September 29, 2005

Sheep, two-day parties enliven remote Falkland isles

By Mary Milliken

PORT HOWARD, Falkland Islands (Reuters) - First-time passengers think it must be a mistake as the 10-seater plane banks toward an undulating grass field maintained by munching sheep and littered by goose droppings.

But this is indeed the Port Howard airport, gateway to West Falkland, an island with hundreds of thousands of sheep and 150 humans, where general stores open for a few hours a week and people make their own spare parts.

It is a unique way of life that both the Falkland Islands government and island families aim to preserve as centuries-old traditions die out in the comparatively bustling East Falkland.

"Just what the doctor ordered," one visitor from the capital wrote in the guest book of a Port Howard inn. Stanley is home to 2,000 of the 2,900 people in the British overseas territory, and most residents there are working flat out to keep up with their booming economy.

The Falkland Islands are remote by any measure, sitting in the South Atlantic 8,000 miles from Britain and 400 miles from Argentina.

The chain of more than 200 islands, with the two main islands of East and West Falkland, only showed up on most people's maps when Argentina invaded them in 1982 and sparked a 10-week war won by Britain.

But then there is "camp" -- the name used to describe the area outside Stanley -- where people live much like they did 100 years ago and often struggle to get by on wool.

That is where the government comes in, with plans to ensure the viability not only of West Falkland but also dozens of islands, some of which have just one resident famous for their multi-tasking talents.

"In the West, it is about integrating, giving them better access to the opportunities in the East," said Julian Morris, general manager of the Falkland Islands Development Corporation.

A top priority is to set up a weekly ferry between East Falkland and West Falkland to replace an erratic coastal supply ship and solve what Morris calls "a pretty big disadvantage of organizing life around a two-month supply schedule."

The West produces some of the finest wool in the world and the annual sheepshearing is taken very seriously. But the government wants more sheep to go to slaughter and has opened an abattoir near Stanley that meets European Union standards.

Some islanders scoff at the government's hefty 4 million pound investment in a plant to slaughter only 30,000 head a year, but manager John Ferguson calls it "an essential part of keeping West Falkland going."


Port Howard, the West's largest farm with 40,000 sheep and 80 miles of coast, lost three-quarters of its 75 people in recent decades and closed its school.

Raised on a diet of mutton and potatoes and long days working with the sheep, many young natives went out to see what the world had to offer. But some have come back home and the population has grown by 25 percent in two years to 25.

"As soon as I got back, I knew I didn't want to leave," said Sue Lowe, who emigrated to England two decades ago and came back to buy the Port Howard Lodge.

She expects tourist numbers to jump for the upcoming Southern Hemisphere summer as word gets out among fishermen and wildlife enthusiasts and anyone needing a break from Stanley.

Military buffs also come to see the museum with relics of the 1,000 Argentine soldiers who occupied Port Howard during the war. Mirage and Skyhawk fighter planes shot down and left largely untouched since the war lie in nearby moorland. There is even a golf course with a minefield as a hazard.

Native Port Howard brothers Myles and Christopher Lee have returned with their brides to run the farm that has been in their family for generations. They see lots of room for growth, but not enough labor to go around.

"We would really like to see the community grow rather than just see the farm prosper and get rich," said Myles Lee, 33.

More people would put more life in the Port Howard Social Club, which stopped opening on weeknights when video recorders appeared and farmhands became night-time couch potatoes.

But locals still pull out all the stops for the traditional social events, like the recent "Two Nighter" when a village hosts scores of neighbors in their homes for two nights and a day of drinking and dancing.

Indeed, the good neighbor policy still thrives in the West and every house will offer visitors "smoko" -- the traditional tea and cakes.

Even tourists get to lend a helping hand. Before the plane arrives to pick them up, they race down the grass airstrip in a Land Rover to scare the geese away and then latch the fire brigade's water tank to the back.

By the time the red plane comes over the hilltop and glides toward the green grass, it is all too clear why Falkland Islanders maintain that "The West is best."