Echoes of Pink Floyd in the Falkland Islands

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The “sights” on the Falkland Islands

Of all the locales immortalized in song, one place in particular comes to mind as being just as obscure as the song that contains it. In Pink Floyd’s 1983 album The Final Cut, there’s a tiny track entitled Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert. It starts with the sound of wind echoing across a plain and a distant voice shouting the title to a pair of men whose questioning whispers are interrupted by a deafening mortar blast. This is followed by what sounds like a string quartet launching into a catchy little tune. After one refrain, bassist Roger Waters comes in with a single stanza of lyrics:

Brezhnev took Afghanistan (a reference to the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979).
Begin (pronounced BAY-gin, a reference to the Israeli Prime Minister) took Beirut.
Galtieri took the Union Jack (a reference to General Leopoldo Galtieri’s invasion of the British-held Falkland Islands).
Maggie (British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) over lunch one day, took a cruiser with all hands (the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano).
Apparently, to make him give it back.

This ditty is ended with some humming before seguing into the next song.

As a teenager I was obsessed with Pink Floyd and always felt a certain fascination about this short but poignant song that inspired me to look it up just to find out what it was about. Not surprisingly, it was this song that I was humming when the cruise ship I was traveling on pulled up alongside the windswept coastline of the Falkland Islands and I prepared to disembark.

The Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas depending on the side of the conflict you’re inclined to support) are a pair of dry, hilly, butterfly-shaped islands not far off the extreme southern coast of Argentina. A British possession since the 1840’s, it’s hard to imagine that this barren landscape at the bottom of the world would be worth fighting over. But fight they did, and those few months of conflict in the early ’80’s still reverberate in the minds and fields of the islands today. More on that later.

Stanley

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North Sea or Southern Ocean? It’s hard to tell how far from England you are

Stanley, or Port Stanley is a tiny town that looks as if it has been wholly transplanted from rural England. From the architecture, the gardens and the fish and chips offered daily in the town pub, from the inside you’d never know you were on the doorstep of Antarctica and not in the North Sea.

In town there’s a cathedral with an interesting whalebone sculpture alluding to the settlers’ reason for coming to the islands so many years ago. There are also some quaint houses, souvenir shops, a memorial to the fallen during the conflict and the aforementioned pub. Beyond that, this is not exactly what would be considered a metropolis.

On the outskirts of Stanley there are some lovely coves such as Grace Bay, where penguins congregate along a shimmering green crescent of water. Gun emplacements and shipwrecks dot the coastline, and that’s probably when you realize you’re not in England anymore.

Mines Ahead

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Watch your step – there be mines ahead

Remember when I mentioned that the Falkland Conflict still plays a role in modern times (like, four paragraphs ago)? This is because there are still active minefields dotting the open landscape, clearly marked as danger zones. For such an undeveloped and tranquil place, the threat of death from below is a constant reminder of the ‘sins of the fathers’. My advice: Don’t go in there.

The Stone Runs

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A stone river runs through it

An interesting geological anomaly are the so-called Stone Runs, located a ways down the coast of East Falkland. Essentially rivers of rock ‘flowing’ down from the grassy hills, they attest to geological activity that’s even older than the ’80’s.

The People
The people I interacted with during my one-day stay were very polite, resilient and more than just a little patriotic. It won’t take long to sense that annexation by Argentina is NOT a preferred alternative to the island’s inhabitants. One would think that anyone daft enough to live year round in this lovely yet forlorn outpost of human habitation should have some say in which far-off government they get to pay taxes to, but most people would probably say “Who cares?”.

Getting There & Around

Getting to the Falkland Islands is not all that easy. Last I heard there are no direct flights from Argentina (the nearest landmass) which means that Chile would be the closest departure point. Far easier is to arrive as I did – by cruise ship – either on an Antarctic or Round the Horn sailing. With not a whole lot to see, one day should sate most visitors’ curiosity, though I would recommend hiring a guide to get the inside scoop on the island and its history – as well as pump a few dollars into the local economy.

The Scoop
The Falkland Islands are a place you see when you’re headed toward somewhere else, but this doesn’t mean they’re not worth seeing. Anyone who is a fan of (mostly) untouched landscapes, penguins in the wild and the occasional active minefield will find that a day or two here is a pleasant diversion. As for the rest, take a listen to Pink Floyd’s Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert and see if the concise lyrics are enough to spur you on a journey to the last stop before Antarctica.

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The Witty Traveler’s Guide To Cruising Antarctica

Ah, the joys of summer. Never ending sunshine. Balmy temperatures in the twenties & thirties. The refreshing feel of gale-force winds upon your skin. Such are the perks of spending a summer (i.e. winter for the northern hemisphere) visiting the White Continent. Antarctica, duly nicknamed not so much for its demographics as for the fact that everything is covered in snow and ice, is seeing more visitors than ever before. With the addition of mainstream cruise lines offering visits to this remote wonderland, even people who don’t earn six figures a year can afford passage onboard. For many world travelers that big white spot at the bottom of the map is the last place left to go to complete the continental circuit. But is it worth the time, money and windburn to get there? What can you expect to see?

Blue Iceberg, Near Elephant Island, Antarctica
Blue Iceberg, Near Elephant Island, Antarctica

First, let me say that you will not be seeing any polar bears. If for some reason you do, immediately inform the captain that he’s drifted into the wrong hemisphere, yet be polite, as you wouldn’t want him to leave you with the bears. That said, what you will see as far as wildlife goes are whales, albatross, seals and literally thousands of cute little penguins of all sorts swimming, standing around, and in some cases, marching.

 

Gypsy Cove, Stanley, Falkland Islands
Gypsy Cove, Stanley, Falkland Islands

Most cruises leave from the Argentinean ports of Ushuaia or Buenos Aires, which are worthy destinations in themselves if you don’t mind being surrounded by good-looking people. Expeditions departing from the latter generally stop at the charming yet mostly-desolate Falkland Islands—or Islas Malvinas depending on which side of the conflict you’re inclined to support. Here you can take in starkly beautiful desert–like scenery, several penguin colonies, and perhaps the southernmost pub offering fish and chips.

The Overwhelmingly British Flavor of Port Stanley, Falkland Islands
The Overwhelmingly British Flavor of Port Stanley, Falkland Islands

 

From the tip of South America it is about a day’s voyage across the Drake Passage—notorious for its rough seas. Seasickness medicine and/or an iron stomach will likely come in handy here if you’ve brought them. Before stopping at Antarctica proper, you will probably first cruise or visit the South Shetland Islands, including Elephant Island made famous by Ernest Shackleton and his crew. One look at the dreary landscape and you’ll think they were actually sane in attempting to pull off their amazing journey toward rescue.

 

At these latitudes a scan of the horizon will likely yield some stunning views of distinctly-shaped icebergs, ranging from the slushy ‘bergy bits’ that could have run off from anyone’s driveway, to the mammoth tabular bergs that boast dimensions—with no exaggeration—roughly equal to those of Queens, N.Y. No need to fear visions of the Titanic, as bergs of that size are quite easy to see and even more easily avoided. The same cannot be said of Queens.

Across the Bransfield Strait lies the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, which rises northward like a cold bony finger. Most cruises will navigate the iceberg-riddled passages of the Gerlache Strait and Neumaier Channel, formed by a line of mountainous islands running parallel to the equally-mountainous coastline. Here the icebergs are predominantly glacial in origin. The bluer the berg the denser it is, and appropriately, the more photogenic it is as well. On the many ice floes drifting by you are likely to find sleeping Weddell seals or Gentoo penguins preening themselves as they float on by, rather undisturbed by your presence. As you stare up at the thousand-foot plus cliffs on each side and breath in the crisp, freezing summer air, there will be no doubt that you are truly in one of the last places on earth you’d ever think to be.

Gentoo Penguins in a queue, Gerlache Strait, Antarctica
Gentoo Penguins in a queue, Gerlache Strait, Antarctica

 

The only habitations on the continent are research stations manned by scientists and students from a rainbow coalition of your major developed nations. By all accounts they get along quite well, and I imagine national and racial boundaries blur when you’re huddled together in a building while outside its 200 below. Smaller ships usually offer guests the chance to alight onshore at certain facilities, allowing an in-depth look at Antarctic life and the people crazy enough to live it.

 

If you’re considering an Antarctic cruise, the following are some practical tips. First, dress warmly and in layers. Wind is constantly a factor here, and those balmy temperatures in the twenties can drop quickly with the wind chill. Also, sun block is highly recommended, not only for the sun, but for the strong reflection of the ice and snow. Seeing as this is a summer vacation that should be a no-brainer.

 

As was mentioned earlier, sea conditions can change surprisingly fast, so some motion sickness medicine is a wise investment even if you never use it. Also, a camera with a substantial zoom—preferably in the 200-400 mm. range—can transform that picture of the iceberg with little black spots into the showcase of your album when the black spots are revealed as cute little penguins posing just for you.

 

No doubt about it, a trip to Antarctica is a travel highlight anyone who has the means should not miss. With a little money, time, and sense of adventure, you can experience one of the last true frontiers on earth in a style and comfort far above the early explorers who clued us in to its existence. But if your idea of a summer vacation is lying on a beach somewhere with your feet in the water, you’re better off staying in Northern Hemisphere. I’m sure the polar bears will appreciate the company.