Falkland Islands – Saunders Island: Wildlife Out on the Edge

Saunders is the fourth largest island in the Falklands archipelago and was also the fourth place I stayed during my trip last year. Whilst technically it is around 13 miles long and about the same wide, this is rather misleading as it’s an oddly shaped place. It has three parts joined by low isthmuses and if the sea levels were a little higher, Saunders would split into three. The largest section of the island has the only settlement, called Saunders Settlement, funnily enough! The island has mountains, open moor, marsh and grassland, and, at its edges, beaches and steep cliffs.

Saunders Island

After landing on the island aboard a FIGAS flight, visitors are picked up by the island’s owners and transported from the landing strip, through the settlement, and out to the accommodation. The settlement is a typical jumbled collection of buildings, both the home-like and the agricultural, from sheds and shacks to houses and barns.

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In amongst the buildings is the island shop – something of an experience! It’s a barn-like Aladdin’s Cave of food with high wooden shelves of packets and tins, in amongst a jumble of boxes across the floor and freezers with home-made ready meals. There’s no chance of going hungry there but a bit of self-catering provides a break from the great and hearty meals laid on elsewhere.

Whilst visitors can stay in the settlement, there seems little point as the most important sights are some distance away and there are two places to stay nearer to them. I stayed at the Rookery Inn on the north coast of the main part of the island, which is about an hour’s drive from the settlement. The other accommodation is at ‘The Neck’, by the north-western isthmus, which is one of the few places where visitors to the Falklands can find king penguins.

When first arriving, the Rookery Inn doesn’t seem all that inviting – it looks like a shipping container with windows. However, inside, it’s a comfy, clean and warm cabin, with an open-plan kitchen, lounge and dinning room, two bedrooms and a shower room. It’s actually a little calm, metal-box oasis in the middle of nowhere. It was the simplest of the accommodation I stayed in but that was very much part of its charm. The white wrinkly-tin walls set off by the luminous red wrinkly-tin roof, it stands out in its surroundings but any building would do there. It looks out over the cliffs to the South Atlantic, the wind blowing straight into its face.

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I arrived in the morning and was at the cabin by lunchtime. I spent the rest of the day walking up the nearby Rookery Mountain (422m) and then down towards the nearby beach. On top of the mountain the winds off the ocean have scoured the rocks and boulders, leaving strange carvings, almost like solid lenticular clouds.

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Writing of clouds, the afternoon would have been almost cloudless except that the island was making it’s own weather. The brisk wind blowing in off the ocean was lifted as it hit the land and rose up the steep mountainside. At it reached the ridge, the air condensed and clouds formed, cloaking the tops in a fog which reached out across island.

The beaches on Saunders are like many of those elsewhere in the Falklands – bright light-coloured sands washed over by turquoise waves. Standing on top of Rookery Mountain towards the beaches, with a stunningly deep blue sky overhead made for an equally stunning view.

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Saunders is another of the Important Bird Areas designated by Birdlife International in the islands and the wildlife has got to be the main reason to visit. Around 50 bird species have been recorded on the island with around 40 breeding or probably breeding. All five species of penguin found breeding in the Falklands can be seen at Saunders. Of particular note are the 7,000 pairs each of gentoo and rockhopper penguins and 4,000 pairs of magellanic penguins, as well as 11,000 pairs of black-browed albatrosses. The Rookery Cabin is a great place to stay to see all of these species with the breeding cliffs for the albatrosses starting almost outside the door and the large rockhopper colonies (rookeries) being just a 25 minute walk away along the cliff tops. The magellanic and gentoo penguins can be found down at the beaches with the former nesting in burrows just behind the sand and the latter wandering further inland to their colonies.

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Sitting at the top of the cliffs near to the cabin, I watched the albatrosses for hours as they glided past on the stiff ocean breeze and came into land – another place where they could skim just over my head. The cries of the birds reverberated along the steep rocky edges, all mixed in with the sounds of the ocean below and the wind whipping across the ground. The view laid out in front was of miles of cliffs dotted with the white birds sitting on their nests with others coming and going – a true wildlife spectacular.

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Further along the cliff top was the rockhopper rookery – I first found it during the first evening as night was starting to fall. After cresting rise after rise, I eventually started to hear and smell them, some distance before topping the final ridge and seeing the round colonies in an open cliff top valley. The penguins form several large breeding groups in the short-clipped grass above the tumbling cliff which these diminutive penguins bounce up and down. This was the location where the BBC filmed parts of its ‘Penguins – Spy in the Huddle’ series – this clip shows their troubles getting up the cliff!

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For the only full day on the island, I spent more time with the rockhoppers and wandered along the cliffs amongst the albatrosses, and then walked down to the further beach, back towards the settlement. There was plenty of time to watch the Commerson’s dolphins playing in the crashing surf and to wander amongst the gentoo and magellanic penguins.

The original British settlement in the Falklands, Port Egmont, was established on Saunders in 1765. Yes that seems a long time ago and the tumbled down remains of the first buildings lie there true to that but there is a sense of continued history on the island that is perhaps stronger than elsewhere because of their presence. The links from that first settlement to the events of 1982 and on to now are in the aura of the place and almost tangible; in fact, they are. You can touch the stones of those first buildings, you can touch the Argentinian landing craft now lying derelict on the beach and you can touch the ‘there and now’ in everything. Throughout my stay amongst the islands, there was a true sense of an ongoing history, of people living it and of a place touched by it. Yet, what is obvious there is that our impact on the land is but a tiny scar in its history; the natural history is so much more, so much richer.

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Like elsewhere amongst moors, bays, mountains and beaches, the people are the link to the past and the future. In my hour long journeys to and from the cabin, I learned a little more about the experiences of those living there both now and in 1982. The views were strong but considered, robust but practical, and above all else, there was a sense of being in tune with the land.

Saunders is where I felt the most like I was on the edge of the world and that’s what made the cabin all the more homely – comfort on the edge. With seeing no one for 24 hours, with the exception of a passing ship, and a view out into the harsh South Atlantic, there was nowhere else I stayed quite as remote or quite like it.

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I wrote previously that Pebble Island was like the Falklands in miniature; I don’t quite think the same can be said for Saunders. However, Saunders does typify the Falklands in some ways – it is what it is, the place has a ‘take us as you find us’ kind of way about it and it is no pastiche of itself, made softer or gentler for outside eyes. Will I go back? Almost certainly!

2 thoughts on “Falkland Islands – Saunders Island: Wildlife Out on the Edge

  1. First, your description of your Falkland trip(s) sound amazing. We are staying at the Rookery on Saunders Island in January of 2016. We were wondering if you can walk from the Rookery to the Neck and back in a day. We would love to make to the neck and this seems the only way possible.

    • Hi Kris. I didn’t do the walk myself but the two people who overlapped with my stay at the Rookery did (well, they set off to do it just as I left so I don’t know if they got back 🙂 ). The walk is around 6.5miles each way and there should be plenty of daylight at that time of year, so if you’re fit (most of the route will be ‘off piste’), it’s possible.

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