Wednesday, May 16, 2012

From the Falklands: Prize-Winning Shearers, Award-Winning Services

When I lived in the Falkland Islands, in 1986-7, the economy was still a simple one. With no air connection with the South American continent, tourism was negligible (the only alternative being an expensive Royal Air Force charter from Brize Norton (Oxfordshire) that refueled at Ascension Island, a story in its own right that I’ll tell another time). By the end of my stay, the British government had only recently declared a fishing conservation zone around the Falklands, so their squid-fueled prosperity of the past quarter-century was only a matter for speculation.
What there was, was wool, the backbone of the economy for more than a century, though some things had changed since the 1982 South Atlantic War between Britain and Argentina. Land reform had resulted in smaller owner-occupied farms supplanting the mostly absentee-owned ranches that had dominated the Islands’ economy and politics beyond living memory but, in the near absence of roads even on East Falkland, the coastal freighter Monsunen still collected nearly all the wool clip. Some of these trips required week-long voyages to West Falkland, also visiting smaller offshore islands such as Saunders and Sea Lion (pictured above).
While families now ran most of the farms, they could not do it entirely on their own, especially during the spring shearing season. That meant hiring shearing gangs, flown from Stanley to the farms on FIGAS, often spending several days in what was well-paid but back-breaking labor. Working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or so, with breakfast, lunch and smoko (tea breaks), an individual could shear upwards of 300 animals per day. It’s a young man’s job, and I have seen some old shearers who appear unable to stand up straight; as the photograph above shows, most shearing sheds now provide mechanical support that was not available then (for what it’s worth, a few women do shear, but not normally professionally).

Still, it’s a skilled occupation that often provides its practitioners a chance to travel the world – shearers are always in demand - and even compete with others. In March, several Islanders placed highly in New Zealand’s Golden Shears shearing and wool handling championships, with the team of Evan Jones and Lee Molkenbuhr placing fifth, behind New Zealand, Scotland, Wales and Australia, among 23 countries participating.

Falklands Tourism Awards
Meanwhile, according to Montevideo-based Mercopress, the Falkland Islands Tourist Board recently presented a series of awards to local operators who have contributed to industry’s increasing success. Expected to become an annual event, the awards included a “Taste of the Falklands” prize to Malvina House Hotel for its outstanding restaurant (where I dined in my most recent trip to the Islands) and a shout-out to Kay McCallum’s B&B (where I have stayed in previous visits), notorious for its garden gnomes (pictured below), for an Outstanding Contribution to Tourism.
The Best Visitor Attraction award went to Bluff Cove Lagoons which, while I cannot criticize it harshly, I do consider it misleading. I know and like Bluff Cove's owner Kevin Kilmartin – I was his guest there long before it became a tourist attraction - but I think the award owes as much to quantity as to quality, given that its penguin colonies are most easily accessible to large numbers of cruise ship visitors. Independent travelers are likelier to prefer destinations such as Sea Lion, Saunders, Carcass (pictured below) and Bleaker Islands, which provide an opportunity to enjoy the wildlife while lodging at intimate accommodations that provide greater insight into local life.
The awards are due to become an annual event, emphasizing the quality of services available even in this very small, remote market.

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