Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Travelling, the hard way

Colours are changing daily

One of my biggest mistakes this holiday was made when deciding how to get to Vancouver from Banff. To save on a night's accommodation we chose to catch a bus that took from 8pm until 8am. I will never do that again. We ended up being last on the bus, last two seats, both of us on the aisle and right next to the toilet. Half the night we were regularly crashed into by tired lurching passengers, banging toilet doors and smells I should not even think about. We switched buses half way through and got better seats sitting together. As we started to relax the lady in the chair in front of us broke something that inundated our seats with bean bag balls and the guy in the seat to the side spent all night trying to chat up the lady next to him, with her laughing loudly at regular intervals. Never again.

We got our bearings in Vancouver by doing a free walking tour and decided to spend a day at the Museum of Natural History. We don't often do museums as every city has one and we want to do things unique to that particular city. Every now and again we will relent when it is one of the top or highly recommended ones. For instance we went to the Louvre in Paris. This one came under the recommended category and my highlight was the great hall that showcases huge totem poles and art and artifacts from Canada's first nations. Brilliantly presented and fascinating exhibit.

The end point
Grouse on the way up
The next day we went up Grouse Mountain. To get to the top you have two choices: Skyride or Grouse Grind. The Grouse Grind is a local challenge that you can register for and swipe your card and it will track your times, or you can just do as a one off. It is a 3km straight up trek up the mountain that is so steep that stairs are carved into the mountainside most of the way up, 2830 of them. With an elevation gain of 853 m it is not for the faint hearted, but checking the website just now I see that today's record currently stands at 42 minutes and 13 seconds. Which way did we go? Grouse Grind of course, our time being 80 minutes.

Lumberjack show
Eye of the Wind
At the top was a huge resort and skiing complex (a bit early in the season though), with many other things to see and do. We watched the lumberjack show, very funny (see video below) and went up the Eye of the Wind tower. This was particularly exciting for me because you go into an actual working wind turbine with a platform near the top. The platform twists with the propeller to find the wind. Initially it was still and not revolving but while inside we started twisting as the wind picked up, we found the wind and the blades started turning and shortly after that there was a thump as the generators kicked in and we were told it was now producing electricity. This one turbine makes enough power a year for 400 homes.

Through the glass floor

From the turbine

Next was a trip to San Francisco: a 25 hour journey, 22 by train, again saving on accommodation costs by sleeping on the train, but the train was much more comfortable than the bus. Lots of leg room, quiet, dark, we actually slept quite well in the deep reclining seats. Did not go the couchette route as in Europe as they were the cost of four nights of our normal accommodation allowance. The only affordable accommodation I could find was the San Francisco party hostel. Free beer pong for the boys every night and free margaritas for the girls. I was disappointed to find it was not a normal table tennis table (as I felt like a game) but specially constructed for drinking purposes. Due to my allergy I declined several attempts to get me to play.

Of course we started our trip at the Golden Gate Bridge, taking advantage of a city-provided free walking tour. The guide was hugely knowledgeable about the bridge and filled in the time walking around and on to the bridge with loads of interesting information. For instance the ferry companies held it up in courts for years because they were afraid it would hurt their business. Because of the high currents coming in and out four times a day from the ocean many thought it could not work. (One of the engineers took the design and built the Tacoma Narrows Bridge that fell down - it was done on the cheap). The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded it the Monument of the Millennium and lots more. It's a beautiful bridge with the art deco design and unique orange colour. There are many warnings about jumping and a suicide hotline on the bridge itself, as this occurs surprisingly regularly.

Shall I let her out?
Briefly occupied by Indians
in 1969
We also visited Alcatraz, a brilliant day out as you get the boat ride as well as the island and its notorious prison. I found it funny that they claim no prisoner has ever escaped but five men are listed as 'missing'. The three that the movie 'Escape from Alcatraz' was based on I reckon got away; if they drowned I would have thought one of the bodies would have turned up somewhere.

We also saw the seals of Pier 39 and took a trip on the old cable cars (twice), apparently registered as the only mobile National Monument in the world.

Lumberjacks at play

Riding the cable car

Friday, October 19, 2012

The most beautiful road in the world?

As said in the previous post we arrived in Banff, Canada after the travel day from hell. We left Niagara by bus for the 2 (it turned into 3 due to traffic) hour trip to Toronto. Then another bus to the airport. Then a 4 hour plane ride to Calgary, another bus transfer to the bus terminal and finally a bus to Banff arriving at 1am (3am in Niagara time). Then a stumbling walk around in freezing temps to find our hotel. To say we were tired was an understatement. We allowed 4 nights here but then added one when we saw how beautiful it was.

One of the reasons we chose this place was not fulfilled, but mainly due to unlucky timing. I was hoping to see the aurora borealis (northern lights) and we thought this was north enough (but not too north for comfort) to see them. Well it turned out that the best time while we were here to see them was the night after we arrived. The aurora page said it should be possible to see them from as far as Vancouver that night. But you generally need to get out of town and away from lights and we could not hire a car until the third day. We could have gone out at midnight and walked in the dark as far away from civilisation as possible, but strange town coupled with extreme exhaustion defeated us. Even though we went looking later in the week the strength of the aurora did not return and we could not find it.

Bow Falls

Tunnel Lookout
So obviously day one was all about taking it slow and getting our bearings on what there is to do and see. First stop the visitor centre where we got maps and information on hiking trails, sights to see and what to do if you encounter a bear. The latter was a very frightening booklet, including such gems as 'don't run', 'if the bear makes contact, fall to the ground and play dead' and if it is stalking you 'fight back'. Needless to say I was hoping not to meet a bear, but in reality they want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them so even though I was on my guard we never came across one while hiking. Just a small hike on our first day up to the Tunnel Mountain lookout (no actual tunnel) for lovely views of the town and surrounding mountains, and a visit to Bow Falls.

Day 2 we tackled Sulphur Mountain. On the way up we met an Australian lady who had also packed in her job and gone travelling so the time went fast chatting ( Up the top were amazing panoramic views and an old cosmic ray station. Lucky for us the cable car ride pay booth was unmanned so they were allowing people who had walked up free trips down. As the weather was closing in we decided to take them up on their offer. Good thing too since we had barely touched ground when it started snowing and it was getting reallly cold. I had never been properly snowed on before so I revelled in the experience until the cold started to set in and I realised the downside.

It feels like Christmas!
We woke up on the third day to an amazing fresh snow early morning view. Absolutely stunning seeing the snow on bushes and mountains, apparently a very early start to the cold season after a very warm and dry summer season. This was cold I had never experienced before, coming from Perth. The following days got into the negative 5 to negative 7 Celsius range and on the road to Jasper the next day they had been experiencing -15 degree temps. I had trouble keeping warm; with two layers of gloves my hands were still going numb and my speech would come out funny from frozen lips. I would need to put on some insulation weight to come into these areas any later; my skinny disposition just doesn't cut it up here.

Cool car in more ways than one.
We picked up our hire car and I went through the process of learning to drive on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road. I put a lacky band around my right wrist to remind me which side of the road to drive on which worked pretty well. Apart from continually turning on the wipers when I meant the indicators things went remarkably smoothly. They had some strange road rules, like 4 way stop signs. Considering that Canadians are very friendly and helpful this led to delays trying to work out who goes first, such as the old 'you go, no you go, ok I'll go', then you both go, both stop and it all starts again. Apparently first to stop goes first but it took a bit of getting used to.

Lake Louise
Lake Louise Lookout
Small drive for the first day to Lake Louise. This crystal clear and green lake has the Victoria Glacier as its backdrop, nature at its best. There was a walk to a lookout that we took; walking through fresh snow covered forest was an amazing experience for me and again, incredibly cold. We then drove on to the nearby Moraine Lake and the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Again breathtaking views of the lake, snow covered forests and glaciers.

Photos of Moraine Lake

Athabasca Glacier
Near Athabasca Waterfall

With that experience of driving in the bag we planned our next day's trip, the 4 hour trip to Jasper (and back) along the Icefields Parkway, reportedly the most beautiful road in the world; well we will be the best judge of that. Well, I don't know if it is the most beautiful road in the world but it would certainly be up there. This is an over 200km stretch of road that is just wall to wall stunning mountains compliments of the Canadian Rockies, glaciers, forests, animals, and other landmarks such as waterfalls coming off it from one end to the other. It took us all day to get to Jasper after making a stop at the Columbia Icefields to take the Brewster Ice Explorer on to the Athabasca Glacier. We also stopped at the Athabasca waterfall, and stumbled across a grizzly bear, an elk and a wolf mooching by the roadside.

The glacier from the other
side of the road
After a retaurant meal in Jasper thanks to Emily (the GPS), which randomly found us a place called Something Else, we headed back, getting home at nearly midnight. This place would have to go down as one of my favourites and is one of the most beautiful I have experienced.

The cold walk to the Lake Louise Lookout

Travelling on the Brewster Ice Explorer

Friday, October 12, 2012

The waterfall wars

Welcome to Canada, a country much bigger than I expected as second in the world for area. We start our exploration of Canada on the east coast while catching up with another friend of Elizabeth's (yes she has way more friends than me, I knew you were thinking it), in the city of Montreal with Francisco.

Friendly wildlife
Mount Royal Cross
Saint Josephs Oratory
Francisco had worked out a punishing timetable for our three days there designed to show off the best of his city. We told him that he should become a tour guide. We started in the old part looking at a lot of the beautiful old buildings that make up this area. Like Jacques Cartier, the discoverer of Canada, we climbed Mount Royal (which Cartier named and which gave the city its name). You get brilliant panoramic views of the city from up here, get up close and personal with the local wildlife and see some interesting monuments. One of these is a huge cross called the Mount Royal Cross, originally a promise by the founder to the Virgin Mary when he needed a flood stopped. We finished up the day at a very interesting and elaborate church called Saint Joseph's Oratory that included many extra chambers and halls as well as the heart of Brother Andre, which I must say I found disconcerting (decided against taking a picture).

The Olympic Stadium
Chinese lanterns
We also took the funicular up the tallest inclined structure in the world, the tower above Montreal's Olympic Stadium, before crossing the road and visiting the botanic gardens. The gardens were amazing with a huge insectorium and glass houses, and including Japanese and Chinese gardens. Both gardens had light shows on at night with fascinating colours, sounds and light. The Chinese show was called 'The Magic of Lanterns' and the Japanese had 'Gardens of Light'. Our luck is still holding out considering this is the first year that both have been on at the same time. The lights were amazing and the Chinese lanterns created a dreamlike atmosphere. A big thank you to Francisco for showing us what a beautiful city Montreal is.
Elizabeth and Francisco

Japanese garden of light

We parted with Francisco and hopped on a bus for a 12 hour trip to Niagara Falls. This was a last minute decision as we had been umm-ing and aah-ing about Niagara for a while. Problem was that everyone was telling us that Niagara was not worth the trip if you had already seen Iguazu and Victoria Falls, which we had. In the end we decided we could not be this close and not see it so we set aside a single day to visit. We were so glad we did. No, it did not compare to Iguazu but it was different and equally amazing in its own ways.

The horseshoe falls from the Canadian side
Niagara Falls has the distinction of having the highest flow rate of any falls in the world. In high flow 168,000 cubic metres of water flow over the falls every minute. The falls have a lot of history to them, as they have been a focus of daredevils, conservation efforts and produce hydro-electric power. The first person to go over the falls in a barrel was a 68 year old schoolteacher and she survived. I think she was sending the wrong message...

Journey behind the falls
We decided on the works and purchased an adventure pass, with some arched eyerbrows when they found out we were going to do it all in one day. Seriously, it wasn't that hard. This included the 'Journey Behind the Falls', where you go down an elevator and through a series of tunnels to actually see behind the horseshoe falls. The roar and power of the falls from behind is a real rush. Next was the 4D movie where, after an animated history of the creation of the falls during the Ice Age, you stand on a metal platform in a raincoat and get taken on a simulated ride over the falls where the platform moves and you get rained on and splashed while watching a 360 degree movie screen.

from The Maid of the Mist
Niagara the town
 Lastly was the 'Maid of the Mist' boat ride right up to the horseshoe falls where raincoats are definitely mandatory. We then took a walk through the town which consisted of casinos and lots of arcade type shops like haunted houses, 4D theatres, bowling, shooting, wax museums etc. A veritable little Disneyland.

As our terrific luck would again have it our single day was a Friday and that's the day that fireworks are fired over the falls. The fireworks normally finish at the end of August but as if just for us they had been extended for another month. The falls are also lit up at night with changing colours. All in all a very long and full-on day of excitement and wonder. Next morning we wanted one last look at the falls and so jogged further than we normally do and ended up needing to rush breakfast and packing so that we could commence our travel day from hell (16 hours of bus, plane, bus again) to Banff, on the other side of the country.

So how do the three top waterfalls in the world compare? Well, if you could only see one of them it would have to be Iguazu in my opinion, but they all are amazing in their own way.

If the waterfalls could speak I think this is what they would say...

'I am Iguazu Falls. I am mysterious and deep in the jungle. To get to me you have to travel by truck through Jurassic-like forest with big spiders and insects, over Indiana Jones type bridges until you come across the magnificent depth and breadth of me. I am a forest of waterfalls, gaze in awe.'

'I am Victoria Falls. I come as I am, I am all natural. Just a simple path to see me, wide and deep, plunge 100m and fill the sky with a cloud of water. I will soak you from beneath and above. I am the smoke that thunders, hear me roar.'

'I am Niagara Falls. You can see me all at once, majestic and symmetrical. You can see me from behind, you can see me up close with your engines running while I try to push you away. You can see me in lights and underneath fireworks. My town is a wonderland and I am like Disneyland, come and have fun.

Niagara is the only place we have seen a black one

Autumn is here

First video is from the Maid of the Mist boat in the thick of it.
Second video is the falls up close.