Day 13: Is it really all over?
Just after six am, I woke up to the warm sun streaming through the wide windows of my cosy front room. The bedsheets were so encompassing it was hard to believe the time had come to pack up and depart home, to what seemed more like another planet than a different country at this point.
My clothing smelt slightly of seal as I stuffed it into my bag, an excuse I used for the tear I could feel forming in my eyes. I imagined on our slightly delayed, hence the sleep in, AirBridge flight the majority would be troops on their way home ecstatic for a break from deployment, but for me, it was a bittersweet goodbye.
My brain knew I needed to go home for work and WiFi, but my heart had got quite comfy here, enjoying the simple life and feeling relaxed.
I buttered my toast for the final time in Arlette’s kitchen, dumping extra of her homemade marmalade onto the think bread. As we both drank warm mugs of coffee while having a natter, I realised just how special this place was.
Robert, Elaine, Tom, Tina, Rachel, David, Dan, Carol, the list of names was endless – how many other places in the world can you say you’ve travelled and knew the name of every pilot, chef, hotel staff member and guide you had met.
For me, the Falkland Islands was the first, and perhaps only place, that will ever happen.
It had been an emotional trip for many reasons: incredible highs, hard, lonely lows, a lot of personal soul searching in quiet times and a fair chunk of nostalgia to my childhood. But the underlying feeling was of joy, joy that I had said yes to an assignment that I never expected would tug on my heartstrings so much.
I was shaken out of my distant daze by the gravel growling on the drive under the weight of a land rover. Tina, with her familiar beaming smile, was here, and what had started to feel like a six-month jaunt across the archipelago suddenly seemed like the much quicker two weeks it had actually been.
I hugged Arlette, twice in fact, like you hug a relative you’re not sure when you’ll be lucky enough to see again, and slipped some of her famous baking into my carryon. We swung by to pick up an equally teary Silvia, who had been on her own solo rollercoaster it seemed and headed off down the Mount Pleasant road for one last time.
The unlaid sections seemed smooth to me now, the sighting of a lonely tree in the distance peculiar, and 40miles per hour felt like doing a Formula One final lap.
In the car park of the military airport, I felt we all shared an emotional goodbye like a happy ending movie but surrounded by barbed wire and camouflaged jeeps it likely would have looked more like an evacuation scene on the silver screen.
The terminal building welcomed us with dance music playing behind the friendly army lads at the check-in desk, and I scored lucky with a window seat. The tired terminal was overwhelmed by the smell of freshly sprayed Lynx, and we all waited on plastic chairs as announcements for Majors and Sergeants came over the tannoy.
By now this all seemed normal, or actually maybe even the opposite. The airport had an actual runway, I didn’t know my pilots’ name, and there was some sense of procedure here. My idea of normal might have been warped during my two weeks in the Falkland Islands.
Before boarding we chatted with two veterans from the 1982 war who we had met on the flight over, both exclaiming how different and developed Stanley was now and telling us their stories, before by row group we were called forward to find our seat for the next 18 hours.
As the replacement jet, a wet leased Jet2 plane of all things (minus the Jess Glyne welcome) started to roll up the runway; I looked out the window hoping one day I would return to this extraordinary land.
In the corner of my eye, a group, likely cadets, stood by the runway. One man dressed as a penguin waved an ‘enjoy your freedom’ sign at the plane as they all jumped up and down waving us off.
And for me, that sums up the paradox of the Falkland Islands, a far off land in an almost forgotten time. For some, it’s an intrepid adventure which rewards you with wildlife and vistas that many will never see.
For others, it’s a bleak sentence that they can’t wait to escape, and those image searches I did before my visit are the PR disaster that epitomes that.
But for me, it was everything I wasn’t expecting in the best of ways. It was joyful, dramatic, and a true off-the-beaten-path adventure – it was familiar yet incomparable at the same time.
Perhaps indeed one day I’ll return, but next time I’ll be taking that new flight I think.
As Silva and I sat in Cape Verde airport on our stopover, trying to reacclimatise to free wifi and cafe menus, she summarised it perfectly – visiting the Falkland Islands was like being part of an elite club, where everything was a bit special and different, and it wasn’t until our membership was revoked that we realised just how much we had craved to be members, even though we had never known it.
I hope you enjoy your ‘temporary membership’ of the Falkland Islands as much as we did, it truly is a land of unknown adventures.