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Journal Entry:

Friday, December 10, 2010 06:39:34

Falkland Islands 2010: 1 - Costa Rica to Bleaker Island

Saturday, December 4, 2010

This trip was chosen by two of our grandchildren, Saisha Piercy in Victoria, Canada and Daniel Piercy Vargas in Costa Rica. The both turned ten years old in 2010 so have the option of choosing anywhere in the world they want to go accompanied by Marilynn and I. They agreed they wanted to see penguins, and as there is nowhere in the world we know of that has more varieties of penguins than the Falkland Islands, this will be the destination.

Marilynn and I were fortunate in being able to spend time in the Falklands in October 1996 on the ship Explorer. For four days we went ashore in zodiacs to explore various islands and see the abundant wildlife. Marilynn always wanted to go back, so the trip had double advantages.

Last week Marilynn flew to Victoria to pick up Saisha, staying only one day before heading back to Costa Rica. Both kids were at the house for the previous two nights before having to leave their warm beds at 3:30 AM in order to be at the airport for our 6:29 AM flight. Leaving Costa Rica with children complicates the process, as there is a special department at the airport where it is necessary to provide proof of parental permission, birth certificates and all travel documents for them before checking in, so additional time is required.

The kids were sufficiently excited to have little trouble with the early hours, the formalities went smoothly, and even economy were fed breakfast during the 50 minute COPA flight to Panama where we spent two hours in the transit area shopping mall. The 6 ½ hour COPA flight to Santiago was smooth, food and drinks (including alcoholic) plus excellent service were included and the kids were great - we all got a little sleep en route as well.

Once in Santiago things went sharply downhill when we found we could not be considered as in transit because we would leave the airport to sleep a few hours then return at 5:30 AM for the next flight. Canada and the US are two of five countries required to pay a "reciprocity tax", which cost $538 for the four of us. The 10 hours in Chile ran $53.80 per hour for tax alone! Daniel would have been exempt if he had his Costa Rican passport, as he has dual nationality, but the horrible woman would not accept the documents we did have - his birth certificate, parents certificates, and so on. Chile obviously has little interested in US or Canadian tourism.

I wasn't in a great mood by the time we ground through the long line at immigration and organized a taxi to the downtown hotel Marilynn booked. It was a relatively good price at $120 for four beds, but lacked amenities such as a lobby, soap, elevator doors, pillow cases the size of the pillows and things like that. Breakfast was included, but not until 8 AM, so no help there. I got little sleep and was glad to get up at 4:30 AM.

Our same taxi took us to the airport, where they were able to arrange an exit row seat for me on the coach class only flight to Punta Arenas. Because it was full we were required to check our carry-on luggage (we had no checked bags), and had a near miss when Marilynn read the baggage receipts to me - they were checked only to Punta Arenas and we were going on to the Falklands. Marilynn got that changed, but we were still apprehensive on arrival! With only one flight per week it would be over a week before we were reunited with our essentials.

Everyone had to deplane in Punta Arenas to exit Chile through customs, then board again after about 45 minutes. The 1 ½ hour flight to Mount Pleasant in the Falklands was uneventful, and we deplaned into hail driven horizontally by winds strong enough to blow me back two steps as I tried to make my way down the stairs from the plane. We all scrambled to get into the shelter of the terminal building where we cleared Falklands immigration and customs, then ran for the waiting van where we sat for about half an hour before the half hour drive to Stanley on road alternating between pavement & gravel.

I was surprised at the amount of new construction at the airport. It is now a military base with a Royal Air Force fighter wing and army. We were told things are tense once more, as Argentina has blockaded the River Plate against any shipping to or from the Falklands. The Falklands are currently trading with Brazil.

By the time we reached Bennett's bed & breakfast the weather had improved a bit, however there was a problem with overbooked rooms, so we squeezed into one room instead of the two we had booked. A nearby hotel was recommended for dinner, but was "fully booked", so we took a taxi to a diner. Taxis in Port Stanley are 3 pounds for anywhere in the area. After eating we walked back, more than ready for early to bed.

Wednesday, December 5, 2010 - East Island

East Island is the largest of the Falkland Island. It has the international airport, an airport for interisland flights and Port Stanly, the capital and only town of any size on the islands.

After a full English breakfast at the B & B and bearing a large packed lunch, we were picked up by Noddy, our driver for the day, in his 4 X 4 Toyota. It was well equipped with risers, heavy duty springs and extra wide extra high tires, which impressed Daniel. Initially our route was in the direction of the airport before turning off on gravel road across the hilly centre of the island where the last of the Argentines were defeated during the 1982 war. We stopped to look at the remains of two Argentine helicopters that were destroyed on the ground.

Eventually the road ended at a settlement, and for the next 10 miles we travelled across peat bog and swampland with no road. We had the right man for the job - he was a very experienced driver and knew the territory better than drivers of the 4 other vehicles we saw across the treeless terrain. The going was slow, but Noddy preferred to stay out of sight of the others, who generally used a well worn, muddy track on which they got stuck frequently. Inevitably, without hurrying, his routes ensured we would arrive first.

When we reached Volunteer Point we were driving with penguins on both sides, which had Marilynn and the kids shouting with excitement. Noddy warned them to keep the loud enthusiasm in the vehicle - once among the penguins they were to move slowly and be very quiet.

We stopped at a visitor's building which contained chemical toilets and a room with benches along the walls where visitors could eat while sheltered from the ever present wind. There were penguins wherever we looked. According to the signs, at this time of year Volunteer Point hosts some 4,000 king penguins, 2,500 magellanic penguins and around 1,000 gentoo penguins. The main nesting areas are marked by white rocks and visitors are requested not to enter; however the thousands of penguins outside these areas were readily approachable.

It was fascinating to see the progression from penguins holding eggs on their feet, to tiny chicks peeking out from under their mothers, to the large brown fluffballs they grow into, to every stage of losing their fluffy feathers and assuming their final plumage. Daniel & Saisha soon got the idea of sitting down on a rock and letting the curious young penguins come to them - one tapped on Saisha's shoe with its beak as it tried to figure out this strange visitor.

We circulated around the various nesting areas, walking among penguins continually. At one point a large, female elephant seal appeared on the scene, having left the beach and en route to the penguin areas. We gave her all the room she wanted to get by! After our sandwiches, sausage rolls and juice lunch we walked to the beautiful white sand beach, watching the penguins play in the surf and dashing in and out of the cold water. When a wave peaked before breaking it was possible to see penguins swimming laterally inside the wave.

There were only four or five other people in the whole area, which made the experience all the more incredible, and the rain held off until it was time to head back. Noddy once again took his secret shortcuts to get us to the road ahead of vehicles that left up to half an hour before us. At one point we passed two army vehicles on their way back, one seriously bogged down in the mud. They apparently left for Volunteer point about the same time we did, but never made it, having spent the day getting out of one mud hole after another. The local drivers cracked a number of jokes about them over the two way radios - I got the idea that the military were not experienced in mud driving and got stuck with some regularity.

Noddy gave us a tour of Port Stanley when we returned, stopped at a shop so we could buy a few things, then dropped us off at a pub called The Narrows where we had dinner. The food was good, in spite of a very limited menu caused by an unexpected rush the night before and at lunch. We taxied back the Bennett's dead tired with everyone very excited and happy! Even the kids had taken hundreds of photos with their new cameras.

Monday-Wednesday, December 6-8, 2010 - Bleaker Island**

Our pickup for the domestic airport was at 8 AM. It was wonderful to fly as in the old days - no security, no formalities other than getting weighed at check in and a very short wait. The four of us and a plumber coming to so some work on Bleaker were the only passengers. We made one stop at Goose Green to pick up a fellow going to Stanley. The Islander aircraft flew low enough on this clear, sunny day to see everything below. Airfields here are just grass strips with a windsock.

Elaine, our host at Bleaker, picked us up in a Land Rover and drove to the settlement through bare rolling hills where sheep grazed. We had a near new beautiful three bedroom house to ourselves, well equipped with VHS movies and games in the living room - there was even a tin of freshly baked cookies. Only Elaine and her husband Robert live on the 5,155 acre (2,070 ha) 14 mile long island, where he runs the sheep and cattle farm and she looks after guests. The house was surrounded wild geese with chicks, skuas and various other birds. A family with 10 baby geese lives right in front of our porch.

Once settled in we set off in what the locals call a breeze, about a 30 mph (50 kph) wind, for the short walk to an area where thousands of black & white imperial cormorants were nesting. Skuas skimmed over the colony looking for lax parents of new chicks, or undefended eggs. The racket and smell were quite amazing, not to mention the whole area being black & white as far as the eye could see.

A little further on was a colony of rock hopper penguins. These lively, highly organized little guys are my favourites, and we had a great time watching them scale cliffs one hop at a time. When skuas fly over, the colony works as a team, thrusting beaks into the air to make a landing impossible. Skuas would also approach on the ground, but rock hoppers post guards a short distance apart around the colony and these little guys run at the skuas with beak extended like a lance, causing the large birds to back off.

After lunch we took another walk around the coast looking for seals. We didn't see any, but came across a lot of magellanic penguins on the beaches, or nestled in their burrows. Magellanics lay their eggs in underground burrows that they return to each year, and the chicks stay inside the enclosure until old enough to fend for themselves. We arrived back exhausts and hungry, but having had another great day. Elaine, our host, had presented Marilynn with a leg of lamb, fresh potatoes and eggs, so we had a fantastic meal. We are on our own for cooking here, but there is a small "honour system" shop with many basics. Items are selected from the shelves or freezer and written on a list, to be paid before leaving.

Saisha found a check list of birds of the area, and Daniel a book with illustrations and descriptions so they worked together recording all our sightings.

Tuesday morning was also bright and sunny, so after our first lazy morning of the trip we started off to hike to Sandy Bay, which required scaling a number of hills and climbing over fences at various points. This was made a bit trickier by the fact that the fences were electric, but we could get up supporting posts and jump to the ground on the other side. It was a long hike, but the beach was a beautiful crescent of pure white sand about a mile long. Approaching the beach was much like walking through snow where the sand had blown into the grass.

On an island a short distance off the coast we could see a couple of dozen sea lions, but there were none on the beach. A leopard seal took an unhealthy interest in us a short distance from the beach, causing us to stand well back - these are the most dangerous of the seals, however he decided to continue swimming down the beach. There were a number of magellanic penguins, who we watched playing in the surf.

The return walk was tiring, as we were pushing the pace a bit to meet up with Elaine, who had offered to take us to the end of the island in the Land Rover. Marilynn could no longer keep going with her cameras and backpack full of lenses and other accessories, so I took it. When we finally got within sight of the settlement we came to a long fence with no easy way over it, so I helped Daniel & Saisha up an inclined post support, and they jumped to the ground on the other side. My legs and knees were shot so climbing over as I'd done earlier in the day was not possible, so Marilynn & I hiked a considerable distance around the fence to the main gate. We were thoroughly done it when we reached the house.

An hour later Elaine was ready to go with the Land Rover, so we climbed aboard and headed cross country for the far end of the island. There were a number of gates to open and close as we crossed various paddocks-getting in and out of the vehicle to open and close them was painful! Along the way were lots of magellanic penguins and several birds we had not previously seen, including a beautiful crested caracara. At the end of the island is a spot they call "The Jump". Here, Bleaker Island comes reasonably close to East Island. Before aircraft serviced the settlements everything was done on horseback, and travel from one settlement to another could take two or three days - including getting doctors or teachers. At The Jump a boat was kept, and horses had to swim alongside when people crossed from the Bleaker to East Island.

On the way back we took a different route to see the breeding area of the giant petrel. These huge birds with a wingspan of up to 4 feet (1.22 meters) lay their eggs on the gravel of the beach - no nest. We were unable to venture too close, as they scare easily and can abandon the egg.

Wednesday started rainy with the inevitable wind. Everyone chose to sleep in, however when the rain stopped Marilynn & the kids headed off past the cormorant rookery to visit the rock hopper penguins again. I'd like to have gone, but my knees wouldn't have made it. They were caught in a couple of rain squalls while they were there, so took shelter in the tussock grass by the penguins, and Saisha tells me some of them came right up to her.

The rest of the day was lazy. The little store had wine and beer, and there was no problem sending the kids to buy it! They were very good at carefully writing all purchases down so we could settle up later. Elaine popped by with more freshly baked cookies and eggs. The day passed playing card games and watching movies in cozy warmth as the wind pounded rain against the windows outside.