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Mairi Nicolson Returns To
Return to Antarctica, via the Falkland Islands
After six months in civilization I was definitely ready to embark on some more Antarctic adventures. No more queuing in shops and supermarkets, no waiting in the rain for buses, no crime or violence and no pollution. Just peace and quiet on a remote rocky outcrop surrounded by huge glaciers, dramatic peaks, icebergs and a host of wildlife.
The adventure started on the 24th October at midnight as I boarded a military aircraft at R.A.F. Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, destined for the Falkland Islands. The R.A.F. fly twice weekly to the Falkland Islands to re-supply Mount Pleasant Airfield (MPA) which has been operational since the conflict in 1982. The military have approximately 2000 personnel currently stationed at MPA, nearly the same number as the entire Falklands population. The flight is sixteen hours longs but fortunately we stopped mid-way at Ascension Islands for refueling. At 8am it was already a balmy 20 degrees Celsius and we enjoyed a very pleasant hour stretching our legs in the sunshine before the second half of our long journey.
inside the arrivals area at MPA we were immediately given a briefing
from the explosives group on minefields. There are 135 mined areas
left from the 1982 conflict, which cover an area of approximately
7.7sq miles. It is thought that 25,000 to 30,000 mines were laid and
to date an estimated 6000 have been destroyed. The cost of removing
the remaining mines would run to £50 million. These mines are a
tragic consequence of war, but ironically they now provide a unique
haven for wildlife.
Aside from the tragic events of 1982, the Falkland Islands still remain one of the few unspoiled areas in the world in which the wildlife is still at ease with man. It is made up of an archipelago of some 420 islands, covering a distance of approximately 160 miles East to West, and 85 miles North to South. The climate is cool with a small temperature range, high winds (predominately westerly), and much variability from day to day. Throughout the Falklands, peat soils are widespread with deposits up to 5m thick, drainage is usually poor and there is little cultivated land. Natural vegetation consists of grasses, shrubs (which rarely reach 2m in height) and various low plants.
The islands are a very special place and I could spend hours describing everything I love about them. The wildlife, people, land, or just the unusual way of life but if I had to pick a favourite memory it would be the day I spent with Adrian Lowe on a tour of Kidney Cove. The tour advertises a unique off-road experience to see several penguin colonies and up to five different species, I could hardly wait. At 9am I had my cameras ready, plenty of spare film, a range of clothing and a good packed lunch. Adrian arrived early as he had taken the opportunity of a trip into town to treat his six-year old son to a day at school. We headed out of Stanley on a track and Adrian soon announced that we would turn off towards his farm, this is where the track ended. Half an hour later we were still randomly picking our way through peaty ground avoiding old flooded tracks, peat banks, huge ditches dug to stop last years heath-fires and rocky outcrops. I now realise why school days are rare, in winter it most be almost impossible. If real off-road driving wasn’t enough we soon reached a large tidal river and the only way across was to row a small boat to the opposite bank where another Landrover was waiting for us. One hour after leaving Stanley we finally reached Murrel farm, owned and run for the last eight years by Adrian and his wife Lisa. To someone used to roads, bridges and the comforts of a modern car it was a real eye-opener. For Adrian and his family a nine mile trip to town requires you to predict weather and tides, be skilled in off-road driving and have plenty of time to spare.
We were treated to tea and chocolate cake and as luck would have it we had picked the right day to watch some sheep shearing. It never fails to amuse me on the local radio when they give their daily “Newly Shorn Sheep Windchill Factor”. There are approximately 2 million sheep on the islands, bred for their fine wool but they are very susceptible to wind-chill after shearing, so much so that they have a dedicated slot on the radio. The farm covers ten thousand acres and is principally a sheep farm but they also own some cattle, a horse, geese, chickens and ducks. It was wonderful to see a small holding that is virtually self-sufficient, as well as sheep and cattle for meat, two milking cows provided all the milk, butter and cream for the family. Adrian was very proud of the fact that for the price of twenty minutes work per day he could save two thousand pounds per year. The central heating was run from a peat burning Rayburn and the telephone and radio charged by solar panels. A generator was used for all other electrical demands but turned off at night and at certain times of day when it was not needed.
As there were only two of us on the tour we were able to get really close to the colony without causing them any stress, I must have taken a whole roll of film before I managed to drag myself back into the Landrover.
Along with the Gentoos, three King penguins were preparing to nest. They are the largest (96cm in height) and most handsome penguins breeding in the Falklands. Although still in low numbers at Kidney cover, the population of Kings is thought to be increasing. I was delighted with seeing just the three and even more delighted to tick off another species in my book, that made four in one day. Finally the day ended and we drove back along the golden beaches to Murrel farm. As we drove by Magellanic penguins would watch us from their burrows in the ground, Turkey vultures circled overhead, and hares sped across the land. After a cup of tea and some more of Lisa’s excellent chocolate cake we headed back to Stanley. This time the tide was low and we managed to drive across the river. To anyone else it would have looked like we were heading into a deep 50m wide river but to my relief the water never got over the wheels.
It is a long way to come and somewhat expensive so I will never forget how fortunate I am that my job has taken me to this wonderful place. I am now sitting in my office at our Antarctic base looking over giant ice cliffs and watching the snow fall outside. I have jumped from one adventure to the next but I am thoroughly looking forward to the few days I will spend back in the Falklands on my way home in March.