An African Adventure (No Accidents or Mayhem)

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Well I must say it seems a little strange to tell you all of a trip where everything went very much according to plan. Maybe it went that way because I didn’t organise it myself! Friends from far away created the itinerary and mailed it to me. All I had to do was meet them there. Emirates were surely too scared this time to stuff up any of my meals (I was a little irate last time – as irate as a pacifist vegan can be) so even my flight went well.

Part I

Now my trips in the past have had little purpose other than to satiate my itchy feet. This trip by contrast had the much grander purpose of celebrating Donna’s 40th birthday in Kenya preceded by a short trip to Rwanda and Uganda for a primate fix. Days and weeks before the trip I was worried about the Rwandan leg of the journey as the Australian government had issued travel warnings advising Australians to defer all non essential travel to Rwanda. In particular they advised against all travel to the area we were heading to visit. Hmmm … my logic was that our government was just being overly cautious as they don’t have an embassy there in case anything went wrong. Fair call in a way but Rwanda did seem quite safe to travel in (better than Nairobi or horrible buffalo’s in the Masai Mara) plus I had a British Passport with me as well so if all else failed I would happily be a British Citizen to safe my behind!

I wont confuse you by starting with the birthday tales because that happened at the end. I will do as I must and start at the start. Not the start in Melbourne, or the start in Nairobi because that’s just transit stuff which was uneventful. The real start was meeting Penny and Donna (not Birthday Donna) at the airport in Nairobi and then flying out to Kigali (Rwanda). I hadn’t seen Penny since my trip to Kenya the previous year so it was definitely nice to have a familiar face around to share my travels with … and of course Penny was largely responsible (completely responsible) for booking the Gorilla and Chimpanzee portion of the holiday so I am hugely indebted to her.

On the first day in Rwanda I can’t say I remember much other than our driver getting lost in Kigali. Kigali doesn’t really seem like much more than one street that goes around and around. It’s only when you want to be somewhere other than the circular street that you will have problems. We stopped at “Hotel Rwanda” Hotel des Mille Collines for lunch as that was where our gorilla tour operator had their office. Rwanda for me definitely had an eerie feeling about it. It’s difficult to describe as the Rwandan people seem quite silent and calm about the genocide that took place around 1994 but based on the number of people who were murdered and the number of people who were touched by the genocide, it made me wonder what was behind their faces in a way that I haven’t wondered before. More on that later.

Our accommodation for the three nights of our gorilla stay was great. I can’t find a link to the place but I’ll post some photos so you can see how gorgeous the view is. The only thing better than the accommodation, the view and the food were the gorilla’s themselves.

On our second day in Rwanda we headed off Gorilla tracking in Parc National des Volcans. Nice to briefly see my friend (and boss from home) at the Park office. Seems a brush with the Congo border had done little to dampen her enthusiasm for the Gorilla trek. There are five gorilla groups that are habituated for tourism in Parc National des Volcans: Susa (the most famous and largest), Sabyinyo, Amahoro, Umubano and Group 13.

The selection process of what group you’re trekking to is pretty random apart from if you’re old and feeble or old or feeble they might not send you off to see Susa group as they’re often the furthest away (up to 8 hours of hiking at altitude). On our first day of trekking we were picked to hike to Umubano group. I didn’t think much of it as I didn’t really have a preference. I was just so damn excited to see the Gorilla’s again it didn’t matter which group. It turns out that the hike was pretty easy. 1.5 hours of walking, sometimes a little uphill but nothing too damaging. We had plenty of rest breaks as the Belgium group we were trekking with were always out of breath because they talked so much (which didn’t stop even when we were with the Gorillas). Our trackers had found the gorillas so we had to leave behind our bags and I just grabbed my camera, spare memory cards, batteries, video camera and I was ready for the final metres. The stinging nettles and safari ants were no fun but completely irrelevant as the gorillas can pretty easily take your mind off such things (and some medication in the evening). Our first gorilla sighting from close range was the silverback “Charles”. Unfortunately, Charles wasn’t too happy about us being there. He’s not a very confident silverback is the story I am told so he is a little more aggressive, skittish and unpredictable. So Charles was a few metres ahead of us but then he decided to turn around because he wanted to be where we were instead. A quick grunt to warn us and then he charged right past myself and a Belgium guy. At this point I am not feeling very confident and I’m not liking Charles an awful lot. Our guide tells us this wasn’t a charge. Charles was just changing direction very quickly or something to that effect. Hmmm. More stinging nettles and safari ants which make it difficult to stay still for the gorillas as well as for taking photos and video but I was doing my best. We wandered around a small area with plenty of opportunity to see the eight or so gorilla’s including babies. There were lots of oooh’s and aaah’s I’d like to think mostly from the excitement of seeing the gorillas but potentially a few of these sounds were from the stinging nettles and the safari ants yet again. The final aaah was much less pleasant. As we were watching a female gorilla in a small clearing, Charles decides to come charging through again. Scares off the female gorilla and scares us. He’s so close it’s not funny but worse than that, there’s a young gorilla not more than one metre away from us and it was coming closer. I was petrified that Charles would get even grumpier but luckily our time was up and our guide led us cautiously away without further incident.

Our time with the Gorillas is limited to one hour, which seemed to go quite fast and slow if such a thing can be said. At the end of the hour I felt quite pleased that we had found them when they were resting and eating so that we could relax as we watched them rather than continually following them as they moved along from one spot to another. I also knew that we would be visiting the gorilla’s again the next day so I wasn’t too disappointed that our time was over.

The following day we went back to see the gorillas again. Our hope was not to be picked to see Susa group as we didn’t fancy the long trek to see them. The previous day one of the trekkers got altitude sickness and couldn’t complete the trek. I started to sweet talk the guides and the Tourism Director telling them that Penny had seen Susa group the previous year (a blatant lie that we all started believing) and that we had seen Umubano yesterday. Lucky we told this untruth because my sweet talking achieved nothing and they tried to put us with the Susa trekking group before we were finally allocated to trek to Group 13 … supposedly a very friendly group.

The trek to Group 13 took less than an hour. That’s an indication of how close the villages and farming is getting to the gorilla groups and how threatened their habitat is as well as their lives! We walked through some bamboo forest and I was worried that if we found them there we wouldn’t really see anything. As luck would have it, we actually found the gorillas (well, the trackers found them not us intrepid tourists) in a grassy clearing. Not a stinging nettle or safari ant in sight, just beautiful lush grass! The gorilla’s were beautiful to watch. The silverback was completely at ease with our presence and I’m not making that up because he was trying to make babies while we were there. The little babies were playing in the open and walking around us without any concerns. They were all busy eating and playing and resting. It’s difficult to make a call but I think this was my favourite gorilla trek ever.

The gorilla trekking was phenomenal and I hope to repeat it again hopefully sometime in the next few years.

Before leaving Rwanda there was one more place to visit. Rather than going to a market, handicraft shops, looking at pottery or quilts, we chose to visit the Kigali Memorial Centre. It’s an incredibly devastating place but the very best memorial of its sort that I have seen around the world. It doesn’t only focus on the genocide in Rwanda but also documents genocide around the world and is an incredible educational experience if I can call it that and very very humbling as a human to see what we have done and what we have the power to stop. If you’re ever in Kigale I highly recommend a visit here if you have a couple of hours to spare.

Part II

From Rwanda we flew to Uganda and after a plane, car and boat across Lake Victoria, eventually arrived on Ngamba Island. Here you have the choice of feeding the chimpanzees (which was more literally translated as watching the Island staff feed them), swimming on the equator (highly unlikely for me with the risk of Bilhazia and/or hippos seeming very unappealing) or birdwatching (zzz). I quite happily watched the chimps throughout the day. I may have rested a little bit in my nice tent and later in the evening when the big chimps had returned to their enclosures I went out for a forest walk with the baby chimps. At US$150, these chimp walks aren’t cheap or easy but it was a sensational experience. Prepare yourself for a large number of inoculations, fax it to the island and await confirmation that you’re allowed to visit to avoid disappointment! With one guide, myself and a german lady, we took a group of approximately 10 chimps out into the 40 hectare island. Four of these chimps seriously like to be carried which is hard work but such a sweet experience. They like piggy back rides and shoulder rides and holding your hand and everything. Like the Gorilla treks, time with the chimps is limited to one hour and again like the gorilla’s, I repeated the experience again the next day. All I can say is getting so close to chimpanzees is one of lifes wonders and I’m so happy to have had the opportunity. This opportunity is only available whilst the resident chimps are young enough to be “managed”. Once the chimps are older and larger the experience will no longer be available.

At the moment there are 39 chimps on the island. There are two groups. An older group who live in the larger area of the island and the younger group (of 19 I think) live in a smaller fenced enclosed of a few acres. The older chimp group will not accept the introduction of the younger group so they will remain separate with the hope that eventually another island can be purchased, any villagers who live on the island would hopefully happily relocate and the island could be left for the chimps. Ngamba Island is not large enough to sustain these two groups. That’s why the chimp feeding has to occur as the island can only sustain two chimps. New chimps cannot be taken to the island but poaching continues so there are still orphan chimps and confiscated chimps who need to be raised and have somewhere to live. The Congo is one option but not a very safe one at the moment so an island the goal.

The chimp population on the island is managed by contraceptive implants in the female chimps again because there is not enough room on the island for more chimps. Chimps however are clever and one chimp removed her implant, the proof of which is her baby aptly named “Surprise”.

Part III

The third and final part of my trip was celebrating Donna’s birthday in the Masai Mara with a bunch of friends old and new. Julius my friend and savour (assuming you have heard the buffalo story) was there as well as two Donna’s, one Penny, Ruby, Audrey, Emma, Kate and Alison all of whom I had previously travelled with at least once.

We were all back at Kicheche which is always wonderful and couldn’t wait to get out on safari but I will admit to being quite nervous about being back there.

Our days were spent on safari spotting lions (my favourite cat), cheetahs, leopards (difficult) as well as numerous topi’s, thompsons gazelles, wildebeest, baboons, giraffe, zebra, elephants and so on. I would have been completely happy to not see any buffalo, bees or hippos but unfortunately there was no such luck on my side.

Donna’s birthday was obviously the highlight where the Mara put on a fantastic show of wildlife. The look on Donna’s face to see 13 of her friends and the guides strip down to t-shirts all with various pictures and quotes of her on them was worth the many thousand kilometre journey to get there. In the evening we celebrated with a traditional elephant dung cake. Fortunately Donna noticed what it was before eating any, then the real cake was brought out.

So ended my third trip to Africa.

Since then Xmas has come and gone and my good intentions of getting more photos online hasn’t amounted to anything. Nor have I managed to send any Xmas cards or Xmas emails, all of which I apologise for.

I hope that you have all had a wonderful year and Xmas and I send my best wishes to everyone for a healthy and wonderful 2006.

My year has been busy with great and happy change but that’s another post altogether.

I look forward to hearing tales of your own adventures soon.

Down With Buffalo – Kenya 2004

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November 2nd 2004



Now this was a day to remember, for both the right and wrong reasons, but mostly for the wrong reasons.

The day started well and early as usual. Here I was in the Masai Mara in Kenya with some friends I had met in Alaska and India. We were the last remaining souls from an Exodus tour group. The rest of the group had departed a day earlier but we still had three great days to see all we could.

First thing in the morning we came across the Kicheche Lion Pride. Now I could be wrong and no doubt am, but there are about 20 lions in this pride including at least nine cubs. We had watched them until sunset the previous evening and were surprised to find them again playing in the plains. Lions are my favourite cat as they’re so incredibly social and a joy to watch. The young cubs play roughly together as they practice their hunting and stalking skills. The lionesses keep a careful watch for dangers and the occasional naughty cub.

The pride soon grew bored of their play and/or annoyed with us watching them and retreated into the nearby bush where we could no longer see them. We headed off in a new direction only to find two young cubs (about 2 months old) and their mother. It was again a special pleasure as we had seen these cubs the previous day and thought ourselves incredibly lucky then. Small cubs such as these are not yet integrated with the rest of the pride as they’re too young and susceptible to attack. The mothers take care of them separately for about another month during which time the other lionesses allow the kills to be shared amongst them all.

These cubs quickly left the open plains for the safety of the bushes and again we were left wandering. Not for long though. Literally a hundred metres away we found yet another lioness with at least three tiny cubs less than two weeks old. At this stage they would have only recently opened their eyes and started to walk. It’s great to see them at this age and everyone is excited of course but there were already too many vehicles around stressing the cubs so we decided to leave rather than add to the chaos.

Donna, Ruud and Penny were keen to watch the cheetahs as they hadn’t eaten and would be keen to hunt for their next meal. Seeing a kill was never high on my list of things to do but I loved seeing the cheetahs and as seeing a kill seemed highly unlikely I didn’t object to watching them. The first four cheetahs we saw were Honey and her three cubs. They were hungry but didn’t look like hunting as they rested on a small mound. We left them and eventually continued on. Our luck was still with us as we spotted the pregnant Kike of Big Cat Diary fame (I’ve never seen the show but I’m now well aware of it). Kike is known to climb vehicles to use them as higher vantage points for her hunting endeavours and this was no exception. Kike hopped onto our bonnet, paying no attention to us as she scoured the plains. Far away a Thompson’s gazelle was spotted with a baby and Kike went for the kill. We never saw the speed of this cheetah as it was a pretty easy kill for her. It was an unusual event to see and not at all enjoyable for me. Cheetah, like most cats I’m sure, employ a technique of strangulation to kill their prey but the baby thomi was alive for a while as Kike started to crush her skull and eat it alive. Sounds gruesome I know and it was. I was in tears as I heard the cries of the thomi knowing full well that if Kike didn’t eat she too would die along with her unborn cubs. It doesn’t make it any easier to see.

Lunch by the bank of the Mara River to watch a possible wildebeest crossing was sombre for me. Nothing was happening and feeling hot, bothered and needing a visit to the toilet I asked our guide Julius if I could get out and walk around. Though not common, there are places in the Mara where it must be ok to get out and be at least a little bit safe as we had stopped for lunch breaks before. I was unaware if this could be such a place. At first Julius’ reply was no as it was too dangerous but after scouting around he called me out of the vehicle. I walked about 20 metres to him and took in some of the beautiful view of the river down below where hippos and a crocodile rested.

The rest of this story is a bit blurry but I remember Julius about to hand me 2000 Kenyan Shillings as two days earlier I had paid to get our two punctures fixed (more on that if you continue to read past this day). At this point I must have seen something in Julius’ eyes that prompted me to turn around or perhaps I was already facing that way … I can’t remember but what I saw was terrifying – a lone bull buffalo. Each time we had asked the question “What is the most dangerous animal in the Mara?”, the answer from our Masai hosts was always “the lone bull buffalo” and now here I was closer than 10 metres to one.

There was no time to react as he immediately charged us. Julius had told us two days earlier when we had some other troubles, don’t run unless he was running. As the buffalo ran towards us Julius pushed me and ran towards the vehicle. I tried to run after him but was off balance after being pushed and fell to the ground. For a second I stayed low in the long grass as I saw the buffalo veer towards Julius. There was no chance to run to the vehicle. It was too far away and now the buffalo was between us. I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t stay where I was so I stood up and ran as fast as I could to an old broken tree near where we had first seen the buffalo.

The buffalo wasn’t chasing me. I knew he had followed Julius and I now knew that this was Julius’ intention and the reason for pushing me in the first place. The last thing I saw was Julius on the ground and the buffalo closing in.

I climbed up the tree as high as it would allow in such a quick burst. I had a good hold and was safe for the moment but down below I could hear Julius screaming. It was frightening. I couldn’t see anything because of the long grass and the tree but I knew Julius was being hurt.

It was probably about this time I noticed something else was wrong. I was being bitten or so I thought until I looked slightly down the tree at chest level and noticed bees coming out of a small hole. It was too late, they were stinging me by now. I could still hear Julius’ screams below and I nowhere to go. The bees continued to sting me. In the hot weather I was wearing only shorts and t-shirt. My arms and legs were scratched and bruised from the fall and scurry up the tree. But now things were becoming more dire. As Julius punched the buffalo several times in the nose (probably only making him madder), I was being stung repeatedly on my legs, arms, neck and face. I lifted my t-shirt over my head to try and protect my face but was then being stung on my torso. It was unbearable. I broke off a twig and tried to plug the hole from which they were coming but this no doubt just incensed them as much as Julius’ punches had the buffalo. I knew this but I just needed some relief.

By this point, the bees were all around me. I didn’t know what had happened to Julius or the buffalo. I yelled for help.

Julius had managed to free himself from the buffalo by thrusting his fingers through its nostrils (or something like that). The buffalo looked around and unable to see me, ran off somewhere.

Julius’ first thought was to get back to the vehicle but when he found I wasn’t there he yelled out for me. I heard his voice but didn’t hear what he said or his predicament. I called out that I was in a tree being stung by bees. I remember him telling me I could come down and come back to the vehicle. Relieved, I dropped down and raced to him as quick as I could. He hugged me but I was still being swarmed by bees. Unaware of where the buffalo was, we raced back to the vehicle and proceeded to rid me of the bees.

Julius had been gorged in the shin. Severe enough but not too bad. Donna, Ruud and Penny proceeded to swat bees away. Ruud was stung for his trouble and we jumped in the vehicle.

Poor Donna, Ruud and Penny had been in the vehicle all this time. They recalled snippets of the event. I’m not sure if they saw the buffalo from their vantage, but they saw me fall / get pushed over and run. They didn’t see me up the tree and couldn’t see what was happening to Julius. They too could only hear his screams. They thought of using the radio to call for help and of driving the vehicle towards us but it must have all been over so quickly that they didn’t have time to do any of these things.

Julius’ leg wasn’t bleeding too much but the wound was deep. He strapped it up with a scarf, we breathed deeply once or twice before heading back to camp. We continued driving for over an hour. I was worried that Julius was ok, but to be perfectly honest I was more worried about having a reaction to the bee stings. In my life I had never before been stung and I knew if I reacted adversely it would be dangerous. Fortunately I didn’t react but neither did I feel too great with more than 10 stings (maybe as many as 20) for my trouble.

It was a long drive back to camp and by halfway into the journey we had stopped looking so worriedly at eachother to make sure we were all ok and made a joke or two. When we arrived Julius was taken straight to a clinic for stitches and I was left to tend my own wounds.

That night, as I lay in bed inside our tent, my two tent buddies sound asleep, I heard noises outside. I thought it was hippos, I heard a lion roar but that was too far away. In the morning I discovered that it was buffalo in the camp. One of them had charged a night guard. Perhaps it was better not to know!

You can laugh now as aside from bruises, scratches and stings I’m ok. Julius was a life saver and he is ok too. I can see a lighter side of this tale … just … and I’ll happily plan another trip to Africa.

— End of November 2nd —

Aside from the buffalo, most of the trip was grand. It started off a bit rough with Emirates stuffing up three out of four flights for my vegan meals. I thought I’d have nothing more than a story based on injuries suffered on the plane, like getting hit in the leg with the food trolley and knocking my head in the bathroom as I tried to turn around or something similar … but I’m sure my buffalo story is juicy enough.

So now I’ll go back to the start of the trip for those of you who have managed to read to this point.

On arrival in Nairobi it was as spooky as my last visit although my hotel this time was much nicer. In fact, I thought it was quite ritzy and probably had a star or three to its name. I slept for as many hours as you can in 24 and was excited about meeting up again with friends from Alaska and India. We hugged and drove on to Nakuru where we saw the renowned spectacle of millions of flamingos on the lake. Back in ’97 there were hardly any of them so I was owed one or more. We also saw loads of rhinos, giraffes, zebras and a few hyenas.

Naivasha was the next stop on route to Elsamere (Born Free) for high tea and overnight accommodation. Here I had the fright of my life (or so I thought at the time) when I went back to the room to be confronted by hippos mowing the lawn (eating) nearby. I raced to the room and yelled for Donna to come out. It was funny enough, interesting enough, spooky enough.

After two nights on the road it was time to head back to Nairobi. From Wilson airport we flew to Mara Safari Camp airstrip and then proceeded to drive to Kicheche Mara Camp (www.kicheche.com). Along the way we stopped to see lions mating which I hadn’t seen before but would see again several times.

Kicheche Mara Camp is fantastic. Luxury tents, fantastic food, wonderful hosts, great location, sensational guides and vehicles. I highly recommend the place and I’m sure Andy and Sonja would love to have you visit.

Each morning we would get up early, often before 5am (as you do on holiday) to look for leopards, lions and cheetahs. You don’t have to get up early but that’s when all the action takes place. Later in the day it’s too hot and the cats aren’t up to much.

During our days in the Mara we hopped around into different vehicles with different drivers but no more fun was had than when we drove around as “The Coven”. Poor Julius had to deal with us but it surely wasn’t too hard as he was always well fed by the tuck bag and our enthusiasm and cheerful spirit never relented. What a fantastic group of women you all are and can you just imagine if for any of those days we were together we could have had Paul in the vehicle with us. I’m not sure any of us would have survived!

On our last drive as part of the Exodus tour group and travelling as “The Coven”, we suffered a puncture. Cruelly, it was at a crucial moment as we crossed a gorge on route to a leopard sighting. The offending tyre was flat in less than a minute and efforts to quickly change it were hampered by a muddy boggy surface. The jack wouldn’t stay upright and the vehicle toppled over before eventually teamwork got us through. Julius held the jack steady whilst Emma and I thrust the wheel on the vehicle before it could fall again. Donna, Penny and Kate were no doubt spotting for Leopards and other predators whilst shouting encouragement.

In the end we arrived too late for the leopard sighting but decided to wait around to see if he would emerge again from the bushes. We got up before 5am for this and we were determined to see leopard. Rather than going back to camp to farewell the group we (rather foolishly in hindsight) stayed back at the gorge to wait and see.

An hour or so later, still no luck so off for a drive we went to see what we could see, planning on returning to the leopard sighting a little while later. By this time our luck must have completely run out. At a routine toilet stop we suffered another puncture when we weren’t even moving. The air just started hissing out at the same time as I was taking a toilet break on the other side of the vehicle. Needless to say, my wonderful friends thought it was me making the sounds until they discovered the far worse predicament we were in. Not to mention I had a huge fright!

No spare, out of radio contact and out in the Mara! We drove as quickly as we could to a nearby camp but we didn’t make it far enough before the tyre was completely flat.

Julius surveyed (you must certainly be feeling sorry for him by now) the situation, couldn’t contact anyone by radio or phone, determined it was too dangerous to walk, so decided all we could do was drive on the rim. We probably got about 10 metres further on that theory before the rim broke. Just moments before we were told it was too dangerous to walk and now we were told we had to. The words “stay in the vehicle” come to mind and why we didn’t is unclear. We packed all our belongings and set off on a long detour around some elephants and giraffe. It wasn’t long before I indignantly fell over in the mud probably because I was watching out for predators instead of watching where I was going.

We walked with great haste. It was dangerous and we didn’t want to be out there any longer than we had to. Was it half an hour? I’m not sure, but soon enough we were delightedly picked up by a vehicle and transferred to Intrepid Safari Camp. A bit more plush than our camp, it had a pool (no water), a nice bar and tv, the sounds of which confused us as we thought we could hear lions nearby but it was just a nature show.

The last day in the Mara was uneventful. We searched for Honey (Cheetah mum with three big cubs) and the Kicheche Pride lions but found neither. We did find a few new cubs from a pride I didn’t know but as mum didn’t look happy I was very happy to depart without incident given the extraordinary adventures of the past few days.

All this happened in less than two weeks which would make it the most eventful two weeks in my life! Some of it I never wish to repeat but some of it I would do again tomorrow. I’ll miss old friends and new yet again and will soon enough get busy organising another trip somewhere.

I had every intention of writing of my trip to the Great Barrier Reef back in September as well but I think this is enough. Suffice to say it was a lot safer and the only problem was getting into an undersized wetsuit for diving!

India 2004

>Many years ago I had planned to go to India but didn’t make it because where I really wanted to go was Nepal. That might sound a little confusing but as didn’t have time to do both I decided to do neither. In retrospect I think it must have been a good decision because I had no reason for not going to India this time and it was great (although I still haven’t been to Nepal – which I would now like to combine with Tibet and another visit to China).

Now some of you may wonder how and why I travel so much but at least on this occasion I can blame it on my friend Donna. It was her who cruelly suggested that I go to India to see tigers with her even though this was supposed to be a non-travelling, hard working year for me. In such instances, where wildlife and travel are involved, I seem completely incapable of saying no and so it was that I went on the Exodus Tiger Safari.

Basically they market this 10-day tour to wildlife and photography enthusiasts. Instead of doing the regular India stops (Agra, Varanasi and wherever else), they take you to two national parks and send you in twice a day to spot tigers. There is a quick drive by/pseudo stop in Agra to check out the Taj but otherwise it’s all tigers if you’re fortunate enough to see them (which we were).

So I found myself flying to Delhi via Kuala Lumpur and Colombo on Air Lanka. I have to kill three hours in KL and eight in Colombo where there is supposedly only one coffee shop in the transit area. Total flying time from Melbourne to Delhi is only 14 hours, so 11 hours waiting in between seems a bit excessive and please slap me if I’m ever tempted to take a cheaper flight but more stops type of flight again! It brings back horrific memories of the eight hours I had to kill in Japan when I was so tired and fell asleep on a bench for four hours.

Luckily I managed to have a bit of a nap on the first leg of the flight. The entertainment system wasn’t working (which is perhaps better than not having entertainment at all as was the case on the second and third legs of my journey) and I had finished reading my book. The nap abruptly ended when my leg decided to spasm on the plane. Basically of its own accord it kicked out fiercely. It was quite lucky no-one was seated nearby else they suffer serious injury or otherwise notice my strange behaviour and ask for an explanation. I ended up turning the kick into a body roll / stretch to deceive anyone who may have witnessed the kick in the first place. Perhaps in my defence many of them had their own spasms to deal with. For the final moments of the flight I was just concerned that my bag of rice crackers might explode with the change in air pressure.

Just a note on transit delays … one thing which you have to love is that they allow you time to intimately get to know the airport. Take for instance the transfer desk. At KL international airport there are quite a few of them, every one of which is open except the one I need to get my boarding pass for Air Lanka. So whilst everyone else is ready to board, I have to wait until someone turns up to open my counter. The information desk gave me that look they reserve specifically for imbeciles when I queried when it would open, so now I’m just waiting to see.

On a positive note, the transit delay in KL at least gave me a few hours to catch up on my journal entry for NZ. I flew there just a few weeks earlier for a long weekend to watch the Olympic Hockey qualifier tournament. Without boring you with the details of the hockey … which to me are not in the least boring … I booked myself a Business Class trip with my Frequent Flyer points. Having never flown Business Class before it was all very special. The Qantas lady at the checkout counter in Melbourne looked like she would be much more pleased to put me and my slightly torn jeans in economy which I unfortunately find to be the standard niceness with Qantas.

As luck would have it, there were only a handful of Business Class passengers so the service was great. I had a three course meal. Not like the usual where each course is presented on the same tray just a different bowl. I literally had three full trays of food and when I mentioned to the flight attendant that surely there could be no more food she offered more if I so desired!

With food out of the way I settled back to watch the in-flight entertainment only to find that the chair was a little uncomfortable. It was too big and luxurious and as a consequence I was unable to touch the ground. My legs started to throb as they dangled uselessly over the edge. It was only on the return flight that I noticed another passenger flip out a hidden little foot rest thing that made everything much more comfortable. A trip to the toilet was just as confusing. I like to think of myself as a well travelled girl, but I have never before encountered cloth hand towels in a plane bathroom. Usually it’s just paper towel that you dispose of, but in Business Class they have cloths but I couldn’t find anywhere to put it once I used it. Well, there was a rubbish bin but that seemed a little wasteful so it ended up that each time I went to the bathroom I had to stuff the little cloth in my pocket and work out what to do with it later. My method on the flight back was to avoid going to the bathroom at all.

Back to more recent times … and my flight arrived in Colombo nice and early which wasn’t such a bonus at all since I had to wait seven hours for my connecting flight. I killed almost an hour walking up and down the hall then paid US$20 for a day room so I could sleep the rest of the time away.

Now let’s get back to India. The two National Parks we visited were Ranthambore National Park and Bandhavgarh National Park. Both of which are theoretically good for spotting tigers. Ranthambore feels considerably bigger but with the tracks covering only a small percentage of the park, the likelihood of spotting tigers is not as high as in Bandhavgarh. Regardless, it’s a beautiful park with an impressive fort on a plateau, which you can see from almost everywhere. I had to mention the fort because it really is incredibly impressive. It was built around 1140 AD, they’re not really sure who by, but when you see it you might, like me, be in awe at the size of it.

The wildlife in the park is diverse. Not only can you see tigers but also bush pigs (also known as wild boar although in Australia it’s a colloquial term for Australian girls who are very rough around the edges), leopard if you’re lucky enough to see them (I wasn’t), Sloth Bear if you’re lucky enough to see them (I wasn’t), Caracal if you’re lucky enough to see them (I wasn’t), squirrels (just kidding but wouldn’t it be great if you could, they’re so cute), peacocks (not really a highlight after you’re seen thousands of them), Jackals, Chitals, Sambar Deer, mongoose, loads of monkeys (common langur) which although they’re common always bring a smile to my face, crocodiles, eagles, owls and so many other birds that I have absolutely no knowledge of what they’re called.

In India I’ll generalise and say that they love their curry, uniforms and bureaucracy. I’m also very fond of the curry but the bureaucracy is annoying. In the park the bureaucracy forces you to stop to pay for cameras, stop to get hounded by hawkers and finally stop to pick up number plates which identify which route you’re allowed to drive. This route is the route that your driver and guide are allowed to take you on through the park regardless of where any tigers may have been sighted. It’s a little frustrating but it is also a fantastic way of seeing more of than park than you might otherwise see.

While we were in India the temperature was surely above 40 degrees every day and everything was quite dry which is supposed to be the best time to see tigers (I think it’s because the water holes are fewer). It’s not too unpleasant in the heat as the safaris are organised first thing in the morning, when your eyes are still crusted together and then another safari in the later afternoon, which is a bit warmer but eventually when the sun goes down it’s much more bearable. In the middle of the day we just went back to our accommodation (in Ranthambore this included a pool) to eat curry and relax.

As for the tigers, well it took me forever to see my first one, even though it was supposedly looking right at me. By quite a while I don’t mean nup, nup … oh there it is. I mean several minutes! First off I saw all the jeeps stopped on the track ahead, then as we approached everyone points in the direction of the scrub off to our right. Not much help really as the scrub is pretty thick and the tiger wasn’t just sitting there in front of it. You can’t imagine the excitement as everyone is clicking cameras or fiddling with their binoculars. There’s actually a lot of noise which surprised me as I thought we should be deathly quiet so as not to disturb the tiger. It gets worse though as the guys in the jeeps jostle for the best position (to get the best tip?) and arguments break out about who should be where and no-one can get through anywhere in the end. The jeeps become dodgem cars and if you don’t believe me, take for example the four accidents/bingles we had in jeeps (although a couple of those could be attributed to our driver chewing some local drug/stimulant).

Anyway, I’m still trying to spot this first tiger with directions such as “see the third twig from the dark tree stump 20 metres ahead, look 186 degrees and you can see a stripe”. This continued for a few minutes until the tiger finally decided to move making it a damn sight easier to spot. I saw two legs and then nothing until thankfully he came into the clearing and plonked himself down again. Then you just stand there (stand in the jeep I mean) watching for an hour or so until the traffic jam clears.

Now my unscientific view of tiger behaviour is that they’re lazy, just like domestic cats. In the heat they don’t mind lying around doing nothing all day and that’s basically what you see them doing. We watched one tiger for about an hour and a half and all it did was turn its head a couple of times. Oh, that’s not entirely true, it did get up to stretch at one point. So that’s why if you look at my photos they all look pretty much the same. We were lucky enough to see a few tigers moving around as well which is quite impressive as they lope along. They will rarely look at you but they always know where you are. There’s a sign in one of the National Parks which quite succinctly says “you may not have seen us, but we have seen you”.

We had a couple of great Tiger sightings in Ranthambore. My favourites were the very first sighting, the “I wont move” sighting which was pretty close at 10-15 metres. Then there was another sighting where a young tiger was watching us through some scrub. This only lasted for about 30 seconds but it was watching us quite warily and it felt like the most interactive sighting. Then there was the final favourite sighting, which was from no more than five metres. A mum lay there breathing heavily in the heat whilst one of her big babies (fully grown but not fully filled out) was lying under a tree not too far away. Mum was elevated on a little embankment and we were way too close for my comfort. The jeeps are like the MASH jeeps – very open and low and I was feeling a little apprehensive. Then again, that’s what this is all about, otherwise I could see them in a zoo with glass between us.

After four game drives in Ranthambore National Park we headed off to Bandhavgarh National Park via Agra and the Taj Mahal. I wont comment on the Taj other than to say it’s not very impressive from so far away and as it was closed (supposedly every Friday) I didn’t get to see inside it. Definitely need another visit there to do it any justice.

An overnight train journey and a long car trip later we arrived at beautiful Bandhavgarh. This National Park has a smaller, less commercial feel to it. No-one trying to sell us anything, no designated routes to follow. Not only that, but inside the park they have mahouts who ride elephants into the tall grasses to find more tigers that you can’t necessarily see from the road, even if you’re just metres away. Then for 300 rupees they will take you on the elephants to see tigers from very close range. The most vivid experience of this for me was sitting atop the elephant watching two tigers in the long grass. They were just sleeping and didn’t care that there were three elephants near them. Now in order for the two people on the other side of the elephant (two people sit either side back to back) to see the tigers, the elephant dutifully turned around which means that I’m looking at whatever is most interesting on the other side. I can’t remember too clearly but I was probably looking at the pictures I had just taken on my camera, or some such self absorbed thing, but then I looked directly down and there was another tiger, a very unhappy tiger, staring at us. The long grass meant that no one had seen this tiger and we had almost trod on him. We were on a biggish elephant but there is no doubt in my mind that the tiger could have jumped up and nibbled on us had it really cared. Luckily for me it just provided the very best photo opportunity and otherwise left us alone.

There were many more tiger sightings, a couple of turtle sightings and a snake sighting (not enjoyable) but that was pretty much it for the trip. I had hopefully managed to fatten up one baby puppy and a blind dog at the park entrance with biscuits from the accommodation in Bandhavgarh – possibly not the greatest thing for their digestion but they were such poor skinny things. The people on the trip were wonderful as always and I’m quite sure I have never met such a well travelled group of wildlife enthusiasts. They put my meagre adventures to shame so I’m all fired up to join the elite.

My apologies to Donna for whacking her every time I saw a tiger. On one occasion I was very excited and thumped her pretty hard and stammered “Tiger” which you could easily see as it was right ahead of us. I think the moral is, don’t sit too close to me when wildlife spotting (includes squirrels and all domestic animals as well).

If there was one disappointment from this trip it was that … ok, three disappointments … it wasn’t long enough, we didn’t see any little baby cubs and my photos didn’t turn out great. None of which are valid as I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been there in the first place. All of which can really be resolved by going back which I’m thinking of but not sure at this stage. I’m planning a trip to South America (Argentina and Peru / Chile) at the end of the year and next year I’m hoping to get back to Africa to see the Gorilla’s again so another trip to see tigers might have to wait … or not.

For the moment though you’ll be happy to hear that I’m working hard, or at least I have ATTENDED work for a grand total of 63 days for the financial year (July-June). Seems excessive I know but I have to pay for these trips somehow. I dragged myself out of bed this morning only for the money, as the shear joy of work doesn’t do it for me anymore. I have 4 working days left at my current contract and I will probably/hopefully renew here or find something better. The job market does not ever seem to be as grand as it was several years ago.

My hockey exploits have been temporarily interrupted as I recover from a calf tear. Amusingly I was still able to play a second match after the injury (not knowing at this point the damage I had done to myself). I played dreadfully so at least I have an excuse! Life is playing tricks on me now. I parked at a car park closer to work to avoid the walk but then had to limp/hop/cry down seven flights of steps as there was no elevator. If that’s not funny enough, the following night one of the cats I was babysitting raced off outside (I don’t think this cat has ever been outside in its life) so I had to try and catch it. Truthfully I had two friends there who sort of annoyed it enough that it raced back inside before I had done more than get my shoes (a 10 minute hobble) and find some kitty treats (another 10 minutes).

Otherwise, I’m quite happily not studying at uni for a change but I have been studying Spanish since the start of the year. Loads more work to be done.

That’s it for now. I hope that you are all well and happy and perhaps I will hear some news from you soon.

Cheers

Cheryl

New York Starring Cheryl

>Oct/Nov 2003

About 11 hours into my train journey I had read and mostly committed to memory my Lonely Planet NYC guide so I was primed to catch the subway to either 96th st or 103rd st on train route 1 as far as I could fathom. I managed to finish reading or at least turn each page of the crappy Lester Bangs book I brought on the train ride to keep me entertained. This was great news as I now officially had no books left to read and a trip to a bookstore was ahead of me. I stunned myself by writing at least 20 postcards in dreadful scribble due to the wobbly train ride and horrified myself and perhaps passengers around me with my food consumption.

Soon enough (800km) I was arriving in New York. I didn’t get much of a view as I just saw some lights on a bridge and then we were underground. It was pretty easy to get to the hostel after initially struggling to find the right line, then a tricky (not really) encounter with the downtown train instead of the uptown one. When I eventually hit the surface I took about five wrong turns in five minutes as I tried to get about one block from the subway stop. I thought I knew my N, E, S, W but obviously not when I have a full pack on.

I spent one night in the HI Hostel and then moved to the Big Apple Hostel in midtown. Perfect location on 45th st and great in every other way as well. I highly recommend this place if anyone is heading to NY. The Big Apple Hostel was to be my home for the next couple of weeks and again after I returned from Washington D.C.

The list of things I did, saw and took photos of in New York is huge, limited only by my energy and money as I think I had plenty of time. I wandered through Central Park and fed pecan nuts to the squirrels which were in abundance. They seemed to enjoy them but I’m not sure that it’s allowed as no-one else was feeding them. I promised to remember to look out for police before I indulged in any other dissident behaviour.

I popped my head into the Guggenheim museum but it was full of strange work that I really couldn’t get my head around apart from a few works by Van Gogh and Picasso. I sort of felt a little guilty that I didn’t try hard enough to ‘get it’, but there’s a lot to do in New York and not everything appeals to everyone. I wandered through Central Park again, my main purpose was to get to the upper west village to find and dine at a restaurant called Quintessence, an organic, raw vegan restaurant. The service was lovely and kind particularly as I was in their lunchtime rush of three people (their words not mine). The meal was kind of like the Guggenheim, arty but I didn’t like it. In fact, I’m not even sure what it was … supposedly nori rolls filled with some sort of digestive aid pate.

Later on it is well worth noting that I found a huge bookstore, the kind I have dreamt about. People were lying around on the floor, sitting on the ground in corners, singles and couples, young and old in every section of the store. I allowed myself only a small amount of time in there because otherwise it is always dangerous for me. I already have enough books to read for the rest of my lifetime.

I love the subway in New York, it’s fantastic to get around on but for the moment, walking was so much better as you get to see and hear everything: men running around Central Park talking about skinny girls, girls walking around talking about relationships they don’t want to be involved in.

What else did I do in New York … I saw a bunch of Broadway shows which was fantastic. Some of the shows I just went to see for the cast, other shows appealed to me for the storyline but in most all cases I had a great time. Admittedly I did walk out during the intermission of a couple but this was mostly due to fatigue rather than disinterest. The tickets were purchased at the 50% discount outlet but the tickets were mostly still about US$50 so the shows always set me back a bit.

Now here’s a list of things I have learnt whilst travelling.

1. Public phones are never in quiet areas because it’s deemed highly unlikely that you or the person you’re speaking to would ever want to hear what the other is saying.

2. Never cross the road for Starbucks. The act of crossing the road itself is not that difficult, it’s just that if you wander a few more steps you’ll surely find another on the same side anyway.

3. Never talk to strangers. They’re strangers because they’re strange. It’s not always the case, but quite often.

The United Nations was another highlight for me. So much so that I went there twice. The first time as soon as I arrived I was whisked away on tour like an important citizen, but in truth it was because they needed one more person on their tour and I was the only friendless sole to be found. I later discovered there was a horrible lady on the tour so it was no doubt because of her that no-one else volunteered to join the group.

Something I am not proud of but I will admit to enjoying was going to a taping of the Ricki Lake show. Definitely not my usual scene but it was hilarious! The show was about the best looking women who work at Walmart and the winner got some Playboy spread.

Of course I made the pilgrimage to Ground Zero but discovered there was not really much to look at apart from construction which is probably the honourable thing. If they had transformed it into a gawdy tourist spot then I think it would be quite disrespectful. Across the road was the Century 21 department store which I went to visit with my new friend Nicky. That place was scary and I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone who knows me that I wanted to get out as soon as I went in. For me the only valid form of shopping is in a book store. It took forever to get out and once you’re in the ‘going in’ stream of people it’s very difficult to change direction.

I finally made it to see an Ice hockey game. It was a battle between the Rangers and the Red Wings. Hope this means something to some people out there. The Rangers won 2-1 but I was kind of barracking for the other team as the girl sitting beside me, who was kindly telling me the rules, was a fan and I had no other allegiance.

I had a great plan one day to go and see a Gospel choir in Harlem, then continue on to the Apollo Theatre, Harlem Market, Spanish Harlem and then the Bronx. The end result was that the church was full so we went to another recommended church just nearby. ‘Mothers’ was having its 207th anniversary we discovered which probably meant more babbling than usual ( I wouldn’t really know given that my lifetime visits to church is a single digit figure and will remain that way). I was frustrated with the stand up, sit down business all the time. When the choir did sing they were entertaining but for the rest of the visit I will be forever glad that I daydream exquisitely!

Stop two was no better although I enjoyed the walk through Harlem. The Apollo Theatre, venue of radical events and singing sensations, was closed apart from the gift shop, but I managed to worm myself into the washroom which would have been a highlight had it not been so smelly.

We (Nicky and I) continued to wander, stopped at a Soul Food Kitchen for lunch which included fried everything sold by the pound, very little of which was digestible. Soon enough we met one of those strange strangers I was telling you about and we couldn’t get rid of him for several hours. I blame Nicky as she initially started talking to him but then I think it was my fault as I was too pleasant and kept talking to him when Nicky had given up and was trying to run away.

The final stop of that well planned day was out to Yankee Stadium where the Yankees had lost the world series the previous night. There was lots of rubbish around and not much else. We didn’t realise until we were there that you can’t really see anything by walking around it and the best glimpse you get is from the train but we were happy to have made it out to the edge of the Bronx.

Another day my roommate decided that she had to go see Conan O’Brien so I tagged along not really knowing what I was getting myself into. The show tickets have long since been distributed so we had to line up in the wee hours of the morning for standby tickets. We arrived at 7am (9am is when they’re given out), found where we were supposed to be, lined up but as there was no-one else there we wandered off and came back a few minutes later. Still there was no-one there but this was definitely the place to line up. Shortly after, the security guy (Aboa) set up some crowd control gates so we moved there, took some photos and then finally another person turned up perhaps an hour later, then a few more, until finally at 9am there were people at least into the double digits. I had standby ticket number 1, my roomie had number 2.

That’s not where this story ends. We later found out that the stand by ticket is only valid if someone doesn’t turn up so you have to go back to the studio at 4pm and line up again for another hour. In between we decided to go to the Met. Now I’m not sure if this is the biggest museum in the world but it’s big and full of loads of interesting stuff. Unfortunately our early morning had killed me and I wasn’t able to stay awake enough to enjoy anything. Too tired to catch a train back to the hostel, we took a taxi (which takes about five times as long as the train). I slept a few hours and then it was time to go back to the studio. The bad news was that even though we had stand by tickets number 1 and 2, neither one of us got in. Depressed, we headed off to Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream where we got a discount (they pitied us). We met two guys in there who work for NBC who also pitied us so they offered us a tour of NBC (Bob liked us because we didn’t like George Bush). Just as we were about to sign in and have our visitor pass photos taken, someone offered us Carson Daly tickets which we gratefully accepted even though we had been offered them before but weren’t interested. This time we couldn’t really say no as they were being so kind. So off we went to Carson Daly where we saw Ted Danson and no-one else I know of. The show was really bad and it’s no wonder they have so many tickets to give away. Perhaps I should be more grateful, but it was really really bad which makes something I did later even worse.

The next morning we lined up again for Conan O’Brien tickets. This time we got stand by tickets number 6 and 7. Three guys from Israel had been in line since 4:30am and were saturated as it was raining. We didn’t have the heart to tell them we had tickets 1 and 2 the previous day and still didn’t get in. Positive thought will get you anywhere … and this time we got in. The show was hilarious, really funny and well worth the effort. We went to celebrate at Ben & Jerry’s (it works for all occasions). Against my better judgement we went to see Carson Daly again, partly because I thought it really couldn’t have been that bad and also because Nicky liked it and wanted to go again. This time the show was so much worse! The show is so bad that we turned up almost two hours late with no ticket and they still let us in. Worse still, they were taping for Friday which means it runs for an hour instead of the usual, more bearable half hour. The guests were abysmal. Some guy from Saturday Night Live who was a complete ass and a chick from That 70’s show who was almost as bad and certainly just as rude and offensive. I couldn’t wait to get out.

Like any good NY tourist I headed off to the Empire State Building. There are at least four different lines you have to stand in. If you’re planning on going will take you about two hours before you get to the top where you can see anything. The view is well worth it even if you’re only up there for 15 minutes like I was.

Another interesting (free) thing to do in NY is to walk across the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. It sort of happened for me by accident. I was heading to Chinatown on the subway and got off at the wrong stop which was nearby to the Manhattan bridge. It seemed like a fun thing to do so I walked over, a little unsure if I was going to get mugged or anything. The Manhattan bridge is great because it gives you a wonderful view of the more famous Brooklyn Bridge and a view of the Manhattan skyline. The whole trip took about 1.5 hours (I walk slow). Sorry if I sound like a Lonely Planet guide. Just thought some of this info might be helpful if you’re planning a trip and wondering what to do.

I went to Washington DC, did a bunch of vaguely interesting things and most of the time wished I was back in NY. It didn’t feel safe at all if I walked a block away from the hostel AND there was a creepy guy staying in the hostel. No luck either way really.

For any Sarah McLachlan fans out there, I saw her play at the NBC Today Show Summer Concert series at Rockefeller Plaza. Well I didn’t really see her much as I was a few people back in the crowd and I’m not tall enough! I did hear her though. The next day I had a ticket to an exclusive in store performance she was doing. It’s a long story how I got the ticket, the short version is that Luka is an absolute gem!!!! We sat in the front row of a small crowd and listened to her play a small set before getting a cd signed and asking her when she would come to Australia. May she said and true to her word she will be here. I already have tickets.

Quickly to the flight home which was horrendous. 13 hours or so to Japan, eight hour delay then another 13 or so hours to Sydney, lines for security, lines for transfer, nice easy one hour flight to Melbourne, luggage lost, don’t care at all – too tired and I was home to big hugs and kisses from my two nieces with the rest of my family there to greet me.

A couple of weeks later I was back in Sydney for a volunteer stint at the Champions Trophy Hockey and it would be another two months before I bothered working in the real world!

As always I’m sure I’ve bored you senseless so wake up and do some work or whatever it is they pay you for.

Tigers in India were great. Hope you’re ready to read that one as well.

Cheers

Cheryl

PS Please forgive typos, grammatical errors, rubbish, junk and anything annoying.

Winnipeg to Toronto

>For the grand total of 59 cents I was able to change my flight from Winnipeg-Montreal to Winnipeg-Toronto. Ruud wasn’t too keen to stay in Winnipeg and as he flew home to the Netherlands via Toronto we decided to go and spend some time there. Before we left I did take Ruud downtown for a little while which was just long enough to get photos developed and check our internet (my addiction) at the public library. That was enough of Winnipeg for Ruud.

Back in Toronto for the second time I was tempted to go back to the Canadiana Backpackers but I think by this time everyone I knew would have left as is often the case. Ruud and I stayed in an apartment way uptown on Yonge St. It was pretty expensive but it had luxuries like a kitchen (no use to me) and a bathroom. I couldn’t get myself used to this style of living though as it would not service me well for the rest of the trip if I set a new standard.

Whilst in TO this time around I did several things that I missed out on the first time and that Ruud enjoyed. We went up the CN tower, the tallest free standing structure in the world with a glass floor strong enough to support 13,000 tonnes. I still wasn’t keen on it but luckily we picked a perfect days and we had beautiful views of Lake Ontario etc. We then headed off to Air Canada Centre and took a tour through a mini hall of fame then through the tv studio for Hockey Night or something and finally we sat on the players bench by the rink. Most of the significance of this was lost on me but I tried to appreciate it to make my Canadian friends like Bruce proud. To further highlight my ignorance of north American sports we then went to the Hockey Hall of Fame where the only player I had heard of was Wayne Gretsky. I really did enjoy the World Press Photo exhibit at the arcade near the hall.

By far the greatest highlight was finally catching up with a friend I met years ago in Africa. Poor Ruud and Joe didn’t get a word in as Sheila and I chatted solidly for four hours. Not very long considering it had been many years since we last spoke and not enough emails in between. I was both sad and happy as I knew it would be perhaps many more years before we were able to catch up and yak again. But I was happy to catch up in any case.

… and those were my final thoughts as I left Canada on the train bound for New York. Ruud would fly out soon after I left and everything else I knew was back in Canada. New York would be completely new and effectively the last leg of my trip. I was very excited about it but also realising that I was almost on my way home.

Polar Bears

>So I went to see the Polar Bears in Churchill, Manitoba but before I even got there interesting things started to happen. The night before we departed I was having dinner with friends in the hotel when I heard an Aussie accent. Being my shy self, I wandered over to have a chat, only to discover that the accent belonged to a couple my parents had known since around the time of my birth. In addition to that, they were on the exact same Polar Bear tour as me. Well, that meant good behaviour for me didn’t it.

The next morning Ruud and I boarded a charter flight from Winnipeg to Churchill and a few hours later we were in Churchill with about six hours to check out the town before heading out to our Tundra Buggy Lodge accommodation. The lodge is kind of like four converted train carriages, nothing five star if that’s what you’re thinking. We all sleep in bunk beds and although there’s a shower, it only drips water and most of us couldn’t be bothered with it. Luckily there’s a great kitchen and all our meals are prepared for us. Anyway, six hours is about five hours too long for checking out Churchill. The highly recommended Eskimo museum took about 10 minutes and everything else took less unless you count the 20 minutes we spent waiting at the post office to see if it would open so we could get a Polar Bear stamp in our passports. I nearly died of smoke inhalation at the local pub so we left there and just sat outside in the freezing cold.

Eventually we boarded a bus for the ride out to the Tundra Buggies which would then take us out to the Tundra Buggy Lodge. Not long into the journey we saw a polar bear perhaps 50 metres away. It was so special to watch that I will admit my eyes watered a little (yes again) and looking around the bus you could see giant smiles on everyone’s faces. The polar bear wasn’t it though, we also saw a snowy owl in flight, low to the ground and quite close, much bigger than any owl I expected to see although honestly I didn’t expect to see any. Soon enough we had even seen several arctic faxes and arctic hares, each of them white and wonderful to look at.

At the Tundra Buggy Lodge, one bear is hanging around. We were told it was young and has probably only recently been abandoned by its mother which usually occurs around two years of age as the mother prepares to have another cub or three over the winter. The chances of this bear surviving are about 50/50. It has no predators and would succumb only to starvation or another bear. This bear has been so interesting to watch. He seems completely docile and I would love to be closer to him but already we are just two metres apart but perfectly safe in our Tundra Buggy Lodge. The benefit of staying here as opposed to staying in town is that the lodge is in the area where the polar bears roam so we can see them all the time.

For two nights we slept at the lodge with at least one bear nearby and during the day we headed out to see more bears. In our general area I think there were only four bears. An explanation for the low number is perhaps that it was early in the season but it was also good to spend time watching each bear’s behaviour more closely. The four bears were a mother and her 10 month old cub, ‘Spot’ the young male and ‘George’ another larger male. These are the names we gave them anyway and it worked well. We could chat to anyone in our group and say that we saw George doing this or Spot doing that.

We spent plenty of time viewing these bears individually and on the second day we were able to observe them all together including the challenges between the two males and a challenge between George and the mother and cub. The mother was very possessive and gave no ground so the male wandered a little way off and established a cautious presence for the remainder of our day.

It was very interesting to watch the bear interacting together but it was also interesting to watch them interacting with us which poses the question just how much we were we impacting on their behaviour? As we were the first group of the season to stay at the lodge, it was interesting that Spot spent those first two nights with us and the mother and cub were also there a fair amount of the time. Then on the last morning, George also turned up. The common theory is that the smells of humans and our cooking has drawn them curiously nearby as they wait for the ice to form on the Hudson Bay and they’re inquisitive and definitely not afraid.

The ‘tour’ we booked was only two nights on the Tundra and then people headed home. Instead of heading straight back to Winnipeg, Ruud and I spent another night in Churchill so we could go out for an extra day with the Polar Bears on a day trip. That night we headed into town for a naturalist talk (there were only three of us there) and just after retuning to our accommodation we heard the town sirens going off. I was happy to be inside as we thought it was a Polar Bear alert. I switched on the local news to see if there was anything about a bear being in town but all I saw was the specials at the diner, bingo night information and the weather 0 degrees.

The following day we discovered that the siren was actually the teenager curfew to ensure they don’t get involved in any mischief or vandalism. Our Tundra Buggy tour was two hours late due to the late arrival of the day trippers on the train (I think the train trip takes at least a day and then they head straight back). We headed directly out to the Tundra Buggy Lodge where our four bears were still hanging out. Along the way one keen eye spotted a Caribou and we watched as it waded/swam through the frigid waters. This was very surprising to me.

Watching the bears on this final day was the same but different as it was snowing, 40km/h winds and perhaps the temperature with the wind chill was -10 degrees Celsius. As the weather was so bad, typical Churchill weather we were told, practically all the people stayed inside the buggies with the windows shut and fogged up while I stayed outside with five layers of clothing watching Polar Bears in the wild for perhaps the last time in my life. It seemed worth a little hardship.

Leaving Churchill was difficult. Of course there was the separation from the bears but I’m talking about the logistics of getting from town to the airport. Getting a taxi to collect us was near impossible as the weather had deteriorated to the point that the car was sliding on the frozen road. Luckily we drove slow enough and arrived safely. It was beyond me how the plane would take off in the conditions so it was no surprise when that was delayed a little as well. As it was, our runway taxi/takeoff was short as we started sliding to our left so the pilot immediately lifted us up an we were away.

Montreal to Winnipeg Quebec

>Montreal, Quebec

Day one in the hostel kitchen and I ran into a friend and fellow Dale Letcher fan from Halifax, Susanne. Great to see her again and she became one of my longest travelling buddies in Canada. I also caught up Yves, a friend from another travelling adventure in the UK nearly ten years ago. We had lunch together at Le Commensal, yet another vegetarian restaurant I recommend, and later headed to his house to have dinner with his wife and three kids. How things change! Sadly I didn’t really do much else in Montreal. I was in a mood, just not enjoying being on the road and checking out beautiful things every day. It sounds pathetic, but sometimes even beautiful things get tedious and you just can’t be bothered seeing them for a while … kind of like temples in Asia or castles in England. So I went to see movies instead. At least four of them in three days.

Again I took the easy and cheaper option to get around eastern Canada. It’s serviced by the Moose backpacker network (www.moosenetwork.com) which is a bus that drives a specified route and allows you to jump on and off at your convenience. No restrictions, just great destinations, a knowledgeable guide and a cool bunch of people to hang with. Of course it didn’t start so well as we tried to push start the bus and ended up being delayed almost two hours. It wasn’t really time lost though as we went to a market and watched with fascination as bagels were baked. It’s true, it really is interesting to watch and I defy anyone to resist the urge to eat one afterwards!

It was during the Moose that I became a pool/billiards demon. Playing at every opportunity and enjoying the hell out of it. As soon as we got to our accommodation for the evening I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the cue and play. “Coach”, Ian, was always there to help with our skills and we just had a great time every night.

First stop was Tadoussac, Quebec. I was tired and feeling lazy but I was sociable and wandered with the group to the top of a hill to watch the stars around a small campfire. The stars were nice enough, but around midnight I started wandering back. Luckily I got lost. A strange thing to say I’m sure, but it meant that I had to go back to the others at the campfire where I saw the Northern Lights for the first time in my life! Yay. I thought it was city lights but it was not so. The lights were green and although they didn’t dance around, they were still beautiful to see and as I haven’t yet seen them again, I count myself very lucky!

I paid for breakfast at the hostel but didn’t learn my lesson that I would have to cook it myself. The pancakes other people made looked perfect and scrumptious whilst mine resembled scrambled eggs and were only vaguely edible. In fact they looked so bad, I had other people offering to cook for me the following day!

Of great importance is the fact that I seem to be overcoming my seasickness if it’s possible after the dreadful experience I have had in western Canada and Alaska. I went whale watching and saw beautiful Minke whales, a few seals and two fin whales, the second largest species of whale! Again I count myself so lucky to have these experiences! I wasn’t feeling 100% and fell asleep during the time everyone said they saw a beluga whale.

Of lesser importance is the fact that I passed the Saint Lawrence challenge. This involves standing knee deep in freezing water for three minutes for a free beer which I do not drink anyway. It wasn’t the beer, it was the challenge. Three minutes ended up being six or so by which time it was much easier as I had lost feeling. This is not a smart thing to do.

Quebec City was the next stop and it holds sad memories for me. Firstly, although there are beautiful buildings and atmosphere, our choice for dinner was a fast food joint with a very bad choice for vegetarians (fries cooked thankfully in vegetable oil). I can deal with that. It happens all the time. It was what happened at 4am that I couldn’t handle. This wont make too much sense to many of you but basically I was checking the internet to see how my AFL team had faired in the Grand Final. We lost. We were thumped. I felt sick. The next day everyone felt dreadfully sorry for me I think, they were so nice. It’s difficult to describe what it means to be a Collingwood supporter, suffice to say you have to be strong. It’s a good thing I wasn’t able to find a place to see the match live. That would have been too difficult!

In Mt Tremblant I tasted the greatest frozen taffy every. Well honestly I have never tasted it before so I can’t say it’s the greatest but it was yummy although incredibly sweet! Mt Tremblant is essentially a touristy ski village which based purely on appearance reminded me of Whistler. I was very impressed with the luge ride for $10. At our hostel Penny and I paddled a pedal boat, but it took so much effort to get anywhere that we mostly just hung out at a pontoon picking up frozen freeloaders who had swam out. Later in the evening, after a few games of pool of course, we sat out in a tepee where I belted out yet another rendition of Mercedes Benz which was well received, meaning that people clapped rather than threw things or booed.

By the time I arrived in Ottawa I was sick with the cold that everyone was sharing around on the Moose. I did manage to do a few things like going to the chemist to get cough medicine and tablets. Otherwise I slept, ventured out a few times here and there but it was all a bit vague. I do remember eating a Beaver Tail which is not quite as meaty as it sounds. It’s some kind of bread/doughnut thing smothered with chocolate. Dead healthy! Actually it was so sweet I couldn’t even manage to eat the whole thing which is quite unusual for me!

Back on the Moose with a different bunch of people as this was the first time I had jumped off. But I was still travelling with some friends including Sus and Lisa and also on the bus was Coach, Fabienne and Inga who I had met previously. We headed to Maynooth for some camping in Algonquin Provincial Park, but as it was snowing by the time we arrived there we just did a couple of day hikes instead. We timed this visit perfectly as we had the beautiful snow, coloured leaves and generally bearable weather. The tracks were often indistinguishable from a river and at one point we seriously thought it was one as we hadn’t seen a trail marker for a while. I fell three times, all of them hard and uncomfortable with bruises to prove it. I started to lack confidence in my vegetarian hiking shoes … but in fact it was mostly due to the weather and the condition of the trail. Algonquin Provincial Park is surely one of my favourite places in Canada so I am happy to have stopped there an extra few days.

Toronto, Ontario

My first day there I didn’t stay there at all. Instead I went to Niagara Falls. To me it was kind of like a place you have to go and I had no strong opinions or ideas on what it would be like. My first impression was that it was a gawdy tourist trap. Pretty interesting but not spectacular. Then I jumped on the ultra touristy ‘Maid of the Mist’ boat ride, donned my see through blue garbage raincoat and hoped for the best. Against all my better judgement, it really was quite fun and interesting. I had never been that close to such a large powerful waterfall and I was impressed and enjoyed it with a big smile on my face. After the ride we walked up town which is kind of like a cross between Disneyland and Las Vegas. Great big flashing neon signs lining both sides of the street with very much the carnival atmosphere.

Back in Toronto I wandered for miles in Chinatown trying to find the legendary $2 internet place. We found $3 but being cheap backpackers where every dollar counts, we were prepared to walk for hours trying to find cheaper. It’s probably a myth. We never did find it. We also spent a good amount of time wandering up Yonge St looking for a particular travel agent. Little did Fabienne know when she arranged for her plane ticket to be picked up from there that Yonge St is the longest street in the world (18km) and walking wasn’t going to cut it. The subway ended being the only viable option.

I had great fun in Toronto with the people I met there. Sus and Fabienne were great friends and I was so sad to leave as always but sometimes, like in this case, it was harder than usual. By this time I had spent at least three weeks hanging out with Sus and in one week felt just as close to Fabienne as they’re both great people who I will truly miss. In neither instance when I said goodbye was I able to speak without getting sooky so I didn’t say too much. As I sat on the airport shuttle bus (on route to Winnipeg) I shed a few tears which then became quite a few tears and wasn’t it just great to have sad songs playing on the radio to boost my mood!

Then Winnipeg. I was still feeling melancholy on the plane so I didn’t speak and at the airport was pleased to see Anthony, a fellow ex Mooser, waiting for me after his earlier flight. Soon I was wandering the streets of Winnipeg with him and another traveller and by the evening there was six of us hanging together. It wasn’t the same as having Sus and Fabienne there but it was great and it did stop me wallowing miserably too much. Lisa was there (from Moose) and we had some common friends and travelling tales but the rest were new people so life stories had to be retold.

A good sleep cheered me up and waltzing around Winnipeg the following day took my mind off things but was pretty uneventful. Lisa and I stuffed ourselves with Japanese food. When I say stuffed I mean it! I was defeated as I couldn’t finish the rice but Lisa was a champion who finished the rice, 12 rolls, miso soup, vegetable tempura, agadashi tofu etc.

The next day, Ruud whom I met in Alaska, will turn up before a very early start the next day to the Polar Bears.

Calgary to Halifax

>A few months have passed since my last update so let me start filling you in on what I was doing way back in September.

Calgary, Alberta

Hostel was decent apart from being located next to a dodgy park with syringe bins. Free breakfast, pancakes, was provided which is always exciting. Unfortunately you must make the pancakes yourself. They provide the flour and other ingredients, whatever they may be, and you whip up the storm yourself. If you know me well or even vaguely you know this seemed pretty daunting to me. So I went down to the kitchen at breakfast time and watched a few people measuring flour and one girl stirring, but apart from that it all seemed a bit difficult so instead of having a free breakfast, I skulked off into town and paid someone else to make it for me … then later in the day I found a convenience store and bought a box of breakfast bars.

Later that morning I went to the Calgary Zoo which is just out of town and very easy to get to on a train. I was also told it’s a nice walk along the river to get there but I had already wasted enough time wandering off to find breakfast. They have some fantastic exhibits at the zoo, really modern and enjoyable for the animals (I hope) and us. Unfortunately there are also a few exhibits that are way too small so I hope they have funding to improve those.

Another day I headed to Canada Olympic Park. Along the way I was excited by the train and bus ride watching several supermarkets go by as for the past two days I had been unable to find one. The Olympic Park was the site of the 1988 Winter Olympics where you can take a guided tour, which was my preference, or wander around by yourself, which is what I ended up doing rather than waiting two hours for the next tour. I started off in the hall of fame where there was a bunch of memorabilia including Olympic torches, mascots, equipment, uniforms etc. Then, at the request of the lonely guy working there, I watched an eight minute introductory video which had not a moment of dialogue save for the heavy breathing of a guy on the luge. It was interesting nonetheless. Next stop was wandering off in search of the ice room or something of the sort. Basically it’s a freezing indoor training area where luge, skeleton and bobsled athletes can practice year round. Judging by the size of the place I think they only practice their starts which would become quite repetitive and boring but at least they would be experts. The ‘skeleton’ in case you’re wondering, is not really skinny athletes doing stuff. It’s kind of like going down a slope on a luge but face first … strangely enough, this is not a big sport in Australia. Anyway, it is said that the public can have a go for $10 but with no-one there to offer anything it didn’t eventuate. I had kind of thought that you get to go on the big outdoor run, possibly not travelling 120 km/h as they do in elite events, but at least having a bit of fun.

My final stop at the park was the 90m ski jump tower. I took a chairlift up to the top of the hill, then an elevator to the top of the tower and looked out the observation deck to see what kind of perspective you get … really high would be my take on it! Anyway, back down the elevator and I decided to walk down the hill rather than take the chairlift again as I had made a bit of a fool of myself getting on and off the thing. Best to stay away to avoid further embarrassment.

Today I realised that even though I pack my backpack pretty sensibly, meaning I don’t take very many clothes etc, I seem to have an issue with other things like pens and books. I counted eight pens, all of which I could not possibly need and six books, much more of a problem than eight pens as they’re heavier. Anyway, that was it for the entertaining stuff I did in Calgary. From there I flew all the way to St. John’s, Newfoundland to catch the better weather. Kind of skipping a lot of the country but I would come back later in the year.

St. John’s, Newfoundland

St. John’s is a gorgeous city. The streets are lined with colourful old buildings, there is a nice harbour and the gorgeous Atlantic Ocean setting just beyond. It’s hilly in St. John’s or at least it is in comparison to Melbourne. They say all the locals have strong legs from walking around and I did some good walking of my own to Queens Battery and Barracks where confused tourists in rented cars looked at me strangely. Seems not many people hiked the goat tracks like I did but as I had spent so much money on accommodation at the Captain’s Quarters, I thought it better to save the bus fare. Undeterred by the strange looks, I continued on up to Cabot Tower and was rewarded with spectacular views of St. John’s harbour and The Narrows. Eventually I continued on to Quidi Vidi, a picturesque fishing port which lays claim to having the oldest cottage in North America. It started raining and didn’t stop so my walk back to town was a wet one.

My main reason for being in Newfoundland was to visit Gros Morne National Park but to get there I had to find a bus. Not really that hard usually, but in complete honesty three times I tried to find out where it was and every time I could not understand a word the ‘newfies’ said. Canadians will definitely understand this. In the end I hooked up with another traveller (from Smoky Lake, Alberta!!! Only three people will understand the coincidence of this) who drove me to Gros Morne and around for three or four days! Our first stop on route was Cape Spear which is the most easterly point of North America and it offered beautiful views of St. John’s and Signal Hill. The only other stop we made along the way was at a town called Dildo. Nothing else said about that!

Gros Morne National Park

Day one in the park and we hiked the short Western Brook Pond trail and jumped into a boat for two hours to view the spectacular scenery. It’s everything you expect it to be and a must for anyone going to Gros Morne. Unfortunately none of my pictures did it justice, which I’ll try and attribute to bad light but it’s more inclined to be poor photography by myself and shaky hands from the freezing cold.

Day two, Ted, my driver, and I hiked the Tablelands trail which probably would take about twenty minutes but we opted for the interpretative walk with a Canadian National Parks Ranger. In so doing, we learnt about the provincial flower, the pitcher plant, the sundew and butter wart. We also learnt about the geological formation of the area including glaciers and tectonic plate movement. The walk took about two hours and was much more interesting this way. Sometimes it’s right there in front of you but you have no idea what it is! Same day we hiked the 5km return trip to the “Lookout”. I’m not sure of the elevation, but I know that I was struggling, which also says something about my fitness. It was well worth the hard work as we were rewarded with breathtaking views of Gros Morne mountain, the Tablelands and the harbours … and there was not a sign of anyone else.

Day three was rain, plenty of it and as I didn’t think myself fit enough to do the only other walk on my list, up Gros Morne Mountain itself, so we left. Ted was great and drove me all the way to Corner Brook where we parted ways and I haven’t heard from him since. I loitered in town for many hours before catching the bus to Port aux Basque for a seven hour ferry ride to Nova Scotia. On board I was extremely lucky to get a dorm bed for $16 and several hours later I fell asleep without getting seasick!!! Although I didn’t venture outside to see the seas, I knew it was rough out there as the ship creaked and lurched from side to side, understandably as there was a hurricane nearby. Seven hours later, with little sleep but hard ground beneath me, I jumped on a bus to Halifax and was quite surprised to learn it would take seven hours to get there. This was one of those horrible travelling days you come across where you don’t really get anywhere for two days, you don’t sleep or eat properly and you generally end up at your destination wondering what your name is!

Halifax, Nova Scotia

I started in Halifax slowly as I was planning to stay there a while. Over the course of the first week, I watched a few movies at the Atlantic Film Festival, tried not to touch anything at the grubby hostel and thoroughly enjoyed myself at the library where I have my own library card and could access the internet for free and read magazines in my spare time.

Halifax is such a great place. It’s just the feeling there. There’s nothing so exciting, it’s just all nice and I felt happy and at home. There’s a nice citadel surrounded by beautiful lawns where I read my book. I walked along the harbour, took a day trip out to Lunenberg and Peggy’s Cove. Lunenberg is a fishing village renowned for its picturesque setting and colourful buildings. The tour gave us the option of going for a walking tour or to visit the Fishery Museum. Although I heard the museum was interesting, I’m sure it would surprise none of you that I took the walking tour and discovered it wasn’t my thing either … our guide spent an hour talking about fishing, UGH!

Peggy’s Cove is a tourist Mecca for which reason I’m unsure. There’s a lighthouse, it’s pretty, perhaps that’s enough reason. I ended up ditching the bus tour and taking a boat back to Halifax instead, hoping to see some whales along the way. Alas there were none but I was quite pleased that I did not get seasick. To be honest, the sea was very calm but leaving the cove offered waves big enough to have me wondering was I was doing out there in such a small boat!

Salty Bear

I took the easy option to see some of the sights in Nova Scotia, PEI and New Brunswick … the saltybear tour (www.saltybear.com). It started off by taking us driving around Cape Breton Island and whale watching in Pleasant Bay where we saw loads of Pilot whales and just as exciting, it’s the second time in recent days that I have been on the water and haven’t been seasick! We had a huge bonfire that first evening on the beach where Dave, and occasionally Miles, played the guitar and sang. I bought Dave’s cd to listen to when I get home (no cd player with me) but Miles didn’t have one.

On the second day along the coast of Cape Breton we hiked in pouring rain (from Hurricane Isabel) along a ridgeline but couldn’t see anything due to the fog/mist. It was incredibly beautiful all the same if that makes sense and I took a great photo of a beautiful little bunny sitting amongst the wildflowers. We were also supposed to go sea kayaking but this idea was abandoned after being thoroughly soaked from the hike. Of course the weather cleared up so we stopped at the beach and everyone swam except for me. The water was colder than the water in Melbourne and that’s too cold for me!

Day three, and we caught the ferry from Pictou to Charlottetown and later stopped for a gorgeous bike ride along the north shore in Cavendish. This is well worth it. Beautiful views and colours throughout and all the time in the world to enjoy it without anyone really nearby. We also popped into “Anne of Green Gables” which was more interesting than I thought it would be. I’m not familiar with any of the stories but I had promised to go there (Veena, that was for you! Check out the photo online and there’s more in my personal stash if you’re after more) and I was quite happy I did. It’s a hugely popular place!

When I say the Salty Bear tour takes you to New Brunswick, that is perhaps a little fib, or more to the point, you really just drive through there and stop at the end of the Confederation Bridge. The bridge by the way is the longest in the world. It’s 13km long. I’m not sure if its rumour or truth, but I was told that New Brunswick has a water shortage and the law prohibits flushing toilets. Certainly the only loo I used there was a chemical one which I hope was not bad for the environment. If anyone knows more about this I would be thrilled to know as the toilets of the world are one of my secret interests!

The last stop on tour was to watch the tidal bore at the Bay of Fundy. We waited for what seemed like hours but we definitely didn’t see the rapids of the bore, however we did have a great game of ultimate which the Aussies won!

Back in Halifax I was more social than usual one night and went to the pub with a small gang from the grubby hostel (which was actually a great hostel for atmosphere and general friendliness). My plan was to have one drink and leave as it just isn’t my scene … I’m more of a library/movie girl. Little did I know that the band we saw that night was so great. We all stayed the whole night until the band finished, I bought their cd and had them all sign it. Dale Letcher and the boys have great talent.

Sadly, I eventually had to leave Halifax and my beloved ‘Satisfaction Feast’ vegetarian restaurant – definitely recommended if anyone goes to Halifax, although the chocolate tofu cake was even difficult for me to handle. Anyway, I took the train to Montreal which is just about 22 hours if I can remember correctly. Not much to do except jump in the comfy bed, stare out the window, eat and read.

Don’t Ride the horses in Alberta

>Back in British Columbia after my tour in Alaska and the plan was to get immediately back on the road. Brenda, Jamie, Braeden and myself took off for the Interior which seems to be any place which isn’t on the coast and isn’t too far north in the province.

We drove through the beautiful scenery of Fraser Canyon, Fraser River, South Thompson River and the North Thompson River. It was quite dry throughout but very impressive regardless.

My swag of Canadian brochures included one for the Hells Gate Air Tram. It looked entertaining enough on paper but when we got there it was a lot less interesting. Although it only cost $12, we decided against it and happily continued our way. A slight mix up in Cache Creek took us to Clinton, which wasn’t really such a good idea as we were trying to head to Kamloops in the opposite direction.

Eventually we drove through Kamloops without stopping and then headed to Falklands where we stopped for the night with relatives of Brenda’s. Their property was beautiful and backs on to a small clear stream and has a big mountain right behind it and pretty much mountains everywhere else as well. I didn’t spot any wildlife there apart from two spiders. This is possibly because of the fires, which were so close that the town was on a one hour evacuation notice.

We took a drive up a mountain via a logging road hoping to spot wildlife. There were a few squirrels, a chipmunk and a long way off there was a single bear which no-one else saw.

Continuing on through the interior we drove through Vernon, Kelowna and it’s many lakes, Penticton and finally stopped in Osoyoos for the evening. These are the areas that were under fire threat at the time, but a week after I left they had massive fires in which over 200 houses were lost and the whole region was considered off limits for tourists.

Osoyoos is supposedly in the region of Canada’s only desert, which is pretty weird as it appeared quite fertile to me. For starters there were vineyards and orchards, not to mention big lakes throughout!

Our final stop for this road trip was Manning Provincial Park, which is where I was supposed to see bear! When we first arrived I went for a 1.5 hour hike. In distance it was probably between 500m to 1km. The terrain wasn’t steep or otherwise difficult, it just took me forever as I stopped to view the wildlife every few steps. First I saw a squirrel which I suppose are common in Canada but we don’t have them at home and they are so cute. The I wandered another 20m and stopped to watch some ground squirrels. After lying on the ground watching them for a while I wandered off to a trail called Little Muddy Trail. Luckily it wasn’t muddy for me.

Soon into the trail I had my usual visions of seeing bear and although none materialised, I did spot some elk just off the trail. They didn’t make a noise so I think it was just luck that I spotted them through the bush. Two of them were sitting on the ground relaxing. I didn’t move for a while as I didn’t want to startle them as they would definitely win that encounter.

I then continued my huge long hike as the weather changed from blue sky with fluffy white clouds, to dark sky with big fat heavy raindrops. This marked the end of my hike.

The next day I hiked Three Falls Trail which is supposedly a good trail from which to spot bear. Unfortunately I didn’t see bear or any wildlife really. Brenda, Braeden and I hiked a little way together before they turned back and I was on my own. No a problem until I saw a bear danger sign meaning that you may spot them and in the event that you do, you really shouldn’t be alone if you would like to stay on this side of the bright white light. Fortunately for me there was a group of hikers not far behind so I waited and hooked up with them for greater safety.

In the end there were no bears to be seen and as the name of the trail suggests, we did see three waterfalls. The end of this trail marks my first effort at driving in North America. Brenda was brave enough to let me drive the dirt road by myself which included only one turn back into our accommodation. I passed with flying colours.

Before heading back to the suburbs we drove up to Valley View and then Blackwall Peak. Remember these places if you should ever wish to feed squirrels and chipmunks as they’re pretty happy to come up to you here and enjoy a feast. We stopped for about an hour to feed them (I didn’t see any signs saying don’t feed the wildlife). They were so cute and as I sat there quietly they happily came up and ate ‘spits’ (sunflower seeds) from my hand, gently resting on me and crawling over me. I’m a sucker for cute critters so this was a highlight.

The last wildlife encounter for the day was seeing a very large ‘quarry’? marmot.

On the way home (meaning my Vancouver home for about six weeks) we stopped briefly at Hope Slide which was the site of a landslide in 1965. 48 million tonnes of a mountain collapsed during a minor earthquake and covered a 3km stretch of the old highway, covered a lake, and raised the elevation of this area 30 metres.

Well, after the road trip I spent a good deal of time working out my next move. I had three plans for which I can tell you the cost, the time and all sort of logistics for each one such was the level of detail of my plans:

• Plan A: Head back out to Vancouver Island, go bear watching in Port Hardy and then catch ferries along the coast to Alaska.

• Plan B: Head back out to Vancouver Island, go bear watching in Port Hardy, catch a ferry to Prince Rupert and then train it to Edmonton via Jasper.

• Plan C: Catch a train from Vancouver to Edmonton via Jasper.

It wasn’t until I caught up with a friend in Whistler the next day that I realised I needed to be in Edmonton before the end of the school holidays. The reason being that my friends there are teachers and would be heading back to work having no time left to play with me.

As for Whistler, it’s clean, very touristy but definitely nice. Due to the weather (rain) I didn’t stay there too long but it was a good day as I had a look around and caught up with a friend (G’day Terry) whom I hadn’t seen since High School. This was unfortunately too quick but such is the nature of my poor planning.

The next day I activated Plan D – flying direct from Vancouver to Edmonton.

A huge thank you to Jamie and Brenda for setting the highest Canadian standard in looking after me at their place. Mentions also go out to Braeden and Chloe (the cat that I never saw) for entertainment. Of course I could never forget sweet Lexy, my four legged pooch friend who is now addicted to treats and is very special. I honestly had a wonderful time staying with you all and will be sending all my backpacker friends to your doorstep.

So that takes us to Edmonton, Alberta where I again have some lovely Canadian hospitality in store with Bruce and Kendra.

My second day in Edmonton was supposed to be a hot one so we headed out to the West Edmonton Mall to escape the heat. The mall was a mall, a big one as far as malls go, supposedly the world’s largest. It has a ship inside it, submarines, a putt putt golf course, a rather large amusement park, and cinemas … but for the record I only saw two book stores!

The most exciting thing of all at the mall was seeing three orphaned black bear cubs. They were only seven months old and for a small donation you were able to have you picture taken with one … but more importantly, I got to pat one. I didn’t so much care about the photo, just that hopefully the money will help them have a better life.

A day or so after that I went on another road trip. The first stop was at the newly opened Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail. The bear cubs I saw at the West Edmonton Mall live here as well as a few other bears and animals.

Straight to the bears was where I headed and waited in the heat (yes it does get hot in Canada) for the bear talk/demonstration. As I waited, three young black bears were playing together. As they played together they were purring which actually sounded like doves cooing. Their interaction generally seemed to be a little bit of play fighting, running around, but strangest and cutest of all was when two of the bears appearing to be suckling on the ears of the third bear and would do this for several minutes at a time.

Eventually a lady arrived to introduce us to her bears who were actually movie stars from Dr. Dolittle and Jungle Book. One big black bear was a little shy but of beautiful temperament and always wanted to hold mum’s hand.

Next we were introduced to a bigger bear, a Kodiak Grizzly Bear. During the demonstration, the trainer educated us about human behaviour and bear behaviour, specifically about encounters in the wild, how to avoid them and what to do if it’s unavoidable. The thing that stuck most in my mind was that it’s actually better for all of us to see these animals in zoos. I personally do not agree with animals in captivity but her argument was that seeing a bear there allows us to view them in a pseudo natural environment and more specifically, reduces the amount of human interaction with bears in the wild. Bears in the wild can lose their fear of humans if they see us stopping our cars to watch them, so that’s a plug for this wildlife park.

Finally there was one more bear that we would meet, another big grizzly with a different repertoire of trained behaviours and this is the bear that I got a big wet kiss from. My photo opportunity cost me $20 but being so close to such a big bear was priceless, and again the money is for a good cause. I should also mention that I held a skunk and patted a baby raccoon.

We eventually had to leave there and continue on our way to Drumheller. We drove around town and saw replica dinosaurs on almost every street corner. You can probably guess then that this town is renowned for its dinosaur fossils. It is supposedly the site of the greatest number of complete dinosaur skeletons of the Cretaceous period anywhere on the planet.

We drove a little way out of town to East Coulee to have a private tour of PAST which is a dinosaur modeling business which makes dinosaurs for museums around the world.

On our way back to Drumheller we stopped at the Hoodoos which I suppose are basically rock formations. They weren’t as big as we expected, for that I think you have to drive further out into the badlands.

The Royal Tyrell Museum was next. It is full of dinosaur exhibits and would have been pretty interesting if there was about 10,000 fewer people there so you could actually see something.

We headed out of Drumheller to the fire plagued Canadian Rockies region, specifically Banff. Usually from a distance you would be able to see the mountain but the fire haze meant we couldn’t see anything until we were almost on the mountains.

Banff was nice. Beautiful surroundings but unfortunately very smoky. I took a trip up the Banff Gondola but could really only see smoke. Many trails in the region were closed due to the extreme fire risk. With no hiking to be done there we headed out to Lake Louise which was quite beautiful, still smoky and packed with people like myself … tourists. It was a good thing we went there that day as the next day when we drove through the area the smoke was much worse. Even walking down the streets in Banff, ash was falling on us and from the hotel balcony it looked like it was raining ash.

We stopped for a little while at the Columbia Icefield which was pretty spectacular. We rode the snocoach onto the glacier, wandered around and hopped back on which doesn’t sound very interesting but it was!

After that we headed to the last place on our road trip, quaint Jasper. A much smaller place than Banff but offers similar activities such as hiking, rafting and skiing. Yet again there was plenty of smoke and we didn’t really do much so I think in the end, whilst it was a nice road trip, I will have to return to Alberta one day and drive through Highway 93 again.

That was it for the road trip, now time for some Canadian culture. Nope, not the Edmonton Fringe Festival, that finished before we got the time to go there, I’m talking about the Canadian Football League. The Edmonton Eskimos were playing the Saskatchewan something’s. People turned up with painted faces and bodies and several wore watermelons on their heads … which is a curious thing. It was a good game and I’m sure most of the crowd were pleased as Edmonton won. Luckily I understood most of it as I know many of the rules of NFL … still it’s not as good as Aussie Rules … GO PIES!

Later during the week I caught the bus downtown and checked out Edmonton. Soon enough it started raining which foiled my plan of wandering around so I didn’t do an awful lot but organised the next leg of my journey which was to head south a few hundred km to Calgary on the bus.

As per my efforts in planning my trip to Edmonton, I was faced with the dilemma of where to go after that. Taking the train across the prairies was one option and the preferred one but a tricky time constraint where I have to be in Winnipeg by Oct 10th meant that wouldn’t be wise. I would have to kill too much time in central Canada by which time Eastern Canada would be getting too cold to head there late in the year. So the train trip across the prairies is now officially out the door and I am flying all the way east to St. John’s in Newfoundland. I’m actually pretty excited about this (not the price of the flight, just going to Newfoundland). So rather than being in Toronto in the near future as I had last broadcast, I will now be in Newfoundland and soon enough Nova Scotia. If anyone’s there, let me know.

So the reason I need to be in Winnipeg by Oct 10th is that I’ve been proactive and booked my polar bear trip. It’s costing over $2,000 US dollars for three nights … convert this into Aussie dollars and tell me about it!!! It would have been even more expensive if not for me somehow managing to talk two of my new friends from my Alaskan tour into joining me. Yep, Ruud and Donna are flying in from the Netherlands and England respectively! In truth I think I did little to talk them into it as the polar bears are amazing enough to not need much persuasion.

And finally, perhaps the most interesting tale of this email is my horse ride which Bruce’s dad and his friend. We headed east of Edmonton to Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area where along the way we spotted quite a few buffalo and drove past the interesting looking Ukrainian Heritage Village.

To begin with, any horse ride has to include getting on the horse which proved a little difficult. I’m kind of short and the horse was kind of tall. If the stirrups had been a little lower I may have managed to get my leg up there. Instead I had to settle for an undignified boost, then lying, struggling, wiggling and shifting before I was able to sit up in the saddle. I think all these things should be video recorded.

Our ride took us through beautiful scenery, trees throughout, lakes everywhere, beaver dams and squirrels on the ground and the occasional hawk in the air. We slowly wandered along on horseback, increasing speed only to jog up an incline and it continued at this lovely relaxing pace until something strange and rather scary happened. No it wasn’t a bear … my horse, Tar, bolted for no apparent reason. Something spooked him and he was off like a rocket. For about 1.6km of this 8.3km trail he charged along refusing to respond to my requests to stop either by voice or pulling back on the reins. The only thing he did respond to was direction so we managed to stay on the widest, safest trail, which luckily was also the trail back.

For a good portion of the ride from hell I was still sitting well in the saddle hoping that Tar would eventually respond and stop. Then I started getting worried and started swearing in the faint hope that this would help. Then as Tar started hugging the edge of the trail, meaning we were too close to the trees for comfort, I began thinking of escape routes. The two guys I was riding with were nowhere to be seen so my hopes of rescue were slim. This was really only a minute possibility anyway as they were 70 and 74 years old and perhaps wouldn’t chance the hard ride to catch me. My only other option was to jump off the horse. This wasn’t really the best scenario as I didn’t know what could happen to the horse. I certainly didn’t want him to run away. The other thing that bothered me was that at the pace we were travelling, I could be seriously and unhappily injured.

I decided to stick it out a little longer but it seemed to get worse. We were travelling so fast that my old faithful baseball cap was coming off. I tried to keep it on but decided it was a better idea to hold onto the reins and stay focused on staying on the horse. So off it flew and we continued.

Up ahead I could see the gate where we had parked and I made a decision that this was it. I wasn’t to jump over the gate with this crazy horse and I wasn’t prepared to let him run up the sides of the gate as I knew that at least on one side there was a rocky drain area. That was it … I was getting off. I took my right foot out of the stirrup, and started moving my leg over. No doubt this was not the time to try my own version of sidesaddle but then again there was no time for anything else.

In the next instant I jumped off, landed on my feet, somehow unconsciously held onto the reins … and even more miraculously, the evil horse stopped!

My blood was no doubt rushing through my body at great speed. My legs were shaking, my hands were shaking but otherwise I was ok and the horse, although still a bit spooked judging by the look in his eyes, was ok as well.

I tried to pat Tar to calm him down as I didn’t want him to go crazy again. We found some good clover and he started to eat.

After a while my companions could be seen at the top of the hill. I waved to let them know we were ok and a few minutes later they were beside me explaining that a bee must have stung the evil horse. That was their explanation for Tar’s behaviour as it seems I didn’t do anything wrong which was a relief to me.

They could see the sort of ride I had as they found my hat along the way and saw that the saddle had moved to a slant of about 30 degrees and thankfully no further than that.

I was off the horse by this point but George wanted a photo of me on the horse. I wasn’t too happy to get back on but I did anyway, a little more gracefully than my first effort. I smiled, he took the photo, then I hopped off the horse and helped to brush him down. We then headed to the picnic table, sat down, had lunch, probably all of us shaking (none more than me) but all of us ok.

By the next day I am a little sore but happy as it could’ve been worse. I’m sure that the ride would have been much more interesting if it was captured on film and I could feel like a movie star in an action scene.

The next horse I get on will be a Shetland Pony or one of those ones in the supermarket where you put money in and the music plays along with the gentle rocking motion!

In the end I suppose you’re wondering how it was that I couldn’t stop the horse earlier. I certainly would’ve thought I could, and perhaps some of it had to do with my riding ability … but a crazy horse is a crazy horse, so don’t ride them in Alberta.

Epic Alaska

>It already seems like a while ago that I arrived in Alaska and I have already departed so it’s about time I wrote about my time there.

The cheapest way for me to get to Alaska was via an Air Canada deal. It was also the quickest way and much less hassle than catching three different ferries and a two day bus trip. That said, I’m pretty sure it would have been a much more memorable experience but I didn’t really have the time so Air Canada it was.

Apart from four security checks at Vancouver airport all went well. The flight was half empty (or half full depending on how you look at it), possibly due to a passenger loss of confidence in Air Canada during their financial problems. At the present time, the Canadian government had guaranteed all flights until September so I wasn’t about to lose money on a flight that wasn’t going to happen.

The views from up above were sensational (a word I will probably use often in this email). Snow capped mountain peaks on either side and glaciers in between.

On arrival in Anchorage a fellow traveller and I caught the local bus to where we knew the hostel to be. However, after walking every which way to find it from the bus stop, we ended up having to catching a taxi otherwise we would never have found it even though it was less than 500m away.

At the hostel I met a great bunch of people, unfortunately they pretty much all left me the following day as they departed on a tour similar to what I had booked but cheaper … much cheaper. Speaking of cheap, the Spenard Hostel is the cheapest hostel in town. No doubt this is partly because it’s not really in town but also partly because guests are requested to do a chore to keep the cost down. The chores are listed on a white board and you get to pick from this list of domestic duties. The easiest job, sweeping the front verandah, had already been taken so I opted to empty the garbage which surely couldn’t be too difficult. Well I have been wrong before!

Firstly the choice of garbage bag was either gigantic or miniscule, neither of which was appropriate for the bags I was replacing. I suppose I could have asked for help, but as I had already asked where the bags were and I got them from this very place, I figure that there was either a shortage of the right sort of bags, or that yet again I should be enrolled in a school for the domestically gifted.

I just went ahead with it and put the tiny bags in the big bins, then accidentally dumped all the rubbish in the wrong dumpster. I blame this on the Green Tortoise bus as it was concealing the correct dumpster. And if you think that I took the bags out and put them in the correct dumpster then you are sadly mistaken! I had had enough domestic bliss for one day.

The next day I checked out of the hostel and checked into my fancy Best Western accommodation for the evening as this was where my tour departed from. It was here that I once again did laundry as everything I have taken with me needed to be clean for my two weeks of camping as I didn’t have a large selection to begin with. Later I ventured into Anchorage to check out town which was nice enough although I could’ve done without the fur shops that were far too common.

On June 25th I started my tour of Alaska with Trek America and 10 other passengers. We were a good blend of people from the England, Northern Ireland, The Netherlands, the USA and Australia. Some had been on Trek tours before so it was handy to have them on board to get things rolling smoothly. All of us were young, very young, but I was the youngest of us all.

The first day of the tour we stopped at the Portage Glacier Visitor Centre. Surely it’s not the most exciting glacier but it was pretty close to Anchorage and it gave us an insight into what we would see in the weeks ahead. I was amazed to discover how much the glacier had already receded in the last 30 years and how much they predicted it to recede in the coming 30 years. Global warming and other factors!

I remember nothing else of this day until we headed to a water taxi which would take us to our luxury wilderness camp across the bay from Homer. The stench on the pier of poor captured Halibut sticks in my memory but beyond that when we were on board the water taxi, sitting oh so low in the water, I remember the “captain” saying that he had seen a whale ahead which got everyone excited. Personally I don’t remember seeing the whale and I can’t recall if anyone else did. Most of us I’m sure did see a sea otter in the water though. These beautiful creatures seem so docile as they lie on their backs to cleanse themselves and make for a great photo opportunity. Luckily, Kate, our resident sea otter freak (I say this in the nicest possible way as I am no doubt the resident bear freak) didn’t dive into the water to cuddle him although she did more than once voice her desire to whack one over the head with a paddle if only to take him home and have him as a pet in her bath back in Manchester.

Back on land again and we found our luxury accommodation to be quite fancy. Big tents with beds (and mattresses) and ours just happened to be right beside the beach, although this wasn’t such a great thing on the second night as it was quite windy and we felt it most. Breakfast, lunch and dinner was made for us which was lovely and not to be repeated.

The day completed with a few of us taking a nice two mile bike ride along dirt roads down to a bay. We stopped there so that I could chat to the locals and find out if we were where we had intended to be or if we should continue on. Perhaps half an hour later, with my buddies still sitting on the pier chatting amongst themselves, I left these year round Homer residents who had perplexed me with their tales of snow and harsh conditions throughout the winter and also of their love for Melbourne trams and the dreaded city hook turn which many locals have yet to master or attempt.

Our second day on tour and we took sea kayaks out on the water for about four hours. This was my first time in a sea kayak, which I describe to be a canoe with a rudder. It was great fun and due to some mild experience in a canoe, I was lucky enough to have a sea kayak all to myself. In effect that means that perhaps I had to work harder than anyone else. Along the way we saw at least one beautiful sea otter in the water and stopped for lunch at a small small island. Once we had stopped paddling, despite the blue sky and bright sun, it was quite cold just to remind us that we were in Alaska.

My plan when we returned to camp was to have a nap but instead we took a walk along the beach which was quite rewarding as we saw bald eagles, including an immature one, fish in the water just a metre from shore and an interesting jellyfish but you probably had to be there.

For the rest of the evening we just sat around inside looking out the windows (it was a bit too cold to be outside) from where we could see bald eagles, squirrels, sea otters, blue jays and a whale. We may have also, if I remember correctly, played some horseshoe game. You know the one, where you throw a horseshoe at a peg. Well I didn’t know that there were rules involved and scoring of all sorts. Both games seemed to end due to danger rather than reaching the five points we had set as the winning mark. Horseshoes were flying straight up in the air and out into the weeds and generally in any direction other than where they should have been going. But we had fun!

That night as I went to bed I realised what folly it was that I had packed my torch. For what would you need a torch when you have so much sunlight. I think it was about 20 hours at the start of the tour, losing six minutes per day. For the four hours that you supposedly didn’t have sunlight, it was still bright enough to get around without a torch in any case! Even with all this sunlight I was still able to sleep like a baby.

The next morning it was time to leave our luxury camp on a surprise float plane. A great surprise for some but I have found through several sky dives and a scenic tour over Kakadu that I am no fan of small planes and will get sick without too much trouble. Had this not been a surprise trip perhaps I could have taken some of the travel sickness tablets which were in my bag back in Homer (left there as we couldn’t take everything with us to the luxury camp). Regardless I jumped in and hoped for the best but even taxi-ing out over the choppy water made me sea sick so by the time I was up in the air I was feeling less than 100% and hoping to be back on land in the not too distant future. The view from above was lovely though and I even took a few photos including one of the mangled controls of the aircraft. The landing was smoother than ever before although I am not a convert of small planes!

Along our travels we stopped off at Exit Glacier. Glaciers are dangerous to walk on due to crevasses and probably other stuff, so we were only allowed to walk beside this one, and not even that close to be honest. Perhaps they bite as well but it’s more likely that you have to keep your distance because they ‘calve’ meaning that great big slaps of it break off and fall which could in theory crush you or at the very least make you a little angry and sore. Anyway, it was magnificent scenery there as seems to always be the case in Alaska.

That evening we set up camp in Seward where it rained and rained and didn’t stop until pretty much the last day of our tour (apart from when it snowed). With nothing else to do in a wet campground we headed into town to visit the Yukon Bar which was proud to present Karaoke night! I had vaguely promised to sing Mercedes Benz as I do each and every time I’m in a public place but once in the bar I thought it might be a little dangerous to take the stage time away from the locals, particularly the lady who strutted around the smoke filled bar singing one of her many tunes for the evening. I heard all sorts of music including Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks so country was pretty much the limit of it. In the end I hope my fellow tourlings were happy with my song as we drove back to camp in our van.

In Seward we visited the Alaska Sea Life Center which was supposed to be funded by Exxon after the tragic oil spill in Prince William Sound back in 1989. It seems Exxon hasn’t paid it’s share just yet but it all depends on who you talk to. This was only a quick visit as we had a boat to catch which would take us through the Kenai Peninsula. Before then though I had a quick stop in town when I saw some Alaskan Husky puppies in a storefront window. These pups were only nine weeks old but once they’re old enough they will become proud sled dogs. For the time being I had all four of them running around the shop when the lady kindly agreed to let one of them out to play with me and then they all barged through the pen.

Eventually I did manage to tear myself away from the puppies and made my way to our boat which took us through Resurrection Bay on route to the Holgate Glacier, famous for its calving. Hopefully we would also see some wildlife and or marine life along the way.

The weather, we were told, was typical Alaskan weather which when translated means it was dreadful and although there was land to either side of us, we could see nothing except the fog. Many people had taken ill before we had even left the bay so I didn’t hold much hope for myself even though I had taken ginger tablets, had funny sea sick preventing wrist bands on and drank a fair amount of ginger ale. Some way into the trip a whale was spotted quite close to our boat and then according to Donna and Kate (I think) came up right at the front of the boat whilst everyone was looking far out into the distance. This was all news to me as I concentrated my efforts on the horizon.

My journey was spent primarily freezing outside on the deck where it was not only cold but wet. Luckily I was dressed pretty well otherwise I would have to be inside where I would no doubt get sick. Probably the one moment where I wasn’t feeling ill and hence I was inside trying to warm up the captain stopped to look at a supposedly impressive rock but I was much more impressed by the black bear he spotted in the mountain face. The charge I did from the back of the lower deck of the boat to the upper front deck would have broken land speed records. Eat my dust Marion Jones! I possibly also injured many people along the way but it was worth it. The beautiful bear was an immature bear (approximately two years old) according to the ranger on board and I was able to see him quite clearly and I was so happy. This was my first bear sighting and although I didn’t have my camera with me it will remain in my memory forever. The camera waited patiently in my backpack on the lower deck at the back of the boat. Who cared!

The weather improved and soon enough we were at the Holgate Glacier which performed well for us as several chunks, including one large chunk of the glacier, broke off and thundered down below and icebergs then proceeded to float by. The sound made by these calving bits of the glacier truly do sound like thunder!

Then it was time for more rough water as we went to a wildlife refuge area to spot birds including puffin in a rookery and also seals and sea lions. The trip back was equally rough and many more people were ill as I was once again spending my time focussing on the horizon. It was quite amusing that many if not most people had paid extra for the all you can eat Salmon bake and dessert deal but as the weather was so bad and everyone was sick, very little was actually eaten. In fact, judging by all the people asleep at their tables I would say many people did not even know the food was being served. These poor folk had no doubt taken their sea sickness tablets which had put them to sleep … obviously they didn’t get the non drowsy herbal variety I had.

You would think being back on dry land would help a little but I continued to sway throughout the evening.

From Seward we headed to Valdez where more sea kayaking was on the agenda for me. I opted to head out with a few other people on our tour to Columbia Glacier. It started with a lovely calm water taxi trip out to the middle of an inlet filled with large and small icebergs, hence very cold water. From here we got into our sea kayaks directly from the boat. I thought we would do this on land but it was surprisingly easy doing it this way. We paddled a small distance, stopped and floated near a waterfall before paddling just a little further, shored up and then went for a hike in the bog with our gumboots on. This is not really an easy task but at least we wouldn’t have to deal with wet hiking boots, just gumboots stuck in the mud. The bog was quite amazing and we learned that it is the first recovery of the glacier as the ground is quite acidic. Along the way we saw bear scat, which raised my hopes of seeing bear and lead in some small way to what I call my “bear injury”. You see I then spent so much time looking around the landscape trying to spot bear that I stumbled and jabbed my thumb into the ground at a perfect perpendicular angle so that now, more than three weeks later I am still in pain. We didn’t see any bear but we did have a beautiful view of the glacier in the distance.

It was then back to the sea kayaks but again for only a short time as something was spotted on the shoreline. If you’d prefer not to hear a sad tale then skip the next few paragraphs as I recount.

To my great dismay the something on the shoreline was a Dalls Porpoise which had been injured by a propeller. At the time it was completely out of the water, it’s skin had dried significantly but it was still breathing and alive. I had never before seen a Dalls Porpoise and perhaps some of you haven’t either. Basically they are black with white markings, are 6 to 8 feet long and can weigh up to 400 pounds. They are the fastest swimmers of the cetacean family and can reach speeds of up to 35 mph (thanks to the internet for this info). The one we found was perhaps three feet and weighed around the same as a big dog so I would suggest it was a baby that had come to grief. I have pictures but they’re not really pleasant enough to share. The injuries appeared to be lacerations to the face and the tail fin. One eye was missing and it was in great distress.

None of us knew what to do but we tried to float and support it in the water. At times it did well but more often it would roll to one side. As I supported it in the water I could feel its heart thumping wildly, my hands freezing through the rubber gloves. I cradled it like a baby as we tried to move it to the sea kayak to take it back to Valdez for medical attention. We tried a few times but were unable to fit her in …. At least I think it was a her. I will read up on porpoise anatomy later.

Our tour guide radioed to try and work out what to do and I understood the response to be that messing with marine life is unlawful. The law might be the law but it is not always right. It was an act of a human which had caused the injury and I would be appalled with myself if I did not try and help her. In the end my group continued their paddle out to Columbia Glacier whilst I stayed for two hours with her and the evil gnats which were trying to eat me alive. Our tour guide’s nickname for them was saber tooth gnats!

By this stage I was also wary of bear as I was now completely by myself in the Alaskan wilderness. I could hear wolves howling and birds screeching in the distance but I could see nothing. I was very upset, unable to talk or look at anyone so in a way it was good for me to be there by myself. With my beanie pulled down over my head to completely cover my face to avoid the gnats I stayed with her, kept her wet, talked to her and generally tried to make her more comfortable. I wished I could euthanise her as I couldn’t bear her suffering.

When the group returned I knew it was time for me to go. I don’t think that she would or could survive but I hope that her distress would come to an end soon. And so we paddled back and I promised to shout Ruud beers all night as I had left him to paddle the kayak by himself. They enjoyed their trip to the glacier and whilst I didn’t get the chance to paddled amongst the thick ice, I think I had a much more memorable experience.

Moving along now as I have written already six pages and I am only halfway through my Alaskan adventure …

Our next campsite was just outside the tiny town of McCarthy beside a glacier fed river which rumbles loudly outside our tents. It is yet again bitterly cold. I have started sleeping with two sleeping bags, a sleeping sheet, thermals and a beanie.

McCarthy is a small town with a winter population of about 25. In the summer people arrive there to climb Root Glacier in the Wrangle-St Elias Mountains. Chatting to the locals we heard that that evening there was to be a presentation by a local who would discuss his unsuccessful summit attempt on Mt Blackburn. This was four or five miles away in Kennicott so off we headed. Previously Kennicott was a thriving copper mining town but now it is like a ghost town with only some mountain guides, a community hall and a ranger station. The presentation that evening was quite interesting. This guy almost lost his life out there and seemed none to keen to get out amongst it again. Back at camp the local hillbillies were hosting a ho-down so we watched and listened to that which was quite enjoyable.

The following morning we headed back to Kennicott for some ice climbing. The day started off reasonably, meaning that it wasn’t deadly cold and it was dry. We had a two mile trek from Kennicott to get to Root Glacier. Along the way I had hope to see a bear or two but the best I managed was a few deposits of bear poo, then some horse poo and finally dog poo. Luckily I managed to avoid stepping in any of them.

At the edge of Root Glacier we donned our climbing boots and crampons at which time it started raining and didn’t stop until we got back to camp at the end of the day. As soon as I stepped onto the glacier I was amazed. At some points the glacier is covered with rock so that you can’t see the ice. At others it’s more like a thin layer of mud over the ice and then there is clear glacier with streams and waterfalls and jet blue crevasses.

The rain wasn’t yet too heavy and we only had a short hike to where we would be ice climbing. Then as we crossed crevasses and walked up and down the glacier it began to rain harder and harder. Basically saturation was what we achieved in a short time although some of my layers were still dry.

Our climbing instructors spent the longest time setting up the climbing ropes during which time we practiced using our crampons. We climbed using the French method (zig zagging up an incline), German method (straight up using the front forks) and the American method (a weird combination of the French and German methods). Once we were on the rope we would really only use the German method but at this point our real aim was to try and stay a little bit warm as the temperature had dropped several degrees as soon as we got within wind of the glacier.

Eventually when the ropes were set up and we had been given a demonstration, we were able to start climbing the two lines. It’s pretty safe as we were secured by a belay and had an ice pick in each hand.

My first effort seemed just like climbing a tree to be honest. The crampons bite into the ice and provide the power while the icepicks are there for support and stability. Then you just climb up up up to the top (approximately 40 feet or 40 metres I can’t remember which), take a good look at the view at the top, then you just lean back and let your belay help you down. I think most of the group had two turns and I’m sure we would have all liked to continue but as it was so cold and so wet we decided to head back down off the glacier. It sure was another memorable experience and I really don’t think the instructors could believe we all smiled throughout the whole time. What else could we do when we have had this weather almost every day.

That evening four of us were either smarter than the others or less hardy than the others as we headed to a cabin where we could take a $7 shower. Well worth it I think as the campsite had no facilities. We had our first campfire that night which was nice so that we could try and stay warm but we found another use for it as well … trying to dry our backpacks, camera bags, clothes, travellers cheques and flight tickets. Anything that we took with us was drenched and of course we took all the important stuff as you can’t really just leave it lying around in a tent. My passport was quite wet as well but it expires soon enough and I haven’t had a problem using it so far.

The next day was an uneventful one just driving from McCarthy to Tangle Lakes where we would stay in the luxury of a big dry cabin with a fire inside. It basically just bucketed down rain again so instead of going to the sauna or off canoeing I stayed inside and read and slept and not much more. The following morning I raced outside in my boxer shorts, t-shirt and beanie to try and see a beaver outside on the lake but by the time I got there there was nothing and I was freezing yet again. I then hiked out to Lower Tangle Lakes with Kate in search or wildlife, perhaps beaver or marmot but again nothing.

By the time we arrived in Denali National Park it was still raining. Our campsite had washed away two days before but the water had receded enough to allow us to pitch our tents. We had an early start the next morning as we had a eight hour bus ride through the park to watch wildlife and scenery. This is pretty much the only way to travel through the park. Private vehicles are allowed entry to a certain point but you require a permit and you cannot travel as far in as the bus would take you. Not a bad idea really as the road are at times very dangerous and it also minimises traffic. Unfortunately our tour van which would take us to the bus was locked and our tour leader was nowhere to be found. A little while later we found him slumped in another van, seemingly still drunk from the night before. I think he was anyway. By this time we were pretty late for our bus departure from the Denali Visitor Centre so we sped down the highway and I was none too impressed by the speeding or the alleged intoxication.

We made it just in time only because one of our tour group stopped the bus so that we could get on. Our seats at the back of the bus weren’t the greatest though. Every time there was wildlife to be seen, the driver positioned the bus so that he could see which meant that anyone at the back end of the bus couldn’t see. Regardless of this we did still manage to see Caribou, Moose, Dall Sheep and finally Grizzly Bears. The first bears we saw were a mother and her cub wandering about feeding on berries on a incline less than 50 metres from the bus. They were quite beautiful and seemed undisturbed by our presence. We continued watching them for a while although not nearly as long as I would have liked which would have amounted to days. As the bus started up to move off, the cub looked up, stood up on its rear legs and watched us as we drove away. Throughout the day there was more wildlife but only one more grizzly.

The weather along the way was changing from bad (cold) to worse (cold and windy), then cold, windy and wet and finally cold, windy and snow. I was quite happy by this time as I had seen three Grizzly Bears and now the snow just made it the ultimate Alaskan experience.

After the bus tour some of us headed off to a dog sled demonstration which was interesting enough, the best part of which was playing with two eight week old Alaskan Husky puppies.

The next day I was back on the tour bus through Denali National Park hoping to see more wildlife. We arrived early and got what we thought to be good seats on the bus. Unfortunately we later discovered that the heater was directly under us and within the shortest time it was so hot that I had to strip down from five thermal layers to three, then two. It still wasn’t enough and the heat soon put me and the rest of the bus to sleep which meant that there was no one spotting wildlife. Yet again it snowed outside but with the nap it was otherwise a nice day!

On the final day of the tour we had blue sky and a great view of Mt McKinley, no snow, no rain and in fact quite warm. Must have been because we had packed our tents away for the last time!

The tour itself did not end well and all I will say is that my experience with Trek America was unimpressive. I wouldn’t travel with them again or at least definitely not in Alaska where I know at least two of the guides are just out to have their own fun rather than doing their job. It was an expensive bus ride not a tour. That said, I did have a great time in Alaska, saw sensational sights and incredible wildlife and along the way was lucky enough to meet some lovely people who I miss already. These lovely people pretty much all left Alaska straight away so the next day I was on my own for a few hours before I headed back to the Spenard Hostel to once again do my chores and meet up with people there from before the tour.

Travelling alone is never really alone unless you want it to be.

Thanks for listening and stay tuned for follow up adventures in the Interior of British Columbia and then my road trip through Alberta.

Cheers

Cheryl