This will be the last of my letters from the road. Thanks to all of you who have read them and responded. I should be seeing many of you before too long as I'll be flying back to Toronto on Monday. This letter is probably later than some of you had expected since I naively thought my travels here in Canada's west (I'm writing this from Calgary) would only be a minor addendum to my NZ account. Live and learn.
I last wrote you en route from Auckland to Wellington. I spent a couple more days than I had planned in Wellington waiting for the ferry to the South Island, but it was time well spent since, despite being the home of NZ's federal government, Wellington is an interesting city. Apart from being the political center of the country, it is also a thriving business and cultural center. Set around a harbour and ringed by steep hills I got lots of exercise walking around and up and down the city. The ferry ride down to the south island was scenic as we left Wellington's harbour and crossed the windy Cook Strait (seems Cap'n Cook got around: there's even a statue of him in Victoria, BC) and headed through the winding waterways of the Marlborough Sounds at the top of the South Island. (Joke: Australia is NZ's West Island.) For part of the way dolphins kept the ferry company. While in Welliington I had bought a pass with a company called "Kiwi Experience", essentially a tour bus for backpackers. According to Lonely Planet, "Kiwi Experience has a reputation for a party atmosphere with socialising based around the pub." My research bore this out. I jammed a lot into my two week trip around the South Island, so I hope that the language purists and English majors amongst you will forgive me if I use point instead of narrative form. We did a counter-clockwise loop of the island following the coast most of the way and going as far south as Queenstown, although I did a separate side-trip to Dunedin, on the south-east coast, to visit a classmate from boarding school in Pakistan. Here are the highlights:
Swimming with the dolphins was a great way to finish up my South Island trip. I'd recommend it as the best all-round backpacker's destination of my trip. From there it was back up to the North Island and a quick few days up the east and north coasts back to Auckland and the flight back to North America. Some quick highlights of that trip:
The flight up from LA to Vancouver was fantastic on a virtually cloudless day (until we reached Seattle, that is--no surprise really) so, having a window seat, I had great views of the snow capped Rockies. As usual, Canadian immigration gave me more trouble than any other country I've been to. Given the number of recent dope busts here lately I'd have thought that they'd be more concerned with drugs leaving BC than coming in. After that somewhat lukewarm welcome back to Canada, and in an effort to combat the initial "What country am I in again?" confusion, I went to Swiss Chalet for supper and washed it down with a coffee from Tim Horton's. Perhaps I could have chosen healthier fare, but none more quintessentially Canadian. As for Vancouver? Sure the ring of snow covered mountains surrounding the city is pretty but in my opinion they can't compete with the looming immediacy of Cape Town's Table Mountain. Anyway, I spent the better part of a week in Vancouver (and enjoyed Heino Promm's fantastic cooking), then several days on Vancouver Island, then since last Saturday I've been making my way overland eastwards, arriving here in Calgary from Banff yesterday. Here's a short summary of my goings on in Western Canada:
In Vancouver, I walked all the way around Stanley Park being overtaken by rollerbladers and cyclists. It's a big park. I probably would have been better off renting a bicycle. From the top of Grouse Moutain (the cable-car ride is a hefty $17.50) I got a great view of Vancouver and resolved to learn how to ski and snowboard.
Victoria is probably best summed up by a billboard I saw outside a hotel: "Night is for sleeping, Day is for resting". It's not exactly a hopping place, and hence appropriately the seat of the provincial government. Some have described it as a "walking cemetary", or as a German guy I met in Banff said, most of the inhabitants walk around "with sand in their pockets". Still, all the seniors who retire in Victoria are onto something since it's a very pleasant, walkable city. I rented a bicycle (at $19/day very good value) and rode around the city and along the scenic coastal drives. From Victoria I went on a scenic taxpayer-subsidized Via train ride halfway up the island to Courtenay where I stayed two nights with the couple, and their now disconcertingly older children, who were my houseparents in grade nine (and Ted's in grade seven). Apart from catching up with them and enjoying the antics of their nine three-month old German Shepherd pups, the highlight of Courtenay was undoubtedly watching--for free--a forty minute training session put on by the Canadian airforce's Snowbirds. It was a quite a show! The weather and setting were perfect: a warm, virtually cloudless day with the strait in front of us and snow capped mountains behind and dancing jets overhead and all around.
After taking the ferry from Nanaimo to Horse Shoe Bay and one more night in Vancouver I got on the bus for Hope, a small town a couple of hours east of Vancouver. Almost completely surrounded by mountains, Hope is the "Gateway to the Fraser" since it is at Hope that the Fraser River turns west to the sea. My hosts in Hope were the parents of a classmate of mine in Pakistan and he was Ted's grade six teacher. Hope is famous (?) for its carvings and its tunnels, part of a now abandoned railway line. If ever you find yourself in Hope, be sure to visit the tunnels since they're bored through the sides of a gorge down which a raging river runs. The combination makes for some gorgeous scenery.
After a night in Kelowna ("Canada's California" since it's relatively dry and mild and has lots of lakes) I arrived in Banff on Monday. Finally a scenic competitor worthy of Cape Town! Banff is everything they say it is, except at this time of year it's not too crowded. It's surrounded by steep, fir clad, snow capped, rock tipped mountains and a river, the Bow, runs through it. The quaint town itself is no doubt a shopper's paradise with upscale boutiques and decadent chocolate stores galore. Being by now more than ever interested in free activities I hiked up Sulphur Mountain, which overlooks the famous Banff Springs Hotel, with my German hostel roommate. It took us a good two hours. For our efforts we got a free gondola ride down to the bottom of mountain where we soaked sore muscles in the 39 degree C hot springs.
Here in Calgary I'm staying with friends of a friend of mine from Ottawa. Yesterday afternoon I was given a tour of the University of Calgary and the downtown area. Not much else to say about Calgary really... The weather is nice though: 18 degrees C and sunny. I notice that you folks in Toronto are enjoying overcast skies at 8 degrees today. I'll see if I can arrange to bring this weather with me on Monday.
Well, that about wraps up my round-the-world trip. Thanks to all kept in touch while I was away and prayed for safe travels. Obviously my travelogues can scarcely do justice to all the things that I saw so I'm planning on putting up my better pictures on the Web and will send you all the location once they're up.
Over and out.