The Falkland Islands: A Bumpy, Boggy Journey to Volunteer Point
Part of the unwritten contract on a cruise that stops in the Falkland Islands is knowing that you might not get there. Weather Permitting is the caveat emptor, and it’s difficult to comprehend just how significant that can be until you’ve visited the remote, windswept islands. Surrounded by an unforgiving South Atlantic Ocean, it’s a place where people like to say you can experience all four seasons in just one day.
We had two days at sea before our scheduled arrival at Port Stanley, the capital on East Falkland Island. The good-weather gods were continuing to spin their magic on this trip, and on our second sea day, Captain Dag announced that the Quest would indeed be able to anchor there in the morning. But any chance of celebrating the good news was quickly quashed when Herb and I learned that our excursion to see the King penguins at Volunteer Point had been cancelled. Because of recent rains, Seabourn felt it was too risky to attempt the two-and-a-half-hour – each way – off-road journey.
One of the advantages of booking a cruise line’s excursion is that if there are any delays or problems, the ship will wait for you. That guarantee does not apply to independent tours or heading out on your own. In most places, this isn’t a big concern, but with a far-from-port excursion and no real roads, it appeared risky to book independently. Add the possibility of missing Antarctica, and it seemed to me incredibly sensible to book with the cruise line!
However…this was one of those experiences that I really-really-really didn’t want to miss. If we were going to make it as far as Port Stanley, then there had to be a way to get to Volunteer Point. Herb had gotten word from a neighbor across the hall that about a dozen passengers had booked an excursion through “a guy named Patrick.” I immediately recognized the name from my research for the trip and knew his Adventure Falklands company had a good reputation. A quick email later, we learned that he could take two more people, that he swears by his drivers and routes and that he has never had anyone miss a ship. Suddenly, we had a plan B.
The wind was having a field day as our tender dropped us off at Port Stanley, and I quickly understood what the Falklands’ weather concerns were all about. The scene at the landing was crowded and surprisingly chaotic. A 1,400-passenger ship had arrived at the same time as the Quest, and it seemed as if everyone was scrambling to find their tours. As we waited in the unofficial line, a guide from Patrick’s company called out, “First four people for Patrick Watts…Let’s go! We don’t have much time!” Herb and I and another couple were first in line and followed him to the parking area, where his Mitsubishi truck was waiting along with Land Rovers, Toyotas and other 4×4 vehicles.
We headed out of Port Stanley, traveling in a caravan with four other 4x4s. Although we had only briefly met our traveling companions Nancy and Roger, we soon became fast friends, sharing stories as well as the experience of this most unusual road trip. Our driver Roy was quiet but friendly, with an easy smile, quick to answer questions and talk about what it’s like living in the Falklands. A plumber by trade and the father of two young daughters, he takes visitors to Volunteer Point when the ships are in port. Many locals, he told us, work double-duty during the tourist season. Roy’s wife was one of the other drivers in our caravan, and his in-laws run a small bed-and-breakfast in the caretaker’s home on Volunteer Point. Everyone on the island, it seemed, has some connection with tourism. And with a population of about 2,000, Port Stanley is clearly the kind of community where everybody knows each other.
The town disappeared quickly as we headed northwest. Large chunks of rock lined the two-way road, and brush-like grassy golden groundcover stood straight as the wind charged through. The landscape became hilly, the road bumpy, and soon we were driving on gravel. A short time later, there was no road at all, and we found ourselves on a sheep farm, bouncing along a spongy, boggy terrain. I gripped the handle just above the window, positioning myself so my head wouldn’t hit the glass.
We bounced over hills and swerved around potholes, constantly in awe of Roy’s skill as he navigated the Mitsubishi through the difficult topography. One of the drivers in our caravan checked out a shorter route near the coast, but quickly returned, reporting that it was just too muddy. My mind was caught in funnel of emotions, jumping from conversations with my fellow travelers to solitary thoughts of what if we don’t make it back in time to the wonder of the moment of where we were and what we were doing.
And then suddenly, we were stuck.
Wheels were spinning, mud was flying and our 4×4 just couldn’t move. The caravan drivers quickly sprang into action, laying large strips of metal over a trench to serve as a ramp for us to drive on and attaching a cable from our vehicle to another, winching us out of the quagmire. Passengers in the 4x4s ahead of us jumped out to capture the experience with cameras and videos, but for Roy and the other drivers, it was an expected part of the trip. And when it happened again – and again – we knew it would only be a momentary setback.
Volunteer Point emerged on the horizon almost exactly two-and-a-half hours from when we had left Port Stanley. As we drove to the parking area, Roy told us we needed to be back at the truck in an hour instead of the planned two-hour stop. The crowds at the port had resulted in a later start for our group, and the drivers wanted to make sure we’d be back in time to board the ship.
I practically sprinted down the sloping hill to the King colony. In the distance was a magnificent blurring of black, white and bright yellow-orange, 1,500 pairs living together on this remote and desolate peninsula, seemingly unfazed by the human creatures who had come for a visit. Low white rocks placed several feet apart and signs stating, “Penguins Only Beyond this Point” formed a border around the colony. The penguins were free to wander wherever they wanted. And they always had the right-of-way.
I was surprised and delighted by our incredibly close encounters. The three-feet-tall Kings would leave the circle and walk past us – at times just inches away – often stopping to check us out, standing so still it seemed they were waiting for us to take a photo. Small groups would break away together, looking and sounding as if they were deeply discussing an issue of the day. They were spectacular; they were noisy; they were funny; and they displayed such intense emotion that I often found myself laughing out loud. I couldn’t get enough of these glorious birds. It was an absolute joy to walk among them.
Much too soon, it was time to head back. Patrick Watts had met up with the other drivers in our caravan, and I was delighted to tell him how much we appreciated the last-minute spots in his tour. Our group began to gather around the parking area, comparing notes and taking one last look.
Roy had lunch bags with bottles of water and tuna and egg salad sandwiches – prepared by his in-laws – waiting for us in the truck. Every minute counted on this journey, and lunch would be a multi-tasking affair, holding a sandwich in one hand and the car handle in the other while riding along the bumpy route back to Port Stanley.
The skies were growing overcast and the wind stronger, and Roy recalled the time when travelers couldn’t return to their cruise ship because the weather had changed while they were on the island. The whole town rallied, he told us, opening their homes, offering meals and a place to sleep until the tenders could arrive safely the following morning.
The trip back to Port Stanley seemed to pass more quickly than the drive to Volunteer Point. Maybe it was because we knew what to expect this time around, or perhaps having the smooth road at the end instead of the beginning gave the illusion of a quicker drive. Before dropping us off, Roy offered a quick tour of the town, showing us where he lived, where his daughters went to school, the hospital, the town pubs and Liberation Monument. He spoke with such pride about the islands and said he had attended college in the U.K., but couldn’t wait to return home, and that he never plans to leave.
The four of us said our goodbyes to Roy and walked around the main street before catching the tender back to the ship. We stopped at Christ Church Cathedral, the most southerly Anglican church in the world, and took our photos under the Whalebone Arch.
As we waited for the last tender of the day, I thought about the chance we had taken to get to Volunteer Point. I was grateful it had all worked out, but I was even happier that I had put aside my fears about making it back in time, that I had followed my heart’s desire and seized the moment in a place I most likely will never be again.
I wouldn’t have missed this day for anything. Well, maybe anything except Antarctica.