Daily Diary

Getting to start of our climb
We had agreed separate journeys to Heathrow, since I had to get my dog to my parents whilst Sam and Adge were to arrive by a combination of train and bus. Our meeting up at Heathrow was a joyous occasion. My ‘partners in crime’, clearly overjoyed with the excitement of the trip, were raring to go. I’d finally closed down work and was able to join them in getting ready to embark on our adventure. The offtimes-for-most boring wait at an airport only adds to my excitement of any trip. Heathrow is a good watering hole, and always gets me in the mood. For one person this was desperately needed to calm the nerves associated with flying for the first time in many years.

Excellent flights with Qatar Airways, whose personnel looked at our group and kindly gave us the front seats resulting in extra leg room. A couple of flights, nerves overcome, and some sleep for all meant a safe arrival in Africa. Kilimanjaro airport was a small building and runway in the middle of nowhere which appeared to be only a token gesture for the many visitors who flock here for the mountain and safari. Heathrow or Doha international it was not. Our pre-approved visas got us through the queue quicker than most. The small nature of the airport meant only one baggage claim conveyor that was half in the building and half not. Very easy to grab our bags and find our connection. T.I.A – this is Africa. Our taxi drive certainly opened the eyes of some in our party to the way in which life is different in other parts of the world. For me this was yet another fact confirming that there is much more to life than social media and technology that seems to be an alien on a mission to take over the planet. Next time you think you’ve got a problem take a second to mull it over and then think – do I really have a problem?

Finally, at the hotel after a good 18hrs travel, we needed a cold shower. Better still the hotel had a pool – how refreshing. Wait! Before we could dip in and refresh, we needed our brief. We grabbed a cold beer and sat down with what looked like other novices. We had missed most of the talk – looking back it doesn’t seem like we missed much. The important part of this was meeting our guide. Omari was his name! What his first impressions must have been I have no idea… a group of English lads smashing back beer and wanting to be in the pool more than listen to him. If that was his impression he needs to know that we listened to him intently; he was clearly a man of the mountain, oozing vast experience. We had struck gold. We would find this to be true in 8 days’ time. He did his checks, and left, I hope, happy rather than cursing his luck; I mean we weren’t a group of 3 beautiful women were we? We found out at this point we were going to adopt another member to our group. Mike, a solo participant, ticking off some things from his bucket list as he jumped out of a divorce and before the next relationship came along. We finally got that swim, enjoyed the hotel’s cuisine and a few more beers before an early night (the first of many).

Day 1
Morum Barrier Gate – MTI Mkubwa Camp
6km – 3.5hrs walking

So, bags packed in our 4×4, our driver the ever so happy DJ Khaled (not the famous one) was just pleased to have us in his vehicle. I would settle for the company of this DJ Khaled any day of the week. Our driver may or may not have had means to play music in the car and this suited us fine. He was no American rapper but he more than made up for it with a charming and welcoming charisma. How English society could learn from a guy like this. We couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. Our non-music drive was disrupted every now and again by our chief making the necessary phone calls or someone commenting on the view. It soon became apparent that we were no longer on our time but Tanzanian time as a short journey took longer than planned. A chaotic drive through the city centre, before having to overtake the slow and often over crowed motorbikes on the main roads slowed us down.

We eventually arrived at the Londorossi gate for the purposes of signing into the national park and for the team to complete their necessary checks. It was close to lunch time. We were given a packed lunch to enjoy while our team of helpers completed the necessary paperwork and got weighed. A tedious process it may have seemed but apparently this ensures the safety of the people supporting us up the mountain. All checks done and lunch eaten, we were back into the 4×4 for a 9km drive down to the start point (Morum Barrier Gate). Here we able to meet our team for the first time, as I gave away the biscuits in my lunch box to grateful recipients. We set off to complete the first day’s walking, whilst they got the final bits together. Whilst we slowly plodded along they came zooming past us, carrying and balancing far more than the health and safety boys would allow us back home. At this stage we couldn’t put names to faces as we had barely met. Our walk on the first day was through the jungle. It seemed slow and laborious. As novices go it was relatively easy. We followed a path all the way to the camp (MTI Mkubwa Camp). Our arrival into camp meant that we needed to complete our customary signing in. This was completed under the watchful gaze of a security guard carrying a rather large automatic rifle. We were informed this was to scare the local villagers from stealing our stuff. Not warning off animals?? Either way I think perhaps we were slightly scared. An introduction to the game of whist followed, whilst the remainder of our camp assembled.

The camp was finally ready to host our first evening. A lack of running water meant that showers and toilet facilities were non-existent and a sign of interesting experiences to be encountered on the rest of the trip. An evening in the main tent was shared by us all as we played a card game that was new to some and it being the only form of entertainment. We retired to bed earlier than any of us were used to for our first night’s sleep.

Day 2
MTI Mkubwa Camp – Shira 1 Camp
7km – 4hrs walking

A new dawn, a new day!

We woke, some more disgruntled than others by a disturbed sleep which may have come about by the snoring from others or the discomfort of sleeping on the floor. As for me I woke invigorated by my first night’s camping – I had enjoyed a tent to myself!! Breakfast was eaten before we embarked on a longer day of walking. We set off on our slow and methodical plod.

Sun cream and mozzy cream were applied to the full. The walk started off along similar terrain as that experienced the day before. How nice it was to almost relax and enjoy the surroundings around us. Surely more strenuous and difficult days were ahead of us. We left the rain forest after an hour and started to climb the edges of a peak. It was crazy to think we had barely climbed, and yet, we were already considerably higher than Ben Nevis back home. We peaked our climbing in thick cloud and rumours were that it was a quite a view that we missed. Never mind, I felt sure that better views would greet us on our trek. The only alarming thing to report from our walk today was a couple of groups blaring out loud music through a portable speaker. How rude to shatter my peace. I certainly made my feelings known to Omari, who concurred with my viewpoint. Isn’t travel meant to be an escape from the mundane and every day? This didn’t seem appropriate or respectful of the surroundings we were in. Our feelings at this time were generally good; some were frustrated perhaps at the speed at which we were walking. For me it was so nice though to be taking my time enjoying the moment rather than rushing around a place.

I was starting to lose my mind to the tranquillity and undisturbed beauty through which I had dared to walk. Such a change from the rush and keenness to explore as much of a place when travelling back home.

At the summit of our climb we weren’t blessed with good weather. The clouds had constantly swept in which was amazing to watch. So, we left the cloudy ridge summit, and were soon heading back down again. Surely, we were meant to be going up the mountain and not down, but the climb was a succession of ridges? We followed a rough rocky path to our night camp. Some people were amused to see a helipad, I was not that interested. Just wanted to get out of my sweaty clothes. Here we got our first view of Uhuru (what everyone believes to be Mt Kilimanjaro) still covered in cloud and looking a million miles away. Customary sign in process and mandatory photo before an evening playing cards was enjoyed.

Day 3
Shira 1 Camp – Shira Camp 2
12km – 8.5hrs walking

I was first to arise, and, upon crawling out of my tent, was blessed with the most magical sunrise over fresh and frosty grounds. Not a cloud in the sky could ruin such a view. There were no clouds. I could finally see the mountain. Imperious to see, its very presence commanding my attention. A mixture of thoughts as I compared it to other mountains I had seen. Flashbacks to those moments in Canada recently, and further back in time to New Zealand. Peace and tranquillity, such a beautiful moment to experience, I stood there and appreciated all around me as my breath was taken away. Sunrises are a beautiful thing as the rising sun ushers in the start of a new day. A reminder that we should be lucky for each and every day and to take full advantage of it. The natural world gives a far more enjoyable experience than humankind can ever fabricate.

How nice to sit there and enjoy the view, with no connection to the world, and no need for social media satisfaction, with just my own two eyes to remember such beauty.

Our group arose in stages, slowly and each member complaining of the cold and lack of sleep. I was glad that I was up first. I didn’t need moaning as I was positively glowing, invigorated by life’s greatest show. We enjoyed our breakfast before getting ready to leave. Shortly into our walk Omari informed us that we could take our time and enjoy the view and take photos. We had been truly been blessed and spoilt with our day. We had the mountain path to ourselves, only shared when the porters came running by, enjoying each other’s company as we looked in amazement at the beauty of something that was perhaps going to cause us so much pain. It looked so imposing, our group like a tiny caterpillar slowly crawling its way up this monster of a mountain.

We were so lucky on this day, all alone and blessed with glorious sunshine, all those that we had seen the day before bombing onto the next camp as they wanted to reach the summit a little quicker. More fools them. How grateful I was and perhaps others too that we had that extra day to climb. I have mentioned before how that I am normally in a rush to see so much of one place when I travel. Thankfully this time the mountain was showing me everything it could as I took my time. Lessons to be learnt here perhaps. We indulged in the salubrious surroundings and some took full advantage with their cameras. We eventually arrived at the camp uplifted by what we had witnessed. Our camp was small this evening, with I think only 15 or so people. The older members of our group took some time to rest before the customary yet friendly rivalry over cards. I couldn’t sleep so found a perfect spot on the edge of a rock and sat and soaked up the view whilst trying to read a book. I soon couldn’t read as I was distracted by the incredible view. Words can’t describe how amazing the view was, to the left of my viewpoint I could see the white sea (a phrase used for describing the large number of clouds as one sat above them), to the right I could see the terrain we had covered getting here and behind me stood the monster mountain. I was eventually joined by my dear friend, Sam, and we sat and discussed the world in which we live. 3 days in and I asked as to what on earth we were going to go home to. We were completely disconnected from the cyber world. This wasn’t a fantasy world and we experienced a dose of reality. We decided to explore the camp and came across a couple of our helpers. Two lovely gentleman who would do anything for you out of kindness and probably for very little money. Their smiles so endearing. Conversation was difficult, language barriers and all that, and I wish we could have interacted more with these incredible members of our group. I will never forget Andrew and Nordin. So, we left our new found friends and made our way back to the main tent just as the others awoke in anticipation of an evening of cards as the sun set on perhaps the best day of the trip.

Day 4
Shira Camp 2 – Branco Camp
10km – 6hrs walking

 The first tough day was what Omari gave us warning about in his briefing at dinner last night. He wasn’t wrong in my eyes.

We were going to walk up to Lava tower to get an experience of altitude of 4600m and see how we would cope with altitude sickness. It all sounded easy; some were hoping to feel something on the way. As for me, I just wanted to enjoy the day and hoped I had no signs or symptoms at all.

It was cloudy as we set off. We were walking to some crossroads on the edge of the mountain. Yesterday it had been pointed out to us about another camp on a different route was directly opposite us on another ridge. During the day we were able to trace their pinpoint shapes on the horizon before we merged and joined the same route. It was here that we realised how lucky those previous, quiet days were as we went from 15 people to over 200 people now crawling up the mountain. A toxic combination of loud talking, colourful accents and loud music made for an unappealing part of our trip.

We finally arrived at heavily populated Lava camp. Personally, I was grateful to arrive and pop some pain killers and recuperate. The others claimed not to have experienced anything. I rather collapsed into my chair to rest and relax. We enjoyed a lovely meal, before meeting our chef who was cooking us some lovely meals on the mountain. I kissed him on the cheek as a way of saying thanks and he was slightly puzzled by this gesture!!

We went back to the welcome sign to get our regulation sign-in picture before setting off back down and round the mountain towards our evening camp. As we started our descent from Lava tower the cold had crept in and meant that we needed to wrap up warm. By the time we reached evening most of these extra layers had been peeled off. This was a downward stretch to the camp as we had gone up for an acclimatisation meal only and were going to spend the next 2 days climbing back up to the same height. As we approached our camp, it was carefully pointed out to us what the start of the next day’s route was. I didn’t think much of it, but it did look pretty steep. Others in the group were a little more concerned, and perhaps hiding fears they had. Our route to camp had become more appealing as there was more vegetation and trees and water seemed to make the landscape more beautiful than that to which we had become accustomed. Arrival into camp meant signing in, before ensuring we got a group photo and finding our tents. We weren’t pleased to see a group of 25 tents next to us, expecting a noise that would disrupt our evening. Thankfully their late arrival wasn’t noticed, their probably shorter route clearly taking its toll, they must have clambered into their tents exhausted and we barely heard anything from them. An evening of cards pursued before our newly accustomed early night for sleep.

Day 5
Branco Camp – Karanga Camp
6km – 4hrs walking

 Waking up, no alarm, what a place to be. Ours was one of the first groups up and ready. We wanted this and had planned it the night before to beat the rush up the cliff. It probably would have been a good idea to hand my daily diary for this day over to my good mate to describe the climb, not in a light-hearted tease but so that he could perhaps express the feelings in the best way, as we encountered what was for some, not only a severe climb but terrifying leaps of faith. Legs shook, bags were dispatched as what seemed like a fight for survival on our mission to get up this route proved rather challenging. The old man showed no signs of weakness (yet there was some apparently), I was surprisingly fine with it all and Sam was christened ‘shaky Sam’ as it was too much for him. After many nerve-jangling moments, lots of laughter and support we all finally made the summit of the cliff where we were able to take stock and relax. I went off in the pursuit of those photos with Mike and Omari. Izandini, assistant guide, stayed with the others who didn’t dare leave their perches on the safe ground. After a period of rest, we were ready to set off again as we went back down the other side of the ridge that we had climbed before climbing up the next ridge to our camp.

Along the way we were now much more relaxed and engaged in conversation with each other. We also joined in conversations with other groups going past as well as all the porters flying along the path. The sight of these porters working really is impressive yet cruel. We passed one who was struggling so we gave him all the food we had to give him the energy to keep on going. He didn’t take it just for himself but shared it amongst his colleagues. Their energy consumption must be so much more than ours yet were surviving on very little. Towards the end we had to go down an up one of the ridges to our camp. By this point I was now severely struggling with a flu bug and coughing up I hate to think what at every possible opportunity. We made it down and took rest at the river before the final climb up to our camp and watched as some of the other porters from other groups descended by different routes from ours. Incredible sight as they picked a route and just went for it, where’s the health and safety? Our porters were busy walking to and from the river to get fresh mountain water, our camp already made up for us. We arrived, exhausted from another big day, knowing that the next day was the last easy day before the biggest day of the trip. Sign in was completed and the customary photo was taken before an early night. Our dinner was accompanied by a vivid sunset. During yesterday’s briefing we were told to stop playing cards and staying up late for this one evening to ensure we were in the best shape possible. Promises were also made to Omari not to let him down, and, if we struggled, to dig deep. It wasn’t going to be easy…..

Day 6
Karanga Camp – Barafu Camp
4km – 3hrs

We woke up in stages again. Mike and I were the first risers. We set off with cameras to catch that magical morning sunrise. It really is a poetic and remarkable way to start the day, and one I wish I could experience more when I return to reality. Everyone now finally surfaced we all convened in the main tent for breakfast. Our walk today was to Barafu Camp or base camp! The final stop before we attempted to reach the summit. The walk was short but steep. We rested, as always, at different points along the way. At one of the last resting places we all remarked about a couple of Arab/French lads who we saw were rushing up the mountain. Perhaps they were in pursuit of an Instagram photo (it doesn’t always need to be instant!).

Rumours and whispers abounded as we doubted they’d make it! Later it was confirmed that they didn’t even make it out of the camp that night. All that wasted money on a trip to reach a peak and they were unable to do so. My advice to them would have been to respect the guides they were with and respect the mountain. We arrived slowly but safely into camp just before lunch. The camp was heaving as people were arriving in preparation for their ascent and people were descending off the mountain. A real smorgasbord of emotions was evident, as some people were clearly overjoyed at their achievement and those who were waiting had a sense of fear and trepidation at what was to come. Tales and rumours were shared as it suddenly dawned on our group that it was about to get real. We tried to spend the rest of the day sleeping and resting before our midnight ascent. Difficult when the tent was perched on the edge of mountain, with ever changing weather conditions and hundreds of people walking past.

We were awakened by the ever reliable porter. So, we started to layer up. Our advice for going up was to wear a minimum of 5 layers to prepare for the cold and to cover our water bottles in a sock to ensure that our water didn’t freeze. By now all clothes packed had been worn so a rather dirty and smelling sock was used to provide much needed insulation for the water bottles. Hygiene of a different kind. We convened in the main tent for the final prep, a cup of soup was drunk, coats were zipped up, gloves were put on and headlights were turned on.

We were all set and ready to go a little bit before midnight.

 Day 7
Barafu Camp – Uhuru point – Barafu Camp – Mweka Camp
5km – 7hrs, 5km – 3hrs, 10km – 4.5hrs

 So, our slow plod had begun, just like all the other campers that were at Barafu Camp. Guided by the expertise of our guides and small lights on our head, we had 1400 metres to climb in 4km. I probably would say that this is a steep gradient! Not long into our walk and the Gaffa was the first to break. He complained of struggling to breathe and coldness in his hands. Regular stops were made to accommodate him and looking after the old man and ensuring that he made it to the top with us. The other three of us seemed okay at this time. Not for long though. I eventually broke, two hours from the top. My body felt like it had nothing to give. Completely lacking in energy, I was now dragging myself up this mountain, looking at the stars to try to inspire and guide me. Those people who don’t believe that altitude sickness is a thing are very mistaken. How I made it I don’t know, and what I can remember is a slight blur, although Sam supported me very well up the mountain. I didn’t find his talking very motivational. And told him so!

We finally made our first target – Stellar point. Never have I felt so relieved at seeing a sign. I wanted to kiss it as the pain of getting there had been so much, my emotions clearly getting the better of me. Apparently, there was a sunrise happening around me. That was lost on me as I celebrated on making the top. I perhaps should ask the others for their feeling at this point. After a short rest we climbed the final 200m to Uhuru point. This was somewhat of an anti-climax after stumbling and crawling to Stellar point. The pain and jubilation of arriving here seemed more that the actual top of the mountain.

Gaffa was a little quiet and cold; all he wanted was the picture and to return. That dreaded altitude sickness badly affected him, but he made it. I had managed a second lease of life and although I had a banging head wanted to appreciate the surroundings I was in. We got that iconic picture under the sign before rather rapidly making our descent down the mountain.

A combination of running and skiing down got us down as quickly as possible. As we went down it was incredible to think that we had walked up this in pitch blackness. Such an array of emotions was overtaking us all. As we approached camp there was Andrew, one of my adopted favourites, to greet us back and carry our bags back. I don’t think he was expecting a proper man hug from me as I ran towards him. He was clearly very happy at our success. As we all arrived into camp the heavens opened. Sleet poured down on us. How lucky we were that it came then and not at any other point on the trip. A celebratory Coca Cola awaited us, which I declined (New Year’s resolution). The porters enjoyed the drink instead of me.

A quick pit stop allowed us to rest (apparently) and take off some layers and get ready for a wet walk to our final night on the mountain. Our spirits were clearly high. We felt over the moon though our mood was a bit dampened by the rain. Rather than rejoicing all the way down we were physically exhausted and stumbled down. I can recall having to pause at one point for Gaffa to throw up, the altitude sickness still taking its toll.

Walking on a considerable high yet with our eyes almost shut, our pace was slow. I think it is safe to say that we were exhausted. Eventually we crashed into camp an hour or so before darkness, Sam clearly feeling more tired than most and was already snoring whilst some of us took a wash. We had to wake him from his slumber as our guide had managed to surprise us with some birthday beers and a bottle of wine. What a perfect end to our mountain odyssey, we somehow managed to stay awake and enjoy good food, company and cards. We headed to bed probably a bit tipsy, our first alcohol in a week, and I will probably speak for all when I say we slept like logs.

Day 8
Mweka Camp – Mweka Gate
10km – 3hrs

 All good things must come to an end. We woke up one final time in our now smelly surroundings. 8 days of no shower and reusing worn clothes had taken its toll. We stepped out of our unhygienic living conditions into similar glorious weather with which we had previously been blessed. A slight coldness was felt as we breathed under warming blue skies. The sun was shining and so were we! Smiles that couldn’t be wiped or washed off our faces as we woke from our well-earned slumber. We traced our steps back to the entrance to the camp to get that customary photo under the sign. It was time for our final meal – our chef Saidi had delivered excellent food throughout. Kabila the ever-reliable porter delivered our food, his limited English able to describe what we were about to eat. Normally, our daily routine would be getting our bags out and preparing for the long walk ahead. Today was different, we got our bags out, but were then walked over to a clearing in the trees. Here our 16 helpers came together to sing and dance and wish us on our way. Some of us joined in with the celebration while others observed. We said our thanks and after many high fives, hugs and pictures we got ourselves together for one final walk. A short 3 hour stroll from Mweka camp to the Mweka gate. The adopted member of our group, Mike, was more like walking spaghetti by now – shoe problems – but he was a member of our team, so we supported him just like he supported us up the mountain. For the three musketeers the promise of a bar was too much as we wanted to run down the remaining part of the mountain.

We eventually limped wearily to the gate. We had to complete the customary signing out procedures, as our chief also collected our certificates. During this time we had found our porters had overtaken us and were already in their van and sharing a well earned bottle of local vodka. We joined in their celebrations as we didn’t want to say goodbye. We finally collapsed into our van and made the short drive to a local outlet store. No DJ Khaled to drive us this time sadly. This was nothing like the designer outlets back home. It was a prearranged destination, considerably well-built when compared to the local neighbourhood. There was clearly an agreed deal to bring us here to part with our money. We had none! All had to be done on tabs and settled up later as we had been told not to bring any money with us up the mountain.

Spend we certainly did, gifts were bought for loved ones and drinks were bought for the many. Dollars spent, presents packed and a drink for the journey home. We finally crashed back to the hotel at lunchtime, with a new lease of life and ready to party! There was a much-needed shower, a pool waiting and a bar the contents of which needed drinking. We did all three, yet still came back to a new-found love of cards. Perhaps a perfect end to our trip as we indulged in a few more games and a bottle of red.

 

Memorable Mountain

Kilimanjaro! Where different worlds collide
Cultures and differences put aside
Tourists and locals unite
We weren’t here to fight

Mt Uhuru, it looked such a beast
As we wandered from west to east
A monster who provides so much hope
How would us tourists cope

Omari was our captain
As we walked the mountain
We were One team
With One dream

With every step
I wish I’d done more prep
Our progress was slow
Our route I would have liked to know

To myself and locals alike
Burdened by the chains of daily life
The mountain represented freedom
It was the pinnacle of Africa’s kingdom

Oh you rugged peak
You looked so bleak
That cold night temperature
Was worth it for the adventure

Promises were given
We certainly were driven
Guided by a million stars
It seemed so far

We reached the top
I’d wanted to stop
A bag of mixed emotions
‘Outdoors’ the great addiction

So there we stood
who could tell our mood
upon the roof of Africa
T.I.A. – This is Africa

Magnificent Montréal

Founded on an island by the French in the 17th century on the confluence of the Rivers Ottawa and St. Lawrence is the Canadian city of Montréal. An incredible amalgamation of cultures cut a new identity in this modern Canadian landscape. What was once an economic powerhouse Montréal is now associated the harmonising of English and French speaking communities despite their obvious cultural differences. You’d think that there would be rigid divisions between these communities, but they’re one proud city.

 

I won’t focus on the cultural aspects but on old and new Montréal. I will be brief on the new as it is not my cup of tea. It possesses many of the issues seen all too frequently around the world -pollution, waste, drugs, ignorance, commercialisation and globalisation. I don’t know what the problems were when the new Montréal was built, but to be digging most of it up illustrates that planning and wastefulness is not a modern phenomenon. So lets put to bed my disdain of this area and focus on the area I loved.

Old Montréal has somehow managed to retain its character. The old town was established as a catholic village along the banks of the St. Lawrence river. Missionary efforts failed to flourish meaning it needed a new way to survive. That came, as so many places in Canada, through fur-trading. The wealth and prosperity that particular boom brought meant that fine stone buildings and houses were built. Montréal also established one of the most important inland harbours in North America by the 19th Century. Booms don’t and can’t last forever – world history testifies to that. Montreal was no exception. By the 20th century the city had fallen into decline. From 1980 the city has had its own renaissance. Many of the 18th century buildings were saved and given a new lease of life for what was built back then no longer fitted in with what is needed today.

What there is now is a remarkable combination of old and new, as restaurants, bistros and boutiques merge with wonderful architecture. Yes, you still have your tourist shops, littered with ‘Canadian’ products made in China. My suggestion is to search for and buy the authentic Canadian goods that may be found on the shelves. A conversation ensued with the shop keeper, but I soon ran out of what little French I know though not before he had accepted payment from my credit card. It was then that he changed to English to say something about his wife once working for English speakers.

Canada doesn’t do the “pubs” to which I am accustomed. Invariably the establishments that exist are bar/restaurants with the main focus on food. I had some puzzled looks as I would just enter and only want a beer. One must indulge in some of Montreal’s cuisine, poutine and (a recommendation) a smoked meat sandwich.

The architecture is similar to that in Quebec City (French influence) and was a pleasure to study. The Notre Dame Basilica is worth the entrance fee. As you step into this cathedral, be amazed by the almost ocean looking sanctuary and altar piece. The cathedral probably survives on those entrance fees and not from contributions from regular and faithful attendees. It is the same the world over but aren’t we glad that these places are preserved even if they resemble museums and sometimes even mausoleums. Down the rue Notre-Dame (one could be mistaken for thinking one was in Paris) the Hôtel de Ville captures your attention before Montréal’s own Nelson’s column takes your eye. Ignore the wonderful street entertainers, (for a second you might think you were in Covent Garden in London) and question why it is that one of England’s most famous seamen has a statue there. This evidence confirms the sense of intertwined cultures that have shaped this city.

The aforementioned harbour is no longer the trading post it once was. Now it has undergone serious modernisation as the entertainment features that the youth of today crave have sprung up to ensure its sustainability. A railway line runs parallel with the river and splits the glorious old town from this modern hub of craziness. An entrance to Chapelle Notre Dame-de-Bonsecours provides a view of this divide between the harbour and old Montreal. As you stand there and look across old Montreal you could be mistaken for thinking that you are looking across a city in Europe, as spires, domes and religious buildings dominate the skyline.

Before I left this city, there were still two places that I felt must be visited. A walk to Mont Royal and Oratoire Saint Joseph. I’d been to both before, but both places should be considered on a first visit to the city. On arriving in the city in glorious sunshine I dumped my bags and hiked up “la montagne”. This urban escape provides Montrealers with some much-needed green space in the city. Standing at only 234m high, nature manages to provide the city’s best view point. Oratoire Saint Joseph is perhaps the perfect spot to watch the sunset in the city. After climbing the 283 steps to the top I sat amazed as the sun set. Witnessing behaviour that perhaps wasn’t in tone with the location, it was still a romantic end for my visit to the city.

I’d been before, but Magnificent Montréal, you were worth the second visit.

Vancouver Vanity

I’d heard so much of this city prior to arriving there! In this modern world it’s hard to ignore the information and opinions that are so readily available. Sadly, with access to all that knowledge and information at the tips of my fingers, I wish I hadn’t read or believed what I read! Sadly, preparation can lead, transmogrify even, into expectations. It is my sad experience that expectation all too often leads to disappointment. They tell me that Vancouver is one of the best cities in the world in which to live. So, I arrived in the city full of hope only for those expectations to dissipate on sight of the place. I left underwhelmed. Let me elaborate and give another take on Vancouver.

Vancouver’s is set at the bottom of the mountains that almost rise from the sea and this means that land is at a premium resulting, predictably for these parts, in heavily populated skyscrapers. Vancouver is similar to New York in this respect with both places dominated by ugly skyscrapers. NYC may be a concrete jungle, but Vancouver is like a solar farm of glass. I struggled to find Vancouver’s heart and soul and had real issues trying to identify with the city. I realise that I am starting to sound a bit like our Prince Charles and his famous use of the phrase ‘monstrous carbuncle’ in relation to what was then modern architecture. I am amazed to discover that it is 35 years since he made his speech. The city lacked any form of cultural identity, yet another of these modern cities around the world. Was this characterless jungle due to the city’s relatively young age? Was it its multicultural population (surely this should give rise to diversity in design?)? Was it its modernity? Did I react to its drug smelling community? Was it the dirt and smell that got to me? I’m searching for the answers as to why I was disappointed.

 

Its location is prime for exporting Canadian products to Asia. This results in a busy and productive port and many photographic opportunities of dirty great boats waiting in the harbour. The recurring theme from this trip has surely to be about how we are damaging the world. As photogenic as these colourful behemoths were, the sight of them was a massive reminder the damages being caused.

The bays represent the mouth of Vancouver. The boats sail past the lungs of the city – Stanley Park. The green space there perhaps provides the heart, Downtown, its much-needed oxygen to breathe. Although the trees lined along the roads in parts of Downtown provide tiny air-sacks they are trapped by the glass monstrosities above.

South from Stanley Park, following the edge of the bay, leads to my favourite area of the city. As English Bay leads to False Creek, there are a number of sheltered harbours, lovely walks, idyllic “bars” and views aplenty. This really is the best of Vancouver. Why everyone isn’t at Sunset Beach in the evening I will never know as the sun paints the sky a crimson orange and it provides the perfect spot to relax and reflect.

As for the rest of main Vancouver – the suburbs of Gastown, Yaletown and Downtown in particular – which I had hoped to deliver so much, all failed spectacularly. Dirt, smell, homelessness, litter – it was far from the spectacular impression that had been created in my mind. At times I thought, ‘Am I actually walking around in a Canadian city?’ The city boasts one of the largest Chinatowns in North America, an area of no personal interest, but adds to the common lack of English being spoken. What is becoming noticeable in cities these days is the alarming number of homeless people and Vancouver was no exception but the scale of it here is greater than that seen in any other city visited recently. Are drugs the cause? The addicts’ erratic behaviour and way of survival wasn’t pleasant to see and was there for all to see. Is this now a global problem that is spiralling upwards in terms of quantity of addicts and spiralling downwards in terms of ambiance quality? Or are such people victims of a society that places so much store by work and wealth creation leading to the polarisation of its members. Perhaps a lot of the misery is self-inflicted but the juxtaposition of clinical, pristine, shiny, corporation buildings and the filthy conditions in downtown Vancouver is horrendous.

North of the city the Seabus (not a ferry) operates across to Lynn Quay. An up and coming area with a charming market, restaurants and a lovely view of the cityscape. It was from here I was recommended to get the bus to Lynn Canyon. Well worth it with free entry an added bonus.

South of the city water taxis work around the heavily populated harbour. I didn’t take advantage but rather stretched my legs and walked both sides. There are three main bridges providing both pedestrians and vehicles a way across the water. At the far end is the BC place stadium, a truly soulless place. Home to the Whitecaps, it seems an expensive place for just “football”. I hope other sports use and fill it to capacity to generate the atmosphere it warrants for its considerable investment.

So as my time in Vancouver comes to end, I head back to Sunset Beach to watch the sun set yet again. The train ride across Canada awaits. Vancouver, I’m sorry, I still can’t work out what all the fuss is about.

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Whistle stop Winnipeg

This great Canadian railway odyssey has thrown up many delightful charms and none more so than the City of Winnipeg. There is more to come.

Situated in the heart of Canada, you can begin to see why it’s such a strategic location. It’s remarkable to think I never really knew of its existence! It’s perhaps the combination of the lack of expectation and knowledge that give these delightful discoveries such unbridled joy.

Blessed in glorious spring sunshine but with rumours of -2°C outside the train, I disembarked and went off in search of new found discoveries. My time was limited as after all we were on a railway adventure. A quick dash soon led me to the river. The river provides the backdrop for most of the history associated with the city. In fact there is a confluence of two rivers (Red and Assiniboine) which is referred to locally as ‘The Forks’. It was here that I was able to capture the skyline of the city and found some prose about freedom based on gulls seen as a youngster with her mother at Provencher Bridge in a work entitled Street of Riches by Gabrielle Roy.

“Toward the middle of the Provencher Bridge,
Maman and I found ourselves surrounded by sea gulls;
they flew low over the Red River.
Maman took my hand and clasped it tight,
as though to convey to me a movement of her soul.
A hundred times a day Maman got a lift of joy from the world around us;
sometimes it was nothing more than the wind or the flight of a bird that delighted her.
Leaning on the parapet we watched the gulls for a long while.
And all of a sudden, on that bridge, Maman told me that she would like to be able to go whenever and wherever she might choose.”

Over on the other side I was immediately drawn to a graveyard housing a good number of grave stones and which led you along a path to a ruined church/cathedral! I was fascinated to see these ruins, the result of a fire that destroyed the building in the 1970s. A more modern church has been built behind the ruins which have remained as part of the architect’s new vision of the church, a phoenix from the ashes if you like.

To the right of this is a charming house, which is now a museum. Sat in front of it is a statue to Louis Riel. Louis led the Red Rebellion for the local provisional government against the growing number of newcomers from Eastern Canada. Garnet Wolseley was sent to crush the rebellion – there was no evidence of him here!! This rebellion resulted in Manitoba then becoming the fifth province of Canada.

As time was short, a quick dash along the river and back to the station was made. Around the concert area which led back to the train station there were some old Canadian Pacific carriages resting in the car park. Other parts of the city’s history which are relevant is Bloody Saturday (100th anniversary this year). After the First World War, the city had many men return form the war and looking for work. It was felt that opportunities had been taken by immigrants and this, coupled with a feeling that there had been profiteering from the war by many companies without passing on some of the benefits to the workforce leading to low wages led to the strike of 1919. This ended in tragedy when two people with non-Canadian sounding names were killed by the mounted Canadian police. So this beautiful stop provided some memorable moments and some information for my further interest. It shall be that inquisitive nature that shall lead me to explore this place further upon coming back – apparently the market is a must!!

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Niagara Galls

The next stop on my railway odyssey took me back to Niagara Falls. I shouldn’t have put myself through the pain and expense of travelling there again for once you have seen them, you have seen them. I mean they haven’t changed in the 3 years since I was last here. It is true to say that they are powerful falls, but they seemed slightly debilitated, perhaps by the freezing ice and snow (still around at the end of April). The falls seemed crestfallen as though their aura and might had been negated. A sense of slumber hung around the area. We had heard and read from fellow travellers that the sound of the mighty power of the falls may be heard from miles away and we listened out as we walked from the train station. Was the expected noise missing due to the snow and ice on the falls? Did the ice in effect reduce the distance that the water had to fall or dampen or deaden its impact? Was the noise lost to the hubbub of the town coming to life after a winter of hibernation? Other people had come to see the iconic falls – I wonder if they shared the sense of anti-climax views that I felt.

On a bitterly cold day, we should have made for Niagara-by-the-lake for some poetic distractions to kill the time. Rumours of its beauty make me inclined to think that a visit there should outweigh one to its famous neighbour, but, sadly, this is only a whisper known by few and isn’t to be found all over the net. Instead, and foolishly, we made do with entertaining ourselves in Canada’s Las Vegas.

A trip up the skylon tower does provide a panoramic view of both falls and is a rather pleasantly to see the panorama without getting too cold. Of course, it has gimmicks – our Japanese and Chinese friends must be entertained! There is the inevitable and, these days, ubiquitous revolving restaurant to enjoy. Clearly not of those who wanted to spin while eating but who perhaps could have been tempted, we were ushered into a corner to enjoy a beer (I guess our lack of appetite and the fact that we were no more than potential business candidates meant that we were not deemed worthy of the environment). We enjoyed our Canadian beers, but their assumptions cost them dear as our bill could have been so much more.

We left in search of a pub (or sportsbar as they are called this side of the ocean) hoping to watch the football. We were sent to the playground of far too many. In hope more than anticipation we tried to find something that might show the footie. No success, we ended up in a casino bar. Here we received a warm welcome, from people thinking that they had found another couple of deluded humans hoping to win their fortune. I mean the odds really are stacked against you, aren’t they? Who did they think we were? A few drinks and, by now, some much-needed food were consumed while the staff tried to work out how to display the football on the TV!! It never materialised – something about TV rights issues. This was all very hard to believe when it’s the international community that pays so heavily for our football rights. Thankfully the time had come for our train out of there – a buddy in Toronto awaited before the main event was due to commence. Hastily we made tracks in the pouring rain for the station.

Niagara, never again.

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