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  • Hazel Prior

Sunday 15th Jan

We'd lowered our expectations, since we couldn't possibly improve on yesterday's penguin-packed delights, could we? But... we could! And did. What a day!

The trip was to Seal Bay, a large area of coastline near Port Louis. Our guide was Petra, a pleasing coincidence (in Call Of The Penguins my main penguin character in the book is named Petra). This Petra is a Falklander in her 20s whose talents include sheep-shearing and cross-country driving, as she ably demonstrated by driving us through a lake!

Today's community of rockhoppers had chosen a gloriously scenic spot. We watched, enthralled, as parents fed their chicks and bounced their craggy way to and from the sea. While Ursula photographed incoming penguins from a ledge, I strolled along the clifftop to take in the views, following a little, lone Magellanic. I like the way the Magellanics seem less busy than the other species. They often waddle off on their own romantic wanderings.

Our next destination was 'Swan Pond', an absolutely beautiful beach with pristine white sands and turquoise waters. Penguins were everywhere. They pottered about, gossiped together or simply basked among the drifts of sea cabbage, a pretty silver-leafed plant bursting with bright yellow flowers.

(This posse of moulting King penguins stood absolutely still beside the pond. And on the hill you can see a tiny hut, which is a loo with the best view in the world!)

I'd brought along a few editions of my books on the off-chance of getting a book-with-penguins shot. The gentoos, quite fascinated, were happy to help with publicity!

We almost stumbled into a sea lion, who was sprawled out, disguised as a rock. Luckily he was just as surprised as we were and galumphed hastily into the sea. He was the only one here, but next Petra took us to a cove where we could look down on a whole crowd of them. Many were family units, with affectionate couples and pups, playing amid much roaring, bleating and bellowing.

We stopped again briefly at a gentoo colony in the hills. We noticed quite a lot of dead chicks as well as the very lively ones. There could be many causes for the deaths, such as extremes in temperature, but avian 'flu is a worry. It hasn't yet reached the islands, thank goodness, and we have been stopping often to disinfect boots as a precautionary measure.

On the drive back Petra shared some unwelcome news: our day at Volunteer Point (a colony of Kings and a big highlight of The Falklands tour) was to coincide with 3 cruise ships so the place would be milling with tourists. We've been so spoilt until now, having everywhere to ourselves, but we wondered if we could swap our Volunteer Point trip to tomorrow instead, which was down as our free day in Stanley. A quick phone call and ... bingo! We will get to see Volunteer Point tomorrow - my birthday!

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  • Hazel Prior

Saturday 14th Jan

I still can't believe I am here! And today was positively packed with penguins! Blessed with bright sunshine again, we were driven bumpity-bump cross-country and entertained by Adrian, a sheep farmer who has lived on the Falklands a mere 52 years. Our destination was Kidney Cove and the surrounding area. The first stop-off was cliffs to visit a gang of gutsy rockhoppers...

... followed by a gentoo colony...

... a hilltop with magellanic penguins...

... and finally even some kings.

I was in penguin heaven! My obsessive photo-taking was only outdone by Ursula, who is a real photographer and is keen to get more penguin chick shots for her own book. There were plenty of opportunities today.

I was amazed at how different the species are and how they all have their own quirks.

The Magellanic penguins are marked with distinctive bands of back and white around the face and belly. Their call is a loud braying and when early explorers heard them in the hills, they assumed they were donkeys. So they are often called 'jackass penguins'. They dig burrows to keep their chicks safe, and it's extraordinary to see them popping their heads out of holes in the ground like rabbits.

The gentoo penguins, with their orange beaks and their chaotic antics, were adorable. I especially fell for the eager, fluffy chicks who kept chasing their parents for food in frenzied excitement. And yes, there was plenty of guano around.

The kings were much more staid and dignified.

The coastline scenery is stunning, every beach a perfect curve of pure white sand, fringed by turquoise lapping water. Such beaches in the UK would be a real tourist magnet, full of sun-loungers and flanked with carparks and coffee shops. No such thing here! They are untrammelled and populated only by penguins, ducks, geese and other birdlife. Oh, and we saw dolphins leaping in the waves too.

I couldn't resist taking off my shoes and socks and paddling with the penguins. It is only our second day, but how on earth could this be bettered?

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  • Hazel Prior

First, an apology. I was fully intending to publish this blog while I was still across the other side of the world. But the combination of super-slow WiFi, a complex and expensive system of accessing it, my uncooperative, luddite brain and too much time spent with the actual penguins (I am joking - you can't spend too much time with penguins!) prevented me. I did, however, manage to scribble some words with pen and paper fairly often, so I'll start typing it up now. Since this blog will lack the immediacy of posting as I go, I'll do a shortened version of events, but the photos will hopefully keep you entertained! Wow, it will be hard choosing. I took literally thousands.

Here are a few from Day One...

And this is what I wrote that evening:

13th Jan

I am here, and I have seen it! My very first penguin in the wild! Ursula and I had placed our bets. I thought it would be a gentoo and she thought it would be a magellanic, but in fact we were both wrong. It was (and I couldn't be happier) a southern rockhopper. My favourite! In fact it was a large cluster of rockhoppers with their crazy hairstyles, complete with loads of fuzzy chicks, gathered in a clifftop colony. How thrilled I was!

To backtrack a little, the 18-hour, cramped flight in addition to many tedious hours of waiting and, to top it all off, a fire alarm at 3 am this morning had left us über-exhausted, but it was worth it. Our first day in the Falklands dawned bright and breezy, and we were taken in a Land Rover by a friendly local called Carrot (!) to Cape Bougainville. This country is notable for the scarcity of human beings and on the two hour drive from Stanley we passed only one other vehicle, a quad bike with a farmer and dog. We also passed an abundance of sheep, geese, two hares and some dotterels. The land is barren, rocky and knobbly, and for much of the route we bumped across open moorland with no actual road. The coastline here is the thing, exquisitely patterned with bright mosses and lichens, craggy rock formations and a wonderfully clear, azure sea.

We were both overjoyed to see the penguins, but they were completely unbothered by us. It seems to be normal for rockhoppers to share a site with King cormorants, who were busy feeding their chicks too. We also saw a single macaroni penguin, who was very mellow about being among all the rockhoppers.

The macaroni has a sunflower-yellow crest that starts above the beak, as opposed to the rockhoppers' paler yellow eyebrows and sprouts. The chicks are getting big now... these are nearly 2 months old.

I'm pleased to report that the rockhoppers are every bit as bouncy and funny and endearing as I was expecting. There may have been a tear in my eye, but, like my heroine, Veronica, I'm going to blame that on the wind...

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