By late October in Sitka, night-time temperatures were dipping below zero and the long Alaskan winter was beginning. On a crisp fall day we motored the four miles to Halibut Point and hauled Bosun Bird out onto dry land. For the last few days of the month we stayed at the town’s cozy youth hostel as we packed up for a long road trip through the southern hemisphere.
First stop was the French island of La Reunion, in the southern Indian Ocean, reached after a numbing set of flights via Juneau, Seattle, Mauritius and Dubai.
Some months earlier, in anticipation of retirement, we’d secured ourselves two of only twelve places periodically made available to the public on each of three annual resupply trips made to the French Sub-Antarctic possessions of Crozet, Kerguelen and St. Paul/Amsterdam, starting from La Reunion. These remote island groups are administered by a French governmental agency, and are known as the Terres Australes Antarctiques Fancaises. There is no permanent civilian population, just rotating teams of scientists, supported by small military detachments, at each island group. None of the islands has an airstrip, and all communications are through the research vessel Marion Dufresne.
The twelve berths usually made available to members of the public are allocated on a first-come-first-served basis and typically fill up within 90 seconds of the TAAF’s application website portal opening. Fluency in French (the working language of the ship and of all the scientists on board) is a must, as is a degree of physical fitness. Before applications from “tourists” are confirmed, would-be passengers must undergo a “stress test” on a treadmill, and are warned that they may be required to board the ship via a pilot’s ladder (rope ladder up the vertical side). In financial terms, participation compares favourably with commercial cruises to Antarctica; on the other hand, tourists must understand that sightseeing and wildlife observation take second place to re-supplying the bases and effecting exchanges of personnel at these locations.
Only an hour out of La Reunion we were sailing in uncomfortable 5-meter cross seas and a good number of those aboard (who totalled about 100) did not make it to the first dinner on board. This being a French vessel, not only was the cuisine superior (with fresh baguettes every day and pain chocolat on Sundays), but there was a choice of wines served free with lunch and dinner; some proprietary secret moreover enabled the chef still to serve fresh-seeming lettuce more than three weeks out of La Reunion.
It was a four-day sail almost due south to the Crozet island group and its main island, La Possession. As the temperature dropped almost hour by hour (and the seas increased to over 11 meters), so the Marion attracted more and more bird life: great Wandering Albatrosses and Giant Petrels, the smaller Cape Pigeons, and tiny Storm Petrels. We spent hours wedged into corners of the rolling, frigid exterior decks, armed with camera and binoculars. We would warm up by spending a few minutes on the bridge with the very friendly captain and his crew, discussing the latest weather forecast or the various special features of this ultra-sophisticated supply and survey vessel (which, when not sailing these waters, is often engaged in taking sub-oceanic core samples for scientific purposes). We also tried on our full immersion suits, practised boarding the ship’s helicopter and sat in on various lectures given by the many area specialists on board. On a typical Antarctic cruise we would have been among the youngest of the passengers on board; here, we were the oldest, easily outnumbered by graduate students – who might be undertaking field work on Amsterdam Albatrosses or diatoms on St Paul island – and volunteers spending the austral summer working in the National Reserve that takes up much of the land mass of the island groups.
Landing at Crozet’s Alfred Faure station, on the east (leeward) side of the island, was delayed by winds of 50 to 60 knots. But once the breeze dipped to the 30-40 knot range the helicopter pilots were more comfortable and began their routine of shuttling from the pitching aft deck of the Marion, across a few hundred meters of very cold-looking ocean, to the bleak-looking base of prefabricated buildings on a cliff overlooking the bay.
I’d read about Crozet once before; this was the setting for one of the famous sailing voyages of the eccentric Bill Tilman, as recounted in his “Mischief Among the Penguins” (1961). Indeed, there on the French chart that we pored over on the bridge was “Le Mont Mischief”, and that distinctive odour that blew over us when we were exactly downwind of the black sand beach at the head of the anchorage…was penguin guano. We spent half a day among ten thousand or so clamouring King Penguins here, and their unlikely-looking furry chicks (named Oakum Boys by sailors on the windjammers, for their resemblance to balls of fuzzy caulking material). In among the penguins, torpid Elephant Seals snorted and snoozed; Skuas and Giant Petrels loitered on the fringes of the colony, looking for scraps or sick chicks to prey on. Another day we were flown further afield to Baie Americaine (abbreviated to Baie US, or just BUS), a wide sweep of black sand beach with more penguins - Kings, Gentoos, Rockhoppers - and nesting albatrosses.
At Alfred Faure, as at subsequent bases, we were formally greeted by the civilian Base Commander, who has the rank of a French mayor, and the sash and bust of Marianne to go with the job. There was a slap-up meal (that is saying something, at a French establishment) as the base complement welcomed an influx of new comrades that would briefly swell numbers to about thirty over the summer (numbers would return to the winter complement on the occasion of the Marion’s final summer rotation, three months hence).
By now, we were facing some linguistic challenges - not just re-immersion into a French-language milieu, but mystification over certain terms our new friends were all using. There was, for example, the acronym BLO; it was clear from the context that on some of the islands, BLO was a problem phenomenon, but what could it mean? I was little further along when one kindly scientist indicated that this was short for “Betes a Longues Oreilles”; but he would clarify no further. Finally I gleaned that BLO are rabbits – an introduced species in these parts, and something of a menace – but, just as actors will not pronounce the correct term for the Scottish play, so it is absolutely taboo to use the French word for “rabbit” aboard French ships…! Even more perplexing was the fact that most penguins are known in French as “manchots” (which literally means one-armed), while those species with yellow fringes above the eyes are “gorfoux”; you can in fact find the word “pingouin” in any French dictionary, but this term is only applied to the now-extinct Great Auk and other members of the Alcid family found only in the northern hemisphere (penguins, of course, are only found in the southern). Why do the French consider penguins to be “one-armed”? And why, in fact, is there an island in the Crozet archipelago actually called “Ile aux Pingouins” if, for the French, “pingouins” only exist in the northern hemisphere. I remain perplexed.
It was a two-day sail to the east, almost directly downwind, to the largest and most well-known of the three island groups, Kerguelen (with the stress on the last syllable; abbreviated by the cognoscenti to “Ker”). Refreshingly and counter-intuitively, the resident historian on board was quite deprecatory about the Breton navigator who gave his name to this rugged, Corsica-sized island in 1772 - Yves Joseph de Kerguelen. He did not even land, on his first visit, but was so glowing about the place in a letter to King Louis XV, that the King financed a second and larger expedition. When it then transpired that the island was – as Wikipedia puts it – “desolate and quite useless,” Kerguelen was clapped into prison; the name by which Captain James Cook knew the place, Desolation Island, gained currency for some time and is the title of a book in the famous Aubrey/Maturin series of historical fiction, by Patrick O’Brian.
Our approach to Kerguelen was dominated by the jagged, snow-capped double peaks of Mount Ross (1850m), unclimbed until 1975. But as we steamed along the southern coast in offshore winds of 50 knots, the land rapidly flattened out and, by the time we reached the only human habitation at Port aux Francais in the east of the island, it was low and featureless. The complicated, indented coastline of the island affords a number of possible secure anchorages, but Port aux Francais is poor indeed, and quite inappropriately named; we learned in due course that the French base was located here because this was thought to be a suitable location for an airstrip (which, on account of Kerguelen’s typically bad weather and its distance from the nearest alternative landing site, has never been built…).
Here we spent four full days. As well as exploring the base and meeting most of the staff - and the meteorological team – we made two separate, overnight trips to remote cabins deep in the island’s rugged and fjord-indented interior.
Kerguelen is approximately as far from the South Pole as London is from the North (i.e. 50 degrees S/N), but the landscape and weather are incomparably harsher; there are no trees, no scrub even, just tufts of low, yellowish grass in a landscape dominated by bare, black rock. An exception to the overall sterility is the Kerguelen Cabbage, a unique but rather uninspiring plant that apparently does have some nutritional and anti-scorbutic value, but which has been decimated by the dreaded BLOs (after introducing the BLOs, someone got cold feet and decided to try to get rid of them by introducing cats…which in turn have gone feral and have their own negative effects, notably on the bird life). King Penguins and Gentoos compete for space on much of the coastline with Elephant Seals, and there are important albatross breeding colonies. In the cliff behind Cabane Laboureur we could see a bemused nesting pair of Light-Mantled Sooty Albatrosses that seemed to be looking down on us with as much interest as we were looking up.
Although the cabins on Kerguelen were rustic, this was a French expedition; accordingly we carried with us vintage French wines, a selection of fine cheeses and gourmet meals that had been prepared for us by the chef at the Base. We did not need to, but we supplemented these feasts with mussels gathered on the beaches and with a pair of large trout (also introduced) caught on the first cast by one of our team of tourists.
Back at the base there was much celebration when the Marion was able to pull the base’s sole “seagoing” vessel (a small flat-bottomed barge) off the rocks onto which it had blown during a winter storm. I found it odd that in, a location such as this, the scientists had so few mobility options (the barge was not exactly ocean-going, even when afloat); it was a similar situation at Crozet and at the final group of islands we were to visit (St.Paul/Amsterdam.)
Two days sailing to the northeast brought us into warmer waters again: the twin islands of St Paul and Amsterdam, plumb in the middle of the Indian Ocean between Australia and Africa. St Paul, first sighted as early as 1559 by Portuguese navigators, is small, and consists of a semi-submerged volcanic crater, into which small vessels can enter in calm conditions and at high tide. It is a highly “protected” location, for which permission is only very rarely given for landings and, even, for overflights. So we were lucky when the captain offered to launch zodiacs and give us a waterborne view (we had, of course, to make that climb up and down the pilot ladder…). Subantarctic Fur Seals line the narrow rocky beaches and a variety of seabirds colonise the cliffs; many bird species are only now making a comeback from near-extinction, following a concerted effort to eliminate rats on the island. In one corner of the crater are the remains of a lobster cannery, built in 1928. There was tragedy when a ship bringing relief was inexplicably delayed and five people who had been left as caretakers in the off-season were found to have died of scurvy and starvation; the episode is known as Les Oublies de St Paul.
Amsterdam is larger and has a permanent scientific station, although – like Kerguelen – its anchorage (an open roadstead off the northwest of the island) is nothing to write home about. Here we encountered a ship that is something of an institution in these waters; the Austral, a French-flagged ocean-going fish-processing ship, in season, serves as a mother ship for smaller launches fishing for lobster off Amsterdam. Officials at all the bases and on board the Marion were at great pains to stress how seriously France takes her responsibility not just of enforcing the 200-mile economic zone around each of these islands (there is a Navy ship permanently on station), but of ensuring that fishing – especially for the highly lucrative Patagonian Toothfish (legine) – is on a sustainable basis.
Another great feast at Amsterdam (with great platters piled high with lobster…) and we, the only foreigners aboard the Marion, were pleased and flattered to see that the Base Commander had flown the Maple Leaf in our honour. We participated in re-vegetation activities (i.e. tree planting of near-extinct endemic species) and, as at Kerguelen, had several nights ashore, in refuges at some distance from the main base. One of these was effectively in the midst of a Subantarctic Fur Seal colony; their barking, squabbling and galumphing around throughout the night did not make for a peaceful sleep.
Amsterdam is home to the extremely rare, endangered Amsterdam Albatross. On board the Marion was the leading French authority on albatrosses, and he was quite frank about the challenges of identifying the various species that fall under the general classification of Great Albatrosses (genus Diomedea). So great are the variations in plumage as each albatross develops, that – sometimes - only genetic analysis will give a definitive identification; he was dismissive of “twitchers” who claim to have seen Amsterdam Albatrosses at sea: “the only way you can be absolutely sure you have seen one is to go up to that plateau in the fog – and you are strictly forbidden from going there – and seeing one of the twenty or so pairs (that’s all) that exist…”.
Amsterdam has a pleasant, sub-tropical climate that makes it an unlikely fit with the bases on Crozet and Kerguelen, where the ambience is distinctly harsh. However, it does belong to the informal club that brings together all of the international bases on the Antarctic continent and surrounding islands. In winter, most of these bases run on a skeleton basis, the days are very short, and amusement is hard to come by. But the advent of the Internet, smart phones that can take video, and You Tube has spawned a unique annual competition among the bases. Each year, one base takes charge and the theme of the year’s Short Video contest is announced, with – this with only 24 hours’ notice – a set of key words, phrases or items that each competing base must include in its submission. Amsterdam had, the previous year, been among the top finishers with its entry (featuring “May the Force Be With You”, a stethoscope and the sound of an elephant) but the winner had been the Polish Arctowski base. We spent a happy hour at Amsterdam viewing some of the best entries, in the company of Amsterdam’s own star, the base doctor.
It was a pleasant four-day run back to La Reunion, on a near-empty ship; at each island group we had dropped scientists off, for their summer season of work. Gradually, we lost the albatrosses, a “pool party” was held (a liferaft was filled with seawater on the helicopter deck) and we tourists shared and culled our hundreds of pictures. One night, one of new friends even stood in for Maitre Jacques and served the ship’s famous Plateau de Fromage. We were sad when the rugged peaks of La Reunion hove into view; it had been a fascinating, unusual voyage and we had made many friends, not just among the penguins (or manchots). For the passenger-written log (including our own section in English) see Journal de bord du Marion Dufresne (OP3-2016).
We’d called in at La Reunion on board Tarka the Otter, nearly thirty years earlier – en route to the Cape of Good Hope – and we’d been astounded by the spectacular mountains that dominate the interior of this small, tropical French possession. So we decided to take a few days to get to know the place better.
Although parts of the island’s interior are quite remote, you can save yourself from having to carry a tent and large supplies of food by staying in the rustic “gites” (rural B &Bs) that are scattered around and which, conveniently, can be booked on line. Here you can stay in comfortable dorm (or smaller) rooms and make up for all the carbohydrates burned on the trails with evening meals heavy on rice and beans, usually preceded by a swig of the local firewater.
We devised a rough plan that would take us on a circuit through the three great “cirques” (ancient volcanic craters) that dominate the center of the island. Our starting point was the village of Cilaos, in the eponymous cirque, itself reached by a precipitous mountain drive that, at several locations, has the foreshortened island bus making three point turns to negotiate hairpins; in tunnels there was barely five cm to spare on either side.
From here we made a hot 600m climb (on foot…) followed by a 500m knee-wrencher of a descent, to Marla, in the remotest cirque, Mafate, to which there is no road or track access. The trail was well-marked in the European style, with discreet red and white paint markers and occasional signposts as other trails diverged or crossed. Last time we were here, these trails were very busy with local traffic, as villagers came and went to and from their small farms and terraces high up in the hills. Now it’s mainly trekkers – above all “metropolitains”, with very few non-French – and the locals take supplies in and out by helicopter; the choppers, indeed, are the only jarring element in this otherwise pristine landscape, but the afternoons are usually quieter as the clouds close in and flying becomes too dangerous.
We were amused, on our second day of trekking, to come across a most welcome trail-side stand offering cool, fresh juice for sale. But there was no orange-juice – today – because the “helico” had failed to bring in the South African-grown oranges from the market in St. Denis.
At Roche Plate, we were pleased to make it to our mountainside gite before a massive tropical deluge rolled in; the rain thundered down on our tin roof for hours and later we learned that two unfortunate adventurers had been drowned, canyoning, in the flash flood created by the storm. Next day, a descent to 400m, a climb back up to 1600m for the night, and we exited Mafate along a vertiginous track, with 500m drop-offs, known as the Sentier Scout. In the cirque de Salazie we stayed in the quaint colonial village of Hellbourg (named after a colonial governor called Hell). Then we had our toughest days’ climbing yet - 1500m, much of it in glutinous mud atop a cloud-covered knife-edge ridge, to the Caverne Dufour.
Here there is an alpine-style refuge, a lot more basic than the gites and, shrouded as it often is in the clammy, cool fog of 2300m, a lot more bleak. The “thing to do” was to get up early so as to climb to the highest peak on the island – the Piton des Neiges, 3059m – to see the sunrise. Having seen no end of sunrises at sea, we were ready to pass on this, but the racket of thirty other people getting up at 02:00 a.m. forced us up as well….With a single, rather weak flashlight (we had not planned on this eventuality) we trudged up ever-more-rugged volcanic slopes – we were way past any vegetation now – and made it to the top in good time to find that the clouds had pretty much come in already. But there were still good views as one cirque or the other temporarily cleared, and the odd helicopter buzzed past a thousand meters below us.
The descent was steep and unremitting - 1800m vertically, with only 1km of horizontal displacement; it was again bucketing with rain when we reached Cilaos once more, and rewarded ourselves with the local variety of pancakes. Our legs were aching but, in spite of the week of strenuous exercise, we had probably made up for all the weight lost with those very heavy evening dinners…
Everyone has their favourite travel horror story. Our latest came as we were leaving (or planning to leave) La Reunion. In fact we were on board the Airbus for a short 30-minute hop to Mauritius, where we’d connect to Perth, Western Australia. Technical problems…and we ended up having to spend the night sleeping on camp beds in the un-air-conditioned baggage hall of the airport, under glaring fluorescent lights and with an industrial vacuum cleaner buzzing around most of the night. Air France, the ground agents responsible for “looking after”, us “regretted” that they were unable to find a hotel for us, unable to make alternative travel arrangements, and unable to prevent the airport gendarmes from rousting us up at 05:00 a.m. They did however give us a voucher for one sandwich each.
A day late and via Johannesburg, we landed in Perth, and immediately headed north up the coast.
It didn’t take us long to realise that, without a 4WD vehicle that would have allowed us off tarred roads, it wasn’t going to be possible to “wilderness” camp in Australia. And we were also to learn – over the course of December and January – that Australians get a lot of holiday time, in which they almost all head to the coast. Fortunately, the northern part of Western Australia is too hot even for the locals, so the campgrounds up there were not as crowded as everywhere else.
One of our favourite stops was our first at the small Yanchep National Park. After Canada and the US, Aussie parks generally seem very small and fragmented and, notwithstanding their name, are run by state - not federal - authorities but, in compensation, there are lots of them. Kangaroos and wallabies grazed a few yards from our tent as the sun set, and pink galahs (a kind of cockatoo) roosted in the trees giving us shade; unfortunately, they also left their calling cards on the tent and on the roof of our rental car, and it took much hard scrubbing to remove them.
Further up the coast, Hamelin Station, on the edge of Shark Bay offered a glimpse of old, Outback Australia - old tin-roofed buildings with wrap-around verandahs, shearing sheds and a tin homegrown museum in the old telegraph station. On one wall is a life-size b & w photo of a naked “lineman” up a ladder, repairing a telephone line; local legend has it that he was on his way to a wedding in his best suit, when the call came that the line was down; rather than risk his wedding suit, he climbed the pole naked. Hamelin also claims to host some of the oldest living things on earth, and the only ones in “captivity”; in the shallows of the bay is a colony of stromalotites (layered mounds of rock formed by cyanobacteria) and in the museum, in a rather dirty fish-tank, is the “captive”.
Near Hamelin, we watched semi-tame dolphins come in to be fed at Monkey Mia. At the dusty sheep-shipping town of Carnarvon (it was now 40 to 45 degrees every day) we made our way out to an unlikely local attraction, a slightly surreal array of huge dish antennae that played a critical role in the 1969 moon landing. The transmission buildings house another home-made museum, complete with a vibrating mock-up of an Apollo 11 capsule in which you can pretend to be Neil Armstrong at lift off. I recalled the eerie scene in that great movie, The Right Stuff, when aborigines in Western Australia light fires for John Glenn to see as he makes the first orbit of the earth.
Another location that reminded of the movies was Ellendale Pool. Here we camped by a still, green lake overshadowed by a high sandstone cliff sacred to the native people, and reputedly the home of a mythical giant lizard. It was utterly still in the evening, and there was a slightly sinister feeling about the place; Picnic at Hanging Rock could have been made here.
The furthest north we made was the small coastal town of Exmouth, built as a base for American submarines in WW2, and still the host of a large array of antennae for communication with submarines. Here we dived the reefs of the Ningaloo Marine Park and tramped into the dry hills of the Cape Range National Park; Euros (a kind of wallaby) eyed us curiously and we kept a good lookout for snakes.
Almost every Australian we met took pride in this island-continent supposedly having the most ferocious fauna in the world. Bill Bryson’s book, “In a Sunburned Country” probably did much to create this myth. But we saw no more snakes than you might expect; snakebite fatalities are very few and far between (shark kills even rarer). All in all, we’d say the bears and other hazards of Alaska and BC are much more estimable.
We were now on the edge of cyclone-prone territory, so we made a fast drive south again to cooler climes. Driving the Australian roads is pretty straightforward, as long as you keep an eye open for the articulated “road trains”, but what is striking (literally) is the amount of roadkill. In these parts there was a dead wallaby, kangaroo or reptile every two or three kilometers along the road.
Leaving the car in Albany, we spent nearly a week hiking along the coastline of the Southern Ocean, on a long-distance footpath known as the Bibbulmun Trail. The creation and maintenance of this 1000km “track” (of which we walked only a tenth) has been down almost entirely to volunteers. Every 12 to 25kms there is a substantial open-sided shelter and a water-tank, the latter obviating the otherwise prohibitive need to carry vast weights of drinking and cooking water. The views are spectacular and after a couple of days you get into a very pleasant rhythm. We met very few other hikers, although there is something of a tradition of “End-to-enders” who either hike the whole trail over a period of two months or so, or stitch segments together over a period of years. One we met, Pete, was trekking alone (as are most who undertake the Track), and had no regrets, but he did say he felt hungry every single day! He was subsisting almost entirely on noodles; when he took one of his few days off, and ate out in a small town through which the Track passes, he was frustrated to find that the only culinary option was…a noodle restaurant.
From Albany we meandered back to Perth through vast eucalyptus forests and took time – as we always do when cruising on land – to visit two iconic lighthouses: Cape Leeuwin (the SW tip of Australia) and the nearby Cape Naturaliste. At Leeuwin, one of the three “Great Capes” (the others being Good Hope and Horn) it was a chilly, blustery day and there were breakers as far as you could see; I was glad we were not trying to beat around it in Bosun Bird.
We’d long wanted to cross the Nullarbor Plain, en route to eastern Australia, but it is – disappointingly – not possible to do this on public transport. There are no longer any transcontinental buses, and although a train runs, it is of the extreme de-luxe variety, with Sydney-Perth quoted as $4500 (one way!). So we took a budget airline - cheap but, these days, not so romantic.
In Adelaide we caught up with cousins whom we see all too rarely – Uncle/Aunt Brian and Sybil, cousins Martin and Justin - then it was on to Hobart, Tasmania.
Here the aim was some more trekking; Australia’s island state is now one of the world’s premier eco-tourism destinations. We duly signed up to walk the much advertised Three Capes Walk, which starts near the infamous penal colony of Port Arthur. It was a fine three-day walk, with unusual high cliff scenery and very comfortable modern lodges – but we had the feeling, nevertheless, of being highly “managed”. First there is the $500 fee; in fact you can walk most of the trail for nothing, as long as you don’t mind camping, but this is by no means evident from the literature put out by the Parks Department. Then you must walk in one direction only and – of course – you cannot dally at one refuge, because it will be fully booked for the following night. Oh, and yes, it’s actually only Two Capes; the Third has not yet been joined up to the Park…
Much wilder and more satisfying were the beaches and tracks in the far south of the island - great sweeps of empty white beach, huge rollers thundering in from the Southern Ocean, and pademelons (a kind of small wallaby) nosing around our tent inquisitively. And Maria Island was another old penal colony, with no cars allowed, wonderful hiking, and wombats by the hundred; there are Tasmanian devils as well, but they’re a lot harder to see.
We were lucky enough to have a perfect base in Tasmania, the waterfront home of Nick and Jan, old sailing friends from Patagonia and South Africa, at the “quaint” seaside town of Cygnet. Nick now races miniature sailboats in front of the Cygnet Yacht Club while Jan rows (as in boats, not arguments…) with the local ladies. It was great to reminisce and catch up on the news of mutual sailing acquaintances – some from our first circumnavigation, in the 1980s.
On to Sydney, where we caught up with more relatives: Nick’s cousins Julian and Andrea, and Jenny’s sister Gillian. What a wonderful city Sydney is – we rode the ferries whenever we could. We found ourselves often comparing Aussie politics with Canadian; the big news of the day was a particularly robust conversation between Aussie PM Malcom Turnbull and President Trump. With the current turmoil in Europe and the Middle East, and political uncertainty in North America, Australia seemed to us to be a good place to be; its scandals and political travails are truly minor – on a par with Canada’s – in the current context.
Chile has been one of our favourite destinations ever since we first crossed the Andes from our then-home in Buenos Aires, back in 1978; although both countries were in the grip of terrible dictatorships (and Chile would remain so longer than Argentina), its people were (and are) always friendly, modest, less nationalist and – notwithstanding perpetual strikes by university students – the place works.
After landing in Santiago from Sydney, we flew straight south – over the 1200 miles of intricate channels we had navigated a decade ago – to Punta Arenas, the southernmost city on the continent. We spent a full day trekking out to Faro San Isidro, which is just north of Cabo Froward, the most southerly point on the continent (Cape Horn, two hundred km south, is an island…), overlooking the Straits of Magellan. One day we plan to walk the extra two or three days onwards to Froward itself; but that requires a lot of planning, with tidal rivers to wade.
Driving north across the Patagonian plains in the shadow of the Andes, we crossed back into Argentina at Rio Turbio. We spent a night at the isolated Estancia Leon on the banks of the glacial turquoise waters of the Rio Santa Cruz. This is so named because one of the pioneers of Patagonian exploration, “Perito” Moreno, was here attacked by a puma; but it is also known as one of the hideouts of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, after they had robbed a bank in Rio Gallegos, 200km away on the Atlantic coast.
Onwards to El Chalten. This small town did not exist when we first came this way in December 1978; at that time we felt – a few semi-pro climbers apart – that we were true pioneers in exploring the astounding massif of Cerro Fitz Roy, at the foot of which El Chalten sits. Now, in summer, busloads of tourists come in for the day, and dozens of hikers ply a network of trails among the peaks and cram the hospedajes of the small town. But, when the sun shines, this is an astounding place. The great pink/brown thumb of Fitz Roy, too sheer to hold snow, dominates the skyline for 150km in every direction. But nearby Cerro Torre, a grey needle tucked away to the southwest, rising absolutely vertical from the Patagonian icefield, is just as impressive; this is known as one of the world’s great climbs and has a chequered history, including deaths and an infamously “unethical” ascent using a steam-powered bolt hammer. We were lucky, one morning to witness a pair of Andean condors swooping and turning before our eyes, for nearly half an hour.
Returning to Punta Arenas, we detoured one rainy afternoon to the Perito Moreno glacier; this famously advances, then retreats, periodically cutting off a vast body of lake water to one side, which then builds up and eventually breaks through. We did not see this spectacular event, but you can nevertheless view the translucent pale blue glacier face from a hundred meters or so away. Like Fitz Roy, it’s now a tourist attraction and we did not have the place to ourselves as we had in 1978, but it was well worth the return visit.
It was a typical Falkland day when we arrived at the Mount Pleasant military airfield after the one-hour flight from Punta Arenas - winds of 80kmh, blustery clouds scudding across the low mountains and stone runs of East Falkland. By now it was late summer.
Our first visit was in the southern summer of 1979/80; there were threatening rumbles from the generals ruling in Buenos Aires, but no-one imagined it could possibly come to war (as it did two years later). We stayed then with the Robertsons at Fox Bay on West Falkland – their daughter Gina was one of my pupils in Argentina – and they passed us on to friends at Saunders Island, then Carcass. It was the most magical place we had ever been: the rolling, empty hills dappled as the clouds raced over, penguins and albatrosses in the hundreds of thousands, warm and rustic hospitality as we flew around in the one functioning De Havilland Beaver of the Falkland Island Government Air Service.
We’ve been back six times now. Things have changed, but mostly for the better. Islanders remain understandably frustrated and annoyed with the refusal of successive Argentine governments to come to pragmatic, environmentally sensible arrangements on fishing and oil, but the prospect of another attempted invasion looks very remote (as long as the RAF maintains a presence). Eco-tourism and fishing within the islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone mean that the Falklands are financially independent of the UK – with the notable exception of defence costs – and the treasury can even afford to finance the university education of young Falklanders, a luxury long ago foregone in the UK. A network of roads links settlements that previously could only be accessed by sea or air, and a ferry plies between the two big islands. Port Stanley no longer resembles a moribund Scottish island village on a Sunday afternoon, full of despondent and ageing retirees from the “camp” (countryside); there are two medium-sized supermarkets, six or seven accommodation options and employment is 100% (the pubs are as rough as ever…). Now you only rarely pick up the scent of burning peat – once the mainstay of cooking and heating for every island home – but few locals miss the drudgery of digging and transporting their own peat from the bogs behind Stanley.
And the wildlife - we have been to the Galapagos, to Antarctica, to South Georgia, but nothing matches the Falklands. We spent four days at The Neck on Saunders Island, where Kings, Gentoos and Jackasses crowd the sandy beach; up on the cliffs facing north, black-browed albatrosses struggled to feed their greedy, fluffy chicks, and moulting Rockhopper penguins stood around moodily, wishing they could go fishing again. On to Pebble, where war buffs come to see the wreckage of Argentine Dagger fighters, shot down as they attempted to return from bombing runs over San Carlos Water, and the twitchers seek out nesting Giant Petrels.
Then we spent three weeks on West Falkland, moving between settlements by road. We began at Port Stephens, where Gina’s aunt and uncle still live - more Gentoos, Jackasses, bracing walks over the hills, and long talks with Peter and Ann about Peter’s days working at Estancia Condor, in Argentina, and Ann’s as a girl growing up in Buenos Aires. At anchor in the bay was Mono, a bearded giant of an Argentine sailor, with his blue-painted steel boat Mago del Sur; the sailing community in these waters is small, and we again found we had many mutual acquaintances.
Port Edgar, where Tex left his shearing in the middle of a rain storm, and drove out to find us – fearing we’d been washed away. Fox Bay once again; the old post office, where we’d bought stamps nearly forty years ago, is now a museum; and you have to walk around minefields to reach the Gentoos.
Then to Port Howard. Here we stayed at a remote red-and-white painted former shepherds’ shanty called Mount Rosalie. We cooked with peat, cranked up the ancient Lister diesel generator when we needed some electricity, daily checked on the barn owl who roosts in an out-house, and enjoyed the unrivalled solitude and wild beauty. One day on the beach I found the almost intact skeleton of a whale; we climbed Mount Rosalie for the view across the sound to San Carlos.
We had a few days in Stanley before we left. We stayed at our favourite B & B, Kay’s. It’s locally – even internationally – famous for the collection of a hundred or more garden gnomes on the lawn outside, but Kay’s cooking is just as famous. She stuffs all her guests with cake, cookies, and cooks a wonderful lamb dinner on request. Kay also knows everyone, without exception; she’d been born at the Black Shanty, which had since been done up as a guesthouse at Fox Bay West.
In the weekly Penguin News as we left was a set of angry correspondence about Argentine visitors; there’d been some vandalism at a cemetery, and there had been one or two incidents of Argentine visitors tactlessly posing for selfies with their flag in Port Stanley. From having lived in Argentina, we know that no Argentine will ever renounce his/her country’s claim to the Falklands. But nor are they likely to allow their government to emulate the folly of Galtieri in 1982; in this sense Argentina poses no risk. To talk of banning Argentines from visiting, or locking them up for waving their flag is an over-reaction; it was, after all, partly to protect and defend freedom of action and speech (which did not then exist in Argentina), that Britain dispatched its task force to liberate – at significant cost on both sides – the islands.
It was with some sadness that we flew out again, and started the long haul from the southern fall to a northern spring. New adventures beckoned in Sitka, but we know we will be back.
Updated: May 2 2017