Friday, 21 December 2012

One long weekend

Watch out for the Kiwis!
New Zealand was always going to be the final destination of our world trip. After just about a year of travelling, and quite a few diversions along the way, we made it! It's somewhere that we both always knew we would enjoy and wanted to give a lot of time to. In fact, our original plan was to come and live and work here for a few years. When commitments back home shortened our planned trip (yeah, yeah- 18 months is still a long time!) we decided to drop the work part (d'oh!) and just come and enjoy as much time as we could here- about 4 months, conveniently timed over the southern hemisphere summer. We wanted to end our travels with time devoted to everything we love to do at the weekend back home- camping, hiking, kayaking, surfing, and spending as much time outdoors as possible. Basically, one long weekend!

Our home
First of all we needed to get kitted out, starting with a van that we could call home for the summer. It took 3 days, mostly spent trawling the internet in Christchurch library, to source 'Van Helsing', which we bought on Halloween from some French snowboarders. We had debated getting a car, and got as far as viewing a couple,but are so glad we went for a van and the relative luxury that goes with it. Van is perhaps a generous term for a converted Nissan Serena '93 people carrier, but we can sleep in it, sit in it, store our growing amount of stuff,and cook just outside it. With any luck, we'll also get most of our money back when we sell it.

Karl modifying the van
Like all good weekends, our time in New Zealand started with some DIY. The van had been converted, but we had lots of ideas for improvements to make our life that bit more comfortable. It's a little odd to arrive in a new country and spend the whole first week in garages, DIY stores and home improvement warehouses, but it was well worth it as we are now able to sit inside with a hurricane lantern glowing on a little table, freshly painted wooden benches, everything packed away in crates and lockers, bright and comfortable bedding and even a drinks cabinet! We really love the independence our own vehicle has brought us, and without spending too much money we have everything we need to enjoy life here. It's a completely different way to see a country, and we haven't had to get public transport or pay to stay in a hostel since those first few days in Christchurch.

Doing a spot of paintwork
Apart from out of town DIY stores, there isn't currently a lot to see in Christchurch. We knew about the devastating earthquake here in February 2011, but had naively though that would be all sorted by now. It is really sad and humbling to see what the people of Christchurch have had to deal with day in day out since that fateful morning. Forget about rebuilding the city, it's still in the process of being demolished. Over 70% of the CBD was destroyed and the entire city centre is still cordoned off, not to mention the damage to the suburbs. 

Piles of rubble and empty lots are everywhere, disconcerting search and rescue spray paint present on windows that were broken by the quake or in the search for survivors. 190 people were killed here, and when you see the level of destruction it's amazing more people didn't lose     their lives. 

Christchurch city centre
We took the time to go on a 'Red Zone' tour, a bus that travels behind the cordon into what used to be the city centre. With aftershocks and unstable buildings tottering throughout the city the risks of the tour are taken seriously and a disconcerting video is played just before the bus departs with a dead-pan voice warning that 'You may not survive this journey. If you wish to disembark please do so now.' It seemed a bit over the top until you see how bad things really still are, hear stories from the disaster, and see the harrowed faces of locals who have summoned the courage to take the bus tour and see what remains of their city for the first time. You could tell from their disbelief that the place really is unrecognisable. 

Shipping container shopping centre
On the positive side, there are some really cool projects going on to try and rejuvenate this fallen city. Called 'gap fillers', they have sprung up in the many empty lots and include a dance floor with disco ball, a little football pitch, a bar in an old bus, cafes made out of wooden pallets, and lots of vibrant artwork. A beautifully designed shopping centre called Re:start provides the only fully functioning area of the city centre, created entirely from shipping containers and full of quirky independent stores. It's going to take a lot of time to rebuild this city, but the opportunity for a fresh, sustainable (and hopefully more earthquake resilient) start seems to being seized, and I'm sure the future Christchurch will be an exciting and original place.

Coastal scenery on Banks Peninsula
Just as we were deciding where to travel first a Kiwi couple in our campsite, Niara and Nigel, sat us down in their caravan with a cup of tea and a sprawling collection of yellowed maps to help us with tips for our time here. They had travelled in NZ extensively over the years and were keen to share some of their favourite spots. We left with our arms full of maps, and brimming with ideas of where we might go. Leaving the distorted and cracked roads of the city, we first took our new van to the Banks Peninsula, an old volcano jutting out on the east coast. This was our first sight of the NZ countryside, and it had a striking resemblance to Wales. Rocky streams cut deep into green fields full of sheep and bordered with gorse, before a bright blue sea. We could so easily have been in Pembrokeshire, and felt right at home!

Relaxing in the van
There's certainly no culture shock in New Zealand, and it would be very easy to live here. Judging from the number of British accents, a lot of people have already had that idea. About half the residents we've met seem to have been Brits! The shops and services and a lot of the scenery are all similar, but it is noticeably less crowded. We haven't seen what peak season is like yet, or the more populated North Island, but most places we've visited have been so quiet we've been left wondering where everybody is. Even in towns, traffic jams seem non-existent, and in the countryside you have whole stretches of road to yourself, making driving very pleasant. The country is as expensive as the UK, sometimes more, but with the van almost eliminating accommodation costs, and being able to shop in supermarkets and entirely cook for ourselves,we can live here cheaply. Travelling independently and without ever needing to go on a guided tour, we seem to be able to stick to the same £20 a day budget that we had in Asia.

On snowy Mount Bealey, Arthurs Pass
Arthurs Pass was our first mountain area, and we travelled there through scenery reminiscent of the Cairngorms before we reached the high and snowy mountains. There was plenty of adventure to be had here, starting with a very steep climb up Mount Bealey. The summit was snow covered,with an impressive cornice, and the views of black and white snow and rock ridges were magnificent. That muffled, snowy silence you get on still days was only interrupted by the call of a Kea, a mountain parrot endemic to NZ. This was the first one we met, but we quickly found out how intelligent and mischievous they are. 

Karl has a conversation with a kea

One will distract you while another steals your lunch, or they'll jump up and down on the top of the van through the night and stop you sleeping. They're incorrigible and nothing is safe if left unsupervised for a moment. They're protected by law, endearingly cute, and I think they know it!

River crossing on our first tramp

Ready to enter Cave Steam
The scenery of the Arthurs Pass area was just as we'd hoped and we enjoyed a fairly tough 2 day introduction to New Zealand tramping with plenty of river crossings, fallen trees to clamber over, and sandflies (basically massive midges). There was still plenty of snow high up, but that didn't affect our next adventure; a trip up cave stream, and the best hour I've ever spent underground! The stream disappears into a cave and travels underground for about 1 km, and it's possible to follow it for the whole length. It's fast flowing and on occasion chest deep, with a series of small waterfalls to scramble up, and all done in the pitch black, soaking wet and freezing cold. Brilliant fun, if you like that sort of thing.

Ruth and me - the old Wildbore Vets dream team!
We briefly returned to Christchurch to meet a friend from home, Ruth, and her boyfriend Graham, on a fortnight's holiday here. It was great to catch up; Ruth and I used to work together and hearing all the latest news from the vets only made me very glad to be here, not there! It also made us appreciate being lucky enough to have so much time to explore the country with no deadline to return home yet, meaning we can travel spontaneously and without any plans- just the way we like.

On the beach at Kaikoura
Moving up the coast from Christchurch we came to Kaikoura, a nice little surf town to hang out for a few days. We'd been recommended a great spot to camp by the beach at the surf break 'Meatworks'. From the van you could look out over the waves, while just behind rose high snowy mountains. As well as surfing, it's a marine life hotspot, with loads of seals and seabirds to watch. We walked around the peninsula and along the beaches, inadvertently stumbling upon and being barked at by big fur seals. A little way along the coast and up a stream was a waterfall and it's plunge pool, which is used as a nursery for seal pups. You can watch them playing in the water, chasing each other in the spray of the waterfall while others sit on the rocks and stare at you with doeful black eyes. But our best seal encounter was underwater. 
Geared up for a spot of seal snorkelling

Having seen expensive trips to swim with the seals advertised all over town, we decided to try our own, home made version. We donned our snorkels, masks and new wetsuits and swam off the rocks, amongst huge strands of kelp that swayed in the current, little brown speckled fish darting in between. It was the coldest water I've snorkelled in (ice cream headaches and face-freeze) but before long we were rewarded by one of the best wildlife encounters I've had. We had spotted a seal at the surface and were watching her, keeping a respectful distance. Suddenly she swam straight towards us, diving down at the last minute to glide slowly underneath us just feet away, on her back and staring straight up at us. She looked completely different underwater, bubbles of air trapped beneath her slicked down silver fur and huge, bright and alert eyes watching us. It was just like footage from a wildlife documentary, and after she left we stared at each other in disbelief. Very cool, and completely free!

Karl models his tube
Our next cheap-skate entertainment was to buy a couple of truck inner tubes from an obliging garage. A 'poor man's kayak', they would at least enable us to get out on the water. We headed inland through farmland and forest to the Waiau river to try them out. The rivers in New Zealand are often wide and shallow, braided over a large pebbly riverbed. There are quite a few rapids, and I was a bit wary about white water tubing in unknown waters. Setting out tentatively from the bank, it was fun being pushed along by the current, alongside a rocky cliff and under a bridge, so we got a little braver. But our second set of rapids had us both tip over, swimming frantically for the river bank before we got swept into another run of white water. My tube got a puncture as well, so that was the end of our tubing for a little while. Maybe a kayak would be better. After getting cold and wet in the river, the hot springs at Hamner were perfect. We spent a luxurious evening trying out all the different outdoor thermal pools, and it was even better when it started to rain. We stayed until it closed, wrinkled from hours in the water but very relaxed.

The Waiau River
Our first few weeks in New Zealand gave us a taster of what we came here for. We'd been to the mountains, rivers and coast, had some great day walks and a multi-night tramp. We were loving the van life, having no plans, sleeping in the middle of nowhere, and moving from place to place when we felt like it. Leaving one 2 day adventure to head to another feels like a weird hybrid of a sunday night and a friday night back at home, as we head from one area to another, and simultaneously pack and unpack our kit. It really is just like a very long weekend, and we're in no hurry for it to end!


Friday, 23 November 2012

Fiji time

Sometimes that stereotypical image is true!
When we first told people we were spending a month in Fiji, the usual response was 'A MONTH?! What are you going to do for that long??!' We'd even started to wonder ourselves whether there would be enough to occupy us. After all, the standard image of Fiji is a  resort on a white sand beach, backed with palm trees. Nice for a few days, but not very interesting for longer.

It must be due to the weird distortion of time, well recognised by both locals and tourists and known as Fiji time, that our month went by so fast. The country showed itself to be much more than the cocktails on the sand, honeymoon destination cliche. We honestly hardly had time to lounge on the beach, and there's more to see than we had ever expected. It's an incredibly easy and enjoyable country in which to travel independently. Totally hassle-free, and with the luxury of practically the whole population speaking perfect English.

Walking in rural Fiji
Our first day was spent at some mud pools and hot springs in the rural Sabeto valley- a very authentic natural spa experience involving coating ourselves in gloopy mud and wallowing in a warm, dirty brown pond- all very good for the skin we hear. Walking back to our accommodation alongside sugar cane fields and past small farmsteads, we had a friendly 'Bula!' greeting from everyone we met, shaking hands with a couple who welcomed us to their country with broad and very genuine smiles. It was a great start and a sign of the happy, laid-back and welcoming people we would come to meet.

Kayaking on my birthday
We decided to initially travel around the 'mainland' of Viti Levu by bus. On that first journey, upbeat pop music booming from speakers and with our rucksacks crammed in next to us, Karl and I smiled at each other.  After a 3 month break in the USA, it felt great to be backpacking again, and on a local bus! Our first stop was a small island called Nanuna-i-ra, famed for windsurfing in the reliable trade winds that buffet this coast. This was where I spent my birthday, staying in a quaint little cottage at a low key, locally run resort. We took out kayaks to explore the nearby bays and snorkel on offshore reefs, finding our own deserted beach under dazzlingly blue skies. It was a perfect day in a lovely setting.

Levuka's church
The beach weather I enjoyed on my birthday soon proved to be atypical. Our next destination, the old colonial capital of Levuka, was drenched in a constant and very English drizzle. The hotel provided umbrellas to rent, which says something about the usual conditions here. Levuka was nevertheless very interesting, and with very few tourists this far from the beach. There was the one 'main street' of ramshackle timber shops, stacked to the ceiling with cans of tuna from the local cannery, which gives the whole town a distinctively fishy smell. The central church was painted clapboard but with a big English style tower, and the schools dated from the early days of British rule. We stayed in the oldest hotel in Fiji, slowly falling apart but full of character, with creaking floorboards, cane furniture and a billiard table overlooking the cricket ground. All we needed were scones and jam, and even these were available in the enticing hot bread shop. The availability of scones and the fish and chips might have been a throwback to British times, but Levuka was still very much Fiji. Here, the church clock strikes twice each hour- once on the hour, and again 5 minutes later for those operating on 'Fiji time'!

Rain, rain and more rain in Levuka

Bili bili racing on Fiji Day
We were back on the mainland in time for 'Fiji Day', the annual celebration of independence from Britain. The festivities in the town of Sigatoka were typically Fijian, with a lot of laughter. There was a carnival atmosphere on the riverside at the Bili Bili races, where rafts made from bundles of long bamboo poles were manned by teams from local hotels. The aim seemed to be to complete the race without sinking, and some barely managed this. The Fijians don't take life too seriously, and other events included coconut relays and balancing a tray of drinks around a course, and men pom-pom dancing in drag.

Our next journey was an 18 hour ferry from the Indian flavoured capital city of Suva to Taveuni, one of the northern islands and, like so much of Fiji, blessedly undeveloped. We ate in a local 'wine and dine' restaurant with reggaeton playing, and stayed in some intimate little guesthouses that were more like homestays. On a Sunday we attended mass at the Wairiki Catholic Mission, a beautifully situated church on grassy slopes above the shore. The Fijians were mostly dressed in white, sitting cross legged on the church floor, and the first hymn, Amazing Grace- in Fijian and with everyone singing at the top of their voice- was really very moving. That afternoon we headed along an inland track to the village water slide in the forest- a narrow chute of rock the river is forced through on its journey between waterfalls. There were some locals there to show us where to start, and we could watch their technique before launching ourselves over the first waterfall to be propelled along the slide, the water pushing us high onto the smooth rock sides and depositing us in a pool at the bottom. It was brilliant!

Waterfall near Lavena
A highlight of our time in Taveuni were the days we spent at the small coastal village of Lavena. The forward thinking villagers here rejected lucrative offers from logging companies back in the 80s and instead chose to preserve their rainforest as a national heritage area. It remains completely unspoilt, and the tiny little village run lodge is eco-tourism as it should be, with every dollar staying in the community and helping to conserve the environment. The villagers take it in turns to staff the lodge and cook meals for guests, with the village chief calling in one day and teaching us how to weave palm leaves into a basket. We walked along the coast to some beautiful waterfalls to swim and beach-combed on the wild, white sand beach under dark clouds that emptied themselves onto us. Unfortunately, as for much of our time in Fiji, it rained. But here it rained a LOT! We couldn't believe there could be so much water in the sky as one day it hammered down, tropical rainstorm style, for over 10 hours. Half the road was washed out, mudslides covering the other half, and the bus stopped running.

Surf at Qamea
After a day stranded by the weather, we managed to get a lift along what remained of the road, followed by a boat transfer out to a small backpackers' surf camp on an offshore island called Qamea. This was a cool little spot, with a social atmosphere and generous portions at the nightly kava ceremony. Kava is the traditional narcotic drink made by pounding roots and mixing the resulting powder with water in a big wooden bowl. It resembles dirty dish water, and is drunk from a coconut shell in a nightly session involving a lot of clapping. It doesn't taste too bad (certainly not as unpleasant as it looks) but the only notable effect for me is to create a numb mouth. The best places we stayed in Fiji would have everyone sit around in a circle for the kava, encouraging people to introduce themselves and get talking. On Qamea we bunked in a safari style tent-dorm just above the beach, overlooking the offshore reef where Karl was keen to surf. He was rewarded with some classic waves the first day, but the surf was as fickle as ever, and one day's fun was all it gave during our stay.

Dramatic skies at Qamea
It sounds ridiculous to say we felt rushed, but a choice had to be made- wait for the surf to pick up, or head to the Somosomo strait to go diving. Diving in Fiji couldn't be missed, and the Rainbow Reef of Taveuni was a great taster- rightly famed for the beautiful soft corals in every shade of purple, swaying in the current, and surrounded by reef fish and the odd shark or tuna cruising by. We were the only divers that day which made it a very personal trip, with a lesson on reef marine biology thrown in. We also seemed to be the only guests at Bibi's hideaway, our lodge of wooden cottages scattered amongst a big garden of tropical fruit trees. It was all very quiet here on Taveuni, and we understood why our American dive master and her family had left the traffic of California for a simpler life here. As she said, 'life's too short, don't work it all away' (she was preaching to the converted!).

The Yasawa islands
Having spent 3 weeks fairly off the beaten track, we decided to treat ourselves to some beach time and finish our travels with a taste of the side of the country most people imagine when they hear the name Fiji. The place for this is a chain of islands called the Yasawas. This is where Castaway and  the Blue Lagoon (and, less notably, Survivor Fiji and Celebrity Love Island) were filmed. It's all got pretty developed as a result, with a fast catamaran, the Yasawa Flyer, serving the dozens of resorts on a twice daily schedule that is far removed from the 'Fiji time' we'd become accustomed to. You can get off an international flight and be transferred to the resort of your choice (choosing 1 coconut to 3 coconut standard in the colourful brochure) within just a few hours.

Walking in the Yasawas
The 'Awesome Adventures Tropical Awegasm' package is not really the way we prefer to travel, but the monopoly the company has here makes independent travel impossible without your own boat- we were envious of the yachts heading off to secret anchorages. But the Flyer has its advantages when you want a few days of tropical island hopping, and there's a great view from the deck as it whizzes between islands. The Yasawa island chain is surprisingly rugged and very beautiful, changing character along it's length from black rocky spines of jungle covered islands to dryer, grass covered islets that seem to float on the turquoise waters of shallow lagoons.

Blue lagoon's rather lovely beach
The resorts are all thatched and very low key and there were luckily no jet-skis or multi storey hotels in sight. So we saw how the other half see Fiji and it wasn't at all bad- staying in a very smart dorm at an award winning beach resort and eating restaurant quality food. The beach was gorgeous, there were nightly activities in the bar and it was understandably popular, but just a short walk away you could have complete seclusion and we enjoyed climbing to the high point of the island for a birds eye view of the village, bays, lagoons, and offshore islets. After a couple of nights of relative luxury we island hopped down the chain to a quiet, more rustic spot, appropriately called Barefoot, on a peninsula with 3 stunning beaches and beautiful coral structures to snorkel around. These Yasawa days were very much a holiday, and we were glad to get a bit of beach time, enjoy sunsets in the warm evening breeze and do some great snorkelling to finish off our travels in the tropics.

The staff getting involved with evening activities at Barefoot lodge

We pulled ourselves out of the water and back onto the Flyer on the typically hot and sunny day on which we were due to leave, and after one last kava session at a backpackers hostel in Nadi, it was time to go to New Zealand. We weren't ready to leave! Excited as we were about our next destination, it's hard to say goodbye to the barefoot freedom of island life.

Blogging from Fiji

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Fall in Glacier

Autumn colours

There was a real chill in the air as we stepped off the plane in Missoula, Montana in mid-September. It was our first taste of fall and quite a contrast to the warm coastal breeze we'd left behind in California. We were travelling to Glacier National Park, where the Rockies cross the Canadian border, forming the Continental Divide and watershed of the USA. Glacier was to be our final hiking destination in the states, and we had about 10 days to explore this compact but impressive group of mountains.

Missoula's leafy suburbs
Before we disappeared into the hills we spent a day in Missoula, a very neat college town with manicured lawns, picket fences and large white clapboard houses. A rocking chair on the veranda, usually dwarfed by a huge american flag flying over a perfectly striped lawn finished the suburban picture.
After lunch at a pavement cafe, we set off around the town on bicycles. We'd longed to cycle in the USA but rental is usually $35-40, so for two it works out as more than hiring a car and was definitely out of our budget. Thanks to a council scheme, here in Missoula bikes were free to rent, and it was the perfect town for cycling. We followed a route along the rock-strewn river, lined with birch trees on the turn from pale greens to autumn yellows. The University of Montana campus felt familiar from dozens of films, with students sitting on the lawns or cycling by with a textbook under one arm. 

Supporting the Ospreys
It was a quintessentially American day in small-town USA and we finished it off with a baseball game- the Ospreys vs the Raptors. It was our first ball game and a really fun experience. The players lined up on the pitch and we all stood to sing the national anthem, before the home team's mascot, Ozzie Osprey, ran on to dance around the pitch. We were lucky enough to be seated next to a friendly Missoulan who had written the sports column for the local paper for many years, and was the perfect coach to explain the rules of the game to us. To me, it seemed basically like rounders, but with comically padded outfits. It was freezing huddled up watching the game, and gave us a taste of what camping up here this late in the season would be like. In fact, the next morning we woke to a layer of frost on the tent.

We had partly chosen to visit Glacier as we could get there by public transport- a real rarity in the states. Well, almost get there. After a bus to Whitefish we were tantalisingly close, and rather than wait in town for a day for the next train (Glacier is on the Chicago-Seattle line) we took our chance hitch hiking, despite it's dubious reputation in this country. Our first lift was with a very friendly but slightly manic character who took his eyes off the road to turn around and talk to us a bit too much. With a sigh of relief, we were back on the side of the road at a junction, where 200 cars passed by before we got a very windy ride in the back of a pick up. Finally, we made it to the entrance of Glacier in a retired local's car, with his hairy springer spaniel slobbering all over me in the back, bemused but happy to have her seat                                                                          taken up by rucksacks and new friends.

That afternoon was spent in the wilderness ranger's office trying to come up with a plan for our hike. Unlike in the Sierra Nevada, here we would have to camp in a set backcountry campsite each night, with very limited spaces which had to be prebooked and are often full- the idea being to preserve the wilderness experience, but at the cost of any flexibility for the hiker. The advantage of rocking up so late in the season was that we could put together an itinerary without too many 'computer says no' moments. It was frustrating to later find out from other hikers that the computer system is completely out of tune with the real situation in the park, with many 'full' campsites actually being empty.

Route planning!

After a pre-dawn and freezing cold wait for the office to open to get our permits, we were happy to have any sort of a route, let alone a very promising 90 mile circuit through the centre of the park. 
On the trail in Glacier
First though, we had a 2 hour hitch to reach our starting point, and a 15 mile hike to our first campsite! It was a lot easier to get lifts within the park, and we were kindly deposited along the spectacular 'Going to the Sun' road to begin our 9 day route into the heart of Glacier. That first afternoon's walk over Ptarmigan Pass was a great introduction, with clear streams falling into pools and the purple tinted cliffs of the mountains interspersed with patches of snow, above dark valleys thick with pine forest. It was a wonderful time of year to be out walking- cold mornings but crisp, clear autumnal days. The blueberry, huckleberry and raspberry bushes that carpeted the forest floor were dyed deep red and yellow and the contrast with the green of the pine forest was gorgeous.

Crossing Gunsight Pass
After all our time on trail in the Sierras, it was ridiculously easy to get back into the swing of hiking and camping. The route had a fair amount of ascent and descent but never felt difficult, the hardest parts being some longer stretches through forest where we would get frustrated at the lack of any view. The high stretches and climbs made up for it with some classic vistas; small glaciers clinging to mountainsides, an impressive cirque with waterfalls cascading down the cliffs and extensive mountain panoramas across the valleys.

Backcountry camp facilities!
Walking all day felt entirely normal and setting up our tent and cooking our usual trail food was second nature. The set campsites weren't as special as our wild camps on the John Muir Trail, but they made the experience a lot more social, sitting around the cooking area chatting to fellow hikers each evening. Everyone was american, and most had been visiting the park for many years.
Bears were a common subject for discussion as we sat around the campfire. Glacier is home to quite a number of grizzlies as well as black and brown bears, so bear safety is a serious consideration here. Everyone carries a can of pepper spray, at the ready in case of attack (some of the more paranoid walk with it in their hand at all times!). Cooking areas are kept separate from camping areas, food must be stored high on ropes suspended between trees and you are advised to make a lot of noise while you're hiking. Bears don't like surprises and most attacks are defensive, as a result of a bear feeling cornered on a trail.

That would be for our campground then...
We walked along clapping and calling 'HEEEY BEEAAR', and always had one eye scanning for something large and furry, especially when we stopped to pick blueberries to supplement our oatmeal breakfasts. After a week of these precautions we were actually very pleased to have a bear sighting, happily from a safe distance. A ranger had warned us that a large grizzly was on our trail, and probably about 10 minutes ahead of us. So we proceeded cautiously, with a lot of singing and clapping. We saw the bear about 100 metres ahead, and she hadn't seen us, so we could sit and enjoy watching her pause to effortlessly turn over small boulders as she ambled along our path. We felt very privileged to view such a huge, beautiful and clearly very wild animal in its natural surroundings. Other wildlife we saw included a curious baby pine marten, an owl, big horn sheep and my favourite- mountain goats. Straight out of Narnia, these guys are so perfectly designed for their environment- strong and sure footed, with a very cosy snow-white coat and curved black horns. The kids are extremely cute, following behind their mothers and staring at us with their big black eyes.

Super fluffy mountain goat family

Last sunset in the mountains
Our 9 days in Glacier went extremely fast, and before we knew it we were enjoying sunset from a high camp on our last night with a group of new friends.
After almost 3 months, our time in the mountains and national parks of the USA had come to an end. Finishing with a memorable swim in Lake Mcdonald on an unseasonally hot day, we headed to the station for the 'Empire Builder' train to Seattle.

After a day in the pleasant town of Whitefish, where we drank popular microbrewery beers at a rooftop bar with some lovely Montanans, we boarded our overnight train with another great guy, whiling the evening away over a glass of wine in the train lounge. Rail travel is very pleasant in the states (unlike Greyhound buses) and there was a holiday atmosphere on board. Practically every other passenger was heading to Seattle for a big American football game- the Seattle Seahawks were playing the Green Bay Packers, something to do with Monday night football, and apparently it was a big deal.

The original Starbucks in Seattle
So, onto Seattle- home of the space needle, Starbucks, and the Seahawks- but known to me mostly from years of watching Frasier. Our first impression was that Frasier would have his work cut out- the city streets were yet again filled with homeless people, a high proportion of whom clearly had psychiatric issues. Some of the downtown streets were literally lined with cardboard. Trying to ignore this was hard, but we stayed in a nice hostel and enjoyed visiting some of the arty, eclectic suburbs and city markets. We ascended a skyscraper to a Starbucks with a view (Starbucks began here, with the original coffee shop in Pike Place market still going strong), and I tried to get over the shock of having my hair cut off by an exuberant and distracted hairdresser while chatting about her wedding plans.

The city, like San Francisco, had some nice parts but didn't really live up to our expectations. It's the mountains, national parks and wide open spaces of the USA that left a great impression on us. The people as well, and particularly the chance to get to know the american side of the Stewart family. Karl's uncle Fred and his wife Joyce provided a home from home for us, and really made our 'American Summer'. We will always be grateful to have had a chance to get to know them, and the day we had to pack up and say goodbye felt like leaving home all over again.


Saying goodbye to Fred and Joyce

Thursday, 11 October 2012

A land of deserts and canyons

Our home for the next fortnight
After the setback of realising that our planned rental car for a fortnight would not just stretch our budget but completely obliterate it, Karl's Uncle Fred came to the rescue. He agreed to lend us their second car, a 20 year old Ford Lincoln Town Car, on the proviso that it might break down and leave us stranded in the desert. For the freedom it gave us, that was a risk we were well prepared to take. Excitedly, we set to work preparing the car for an expedition, filling the huge trunk with a tent, tarp, old maps Fred dug out for us, crates of supplies and gallons of water.

Joshua tree cacti in Mojave
This time we were headed away from the Pacific coast, to a land of desert and canyons. We traced out a route on the map through California to Nevada, Utah and Arizona, initially crossing a network of graded roads (trying to avoid the dotted ones) that would take us through the heart of the Mojave desert. That was where we spent our first night, having driven along a dirt track into the darkness to sleep out on our tarp in the warmth of a still, perfectly clear, starry desert night. We woke at dawn to find ourselves lying beside prickly pears and spiky yuccas in a landscape of scrub covered sand. Having driven  further into the Mojave, between place-names like Hole in the Wall and Devil's Playground, we walked between cacti the shape and size of barrels and cliffs puckered like swiss cheese, to ascend a small and easy canyon. The desert was devoid of people- summer is very much low season here- but flora and fauna were surprisingly abundant, with delicate flowers, lizards scuttling off the path and birds hopping between cacti, oblivious to their thorns.

We quickly realised that the Lincoln did not cope well with the drifts of sand that had piled up on the unmaintained tracks. It was far too early in the trip to risk being stranded in the desert, especially with the car dashboard displaying 106'F (41'C) so after a nerve wracking 6 or 8 point turn on the sand covered road (the Lincoln is a very long car and it was a narrow road!) we returned to the safety of the interstate to Nevada, signed to Las Vegas.

The Fremont Street experience
We'd read that there was no point visiting Vegas unless you had money burning a hole in your pocket, but we were determined to disprove this and have fun on a budget. Granted, this meant spectating rather than getting involved, and the shows and exhibitions were definitely out of our reach, but there were frozen margueritas in the casino bars for $1 (a barely alcoholic but tasty slush puppy), lots of free stuff to watch, and the bizarre, fantastical architecture to marvel at. Best of all, we had a $10 deal in a motel with a pool, wifi and heart-attack inducing breakfast included. Walking The Strip was fascinating, each casino trying to outdo the last with ridiculous facades of castles, fake volcanoes, moats, statues and waterfalls. Amongst many others, there was the trendy, plush Cosmopolitan, the interior modelled on the inside of a chandelier, with a roof-top pool bar where we were turned away as Karl had no collar. Next door was the skyline of the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty at the casino 'New York, New York'. A volcano erupted hourly over the lake at Mirage, and replica pirate ships lay in a moat before Treasure Island. Here we joined crowds to watch a free show involving sequinned dancers, crude innuendos, cannonballs firing real flames, and concluding with the sinking of a life sized pirate ship as dancers somersaulted into the water from the rigging! I was most impressed by the dancing fountains of Bellagio, cannons of water shooting high into the sky or swirling in circles of mist, set to music in a light and water show more impressive than any firework display. Then there was the digital overhead light show of the Fremont Street experience, where waves of fluorescent colours spread across the ceiling, pulsating to a rock soundtrack like a giant screen-saver gone mad. It's all pretty garish, but you can't help being mesmerised.

How did we end up in Venice?!
We didn't gamble, neither of us has a clue how, but watched the blackjack tables, peering into the 'high limit' rooms and wondering at how much money was changing hands between the suited, poker faced, Chinese businessmen and women. Finally, at 2am on our last night there, we had the surreal experience of wandering along the Grand Canal of Venice and sitting in St Marco's Square under a soft dawn sky- the swimming pool-turquoise of the canal the only obvious sign of pretence.Vegas clearly wasn't our scene, but it was unmissable. After 2 days, it was with some relief we left the traffic of the city and drove to where the desert rises into mountains, folded into striped layers of toffee coloured rock, entering Utah under darkening skies.

Swimming in The Subway
Zion National Park initially looked like a sunburned version of Yosemite, striking red cliffs rising above the green valley. For 2 days we explored water filled canyons, narrowing and deepening as they twist through the rock. The 'Subway', so named because of it's fantastically rounded shape in one section where it almost tunnels through the rock, made for a brilliant day. Starting off in a relatively wide valley with a picturesque river running through it, the canyon became more and more dramatic as we climbed over waterfalls and eventually entered a log jammed slot canyon, ducking under chock stones and swimming through dark brown plunge pools. All the time these huge red cliffs tower above, sometimes blocking out the sun entirely while in other places it streams through to fall as a shaft on the sandy floor. We couldn't stop grinning as we scrambled up as far as we could, fully clothed but soaking wet, experiencing swimming in hiking boots for the first time. The Narrows, the following day, is a much more well known day trip but still spectacular. This route involves wading or swimming in the river almost all day long and is surprisingly popular, given that most people visiting national parks don't seem to like to get their feet wet. Initially people start off trying to stay on the banks of the river, but by the end everyone is swimming.

The Narrows get narrow

Hoodoos of Bryce at sunrise
From Zion a dramatic drive took us out of the red mountains and to the unique environment of Bryce Canyon. Here, pine trees fall away to cliffs eroded into turreted pinnacles called hoodoos, dropping to the bottom of the escarpment. The hoodoos' orange tips fade to pinks and whites in stripes across the landscape. The effect is otherworldly - these huge pinnacles like giant stalacmites resemble well dribbled candles, sometimes joined together into fairy tale castles. The contrast of the dark green pines against the candied tones of the rock is quite beautiful, especially after rain when it's bright, fresh and gleaming. The view from the rim is bewitching, but better still is to walk along the paths that wind between the towers. In our travels, we've never seen anywhere quite like it.

Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado river
Leaving Bryce, our plan at this stage was to spend a while exploring the slot canyons of Southern Utah. This is what had originally drawn me to the area, after seeing pictures in magazines of impossibly carved canyons and striped rocks curving in waves, but especially after watching the film '127 hours'. Unfortunately, a series of severe flash floods had wiped out most of the roads and filled many canyons with debris. Without a high clearance, four wheel drive car (the Lincoln didn't quite fit the bill) there was very little we could do here. Somewhere to come back to another year, with another vehicle. After walking in just one canyon, slipping in the slick layer of mud left by the most recent flood, we left for Arizona.

Wild camping doesn't get much better than this
The Grand Canyon comes with so much hype you feel like you already know exactly what it's going to be like. We were keen to find a way to experience it without the crowds, and had a tip off about a wonderfully isolated spot on the North Rim, far from the viewpoints and visitor centres of the much more frequented South Rim. So we drove along 30 miles of a forestry track through pinderosa pines to reach Crazy Jug Point. Outside the national park and in national forest 'free camping' is not only allowed but encouraged by the helpful rangers who will point out good spots on the map, very handy for cheapskates like us who don't want to stay in serviced camp sites. It was an unbeatable place to spend a night, literally on the lip of the canyon. We had the view entirely to ourselves, watching both sunset and sunrise, and the storms that passed over the landscape miles away. A very memorable and highly recommended place to experience this awe inspiring landscape.

Down into the canyon
We wanted to spend a night inside the canyon as well, and for this we needed a permit and to drive the 4 hours or so to the South Rim (it's only about 12 miles across but 220 miles around!). Here, we headed down into a different climate- from the cool of the forested North Rim at about 23'C, the canyon bottom was at a boiling 41'C. We set off down the South Kaibab trail after the heat of the day had passed, and all the other walkers had left. It was a spectacular walk, zigzagging around cliffs glowing in tones of orange, red and purple in the late afternoon light, down to the Colorado river. We arrived at the Bright Angel campsite just as night fell, and with the air still at 30'C, we lay on the pebbly bottom of a nearby stream, getting pushed around by the current, cooling off in the hot and humid night. There was no need for a tent here so we slept out on the sandy ground, and the next day ascended 1500 metres back up the rim. Joining the many others who stepped out of their cars to gather at a viewpoint for sunset that evening we were hot, sweaty and exhausted, but felt like we'd experienced the Grand Canyon from the best possible perspectives.

A classic canyon view
The next day we began our return journey to Orange County, stopping to slide down natural water chutes at Slide Rock state park, a busy but really fun picnic spot, and to window-shop for cowboy boots and hats in Prescott, Arizona. Our last day was spent in Joshua Tree national park, scrambling up boulders and walking through cactus gardens. It had been a very busy and extremely varied taster of the South West, and had only fuelled a desire to see more of this landscape, so different from the mountains where we normally spend our time. The Lincoln had survived, and once the sand and mud had been power-hosed away you'd never know the adventures it had been on, ready to return to the life as a 'town car' that it was intended for.

Cactus gardens of Joshua Tree