EXPO ’67, Montreal: The beginning of a lifelong journey around the world.

“Jackson, get yourself to Rotterdam in 48 hours and there is a cargo ship that will take you to Canada,” said the heavily accented voice on the end of the phone.

It was the summer of 1967 and I was bored out of my mind, half way through the summer semester at my boarding school in the English countryside.

I had seen a program that spring on the flagship BBC news show Panorama about the opening of the World’s Fair in Montreal, Canada. It became my obsession – I wanted to see it. Actually I HAD to see it. But I had no money!

I was 16 and it was a quiet year academically between two major sets of exams so I was determined to make my dream become a reality. That May I researched shipping companies based all around Britain and wrote letters to two dozen or more of them asking if I could work my passage to Canada on one of their cargo ships later that summer.

The idea was I would travel for nothing in return for doing manual work around the ship.

For weeks I rushed to my mail slot. But there wasn’t a single reply. So, disappointed but undaunted, I expanded my search to shipping companies around continental Europe.

And that led to the phone call a week or so later that changed my life forever. It was from an executive with a company based in Belgium describing my idea as “romantic” and said he would like to help me. But I had just 48 hours to make my way from Bristol, England, to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, to reach the ship before it crossed the Atlantic to Canada.

I had never flown before, never even been out of the United Kingdom, and I was a rather naive, unworldly, 16-year-old. Fortunately I had obtained a passport in anticipation of going to Canada.

So first I had to convince my concerned mother to let me go on this adventure and then persuade my school principal that I should forget the last six weeks of the summer term!

They both agreed. I bought a backpack and crucial supplies and booked a plane ticket to Rotterdam. My mother drove me to catch the flight. In the days before credit cards, I had exactly fifty Canadian dollars in traveller’s cheques and a few pounds sterling.

The flight was uneventful but my arrival in Rotterdam was anything but! I was given a rough location for the ship in the massive port, but the cabbie couldn’t speak a word of English. I ended up drawing a picture of a cargo ship on a piece of paper and wrote the name of it – the Eeklo – underneath my drawing. He didn’t have a clue where to find it, and stopped other cab drivers to help translate. And all the time the meter was running so fast, I was worried my few pounds, converted into Dutch guilders, would run out.

We eventually made it with less than a single guilder to spare….and I took a small row boat to take me to the 35,000 ton Eeklo anchored in the middle of Rotterdam harbour.

They gave me a huge welcome – in Flemish. So throughout the voyage we communicated in sign language and the little bit of English spoken by the captain. The one concession they made, with 20 sailors on board, was to give me a cabin on an upper deck near the captain – and I always ate – and drank – with the ship’s officers.

But the rest of the seven day voyage it was work, work, work. Scraping rust and peeling paint off the decks for hour after hour. What made it tough was the endless movement of the ship which made me constantly sea sick. It seemed to bounce wildly on the waves, but I was assured that the conditions in the 25 foot high waves were actually pretty calm. It is all relative!

We arrived in Quebec City and I caught a bus to Montreal where I found hostel-style accommodation in the Hotel Bonaventure, which was a new hotel not yet completed. The unfinished floors were filled with bunk beds rented out for a couple of dollars a night to students like myself.

Finally I arrived at Expo ’67. It was an amazing experience – visiting the 90 pavilions on the site from dawn to dusk. I really felt I was seeing the world, with the state of the art films and interactive displays in the pavilions. The British pavilion, which was shaped like a pyramid with the unfinished top featuring a Union Jack, made me proud.

But the biggest hit was the Soviet Union pavilion, which showcased Soviet space technology and visitors could experience the sensation of space travel. The host pavilions representing Canada, and the fair’s theme – Man and His World – were stunning, as was the US pavilion with a geodesic design by Buckminster Fuller.

Then something unreal happened. I had been told to report back to  the ship eight days after we docked in Quebec for the return journey to Europe. As I was walking through the crowds, often over 100,000 people a day, I bumped into one of the ship’s crew. He said he was glad to see me as he had an important message to deliver  – we were sailing with our cargo of grain a day earlier the planned!

If I hadn’t bumped into him, I would have missed the return voyage. As it was, I made it back on time and returned home with enough money from my deck work on the ship to pay for my flight home from Rotterdam.

Once I got back, several newspapers and even BBC television were interested in my experience and interviewed me extensively about my  adventure. That proved a life-defining experience and it led to a 50 year career in journalism. I retired in 2015.

The experience changed me forever and launched my lifetime journey. It gave me confidence and proved I could survive anywhere in the world. It was to be the first of more than 50 or more trips to every continent and both the Arctic and Antarctic.

It also gave me a deep love of Canada, where I eventually immigrated ten years later. And I’m still here, living in Vancouver.

  • TC

1966 and all that

It was tucked away in the personal column of the prestigious Times newspaper published in London, England. A two line ad offering tickets to the World Cup Final at Wembley on July 30, 1966.

This was Wednesday, July 27 – the morning after England had just beaten Portugal to reach the final. It would be against their bitterest rivals, West Germany, less than two decades after World War Two. I phoned the number given in the ad and was told yes the tickets were legitimate, but there would be a broker’s fee.

The price of the ticket: ten shillings (just over one Canadian dollar)!  The scalper mark up:  five shillings (65 cents). That for a World Cup Final! Today, 50 years later, a similar scalped ticket could cost easily $25,000 and probably a lot more.

Yes, I said, I’d take a ticket. Remember this was a Wednesday – three days before the final. They wanted the money up front and I had to mail a cheque to them. These were the days before credit cards were popular. Not once did I think the great British Post Office wouldn’t get it there in time. It arrived the next day, a Thursday, and they mailed me the ticket. Yes, it too arrived in 24 hours. The Friday. Imagine that today.

So the Saturday came. The rest of my family were on their summer holiday – so I had to be up at 5a.m. in my small country town and walk five miles to the nearest bus stop. Bus to Bath, train to London. I was at Wembley by noon for the 3p.m. kick off.

The atmosphere was electric. Outside Wembley stadium it was like a carnival, Inside the stadium, the crowds were pulsating with anticipation and sheer excitement.

By kick off time, it is said, there wasn’t a car to be seen on the streets of Britain. Life came to a standstill. 32.3 million people tuned into the game on television. To this day, that is the largest TV audience in British history.

It was a thriller. One-nil down, England scored twice to go 2-1 up, but Germany equalized moments before the 90 minutes were up. The game moved into extra time. And thanks to a controversial goal – debated to this day – England went 3-2 up.

Then, seconds before the end of the game the England captain, Bobby Moore, kicked the ball into the German half.

The BBC commentator,  Kenneth Wolstenholme, described the action: “And here comes Hurst….some people are on the pitch. They think it is all over.”

Moore’s pass arrived at the feet of England forward Geoff Hurst, who sped down the pitch and smashed it into the German net. 4-2, England.

“It is now! It’s four,” screamed Wolstenholme.

It was Hurst’s third goal. The only hat trick ever scored in a world cup final.

I have never seen such unadulterated excitement. The crowd went wild as their heroes danced around the pitch with the Jules Rimet trophy in their hands. The country hadn’t seen anything like it since VE Day. England were back on top of the world.

It was an altogether more innocent time back then. England was a different place. The world cup win came at a time when the Beatles, the Stones, Twiggy and even the Pill made it the place to be. The swinging sixties. It was a mythical time.

It was arguably the greatest sporting achievement in English history. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think about it. One of the defining moments of my life. It proved to a vulnerable 15 year old schoolboy that anything is possible, and I used it as a launch pad to watch other sporting events around the world.

Since then England hasn’t really come close to winning a major tournament. In fact the England team has been a national disgrace for much of that time. Remember, they were knocked out of the Euros in 2016 – second only to the World Cup –  by tiny Iceland.

And, I must admit, as failure follows failure, a little bit of me knows that I was there, along with 93,000 others, for what will be for me, forever, the greatest sporting show on earth.

Every year around the end of July,  the British media replay snippets of the game. Interviewing the survivors, including Geoff Hurst. By the way, there was no colour television in Britain in 1966 – it was introduced the following year. And I go quietly to my den and play my dvd recording of the game and remember.

I was there, and no-one can ever take that away from me.

And, you might ask, what has this got to do with a travel blog. Well, for a naive young English schoolboy EVERYTHING. It was travel on a small scale, yes. But it was an adventure on a big scale for me. An adventure which showed me the world really was my oyster and that anything was possible.

The United States of Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was arguably the greatest athlete of the twentieth century. Certainly the most charismatic. I had to see him fight. Live.

Actually, I knew very little about boxing – until Ali, or Cassius Clay as he was then known, burst onto the scene winning a gold medal in Rome at the 1960 Olympic Games.

As a teenager I kept up with his fights: usually by listening to a transistor radio, with poor reception, under my bed sheets in the middle of the night because of the time difference. Often in a dormitory of 20 or so other lads at boarding school.

I had to keep the sound down so as not to disturb them, but on occasion it was hard not to shriek with excitement when he knocked out an opponent, frequently in the first few rounds. When I left school in 1968, local theatre screens sometimes showed his fights, usually at 2 or 3 in the morning, and always in black and white.

So when I discovered he was going to be fighting in Madison Square Garden, New York City, in September, 1972, I began to make plans. It would combine my two passions – travel and sport.

Simple: sell my car and go, or keep the car and forget about it. I sold the car, a Mini Cooper S, hooked up with a friend, and off we went for Muhammad Ali’s USA. A country where a black Christian had become a muslim, had opposed the Vietnam war and yet risen to become the most recognized face on the planet. He described himself simply as “The Greatest”.

I wanted to see the world, and I really wanted to see the country where he defied all the odds on his remarkable journey.

We spent five weeks there before the fight, the first month on a Greyhound Bus. Ninety nine days for $99 – an Ameripass. Or in other words, one dollar a day, travel anywhere you want on their extensive routes.

The Greyhound

We flew into New York and started the first leg of our journey, with a few days in Washington where we met Senator Ted Kennedy. When we arrived at the U.S. Senate we were told that as foreign tourists, we could ask to meet any senator we wanted. Ted Kennedy’s name came to mind, and we were ushered into his office for a brief chat and a coffee! It really was a different world back then.

US Capitol

Earlier, as we walked past the White House to our unfashionable hotel, the handle of my suitcase broke. From there on in I had to lug the case around using a metal coat hanger which cut into my hand. But it seemed to match our style, travelling by bus.

We basically went clockwise around the U.S. Down from Washington to Florida, with a day at NASA when the space race was truly exciting, across the deep south through New Orleans to California.

One of the highlights of the trip was a day at the Grand Canyon, and a hike to the Colorado River at the very bottom. US rangers said the walk would take 15 hours, but in reality we were pretty fit and found the hike took just six hours to the bottom and back. And it was spectacular walk – with the wind and echoes of the fast-moving river the only sound along with the terrifying buzz of rattlesnakes.

Clive at the bottom of the canyon
Canyon wide shot

Finally we made our way across the American midwest from Seattle through the cowboy towns of Laramie and Cheyenne, made famous in cowboy movies shown on British tv in the 60’s.

By the time we got back to New York we had spent a month on the road. To save money we would spend two nights on the Greyhound and the third in a hotel. It made for some pretty rough nights, but we were only in our early twenties and had the energy back then and besides the adrenaline rush of travel was more than enough to sustain us.

The bus stations were often in rough areas of cities, so we had to keep our wits about us. And everywhere we went, the loudspeaker thanked everyone for travelling Greyhound. It was an iconic form of transportation during those heady, bygone days.

Empire State Building

In New York, my friend had to return to England but I found a cheap hotel just off Times Square and spent my time doing the usual tourist things – going up the Empire State Building, spending hours in Greenwich Village, exploring art galleries and museums and even touring Harlem.

But all the time, anticipation was building for the fight. September 20, 1972, was a glorious day in New York. I spent the morning going round Manhattan by boat. Then treated myself to a steak lunch before heading off to Madison Square Garden.

The ticket was just a couple of dollars, and I was one of the first in the huge full to capacity 20,000 seat stadium. My seat was way up in the Gods. The ring barely visible.

The fight

Then came the first action of the night. A light weight world championship fight between two top boxers. I had never seen a live fight before. And what struck me was the sheer speed with which they threw their punches. Lightning fast. Far quicker than it looked on tv.

As that fight ended, it was time for the main event. Muhammad Ali versus Floyd Patterson. Ali came into the ring to thunderous applause wearing a bright red silk robe and white shorts.

I assumed it would be a much slower fight as it involved two two heavyweights. I was wrong. The speed and power of both athletes in real life astounded me. Each punch was a blur. The movement of their feet was stunning, and reminded me of dancers. Every round lasted three minutes but seemed like an eternity, particularly for Patterson who was absorbing a vast number of punches.

The crowd were on their feet the whole time, and in truth I had to duck and weave like a boxer myself to catch the action in between the flailing arms of cheering spectators, who were going wild every time Ali threw a punch. And with each punch you could see his glove sink into Pattison’s flesh as blood and sweat poured onto the canvas floor.

Muhammad Ali won on a technical knockout in Round Seven. Pulsating stuff. The seven rounds frozen in my memory. He remained champion of the world.

I saw Muhammad Ali at the peak of his  astonishing career. All the speed, power and strength of a supreme athlete.

And he helped change my life. It put major sporting events on my radar. In fact, I had been at Wembley to see England win the soccer World Cup against West Germany in 1966, six years before watching Ali in New York, but since that fight I have been inspired to watch live international stars compete in rugby, World Cup cricket, winter and summer Olympics, Formula One motor racing and Wimbledon tennis.

Maybe, just maybe, watching my other hero – Usain Bolt – win his 100 metre gold medal in London during the 2012 Olympics eclipsed seeing Muhammad Ali. There are so many parallels between the two men. But it was a different century, a different time, and I count myself lucky to have seen two such amazing athletes in their prime.

Years after the New York fight, at home in Vancouver, I met Ali twice. The second time he was suffering severely from the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease but had come here to watch the world  premiere of a documentary film, produced by a Canadian, on many of the boxers he fought in the ring during his long career, and how those encounters had changed their own lives.

And after all these years I was able to shake his hand and tell him how he had helped mould my life when I was a young man.

Muhammad Ali, truly a legend.

The Orient Express: November 1984

It IS murder on the Orient Express.

That was one of my favourite lines from 50 years in journalism. I had just reached Istanbul after a three day journey on the Orient Express from Paris. And I had writer’s block.

The journey was certainly not the romantic adventure of yesteryear. In fact it was hell. The cramped rail coaches were hot, steamy and uncomfortable. Then the line came to me and the story flowed from there.

I was working on the Daily Mail in London’s Fleet Street and was assigned to travel on the famous train for a feature to coincide with the opening of the Agatha Christie film, Murder on the Orient Express, later that month. It was November 1974.

I arrived in Paris smartly dressed for a train used to seeing king’s messengers, foreign diplomats and business magnates on board.

It turned out it was used by more humble commuters to shunt to and from their native lands with less portentous luggage than once filled the racks. My suit was never to be worn again on that journey.

No train in the history of the world has evoked so many dramas, so many sinister and thrilling escapes.

In 1974, the law in the six countries we travelled through was on the lookout for international smugglers, border hoppers and small time thieves – and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot would have had stellar cast from which to find a whodunit victim.


The legendary train began its 2,000 mile trek across Europe from Paris to Istanbul 91 years before my journey as travel opportunities began to widen around the globe. However, by 1974 the glamorous image of the romantic sounding express belied the ordinariness of the journey it had become.

We left the Gare Du Nord in Paris late on a Saturday night and woke up listening to the clickety-clack as we made our way across Switzerland to Venice and on to Belgrade, where it was snowing. We were truly behind the Iron Curtain and it was grim. Grim towns, grim scenery under slate grey clouds, with grim looking people.

At one point we slowed down to pass the wreck of a previous train which had gone off the rails killing several passengers.

Jet-age demands demoted it to just another express – and not a very fast one at that. The train stopped frequently at tiny villages and wayside halts to pick up locals, sometimes with their farm animals in tow.

Even the toilet was a hole in the floor. The sleeping arrangements primitive at best and most passengers wreaked of sweat.

The route, and standards of comfort, had changed since galloping gourmets could sample exclusive cuisine between the borders.

In 1974, travellers needed a pre-bought picnic – the buffet car was non-existent.

Platform pedlars had hungry passengers as easy prey. It cost a few cents for a hard boiled egg and hunk of dry, stale bread. Twenty-five cents for a bottle of soda and 50 cents for a bar of chocolate. And as the train was almost always running late, you had to make any trip onto the platform very quick indeed as you never knew when the train would pull out. On many occasions I saw passengers flying through the air to jump on the departing train.

M. Poirot summed up the journey back then: “All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, and of all ages. For three days these people, strangers to one another, are brought together.

“They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end they go their separate ways, never perhaps, to see each other again.”

In 1977, the Orient Express stopped travelling to Istanbul and by 2009 the Orient Express ceased to operate and the route disappeared from European timetables.

But recently a private-venture ensured that the train is running again and is back to how it appeared in the glory years. It even uses carriages from the 1920s and 1930s.The name is once again synonymous with luxury travel. And, of course, the price has escalated accordingly.

Back in the USSR – 1973

The newspaper advertisement was tiny, but the promise of adventure was huge.

It was a three-line ad in the travel section of the Bristol Evening Post in the spring of 1973. Placed there by Intourist, the government-run travel agency in the USSR, it offered trips all around the Soviet Union.

The itinerary included stops in Leningrad (as it was still known then), Moscow, Kiev and Tashkent along with visits to fabled cities like Samarkand on the silk road through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

The cost – the equivalent of about $300 per person – was a bargain, heavily subsidized by the Soviet government and Aeroflot, the national airline.

There was just one catch – they wanted groups of at least ten people. So I rounded up a dozen or so friends – ranging in age from eight to eighty. Included were accountants, teachers, an architect, a nurse and a journalist.

So it was an extraordinary band of adventure seekers on board when we left London on our Aeroflot plane bound for Leningrad on the first of ten flights criss crossing the USSR.

We all had had to submit our passports to the Soviet Embassy long before we left  – and we assumed we had KGB clearance before setting foot behind the Iron Curtain right in the middle of the Cold War.

Very few westerners were allowed into the Soviet Union in those days, so our trip was quite unusual, although the Beatles had just made the country fashionable with their hit “Back in the USSR”.

As soon as we arrived in the customs hall at Leningrad airport there were gun-toting soldiers….utterly unsmiling and stern. Everyone was scrutinizing us and almost instantly Communist propaganda was thrust into our hands, some of it written only in Russian. It was a culture shock as we entered the vast, secretive, country still under the control of Leonid Brezhnev.

And so began a 16-day adventure at the height of the tensions between the USSR and the West.

It was a grim reality. Grey cities, grey people, the women dressed mostly in black, with inscrutable expressions. Soldiers and military were everywhere as we were hustled from one government-approved  place of interest to the next. No neon lights, and very little colour. Drab was the word that remained with me.

Leningrad

And on every corener queues of people patiently waiting for everything, especially food, which was in chronically short supply. Queues for meagre meat rations to a few eggs or a loaf of bread. There were even lines for vending machines dispensing beer. With one glass provided, you put coins in the slot and then drank your beer before passing the glass onto the next person.

More often than not the lines would last all day – people lined up for as long as 12 hours for basic food that might have run out before they even reached the front of the line. It was a way of life they had no alternative but to accept. Tedious, unrelentingly drudgery. Once customers got their food there was another long line to pay for it. And as there were virtually no refrigerators in Russia back then, the food didn’t last long and the women were back again the next day.

Leningrad

As tourists, we were welcomed into government-run Beriozka shops – with no lines at all, just a desire to earn our foreign currency that we used to buy cheaply made souvenirs, smokes or alcohol, usually vodka.

In restaurants, as tourists, we were even given different menus – but still became accustomed to surviving on stale bread, a hunk of overcooked meat and a piece of indeterminate, tasteless cheese.

The hotels were average at best – with tough looking female agents on every floor to monitor us 24 hours a day. They kept our passports throughout our stay and we were certain we were always under surveillance. There were rumours that the KGB installed spy equipment in all the Intourist hotels. And there was always a risk we would be taken away for just about any indiscretion.

But while it is easy to paint a picture of the overwhelming drabness it was still a fascinating experience.

In Leningrad we visited the Hermitage, St. Isaac’s Cathedral and shops along the infamous Nevsky Prospect, along with the spectacular and beautifully maintained palaces – the Winter palace, the Peterhof, and the Catherine Palace, with their extensive use of blues, yellows and gold.

Our young Soviet guide, or “keeper”, was one of several thousand specially trained by the Soviet government. She kept us on a tight leash throughout and was dedicated to showing us a quasi-Utopia. Her name was Ludmilla, and we were certain she reported back to her handlers at the end of every day.

In Moscow we toured the Kremlin fortress, and spent hours walking around the cobble-stones of Red Square, with the iconic multi-coloured spirals of St. Basil’s Cathedral on one side, the Kremlin on another and the spectacular GUM department store on a third. It was, arguably, the most spectacular square in the world. And perhaps still is.

And then there was Vladimir Lenin’s tomb right in the centre of Red Square. Locals lined up for hours to see his embalmed body, but as tourists we were ushered in within minutes to see his corpse which has been preserved there, astonishingly, since his death in 1924.

Gum Department Store
Gum Department Store

After leaving Moscow, we spent a day in Kiev, mostly on the Dnieper River, and then Tashkent before flying into Samarkand, the centre of the silk routes during the 1300s. Utterly beautiful mosques, mausoleums and historical minarets, all beautifully preserved.

The city of Samarkand is over 2,750 years old and is the place where trade routes to the west, Persia, to the East, China, and to India in the south, intersected and formed the Silk Road. Majestic and architecturally stunning it is a historical treasure and has since become a UNESCO world heritage site.

Samarkand

Then there were also side trips to the equally historic cities of Dushanbe and Bukhara, and a bus trip up winding snow-lined tracks into the Pamir Mountains which stretch into Afghanistan.

Bukhara
Pamir Mountains

It seemed a long way away from the drab reality of Moscow and Leningrad, where life was chipped and cracked, broken and malfunctioning – lacking even the spirit of hope.

As we made our way back to London, on our final trip aboard an austere Aerolflot flight, we felt we were returning from 16 days in a time warp – a rigidly controlled adventure but an experience all of us clearly remember.

From Fleet Street to Bell Hop

One month I was interviewing presidents and prime ministers, and kings, queens and entertainment superstars, and the next I was carrying bags for the rich and famous at a ritzy hotel on the beach in California.

It was all part of the plan. After more than two years working as a reporter on the Daily Mail in London’s Fleet Street I was 25 and knew it was now or never: if I really wanted to fulfill my lifetime ambition to travel around the world I had to leave then before settling down.

A friend who ran a shipping company arranged for me to sail the Atlantic on one of his cargo ships.

It was a marvellous way to unwind from the pressures of working on a daily newspaper in the most competitive news environment in the world, and I arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, relaxed and ready for an adventure. I made my way by train and bus to New York State before flying west to Los Angeles where a friend in Manhattan Beach put me up while I found an apartment and a job.

I had been promised a job on the prestigious LA Times, but that fell through when we had a stand-off over the all important green card which would allow me, as a foreign national, to work legally in the US. They couldn’t help me get one, and without their support I couldn’t work.

But, undefeated, I tried my hand at a raft of small jobs, kind of under the radar. I worked as an overnight accountant in a hotel, a property manager and even a male model for a group of amateur LA artists. But my time in the hotel convinced me where the real money was – working as a bell hop, with generous tips.

I got the job and it was a blast despite having to wear a blue bellman’s jacket. It was a beach front hotel in Santa Monica where all the guests were well-to-do tourists or high flying businessmen happy to be in the sunshine of LA. And my British accent was unusual enough back then to help me get larger tips than most of the other bellmen. And soon I discovered that British Airways crews stayed in the hotel and would provide me with a steady supply of British newspapers which I could read on the beach during the day before the lucrative night shift at the hotel.

The money was so good that in just six months I had saved $5,000 US – and that was back in the mid-70s. Today it would be worth about $25,000.  And I packed in a lot in between my bellman’s duties: not only did I freelance for several British papers, but I also travelled all over the Western US: to the Grand Canyon, Palm desert, the coast road up to San Francisco, the beaches all along the coast to San Diego and several trips into Northern Mexico.

Coast Road

I was also in Disneyland for the US bicentennial festivities on July 4, 1976, and watched the quite magical firework celebrations. There were Beach Boys concerts and trips to the Hollywood Bowl and a chance to see the Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena. I even visited NASA when they celebrated a Viking spacecraft landing on Mars to look for life.

Eventually, with my tip money in my jeans it was time to take off again: this time to head north to Alaska. After a Greyhound bus trip to Yosemite National Park, I hitched my way up through the mountain states to Yellowstone and then Montana to Banff, Alberta, where I had a rendezvous with my cousin, Pam, and her husband, Tim, and their small two children.

Yosemite
Yosemite
Yellowstone

It was a trip we organized over a year earlier before I set out from England. They arrived from the UK having shipped a specially converted Land Rover, which looked like a cross between a tank and a camper. They slept in the van and I attached a tent to the back door and slept in that as we made our way up the 1500 mile long Alaska Highway.

Alaska Highway

It was an unbelievable journey through Northern British Columbia and the Yukon. In those days it was little more than a twisty, dusty, gravel road, steeply graded which meant on more than one occasion we were in danger of rolling off the highway unless we hit a fast enough speed.

Alaska Camper

It was rigorous driving, and we barely did more than 125 miles a day – but along the way we saw spectacular scenery and amazing wildlife: moose, grizzly and black bears, elk and even wolves.

And then, of course, there were the giant Alaskan mosquitoes – all 35 species. They were everywhere – and boy, did they bite. It was one of the perils of the trip.

But to compensate for the bugs, the scenery was an ever changing landscape – we drove along fjords, through mountain ranges and past glaciers and right into Mount McKinley National Park, where the weather was clear enough to see the mountain against perfect blue skies. We stayed in a campground just below the mountain, with grizzly bears all around us for company.

Mount McKinley
Mount McKinley
Mount McKinley

When we got to Fairbanks I wore my journalist’s hat again and flew up to the Arctic Circle with BP to see their vast oil operations and write a feature on the massive Alyeska oil pipeline which was just being completed. It snaked its way through the Arctic tundra from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska, in what was described as a monumentally challenging construction project

Arctic Ocean, Prudhoe Bay

When we arrived in Haines, Alaska, for the journey back to Canada we had planned to take an Alaskan State ferry: but there was a long-running strike. While Pam and Tim could afford the time to wait it out, I had to get back through the US before my year-long visa ran out. So I hitched a ride, literally, on a floatplane at the local airport.

I stood on the small runway with my finger out and within minutes a perplexed pilot stopped, asked what I was doing and thought it was so cheeky that he agreed to fly me south. We got on so well he even detoured over Glacier Bay – which allowed for some spectacular photographs. You could even hear the ice calving over the sound of the plane’s engines.

Glacier Bay
Glacier Bay
Glacier Bay

He dropped me in Ketchikan, Alaska, where I put my thumb out again and caught a ride on a tug boat heading to Prince Rupert in return for a bottle of Scotch. It was rough accommodation, but I was given a space for my sleeping bag – not that I really slept as we were in the land of almost no darkness at night and we were sailing though the iconic Inside Passage – which thousands of tourists pay to see from the comfort of cruise ships.

I hitched from Prince Rupert 1,000 miles to Prince George and on to Vancouver. That left me just a few days to get down to LA and pick up my bags before heading to South America.

But a funny thing happened along the way. I met my wife-to-be, Carol Ann, on my second day in Vancouver. So instead of heading to South America, I whipped down to LA, picked up my bags, and made my way north again just before my visa expired to take my chances with Carol-Ann after just one brief meeting!

And I also found work on the city’s morning newspaper, The Province, while I was seeing how the relationship worked out. What happened? See my next blog!

Honeymoon Part One: South America -1979

by Clive and Carol-Ann Jackson

Guns drawn, four intimidating soldiers surrounded me as a seemingly straightforward dispute escalated out of control at a hotel in Asuncion, Paraguay.

It was over my refusal to pay a hotel bill because I believed I was being ripped off. My wife stood helplessly nearby. Tension mounted. As the impasse escalated the only way I was able to resolve the deadlock was to demand a call to the British Consulate where a diplomat was able to negotiate a settlement between the hotel manager and me.

We had arrived late the previous evening in Asuncion, the capital of a country known at that time as a sanctuary for Nazi criminals, on the way to Iguazu Falls, Argentina. To our amazement we couldn’t find a hotel room, and after being turned away by hotel after hotel we settled for what wasn’t much bigger than a broom closet with a filthy, unmade bed (and even worse bathroom) in a hotel, the Guarani, just off the main square.

The problem arose when they tried to charge me full price for a suite, and I said I wouldn’t pay more than half that for the tiny, dirty room. At which point I was relieved of my luggage and my young wife, at gunpoint. The British diplomat sided with me, and in the end I won. The guns were lowered and I was released into my wife’s arms.

That unsavoury incident happened about half way through an extended trip to South America and Africa in early 1979. It was a three month long honeymoon – though several months after our marriage in Vancouver the previous September. It was a trip my mother said would either make or break our marriage: living out of a suitcase as we travelled through tropical heat in what were still, in many cases, third world countries.

My wife, Carol-Ann, was working for Air Canada at the time and had arranged an elaborate network of flights throughout South America and then on to Africa.  Our first stop was Caracas, Venezuela, having flown out of Miami on New Year’s Day, 1979.

For that first night I wanted to set the tone for the trip and keep the costs down so we checked into a cheap, dockside motel – so cheap the door had no lock, as there was a hole punched in it alongside where the lock should have been, and the bathroom was crawling with cockroaches. We were so scared that after a sleepless night, aware of even the tiniest noise, we decided never again would we risk everything to save money. From there on in we’d stay at better hotels, the price be damned.

Venezuela was relatively safe in those years and we spent several days there while we gambled on clear weather as we made an attempt to see Angel Falls, at well over 3,000 feet, the highest in the world. While we were able to secure a flight to catch a good look from the air, weather conditions made it impossible to get really close. We flew on to Canaima, a remote part of the jungle, close to the borders of Guyana and Brazil. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, about the size of Belgium, its best known features are “tepuis” – towering, flat topped mountains with vertical drops, creating spectacular landscapes and waterfalls, like Angel Falls.

Canaima National Park

From Venezuela we flew to Lima, Peru, which became our base for several flights. First to Manaus at the head of the Amazon, where two rivers – the dark waters of the Negro and the brown Solimoes converge in a strikingly visual phenomenon. In humid conditions, with the temperature well over 100 degrees, we went for a hike with a guide through the Amazon jungle – where Carol-Ann, trying desperately to avoid a snake, stepped on an ants nest and within seconds her right leg was black with literally tens of thousands of ants. Everyone in the group battled to rid her of the vicious insects and although she did suffer from shock, she had remarkably few bites considering their numbers.

Meeting of the Waters

And in the city on Manaus itself we had a chance to see the famous opera house  – an unexpected jewel in the middle of the jungle – with its distinctive dome covered in 36,000 tiles painted in the colours of the national flag of Brazil.

Manaus Opera House

As we stood outside our hotel at night, Carol-Ann said we should always remember the sounds of the jungle because we’d be unlikely to hear that sound again. And we haven’t. It was a cacophony of insects, animals and birds communicating with each other in the steamy heat.

Back to Lima, our hub, we flew to what was to be one of the highlights of this trip – Cusco, 10,000 feet up in the Andes. So high, in fact, we were given a special blend of coca leaves (the raw material for cocaine) as a hot drink to help with the effects of altitude sickness: shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea and headaches. It worked. And we were able to enjoy the city which was once the capital of the Inca empire and is known for its archaeological remains and Spanish colonial architecture. But the heart wrenching poverty of hungry children is what we will never forget. And probably was the reason for the birth of the terrifying Shining Path movement.

Cusco

We took a two-hour early morning train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu – climbing the last 2,000 feet on a run-down old bus up a steep, winding, gravel track to the lookout over the ancient Inca ruins. It was breathtaking, enhanced by the mist swirling up from the Urubamba River below.

Built in the fifteenth century, it wasn’t discovered by the outside world until 1911. The 200 or so ruins are made up of religious, ceremonial, astronomical and agriculture buildings – all on a steep slope, crisscrossed with stone terraces.

On the mountain side overlooking the main ruins there was a tiny, dorm like structure. I wouldn’t call it a hotel, as there were no facilities to speak of and no food available. Having said that, the few rooms they had had been booked up years in advance. And for reasons I can’t explain one couple agreed to give us their room as they bunked with their friends in a double room. We were, and forever will be, grateful to these strangers for their sacrifice that provided us an evening and morning never to be forgotten.

Once the crowds left to take the train back to Cusco, it was a magical, almost spiritual experience for the handful of us left at the site. We had the ruins to ourselves. As the sun set, absolute peace fell on the Andes.

At daybreak the next morning, completely alone, I climbed a mountain which overlooked the ruins. Although I almost lost my camera in a crevice, as the climb was dangerously slippery, it made for some fantastic photographs and not to be forgotten memories.

We’ve been lucky enough over the years to see all the other New Seven Wonders of the World, which include Machu Picchu. For us, this was easily the most dramatic. The most beautiful.

Back to Lima, we spent a few more days in one of our favourite cities. The city is lovely but it is the people we fell in love with. During our stay, there was huge civil unrest. Strikes, no meat days, among a few of the everyday challenges facing Lima residents. Most striking and memorable to us came during a garbage strike. The poorest residents of Lima, subsisting in substandard dwellings without any services, burned their trash, swept their dusty streets and against all odds kept their children clean. Given that water was more precious than gold, these proud and beautiful ancestors of the Incan Empire left a lasting impression us. 

From Lima, we flew to Santiago, Chile, a city and country governed by a authoritarian military government with buildings still scarred by the coup d’etat in September ’73.

Flying east, we arrived in the sophisticated city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Despite the fact that Argentina was in the midst of what became known as the Dirty War, we felt quite welcome and relatively safe. But it was the time of the disappeared ones and every week between 1976 and 1983  a demonstration outside the Casa Rosada was held by mothers of the thousands of young activists who disappeared during a time of state terrorism.

Buenos Aires

La Boca
La Boca
La Boca
Eva Peron’s Tomb
Casa Rosada

But while we were there, the crimes committed were not yet on the world’s radar and certainly barely on ours. And shockingly my “best” memory was the Estancia Steak House where you could chose your own raw 24 oz steak and watch it barbecued before your eyes. And it was so tender you could cut it with a fork and it cost less than a cup of coffee today.

Next on our itinerary was supposed to be Iguazu Falls on the Argentinian/  Brazilian border when when we made that brief ill-fated stop in Paraguay. But none the worse for that experience, the Falls offered an unparalleled beauty of raw majesty. We’re been lucky enough to see most of the world’s other major falls – Victoria, Niagara, Angel – and we rate Iguazu as easily the most stunning.

The falls are three times as wide as Niagara and are located in a jungle. It is actually a collection of 275 falls, some over 250 feet high.

Leaving Asuncion we flew on a commercial flight to Sao Paulo, with a frightful landing on a runway literally carved between scores of high rise apartment buildings. Then by overnight bus to Rio, where we spent ten days relaxing at a hotel just off Ipanema Beach. It was a week or so before carnival and the streets were bouncing, thousands dancing to the rhythm of the Samba.

After an intense month on the road, we loved what is perhaps the most famous beach in the world, Copacabana. There were visits to the iconic Sugar Loaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer monument, built in 1931 (now one of the New Seven Wonders of the World).

Christ the Redeemer

I even managed a trip to see a soccer game at the Maracana stadium, which supposedly held 200,000 people. What made the game more interesting however, was just getting there. The bus broke down minutes before the start of the game and along with a dozen other desperate fans we pushed it several blocks to get it restarted and just made it in time for kickoff.

The next day we left for Africa after six weeks in South America.

Honeymoon Part Two: Africa – 1979

by Clive and Carol-Ann Jackson

Departing Rio and saying goodbye to South America, we flew directly to South Africa, intending to fly straight up to East Africa. We didn’t want to enter South Africa to avoid getting the apartheid regime’s stamp in our passport – which we feared would prevent us getting into Kenya.

But we had no choice, we had to enter immigration control and once we were in, decided to stay after being convinced to visit Kruger National Park, where we spent several days seeing wild animals for the first time.  And while it was amazing to watch our first lions and elephants – we remember the African sunrises and sunsets as vividly as the animals.

Leaving Johannesburg we flew to Cape Town dominated by the magnificent Table Mountain – a truly gorgeous backdrop to the city.  We hired a VW Beetle to visit the Cape of Good Hope, and the Cape Town area, including a drive to Stellenbosch, the country’s main wine growing area with delightful bed and breakfasts scattered along the way.

Table Mountain, Cape Town
Table Mountain, Cape Town with Carol Ann
Cape of Good Hope

From there we discovered the stunningly beautiful Garden Route along the the South coast of Africa, a nature lover’s paradise with spectacular beaches all the way along the 1,000 mile coast road between Cape Town and Durban – including Wilderness on the shark infested Indian Ocean. Beautiful but deadly.

Wilderness, South Africa

However, as amazing as the physical beauty of the trip was, it was marred by the constant signs along the beaches saying either “blacks only” or for “white use only”. We were there at the height of apartheid and it was in equal measure,  degrading and disgusting. But we saw cracks, even then, in the fragile structure of the racist regime. Clearly change was on the horizon and we were fortunate enough to meet several individuals working for that change. 

En route to Durban, we also drove through the Transkei, a nominally  independent nation and legal homeland for Xhosa people who had lost South African citizenship (whether they had ever lived there or not!) under the apartheid system.  We we grilled by suspicious border guards but encountered no trouble. We stopped in the capital, Umtata, for lunch. While not warmly welcomed but given how brutally they had been treated, not surprising, we were treated politely and efficiently. However, one of several times in our life we were not proud to be white.

Despite the South African stamp, we were allowed into Kenya, where we spent several days in Nairobi before taking a bus to Masai Mara. But before our departure to the Serengeti we very nearly lost everything from our entire trip – rolls of film, camera equipment, passports and all our money. We fell victim to the oldest trick in the book.

At the time refugees were pouring into Kenya to escape the Idi Amin regime in Uganda. And two of them saw, in us, perfect marks. We chatted and were sincerely empathetic as we had friends at home who were refugees from Amin’s vicious regime. 

Being sympathetic to their plight, we started talking – and walking.  After a thirty minute stroll we found ourselves sitting on grass in an isolated part of a city park, when suddenly the conversation turned to money. It was probably about then that we both noticed the number of watches each man wore as their long sleeve shirts revealed their “cache”.

Instantly the temperature had changed and we realized we were potential victims as we sat there with all our worldly possessions in my backpack. So without being able to exchange a word between us, we managed to convince them that we would love to help, but everything was in our hotel room safe.

If they came with us, we’d give them money and gifts. We extracted ourselves from the park and kept talking all the way back to another hotel, the Hilton, which I knew had two entrances. We asked them to come in, but fearing scrutiny they declined, and we said we would be right back. They said they’d wait outside the lobby door. We walked quickly through the hotel lobby and then ran like our lives depended on it out the opposite lobby door and back to our real hotel. We fled to our room and didn’t leave again until the bus came to collect us the next day….with the manager’s words ringing in our ears. “I warned you be really, really careful. You were so close to loosing everything. Everything”. He even insisted we eat both our dinner and our breakfast in our room. And escorted us to the bus the next morning.

Our bus took us through Masai land, with primitive villages and colourful sights. But no pictures. Stealing spirits by taking a picture was very real at that time and would have offended most Masai tribesmen. The first night we settled into our camp, the Mara Serena Lodge, which had just opened that year. As we sat outside gazing at the multitude and variety of wildlife filling the savannah, my wife, who had not shown enormous interest in Africa, sighed and said, “I could die here”. She said later she felt she had come home. It was the real beginning of a life-long love for Africa.

Suffice to say, it was a life altering adventure. We were up at the crack of dawn every day to go out on safari and were never disappointed. In fact, we loved it so much, we found a guide who was “deadheading” back to his home in Mombasa and hired him to drive us to there, with several safari stops en route. We stayed at tented camps, including a tree top lodge which offered rooms built on stilts overlooking a natural salt lick which attracted animals all through the night. A bell rang to alert us to each wild visitor and despite the legions of bats that joined us, it was wonderful.

This unplanned trip with our guide also offered its fair share of adventures as he was driving his personal vehicle, an older subcompact car, not exactly in pristine condition.

We found ourselves driving on hardened lava streams, other times literally off road, travelling through dense elephant grass. And one day, we broke down in similar long grasses and our driver was obliged to leave the car, lift the hood, and try to right the problem. He was clearly anxious and asked us to be sentinels and to watch carefully for lions. No lions, car repaired, we all breathed a collective sigh a relief. Pulling out of the long grass and only a matter of yards away, we found ourselves surrounded by a large elephant herd. They had quietly observed us throughout our car breakdown and lion vigil! We never loved those gentle giants more.

Arriving in Mombasa, our guide returned to his family and we joined friends for a few days on the beach.

We flew back to Vancouver via England where we were able to tell my mother that our relationship, after a trip like that, was stronger than ever and has, indeed, lasted a lifetime. A lifetime of travel.

T Minus Four Minutes – 1990

By Clive and Carol-Ann Jackson

Selfishly, I wanted a little something for Dad. It was the spring of 1990 and we had promised to take our son, Simon, to Disney World, Typhoon Lagoon and Epcot Centre in Florida as well as a driving trip through the Everglades.

But I wanted to add a touch of drama to our plans and had just read about an upcoming space shuttle launch at nearby Cape Canaveral. Not just any launch, but the Discovery which was carrying the Hubble telescope into space on an historic mission.

I phoned NASA to see when the launch was scheduled and how we could guarantee getting as close as possible to the launch pad.

It turned out they were raffling tickets for a reserved area maybe half a mile from the launch pad. I entered the draw, and to my amazement won three of the coveted tickets.

So at two in the morning of April 10,1990, we drove from our hotel in Orlando to Cape Canaveral where we were ushered into the specially reserved area for the winners of the lottery – along with families of the many professionals who designed, planned and actually built the Hubble Space Telescope.

Not only was there a remarkable buzz in the air that early morning, but we immediately felt a special relationship with the launch because so many people around us were intimately involved with building the telescope. In fact, we became lifetime friends with one man and his family who helped engineer Hubble in California.

As dawn arrived, the early morning Florida sun reflected off the shuttle on the launch pad right across from us. The tension was palpable. The countdown began. Everyone stopped talking and watched, totally focused on the launch.

And then, at T-Minus 4 minutes, the flight was scrubbed due to a faulty valve in the power system. I am not sure I have ever felt so dispirited. I can only imagine what the crew felt. From sheer ecstasy one moment to a feeling of total disappointment the next.

Feeling dejected, we left our new found friends and crawled back in heavy traffic to our hotel knowing the chances of seeing the shuttle launch now were slim to nil.  Time was running out.  And it could be weeks before they tried again.

However, we still had our two-week trip to Disney World and the Epcot Centre to enjoy and they were delightful – especially through the eyes of a seven year old child.

We had a fascinating drive through the Everglades, watching crocodiles and alligators in brackish mangrove swamps, before plenty of beach-time at Fort Myers on Florida’s East Coast.  And all the time we were monitoring NASA and their plans.

Finally we heard news of the new launch date: April 24 – the very day we were booked on an early morning flight back to Vancouver.

But after a quick negotiation with a very sympathetic airline, the now defunct Northwest Airlines, our tickets were switched to the following day.  And amazingly, they were so understanding, they didn’t even charge us a penalty. We had one more shot at experiencing the shuttle launch and perhaps a moment in history.

Going through the same routine as we had done two weeks earlier, we made our early morning drive to the Cape, albeit this time with a knot in our stomachs. Meeting up with our friends, we all waited with bated breath.

The weather was fine and the countdown commenced. But then at the 31 second mark, the count was held, another system failure! This time with the oxygen fuel valve. We could hear, all around us, the collective sighs of disappointment. But unlike the last time, within minutes the count resumed.

”Ten, nine, eight……..two, one… And lift-off of Space Shuttle Discovery with Hubble Telescope. A window on the Universe.” It was beyond thrilling. The sensation of feeling the sound, the thrust, the power, and more than anything else, seeing the colour. Vivid reds and yellows. Along with everyone else we clapped and cheered and wished them God Speed. It was mesmerizing.

The most stunning event I have seen in my life: our lives, we decided. The STS 31 was the 35th mission of the American Space Shuttle program but we knew instinctively we were seeing history being made with the successful launch and the deployment of the Hubble Telescope.

Our new friend, who had spent the bulk of his working life on the Hubble, told our young son that by time he graduated in 2000, what we would know by then would be drastically altered by this telescope. He stayed in touch with us for the rest of his life and kept that little boy dazzled over the years with the mysteries Hubble “decoded”,  by sending back detailed images allowing us to gaze deeply into space and time.

Bidding farewell to our launch friends, emotionally exhausted we returned to our hotel, where Simon immediately drew the launch from memory, perfectly capturing the colour and the drama on a tiny telephone scratch pad in the room. We framed it and it hangs, with our photos, prominently in our home to this day.

Hubble was the centrepiece of that holiday. My wife, Carol-Ann, and I had made a conscious decision – after years of adventures around the world – that it was important to us to be at home with Simon as he grew up and give him experiences that he would enjoy.

After our honeymoon around the world we did mange trips to visit friends and family in England and Australia, and even had a day or two in China well before it opened up fully to the West. But we went almost two decades without adventure travel on our agenda – at least overseas adventures.

Instead, we drove tens of thousands of miles over a dozen or so summers visiting many of the great national parks throughout Canada and the U.S. And we twice drove 10,000 miles to Alaska and back in a rented VW camper.

I have always loved taking photographs, and one of the smartest things we ever did was to buy Simon, when he was about seven, a camera. But not just a cheap point and shoot, but a decent Nikon where the pictures would be sharply focused and have good colour.

The first year, Simon followed me and mimicked my every shot. Never again. By the next summer I was following him and learning from his remarkable ability to frame perfect images. Today he is a photographer with an international reputation whose work has appeared in National Geographic and been exhibited at the White Museum in Banff. Check out his website.

Our trips in the wilderness, often camping in tents, sustained us over the years. Sometimes, thanks to overtime which I took as vacation, we were on the road for six weeks at a stretch. We visited, amongst others, the Grand Canyon (walk to the Colorado River at the bottom, if you have time), Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Zion, Yosemite, and the stunning Crater Lake, Oregon.

Yosemite
Grand Canyon
Crater Lake, Oregon

We once visited the giant limestone caves at Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, memorable not just for the massive formations, but for the flight of literally tens of thousands of bats who fly out of the caves in the early evening to forage insects.

My personal favourite was Bryce Canyon in Utah, known for spectacularly coloured hoodoos in spire-shaped rock formations. A forest of stone, as Simon said, as we walked along the valley floor looking up at the towering monoliths.

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon

Carol-Ann’s top park, by a long shot, was Mesa Verde in Colorado. One of the best kept secrets in the U.S., known for its well-preserved ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings. Their homes were carved in the side of canyons between the 6th and the 12th centuries. At the time we visited, we hiked in and at the moment we turned a corner, we were met with a sight that, as my wife said, took our breath away. Built beneath overhanging cliffs, lit by the extraordinary light that is in that part of the world, were a honeycomb of well designed and stunning ancient structures. The ancient peoples were called the Anasazi and we were able to climb up ladders, and crawl along tiny ledges, squeezing through minuscule openings, to visit the shelters in the rock. I understand both the name, Anasazi, and the access to the shelters has changed over the years.

But our family favourite, which really became our second home for much of the 1990s was Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. There we made life-long friends and spent weeks camping in the park’s Northern Loop watching bears, black and grizzly, and wolves which had just been re-introduced into the Wyoming wilderness from Canada. We were up at five most mornings to catch those early morning hours, before it got blisteringly hot, when there was a plethora of wildlife. It was a remarkable time.

Our back to back trips up the Alaska Highway were fantastic. The highway today is much better than when I first travelled along it in 1977. We drove into Mount McKinley on both occasions and had the wonderful luck of seeing the entire mountain without a cloud on the horizon. Those clear days are rare, as it is often covered in cloud and mist.

Alaska Highway
Mount McKinley

We even drove up the Dempster Highway to the Arctic Circle. We were warned that the gravel road was not only very remote but also unforgiving. And even though we took a spare tire, we were surprised and challenged when we lost one on an isolated stretch of highway. Struggling to change it without killing each other, we were grateful to a German tourist, familiar with the VW van, who eventually stopped and helped us!

Dawson City in the Yukon, inseparably linked to the Klondike Gold Rush, was a must-see along with Kluane National Park where we saw the best display of the dancing Northern Lights we have ever witnessed. The park, made famous by the iconic poem, the shooting of Dan McGrew, by Robert Service, was one of our favourites.

One of our last family trips was a cross-Canada tour. We flew to Toronto and rented a car to drive to the Maritimes. We drove the spectacular Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island, visited Peggy’s Cove, Lunenberg and stopped for a day at the fortress in Louisbourg…another surprise that took our breath away as we rounded the corner leading into the ruins, founded by the French in 1713.

Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia
Lunenburg

Quebec City and Prince Edward Island were among the many highlights of our trip, along with a wonderful visit to the Gaspe region of Quebec. In those days, back in Toronto, we were able to pick up a vehicle that needed to be driven to a new owner on the West Coast. We had ten days to make the trip across the Prairies and then the Rockies – and all we had to pay for was the gas. It was another opportunity to visit more of our Canadian National Parks, including Riding Mountain in Manitoba, Grasslands in Saskatchewan and of course, our first national park, Banff.

And to bookend this piece, let me end on the space shuttle. My wife and I were lying in bed one morning in April 1991 when we heard on the radio that the returning Space Shuttle Columbia was being diverted due to inclement weather in Florida, to land at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

We had 24 hours to make it, and we did. It was a fast drive. Not as spectacular as the Discovery launch the previous year, but still extraordinary to see a shuttle glide onto the runway, with massive parachutes slowing it down. And then to watch it fly out again, piggyback style, on top of a Boeing 747. It brought our space odyssey to a perfect close.

Maximizing Europe – 2006

It was a conundrum. We wanted to travel by car through Eastern Europe, however most car rental companies refused to let us drive their vehicles into several countries, particularly Czechoslovakia and Slovakia, because of the high crime rate.

At the time cars were frequent targets and, facing so many obstacles, we decided to go back to the drawing board. Travelling by train was an option but having grown up in Britain, using the excruciatingly unreliable British Rail system, I had an inbuilt doubts about any train in Europe running on time.

Our travel agent suggested we go by bus. I was sceptical.

But after a great deal of research, and with a large dollop of doubt, we held our noses and booked a 15-day bus tour around Eastern Europe with Insight Vacations, a top-rated tour company.  And crossed our fingers. Tightly.

After 30 years of true adventure-style travel around the globe, we were about to experience our first group tour.

The idea of travelling with a large group of people, and the thought of being crammed together as a captive audience on a bus, didn’t thrill us – but it turned out to be one of the best decisions we have ever made.

The 1,500 mile bus trip was terrific. It was a luxury bus, comfortable and had plenty of room for the 25 passengers on board. We rotated seats every day, and liked most of our fellow passengers enough that we are still in touch with several, ten years later.

I learned a lot about travelling during that trip and have decided a bus tour can be a practical way of what I call MAXIMIZING Europe.

The three main reasons it worked as well as it did was the turnkey convenience of checking into a hotel, quickly and efficiently, right in the centre of a city; expert guides throughout; and a really good bang for our buck. Also, there was a good balance between organized tours and plenty of free time.

The bus tour saved us vast amounts of time. Within 15 minutes of arriving at any destination, we were checked in, changed and out exploring the wonders of the city we were in. For example in Budapest, our five-star hotel was a short walk from the spectacular parliament buildings and the Danube river.

Another advantage was we quickly realized cars were a impediment in many European cities because of the challenge of navigating complicated routes on narrow, often one-way streets. Not to mention the prohibitively expensive parking.

We soon discovered it was a practical way to travel. Although, to be fair, we haven’t done a bus trip since. However we will certainly consider it again.

We started in the historic and pristine city of Vienna, where we indulged in the spectacular Sacher Torte, then on to Budapest, once described as the Little Paris of Middle Europe. The 1,000 year old capital of Hungary has two sides – Buda and Pest, stretching along the banks either side of the Danube. It is the dynamic Pest side that boasts the largest parliament building in Europe and spectacular riverside promenades.

Hungarian Parliament Building
Hungarian Parliament Building

Krakow was a huge surprise: beautiful, with stunning architecture, primarily because the old town had survived the Second World War bombing and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. For centuries it was the seat of Poland’s kings. Wawel Hill, the castle and the cathedral are must-sees.

Krakow

Our tour also included a lengthy visit to the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz. The weather was glorious, but our mood was distinctly sombre as we walked the paths of what had been hell on earth. Is it possible to really understand what Auschwitz was? Going through the main gate, we were aware that this was where one point three million people walked to their deaths. It made us numb.

Auschwitz
Auschwitz
Auschwitz

It was surreal and disturbing to see the reminders (and remainders) of the Nazi’s orchestrated, horrific, and unimaginable killing grounds now in peaceful, almost park-like surroundings.

The bus tour continued on to Warsaw, which had been almost totally destroyed during World War Two. Again, plenty of time to ourselves and a chance to visit the sites of the old Jewish ghettos. Next, on to Berlin, a plethora of sights including the Brandenburg Gate, the rebuilt Reichstag, with the breathtaking dome, designed by architect, Norman Foster, and the Berlin Wall Memorial and Checkpoint Charlie.

Warsaw
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
The Reichstag – German Parliament

And to me, perhaps the most stunning of all, was Prague. The city has blossomed since the Velvet Revolution after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, but its unique character remains unchanged. The amazing St. Vitus’ Cathedral set inside the 1,000 year old Prague Castle and the spectacular old town square with its incredible astronomical Clock will stay with me forever, along with walking back and forth over the famous old Charles Bridge across the Vitava River.

Prague Castle

Stockholm
Stockholm

Back to Vienna, and the tour over, we flew to Stockholm and found a different way to maximize Europe – a three-week adventure by train through much of Western Europe.

We put in 15-hour days to take full advantage of my five-week vacation. Stockholm is like no other capital in the world, built on 14 islands. It’s nautical lifestyle is evident everywhere. The city, dating back to the 13th Century, is suffused in history, particularly in Gamia Stan, the Old Town. In fact, we enjoyed Stockholm so much, we have returned on several occasions.

Gamia Stan, Stockholm

From Stockholm, we travelled by overnight train to spend a couple of days in Oslo, again a city with a wealth of nautical history….especially the Viking Ship museum. And perhaps our favourite site was the Vigeland Park, a sculpture park that displays the work of one artist, Gustav Vigeland. We had the good fortune to be in Oslo on the May 17, which is their National Day. We were treated to a family oriented parade that celebrated their culture, costumes and especially their children.  And everyone we met included us in their festivities. 

Then back via Copenhagen and Hamburg to Amsterdam, one of our favourite cities in Europe. Like Stockholm, we have returned again and again and always long for more.  Walk, cycle or cruise in a canal boat, Amsterdam serves all the senses.We found a delightful hotel, within walking distance of many of the places we wanted to visit. In fact, we pre-booked decent hotels just a block or two from the main railway station in all our destinations, so we could easily wheel our suitcases to them.

Amsterdam
Amsterdam
Amsterdam

Finally we took a train to Luxembourg and then Belgium (I can still taste the hot chocolate served at a cafe in the Grand Place square) for a couple of days each and finished in Paris, where Carol-Ann had attended college some years earlier. We spent five days enjoying springtime in Paris before flying home.

And remarkably, despite my experiences with British Rail when I was living in England, when barely a train ran on time or made a connection, every single one of the 15 train trips we made was precisely on time. In Hamburg we had three minutes to make a major connection, and we did. It reinforced our view that travelling Europe by bus and train allows you to see a lot and take advantage of almost every minute, as you travel in a fairly leisurely fashion through fascinating towns and amazing countryside.

In total we travelled through 14 countries, and many of Europe’s most interesting cities, without the hassle of driving, navigating and parking. I figure we saw at least twice as much as we would have done if we had done it by car – and for about half the price.

Three years later, in 2009, we did hire a car to drive through Spain, Portugal, Andorra and Southern France to Monaco – but that was largely  because the logistics of using buses and trains made it impossible to go where we wanted, when we wanted.

But it was certainly NOT hassle-free. Even with a GPS we wound up lost on many occasions and I managed to scrape the side door of the large Alpha Romeo. the car hire company insisted on renting us. That was in the narrow, but beautiful streets of Seville.

We ended the drive in Barcelona, one of our favourites cities, with a sense of relief! In fact, as we were heading to our hotel our GPS was confused by various one way systems so we made the brave decision to cross five lanes of traffic to avoid more mistakes – Carol-Ann waving a Canadian flag out of the window as a surrender to my lousy driving.

Looking back on that part of our trip, starting in Madrid, Barcelona was the highlight with the fantastical Sagrada Familia church and other modernist landmarks designed by Antoni Gaudi which dot the city. Our hotel was just a short walk from Las Ramblas, the most famous walking street in the city.

Sagrada Familia

Gaudi’s architecture

We also loved and recommend visits to the Alhambra (book ahead!), the palace and fortress of Moorish monarchs in Granada; Sevilla – a stunningly spectacular city, worthy of several days; the university town of Salamanca; not to mention Segovia and its beautiful aqueduct at dusk!

We also included Lisbon, and if you visit that city be sure to invest a day visiting Sintra with its ancient castles and colourful palaces. And a meal at any of the restaurants in the Docas De Santo Amaro area. Old warehouses of the Port of Lisbon have been restored and the restaurants and bars all have waterfront views of the marina and bridge. And superb seafood.

On that same trip we enjoyed the castle town of Carcassonne and the region around Arles and Avignon, in Provence. Both places we intend to revisit.  And an easy day trip to Monaco, which earns its reputation for opulence.

Carcassonne
Carcassonne

As our reward, after the challenge of driving, we tried a different kind of transportation after our Iberian trip – a Mediterranean cruise. And, to maximize the cruise we used the 1200 passenger ship as a water taxi around the Mediterranean. See my next blog.