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  • Writer's pictureHiker Sorrel

A Camping Trip at Dunbar

Having grown up a Robertson in the Falkland Islands, my favourite place in the world has, and always will be, my grandparents’ farm, Port Stephens, in the South West of our archipelago. There are few places in the Islands that can really compete with it. But Dunbar, a gorgeous settlement sat on the North West tip of West Falklands, did.

North West camp (the Falkland word for countryside, essentially) is unique to the Islands, in that the geography is permeated with peaks, ridges, sheer cliff faces, albatross, and views that could make your eyes water. Yet as a South West girl, I had rarely explored this spectacular part of the Falklands, so when a good friend who grew up at Dunbar suggested a weekend trip with a few friends to visit her old stomping ground, I jumped at the chance.

Death Head looms in the distance

The six of us had just been at a family wedding at Port Stephens and so filled with booze, food and the party atmosphere, we made the four-hour journey up West Falkland on a rainy Friday. We were set for a fun weekend.

Our first night on the farm proved just that. Leaving the settlement, we drove some 15 km over camp to reach the gorgeous and relatively sheltered Grave Cove, where sheep pens made a perfect spot for pitching our tents. There we had the pleasure of listening to the newly born lambs bleating in the distance and colonies of gentoos chirping – if you can call it that – all around.

With the sun getting lower, it was time to set off to see the black-browed albatross who were perched on the cliff face to the south-west side of Grave Cove. As we walked around the bluff, the birds were suddenly all around us, perched on their nests in amongst tussac, flying overhead, floating on the waves out to sea, and using the wind currents to hurtle off the cliffs.

A Black-Browed Albatross enjoys the evening light

Black-browed albatross are fascinating creatures, with the dark arch that streaks across its face lending its name. The Falklands has by far the largest population of the bird in the world at 399,416 breeding pairs, with Steeple Jason Island (a heavily protected and well-renowned destination for its wildlife) holding 70% of the world’s population in its mere 8 km2 area. To me, they are the most elegant and picturesque of animals.

Lenses were unpacked, beers were cracked open and we sat and watched.

Hiker Tom amongst the birds

The golden hue of the sunset hitting the sea and cliffs was gorgeous, filling us with disbelief that someone decades ago had thought the names “Grave Cove”, “Death Head”, and “Misery Mountain” were appropriate for this part of the world.

After a delicious barbeque and fun evening sat in our camping chairs around the fire, day one was over.

Day two was hot. For late October in the Falklands (bearing in mind it was Spring), it was a scorcher. A rare, but much appreciated phenomenon.

The day started with perhaps the most elaborate breakfast for a camping trip I’d ever experienced, featuring the staples of bacon and beans with the added luxuries of halloumi and eggy bread. This is 21st Century camping everybody.

The delicious food was followed by a rather hilarious encounter with a Johnny Rook. Pretty much local to the Falklands, these birds of prey (proper name Striated Caracara) are the scourge of the west islands. Their penchant for scavenging, preying upon helpless sheep, and fearlessness of humans has largely put them in people’s bad books, despite their interesting and intelligent nature. This particular Johnny Rook was in the mood for tormenting us, and after spending most of our breakfast time trying to shoo it away from our delicious food, it hopped over to Tom and I’s tent and stole one of Tom’s socks which had been drying out in the sun. The rest of us were pretty unhelpful, falling about laughing as Tom ran after the intrepid bird who was flying about with the sock trailing in its claw. When we finally thought the damn sock was lost, the bird let it loose for a second and it was recovered. Naturally, Tom decided that perhaps today was not going to be a day for drying wet clothing.

A Johnny Rook ready to terrorise

Despite this rather hilarious interaction with the Johnny Rook, we were still keen to see more birds. Our Dunbar friend told of a cave that her and her brother had visited a lot growing up that lay underneath the albatross colony, and we were all excited to explore.

So, we walked back round to the albatross colony in the heat of the midday sun. We clambered through the white grass, rock and tussac, with a sharp incline down to the sea on our left and a towering wall of albatross nests, tussac, and rock up on our right.

At one point we reached a sort of path in the tussac grass, some 10 metres above the shoreline. Most of us thought this was where the fabled cave was, but instead of stopping to enjoy the view, our tour guide carried on walking. Now this was a surreal experience. The path bent round the cliff face, with an almost vertical drop below to the crashing waves and a vertical wall above. It felt like something out of an action-adventure movie, where the heroes creep around the side of a cliff face, fearful that one misstep could lead them plunging to their deaths.

Luckily, our path was wide enough and stable enough for it to be an easy walk around the rock face.

Finally, the path opened up into a sandstone-type rock formation, with patterns formed from small, but ancient stalactites hanging from a lip overhead. We lay down, stared up and enjoyed the view. Yet again, I thought we had reached our destination. But after 5 minutes of taking in the view, our guide was up again, clambering down the naturally formed steps and disappearing around the corner.

As we followed her, suddenly a huge, 30 metre or so gash in the rock face stood up before us. The waves seemed fiercer here despite the stunning day, and the cave towered with the aura of the horcrux cavern Dumbledore and Harry found themselves in, in HP6.

A Harry Potter-esque cavern awaits around the corner

Just outside of the cave, where we stood, was a series of ledges perfect for sitting down and enjoying the sun. And that is just what we did. Watching the cormorants (also known as rock shags) fly in and out of the cave to their nests, albatross fly overhead, and the waves’ swell below us, hours passed by as we enjoyed the sun. The temptation to dive into the water off of the ledge was strong, but knowing Falklands water temperatures in late October, my sense got the best of me. I decided to wait till mid-summer.

The rest of day was spent in the kind of ease that only the holiday atmosphere can really create. We sat and watched as a pod of three Commerson’s dolphins and a calf played in the shallow, turquoise waters of Grave Cove, enjoyed a leisurely lunch with a lamb that had lost its mother, and finally packed our tents and bags to head back to the settlement.

But before calling into our stay for the night we had one stop to make. On Dunbar land, not far from the settlement, is one of the British military bases that are scattered around the Falklands, Byron Heights. While the base was off limit to us, the peak that it’s built on sports stunning views.

From the top of Byron Heights - as is the same if you’re standing on most main peaks in the surrounding area - you can see the majority of the North West Falklands, and further. With the startling weather we had, we could see down to New Island and Weddell Island in the South, out to Steeple Jason Island to the West, and out to Carcass, Saunders, Keppel and Pebble Island to the North. The sea was surprisingly flat calm (for the Falklands) and the sun shimmered off of it, creating a hazy glare across the horizon. The view was indescribable and, unfortunately, unjustified by the many pictures we took while there.

One of the best views in the Falklands

West Falklands – as you can probably guess - is undeniably my favourite place in the world and there’s no surprise as to why a common saying that permeates the Falklands community is “West is Best”, in spite of (but also because of) it’s lack of people and modern amenities. If rare birds, albatross, penguins, dolphins, sheep, cliffs, caves and jaw-dropping landscapes are your thing, Dunbar is the ticket.

Pals enjoy the view


📚 Learn more about: Striated Caracaras and Black-Browed Albatross 📚


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