours' pebbles, they are more cranky pants than Happy Feet.

Before long, dozens of the knee-high birds get used to my presence and soon hover around as though I'm the last chocolate eclair on the buffet table. With their wobbly gait, they remind me of toddlers strutting around in cloth nappies.

The Falklands, an archipelago of more than 740 islands, are about 500 kilometres east of the southern tip of South America. Until the British-Argentine war in 1982, most people would have had trouble pinpointing the archipelago on a map.

Charles Darwin spent two months here during his voyage on HMS Beagle, one year before he stopped at the Galapagos Islands. His observations of the differences in fossils found on the Falklands compared with those in South America sparked his interest in making comparative studies during the remainder of his voyage.

Like Darwin, I was a bug and slug collector as a child, eventually studying biology at university, so this trip is a personal pilgrimage. I've travelled here to extend my own knowledge, to pay a quiet tribute to Darwin and to enjoy the wildlife at my own pace. Starting at the tiny settlement of Darwin on East Falkland, I've island-hopped around the archipelago, travelling by jeep, fishing boat and small plane. By visiting the outer islands and staying in farmhouses I'm avoiding the cruise-passenger crush. About 50,000 visitors a year stop at the capital, Stanley, most of them on the way to Antarctica. In contrast, the remainder of the Falklands receive about 1200 land-based visitors a year.

Sea Lion Island, the most southerly and isolated inhabited island of the Falklands, is a 45-minute flight by light plane from Darwin. On such a small island, eight kilometres by two kilometres, the rhythm of my legs determines the time and distance travelled. I hike across stretches of spongy heath and skirt around ponds teeming with bird life, the flora adding colour and texture to the treeless plains: red berries of diddle-dee, lime-green mounds of balsam bog and spines of tussock grass.

With the sun overhead and a stiff breeze playing havoc with my hair, I stop at the white cross on Rockhopper Point, a memorial to the HMS Sheffield, sunk by the Argentine navy in May 1982.

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The war started on April 2, 1982, when Argentina invaded the British-controlled Falklands. It ended 74 days later, when Argentina surrendered and Britain regained control but not without 258 Britons, 649 Argentinians and three civilian Falkland Islanders losing their lives.

I sit for hours watching the cartoon-like antics of the rockhopper penguins. Little do they know, or care, that it was a photograph of a rockhopper, torn from a National Geographic magazine many years ago, that evoked my dream to visit. Shin-high and sporting bright-yellow tufted eyebrows, these are the punk rockers of the penguin world.

I continue past velvety sea lion pups casually draped over glossy rocks and a boys' club of elephant seals resting on the kelp-strewn sand.

I now understand the island manager's words, "Watch out for the lions and elephants."

On the beach the sky becomes a watercolour wash of pinks and mauves as the last of the adult gentoos make their way up the slopes to their offspring. Getting ashore is a risky business as a pod of five killer whales (orcas) is stalking the shore waiting for a slice of penguin takeaway. These huge animals are a poignant reminder of the phrase "survival of the fittest". In war or in wildlife, sometimes it's simply the survival of the luckiest.

Back at my base, a cosy farmhouse and the only settlement on the island, I share a meal of squid and Chilean wine with a handful of like-minded travellers: an Italian honeymoon couple, a Dutch photographer with enough gear to give me serious lens envy and Frederic, a French botanist who has just begun an epic six-month journey around the world following in the footsteps of French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. Romantics, dreamers and schemers have long been drawn to these shores.

Lodge manager Jenny Luxton joins us in the lounge for coffee and cake and helps us identify our wildlife encounters. We are like a bunch of schoolchildren going through show and tell. My five killer whales are trumped by a single sei whale sighting but my pair of striated caracaras, one of the world's rarest raptors (known locally as "Johnny Rooks") beats a giant petrel and a short-eared owl. "It's not only the diversity that is remarkable here but the sheer numbers of animals," Luxton says.

The Falklands are home to five species of penguin, including about 30 per cent of the world's gentoo penguins and 30 per cent of its southern rockhopper penguins, a threatened species. The islands are also home to more than 70 per cent of the world's endangered black-browed albatrosses.

Talk then turns to Antarctica with its annual 30,000-strong march of the tourists, and the Galapagos Islands, which receive more than 100,000 visitors each year. To lessen the impact these visitors have on the environment, strict regulations are part of the tourist experience.

My next leg takes me on a 50-minute flight to Carcass Island. The local service operates like an air taxi, with passenger names and pick-up times read out each evening on Falkland Islands radio - but only after raffle winners, job vacancies and other important matters such as sheep-shearing records have been broadcast.

After a thumbs-up and a cheeky wink our pilot makes a perfect grass landing, guiding our small red plane between the fog-cloaked peaks of Mount Byng. I'm met by Tom the shearer, who gives me a lift in his battered Land Rover to Rob and Lorraine McGill's farmhouse. The McGills have lived here for 37 years and have successfully integrated sheep farming with wildlife conservation, keeping the island free of cats, rats and mice, replanting native tussock grass and fencing the livestock away from bird-breeding habitats. For most of the year no more than four people live on the island.

Magellanic penguins are the drawcard. Known locally as jackass penguins, they are the working class of the penguin world; braying like a donkey, living in underground burrows and forever filthy. The other drawcard is the farmhouse cooking - fresh milk and cream, handmade yoghurt and ice-cream, roast lamb and home-grown vegetables.

"And an Eiffel Tower of cakes," says Frederic, who has by chance arrived on the next flight.

It's a fog-shrouded morning when I walk down to the jetty, my only companion a cheeky and fearless Johnny Rook and a similarly behaved Frenchman. At the end of the dock I'm met by a smiling stubble-chinned man wearing a red windcheater and faded wet-weather pants. Skipper Mick hauls us aboard his old metal-hulled fishing boat for the trip to West Point Island.

The land dissolves and colours fade to grey as we slip through the mist like a ghost ship heading to the edge of the Earth. At Cape Terrible, where shallow rapids meet deep sea currents, I grip the rails for dear life as we are tossed about on rogue waves. Finally, we reach calm waters and on cue a pod of Commerson's dolphins, with their distinctive charcoal and white markings, make me smile again.

After tea and cakes (it's always food first on the Falklands), Mick directs Frederic and me towards the Devils Nose, a two-kilometre walk that leads us to a promontory where the steepest cliffs in the Falklands tumble into the sea. It is a slow trip; I've become a complete bird nerd, my eyes never leaving the sky, while Frederic creeps around on all fours looking for rare plants.

At the edge of the tussock grass I come across a sight sweeter than I could ever imagine or invent: thousands of black-browed albatrosses perched on their hat-shaped nests guarding their fluffy chicks, while rockhopper penguins bounce among them like wind-up toys. I unpack my sandwiches and watch spellbound as dozens of adult albatrosses perform graceful arcs overhead. As they pass within arm's reach, they turn their faces towards me and stare, unflinching, into my eyes.

Another boat ride and short flight brings me to the capital Stanley, where I meet my guide Sebastian for the 2½-hour trip by four-wheel-drive to Volunteer Beach. The long and bumpy drive across "camp" (anything beyond of Stanley is referred to as camp) takes us past stone runs (referred to as "streams of stone" by Darwin) and over kilometres of unforgiving peat bogs. The prize? A date with royalty.

The Falkland Islands' largest colony of king penguins breeds on the bleak, windswept shores of Volunteer Beach.

"Back in the late 1800s they were almost wiped out by sealers for their oil," Sebastian says.

"It took eight penguins to make a gallon - and they were cooked alive." Today, due to conservation efforts, more than 500 breeding pairs, with their characteristic regal stance and golden necks, inhabit this little scrap of wilderness.

Most stand huddled together in a massive circle on Volunteer Green, preening, pooping and protecting their young; others, the empty-nesters, wander along the beach in pairs. Less Club Med, more couples' retreat.

Sebastian tells me to take all the time I need; daylight is our only timekeeper. There are two ways to enjoy the Falklands: as a cruise passenger, constantly tripping over your own species, or a bit like Darwin himself, as a self-paced visitor with an inquiring mind. There's no comparison, really.

The writer travelled with the assistance of the Falkland Islands Tourist Board.

Trip notes

Getting there

LAN flies daily from Sydney to Santiago, Chile, via Auckland, priced from $2631. Connections to Mount Pleasant (Falklands Islands), via Punta Arenas, are available every Saturday. 1800 701 992, lan.com.

Staying there

Sea Lion Lodge, the only accommodation on Sea Lion Island, has high-season rates from £90-£145 ($145-$230) a person a night, twin share. +500 32 004, sealionisland.com.

Carcass Island Lodge costs from £80 a person a night. Boat trips to West Point Island can be organised from here. +500 41 106, lorraine@horizon.co.fk.

Darwin House is great for history buffs. Nearby attractions include gaucho remains, cemeteries and Bodie Creek Bridge. +500 31 313, darwin_house@cwimail.fk.

Accommodation on the outer islands, or "camp", generally includes full board and an honesty bar system. falklandislands.com.

Getting around

Air travel is operated by the Falkland Islands Government Air Service. Red Britten-Norman Islander aircraft fly to dozens of destinations in the archipelago. falklandislands.com.

Touring there

Cox & Kings has a seven-night tour of the islands, return trip from Santiago or Punta Arenas in Chile, priced from £1795 a person, twin share. The tour is organised by the company's office in Britain. coxandkings .co.uk.

Falkland Islands Holidays (+500 22 622, falklandislandsholidays.com) and International Tours & Travel (+500 22 041, falklandislands .travel) also have tours.

When to travel

October to March, when the weather is relatively mild and the migratory birds and marine mammals come to shore. Download the wildlife timetable from Falklands Conservation, falklandsconservation.com.

Further information

falklandislands.com.

Three (other) things to do

1. About 1½ hours from Stanley is the settlement of Goose Green, the site of the most fiercely fought land battle of the Falklands War. The Argentine cemetery, with its 234 white crosses, is very moving. The Jetty Visitor Centre can arrange tours. info@falklandislands.com.

2. Catch up on the local gossip with a copy of the Penguin News. The Globe Tavern in Stanley was this writer's favourite place for fish and chips - and a bit more gossip served on the side. penguin-news.com.

3. Take a self-guided walking tour of Stanley including the Falkland Islands Museum, the waterfront with its shipwrecks, Victory Green and the Christ Church Cathedral with its massive whalebone arch.

- Sun-Herald

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