The five seater Gazelle helicopter appeared through the darkening clouds and the early morning mist over the adjacent snow covered hillside. It approached my lonely position on a settlement on the East Falkland Island, two years after the war with Argentina. I stowed my beret in my kit bag, hoisted it over my shoulder and ran crouching under the still rotating blades, as the chopper settled on the grass tussocks. A crew member swung the Plexiglas door open and grabbed my bag, stowing it under a seat. He gave me the thumbs up, pointed to the right hand seat in the back and handed me my headset. Fastening the seat belt, I checked the weather as the Scout’s engine howled and swiftly rose 20 meters into air. It pivoted and buzzed towards Port Stephens in the distant West Falkland Island, over 100 km away.
“The weather is closing in fast, Geordie.” Sergeant Dave Forrest said into his microphone attached to his headset. “We might not make it to Mount Alice!”
I shrugged, knowing this was all too familiar at this time of the year. June was notorious for blizzards, glorious sunshine and rain, all in the same day. You would be foolish not to have your parka with you at all times. “No worries, Dave. I don’t care as long as we get somewhere in one piece!” I replied. It began to snow heavily as we started the 30 minute flight to the radar head at Mount Alice. Listening to the all-pervading engine noise, I thought of the relaxing weekend I had just spent at the settlement I had just left.
A couple of weeks before I was posted to the Falklands in 1984, I was busy training my wife’s two year old chestnut mare at the stables near to Amesbury in Wiltshire, England. Her horse, Sabik, was a cross Irish Draught and Arab. Sabik was a beautiful animal but very prone to rear up and was extremely skittish of noises and sudden movements. One of the other owners came across and started to chat. She had heard I was going to the Falklands and she asked me for a favor while I was over there. She had recently sold a pony called Misty to a farmer in East Falkland and wondered, if I had the time, would I check out the pony for her and take a few photos. Promising nothing, I agreed to at least find out where the farmer lived and if I could get there somehow.
I had been in the Falklands for about 2 months of my four months tour and felt comfortable with the job as a medic and environmental health officer, whose main task was to make sure that military personnel in remote areas of the Falklands continued to work in safe and healthy conditions. It wasn’t a particularly arduous role but it did involve flying to different outlying radar stations on a weekly basis. I felt I could take a break and so I arranged with my boss to take a weekend off to visit the farmer with the pony from Wiltshire. A friend, who was a local Falklander, gave me directions on how to get to the farm and had even spoken to him on the phone to arrange my visit. As the farm was very remote, the only way in at this time of year was by chopper. The dirt track was covered with snow and now invisible, lost among the polar tundra that was the Falkland Islands. Thankfully, I was on good terms with the air crews that I regularly flew with and they offered me a lift to the settlement, north west of Port Stanley.
The helicopter dropped me off at the Williams’ 10,000 acre sheep farm, where I met up with Tony and Marie waiting in a nearby paddock. “Good to see you!” Tony greeted me warmly and shook my hand before walking to their stone and thatch crofters cottage about 150 meters away. They showed me to the smaller visitor’s cottage which was to be my home for the next 3 days. The interior was basic, the furniture was old and rickety but there was a glowing peat fire to keep me warm. Tony had stacked some dried peat next to the fire to save me going out into snow later. As they turned to leave, Tony said “Come over when you’re ready and get some hot food.” I unpacked my gear and took out the two large bottles of vodka that my friend back at Stanley had suggested would make a fine present for my hosts. Settlers away from the town rarely got to shop for luxury items.
Spotting a horse paddock to the rear of my cottage, I took some snaps of the horses sheltering from the wind. One shaggy coated pony stood out among the small herd of horses. I realized that this must be Misty, the pony from England. She trotted over and I gave her a mint, her flexible upper lip moving rapidly from side to side in reaction to the astringent quality of the sweet. She moved back to the warmth and safety of the herd, as I took her photo to show her previous owners back home.
Tony and Marie Williams made me very welcome in their home. It was a pleasant break from the tented camp that was RAF Stanley and the ever present roar of the Hercules transport aircraft, as they flew in and out of the Falklands Islands. I spent an unforgettable day out in the hills on horseback as they showed me some of their property. It was a weekend away that has been fixed in my memory for the past thirty years. In my retirement, it’s good to have such memories to draw on.
The Gazelle, its crew and passenger arrived at Mount Alice just as the snow stopped falling. I could see the large “H” landing pad within the radar station’s barbed wire fence. A solitary parka clad figure held his paddles aloft to show that the pilot was close to the pad and suddenly dropped them to his sides as the helicopter hovered directly over the pad itself. I gathered up my kit bag and followed the serviceman along the wooden board walk and into the hut that was to be my home for the next day or so.