Safely aboard P&O’s mid size cruise ship the Aurora I joined the 1,873 other passengers as we prepared to sail from Montevideo and into the South Atlantic Ocean, or next destination being The Falkland Islands where we were due to arrive three days later. I had been booked to be on board for a week, but the cruise itself was a 65 day marathon, so my shipmates were seasoned travellers by this time.
Life on board soon settled down into a regular routine, which on sea days basically meant filling the time between meals. I usually wake early in the morning and being on a ship didn’t change that, and often used that time to go over my lines. On Aurora there is a small bit of deck, just above the bridge, that I used to pace around and mutter the lines to Doctor Marigold (at least I muttered some of the lines, as I had to shorten my performance from an hour to 45 minutes – the official P&O time for shows and lectures).
With the line learning completed I would go to the buffet and pile up a plate for breakfast – sometimes fruit and cereals, sometimes cooked. Sometimes poached fish, sometimes the full English. Sometimes toast, sometimes croissant. With such variations did I pass my mornings!
Being on board as an entertainer who hasn’t done anything yet can be a lonely existence as nobody quite knows why you are there, so I tended to read a lot and walk the decks.
At 11.15 each morning the lectures began and on this trip I was in for a real treat. P&O had booked a gentleman of my age by the name of Tony Green to talk about the Falklands war, but these were to be no dry, academic lectures recounting endless statistics and dates – in 1982 Tony was a 19 year-old Marine, getting ready to leave his barracks and go home to Hartlepool for Easter. However the word came through from Westminster and overnight all leave was cancelled, Hartlepool became Goose Green.
Tony’s talks were masterpieces of delivery, he just told his story in the most personal manner you can imagine – yes he listed dates and casualty figures, but we knew we were listening to a frightened young boy in the heat (or cold) of war. Churchill once wrote that ‘Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at….’ Tony strongly disagreed!
What made the lectures even more moving was the fact that Tony would be returning to the Falklands for the first time since the war, and was planning to climb Two Sisters Mountain and visit the remains of the Argentinian machine gun post that he had destroyed by flinging a grenade into it 36 years ago. By quirk of coincidence he left the Falklands on board a P&O ship (the requisitioned Canberra) and was now returning on another.
After the lecture is was back to the buffet for lunch (usually a salad) before spending an afternoon either reading or watching films in my cabin or the small cinema on deck 8.
To fully accommodate all 1,874 guests the dinner service is divided into two sittings, one at 6.30 and the second at 8.30. The evening entertainment is arranged so that each group of diners can watch everything that is going on. I was placed on a table at the first sitting, and very much enjoyed the company of a group of committed cruisers who had circumnavigated the globe many times. This wealth of experience did create a slight shadow over the cruise, for one of our number – a 91 year old – had visited The Falklands on three previous occasions and because of strong winds had never been able to get ashore. To think of Tony making his pilgrimage and having to sail straight by was too awful to think about; we had to hope that the Gods would be smiling on us. As John, the Cruise Director muttered after one of Tony’s lectures, ‘If General Galtierie could get ashore then so can we!’
After dinner was finished (5 courses is you wished to avail yourself of everything, although I restricted myself to 3), most people made their way to the Curzon Theatre to watch the evening cabaret show. On this leg of the journey we had a harpist and two vocalists, all of whom I got to know during the trip. The shows featured lots of dry ice and swirling lights to back up the fabulous performances. Every performer was backed by the seven-piece Aurora Orchestra who only get a single rehearsal for each show, learning new arrangements for songs they have played many times before.
The days and the sea passed by and the weather reports for our arrival in the Falklands were promising. Every day I made my way round the ship refusing to take lifts between decks, so that I could walk off some of those calories that I took on three times a daily.
As we got closer to land I had a decision to make: my first show was scheduled for the evening of the Falklands visit, and the professional thing to do was to stay on board and rest or rehearse, but when would I ever get the chance to return here? I so wanted to see the landscape, and get up close and personal with the penguins which inhabit the beaches. In the end my decision was made by the harpist Rebecca Mills, who was booking a private trip to Volunteer Point, and was looking for three others to share the cost. ‘Bugger professionalism’, I recklessly thought and told her ‘yes’.
The day of the Falklands dawned bright, and more importantly calm. We navigated carefully between the islets until we were just outside the harbour of Port Stanley where we dropped anchor.
Soon the little tenders were ferrying passengers from Aurora to the shore where we were met by a fleet of various 4x4s. Rebecca’s group was completed by Liverpool football legend David Fairclough and Jill Green (Tony’s wife, who came with us while he faced his memories on Two Sisters). We were introduced to Michael, our driver for the day, folded ourselves uncomfortably into a proper British Land Rover Defender and headed off.
The drive to Volunteer Point would take us two hours, even though it looked to be no distance on the map. The reason for the tardy journey soon became apparent as we turned off the road and started to pick our way through the bogs of the Falklands. Michael kept the car in high range and low gears with the differentials locked, gently letting the rugged tyres find whatever grip was available to them. We plunged down steep banks and mounted impossible climbs. There were five cars in our convoy and we stuck together so that if anyone got stuck another car could winch them out again.
Michael knew his territory well and seemed to be using the Force to navigate. The way in which he gently guided the wheels brought to mind Tony’s description of the way that the Marines gently eased their boots into the soft ground, trying to feel the hardness of a landmine beneath their soles, before allowing their full weight to fall on the trigger.
Eventually we arrived at Volunteer Point and spent an hour and a half among the penguins. Oh, oh how amazing these creatures are: so proud, so trusting, so comical, so smelly!
From the Land Rover I walked straight to the beach, which has the most extraordinary sand – white with a hint of coral pink streaked through it like raspberry ripple ice cream.
A few birds were making their way back from a quick bathe, whilst a group of four were waddling down to make their ablutions.
One of the sea-bound penguins was so keen that he kept flinging himself onto his stomach in the slightest of puddles, only to struggle back onto his flippers to continue the march, whilst the others looked on dismissively.
Having spent time on the beach I then walked back towards the main colony, pausing only to marvel at the strange sight of penguins sharing a field with sheep and cattle.
At the main colony a few circles had been marked out with white stones, and the penguins crowded into this safe haven seemingly knowing that the humans had been given instructions not to cross the line.
There are three species at Volunteer Point – the Kings, the Megellanic and Gentoo and each species has its own circle where they can lay and protect their eggs.
After a packed lunch (cheese and pickle sandwiches, prawn cocktail flavoured crisps and of course a Penguin chocolate bar), it was time to climb back into our Land Rover for the slow crawl back to Port Stanley.
Michael was not only a great driver but also a fascinating guide, giving us many insights of life on the Falklands. There seems to be a real sense of community and everyone looks out for everyone else. There have been occasions when cruise ships have disgorged their passengers in the morning only for the winds to get up during the day meaning that they can’t get back, and then the phone call goes round to see who can offer beds – 1 here, 2 there, the Finlayson’s children are away so they can provide three beds, and so on.
As far as groceries are concerned the Islands are quite self sufficient (a lot of lamb is consumed), but would you believe many people order online from Asda, and approximately eight weeks later the goods arrive from Blighty.
At one point Jill asked if there is a majority wish to remain British and Michael chuckled: ‘We had a referendum a couple of years ago and the result was 98.8% in favour. We never found out who the .2% were – they must still be in hiding!’
Finally we made our way back to the road and turned towards Port Stanley but before we got there Michael pulled over and pointed out two twisted piles of metal in the middle of the landscape: the wrecks of Argentinian helicopters left where they crashed in ’82 are a stark and morbid reminder of the war.
All in all it was an amazing day and I felt greatly privileged to have been there. I joined the queue on the quay to get a tender back to Aurora and that night we left this little piece of Britain behind us. On board the routine of the cruise resumed, and at 7.30 passengers made their way to Carmen’s lounge to watch Mr Dickens is Coming! before dining.
In my next post I will describe our journey around Cape Horn and through the Beagle Channel.