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It’s hard to believe that the Tour du Mont Blanc is supposed to be one of the most popular multi-day treks in Europe. No one I talk to has ever heard of it! Maybe I’m not running in the proper circles. I don’t know many people that own trekking poles.

Old Friends

 

 

Planning the route and hiding from the rain at the same time...

 

Anyway, this ten day hike was a chance to catch up with one of my oldest and dearest friends and her lovely husband and to see some awe-inspiring scenery to boot. We met in Switzerland and set out for ~144kms through three countries. We stayed in mountain refuges – fully functional dorm accommodation with night-time meal included. Hiking on the West coast of Canada (where I grew up) is a different breed altogether. Up in the alps one feels quite civilized. You can shower almost every night! We also stopped though a few towns along the way so we were able to pick up supplies as needed, and to celebrate milestones and new countries with a pint, or a wee bit of fois gras.

This is quite a tramp and it doesn’t take all that long to get into the swing of things even if you’re not that much of a long distance hiker. One of my favourite moments occurred on the second day in. I think we were en route to the Grand Col Ferret (2537m) which marks the border between Switzerland and Italy.  We were slugging up yet another summit, sweat and sunscreen pouring into our eyes, sun blaring down on us, packs digging into our backs.  My good friend Diana casually looks at me, and with a resigned but somewhat enthusiastic smile says, “mhh, and to think…we could have been sailing in the Mediterranean right now!”

I’m fairly certain I stopped dead. “Pardon me??” …confused laughter escaping my parched and sun-burnt lips.

Answering with a casual chuckle and a shrug of the shoulders, “oh yeah, didn’t we tell you? If we hadn’t done this hike we were going to charter a boat and sail around the Med for two weeks.”

As my jaw dropped, she added proudly: “Jeff and I are both Skippers.” Broad smile. My uncontrollable laughter was a reaction to the altitude, I’m sure.

The Mediterranean aside, this was a fantastic journey and although it was many weeks later that any of could fully enjoy cheese or sausage (after eating them every day on the trail), the scenery was enough to put one in one’s place.

We worked really hard through heat, rain, wind and even snow…. and we met some great people too.  It was an amazing experience but I won’t hesitate to volunteer as a deck hand on our next vacation together.

worth a thousand words...

The Alaska Highway

As I write this, I sit on the side of the Alaska Highway. I’ve just driven through the small town of Dawson Creek and glimpsed the “Mile Zero” post that marks the beginning of the epic highway built during WWII.

I’ve filled the car with inexpensive Albertan gas from the last Shell I passed. Engaged in pleasant smalltalk with the gas station attendant – as he removed bugs from my windscreen – I inquired as to where I could get a nice cup of coffee. He paused a moment, looked contemplative, and then earnestly suggested the place down the road. I’m now enjoying the suggested brew and can’t help smiling to myself. Esso gas station coffee isn’t necessarily “nice” but it does the trick. I guess. It was kind of the fellow to point out that the coffee at the competing station is way better than their own.

Yeah, you know, when in Rome….??
Well, I am listening to classic rock…
although I do draw the line at country music.

Up here in the northern reaches of Alberta and British Columbia, life is simple and pleasant – straightforward, if you will. The coffee is served two ways: black, or double double. Easy.

Moose Crossing

Bullwinkle...with a twinkle in his eye, he's about to make moves to cross the highway

Crossing Moose

I’ve pulled over, on this straight stretch of pavement because I wanted to get a picture of the “Moose Crossing” sign on the side of the highway. Doesn’t this image just scream Canada? A stark contrast to the “Wombat Crossing” sign I took pictures of, oh so many moons ago. On my way back to the car I glanced over to the side of the road and guess what? There, amongst the trees, stood a real moose!! Wow, are these signs accurate!

He wasn’t exactly crossing the road, but he had that look about him that suggested he was ready to travel.  He was eying up the south side of the highway, and it wasn’t lost on me: he had plans to make moves.

Anyway, I’ve also pulled over, on this straight stretch of pavement, because I’m having a moment. That kind of moment I find myself having every so often, where I have trouble wrapping my head around exactly where I am. I can’t begin to count the number of times I wake up and don’t know, often for many long minutes, where I am. Sometimes this happens in broad daylight as well…like now.  A hazard of travel, I reckon! Its not so much that I don’t know where I am, it’s just hard to absorb that I was somewhere so very different and so very far away only a few weeks ago.

On the other hand, it kinda feels like I never left.

Well this is another part of the adventure, isn’t it? I can’t imagine I would be drinking coffee from Esso and taking pics of moose in any other country besides here….
Home.

I’m back, and it’s going to be a fantastic summer!

Jill at Beaver Lodge

...

THE DAINTREE FOREST

THE DAINTREE FOREST

The Daintree Forest is the oldest rain forest in the world: 175 million years – that’s pretty old!  This is incredible and humbling.  As I write, I’m sitting in the shade of trees and vines similar to the ones dinosaurs walked under! How ultimately inspiring…

I find myself in Wet Tropical North Queensland in a place called Tribulation Bay and I have more-or-less spanned the entire East Coast in two weeks.  This in no small feat! We are staying in a beautiful hostel consisting of A-frames and huts that follow a windy path down to the beach.  It’s a tropical paradise.

Upon arrival we are told not to feed the wild cassowaries – cool!  These are such prehistoric-looking birds; it’s not hard to imagine them as late-edition dinosaurs….sort of like crocodiles…turtles….Mick Jagger….

Cape Tribulation

Cape Tribulation

Originally the plan to head north was going to be an individual adventure, but due to beautiful timing, an intriguing acquaintance from the past would take up residence as my next travel companion.   Aisha and I met briefly (and unremarkably – we don’t remember each other much at all) in Edinburgh years ago.  We were reunited in Brisbane through our mutual friend Alice.  Alice is amazing, and therefore her friends are amazing too!  This was bound to be fun!

Ahh, fun.

Some of our highlights:

  • Cairns: Arriving at 1am in the morning to a nightclub that posed as a hostel, and meeting our roommates who had been in the city for nine days yet hadn’t been to the esplanade (the waterfront – four blocks form said hostel)….keep in mind: we’re smack-dab on the great barrier reef…
    After one of them told us his entire life story he proceeded to kiss a small jade Buddha while whispering softly:  “I LOVE you.”  He then passed out…
    …we switched hostels early the next morning.

    The Great Barrier Reef

    The Great Barrier Reef

  • Sailing on the boat out to the Great Barrier Reef we were deafened by Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’… not only as we left port, but also on our return….sail away, sail away… we figure they were trying to create atmosphere?
    …As I climbed aboard the catamaran after scuba diving, I was greeted by loud and frantic jazz; this was  surely a bonus.
  • White wine on the white sand beaches that surround Cape Tribulation… played a game of pool amongst the leafy rainforest.
  • Looking for crocodiles on the Daintree River as the old-school pulley boat brought us over to the world heritage site.  We held conflicting feelings of relief and disappointment when we didn’t spot any.

    Magnetic Sunset

    Magnetic Sunset

  • Townsville locals showed us amazing hospitality.  We had some great laughs, and they shared with us their idea of a good time (a story to be shared over beer).
  • Magnetic Island proved, once again, that it is truly magnetic.  Sunny beaches and tramping through the national park land that makes up ¾ of the island was complemented by blatant  and unwavering sunshine.
  • We found ourselves looking forward to arriving “home” after only two weeks.  This was a pleasant surprise….we had had enough time away to appreciate Brisbane and all of its comforts.
  • The two of us filled our two weeks so full of good times that I have found inspiration enough to write page upon page about the adventures.… for practical purposes I must limit myself; posting only a bulleted list – cool!!
Jill and Aisha

Jill and Aisha

There is absolutely nothing unremarkable about the experiences Aisha and I shared on this adventure into the tropics.  We met some interesting people and saw some unforgettable sights.   Aisha and I had so much to talk about; the awesome scenery was simply a backdrop.

Good conversation makes the world go ‘round!

I had the pleasure of bonding with another friend who has been through huge change recently.  Geez, there are a lot of us out there!?  Life is truly jam-packed with change…maybe we can look at it as transformation instead?

The old forest we visited holds a beautiful history.  Amongst a landscape that has existed for 175 million years there is the deception of a sense of permanence – but we all know that the notion of permanence is simply that: a notion.

Theme Songs of the Day:

Ageless Beauty – The Stars, from the album Set Yourself on Fire (the acoustic version is my favourite, but I couldn’t find a good copy of it)

Creature Fear – Bon Iver, from the album For Emma, Forever Ago

Not Bad!

Not Bad!

After a short recovery and a few extra days rest in Melbourne, Matt, my current travel cohort and partner-in-crime, and I decided it was time to head to Sydney.   Although cheap domestic flights beckoned us, we felt the call of the road and rented a car instead.  What a great idea!  An ugly, but zippy little compact we dubbed Glow Bug transported us eastward.

The trip across Victoria was complemented by good coffee and fantastic conversation.   What better way to share stories and laughs than with the open road spread out before you?  Having always been a big fan of road trips, I simply love facing outward, in the same direction, with my travel companion(s).  Listening to great tunes just sweetens the deal. 

On this day It was sunny, and although it takes the better part of an hour to actually leave the sprawling suburbs of the city, we were greeted by beautiful, bright rolling hills (they call them mountains here).

Our next few days would consist of casually driving through impressive scenery dotted with forest, ocean, rivers, and hills (mountain ranges?!?).  We explored little fishing villages along the coast and made various attempts at catching dinner along the way.  The fish we caught were too big to take in the small compact so we settled with eating at pubs and joined the locals in their favourite past-time (Eden, a small town along the border in NSW, claims to be “a drinking town with a fishing problem”).  

Old Tom - The Amazing Killer whale of Twofold Bay

Old Tom - The Amazing Killer whale of Twofold Bay

We gasped in the beauty of Lakes Entrance, a small town tucked into the east corner of the state of Victoria.  In Eden, farther north over the border, we sought out the Killer Whale Museum (and aforementioned pub).  It was here we got the chance to see Old Tom, the famous Orca that used to assist the whalers in Twofold Bay in their hunt for baleen whales.  He would herd the baleens into the bay and lead the whalers to the catch.  If the whalers proved too slow, he would actually grasp the ropes of the whaling boat and tug them!  After Old Tom passed away, the orcas never returned and soon the whaling industry collapsed.  A great story and local legend.

Eden, NSW

Eden, NSW

In Bermagui, probably my favourite stop on this part of my journey, we spent the entire afternoon fishing (I was more of a support network: singing loudly, if intermittently, to attract fish – and keeping an eye on the fairy penguins as they efficiently stole our catch from around the break-water).   

There is a place I get to when I’m traveling extensively for any amount of time.  I inherently recognize this place, and the timing can seem quite random, but it’s at this pinnacle moment that I actually see myself as a Traveler

In the UK, back in ’99 this moment came about very quickly.  I knew I had a year abroad; I was a Traveler from the moment I received my visa.  It was reaffirmed when, mere hours after we landed in Glasgow, as we were getting ready to go to bed – a bunch of mad Dutchmen swung into the hostel and stole us away to a rocking seventies club.  We danced all night (assisted by the ever-so-helpful jet-lag and a wee pint or two).  The next day we caught a ride with our new friends to Edinburgh.  We would end up living the better part of six months over the following year there. 

It was one of the most relaxed times in my life…I was living each moment by the seat of my pants (albeit in tandem with my friend Racheal, whom I was attached to at the hip).  We settled for a while in Edinburgh, but really, I (or we, at the time) could have picked up at any moment and, on a whim, made our way to Spain or Finland or India, had we the funds.

Maybe it was easy to see myself as a Traveler right away back then because I didn’t feel I was leaving much behind.  At nineteen I had my job, school, and a haphazard social life, but I was very much ready for crazy change.  I knew I would find it as soon as I hopped on the plane. 

The Wombat is Smiling!

The Wombat is Smiling!

On this trip in Australia, with so much of a life left behind (or put on hold at least), I realized this pinnacle moment as I sat in the car on a road trip through the beautiful countryside of NSW.  With a like-minded friend beside me, we watched the scenery pass and we smiled.  It was a moment shared, yet also something very private.  I knew – I felt in my soul, that I was not a vacationer or a guest anymore; I was a self-defined Traveler.

I realized I had survived, have survived, something huge and all-encompassing.  I am coming out the other side – I can make that cumbersome hook-turn we discussed back in Melbourne –I’ve got the skills.  

I appreciate that I had the chance to see so much beauty so far off the beaten track.  The knowledge that it’s my track… I’m choosing which way to turn… this is precious.  I am strong.  I belong wherever I am.   

 Theme Songs of the Day:

Guaranteed – Eddie Vedder, from the soundtrack Into the Wild

One Crowded Hour – Auggie March, from the album Moo, You Bloody Choir

I’m Good, I’m Gone– Lykke Li, from the album Youth Novel (Alex D, this one’s for you)

Ramble On – Led Zeppelin, from the album Led Zeppelin II

Eden  - So many pelicans!

Follow the Rusty Red Road

Follow the Rusty Red Road

So I had one full day left in Mt. Isa and I think it was extraordinarily well spent: we trekked out into the bush!  It was exactly the kind of thing I had pictured when envisioning the arid outback: we were going to look for rocks! It was a guaranteed dusty and dry process and I was very excited, indeed.

Termite moundsNow it’s not too hard to get to the middle of nowhere from Mt. Isa.  One can accomplish this by driving in any given direction for any more than ten minutes.  This allows you time to pass through the city.  Within minutes all that surrounds you are  red hills lined with spinifex and some low-lying trees dispersed intermittently around termite mounds (interestingly, I mistook these mounds for rocks when I first saw them – supposedly a common mistake…I wondered why people had bothered to stand hundreds of red rocks on their sides – monolithic art…obelisks du nature?).

The Treasure!

The Treasure!

So we had a great plan.  We were invited to go looking for Maltese crosses (MCs).  These are rock-like crystal formations made of a mineral called staurolite. They form in geometrical diamond-shaped patterns.  Every so often the diamond shapes line up and when they form in just the right way an extraordinary cross is born.  This symbol is commonly associated with good luck and protection.

There are only a few places in the world these small phenomena are found.  We were on our way to find treasure!!  (Finally, a way to fund my trip!)

So we loaded up the 4×4 with food and equipment and five of us headed out.  We were quite a team.  Roy – the Maltese cross expert extraordinaire – was the one who was kind enough to invite us out.  He has the knowledge and the equipment to guarantee us finding a least a few of these elusive gems.  When he’s not digging in the dirt, he frequents the café where Stacey is employed.  He happened to mention this interesting hobby of his to Stacey, earlier in the week.  Stacey showed keen interest and knew I would be totally up for it.  Her co-worker Lisa happened to have the day off as well.  Roy invited a friend of his, Laura, and so we made up a mad team of gung-ho Maltese cross discoverers.

That's as far up as he went!

That's as far up as he went!

After about a half hour down the highway we took a discreet turn-off and started on what would be many hours of very bumpy 4X4ing.  The novelty of being jostled around wore off after about ten minutes, but we were easily distracted from the incessant rigmarole by the abundance of wildlife we encountered.  Roy had this amazing knack for seeing critters from afar and stopping the vehicle at just the right time to get up-close and personal (note the picture of the lizard running up his leg?).  We saw a variety of lizards and so many birds – bugs, cows, insects…it was a desert cornucopia.  It’s amazing how barren and dry everything looks, but there is this whole ecosystem just waiting to be discovered (especially with the very wet wet-season that had just recently ended).  We realized quickly that we had, in Roy, not just a navigator, but a tour-guide as well.

We arrived at Roy’s secret site and each had our turn sifting through the dirt for Maltese Crosses.  Beginners’ luck being on my side, I managed to spot an interesting looking rock in the first batch.  I found one!  I’m told it’s worth at least $10-20!  Now that won’t even get me a nice dinner…I had better keep looking.

Sifting RocksAfter a few hours we all managed to find one, although none as big or as square as the first beauty (the more angled type are considered St. Andrew’s Crosses).  We celebrated by heading back up the track and indulging in a picnic and a swim. I provided entertainment by stepping in the biggest cow-patty I’ve ever seen…or felt (squishing around my sneakers) for that matter, …I only did it for laughs – one of my gifts…really…

The way back was, I swear, bumpier than the trip in.  Roy picked up speed and we all sang along, loudly, to Billy Joel…  Piano Man will be forever etched in those little lizards’ little brains, and for that I apologize – but what fun!  I would, without question, back Roy in a guided-tour-adventure company if he ever thought to start one up – Outstanding Outback Adventures, or some such title.  I would pay good money to be slung through the outback, made to inhale dust, find treasure, and bounced straight into cow patties.  Honestly, it was an absolutely awesome way to spend the day.

What an amazing way to cap off my first trip into the inner-heart of the continent.   And my, oh my, what a big and beautiful heart it turned out to be!

Theme Songs of the Day:

Why Worry – Dire Straits, from the album Walk of Life – (This song is specially dedicated to you, dad).

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