Well, that was a journey and a half!
Setting off from home on Sunday afternoon, I made my way down to RAF Brize Norton, getting stuck on the M6, as usual, but then after the M5 leg I drove through the beautiful autumn colours of the Cotswolds. My journey down was filled with paranoia about each step on the way to the Falklands and the many opportunities to be turned away at each step. On arrival at the air base I had to pass through the main gate security before I could access the terminal. This was the first nervous moment – would they let this usually very suspicious-looking person onto the site? It was first hurdle cleared (phew)!
On the base, I drove as slowly as possible, trying to look normal again but made it to the terminal okay and then waited for check-in to open – not as long as I was originally told. Would I pass this second hurdle? Yes, and they didn’t even check the weight of my carry-on luggage. I then had to drop off my car at the long stay car park and make it back to the terminal – no problems again. Then started the long wait until the flight; five hours in one of the most boring terminals in the world.
The long wait seemed to go much quicker than expected and eventually we were called through security and passport control – with the nowadays unusual ability to take a big bottle of water through. With military VIPs called through first, the rest of us were then boarded by row number and we walked out into the dark of the apron and onto one of the RAF’s new tanker aircraft – which also has over 200 seats. Just after 11:00pm, we were launched into the night, not to land until we had crossed the equator.
After skirting the west coast of Africa, watching the stars above the Atlantic and seeing the sun rise (unfortunately I had a window seat on the wrong side) we landed on the volcanic island of Ascension, rumbling down the runway past dark hills of black and red. The island was surprisingly cool for this time of year, only 21 degrees at 8:00am. We had two hours to wait in ‘the cage’ – the fenced-in and mostly open air part of the terminal ‘air side’ of security. With a bit of moisture in the briskly blown air, most were probably keen for the two hours to move quickly, although a chance to stand after hours on the plane were very welcome.
An announcement was made that the weather over Mount Pleasant runway in the Falklands was causing dangerous ‘rotor’ winds and that it was too risky to land, so we were delayed by an hour. Eventually, we were called to board the plane, only to be told, once we had nicely settled in, that there would be a twenty-four hour delay at Ascension and we all had to get off again.
We trooped back to the cage and waited instruction – to be honest, they were very organised and in only about half an hour we were given room allocations in the transit camp accommodation and bussed across to the far side of the island. Travellers’ Hill is the main living area for the British military personnel on the island and there are rows of four-bed rooms set aside for just this eventuality. I was roomed with two soldiers and another civie. One of the soldiers wandered off with his unit, while the other dozed for most of the rest of the day, the other civie went to see some local colleagues, while I relaxed on the ‘veranda’ keeping out of the strong mid-Atlantic sun. I would have gone for a walk and seen how far I could get up the nearby tallest hill on the island – Green Mountain – but as this was ‘only’ a 24hr delay, our hold luggage was left on the plane and I wasn’t going to walk up there in the heat in the only clothes I had – pity really.
After two meals in the Combined Mess and a spot of essential shopping, three of us went to the Naafi bar for the evening. With a nice pint of John’s Smiths costing £1.30 a pint, it seemed rude not to take full advantage, however, I regretted that somewhat when the alarm woke us all at 3:45am. Climbing onto the coach 15 minutes later, travelling back to the airbase and waiting in the cool morning air did wonders and by the time we took off at 7:35am I was feeling a little bit more human again.
There wasn’t an awful lot to see out of the window for the next eight hours but shortly before landing, we spotted land; the land I’d been wanting to see for over 20 years. We flew over the coast of East Falkland, passed Stanley and over the mountains of its western approaches. As we came into the airbase, you could sense the apprehension in the plane as we had been warned that the landing would be rough. In the end, either the pilot was very good or the conditions weren’t that bad.
As we stepped off the plane, the wind was significant but the most striking thing was the clear, bright blue sky and intense early afternoon sun. After queuing for immigration and customs (getting a Falklands stamp in my passport), I grabbed my luggage, saying goodbye to friends I’d made on the extended journey and made my way outside to start the next stage of my trip.
Being on the ground of these south Atlantic islands for the first time, seemed unreal, even more so in the strong glare of the late spring sun. The 51 hours it had taken to get from my home to touching down at Mount Pleasant Airbase were certainly the most eventful of my travels to date and will stick in my memory for a long time – maybe I should plan to take my next holiday in Ascension!