Tuesday, 23 February 2010

My Falkland Islands Experience - Part 2 of 4

It's 4:30am, mid-September 1998 and I'm up and about, making a quick cup of coffee in my hotel room and getting dressed for a day at the portacabin, sorry office. When I'm dressed I plug in the headphones on my CD Walkman and step out into the frozen night. It's perfectly still and perfectly clear. I listen to Paul Carrack's album "Beautiful World" and I walk to the other side of the sleeping town of Port Stanley. The stars are unrecognisable above me but they are present in their millions in a truly breathtaking vista. There's no pollution here.

My workday began at 5am, which was 9am in the UK. I was dealing with our internet service provider in Wigmore Street in London, and the Cable and Wireless folks in Aberdeen. Come 1:30pm, when it was 5:30pm in the UK, my day came to an end, and I was free to please myself for the afternoon. The Head of Operations offered me one of the SUV's to go driving if I liked, but I couldn't drive. However there was much to explore in Stanley after all.

One of the things that was rammed home to us right after our arrival on the Island was that it wasn't wise to walk off the roads. Unexploded Argentinian mines, remnants from the 1982 War, had not been fully located and removed, even though the British mines had been. We had maps of where we'd put ours, but sadly the Argentinians didn't furnish us with theirs. The weight of this problem lies heavy on the land and infects one's view of the beautiful terrain. You feel trapped, confined to preset roads and pathways. On Ross Road, down by the water there is a little shack; a shop where you can pick up a free copy of the minefield map, where green areas are considered safe, blue areas contain possible danger, and red areas where mines are still believed to be buried. I took a copy and still have it. For a while I had it in a frame on my bedroom wall. Somehow I'd looked at the different shades of danger and seen art. But the shop on Ross Road doesn't just provide maps. Here is a gallery of photographs of the effects of these landmines. Children and adults with missing arms and legs. On the floor are shards of twisted metal. Pieces of rusted ordnance that served as examples of the indiscriminate power of these impersonal maiming devices.

There is a supermarket in Port Stanley. I don't know what it's like now, but at the time you didn't want to risk buying the fresh food. With no agriculture to speak of, the Islands were reliant on a weekly plane that flew in from Chile, loaded with produce. I seem to remember eating a lot of Pot Noodles from the supermarket. It was hard to find things that were still inside their sell-by date.

The Victory bar was the main pub in Stanley, and for a fairly accurate description of that I suggest you read Remnants, because a key scene takes place there. All the stuff about the pen, and the toilet, and the pool table mentioned in the story, were absolutely true.

Across the water, to the north of Stanley the word "Barracouta" had been written on the side of the hill in huge letters. I'll never forget reading that word every day and wondering what it meant. It was years later that I found out this and other words written on that hill were the names of Royal Navy hydrographic survey ships. The history of this place was palpable. It wasn't in the architecture, it was in the land, put there by real people with real stories.

One afternoon a few of us decided to go penguin hunting. September, I was told, was a little early in Spring for them but we might get lucky. So we jumped into an SUV and drove out to the northeast, around the inlet, where a derelict ship sat rusting in the water. We parked up and followed paths around the beautiful sandy beaches, all of which were cordoned off in case a landmine washed up. Such a shame. These paths led from one Argentinian gun emplacement to the next. These windy, exposed hilltop locations provided beautiful views of unspoilt grassland; sad therefore that these vantage points were used for killing. We saw no penguins, just graffiti ridden bunkers and rusty cannons pointing at long departed foes.

One day we received an invitation from the Government of the Falkland Islands to attend a drinks reception at the town hall. We went, with the strict instructions that we were not to divulge whether we thought we had found oil (we hadn't, only traces of oil in porous, ashy rock, itself the remnants of an ancient Argentinian volcano that had flooded the basin making it difficult to find. Time may reveal there to be some irony in this). These people had other day jobs as farmers and such like. They seemed to be moonlighting as government officials. Of course, their sole purpose was to extract information from us by getting us drunk. The government wanted to know if their economy, and the future of the islands, was going to change for good. The discovery of oil here would undoubtedly be seismic.

All the while, the Borgny Dophin mobile rig was being anchored into position in a location set by our geologists. And one morning I got an early call, waking me from sleep. It was the Head of Operations. "Get ready and meet us up at the house. Today you get to go to the rig."

To be continued in Part Three.

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