THE LAST POST! – Mounties Cut My Hair! (it must be nearly time to go home)…

In today’s post I want to talk about the important overlander subject of hairdressing and impart some of the lessons learned over our time on the road. Let’s be frank… getting your hair cut on the road is a bit like Russian Roulette only with the scissors.  You have sourced a local barbershop on Google or by chance.  ‘I’d like a number three round the back and sides and leave it a bit longer on the top. Oh! And comb it back.’  All very well at home but when you don’t even speak the same language in some hot, sweaty, backwater town then chaos of the coiffurous kind is sure to follow.  So here are a few brief tips and tales from my own experience…

  • Never, ever, let anyone cut your hair if they have the tip of their tongue sticking out the side of their mouth. Bit of a tricky one this, as generally the tongue will not protrude until they start the actual cut but it is a dead giveaway that they do not practice their profession that often.  I had this happen in a barbershop in Belfast when I went in for an emergency cut before a funeral.  Maybe I shouldn’t have ignored the signs when the old boy who ran the shop said ‘Oh goody! A customer!” when I entered his empty domain.  Result: my head garnered the appearance of a semi-shorn coconut and I got some funny looks at the funeral.
  • The worst haircut I ever had was in West Timor. Keen young lad in a wooden shack, the inside walls festooned with magazine tear-outs showing stylish men’s cuts but he had the proper chair, wash basin and all the scissors, combs and squirty things you expect to see in a hair-cutting establishment.  He spoke no English, nor I Bahasa, but once I was seated he produced a glossy magazine and showed me a photograph of a young African man with one of those high fade haircuts, where the back and sides of the head are totally shaven leaving a thick discus-shaped mat of hair up top like a flat wooly beer-mat.  Funnily enough I declined, at which point his broad grin faded as he commenced to give me the more traditional cut I asked for. He may as well have performed the exercise with a knife and fork and the result was what may well be termed an inverted ‘bird’s nest’ as there were tufts and bits sticking out all over the place.
  • Indians are the best barbers. They are lightening quick masters of the scissors and you’re no sooner in the chair than you’re out.  I had several haircuts on this trip by Indian barbers, both in India and in Malaysia and they had me looking like some slick Tom Cruise… well for a day or so anyway.
  • The difference between a good haircut and a bad one?… About two weeks as that’s how long it takes my bonce to sprout once more into it’s usual unruly mop.

We are now into the twilight days of our travels.  The reason for the latest haircut was that I have been job hunting to secure some meaningful employment once we return home. My efforts had been rewarded with a series of Skype-video interviews with a number of firms in various locations in Europe to be conducted from quiet spots in campgrounds at ungodly hours of the morning.  I had a second interview with a firm in Bremen, Germany, back at Martina’s Air B&B in Great Village and figured I could make myself as presentable as possible in three-year old clothing that has been around the globe but I definitely needed to do something with the hair. From our campsite in Dartford, near Halifax, I Googled for ‘local barbers’ and found a place, not far from the site, called ‘Thorntons 56 Barbershop’.  I called; he had an appointment free that afternoon, so I whizzed round to the address only to find myself in a leafy suburb lined with rather splendid houses.  I pulled up at the immaculately lawned address and there on the wall by the front door was a stripy barbershop pole confirming I was indeed at the correct place. And so I met Greg who led me down to his basement, converted into an old-time barbershop.  I took my seat, my eyes drawn to shelves festooned with ranks of brightly labeled pomades, powders and hair tonics and in the ensuing conversation from the chair I learned that these were all natural products, imported from Holland.  Greg was a retired member of the RCMP – the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  He had been cutting hair as a hobby since he was 16-years old and since retirement he’d opened up this little shop at home… When you set out on an extended journey such as ours, you naturally think of all sorts of things that might happen to you while you are on the road.  But never in my wildest imaginings could I have foreseen that I would sit down one day to have my hair cut by a Mountie!  And what a pro!  One of the best haircuts ever along with a fair bit of chair chat and banter as I learned about his life as a cop in exchange for a few fables from the road.

From Halifax we completed our tour of Nova Scotia by riding across the peninsular to the northern shore, where a delightful day threaded us through the beautiful Annapolis Valley.  Great motorcycling as late summer sunlight splintered through the tree canopy, dappling the empty road as our two trusty mounts purred along towards our destination; Yarmouth at the west end of the peninsular.  Another day’s ride completed our lap of Nova Scotia as we rode along the Atlantic Coast to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Lunenberg.  Looking at the map of Nova Scotia you would expect this route to be spectacular as it chases a littoral infused with bays, creeks and inlets but the tree-lined road was set well back from the sea offering views of pretty much bugger all for most of the day.  The saving grace was a few days spent mooching the streets of lovely Lunenberg with its chorus of colonial streets lined with pretty dwellings in primary and pastel colours and the odd magnificent church dotted here and there. A place to wander the waterfront and take in the fishing boats, expensive yachts and the splendid four-masted sailing ships all lined up in their snug berths.

With our days on the road well and truly numbered, we packed up in the knowledge that everyday from here on in would be taking us back towards Toronto and the end of it all.  A final detour took us out to Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province some 140-miles long by around 40 miles wide.  There are two points of access to the island; a ferry at the south/east end and an eight-mile long bridge at the north/west end.  It is free either way to get over to the island; you only pay when you leave. We should have paid closer attention to the road map which looks like a piece of graph paper overlaid on the island outline, denoting a flat, featureless place, with boring, yawn-inducing, straight roads cutting a grid through mostly pastoral lands full of potato and onion crops (PEI grows around 25% of all Canada’s potato crop. Charlottetown, the capital was a pretty place with a claim to fame as the birthplace of Canadian Federation in 1864. A storyboard by the waterfront told how a meeting was initially set up by the provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia to create a Maritime federation. Representatives from the other provinces heard about it and decided to send their own representatives but unfortunately the timing coincided with the arrival of a large circus in town that had already taken up every available hotel and accommodation.  The Canadian provinces arrived on board the SS Queen Victoriawhere lavish entertainment was laid on for everyone at the conference; the drink flowed and some excellent fare appeared on the tables.  Everyone had such a good time that they thought “Hey! why not make it a Canada-wide federation?”  How lovely that the notion of nationhood should be born over a few wee drinks!

In Charlottetown we were flooded out of our tent courtesy of a biblical deluge of Atlantic rain that fortunately only lasted for one day. Compensation followed on the following day with a beautiful beach walk up at Greenwich on the north coast.  Then it was time to leave the island via that 8-mile long Confederation Bridge, which in winter is the longest bridge in the world to span a frozen river.  Back in New Brunswick we had a serene day at Hopewell Rocks on the Bay of Fundy witnessing the highest tides on the planet.  Arriving in early morning we saw the rocks at high tide at around 10:30 am.  Then over the course of the day some 160-billion tonnes of water ebbs and flows mixing with silt from mudflats in the bay to create a huge chocolate coloured river.  By 4pm the tide had dropped by some 46-feet (14 metres) to low-tide allowing us to stroll along a series of little beaches populated by huge flowerpot stacks of brown rock, all topped with a bad haircut of scrubby pine trees.

The weather held good for us as we left New Brunswick, chasing the St John River on more of Canada’s great motorcycling roads.  We made it back into Quebec Province for a relaxing day at the pretty St Lawrence-side town of Trois Pistoles before taking another ferry to cross the mighty river for a short ride to a campsite called ‘Paradis Marin’.  A number of Québécois had recommended we stop at this riverside stop to see whales and dolphins off the rocks and it didn’t disappoint.  The north shore of the St Lawrence was magnificent and had us wishing for a little more time so we could fully explore it but the top half of our three year hour-glass was sadly almost empty and we had to press on towards the end.

A series of rides through Quebec to Montreal led us back into Ontario. When we arrived in Canada we were kindly hosted by Jeff and Lois at Kelowna and now our last couple of stops were with Frank and Sonia (the lovely overlander crowd we met at Meat Cove in Nova Scotia) in their beautiful home at Rigaud, last stop in Quebec and then Judy and Joseph up in Barrie Ontario, another couple of motorcyclists who had been tracking our progress online and had kindly offered us a bed and a dinner. We couldn’t think of a finer way to end our days on the road than in such splendid company.

The final 100km ride in glowing autumn sunshine dropped us down into Mississauga and the end of the road.  This busy city near Toronto was convenient to the airport, where the bikes would be flown home with Air Canada to Heathrow followed by us a day later.  We stayed in a delightful Air BnB run by Fernando, a charming Portuguese guy who had a condo in a new-build high-rise offering splendid views over Toronto and the full run of his apartment and kitchen.  We cleaned the bikes one last time and handed them over to the excellent care of Air Canada Cargo.  Next morning they were gone, flown home to London.  The trip was over.

1165 days on the road – just over three years and two months since we closed the back door in our house in Stevenage and set off to points south and east. 51,000 miles through twenty-five very different countries later and we are heading home!  Our bikes, that pair of yellow BMW F650GS, 2002 models, have been simply magnificent. Both have clocked up around 115,000 miles now and have carried us safely around the world with only the occasional murmur.

These days on our round the world trip have been some of the best times of our lives and we return home richer in spirit, feeling fulfilled and grateful that we have had the opportunity to see so much of our lovely planet and the wonderful people and animals who inhabit it. It’s been a ride! It’s been a blast! So thank you to the cast of millions who aided and abetted, egged-on and encouraged us along the way!

Everyone from family, friends and the faithful who followed every blog to the just plain curious who approached us at every stop to enquire what we were doing and then wished us well for the onward journey.

Thank you too to everyone who opened their doors and put a roof over our heads, inviting us to share their little paradises. To the hotel staff and campground hosts who hosted us along the way, to the gas-station attendants ferrymen and shippers who kept us moving in the right direction, to the waiters and cooks who fed us, to the mechanics and fellow bikers who pulled us out of trouble when we needed help; THANK YOU ALL!

Before I go I’d like to leave you with one final story…  You have read in these pages of our wanderings around the globe.  Hopefully you have been entertained and perhaps you are a little in awe of our achievement, but whatever we do in the world of mankind, it is nothing compared to what goes on in the natural world.  Take the story of a little bird we came across in New Brunswick; the Semipalmated Sandpiper. These tiny little waders breed in Alaska and, unusually in the world of birds, they abandon their chicks within a few weeks of hatching to fly south for the winter to South America. At the point of departure, the chicks are still are unable to fly and are simply abandoned to roam their grassy Tundra nest sites.  The parents first fly south to Hopewell Rocks on the Bay of Fundy where those nutrient rich chocolate waters and mud flats make ideal breeding grounds for all manner of tiny crustaceans.  The Sandpipers stop off for a good feed here, doubling their body mass in two weeks, before continuing on to the coast of Suriname off South America.  They fly by a direct route over the Atlantic Ocean covering some 2500 miles (4000 kilometers) in less than 60 hours! In spring, they return to the breeding grounds in Alaska to start the entire cycle again.  Even more incredible is the story of the abandoned chicks who, having taught themselves how to fly, now set off south to meet their returning parents at the Bay of Fundy.

If you enjoyed following our progress as we chased our dreams around the planet, then the one thing we would hope for is that we have inspired you to do the same; to get out there and pursue your own dreams, whatever they may be. As the old cliché says “Life is not a dress-rehearsal”.  So we head home now to start the next chapter in our lives and as one adventure ends so a new one begins… Watch this space…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: The Last Post: Leaving Canada


Double Disaster in Halifax!

From Quebec we set out for a rather pretty ride along the southern shore of the mighty St Lawrence River, one of the world’s great maritime thoroughfares.  The Tourist information services in Canada provide excellent local maps and Quebec Province was exceptional in that it had special itineraries for motorcyclists with recommended places to visit and stay along the way.  The roads we followed today were part of the Route des Navigateursand the pretty villages harked back to Northern France with a distinct Breton / Norman feel and charm, as that was where the original settlers in these parts mostly came from.

Soon we were passing into the Maritimes; the Canadian Provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.  When North America was colonised by the Europeans, this part was mainly settled by the French and was known as Acadia.  When France surrendered her North American colonies to Britain (see last post) the inhabitants suddenly found themselves subjects of the King of England.  A few years later when war once again broke out between France and England the British authorities, anxious about so many Acadians living in their colony, imposed an oath of allegiance to the crown.  The Acadians refused, whereupon the decision was made to evict them by force if necessary and a new wave of immigrants arrived from Scotland, England and Ireland.  The Acadians were subsequently uprooted and either sent home to France or shipped off to French possessions in the Caribbean and Louisiana, this latter displacement giving rise to the term ‘Cajun’ – a local corruption of ‘Acadian’.  The move proved not to be permanent and when a few years later peace was resumed between France and England, many families returned to the Maritimes and their descendants live there today.

Our introduction to the Maritimes was the coast road through New Brunswick to reach Nova Scotia, known as the Route des Acadians.  There was little to detain us here and we were keen to get up to explore Cape Breton Island, home to a famous route known as the Cabot Trail.  As a change from camping we booked a one-night stop at an Air B&B at a small place called ‘Great Village’ near Truro where our hostess Martina, a lovely lady and fellow traveller, gave us free rein over kitchen and house.  With fellow guests, Christin and Martin from Berlin and gorgeous Labrador doggies Kiwi and Mango, we spent a memorable evening sat in the garden talking about respective travels and life on the road. Martina’s place proved to be a great little traveller’s nook and a place we vowed to return.

Cape Breton Island marks the northernmost extremities of Nova Scotia and two things drew us there…  First was Louisbourg, site of a vast French fortification that in its day defended the approaches to the St Lawrence and access to the colonial hub of Quebec. Then there was that Cabot Trail – a couple of hundred miles circuit around the northern headlands of these beautiful islands that promised some great motorcycling in the sunshine.  We crossed to Cape Breton from the mainland via the Canso Causeway and set up a base camp at Bras d’Or riding part of the beautiful Cabot Trail to get there.  A short ride next day took us to see Louisbourg…

In the early 1700’s, the British held Newfoundland to the north of the St. Lawrence and New England to the south like two gigantic pincers poised to cut the lifeline between New France and the mother country. In between the French held Cape Breton Island where they built an enormous fortress at Louisbourg to guard the seaward approach to the St Lawrence. The new fortress was named in honor of Louis XIV, who was determined to expand the settlements in Acadia and was built in the classical ‘star-shape’ design by Vauban, the most famous military designer and engineer of the age.  Comprising stone walls ten-feet thick and thirty-feet high the impregnable fortification was surrounded by a moat eighty-feet wide with embrasures for nearly 150 cannons.  In its day it was the mightiest fortification in all of North America and believed to be impregnable.

The site was impressive; a spit of land guarding a vast natural anchorage that could shelter the largest of fleets in the world at that time making a perfect base for any French foray against the British New World colonies.  By the 1740s, Louisbourg was a garrison town of some 4,000 inhabitants yet, for all its imposing bulk and enormous cost, the French lost interest in cultivating or developing the area. The population consisted largely of fishermen, garrison soldiers and their families, and smugglers who preyed on New England shipping making it a bit of a pirate haven.  In 1744 Britain and France were once again at war and the governor of Louisbourg, Jean-Baptiste-Louis Duquesnel, launched pre-emptive strikes against British settlements in Nova Scotia.  In response, a rag-tag army of New England colonists set forth from Boston to confront the mighty fortress.  Like Singapore in the twentieth century, the defenders expected an assault to come from the sea and were somewhat alarmed when the colonists failed to oblige, instead landing along the coast and soon commanding higher ground that overlooked the fortress.  Having captured outlying batteries, they turned these fearsome weapons against their previous owners who were by now besieged.  In a short time the French struck their colours, surrendering the fortress.  They did gain terms agreed to march out with arms intact but regardless, this was a disaster for France and a spectacular triumph for the new American colonies.

Then in 1748 a European peace accord gave the fortress back to France in exchange for Madras in India!  A few years later it was back to war and Louisbourg was an obvious key target in British strategy.  This time it was British regulars led by a cautious but brilliant general named Amherst.  Tactics employed were a repeat of the American success and were executed by a striking young officer named Wolfe who would later take Quebec to end for all time French ambitions in the far north.  The strike was bold and audacious but once the British were ashore there was only one outcome – another inglorious, but this time final, surrender. It was a tremendous victory in its day. Captured French flags were taken to London and hung in St. Paul’s Cathedral and Prime Minister Pitt had a special Louisbourg medal struck for the victorious soldiers.  In America the colonies celebrated with firework displays and celebrations on the streets.  Following this second defeat, the fortifications were systematically destroyed by British engineers in 1760 to prevent the town and port from being used in the future by the French, should any peace process return Cape Breton Island to France.

In the early 1960’s the Canadian Government undertook a reconstruction of one quarter of the town and fortifications to recreate 1740s Louisbourg. As with Fort William in my previous blog, visiting Louisbourg is a step back in history brought to life by re-enactors in period dress representing everything from ordinary townsfolk to garrison marines with vivid displays relating the story of life in the fortress all those years ago and also the story of its reconstruction.  We spent a beautiful day wandering the streets within the fortress walls, watching demonstrations of musketry and artillery shoots by the re-enactors.  A ‘thief’ was brought forth and taken to the town stocks for ridicule and public punishment and it all made for great entertainment.

We learned how life in the army at that time was harsh and severe. Tempted by the promise of guaranteed salary and gain in the New World, recruits soon learned upon arrival that from these salaries they had to pay for their food and upkeep so the only way to live was to borrow from their officers, a regime that was nothing short of slavery.  Small wonder that morale was low and, when the time came to fight, these men were not so keen to give up their lives.  We had a fabulous day here but I felt that the museum, such as it is, was missing one vital piece; there was absolutely nothing about the decline and fall of the fortress, merely a one-line mention that it succumbed to two sieges.  The stories of these battles make for tremendous reading for anyone with any sort of interest in military history, yet it was all simply ignored.  Political correctness? I don’t know, but the story is a vital piece of North American history showing how not only how the French lost North America but also highlighting the increasing independence and prowess of the British colonists there.

In the last post I mentioned how a motorcycle breakdown gained us a recommendation to visit a place called Meat Cove up north on the Cabot Trail and this was our next destination.  Yet another tale of misfortune on the road leading to treasured recommendation and insight into one of the most beautiful places in all of Canada.  A short slalom of a gravel road led us along cliff tops offering dramatic panoramas out over the sea, before dropping us into the cove and out again climbing to the campsite where we pitched our tent right on the cliff edge to look back on that most beautiful scenery.  Meat Cove was named by early European settlers who found a plentiful abundance of moose, bear and deer in the area, yet they came primarily for the animal hides and antlers rather than the meat, which was discarded to give the cove its name.  Our neighbours were a friendly entourage of Quebecois 4WD owners who, after we had a curious mooch around their rigs, were soon sharing wine and campfires for a cosy evening in this wild and rugged place.  Thanks to Frank, Max, Pierre and their friends and families for a memorable evening.

We rode the Cabot Trail south now, down to Cheticamp, the local Acadian pronunciation ‘shittycamp’ raising a schoolboy snigger or two.  It was a glorious diddly-dee dragon’s tail of a road that zigzagged left and right, up and down, roller-coastering alongside a jeweled sea that stretched off to someplace over the horizon.  One of those roads to slap a grin on your chops especially as this beautiful weather continued. These Cape Breton Islands are deeply infused with Celtic tradition be it Breton or Scots-Irish and we continued on down the St Lawrence coast following the Ceilidh Trail.  Back over that Canso Causeway and then chasing Nova Scotia’s wild Atlantic coast all the way to Halifax and one of the worlds great ports.

Halifax was famous during the two world wars as the North American point of departure for the many convoys that kept Britain alive during dark times and a walk along the waterfront allowed us to visit memorials to the fallen in both the Canadian Navy and Merchant Navy from those times. It was also the scene of two famous maritime disasters, happening within a few years of each other in the early twentieth century.  First was the loss of the Titanic, built in our hometown of Belfast.  The ship sank a few hundred miles off the Newfoundland coast and once the magnitude of the disaster became known a small fleet of vessels set sail from Halifax to help recover any possible survivors.  From the two and a half thousand souls who set sail, over 1500 would perish and when the ships from arrived the survivors had already been picked up by the Carpathia who was in the vicinity when Titanic sank.  All that was left was to collect the bodies floating in their life jackets in that cold, cold sea.  The ships knew this and carried a consignment of coffins and pig iron to weigh down some who would be buried at sea in a canvas shroud.

Standing on the waterfront one could imagine the awful scene in 1912 as the Halifax ships returned to port to discharged this dreadful cargo of corpses. The bodies were taken to the local ice-rink, which was used as a morgue.  The Coroner John Henry Barnstead, implemented a system for each body allocating a unique number, an ID card that noted any distinguishing marks and finally a little cotton bag to contain any personal effects found on the bodies. Over the years this system has been used to identify victims from these remnants.  The dead are all buried in Halifax and we visited two of the cemeteries Mount Olivet, were Catholics were interred and Fairview Lawn where the Protestants lie.  It was a moving experience and we spent a few hours reading some of the stories of the dead. Like Body number 12 – unknown female. A box of pills were found on her body, traced to a pharmacy in Ireland and so the identity of Margaret Rice was revealed.  She was a widow returning to the US with her 5 sons aged two to ten years old.  All of the children perished.  Most harrowing was the story of a two-year-old boy, who for years was simply unknown.  When no one came forward to claim the little body, the crew of the ship that found him, the Mackay-Bennett, took care of the funeral arrangements and paid for a tombstone.  Initially it was believed that the child was possibly of Swedish descent but in 2010, 95 years after the disaster, DNA testing was able to identify the child as Sidney Goodwin from Wiltshire.

A few years later in 1917, Halifax was scene of another disaster when a seemingly innocuous collision between two merchant ships in the harbour resulted in the largest man-made explosion on the planet up until the dropping of the Atomic bombs in 1945.  Early on the morning of 6thDecember the Norwegian vessel SS Imo, a charity ship carrying relief supplies for Belgian refugees collided a French cargo ship SS Mont-Blanc, an old ship loaded to the gunwales with high explosives, in an area known as ‘the Narrows’, a strait connecting the upper Halifax Harbour to Bedford Basin.  The collision wasn’t that remarkable until a consequent fire on board the French ship ignited her cargo, causing a large explosion that devastated Halifax. Over 1600 buildings were destroyed and approximately 2,000 people were killed with an estimated 9,000 others injured by the blast, which contained the equivalent energy of roughly 2.9 kilotons of TNT.  And so Halifax faced yet another massive morbid clean up operation with the coroner Arthur S. Barnstead employing the same system used by his father to identify the victims on Titanic.  A visit to the Maritime Museum was well worthwhile as it contains the stories of this double disaster and many artifacts from those terrible times including some of the little cotton bags with body ID cards and personal effects from the victims.

From our base at the campsite in Dartmouth, across the river from Halifax, we explored more of this beautiful coastline including a day out to the spectacular Peggy’s Cove and one of the most picturesque villages in all of Canada. Sited amongst a huge glacial boulder field that runs off into the ocean the little fishing village has a smattering of quaint fishermen’s dwellings that run down to the sea where there is an equally pretty lighthouse standing guardian over the rocky shores.  We sampled lobster rolls and scrambled along the rocky shoreline before retuning to our mounts to be chased home by a wicked (but thankfully rare) rainstorm.

Nova Scotia has been magnificent but the grains that run through the sandglass of our days on the road are now down to a fine trickle, as our September finale looms ever nearer.  There is a little more of Nova Scotia to see and then Prince Edward Island before we really do head for home, but there are still one or two marvels to enjoy before that sad time comes…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Nova Scotia


Bonjour-Hi! (from Quebec)

Thunder Bay marked our arrival at the Great Lakes.  In the next week or so we would skirt the Canadian shores of both Lake Superior and Lake Huron, vast stretches of water that ran off south to the US.  These lands brought us into areas that were hotly disputed between France and Britain for most of the 18thcentury as both colonies stretched further from their east-coast landing sites and on into the American continent.  The reconstructed Fort William in Thunder Bay was a great place to soak in some period atmosphere of life on the frontier. French Voyageursjourneyed for months on end into the wilds of the west to trade baubles for beaver fur, which was in huge demand in Europe where it was used to make felt for the hat trade.  At the end of each foray into the wilds, they met traders from the east and bartered their goods in the fort, which became a huge caravanserai, an event known as the Rendezvous.  For a few weeks, the place turned into one big party town as deals were made and folk let off steam after their sojourns in the wilderness. Fort William was an outpost of the North West Company whose rivals, the Hudson’s Bay Company had an outpost not far away at Red River that threatened the livelihood of the Nor’Westers.

On arriving at the fort, a couple in period dress met us at the gate and enquired as to what year it was?  When we said “2018…?”, we were assured that we were indeed mistaken as it is in fact 1816. So began a day of reenactment of events centred round a recent battle whereby the Hudson’s Bay Red River colony had been attacked and the Battle of Seven Oaks fought.  The Nor’Westers included a lot of Metis, descendants of early French settlers who had intermarried with local tribes to the extent that they are recognised as one of the three indigenous peoples in Canada today (the others being the Inuit and the First Nation tribes like the Hurons, Iroquois etc).  We met some of them and other characters from the period as we walked around the Fort, where all the talk was of the recent battle and the likely consequences.  Although victorious at the battle, the North West Company was soon subsumed into the larger Hudson’s Bay group, who would become the world’s largest landowner holding over 15% of the entire North American continent.  They still trade today in Canada as a chain of department stores.

The Fort William experience was very well done and made for an entertaining and informative day out.  In contrast our ride on to the east continued as a monotone stretch of tree-lined road with very little of interest to see and with around a thousand miles left to ride until we reached Ottawa. Even the Great Lakes offered disappointing vistas with nary a Corniche or Riviera in sight, just blast-along straight roads through more trees that went on forever. Riding along, I passed some of the time speculating that the natives probably had thousands of words for describing trees, like the Inuit have for types of snow.  The weather was mostly kind with long sunny days.  We had one day of foul weather when we ran into a huge storm cell that spewed forth a rightful deluge that flooded the road and had us scuttling for an early halt into the comfort of a motel room.  After three years on the road our waterproof clothing is more Andrex than Goretex having long ago given up any interest in water repellence and we approached the receptionist like a pair of drowned rats, sodden to the skin and dripping little puddles all over her nice clean foyer.  Good old Canadian hospitality ignored our sorry state and welcomed us with a smile, a hot coffee and a nice clean room that we soon turned into a Chinese laundry to get everything dry.

The ennui of the trans-Canadian haul was enlivened the following day by a sick bike.  We left the motel under clear skies and set off to ride to Sault Sainte Marie on Lake Huron.  After about 80 miles we refueled and, on setting back out on the road, Maggie’s bike started surging and stalling.  We immediately suspected dodgy petrol, or perhaps water in the petrol from yesterday’s downpour, although it was strange that my bike was unaffected.  We limped about 100 miles to a place called Wawa, where we topped off the tank with a higher-grade fuel. Thinking our problem was now sorted, the bike stalled again outside of town and this time she just plain refused to start.  I rode off to book into a campsite a few miles down the road and Maggie waited…  A lovely guy called Steve showed up on a KLR 650 and gave her a fuel additive to displace any water as he’d had a similar problem once before.  I returned in time to thank him and loaded all the kit off Maggie’s bike onto my own to get us to the campsite (this meeting would have a beautiful consequence as Steve insisted that when we get to Nova Scotia we must head to a place called Meat Cove and camp on the cliff-tops there, but more on that next time…).  Now we were faced with a sick-bike haul & push for a couple of miles to reach the campsite.  There was a big downhill section that I reckoned would cover half the distance but for the rest it was looking like time to get sweaty… In desperation I tried the bike one more time; she suddenly fired up, so I quickly jumped aboard and rode her coughing and spluttering all the way to the site. Anticipating a head-scratching afternoon stripping down fuel injectors and cleaning out fuel lines, I was delighted to quickly discover a broken side-stand switch, the cause of all our grief!  The little locking tab had come undone and the switch was making an intermittent contact, causing the bike to surge and stall; a quick fix and a huge relief that it wasn’t something more serious.

And so we finally made it into Ottawa, the Canadian capital city.   Not a place I knew a lot about but I suspected it was one of those made up capitals, like Canberra in Australia – put in some neutral middle ground between English Toronto and French Quebec.  So, entering with minimal expectations and looking to pass on through after a day or so, we found a delightful, stylish city in a beautiful location at the confluence of two major rivers.  The site of the Canadian capital was selected by Queen Victoria who, looking at a map of the area, plonked her finger at an obscure spot on the map, picking a small lumber town in the middle of nowhere and said ‘Jasus Albert, sure thon spot there’ll do nicely’ (or she would have said, had she been Irish).  There was a massive disagreement by local politicians and the Governor General wrote that he was being exiled to the wilderness.  But the Queen’s mind was made up and was not for negotiation and soon a massive city grew up on the site, which turned out to be an ideal location.

On a quiet Sunday we parked up the bikes in downtown to stroll around the tomb of the unknown warrior, the Parliament buildings and through the city into the Byward Market area, a bustling, bubbling mix of art, craft and veggie marketstalls.  The greeting in the shops and stalls was a lovely lilting ‘Bonjour-Hi!” denoting that this is the capital of a country that speaks two major languages.  The World Cup Final was on; France v’s Croatia (the games showed live here during the late-morning / early afternoon) and a festoon of tricolours showed the local sympathy and jazzed up the place even more.  We spent another day in Ottawa at the splendid Canadian Museum of History, where we learned the story of Canada from the early beginnings of the First Nation people, the arrival of the Europeans, the war between the British and the French for North America and the subsequent history of the provinces that make up Canada as we know it today including the more recent attempts of the Québécois to secede from the nation, which fortunately for Canada were unsuccessful.

The strife between the British and French in North America is an interesting story.  Both countries established colonies in the New World, the French around Quebec and the British in New England.  The French were mainly content to send explorers out into the wilds, the Voyageurs, with an emphasis on trade and barter for the lucrative furs for markets back home while the British went more or less straight into land clearance and settlement but with everyone pushing west all the while.  By the latter part of the 18thCentury the French were moving down the great rivers into the American hinterlands and, realising the need to stop British expansion to the west, planned to build a series of fortress / trading posts down the rivers, essentially fencing off any further British forays across the continent.  That, plus the eternal conflict between the two nations at home, spilled into war, which the French ultimately lost when General Wolfe captured their colonial capital at Quebec in 1757.  The struggle for North America ended formally at the Treaty of Paris on November 3rd, 1762 whereby France agreed to surrender Canada and all of its former North American territories east of the Mississippi River to Britain, except New Orleans. France also regained most of the sugar islands in the Caribbean that had been seized by Britain during the war.

The French colonists had remained staunchly loyal to France, merely seeing themselves as Frenchmen on trading missions overseas whereas the British colonists, by the virtue that they were clearing lands for new settlement, soon began to see themselves as ‘Americans’ and started demanding more control of their lives from London’s interference and taxation.  Of course it all led to revolution and independence, the Americans aided and abetted by French ships and troops keen for revenge after their recent reversals on the continent.  These plans soon backfired as the victorious French troops returned home after the USA was birthed, imbued with the fervour of liberté et égalité and the French Revolution was born, resulting in the downfall of the monarchy.

From Ottawa, a day’s ride took us on into Quebec province, where we took a little river ferry from Hudson to Oka and moved from New World America to Old World France, the houses in Oka having a decidedly northern French style to them.  It didn’t last too long as we were soon on a superfast highway that dropped us right into the vast metropolis of Montreal.  The GPS decided that the fastest route was straight through the maelstrom of motorways that slice and dice the city, which of course was anything but fast and more of a slow crawl through a shock of traffic on mangled road surfaces to boot. But the reward at the end of the day was a great little roost called ‘Camping De la Joie’ just outside Quebec City.

The campsite ran a shuttle service into town so we had a beautiful day strolling inside the walls of old Quebec, a myriad of narrow cobblestone streets lined with houses and dwellings all with a decidedly Gallic façade.  A boardwalk by the sumptuous Fairmont Chateau Hotel gave excellent views over the mighty St Lawrence River and our promenade was enlivened by colourful street entertainers and musicians.  We looked out over the Plains of Abraham, scene of Wolfe’s decisive battle and now a landscape garden.  We blew the expenses on a nice lunch sampling local Poutine, a dish of chipped potatoes and shredded duck served with cheese curds in a rich gravy sauce in a shady estaminet and all too soon it was time for the shuttle back to the campsite.  It felt like a day off the bikes, a mini-holiday full of culture in this most beautiful of North American cities.  For sure the days of our trip are now numbered but before it all ends there is one final area to explore; the Maritimes…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Bonjour, Hi!


Canadian Love Bite

I’m lying on the bed enjoying the soft cool evening breeze, the mistress elegantly poised on the pillow beside me eyeing me up for some fun.  Mags was off doing her yoga and I’d picked her up in a casual walk through the local park.  She is in a playful mood tonight with a gleam of something wicked in her eye.  She moves slightly to take me in her embrace, gently nuzzling up to my ear, teasing me with a line of ever so soft kisses.  Moving down to my neck she does her thing, humming sweetly as she sets to work…  Later, I walk into the room and Maggie is waiting for me.  “What on earth is that on your neck????” I reach to my neck and feel the lump; my first Canadian love-bite, round, red and swollen.   Bloody mosquitos!  To make matters worse our baggage arrived with Vancouver with a customs label telling us it had been opened for inspection and something called an ‘LAB’ removed & destroyed.  Well I now know that ‘LAB’ stands for ‘Lead-Acid-Battery’ and it took us a few days to realise what was missing; Mozgrim! Our mini, death-to-all-mosquitos, quest-weapon, electrocution-bat that we bought in Thailand and one of the best bits of travel kit ever!  It transformed the horror of being wakened in the night by the buzzing of a mozzie in your ear to sheer joy of hunting it down with a deadly weapon and the satisfying sizzle as the little swine gets fried.  Now we are about to traverse the vastness of Canada at the peak of the mosquito season and we are weaponless.

So here’s a wee game for you…  Take a glass of wine and set yourself down in a comfy chair, then throw the wine up in the air and try to catch it all back in the glass without spilling any of it over your lap…  We got to play this game involuntarily on the Air New Zealand flight from Auckland to Vancouver when our Boeing 777 hit a patch of ‘CAT’ (Clear-Air Turbulence).  We’d just eaten dinner and the crew came round with the wine refills.  We smiled like Cheshire cats and were just about to lick to top of the cream when the plane suddenly dropped from under us. This left the wine suspended in mid-air and us desperately trying to recapture it before it ended up all over the place.  The ‘fasten seat-belts’ sign pinged on and the aircrew hurriedly shuffled the food trolleys to a secure location as the plane took convulsions as we hit more air pockets.  To make matters worse, the airhostess who came on over the tannoy to explain what was happening sounded decidedly nervy and afraid!  I’d hate to have seen what it all looked like from the outside as the plane hit these evil elevators in the sky.  Luckily it only lasted about twenty minutes; twenty very silent minutes, when you could have heard a pin drop, as 300 passengers (and at least one airhostess) sweated the turbulence, trusting that the design engineers at Boeing had got their calculations correct and the plane would withstand this terrific buffeting.  On the plus side we managed to quaff the wine between plummets with very little spillage.

We landed in Vancouver before we took off, having departed Auckland at 8pm on Sunday evening and landed at 2pm earlier that same afternoon due to having crossed the International Date Line and gone back in time. Vancouver is one of those nodal cities that has featured prominently in our travels.  It was our first ever landfall on the North American landmass way back in 1992 when we flew a Honda Goldwing here from London and rode coast-to-coast via the Grand Canyon, flying home from Toronto. In 2006 it was the city where our Pan-American trip ended as we packed and shipped the two BMW’s home, having accomplished our ride from Chile to Alaska.  Now the same BMW’s would arrive from New Zealand and it would be the jump off for the last leg of our round-the-world trip.

We suffered some pretty bad jet lag for the first few days and luckily we hadn’t much to do, as the bikes were not due to arrive until later in the week.  We watched them on an online maritime tracker as they progressed from Auckland to Fiji, to Hawaii and now to Vancouver.  Having left New Zealand in the early days of the antipodean winter, it was a delight to land in spring with warmer temperatures and decent weather on the forecast.  You can imagine our delight when the single budget room we’d booked on Air BnB turned out to be a small apartment, complete with kitchen and access to laundry facilities, a real bonus on the road.  It was located in a tree-lined avenue off Victoria Drive in the east of the city, a mainly Chinese suburb full of friendly and very welcoming people. The main drag was lined with a superb selection of Asian grocery stores granting us access to a medley of amazing ingredients at what seemed ridiculously low prices after our stint in New Zealand, where we reckoned grocery shopping was about 20 – 30% more expensive than anywhere we’ve ever been.  We mooched the streets of Downtown and enjoyed revisiting the waterfront, and harbour areas.  It was a delight too to reacquaint ourselves with the culinary oasis that is Granville Market.  Good to catch up with a few friends too – Mike and Shannon Mills travelled up from Seattle to see us and we had a nice dinner with Taff Thatcher and his wife Sharon.

Sadly, on this visit we encountered a darker side to Vancouver. The No.20 bus into Downtown took us along a main east-west thoroughfare called Hastings Street, a place deserving the moniker of ‘Desolation Row’ if ever there was one.  Here the pavements were lined with the human detritus of Canadian society; homeless tramps, winos and beggars, druggies and down & outs… young and old, male and female all of them living on the street.  For several minutes we traversed through maybe a mile or more of scabrid ranks of these grey, rejected people.  We were stunned and shocked by the numbers, more than we have ever seen in one place in any city.  The bus fell silent as the procession continued on through to Downtown and back to the rest of the world.  These vignettes were complete with snapshots of action too… drugs being dealt; small coin exchanged for small wads of paper wrapped misery… people burning resinous substances on little pieces of foil for a fix… lost souls curled up in fetal positions or sat haunched on the pavement rocking back and forth, red-rimmed eyes glazed, fixed in chemically induced thousand-yard stares. Some help is there.  Along the phalanx of grimy facades, where every door and window was secured with metal bars and monster locks, we picked out missions, churches and charities trying to help but it looked like small lifeboat relief in an ocean of misery.  Chatting to locals it seemed like a repeat of an old story in Western Society these days with a mix of ludicrous property prices and rents in the city forcing young people onto the streets with no prospects and little hope. We learned too that the government has closed down institutions releasing inmates for a dose of ‘care in the community’, which mostly isn’t there but, hey-ho, someone has saved a few dollars.  The vulnerable fall prey to dealers in misery and places like Hasting Street surely thrive.  Then, only a few blocks away, we enter a glass and concrete jungle of swank high-rises in streets prowled by Lamborghinis and Ferraris and the other side of Vancouver. The imbalance is phenomenal to behold.

A major panic just before the bikes arrived!…  We checked in New Zealand before shipping and had lined up some motorcycle insurance cover for our time in Canada through a US based company called Dairyland who have been underwriting insurance policies for foreign travellers and their vehicles for years. We’ve all had a flurry of these emails over data protection and what information organisations hold about you, following new Euro GDPR legislation. It seems that Dairyland looked at their systems with respect to the legislation and decided that compliance was all too complicated so they simply pulled out of the market!  For two weeks we emailed, phoned and visited insurance companies but no one was interested unless we were US or Canadian residents.   Eventually we walked in to a local broker near the corner of the street where our Air BnB was located and a delightful lady called Prem sorted it all out for us, arranging BC registration and insurance cover for a reasonable price.

Then the bikes finally arrived, thankfully all in one piece and it was time to get back on the road…  We had already explored the west of Canada during our Pan-American trip (see so our plan was to head up to Whistler before heading across the mountains towards Banff and from there set off to cross the vast plains of Canada to reach the Great Lakes, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.  The road out from Vancouver to Whistler and beyond is known as the ‘Sea-to-Sky Highway’ and what a beautiful starter for any country as it hugs the Pacific coastline before turning into a twisting ramp, ascending some 1500m to Canadian Valhalla with lofty white peaks all around. While we were waiting we had two invites to stay with complete strangers on opposite sides of Canada.  Jeff and Lois Gunn live in Kelowna, BC and Judy Bull is in Barrie, Ontario and they have all been following our progress via the website and extended these rather kind invitations to sample some great Canadian hospitality.  Kelowna was on our way to Banff and we had a lovely weekend with Jeff and Lois, who took us to sample some of the local wineries in the Okanangan Valley.  They are simply keen travellers themselves and were happy to open their house to us for a night in exchange for a few tales from the road.

We spent a few days at beautiful Banff in the same Tunnel Mountain campsite we’d used on the Pan-American and we felt a moment of nostalgia as we crossed tracks with that previous journey. We hiked down into the Bow River valley, set in an amphitheatre of humungous granite walls, on a path that eventually threaded back around into town.  The landscape was so vast we felt like a pair of leprechauns entering an arena built for giants.  From Banff we left the mountains to start the ride across Canada on Highway 1, the Trans Canadian Highway.  We skirted Calgary, still up at 1000m altitude, so cool enough to warrant riding in all our cold climate clothing.  The plains slope down to around 200m as we reached the Great Lakes via one-night stops in Medicine Hat, Regina, Winnipeg and Thunder Bay.  The landscape varied between grassy fields and the odd yellow field of rapeseed, all of it flat and exceedingly monotonous. As we approached Winnipeg the weather livened things up in the form of vast thunder cells that draped across our horizon like a drab bullfighters cloak.  One minute we’d be charging straight for a great grey curtain of rain and the next the road would veer away and Olé!; we’d evade a good soaking only to turn back into it all 5 minutes later in a rather entertaining game of hide and seek.  We did escape the rain that day but the weather had its revenge early next morning.  4:30am… both of us fast asleep in the tent… two things happened within a split second of each other.  First someone sneaked into the tent and detonated an billion lumens of camera flash right into our eyes.  A split second later, there was a god-almighty thunderclap right over the tent that jolted us bolt upright with hearts racing as we’d no idea what had happened…  Then spit, splat, splosh as a deluge of a downpour commenced to the soundtrack and special effects of a most vicious thunder and lightning storm.

On the road to Thunder Bay we left the prairies and entered a smashed green landscape of pine forest and little Prussian Blue lakes that sparkled in the sun.  We stopped at a chip van in Kenora “World Famous since 1957” according to the sign. 1957 was probably the last time they changed the oil in their fryer, as the chips on offer were decidedly soggy and brown.  At Thunder Bay we finally reached Lake Superior and took a few days to explore the area.  We visited nearby Kakabeka Falls, a mighty deluge of clear brown water like the issue from a huge soda stream.  There is something serene and magical about the rush of a huge volume of water pouring out and over a precipice.  We read the legend of Greenmantle, daughter of a local Ojibwa Chief, much renowned for her beauty.  She was captured by rival Sioux Indians and taken off to their camp where she was forced to betray the location of her own tribe.  She offered to betray her people and led the Sioux in a surprise canoe raid down the Kaministiquia River.  Then as the Sioux readied for their attack, she sped off down the river.  Furious and angry they chased her only to paddle themselves into faster waters.  At the last minute Greenmantle averted her own canoe to the river bank and watched as the enemy raiders entered the falls…  She then ran to sound the alarm but the invaders were all but destroyed by the mighty cataract of the Kakabeka.  A footnote gave a different ending where Greenmantle herself was killed going over the falls although the outcome for the poor Sioux was just the same. Legend says her spirit can still be seen as a bright and beautiful rainbow at the lip of the falls, while down below in the violent maelstrom of churning waters, the death cries of the Sioux can be clearly heard.

For all the ennui of the roads in this part of the trip it has been magical. The Canadians are wonderful hosts and the daily routine of breaking camp, riding all day, finding a site for the next night and a warm and tasty supper to end the day has been a delight. I’ve been visited too by different mistresses every night… Occasionally just the one, but mostly in groups as they nibble and tease and leave me covered in lumps…  Canada Eh?

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Canadian Love Bite