WINDSWEPT WON­DER

You’ll have to take a mil­i­tary plane but a trip to the Falk­land Is­lands is worth the ef­fort

Business Traveller (Middle East) - - Contents - NIGEL TISDALL

Could this be the most un­usual air­line route in the world? Twice a week, at pre­cisely 2359, a Min­istry of De­fence char­ter flight slips out of RAF Brize Nor­ton in Ox­ford­shire bound on a 18hour, 8,000-mile flight south to the Falk­land Is­lands. Wind­blown and tree­less, this re­mote ar­chi­pel­ago of 778 is­lands lies around 400 miles east of the south­ern tip of South Amer­ica and has a pop­u­la­tion of just 3,200 – plus an aw­ful lot of sheep, pen­guins, seals and seabirds.

Known as the South At­lantic Air­bridge, this epic ser­vice link­ing the UK with the Bri­tish Over­seas Ter­ri­tory has been op­er­at­ing for more than 30 years and is a col­lec­tor’s item for fans of avi­a­tion and ad­ven­ture. While the flights are pri­mar­ily filled with per­son­nel and freight bound for the Mount Pleas­ant mil­i­tary gar­ri­son on East Falk­land, a small num­ber of civil­ians are also al­lowed on board – al­though get­ting a seat is by no means easy.

There is no on­line book­ing sys­tem. Po­ten­tial pas­sen­gers must first sub­mit a flight re­quest to the Falk­land Is­lands Govern­ment Of­fice in Lon­don well in ad­vance – in my case, five months ahead of travel, as I am us­ing this novel route as a way to ex­plore th­ese far-flung is­lands be­fore join­ing a cruise south to Antarc­tica. Dur­ing the south­ern sum­mer sea­son from Oc­to­ber to March, the cap­i­tal – Stan­ley – is a pop­u­lar port of call for both large ships cruis­ing the coast of South Amer­ica and ex­pe­di­tion ves­sels of­fer­ing in­trepid voy­ages to South Ge­or­gia and the Antarc­tic Penin­sula.

No tick­ets are is­sued for this idio­syn­cratic flight, but ten days be­fore de­par­ture you will be given a pas­sen­ger reser­va­tion num­ber and told when to re­port at the air­field. The MOD re­serves the right to change its sched­ules, and de­lays seem to hap­pen fre­quently. My flight was put back a day at just 24 hours’ no­tice, but don’t ex­pect any­one to in­form you of such a change of sched­ule – it is the pas­sen­ger’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to check the RAF Brize Nor­ton web­site to dis­cover such things, even though a one-way ticket costs a hand­some £1,111 per per­son. The re­turn fare is sim­ply dou­ble this, while res­i­dents of the Falk­land Is­lands pay around a third less.

Ar­riv­ing at RAF Brize Nor­ton four hours be­fore de­par­ture, it is clear that I am catch­ing one of the most se­cu­rity-con­scious flights in the world open to civil­ians. Af­ter be­ing is­sued with a bright or­ange pass per­mit­ting ac­cess to the heav­ily pro­tected base, we are taken by coach to a func­tional ter­mi­nal where I meet my fel­low pas­sen­gers – around a hun­dred mostly young, prin­ci­pally male sol­diers with se­vere hair­cuts and cam­ou­flage-pat­terned back­packs. Only 31 seats are gen­er­ally made avail­able for “Non Mil Pax” (non­mil­i­tary pas­sen­gers), as the green lug­gage la­bel tied to my suit­case puts it. Na­tion­als from 13 coun­tries – in­clud­ing Rus­sia, China, Tai­wan and Viet­nam – are ex­cluded from pur­chas­ing tick­ets. On av­er­age only five pas­sen­gers per flight are tourists like me, the rest of this select band be­ing busi­ness trav­ellers, rel­a­tives and is­lan­ders. Ev­ery­one is re­mark­ably friendly – within min­utes I’ve met the lo­cal den­tist and tan­ner and al­ready feel part of the com­mu­nity, while the young sol­diers are quiet, cour­te­ous and help­ful.

It is a long and tire­some wait to get on board. Screens in the ter­mi­nal re­veal the par­al­lel uni­verse of the mil­i­tary, show­ing the time in Cyprus,

Ev­ery­one is re­mark­ably friendly – within min­utes I’ve met the lo­cal den­tist and tan­ner

Dubai and the Falk­lands. The only flight due for ar­rival is com­ing from Kabul. The fi­nal se­cu­rity checks are car­ried out al­pha­bet­i­cally by sur­name, while bus trans­fers to the plane are or­gan­ised by seat num­ber.

Op­er­ated by Air­tanker, a Bri­tish char­ter air­line that sup­ports the UK Armed Forces, our grey Air­bus A330-200 is sur­pris­ingly com­fort­able, with 291 econ­omy seats in a 2-4-2 con­fig­u­ra­tion plus two hospi­tal beds at the rear. The seat pitch is a gen­er­ous 34 inches, which is bet­ter ( by two inches) than the econ­omy seats on the new Qan­tas 787-9 Dream­liner ser­vice con­nect­ing Lon­don and Perth, a jour­ney of 17 hours. All seats are pre-al­lo­cated, and there is no busi­ness class or pre­mium econ­omy. IFE is lim­ited to TV screens that drop down from the cen­tre of the air­craft ceil­ing to show films from days of yore, such as Wall Street, so most pas­sen­gers bring their own tablets plus a back-up power sup­ply as there are no USB sock­ets. Head­phones, a cush­ion and a rug are pro­vided, along with an Air­tanker-branded amenity kit with earplugs, eye-mask and socks. There is no al­co­hol and the food – which ranges from ba­sic (filled rolls and muesli bars) to dire ( bat­tered cheese and ham cro­quettes) – is handed out in white pa­per car­tons with plas­tic RAF cut­lery by uni­formed (non­mil­i­tary) flight crew who are po­lite and ef­fi­cient. You won’t go hun­gry – in a life­time of travel, this is the first flight I’ve been on where you get of­fered sec­onds of the main meal.

Un­til June last year, this globe­span­ning flight touched down to re­fuel on As­cen­sion Is­land, an­other Bri­tish Over­seas Ter­ri­tory lost in the South At­lantic Ocean. As a re­sult of prob­lems with the is­land’s run­way, this rout­ing has been sus­pended un­til 2020. In­stead, af­ter a six-hour20-minute night flight, we touched down on the pan­cake-flat desert is­land of Sal in Cape Verde, off the coast of West Africa. The two-hour break in­side its mod­ern com­mer­cial ter­mi­nal cre­ated a mad dash for the smok­ing zone and power-charg­ing points, while some sol­diers – clearly used to all this – un­roll their sleep­ing bags and grab some kip on the floor. As dawn breaks, we look out wist­fully at the palm trees and blush­ing sky and savour the ris­ing trop­i­cal heat – in the sub-Antarc­tic Falk­land Is­lands, the av­er­age sum­mer tem­per­a­ture is 10ºC, fall­ing to 2ºC in win­ter.

Back on board, we now face a day flight of ten hours 20 min­utes. “If you like look­ing at the sea you’re in for a treat,” Cap­tain Oliver drolly com­ments, “be­cause there’s noth­ing else to see.” By now the flight is only half-full – some pas­sen­gers bound for As­cen­sion Is­land have dis­em­barked

to catch a smaller plane that is ca­pa­ble of land­ing there – which al­lows the re­main­ing trav­ellers to spread out. Yet more food comes, fol­lowed by plen­ti­ful jugs of wa­ter and le­mon squash as if it’s school sports day. While this isn’t the most pam­per­ing of flights, the Air­bridge serves its pur­pose well, pro­vid­ing you fac­tor the like­li­hood of de­lays into your travel plans. The only other way to reach the Falk­land Is­lands is a round-the-houses route via Chile that in­volves stops in San­ti­ago and Punta Are­nas. This can be cheaper, but takes more than 24 hours – and the once-a-week con­nec­tion on to Mount Pleas­ant Air­field is often sold out well in ad­vance dur­ing the sum­mer sea­son.

At long last, we be­gin our fi­nal de­scent to th­ese enig­matic specks on the other side of the world. Con­structed af­ter the 1982 war with Ar­gentina, Mount Pleas­ant Com­plex is home to some 1,300 ser­vi­cepeo­ple who live as a self­con­tained com­mu­nity 38 miles west of Stan­ley. Trans­fers to the cap­i­tal are ini­tially on un­sealed roads bor­dered with peaks and bays that be­came fa­mil­iar names dur­ing the 74-day con­flict in 1982. Wire­less Ridge, Mount Tum­ble­down, Bluff Cove... this trau­matic episode may have hap­pened over 35 years ago, but it is fresh in the minds of many is­lan­ders. It’s well worth book­ing a half-day bat­tle­field tour to learn about what went on. Along with three lo­cal civil­ians, 255 Bri­tish and 649 Ar­gen­tine troops died in a grim strug­gle fought in se­vere win­ter con­di­tions. The re­mains of de­stroyed he­li­copters and hill-top dug-outs used by the in­vad­ing troops can still be seen, while abun­dant memo­ri­als pay trib­ute to those who were lost.

Th­ese days the Falk­land Is­lands are a much hap­pier place. The ex­cel­lent His­toric Dock­yard Mu­seum in Stan­ley tells the story of its growth from an iso­lated band of sheep farms to a thriv­ing, self-suf­fi­cient econ­omy (ex­clud­ing de­fence ser­vices) pri­mar­ily based on fishing. Oil was dis­cov­ered off­shore in 2010, and while its cur­rent low price has stalled ex­ploita­tion, it prom­ises rev­enue. Ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics is­sued by the Falk­land Is­lands Tourist Board, the an­nual num­ber of busi­ness trav­ellers to the is­lands has bub­bled around 1,500 for many years, with a sim­i­lar amount of land-based leisure vis­i­tors. The lat­ter is fore­cast to grow by five per cent by 2020, while cruise ship vis­i­tors av­er­age around 55,000 a year. Most of th­ese only spend a few hours here – ad­mir­ing the king pen­guins at Vol­un­teer Point, sip­ping pints of Iron Lady IPA in the Vic­tory Bar, tak­ing self­ies be­side Stan­ley’s red phone boxes and bust of Mar­garet Thatcher – but any­one who stays longer will dis­cover some­where very spe­cial.

Few peo­ple re­alise how large the Falk­land Is­lands are – they are al­most the size of North­ern Ire­land and laced to­gether by a plucky com­bi­na­tion of ferry, sup­ply ship and do­mes­tic flights op­er­ated by the Falk­land Is­lands Govern­ment Air Ser­vice. Th­ese use a ven­er­a­ble fleet of ten-seater twin-prop Brit­tenNor­man BN-2 Is­lan­der air­craft, orig­i­nally built in the Isle of Wight, that sport a smart liv­ery of red, white and blue. Fly­ing low across an aus­tere land­scape of peat fields and sheep-speck­led hills, their des­ti­na­tions in­clude grass strips on out­ly­ing is­lands such as Peb­ble, Car­cass and Sealion that are home to de­serted white sand beaches and a glo­ri­ous ar­ray of wildlife in­clud­ing ele­phant seals, sea lions, five species of pen­guin and huge colonies of black-browed al­ba­tross. While the Falk­land Is­lands might take some reach­ing, once you get here you’ll never re­gret it.

ABOVE: The Air­tanker Air­bus A330-200 en route in Sal, Cape Verde

LEFT: Port Stan­ley Air­port

OP­PO­SITE PAGE: The Air­tanker Air­bus A330-200 en route in Sal, Cape Verde CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE: King pen­guins; His­toric Dock­yard Mu­seum; me­mo­rial bust to Mar­garet Thatcher

ABOVE: Colour­ful homes brighten the cap­i­tal, Stan­ley

LEFT: Wel­come sign in the har­bour of Stan­ley / Falk­land Is­lands

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