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Archive for May, 2009

Here’s a screen grab from The Age web site today.

Is it any wonder we’re all depressed. My kingdom for a good news story!

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To recap, Part 1 saw Carol and me travel from Melbourne to Banff. Part 2 covered Banff to Calgary and has us in a cab to Calgary airport. The flight to Ottawa was uneventful although I get the feeling Air Canada saw us coming when we checked in. We got slugged $100 for excess baggage – the same bags with the same stuff in them that Qantas carried at no extra charge suddenly cost us $100. The stupid thing is, if we had the same weight in three bags, it wouldn’t have cost us anything. Go figure! Trying to cover the cost of workers’ compensation claims I guess.

On arrival in Ottawa, our dear friend Geoff was waiting for us at the airport and it was fantastic to see him again. The last time we had seen each other was in January 2003, when Geoff and his partner Dale had stayed with us down at Sorrento and back in Melbourne. Into the car and back to Geoff and Dale’s place, a fantastic rural property about 40 minutes from the centre of Ottawa. The last time I’d been there, probably 10 years earlier, it had been under feet of snow. What a contrast! The barbeque was soon cranked up and what a great night we had.

What a great property Dale & Geoff have. Set in amongst masses of trees, completely private. Lots of walking paths through the forests. The wildlife is amazing – so much more and different to what we’re used to in Australia. The chipmunks and humming birds were fascinating. The same humming bird family returns from Mexico every summer.

This part of the trip was intended to be a combination of relaxing and sightseeing. And relax we did. Certainly a large amount of quality food and alcohol was consumed. In terms of sightseeing, the first few days comprised a few day trips locally (have to say locally because I can’t remember their names), into Ottawa, to the Canadian Science & Technology Museum, the Canadian War Museum and to a lodge called Montebello, built completely from logs.

We were going to head off to Niagara Falls, something I’d been looking forward to for some time. It’s about a four hour drive (from memory) – not an insubstantial trip. I felt guilty about not getting my international driving licence before we left – Geoff certainly spent a fair chunk of time driving while we were staying with them. It would have been good to relieve him a bit.

To make the trip a bit easier, Geoff’s brother Ken loaned us his all singing all dancing four wheel drive truck / ute, and we went over to his place the night before we left to pick it up. This was where we met Rupert – what a laugh. We were all sitting out the back having a beer when a squirrel ran across the back yard. I’d seen plenty of squirrels on the early morning walks I’d been trying to do each day of the trip, but this was the first Carol had seen and she was quite surprised. When she commented, Ken as quick as a flash said “That’s Rupert, he’s our pet squirrel”. He then called out “Sit up Rupert” and absolutely on cue, Rupert sat up on his back legs. He then called out “Climb the tree Rupert” and again almost on cue, Rupert raced up one on of the trees. We all absolutely pissed ourselves laughing, including Carol thankfully. Thanks for the loan of the truck Ken.

We stayed at a place called Niagara On The Lake (henceforth referred to as NOTL). NOTL is the centre of the Canadian wine industry and is about 20 minutes from the very touristy Niagara Falls. It has a large number of bed and breakfast places that are far more acceptable than the hotels in Niagara Falls. We stayed at a bed & breakfast place with magnificent gardens and lovely inside. The breakfasts were probably enough food to cover us for the rest of the day, although we didn’t rely on that. It was run by an American woman who would not shut up and spent a lot of her time bagging Canada and Canadians, pretty interesting behaviour given she was dependent on Canada to successfully operate her business. People who know me will know I am a particularly tolerant person (J) – this one certainly tested that.

After arriving, we did a few wineries. Well why not? You saw the size of the truck we had above. It would be a shame to head back to Ottawa with it empty. And was it this or another night we bumped into the Canadian liquor laws again? What, you want to buy liquor after 8:00pm? Where on earth have you come from, Man?

The next morning we headed off to Niagara Falls. While I had been looking forward to this, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. None of the photos I’d seen on the net were particularly impressive. There’s a natural tendency to think of the waterfalls where the water falls a long way as the most impressive ones, I believe. Niagara isn’t like that – it’s wide and a reasonably short fall. But I have to say, this is some impressive waterfall. The sheer amount of water that is constantly flowing over those falls is just staggering. At a time when many parts of Australia were, and still are in drought, it was almost incomprehensible that all this water was going uncollected. Having said that, there is a pretty reasonable hydro-electric operation there. We spent a good two or three hours at Niagara, before heading back to NOTL, and more wineries.

The next morning, it was into the big black truck and across the Niagara to the US, to a big shopping mall across the border. We picked up the obligatory perfume, Crocs, etc and headed back to, you guessed it, more wineries. The border control was interesting, both there and elsewhere on the trip. The US neurosis is amazing – guys, have you ever thought that if you minded your own business and didn’t go off fighting other people’s wars, then you might not need to be looking over your shoulder all the time? Sorry, just checking if the CIA’s still there.

After another tolerance testing breakfast, it was into the big black truck and off to Toronto. We didn’t spend a lot of time in Toronto – we were all pretty keen to get “home”. But we did have time for the CN Tower (out on the glass again) and a look at the stadium where the Toronto Blue Jays MLB team plays.

We were nearing the end of our holiday, so were keen to spend as much time as we could, relaxing with Dale & Geoff – good friends are indeed irreplaceable.

Just on three weeks after we’d left Melbourne, we were heading home, after a walking tour of Ottawa that morning. Ottawa is the seat of government for Canada – a really nice conservative city with a significant historical feel about it. It’s funny how many of the seats of government around the world that I’ve been to seem to have a similar feel – London, Milan, Washington, Wellington. So what happened with Canberra? I spent a week there one afternoon.

So it was onto a direct flight from Ottawa to the brothel, sorry LAX, and a direct flight this time with Qantas, arriving back early on Saturday 14 June. Everyone was pleased to see us, but none more so than a big black Labrador / Rottweiler cross, who wouldn’t let me out of his sight for the rest of the weekend.

This, of course, was the lead up to the events of 16 June, but that is another story for another time.

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Go Sens

About 12 months ago, Ken Fleck gave me a fantastic Ottawa Senators NHL shirt when I was at his place in Ottawa. I reciprocated with a St Kilda jumper signed by Nick Riewoldt and Fraser Gehrig. Here’s the proof I actually wear it, Brother. Looking forward to the pictorial proof from your end.

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I spent a chunk of yesterday Tweeting (is that really a word now?) for Red Cross (www.twitter.com/ausredcross_em), trying to get as much information out there as I could on the Red Cross activities for the Queensland & New South Wales floods.

It got me thinking about how things have changed. I first started interacting with information technology in 1976, in my first year of a Bachelor of Science degree at University of Queensland. We were doing assignments in Fortran, coding them up on mark sense cards. Not dissimilar to the immigration cards and census forms we complete now, where one uses a pen or pencil to mark columns on the card. We had to submit the assignments overnight and if there was a single syntax error, we had to wait 24 hours before we submitted them again.

The contrast? There I was on the train going home yesterday, with my iPhone, tweeting and re-tweeting details – a mobile information centre 10 centimetres high by 5 centimetres wide utilising a mobile broadband network.

I love technology! (when it works properly)

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Anyone who bothers to read my blog entries will know I’ve put a fair amount of work in lately documenting Carol’s and my trip to Canada last year. I used the standard editor in WordPress, and being reasonably new to blogging, didn’t realise there were other (easy) options. In particular, uploading pictures was a real pain in the arse, and you’ll see they’re probably smaller than they should be.

So, after five minutes of research, I’ve found out I could have just done it in Microsoft Word 2007. Doh!

So why a photo of a Vancouver fire truck here? Hey, I’m an emergency services freak, and I’m proving the technology. Believe me, there’s plenty more Canadian fire trucks and ambulances where that one came from.

So Canada Retrospective Part 3 (from Calgary to Ottawa to home, via Niagara Falls) should be a lot easier to pull together. Will I do Canada Retrospective Part 1 Retrospective and Canada Retrospective Part 2 Retrospective? Dunno. J

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Readers of Part 1 will know that we’d worked our way from Melbourne to Banff. The next morning, I was back at the railway station to see Rocky Mountaineer heading off on its return journey to Vancouver.

Rocky Mountaineer Vancouver Bound

We were then transferred to our coach for a day trip that turned out to be as equally spectacular as the second day on the train. From Banff, we made the short trip to Lake Louise, where our luggage was deposited and we had a short period to have a look around. Absolutely spectacular!

It was then back onto the coach, with only about 15 passengers for the day fortunately. Carol and I try to avoid organised coach tours, but they’re even worse when the coach is full. No one had sat in the front seat of the coach, and our driver, a lovely young European guy who had not been in Canada all that long, suggested we move into the seat. Boy were we glad we took his advice. The big windscreen at the front of the coach was perfect for taking photo after photo of the spectacular scenery.

On The Road

On The Road

On The RoadAfter experiencing scenery like what’s in these photos for the whole trip, we arrived at a small helicopter operation for the next part of the adventure. Our package included a 20 minute helicopter ride over some glaciers and boy, was I looking forward to this. I’d never flown in a helicopter before, for one reason. Secondly, I knew the scenery was going to be great. Carol couldn’t be convinced to come unfortunately – her fear of heights getting the better of her. Unfortunately, the loadings weren’t such that I could go a second time, so we just claimed our refund. Damn!

Helicopter Glacier Trip

Helicopter Glacier TripHelicopter Glacier Trip

Helicopter Glacier TripHelicopter Glacier Trip

From the heliport, it was off to a “typical” Canadian ranch for a pleasant, if unspectacular, lunch. Nothing special about the ranch, although as always seemed to be the case, the surrounding scenery was brilliant. And Carol caught up with an old friend at the ranch.

Scenery at the ranch

Carol & bear

From the ranch, it was back on the road to Lake Louise. It was amazing the amount of wildlife in the fields and treed areas beside the highway. However, everyone on the coach had one thing in mind. We needed to see a bear. A live one that is, not Carol’s friend from the ranch. We travelled a bit further on our return journey and then, at the same time as the words “What’s that?” were exiting my mouth, I was conscious our driver had his foot on the brake and we were slowing right down as we were approaching the black objects on the right hand side of the bus (the side we were on thankfully). It was then apparent what it was – a mother black beer and her two cubs, fresh from a swim in the nearby creek. And we were right at the front of the bearjam, a long line of coaches and cars waiting to get a look at these spectacular animals. They were so close. We quite literally would had stepped straight off the coach and been amongst them.

Black bear

Black bearBlack bear

The rest of the journey back to Lake Louise was uneventful, but certainly comprised more spectacular scenary. You can never have too much spectacular scenery, that’s what I always say. On arrival at Lake Louise, we tipped our driver, who provided us with a fantastic day’s entertainment. I wish I could remember his name to acknowledge him publicly. We spent the night at Fairmont Lake Louise. I’d like to acknowledge them publicly, but I can’t. It left a lot to be desired, as:

  • They lost one of our bags, which thankfully turned up later;
  • The room was stinking hot because the air conditioning wasn’t working properly. We had to get a service guy in to fix it;
  • The air conditioning was extremely noisy (after it was fixed that is);
  • The internet wouldn’t work properly and we had to get the service guy back to look at that.

To their credit, on my complaint, they did all the right customer service things that I would expect of that standard of organisation. But at the end of the day, LAX (and air travel in the US in general for that matter) and the Fairmont Lake Louise were the low points of a great trip.

The next day provided an opportunity to take some quite spectacular photos of a half frozen Lake Louise and the hotel, prior to  another organised coach trip, this time with a full load of people and an irritating coach driver.

Lake Louise

Fairmont Lake Louise

Fairmont Lake Louise

Lake Louise

We travelled around Banff for the day, looking at a variety of different things, before ending up in Calgary that afternoon. The highlights of the day in Banff were Bow Falls, the trip up the cable car to Sulphur Mountain and the wild longhorn sheep that held us up while they ate the salt off the road. Thoughts on Banff? Extremely pretty. Expensive (well that’s a surprise). The sort of falseness that seems to go with a lot of ski resorts. Probably not in the list of Top 10 places to which I want to go back.Bow Falls

Banff

Sulphur Mountain

Banff

BanffBanffLonghorn sheep

The International Hotel in Calgery was great, although from memory, we had to get a second room because the first one had two single beds. Now that wasn’t going to work, was it? It just had a nice comfortable feel about it though, like your favourite pair of jeans. And free internet. Wow. That first night in Calgery, we dined in the main mall in the city area – very pleasant sitting outside and taking in another new city.

Calgary

The next morning we split up – I headed off to do my usual walking tour of the city and Carol off to the shops. I think a pattern was forming. After the walk, including a trip up the Calgary Tower and a walk out on the glass, I jumped a suburban light rail (not again) and went out to where they hold the Calgary Stampede, “the Greatest Show on Earth” (their words, not mine). When Carol and I hooked up later in the day, we jumped another train and went through the Calgary Zoo for the afternoon (don’t ask my why). Our friend Geoff in Ottawa had lived in Calgary for quite a while and used to spend way more time at the Unicorn than he should have, so he demanded a photo. Here it is, Brother.

Calgary Tower

Calgary TowerCalgary Stampede

Calgary Light RailCalgary Zoo

The Unicorn

 

So the end of another busy day, a very ordinary Chinese meal, a good sleep and then off to Calgary Airport for our flight to Ottawa, but that will be Part 3.

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22 May this year will be exactly 12 months from the day that Carol & I left to go to Canada. I thought I’d blog about that trip. Why? Twelve months on, I wanted to force myself to think about everything we did, because we had such a great time, and truth be known it’s probably the only major highlight in our lives for the past two years. On that front, special thanks goes to cancer, DWS (work in general for that matter), bushfires, the GFC (no, not the Geelong Football Club) and bowls for not playing the game. As I wasn’t blogging then, I also wanted to have a written record of what we did, so that in five years say, it’s easier to remember how great it was.

So, well before dawn on 22 May 2008, we pissed a taxi driver off by taking a short journey to Mentone, caught the airport bus to the airport and jumped a Qantas flight to Sydney. We had a very tight connection over to the international airport for our Qantas flight to Los Angeles. I hadn’t travelled with Qantas internationally since 2000 – I have to say the service hasn’t improved. They still look down their noses at you as though you should feel privileged to travel on their airline. We thought a four hour transit at LAX would be enough to change terminals and airlines to United, but we only had about 20 minutes in the departure lounge before we grabbed a United commuter flight up the west coast to Vancouver. What a brothel is LAX. Someone should blow it up. BTW I just put that bit in there to see if the CIA reads my blog.

So having left home at about 5:00am Thursday, we arrived in Vancouver early afternoon same day. Two initial impressions remain. Firstly, the grumpy immigration officer, who was having his challenges with an Asian gentleman who either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English and was handballed along eventually. I decided to greet him with “So, having a good day are we?”. As we didn’t get thrown in jail or find ourselves on the next flight to the US, it seems he took it the right way. The other first impression of Vancouver was our taxi to the hotel, which was a Toyota Prius, a hydrid vehicle. It seems the varoius taxi fleets comprise a lot of these vehicles. Well done Vancouver for being so environmentally aware.

On arriving at the Holiday Inn, Carol decided it was time to hit the bed, while I did my usual routine on arriving in a new city and went for a long walk, armed with camera of course. The things that stand out in my mind are the countdown clock for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the building doorway used for Superman and the continual aircraft taking off from Vancouver harbour for Victoria and surrounding islands.

Superman buildingWinter Olympics countdown timerAircraft departing Vancouver harbour

It was back to the hotel to find Carol refreshed from a good sleep and a decision on dinner required. We found a sports bar on Granville Street – great bar food, really friendly bar staff (most of whom seemed to have visited Australia recently) and wall-to-wall televisions showing just about every sporting game being played that night in Canada and the US. That’s our sort of bar. Had nachos with black, instead of yellow corn chips. Never seen that before.

Friday dawned brightly and it was time for us to get out and discover Vancouver, via a fairly novel form of transport.

Tourist bus

These buses start early in the morning and do a circuit around Vancouver, stopping at all the spots worth a look. They’re about 20 minutes apart from memory. The idea is that you get off wherever you like and then get on a later bus once you’ve had a look around. It stops at places such as Downtown, Stanley Park, Chinatown, Gastown, Yaletown and Granville Island. We had a great day, but were pretty knackered by the end of it.

 Gassy JackSteam clockGastown

It was then that I discovered how antiquated Canada is in terms of liquor laws. It is impossible to buy cold bottled beer from what we would call a bottle shop in Australia. The idea is you either go to a pub or similar and drink there, or you go and buy bulk unchilled supplies and take them home. Not very good for a couple of beer-drinking Australians who just want to have a cold beer in their hotel room and not pay through the nose for it. Anyway, we went back to our favourite sports bar for dinner. The Canadian liquor laws were the subject of considerable discussion as our holiday progressed.

 Day three in Canada (Saturday) and we decided to split up. I went for a walk from the hotel, with the intention to walk around Stanley Park (was really pleased I bought those Timberland boots before we left) and Carol decided to hit the shops, on a mission to buy a beaver. Stanley Park is this magnificent park overlooking Vancouver Harbour (http://vancouver.ca/parks/parks/stanley/). It’s 1,000 acres with a walking track right around. I hadn’t actually intended walking all the way around, but it was such a magnificent day and there was so much to photograph, that I just kept walking and walking. I swear half of Vancouver was out riding, walking or rollerblading that morning – it was a bit like the Tan on steroids (with apologies to people who have no idea of this thing called the Tan). 

Harbour lightRowing clubTotemsHorse drawn transport

Many of you won’t know that I’m a bit of a train nut. I was determined to experience some suburban train travel in Canada – there’s no better way to see the urban, non-touristy parts of a city. And what’s special about the suburban train network in Vancouver? It’s driverless. The whole network is controlled by computer. So on Saturday afternoon, while Carol slept, I headed down to the subway and jumped a driverless train. It was pretty crowded, but I went right to the end of the line and then got to sit in what would normally be the driver’s seat on the ride back into town. It pissed off this little kid that really wanted to sit there – “Mommy, why is that nasty man from Australia sitting where I want to sit?”. Bad luck, kid.

Vancouver driverless suburban trainVancouver driverless suburban train

Saturday evening saw us not being able to go back to our favourite bar, as it had been booked out for some event on TV that seemed to be a cross between wrestling, boxing, kick boxing and attempted murder. I’m stuffed if I know why, but men, women and children all seemed to be captivated by this barbarianism. So to bed, reflecting on the first stage of our holiday and very much looking forward to the next. Reflections on Vancouver? Nice. Nice, but unspectacular. Was three days enough? Yep, probably. Maybe another day would have been good to see Victoria, but we’ll leave that for next time.

An interesting aside – we found a coffee shop near the hotel where we went regularly. On one occasion, the girl behind the counter asked Carol where we were from. Carol: “Australia”. Girl: “Yeah, I know. But where in Australia?” Carol: “Melbourne”. Girl: “What suburb?”. Carol: “Mordialloc”. Girl: “You’re kidding, I’m from Chelsea.” Incredible, we travel to the other side of the world and get served coffee by someone from three suburbs away.

So it was up early on Sunday morning for the next part of the adventure.

Rocky Mountaineer

It was onto our coach with a bunch of others for the short ride to the Rocky Mountaineer station where a 24 carriage train was waiting to take us on the jouney from Vancouver to Banff, through the Rockies. So to get a couple of questions that we’re always asked out of the way first. Q: Did you travel in the carriages with the glass roof? A: No, those are the Gold Leaf carriages and we were in Red Leaf. Q: What’s the difference? A: In Gold Leaf, you get a glass roof. And meals that are prepared by a chef and served in a dining car. And you have a larger area “outside” where you can take photos and hang over the edge. In Red Leaf, you get served your meals airline style in your seat. Q: Would you go Gold Leaf next time? A: Yeah, probably. But it’s not a biggy.

Leaving Vancouver, the first thing you notice is the temparate rainforest. Apparently Vancouver has one of the largest in the world. The next thing we noticed was the river. There was a massive snow melt going on, and Jenny, our really excellent carriage hostess, said it was the most water she’d ever seen in the rivers. The other instant impression is how Canada is so incredibly dependent on rail for much of its industry, and we were sharing the rails with all those big freights on our journey.

JennyRocky Mountaineer Station - VancouverRiver In Flood - Devils GateCanadian National Locomotive

I could publish photo after photo of the trip. I took just over 2,000 on the holiday in total – I’m guessing the two-day train trip probably accounts for 1,400 photos. Suffice to say I spent most of the time in the exposed vestibule with a beanie, my old Tassie ambulance polar fleece jacket and camera up to my eye. For anyone who’s interested, it’s a Nikon D40X with an 18-135 Nikor lens – a present to myself a couple of weeks before we left.

So, back to the scenery. Day One doesn’t get you into much of the Rockies. Certainly you see some mountains and plenty of snow. But it is largely quite flat travel and significantly varying landscape. In some places, it is sheer rock walls going straight down to the river, often with water cascading down the side. There are lots of spectacular rail bridges, and in our case, lots of water flowing underneath. However, as the train gets closer to the end of its Day One journey (no, we didn’t sleep on the train), the terrain becomes almost desert-like. It really is quite bizarre. People contemplating a trip on Rocky Mountaineer would know you can head from Vancouver outbound, or in the opposite direction as it makes its return to Vancouver. Our very strong recommendation would be to do it in the direction that we did. I reckon if you did it the opposite way, the second day would be a major let down compared to the first.

Day OneDay One

Day One

Day OneDay OneDay One

We disembarked at the end of Day One in Kamloops. What’s special about Kamloops? Absolutely nothing! Move on! For all my colleagues from Red Cross, I thought this was an interesting way to snag volunteers. They’re obviously well organised with their disasters – they only have them three days per week.

 Red Cross Needs You

Rocky Mountaineer trip Day Two. Drizzling rain. Farewell Kamloops Travelodge. Ah, just remembered another reason for going Gold Leaf. We arrived at the station to find half the train had been stolen. No, not really. They had split the train – half the passengers headed off to Jasper and the other half, including us, are heading for Banff.

It’s fairly easy to summarise Day Two in three words. Amazing! Amazing! Amazing! Through the Canadian Rockies, snow still quite prevalent, magnificent mountain peaks, stunning rail tunnels drilled through mountains, wild animals beside the tracks. A whole day of this. Just absolutely phenominal. I just can’t pull the words together to describe it effectively.

Day Two Rocky Mountaineer

Day Two Rocky Mountaineer

Day Two Rocky Mountaineer

Day Two Rocky MountaineerDay Two Rocky MountaineerDay Two Rocky MountaineerDay Two Rocky MountaineerDay Two Rocky MountaineerDay Two Rocky Mountaineer

Day Two Rocky Mountaineer

And so, at the end of a fantastic day, we arrived at Banff railway station and were transported to our hotel. That seems like a good spot to end Canada Retrospective (Part 1).

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