Closer to the islanders
The Falklands have recently been much in the media with President Christina Kirchner rattling Argentine sabres. Reactions have been mixed but the Prime Minister has, thankfully, been robust in his response.
Last year, in recognition of their efforts 30 years earlier, members of the South Atlantic Medal Association 1982 were offered heavily subsidised travel to the Falkland Islands. They were allowed to take with them two close family members. It was a wonderfully generous offer that will have helped many with their private problems.
In late October, I took with me a daughter and son who were four and a half and three at the time of the conflict. They had lived with the stories but could have had little idea of what to expect. It was spring "down South" and what we all found delighted us but, in some ways I suspect, surprised my two.
Our host was from a family who had farmed one of the islands but they were now living in Stanley. He was born in the islands but had joined the Royal Navy before the 1982 conflict. At that time he was serving in HMS Endurance, the South Atlantic Patrol ship, and had been closely involved in the liberation of South Georgia. His war had been fraught with concern for the islands and his family and he certainly played an important part. My wife and I had stayed briefly with them shortly after he had left the Navy and taken over the farm from his parents. By then he had married a delightful Welsh girl and had a daughter and son. When the wool price collapsed he sold the farm and moved them all to Stanley. Life was not easy for them and I had tried to stay in touch, as he was a remarkably capable young man with considerable guts and determination.
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A Falkland farm is really a ranch, usually handling well over 1,000 sheep and some cattle. They are often many miles apart. Until recently travel was either by pony or the sea. Now, the islands are very well connected by roads, a huge advance in the past 30 years when the only roads were close to Stanley, the capital.
The islanders, however, retain their old independent characters. Many appear reserved until the ice is broken. Then there is a warmth of friendship and little is too much trouble for them.
This was certainly the case with our host. He announced that he had taken a week's leave and would drive us around the islands. It was a wonderful gesture and we visited a farm where they were shearing some 1,200 yearling lambs. The whole system was a huge improvement on the shearing sheds that I had seen 30 years before. It was slick and efficient with modern machinery. The wool is no longer taken by sea but by road.
Our next visit was to a hydroponics vegetable farm near Stanley. This had been created by a farmer who in 1982 ran out to watch a Harrier pass his airstrip, where Argentine aircraft had been reported earlier. Sadly he was blinded in one eye by a splinter and took up market gardening instead of sheep. This, too, was a fascinating insight into modern technology being put to good use. He now sells his produce to the islanders, military forces and cruise liners.
Our host showed us around the abattoir, which he manages, and was rightly proud of his achievements. It is up to all the necessary EU standards and feeds the military as well as much of the civilian population. He has also created an export market and provisions passing cruise liners.
All in all, with the fisheries and oil, the islands are racing into the 21st century.
A further highlight was an invitation from the Governor to have tea in Government House. I gasped at the plateful of splits and cream before us and wondered if he knew I was a Devonian. My son quickly pointed out the jam and cream were upside down and it was soon confirmed that the Governor was a Cornishman. No matter. He gave us an excellent briefing on the islands and the islanders who he clearly wished to support. He explained that, contrary to many suggestions, the islanders govern themselves and his role as Governor is principally to ensure their defence and foreign affairs.
In the following week we visited two wonderful islands teaming with wildlife of many kinds – penguins, seals, and ground-nesting birds, safe through the lack of foxes and rats but prey to raptors.
And then on our final day we were driven to San Carlos Water where I spent most of my war. Sadly, the visibility was bad and wind strong but memories were jogged and my two and I could talk.
Perhaps what surprised them and delighted me most was the islanders' consistent welcome and thanks for liberation. A woman behind the counter looked at me quizzically and commented: "You've been here before, haven't you?" To which the reply of "yes" brought out her husband who said: "Welcome back Commodore!"
I asked if we had ever met.
"No. But we know all your faces. We won't forget you!"