Some years ago I wrote a short story based on my time in the Falkland Islands and recently a friend reminded me of it. I decided to post it on my Blog because it encompasses a lot of things dear to me, family, fly fishing, friendship, remote landscapes and big fish!
Enjoy my story – A Common Bond
It was the middle of August as I climbed off the aging Royal Air Force Tristar, and prepared to descend the stairs to the asphalt of the Falkland Islands airport.
I had arrived on these remote islands, nearly 8,000 miles from my home in England because I was about to start my new posting. My home for the next six months would be Her Majesty’s Ship Dumbarton, the Falkland Island Patrol Vessel.
A guidebook I had bought back in England informed me that the Falklands apparently consist of two large and almost 700 smaller islands. Until 1982 it had been a sleepy place where the locals raised sheep, drove Landrovers, posted letters in red mail boxes and flew the Union Jack.
For hundreds of years the islands remote, windswept and forbidding nature had not encouraged much population increase except from passing seal hunters tired of their wandering life. The islands proximity to the tip of South America made them the final resting place of the occasional sailing ship exhausted from trying to beat round Cape Horn. As hulks slowly decayed on nearby beaches, unwanted crew found a new home in the town of Stanley. In this way the population had slowly increased
The future of the islands seemed secure with a population of hardy, sheep raising islanders who loved the rugged loneliness of the place. It seemed this utopian life would continue forever, except the islands where being watched by other eyes.
Only 300 miles to the west was Argentina, whose people had long considered the islands to be part of their country.
In 1982 the British Government had become focused on home affairs, and not what was happening 8,000 miles away in the south Atlantic. While their attention was filled with striking miners and defense cuts a small group of Argentine scrap metal dealers began a chain of events that would plunge the two countries into a bloody dispute.
The small Falkland Island Garrison of Royal Marines was no match for the thousands of Argentine conscripts who poured ashore on East Falkland. The Union Flag was unceremoniously hauled down and replaced by a pale blue flag.
Although the conflict only lasted a short time, hundreds of young men from both nations died on land and sea until finally the Union Jack was once again flying over the islands.
Life however, had changed forever and although peace had returned, along with it came an influx of new faces.
I had just arrived to become one of those faces and to be part of the British Garrison.
The walk across to the arrivals building was short and cold, with snow flurries sending frigid flakes into my English summer clothing. I had left home during a beautiful warm summer, and arrived in the middle of the Falkland winter.
My luggage tumbled out onto the carrousel, and I was pleased to see that my fly rod cases were intact. Although I had been posted to this remote spot, I had no intention of being away from my beloved rods.
Depositing the bags onto a trolley, I made my way out to the parking lot where I hoped my transport would be waiting. A young Naval Rating was standing besides a waiting Landrover and he gave me a friendly wave, easily recognizing me from the ubiquitous tan holdall which distinguishing me from all the Soldiers and Airmen. Having thrown my gear into the back, we turned out of the parking lot and headed for the harbor.
In all directions the landscape appeared to be the same, with bleak tundra and the occasional flock of sheep. Windblown sleet angled across the road from the south bringing with it a chill of Antarctica only a few thousand miles away.
During the drive, I was somewhat withdrawn although my jolly driver chatted beside me, filling me with local tidbits of information. I was trying to convince myself that I was here for a purpose although the bleak landscape was not helping.
After about ten miles, we crossed a metal bridge, beneath which flowed a peat-stained stream tumbling over granite boulders strewn across its width. In the distance I could make out the coastline, and although the snow almost obscured the view, the stream raised my dark mood as it meandered across the landscape.
A couple of miles further we drove past some deserted buildings with piles of military detritus and rounding a final corner we arrived at our destination.
“Here we are Sir, home sweet home,” my driver said brightly as we approached the jetty.
There on the other side of the wooden planking was my home for the next six months. She was gray and business like, with the Union Flag proudly fluttering from the Jack Staff and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy at the stern.
“Don’t worry about the bags Sir, just get yourself aboard,” the young driver said.
As I reached the far end of the gangway, a familiar smiling face appeared, it was Ken, an old friend and the person who I was there to replace.
“Let’s get below and out of the weather,” Ken said without preamble.
We descended a flight of stairs and entered a cozy compartment with a few occupants watching a small television in the corner. After introductions Ken headed for the bar and reaching for a glass said “Tea or something stronger?”
I opted for tea, and gripping the mug in my slowly warming hands, sank into a welcoming armchair.
We spent the next hour catching up on old times until there was a knock at the door. Two young Ratings were stood with my luggage and Ken said “Just heave it in here for now,”
As the bags were unceremoniously deposited in the lounge, one of the Ratings handed me my rod cases.
“So you think you might get time for some of the local Sea Trout, eh!” Ken laughed.
“You never change, I hope you get the chance, it might keep you from going round the bend,” Ken grinned.
“Well you started it when you sent me that copy of the Falkland Islands News”! I retorted, “You probably didn’t spot it, but there was a story about a 20Ib Brown trout being caught”!
“So you think you might catch one yourself then eh” laughed Ken.
I finished my tea and Ken showed me to my cabin. It was small, although I had been used to more cramped living spaces, and there was plenty of storage space.
“I’ll leave you to unpack,” said Ken as he headed for the door.
“Thanks Ken.” I called as the door clicked shut.
I opened the first of my suitcases and began to extract my things. As I reached in my hand touched something familiar. Wrapped carefully inside some towels was a picture. It was of my son and I with fly rods, and standing up to our thighs in the bright clear waters of the River Spey. The picture had been taken back in June, just before my departure. As an Eighteenth birthday present for my son, I had arranged a five-day trip to Scotland. I gazed at the picture for a few moments, lost in warm thoughts, and then placed it on the desk to keep those memories alive.
Over the next few days, Ken explained my duties as I became familiar with the shipboard routines before he returned to England. The ship had mechanical problems and we spent many hours deep in the bowels of the engine room, or pouring over schematic drawings.
The time seemed to fly by and suddenly it was the day Ken was due to fly home. I drove him to the airport for his flight and it was strange standing in the departure lounge, watching the plane taxi for takeoff. With a roar the Tristar hurtled down the runway, and as the wheels left the ground, it began its climb away from the islands. Ken had started his journey home, and I had just started my Falkland experience.
During the drive back to the ship, I crossed the same metal bridge, and stopped the Rover just past it. On impulse, I decided to check out the stream that had lightened my spirits that first day.
Slipping and sliding down the stream bank, I arrived beside a beautiful free stone stream winding its way down to the Southern Sea.
Reaching down into the water I felt the cool flow of it through my fingers and that peaty smell assailed my nostrils just like I had experience a few weeks ago in Scotland. A small creature dashed from under the first rock I lifted, although it was too swift for me to identity. The water was a golden brown having been colored by its passage through the peat bogs miles inland.
I stared down into the turbid water, and at first I couldn’t see any signs of life, although the bottom seemed to be rocky, with numerous holding spots.
Then in the corner of my eye something moved and my heart seemed to skip a beat. A bright torpedo like shape moved quickly into the pocket water below a large rock. The huge tail gently swept gracefully from side to side as the fish held its position. I estimated the fish to be about 36 inches long, with a large gaping mouth and a bright shining eye which seemed focused completely on me.
It was a fresh-run Sea Trout, straight from the South Atlantic and heading upstream on an early run to the spawning beds. I tried to estimate its weight, although the dark water made it virtually impossible. This bright male trout lay behind the rock regaining some energy after the initial run from the sea. I stood completely still and the military clothing must have helped camouflage my shape. After about five minutes a swift beat of that huge tail and a slight movement of pectoral fins took the fish around the rock, under the bridge, and out of sight.
My heart was still pounding as I regained the roadway and headed for the Rover. First sighting of a large fish in a strange stream always had the same effect, and my mind was racing with thoughts of fly choices, leaders and rod sizes.
I was just about to climb in the vehicle, when something caught my eye. There on the hill just off the road, stood a large white stone. It was about five feet high and looked to have been carved from white granite. Surrounding the pillar was a neat picket fence, with an entrance giving access. Going closer I could see that it had been inscribed with writing in a language that was vaguely familiar. The writing was Spanish, and with difficulty I translated “Rest in peace you sons of Argentina”. Beneath the inscription was a list of names and the date, June 1982. It was a small Argentine memorial, tucked away on this lonely hillside. I spent a few minutes in quiet contemplation and letting my eye move over the names.
I drove the last few miles to my ship deep in thought. My mind was full of thoughts about battles, both between men, and with large trout.
As I reached the gangway, I was greeted by the noticeboard asking me to contact the Captain. It seemed that we had received orders to begin our patrol and any thoughts of trout disappeared.
The next few weeks were spent cruising along the rugged coastline of East Falkland and visiting the lonely settlements on the smaller outlying islands. I made new friends both within Dumbarton’s crew and among those hardy folk who eked a life among the heather and solitude of the Falklands.
Two weeks later we arrived back alongside our berth. It had been a successful patrol and with all our machinery running smoothly, there would be a chance for some time off.
My mind immediately brought thoughts of flashing tails and straining leaders, and I was almost running by the time I left the gangway. Sliding into the Rover, which I had booked for the day, I spewed gravel from the tires as I headed for the gate and the road west.
It was only a few minutes drive to the stream, and once the vehicle was safely parked, I followed a vague sheep trail towards the mouth of the river. Winter was drawing to a close and all around me were signs of that the brief Falkland spring was almost upon me.
A tiny Plover noisily defended her nest that I almost stepped on, and a flotilla of Upland Geese was moving upstream against the current. Fifteen goslings trailed a snowy white female, with the camouflaged male bringing up the rear.
A thirty-minute hike brought me to the coast where an Atlantic swell moved the Kelp offshore and a colony of Rockhopper penguins was noisy going about the daily rituals on the western side of the inlet. A large group was just returning from fishing and athletically leaping from the surging waters to begin the laborious climb to the rookery. Sitting on a rock I watched these endearing creatures until my eye was drawn to a shape moving among the Kelp fronds. As I watched, a huge head appeared from the depths, and clutched in its mouth was a struggling sea trout. It was a bull Sea lion who had been taking advantage of the returning trout. The seal bit off the fishes’ head and with one quick swallow he devoured it. Loosing interest in the remaining morsel he suddenly disappeared from sight, only to reappear moments later clutching yet another glistening trout.
This was sufficient to break my reverie and picking up my rod I headed back up river. Seeing those fresh-run fish had reminded me why I was here and I began to survey the stream with a different eye.
Only fifty yards from the mouth was a sudden change in the streambed, and below a rocky barrier was a pod of holding trout. Reaching into my pocket I retrieved my streamer box and selected one of the Silver Stoat flies that had worked so well on those Spey Salmon.
After carefully tying it to the leader I moved cautiously upstream until I could get a downstream drift to the fish. Glancing behind me I realized that back casting would be no problem, because with the constant wind no trees grew on the islands.
Stripping out enough line to reach the holding fish I took two false casts upstream and then directed the fly to the water above the falls. The fly landed soundlessly and immediately sunk into the golden water. I followed the drift and calculated that it was approaching the fish, trying desperately to bring the fly close to a large female. I saw the big female’s mouth open briefly revealing a flash white and there was a slight change in the drift. I lifted the rod quickly to set the hook and immediately felt the tension come on. Out of the water and into the air flew a 30 inch Sea Trout, glowing a slight yellowish brown and hopping mad.
My reel screamed as the fish headed back downstream trying desperately to rid itself of this thing it was attached to. Laying the rod over to relieve the pressure and very slightly tightening the drag, I started to fight this monster. She had almost made it to the safety of the sea before I managed to turn her. Slowly I took line back as she swam upstream before another burst of power sent her running for the sea. This scenario was repeated three more times before I managed to bring the fish to the stream’s edge and the security of my net.
There, lying with her tail hanging well over the edge of the net was my first Falkland Sea Trout, a beautiful female, burgeoning with eggs. Carefully removing the barbless hook, I lifted this beauty and laid her in the current. Her gill covers moved rapidly trying to regain some of the lost oxygen as she lay passively in my hands. Suddenly I felt the muscles in her body surge with power and she gave one massive sweep of her tail to take her back into the stream.
I stood there laughing and covered in cool stream water that the fish had so kindly sprayed me with when she took off. All the tensions and pressures from my arrival here were swept away by those few short moments. Memories of my time on the River Spey with my son also flooded back into my mind bringing with them a longing to share this moment with someone.
The weather stayed kind to me and I slowly fished all the pocket water as I moved upstream.
Fish after fish strained my rod to breaking point, and slowly sapped my casting strength.
I had almost reached the bridge when I looked up to see a solitary figure standing by the stream bank. My wave was returned and then I concentrated on yet another cast. After a few minutes I felt a sensation that someone was close to me.
Glancing behind I saw a man standing respectfully out of my casting arc, although still close enough to watch my antics. This was the first person I had seen all day, and retrieving my line, I decided that courtesy demanded I acknowledge his presence.
He appeared to be about my own age, with dark black hair and an olive complexion. I nodded and greeted him with a friendly “Hello”
The man seemed bemused by my greeting, and frowning in concentration, he replied with a heavily accented “Good Morning”.
As he came closer I noticed he was wearing a nametag that declared that he was Miguel Santiago.
“Do you fish?” I asked
“Se Senor,” he said.
“Are you a local?” I queried.
Again his face was swept by a frown, and he replied, “No Senor, I am Argentinean!”
I felt the blood rush to my face as I realized the implication of this simple statement, and quickly tried to cover my confusion by offering him my fly rod.
“Would you like to make a few casts?” I asked.
A huge smile washed over the man’s face, and he eagerly reached for the rod. I watched as he tested the balance and felt strange satisfaction as he nodded in appreciation. He then inspected the fly and after another nod, moved towards the stream. Suddenly he crouched and shifted his position slightly downstream using a crab like shuffle that I had used myself so often in the past.
When he began to cast it was the leisurely stroke of a practiced fly fisherman, and I realized that I was in the company of a seasoned angler.
The line unfurled neatly behind him, and the forward stroke took the fly to a point upstream from a large rock. He gazed intently at the line as it started to belly and draw the lure across the face of the rock. I saw him tense and swiftly lift the rod. Immediately the line began to leap off the reel, and a huge wake was formed as a fish flew downstream.
I was amazed, his first cast had been rewarded with a huge fish, and as he climbed to his feet I joined him at the stream edge.
He played the fish expertly, and about fifteen minutes later it was almost at his feet.
When I offered him my net he shook his head and reaching down, carefully tailed the fish. It was well over 30 inches and with practiced movements he removed the fly. After holding it in the flow for a few moments he released it, and we watched as it moved to the shelter of a rock.
When he turned to me there was an amazing glow on his face, he smiled broadly and extended his hand. Taking his hand in mine I felt the comradely grip of a fellow fly fisherman that I had experienced so many times before.
He passed me my rod and nodded when I asked if he would like some coffee. From my backpack I extracted a vacuum flask, and as we sat on a streamside rock I poured some of the steaming fluid into a cup. He took the offered cup and after a few sips he passed it back to me.
“Where did you learn to fly fish?” I asked.
“My home is in the mountains not far from Buenos Aires, and we have many streams and lakes to fish,” he replied.
For a while we compared experiences of fish and streams just like any two fishermen would do having met for the first time. We both had a love for lightweight rods and it appeared that we shared many other similarities.
Then, from his wallet he took a crumpled photograph and handed it too me. It was of two men in fly-fishing clothing, complete with rods. I recognized the older of the two as my new fishing friend.
“Who is this?” I asked, pointing at the younger of the two men.
“My son Carlos,” he answered.
From my wallet I extracted a small copy of the photograph that I had so recently placed on my desk. I passed him the photograph and explained where it was taken.
“Is this your son?” he asked.
“Yes, it was taken on his Eighteenth birthday,” I said, “He’s back in England with his Mother,” I added.
“Is your son here?” I asked.
A cloud seemed to pass over his face, and he said, “Yes, he is over there” pointing towards the road.
I turned and looked for another figure. There was nobody in sight and when I realized he was pointing at the memorial, I understood what he meant.
My mind took me back to that occasion when I had stopped to inspect the stone, and mentally my eye moved down the list of names until it stopped at the name Carlos Santiago.
We sat in silence for what seemed an eternity, both lost in thought and not knowing what to say.
Miguel broke the silence by explaining that his son had been conscripted into the Army for the 1982 conflict and had been killed during a brief action close to here. Although relations between the two countries were still fragile, relatives were allowed to visit their lost ones every six months.
We continued to talk and the tension seemed to evaporate. Our conversation would invariably turn to fly-fishing and the happy memories of time spent with our sons.
Eventually he said that it was time for him to leave, and standing offered his hand. I took it in mine and once again the grip seemed to last forever. We looked into each other’s eyes, and despite our origins, recognized that we shared a common bond.
I walked him to his car and watched as it disappeared in the direction of the airport, realizing that my appreciation of this lonely place had been changed forever.