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