October 2016 - August 2017
  • Day302

    The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

    August 15, 2017 in New Zealand ⋅ ⛅ 14 °C

    That's a wrap.

    What a journey! This last post is from the comfort of home and I cannot describe the joys of familiar faces, comfy beds, hot showers and all the other homely comforts we take for granted. I couldn't leave you all without a conclusion as I would have been heavily marked down by my critics so here it is, appropriately broken down into the good, the bad and the oh so ugly.

    The good.

    At a macro level, learning a new language has got to be one of the best parts of the trip. I think we were only a few countries short of visiting every Spanish speaking country in the Americas and filled in those gaps by conversing with actual lisping Spaniards and numerous second-language spanish speakers. A convenient run of unplanned lingual consistency facilitated and encouraged our education and it was highly rewarding to put the effort into learning a second language. Whether or not it will stick is a different story... It was, however, a two sided coin and our frustration at the slowness of our learning and frequent incomprehension was never far from the surface. Oh how we wished to forget the phrase "no entiendo".

    Food, in general, was a mixed bag but we definitely had some memorable meals amongst the numerous ones we'd love to forget. Tacos in Tulum and lamb in Puerto Natales make the top two but there was plenty more to rave about. Fruit, juices and smoothies are amazing in variety and freshness, and also outrageously cheap. Wine in Chile and Argentina was a huge hit, beer in Canada was substantially diverse and, as you would imagine, the rum in the Caribbean was disgustingly cheap (if I recall correctly a bottle of Old Nick's bottomed out at $3.95 and Havana Club in Havana was about the same). My bond with Wholefoods in the States and Canada now rivals that with KFC which is saying a lot, trust me. The likes of llama and guinea pig certainly stretched the palate and strengthened our appreciation for homely flavours.

    The liveliness of the streets was unforgettable. Stressful on foot but entertaining by car, the things we saw, heard, smelt or felt were, at times, baffling. From whole cow heads, to overflowing fruit stalls, dried llama fetuses to marriage powder, live lambs and dead dogs, and all kinds of dance, song and lectures. The street also housed workshops, families, six year old salespeople and the very, very drunk (especially on public holidays). For them, the street is far from a transport corridor and more often than not a rent and tax free plot for their entrepreneurial use. Their business relations are (almost) always candid and amicable and their smiling faces are nothing but contagious. Life without emails looks delightfully uncomplicated!

    That brings me to the people. They are invariably happy, cheery and friendly and often a pleasure to be around. You will catch them on occasion with a resting grump face but it's not difficult to cheer them up with a simple "Holà", on the whole. Friendly faces in foreign countries are worth their weight in gold, provided of course that it's genuine and they're not just after your money!

    Our time in the Caribbean really stressed to us just how good it is to travel by private boat. Having your bed, your kitchen, your garage, bathroom and car combined into one bobbing house-car is undoubtedly the best way to travel through an endless playground. We missed it on every bus we took.

    Of course, 'the good' wouldn't be complete without praise for the very affordable cost of living. Obviously this is a two sided coin but there aren't many places you can travel for six months on less than $13k. Dollar beers, three dollar wines and on occasion, dinner for $1.50 make for some joyous moments in what can often be quite tiring days. Returning to $3.50 avocados is certainly a shock, but also makes me all the more glad I capitalised on them at twenty cents a pop!

    The bad.

    Travelling for longer than a season can get tricky at times. You can't see all the countries at the right time of year and, as a result, we often found ourselves visiting in the off-season. Torres del Paine was exhibit A, crushing us with six days of rain and setting a precedent for Patagonia in which we were plagued by bad weather. Atacama and the Bolivian Altiplano also had heavy snowfall which prevented us seeing some of the highlights which we had expected to see. In a stroke of irony, the same season had too little rainfall to flood the salar preventing us from witnessing such wonder, albeit as incredible as it was. I really shouldn't complain, we hardly saw rain for three months in Central America.

    Travelling by bus isn't horrible. In fact, it was often very interesting and sometimes even relaxing. Travelling by bus every third day for six months, however, is. The standard of road goes without saying and our skinny bums are now all the more appreciative of the black top and working suspension our great countries have to offer. You've heard the rants, enough said.

    Unlike much of Europe and North America, our appearance was undiguisably touristic. It was impossible to blend in and given our blatant lack of Spanish we were condemned to the tourist stereotype all too often. This meant we were hustled, charged extra (the gringo tax) and offered taxis at an infinitely higher rate. It also meant we often felt like we were being ripped off (whether we were or not). Thankfully it was cheap enough not to make us fret too much.

    Continuing with the bad, rice was the silent killer which almost reduced us to tears. It was predominantly the repetition of rice that had us opting to go hungry in the end. The frequent lack of sauce to mix with it was the real killer and now, accordingly, I am on my first ever diet: rice free. Hopefully it's just a fad 'cause that stuff is cheap here too and I'm (still) on a budget.

    The final 'bad' goes out to the showers, on Cat's behalf. Our last day in Cusco brought Cat to tears with her third cold-shower-that-was-meant-to-be-hot in a row. It was just over ten degrees outside and the final straw in a trip plagued by cold, dirty, or waterless showers. You have no idea how good it is to have reliably hot showers and we'll apologise here and now for Grant's impending water and gas bill. Sorry dad.

    The ugly.

    Tourists are ugly. As a very broad generalisation, we are. We offer next to nothing to improve the places we visit and knowingly or not we do nothing but contribute to their destruction in so many different ways. From litter to erosion, enormous carbon footprints to unsightly crowds and unfair distribution of wealth, we are a menace. Our precious dollar often ends up in the wrong hands and in countries throughout the Americas, the majority of these funds would be lucky to find a sustainable or selfless hand. It's a sad truth.

    On the subject of unsightly tourists, nothing grinds my gears more than a hairbrush and a selfie stick. It was with disgusting frequency we witnessed the 'photo' becoming more valuable than the visit itself - people going to disgraceful efforts to get the perfect angle of their face with the wind blowing their hair the right way. In my opinion, they are a waste of space. Perhaps I am being hypocritical (as I sort through our many gigabytes of trip photos) but this is the reality of our world today. Hashtag no filter? Yeah right. We were fortunate enough to travel for long enough to realise that although it is a great opportunity to develop our photography skills, we don't need a photo of every meal, every sign, every mountain or every lake. The time is much better spent talking to the guide, conversing with the locals and using your visit to learn and understand.

    In many countries in Central and South America, tourism is their leading industry. Cusco was by far the most obvious example of the value of the foriegn income. It's disappointing to realise just how far these people will go to get your money. They fluff up tours and sell you the world, promising far more than is actually delivered. Companies often won't pay their staff fairly or at all and the payment of tax is apparently optional. The people don't trust the government and do all that they can to distance themselves from their corrupt, pick pocketing fingers. Beneath the skin, many of these countries are the economic mess you would expect.

    Stray dogs definitely fall into the ugly category and not always for their physical appearance. It's a continent-wide problem. Strays everywhere. Starving, ragged and probably rabid - it's sad to think of the lives they must lead and how many of them suffer an untimely demise.

    Over the period of our trip I began to take an interest in sustainable living and global warming. I am by no means an advocate for either, nor do I think my footprint is small. But I'm making an effort to educate myself with the intention of being able to make better decisions, and realise their puny effect. To see these wonders disappearing before your eyes makes what was once "out of sight, out of mind", very much in your mind.

    According to Chasing Coral, a Netflix documentary which I highly recommend, 50% of the world's coral reefs are dead. By 2050 that number is estimated to rise to 90% by which stage I assume they will fail to provide a significant role in the ocean's ecosystems. You probably won't notice. Not unless you frequent the warm oceans where these grow and dive the reefs that once were. In fact, the only thing you'll notice is that the price of fish in the supermarket has escalated, and that they're still giving it to you in three plastic bags. Meanwhile, across the ocean where families can't pay $7 for a fillet of snapper, thousands will starve. We don't see the problem because it's not here. Our waters are blue, our rubbish disappears and we recycle our bottles. Does that mean we've done our job? Perhaps. Maybe we're so small it doesn't matter either way. But perhaps there's more. Perhaps we can help with technology, with awareness or with opportunities.

    Glacial retreat, too, is a hot topic and a problem that's rapidly disappearing. I don't see the problem myself, but I'm not going to look back in a decade or two and say 'oh woops, I had no idea'. My words might bore but feel free to replace your weekly read with a weekly doco. Chasing Coral, Chasing Ice, Pump, Blood on the Mountain, An Inconvenient Truth, An Inconvenient Sequel and Before the Flood are all quite alarming advocates' opinions on the state of our planet. Do watch.

    On that grim note, this is over and out. I trust if you're reading this you'll have found some enjoyment in my recordings of our travels. Hopefully some of you will do the same for the rest of us and keep on agitating that itch in our feet. On behalf of all of us with no house and plenty of stories, it's money well spent. What are you waiting for?
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  • Day288

    Kamloops, Canada

    August 1, 2017 in Canada ⋅ ☁️ 22 °C

    The highs and lows that are the end.

    Kamloops hosted our last night on tour. I can't say we had reason to stay here in particular, but it did do a pretty good job as the halfway house on our long road back to Vancouver. After all of our toe-teetering in the glacier fed lakes of the national parks, we finally managed to find a swimmable lake just before we hit Kamloops. It was warm and sunny and packed full of locals - the perfect spot for a lunch break and a well needed swim (shower)! As our journey continued west, the smoke thickened and temperatures rose, and we listened intensely to the radio warnings for fire dangers and road closures. From what I could smell we must have been getting pretty darn close! The scenery too, hosted strong evidence of recent fires that once threatened the town and now instilled an eerie feeling.

    We treated ourselves to a (low) quality motel which, despite the reputations motels have for their beds, was an amazingly comfortable sleep. A good deal better than the three dollar lilo, I can tell you that! Kamloops also provided a fantastic and unhealthy last supper which included a take on Canada's famous poutine - chips, gravy and cheese curds with a side of cardiac arrest. The real last supper was actually a breakfast: an incredible portion of eggs benny served by the most smiley and energetic Tuesday morning waitress I have ever met.

    On a full stomach we hit the road and spent almost all of our last day on holiday in the car. Almost as if it knew we were finished, the traffic greeted us heavily and caused work-like stress to enter our carefree lives as our flight time loomed closer and closer. Our seven hour timed-run to the finish line cut it pretty close, but ultimately culminated in a classic hurry up and wait. What else would we expect? New Zealand via Air New Zealand...We're coming home!
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  • Day286

    Annette Lake, Canada

    July 30, 2017 in Canada ⋅ ☀️ 24 °C

    Dinner with the Elk.

    We spent some time finding a good dinner spot that night and boy did we nail it! A drawn out sunset at Annette Lake provided superb lighting in the fantastic scenery. Mid-cook we were visited by a herd of grazing Elk who were by no means unfriendly, coming within striking distance of our table - most likely jealous of the smell of our spag bol.

    We returned late to our camp site to pass the eleventh night on the floor in Canada. Our last night in a tent and boy were we pumped to get back to a bed!
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  • Day286

    Maligne Canyon and Beaufort Lake, Canada

    July 30, 2017 in Canada ⋅ ☀️ 21 °C

    Just some more Jasper-fect scenery.

    Three short walks were the order for our final day in Jasper. We took to Maligne Canyon first, witnessing the creation of powerful water, ice and roots in impressive fashion. The highlight for sure was watching enormous quantities of water enter the river from the canyon walls, or perhaps the panicked deer which frantically tried to escape the pedestrian corridor.

    Up next we circumnavigated Beaufort Lake. The rich's playground instilled much jealousy, particularly in comparison to our lilos-in-a-tent, but we enjoyed what we could free of charge and left swiftly. The lake itself is a wonder to be paddled, swum and fished. Finally we tackled the Old Fort loop trail, predominantly in the hopes of seeing the bear reported in the area. No such luck. Great views of Jasper made up for it... ish.
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  • Day286

    Athabasca Falls and Five Lakes, Canada

    July 30, 2017 in Canada ⋅ ☀️ 22 °C

    Falls, runs and hot pools.

    We survived the night. Probably due to our dutiful obeying of the rules: storing all food, food related products and food associated clothing in the sealed car. What great campers we've become!

    It was a leisurely day. The fact that our holiday is almost over came crashing down like the hopes of NZ when Wayne Barnes missed a forward pass in the quarter finals of the 2007 RWC (oh are we over that yet?). We are savouring our time accordingly. Clearing the schedule and appreciating time to do nothing (not even blog...hence the delay).

    We did manage a trip to the great Athabasca falls, the furthest upstream salmon migration point - I'm sure you'll see why in the photo. We also hazarded a jog in some torturous heat in the Valley of the Five Lakes. They had water clarity to die for and water temperature to kill you. The irony of the hot/cold dilemma took another moment to laugh at us.

    Lunch was chicken wraps in a downtown Jasper park, freshly prepared in our portable kitchen, which isn't much more than a chilly bin and a burner. But you wouldn't guess it based on meal quality.

    We spent most of the afternoon searching for a campsite which has become a bit of a regular pastime. It's peak season and everything is booked up, so we've been placing our bets on late cancellations - a very hit and miss affair. This afternoon held a lot of misses and we ended up in the best part of a very underwhelming overflow campsite in Snaring.

    Accordingly we spent as little time as possible there, and passed the evening at the Miette Hot Pools. It was a lovely setting for hot pools but it was hard to appreciate it when it was so packed. We undertook chronic people watching, mostly fascinating by the variety of shapes, sizes, outfits and behaviours of the multicultural and varied-age group of tourists. We even spotted the coveted Burkhini in action!
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  • Day284

    Wabasso, Canada

    July 28, 2017 in Canada ⋅ ☀️ 23 °C

    We saw bears!!!!!

    My eyes are sore. They've been straining relentlessly for the last five days to spot wildlife, in particular the elusive bear. And we found him. Or her. On our way back from a delicious dinner in Jasper (I got the meat platter to really spoil my definitely-not-already-spoilt-self), in the dwindling twighlight we saw her. She was deep in the woods and I was so astounded that I'd a) seen a bear and b) seen it at such great distance with such poor eyes, that I screamed some what now seem very inappropriate words at Cat who was driving. Pandemonium ensued as we argued over stopping, reversing, turning around and how best not to get hit by a car or eaten by a bear.

    Luck was on our side that day. The black bear was with two tiny and playful cubs! She meandered right up to the roadside, within spitting distance of the car. We could hear her sniffing and grunting and watched the playful cubs jump around, climb trees and annoy each other. It was my Canadian dream come true. Too bad I stuffed up all the photos. We also saw an elk in the drive but who cares about her when you got a black bear! The sighting was also only two km from our campsite which made us a little nervous but we observed the number of tents between her and us and deemed ourselves safe. You don't have to outrun the bear, you only have to outrun the slowest human. In this part of the world where you can order soft drink by the gallon and eat fries for breakfast - I'd back myself. I'm also quite confident the bears would find the aforementioned stereotype tastier than the boney me (or Cat). What an evening!
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  • Day284

    Icefields Parkway, Canada

    July 28, 2017 in Canada ⋅ ☀️ 5 °C

    Roads, rivers and the Rockies.

    This 200-odd km road from Banff to Jasper is appropriately named the Icefields Parkway. It is (or perhaps was) a glaciated valley, pumped full of rivers, glaciers, mountains, waterfalls, trees and alpine meadows, still (and only just) home to the Columbian Icefield whose rivers feed three separate oceans. It is absolutely spectacular. I'll let the photos speak for themselves on this one.

    Along the road there are plenty of stop-offs for walks, viewpoints, picnics, educational signage and even glacier tours. The list is endless. We chose the Parker's Ridge walk which offered jaw dropping views of a glacier and valley with minimal demand on the legs. It was busy and in fact the whole day felt a bit congested with tourists but the valley was big enough for us all and it only took a little extra effort to beat the crowds. This highway would probably be one of the few in the world where it is perfectly acceptable to stop your vehicle in the middle of the road to observe a view or animal. On a highway jam packed with RVs and foreign drivers (ourselves included) it's fairly apparent why it took us all day to drive 200km.

    Although there are said to be dozens of glaciers visible from the highway, many appear to be mere snow caps on mountain peaks. Considering that these monstrous molders were the driving force that shaped the surrounding mountains and valleys (over 3000m high), it's crushing to see them diminished to such puny powers in the landscape they once ruled. What's even sadder is that in meagre decades or less, they won't exist at all and we'll be attempting to describe them to the next generation with nothing but words and photos...and probably a time-lapse video.

    I haven't done much research into glaciers but to keep my conscience clear I've convinced myself of two advantages to glacial melt: more fresh water for our demanding population and more highlands for alpine meadows and young pine forests. Who knows, maybe the lakes will even drop to a swimmable temperature. Perhaps the next generation will appreciate that more than a glacier selfie...
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  • Day284

    Lake Moraine, Canada

    July 28, 2017 in Canada ⋅ ☀️ 4 °C

    Just wow. And squirrels.

    This is one of Banff National Park's very on-the-beaten-track highlights. It actually took two attempts to get here as we were turned away the first time; the 14km entry road closed due to excessively high traffic volumes. I know, we should have walked it. The second time we left early and brought a picnic breakfast. It was almost full again at 8am which didn't at all surprise us. It was insanely picturesque, made all the better by our granola and fruit breakfast which we ate overlooking the turquoise lake. We were also joined by a couple of cheeky and very tame squirrels who tried to steal our cereal from all angles whilst we were eating. They had cuteness on their side but given it's a $2500 fine to feed animals in the park, we kept our guard up. The little critters got their claws on my bowl a few times and they have quite the grip!Read more

  • Day283

    Banff and Johnston Canyon, Canada

    July 27, 2017 in Canada ⋅ ☀️ 24 °C

    A dash of rain and a whiff of smoke.

    Johnston Canyon was our home for night four. It was also our first night of rain. And by rain I mean a brief shower which forced us to relocate our evening drinks to the inside of the car. Luckily it was light and brief and we were able to dine outdoors shortly after. It would be the second spot of rain we see in our entire Canada trip. Such luck in the weather is unheard of and we're celebrating the timing coinciding with our nights under canvas. It really is the difference between enjoying camping and wishing it would end - I'm sure you all know where I'm coming from!

    Smoke, however, was the natural phenomenon that was causing the grief. I mentioned earlier that BC was on fire; Alberta is too! I've attached a photo of Mt Rundle (I think it might actually be the Rundle range), visibly obscured by smoke. That smoke chased us around the park and eventually caused parts of Banff to close (after we left, fortunately). Fire bans were strictly enforced although unlike Torres del Paine (remember how wet that was?) we were still allowed to use gas burners, which we cooked almost all of our meals on in some fairly idyllic locations. The convenience of car-camping was well and truly appreciated compared to living out of a bag!

    Our hiking continued in this area, as short and sweet as it was. We also tried for a dip in the Cascade Ponds whose name was extremely misleading but not as misleading as the temperature of the water which was far from swimmable despite it being the height of summer and largely surrounded by fire. Go figure.

    I'm going to use this otherwise short post to give credit to Parks Canada. They have done some outstanding work in managing Canada's National Parks and the thousands of tourists that pass through daily.

    They provide easy access to accurate and up-to-date information about the parks and have everything well sign posted. There are bins in every carpark and toilets at every trailhead as well as trail maps with times and distances. There's also information on trail conditions, animals in the area and forest fires if you happened to miss that elsewhere. They're also a really friendly bunch who love to hear your opinions of the trails and help you identify any wildlife or flora you may have spotted. The trails are immaculate, almost too well maintained and with markers and signposts at regular intervals. They also have placards with information about the geology, history, forests and wildlife just to keep your brain occupied while your legs do the walking. Their picnic areas are well mown, rubbish-free and - I'm not kidding - they even wipe down the picnic tables!! It's impossible to miss how good a job these guys have done and it's great to see how passionate they are about their work.

    And it's paid off. The wildlife in the park is abundant. Elk roam freely through paddocks. Bears roam through campsites (seriously). Coyotes dart across highways and squirrels dart around you at your picnic table. Marmots hop over rocks and the chirpy chipmunk pops out of its hole to see what's going on. The park is so well looked after that they've just heli-dropped a herd of bison back into it to expand their habitat. Perhaps the most astounding (and expensive) effort they've made is the wildlife crossings. The Trans-Canada highway has split an ecosystem in half, creating a giant moving metal wall; a hazard for wildlife and humans alike. Parks Canada's solution? Wildlife crossings. There are overpasses and underpasses for the animals to cross the highway, some 18 of them through Banff NP alone! The remainder of the highway is fenced off through the national park to prevent animals entering the danger-zone. Only in Canada would they get that one through parliament...
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  • Day282

    Lake Louise and Boom Lake, Canada

    July 26, 2017 in Canada ⋅ ☀️ 21 °C

    Lake before or lake after?

    It may seem trivial and frankly it probably is but when you're spending four to six hours a day on the road you need all the conversational topics you can find. When does 'lake' precede the name and when not? One of lifes great questions. Perhaps you can bring this up at the water cooler with a colleague and report back...

    Lake Louise was horrendously busy. Millions of tourists, locals, hikers and backpackers flocked to take their selfie spending more time looking at a screen than the view in front of them. Louise was no doubt an impressive lake but the hype about it and the number of tourists left us somewhat unimpressed and kept our visit brief. The joys of having a car!

    We took instead to Boom Lake, a short hour and a bit walk from the carpark. It was a lovely quiet stroll where we saw only a couple of people and had the lake to ourselves when we arrived. More people joined us but it was spacious and quiet with a magnificent view which made it far better than the previous lake. We'd also prepared a pesto pasta salad which was the highlight of the walk (as usual).
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