One thing you don’t really appreciate when you’re staying in Stanley is how big the Falkland Islands are – Stanley is quite a compact town, and houses about 3000 residents. The remaining 350 residents live elsewhere, on scattered farms covering an area half the size of Wales. Saunders Island is 30,000 acres, all in the ownership of one family, who live in a settlement of half-a-dozen buildings on one of the few flat pieces of land on the island. We flew there with the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS) which is a bit of an experience in itself. You book a flight, saying where you want to go and when, and then you listen to the local radio station at 1815 the night before you fly. The announcer reads the weather and shipping forecasts, and then the flight schedule for the following day. We checked in at 0815 at the little airport outside Stanley (not to be confused with the much bigger international airport and military base at Mount Pleasant). This is not a normal air service – you turn up with your baggage, which is weighed as usual. Then they weigh you as well! Eventually you’re led outside to a Britten-Norman Islander aircraft, which is probably the smallest commercial airliner in service – having just six passenger seats. Our pilot, Derek, showed us to our seats and then off we went. Like all small air operations, weather is a crucial factor and there was fog over most of West Falkland which would obstruct our route, but after some quite exciting low flying (150’!) and then a climb up over a fog bank and down into a hole the other side we landed on the rough grass airstrip at Hill Cove, on the north coast of West Falkland. The plane bounced to a halt, one lady got off, along with various baggage, parcels and mail, and various other freight was loaded on. Then we took off again for a ten minute hop to Carcass Island to pick up Tom and Jade, who’d join us on Saunders.
Finally we landed at Saunders and were met by Suzan Pole-Evans, who owns the island with her husband David. She loaded us into her Land Rover and we made a long and bumpy journey to The Neck, where we stayed in a comfortable portacabin. The Neck is a narrow spit of land connecting the western part of the island to the rest of it – it’s only a few hundred metres wide and is home to Gentoo, Rockhopper, Magellanic and King penguins, plus a whole range of other wildlife – we saw Commerson’s dolphins in the surf, a huge range of small birds, lots of Striated Caracaras (a hawk-like scavenging bird that’s very common in the Falkland Islands – and one which likes to hang around near people), and also a significant number of nesting Black-browed Albatross. It’s a fine place for naturalists, twitchers and photographers!
We walked, wandered, took lots of photographs and retired to the portacabin to cook our meals and enjoy a glass or two of Chilean wine. A very pleasant few days!
Tomorrow is Good Friday, so everywhere in Stanley will be shut. I’m not quite sure what we’ll be doing – we may go walking again if the weather is good. However on Saturday, I’ll fly to Punta Arenas and begin the great South American adventure!