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