The Future of the Falkland Islands and Its People/A Voyage To Livingston Island And The Falkland Islands
A Voyage to Livingston Island and the Falkland Islands
Antarctica is a continent at the end of the world, or rather another world beyond the world’s end as they use to say at the southern tip of South America. There in the White South, beyond the Antarctic Convergence that runs across three oceans to mark the physical boundary of Antarctica, is the Bulgarian base St. Kliment Ohridski on Livingston Island in the Antarctic Peninsula region of Western Antarctica.
People still know little about that continent. It is the highest, driest and coldest place on earth, a land of penguins, seals, glaciers and icebergs, stretching over a vast area of 14 million square kilometres around the South Pole. A continent where few people have had the chance to step on and get touched by its beauty.
The first Antarctic discovery was that of South Georgia Island by the Englishman Anthony de la Roché in 1675. Livingston Island was discovered in 1819 by the Englishman William Smith, and one year later the Russians Fabian von Bellingshausen and Mihail Lazarev discovered the continent itself.
Joining the team of the 11th Bulgarian Antarctic expedition I left for the Ice Continent on February 11, 2003. Naturally, each of us had one’s own personal expectations. Even if it was a sudden, unforeseen trip for me, as a result of which I would be missing a full month of my school term, I nevertheless felt happy to see a child dream of mine coming true – setting my foot on the Antarctic ice.
On that day, the six of us setting off for the far south included deputy foreign minister Katya Todorova, responsible for Antarctica in the Bulgarian government; my father Lyubomir Ivanov, member of the interministerial Working group on Antarctica and chairman of the Antarctic Place Names Commission; Miroslav Sevlievski, member of the Bulgarian Parliament; Atanas Budev, Bulgarian ambassador to Argentina; Rozalina Doychinova from the Foreign Ministry; TV journalist Albena Vodenicharova and her cameraman; and myself, a student of the First English Language High School in Sofia and the first Bulgarian student to take part in an Antarctic expedition. Another eleven people awaited our arrival. They had been separated from their families and cut off from the rest of the world already for few months, in order to work in service of science.
It took us little more than twenty-four hours to fly from Sofia via Milan and Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, a small town on the south coast of the Land of Fire or Tierra del Fuego, that prides itself as being ‘The World’s End.’ Then we sailed for three days onboard the ship Polar Star across the famous Drake Passage, one of the world’s most dangerous seaways notorious for its violent gale winds and rough seas.
We landed on Livingston Island in the early morning of February 15, 2003 to find ourselves surrounded by scenery that looked like nothing we had been prepared to see. Indeed, we were greatly amazed by the stunning beauty of the blue-white ice of Perunika Glacier close to the three small structures of the Bulgarian base. The weather turned out to be less severe than anticipated, with daytime temperatures slightly above the freezing point at that time of the year.
Bulgaria’s outpost in Antarctica is the St. Kliment Ohridski base built in April 1988 by four Bulgarian ‘Antarcticans’ and subsequently expanded in 1996. Although rather small in comparison to other nations’ bases, it is very cosy. We felt quite at home there, and even enjoyed traditional Bulgarian meals prepared with imported South American ingredients. Besides the expedition members, at the base we also met the English writer Jane King who had come to Antarctica to see the place and go through her own experience which she was to convey in her future novel. She got so charmed by the local hospitality that she chose to stay at the Bulgarian base throughout the austral summer rather than tour some other bases.
There were some penguins on the beach in front of the base but not many, with the majority of them being of the Policeman (Chinstrap) species. However, Bulgarian biologists in that summer season were carrying out research at the colony of Papua (Gentoo) penguins in a nearby cove, ferried there weekly by Zodiac inflatable boats operating from the Spanish base that is five kilometres away from St. Kliment Ohridski. We are among the few countries that do genetic studies connected with the human interference with the penguin environment. People in Antarctica try to minimize their disturbance of wildlife, that is for instance why Antarctic cruise vessels were permitted to land no more than one hundred tourists ashore at any one time.
Krumov Kamak is a minor peak protruding from the glacier surface about one kilometre from the base, where the Bulgarian team had celebrated the New Year’s Eve just few weeks earlier. Then, not far from that peak and shortly before our visit, they had used locally available material to build the St. Ivan Rilski Chapel. Inside we placed some earth brought all the way from the burial mound of Khan Kubrat of Bulgaria (632-651 AD), and following the custom lit candles in that first Christian Orthodox chapel in Antarctica.
Accompanied by my father I also visited some other remarkable places on my way back from Antarctica. We paid a visit to the remote islands of Diego Ramirez that are the southernmost land outside Antarctica, rounded the legendary Cape Horn, sailed by yacht down the Beagle Channel to the world’s reputedly southernmost town, the picturesque Puerto Williams on Navarino Island, travelled by bus across the entire main island of Tierra del Fuego from the Argentine town of Ushuaia to the Chilean city of Punta Arenas, skirting beech forests and sheep farms, and crossing the Strait of Magellan by ferry.
From the Land of Fire I brought home some Paraguayan tea maté but did not progress much in its consumption. My father was more successful in his experiment of growing Antarctic grass in our Sofia flat, with several seed crops harvested already.
In the second part of our journey we spent a week with a family of Falklands friends in Stanley, later visiting Rio Gallegos in Patagonia and one of the most glamorous world cities, Buenos Aires. However, nothing compares to the feeling of walking on a glacier in Antarctica, or watching sleepy seals, flying skuas and gulls, diving blue-eyed shags, hearing the occasional thundering sound of falling giant ice blocs as they split from the glacier snout.
On our last night at the Bulgarian base we were lucky enough to see the moon – a rare chance indeed, taking into account the almost permanently cloudy weather of the island. As I was standing in the Livingston night many thousand kilometres away from home, viewing that Antarctic moon, I thought how happy I was to have the opportunity to be in Antarctica. I really hope that people will do everything possible in order to keep the Ice Continent pristine. Let us preserve for the future this cleanest and most beautiful place on earth.
LAND OF PEOPLE, PENGUINS AND SHEEP
The Falkland Islands are situated 13,000 kilometres from Bulgaria and 4,000 kilometres from the South Pole, their southernmost point being Beauchêne Island. The two main islands, West Falkland and East Falkland are separated by Falkland Sound, whose name was given more than three centuries ago by Captain John Strong who made the first ever landing on the islands in 1690.
The islands are surrounded by the South Atlantic Ocean, and separated from Antarctica by the Scotia Sea to the south. Most of their territory is covered by grass and peat, with no natural forest. The weather is cool and wet in summer, colder and windy in winter. It is very similar to the marine British climate, different from our continental Bulgarian climate that has both real warm summers and real cold winters. Not to be forgotten, the seasons in the Falklands are the reverse of those in the Northern Hemisphere; also the sun travels right to left through the northern part of the sky.
Our flight from Punta Arenas to the capital of the Falklands, Stanley lasted one and a half hours. One of the most important connections of the islands is Punta Arenas in southern Chile, with regular flights once a week only. There are also weekly flights to England via the British island of Ascension in the Central Atlantic.
The Falkland Islanders were liberated from a brief alien occupation that lasted ten weeks and was terminated on 14 June 1982, at the end of the war between Britain and Argentina. Today the people in the islands are working very hard in the name of their country’s development. They owe their prosperity mainly to their fishing and squid industry. The islands have become a popular tourist destination as well, visited by tens of thousands of tourists each year.
Stanley is a very small town with population of about 2,000 inhabitants. Most prominent in the city centre is the historical Christ Church Cathedral with its high bell tower, colourful tinted glass windows, and wall inscriptions inside. Unlike the Bulgarian churches, it has no icons though. Nearby in the churchyard is the Whalebone Arch erected in 1933 to commemorate the country’s centenary. Most of the Stanley houses are brightly painted and two-storied with small tidy gardens. Every family has its own car or two, mostly jeeps as befitting a predominantly off-road country, while there are taxi vans available to the tourists.
Our host Robert, who had invited us to the Falklands, lived together with his daughter Jane in a house located not far from the centre of Stanley. Jane was 15 years old, attending the modern Falkland Islands Community School which boasts science laboratories, Internet rooms, large library, sports hall, and swimming pool. After graduating from that school at the age of 16, Falklands students usually leave to have their college education in England.
Of all the places that we have visited during my journey with my father, the Falklands were the only one where I had the opportunity to meet and mix up with students of my age. Every evening together with Jane and her friends Elane, Isla, Kate, Ashley, Matthew and Patrick we used to meet at a billiard hall chatting till late in the night, playing billiard or cards. During the summer vacation most of the students in Stanley use to work as baby-sitters or shop sellers. There aren’t many discos and cafés but there are lots of other interesting pastimes. Not so far from Stanley is the Mount Pleasant Airport built after the war, and one day we even drove to the military base there to play bowling.
In a large shop near the cathedral, Matthew showed me some books by his grandfather Ian Strange; they were full of beautiful pictures of penguins and other birds. There is a wide diversity of wildlife species on the Falkland Islands including the largest breeding population of Black-browed Albatrosses, and several penguin species: Rockhopper, Magellanic, Papua, King and Macaroni. However, I failed to see any Falklands penguins, as I preferred to spend the time with my friends in Stanley rather than join my father going to the nearest penguin colony at Gypsy Cove. I was fascinated to see some Falklands flightless Logger Ducks right on the city waterfront, and the Upland Geese were to be encountered everywhere. While travelling on the airport road I saw some of the sheep that abounded in large numbers and had been the main source of living for many Falklands generations in the past.
The Islanders are very kind and hospitable people. There is nothing like visiting a Stanley house where you would be met with a smile, and drink some hot chocolate on a terrace looking down over the city at the Atlantic Ocean waters splashing in the Stanley harbour.