Sealion Island is a 45-minute flight from Stanley, the bijou capital of the Falklands. The FIGAS light aircraft touches down on a grass airstrip just north of the dunes. I check into the snug, 11-room lodge, grab a packed lunch, and spend the day alone, exploring the cliffs, sandy beaches and tree-less habitats of spongy, pincushion bushes and tussocky grasses.
The rockhopper colony is at the northern end of the 8km-long island near a lonely war memorial to the HMS Sheffield, sunk by an Argentine Exocet in 1982, 30 miles offshore. The lodge manager, Jenny Luxton, later tells me: “War was the turning point in the Falklands. The conflict breathed a new lease of life into it.”
There’s a royal blue sky overhead. Turkey vultures and giant petrels with six-foot wingspans ride the winds. There are over a million penguins in the Falklands; I listen to gentoo penguins braying like donkeys, while Magallenic penguins bustle around in comical colonies as if joined at the hip.
On the west coast’s cliffs I eat my sandwiches overlooking a small sealion colony. The jet-black pups bother their sun-basking parents and get ‘go away’ slaps. The waters are also inhabited by orcas that make daring raids on the sealions.
The cliffs flatten to dune-backed white sand beaches, and the largest colony of elephant seals in the world. The immense inert males are strung out ahead of me dozing away after the demands of the breeding season.
I manoeuvre between these giants; one is 12ft long. Some rasp laboured snores, others flare their nostrils and open wide, brown eyes, groaning disapproval at my presence. Rumbling from the recesses of their flabby blubber are unflattering belches. But, I sit transfixed by them until they become stony outlines under an evening sky of star-spangled galaxies. falklandislands.com
Words: Mark Stratton
How to do it: An eight-day, island-hopping wildlife odyssey with flights from Santiago (Chile), FIGAS transfers, excursions, and full-board accommodation costs from £2,095 per person. coxandkings.co.uk
A glass of wine is placed on the table at Bar Bambou. “You’re drunk, Patrique,” says the waiter to his most regular customer.
“I’m drunk every day,” smiles Patrique.
Smallest of the Mascarene islands, Rodrigues lies in the Indian Ocean, a speck of land moored some 350 miles beyond Mauritius. It’s an apparent island idyll and Africa’s most easterly point. In 1968 Britain incorporated the colonial loose end of Rodrigues into a newly independent Mauritius. It took a year before islanders grudgingly raised the Mauritian flag.
As I drive towards the island capital of Port Mathurin the road climbs gently, winding through grassy hills and a scattering of one-room farmhouses. Chickens scratch at the roadside and pigs root around. Always visible, the coast is convoluted by coves and bays, and fringed by sandy beaches, beyond some of Rodrigues’ 17 uninhabited islets.
It’s early, after the previous night’s cultural exchange with Patrique, and the air is warm and humid. My guide Jean-Paul’s mobile rings incessantly, the conspiratorial Creole conversations an unintended commentary on our progress.
Driving on the left — some British affectations endure — there’s little traffic save occasional Peugeot buses, kings of the road emblazoned ‘Road Warrior’, ‘The Challenger’ and, worryingly, ‘Drive Me Crazy’.
“Here’s the only five-star, all-inclusive,” says Jean-Paul as we pass the high, whitewashed walls of Rodrigues’ Prison.
“Many inmates?” I enquire.
“One. He goes home at the weekend.”
Later, a police pick-up blocks the road. Two officers are making an arrest — a goat. “What’s the charge?” I ask.
“Criminal damage,” says Jean-Paul. “Eating someone’s garden.” Further on more police are directing traffic.
“Many young people join the police,” says Jean-Paul.
“Why?” I ask. “Is there a goat crimewave?”
“No. It’s the only job going.”
Jean-Paul’s phone rings again. “Damn this mobile,” he says, taking the call and lapsing into intense Creole whispers.
“Ah, that girl. She loves me too much. But what can I do? My wife, my family…”
Historically, Rodrigues’ women have outnumbered the men, and despite entreaties from the Catholic Church, men frequently took unofficial second wives. Jean-Paul appears to maintain the tradition.
In Port Mathurin the weekly supply ship from Mauritius is in dock. The Saturday market sees piles of potatoes, jackfruit and coconuts laboured over by young men, while neatly stacked jars of honey, chutney and fierce-looking chillies are guarded by similarly fierce grande dames. Beneath a metal-roofed shed, a distinguished elderly man sits by a table of husked coconuts. Pierre Louis Leratz is 90 years old and a former sergeant major in the British Army.
“I prefer independence from Mauritius,” he declares slowly. “I was very satisfied with the British. Now it’s no good.” His sentiment is reflected in the island politics, and the economic unreality of a state possessing just 40,000 citizens, which has translated independence into a grumbling autonomy.
Back at the car I recount my meeting in the market.
“Ah, Leratz…” says Jean-Paul. “We are different. Here, it’s one big family.” His mobile phone rings again. He may have a point. tourism-rodrigues.mu
Words: Nick Redmayne
How to do it: Rainbow Tours offers five-nights’ half-board in Rodrigues and two nights’ B&B in Mauritius, from £2,155 per person, including flights.
The volcanic islands are small enough that most hikes can be done in a day, but even an hour’s walk in any direction will invariably involve a calf-busting ascent and a dizzying view from a mountain top. Nowhere in the Faroes is more than three miles from the sea, and although the highest peak Slættaratindur may top out at a modest 2,897ft, there are dozens of trails that climb abruptly from sea level.
On the western island of Mykines, I hike out of the tiny, solitary settlement on the two-mile trail to the lighthouse at the island’s western tip. My guide is Michael Davidsen, a retired fisherman. Despite his advancing years, Michael makes light work of the steep path, chatting as he walks. During the war years around 170 people lived in 40 houses, but now the remaining population of nine occupies just five houses.
While good footwear is important, high-quality waterproofs are essential. Despite starting our two-hour walk in sunshine, we manage to get soaked, then dry off as we watch hundreds of puffins flying clumsily around the cliff tops, only to get soaked again before we find shelter and hot soup in the solitary cafe back in the village. It’s a typical Faroese day.
On Eysturoy, the second largest of the islands, I stop for the night in the only guesthouse in the remote village of Gjógv with its modest population of 49. Cliffs rise steeply on both sides of its natural harbour. I set off up the hillside and for 40 minutes I climb, briskly at first and puffing and panting by the time I reach what appears to be halfway. Kittiwakes swoop overhead as the path clings ever closer to the daunting cliff edge, while puffins — which dominate the rock faces
— furiously flap their tiny wings. But it is the Faroese national bird, the oystercatcher, with its long, orange beak and distinctive, black-and-white body, that rules the lush interior. One passes overhead, circling twice and chirping loudly before landing back at its nest. I walk on, and the bird flies by again, this time a little lower. By the third sortie I get the message and retreat, avoiding a potential dive-bomb attack. It’s a small reminder that humans are a long way down in this pecking order. visitfaroeislands.com
Words: Andy Jarosz
How to do it: Sunvil Discovery offers an all-inclusive four-night Faroe Islands Activity Tour (flights from Edinburgh), from £1,295 per person.
Fast forward 200 years and I’m getting his angst. The RMS St Helena, the last Royal Mail passenger ship operating weekly, delivers me 1,181 miles west of Africa from Cape Town to a brooding volcanic lump little bigger than the Isle of Wight. It’s obscured by an unwelcoming drizzle.
Little Britain. The teeny-weeny capital, Jamestown, is a right royal throwback to Blighty, circa 1950. It charms with its blooming jacarandas, Georgian main drag, scattered cannons, and age-defying jalopies with single-digit licence plates. There’s a tiny prison whose two inmates are allowed out to the shops… why not? Later, I ascend a 700-stepped stone stairway called Jacob’s Ladder to watch RMS St Helena steam off to Ascension Island. Adios, outside world.
My stay is at the 18th-century Wellington House where Napoleon’s nemesis, the Iron Duke, stayed some years before his exile. St Helena is drenched in a history that seems like it happened yesterday. You can see centuries of turbulent false dawns in the locals’ DNA: garrisoned soldiers, imprisoned Boers, forced Chinese labourers, African slaves and privateers.
On my first night, I sit on James Bay’s seawall fending off glutinous gulls eating takeaway tuna fishcakes (the island’s signature dish) and chips. Chips come with everything. The salt-of-the-earth pubs begin to fill. I drink prickly pear liquor and make friends with the gregarious locals known by quirky nicknames. I meet up with Polar Bear one evening. He’s really dark-skinned. “I think my nickname’s ironic,” he laughs.
My week disappears with indecent haste. St Helena’s facade of austere cliffs may possess the joie de vivre of Dartmoor Prison in a thunderstorm, yet it masks the interior’s fabulous fecundity: not least an unadulterated 17th-century Arabica coffee Napoleon apparently loved. I follow a dramatic sea-facing path of lava features to Lot’s Pools and later ascend Diana’s Peak lost in foliage and mist. Another day, a boat takes me searching for humpback whales but they’re outshone by a pod of 400 dolphins surfing like synchronised swimmers.
But it’s Napoleon’s exile that best captures St Helena. Sprightly septuagenarian, Robert ‘Water Rat’ Peters, takes me to Longwood House, where Napoleon lived under house arrest. Ooh-la-la, it’s cold. Yet inside, my skin prickles with his presence: his great coat laid out on an original chaise-longue; the copper bath into which he latterly sank into depression; framed images of ‘not tonight’ Josephine.
Nineteen years after his death in 1821, Napoleon’s remains were removed to Paris for a hero’s burial. They say his exhumed cadaver was near-perfectly preserved — it seems holding back time is a speciality of this engaging little outpost. sthelenatourism.com
Words: Mark Stratton
How to do it: Napoleon Bicentennial to St Helena, a 24-night, all-inclusive package, departing 30 October, including full-board and excursions, from £7,985 per person. islandholidays.co.uk
Published in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)