Having got back from the Falklands earlier in the week and got myself sorted out, it's about time a little account of the trip was produced. I was quite surprised just how pain free the flight was as the MOD subcontract the airbridge to a 'murrican outfit called OMNI who fly DC10's to the South Atlantic via a stop over at Ascension Island for a crew change and fuel, so it was all quite civilized. The flight in total was about 16 hours, but with lots of free drinks (no booze) and plenty of decent food, I wasn't going to complain, especially as it only cost me £55 each way!! Unfortunately there was a severe weather warning in the Falklands at the time we were due to land, but the pilot had a 'window of opportunity' and decided to take it, so we came in very carefully and landed without mishap...however folk who saw the pilot immediately afterwards commented that he was as white as a sheet and probably needed a change of underwear.
Stepping of the aircraft you're immediately assaulted by the wind, which rarely seems to be blowing less than a Force 5 and is often stronger, so everything that we did outside of Mount Pleasant Area (MPA) was dependant on the wind conditions. If the wind was sufficiently strong then all roads out of MPA were closed to military traffic (apart from duty visits) so that we were stuck on camp for the day and that happened more than once.
Initial reaction to the landscape was one of utter barrenness as it's totally devoid of trees (probably due to the high winds) but after a few days of getting out and about, it grew on me. The serenity and peacefulness of the place needs to be experienced. Several times on good days, I drove up into the mountains, stopped the vehicle and got out...no sign of any other human habitation anywhere and absolute silence all around with the air being crisp and clean...wonder full.
Driving in the Falklands is an experience in itself. On arrival, all passengers from the aircraft (military and civil) have to attend a MT brief given by the Master Driver on the pitfalls of driving around. There are virtually no tarmac surfaces and roads, such as they are, are just gravel chippings or in some cases rough stones about the size of a snooker ball. Needless to say, just about everyone drives around in some sort of 4x4 and there are over 300 Land Rovers at MPA alone and a lot more in Stanley. You are also instructed to drive at all times in the middle of the road (which was very odd to begin with) as a violent cross winds can flip a vehicle onto it's roof which is what happened to the last soldier to die in the Falklands a few of years ago.
I went into Stanley a couple of times and found it to be a pleasant little place, full of painted 'wiggly' tin buildings with brightly coloured roofs. Unfortunately they're now catering exclusively for the cruise ships that regularly call into the harbour, so that prices in the gift shops reflect the influx of the day trippers, in fact just to set foot on the visitors jetty in the town costs each passenger a staggering £38, so multiply that by the visitors on a ship! At Sealion Island the landowner charges £120 per night, per person to stay in a tatty wooden lodge on the beach but she does have the Elephant Seals on her land, so I guess you pays your money...
Any excursion outside MPA is a 'bimble', a unique military term for the uninitiated for which you need a 'bimble chit' and if lunch is needed for the day then you can obtain a 'bimble bag' from the Junior Ranks mess. I was lucky enough, depending on your point of view, to sample the culinary delights of 'Biscuits Brown' on one occasion...don't ask! I stayed in a room at MPA near the Sargent's Mess which is where everyone on my grade ate...food wasn't too bad, with plenty of it and best of all...free! The very worst thing though, was the absence of fresh milk. It was that awful UHT stuff that tastes rancid in your tea, so I went without milk in tea and had it black for a couple of weeks so it was fabulous to come home and have a brew with some proper milk.
One of the bimbles I did on my own was out to Darwin, Goose Green and San Carlos. I went up to San Carlos and had a look at Blue Beach where the landings during the Conflict took place. It's a very quiet and peacefull place now and the cemetery is beautifully kept... very, very difficult to imagine what it must have been like in '82. The Argie cemetery was also worth looking at and I have to say that it's probably one of the most desperatly sad places to visit that I've ever been to. Of all the graves there, only a few have names (lack of name tags), all the others are 'known unto God' and I have it on good authority that most of these graves just contain body parts. Even the sign to their cemetery is just a coupe of bits of old angle iron stuck in the roadside with a plaque held on by some rusty wire...I was very glad to leave and go on down to Darwin House, past the memorial to 2 Para on top of the hill, for 'smoko' which is a traditional Falklands expression for tea and buns, consumed round about 11.00 am or mid-afternoon so it was all very pleasant.
On the subject of the Conflict, I went on an organised walk of Mt Harriet which was attacked and taken by 42 Commando. The visit was lead by Lt Fay Meddleycot of the RA and was a real insight into the conditions on top. The whole place is littered with Argie debris, tent poles, ponchos, burnt out equipment and rusting weaponry. The wind on that particular day was truly awful and almost blew me off my feet at the top, so I've got some sympathy for the poor bloody Argies stuck at the top the mountain for about four weeks during the Falklands winter...and then having the realization that the Commando's were coming for them.
I went to a couple of lectures given by John Smith at MPA who's lived there for about 45 years or so. He and his family decided to stay in Stanley during the Argentine occupation and his tale was a fascinating account from the 'inside looking out' (his expression). There's much literature written about the Conflict but he's produced the only book written by someone who was there at the time in Stanley, and guess what...I've got a signed copy of 74 Days.
One of the real highlights of the trip was to see the wildlife...absolutely fantastic! I saw so many penguins and I think they'll never fail to delight me as they are just so funny to watch in their environment. I especially liked the Gentoos who are very inquisitive little birds. On one occasion I hunkered right down on the beach and one little chap came to within about 200mm of my outstretched fingers as he obviously thought that they might be a tasty little fishy morsel and was quite happy to have a dainty peck at them. Just off the beach there were dolphins playing in surf... an amazing sight to see. We also had a 'chopper trip over to Saunders Island to see the albatross chicks sitting on their pod nests, what a sight! They are completely grey, very big as well as being very fluffy. They have no fear of humans at all and just make a peculiar 'clopping' noise with their beaks when you get within about 600mm of them, which is very easy to do.
We also had a two day excursion to Cape Dolphin where there are a couple of colonies of Southern Sealions and what magnificent beasts they are. With some care I was able to get to within about 2 metres before they got a spooked somewhat and retreated a bit further down the beach, but again, the spot is so remote and difficult to access that very few people see them so they have very little fear of man. During that trip we stayed overnight at one of the lodges on a farm and Ben the landowner said that he could provide us with a lamb roast dinner for when we arrived, to which we agreed. Expecting a small half leg of lamb (for two people) such as you might get from Tescos I was more that shocked and surprised to haul out of the oven a quarter of a sheep, ribs, shoulder, the complete works, accompanied by spuds and cabbage. The only thing we forgot to bring was the mint sauce, fortunately we took along a case of Grolsch so things were quite comfortable that night!
So was it all worth it? My view is that once acclimatised and desensitised to the weather conditions it was and experience not to be missed, but I think the best bit was that Gentoo who thought he was going to get a free meal...great stuff. Oh, and by the way, the workshop now has a new red triangular sign...it just says MINES!