Laughing On The Bus, Playing Games With The Faces

Original posted in London to New York blog, June 1, 2010

Banff, Canada

OVER the past 11 weeks, we have learned to accept a string of new travelling experiences as a matter of routine.

Across Europe, we took long days on the bus and the constant checking in and out of hostels in our stride, across Russia and Mongolia we became seasoned train survivors and on the cruise we accepted the luxury of a freshly-made bed and all the creature comforts we could want.

And since disembarking three weeks ago, we have become experts in living on a bus and embraced a new sensation – the night drive.

Inside Passage
Sun goes down on the rear deck of the Inside Passage ferry, our bed for the night from Petersburg

As we have ploughed southwards through Canada and America to San Francisco (around 4,600 miles according to Matty, who bid us farewell this morning), 19 people crashed out in all reaches of the bus has become something of a norm.

There are five basic rooming options for the discerning traveller, each of which has its advantages and drawbacks. They are:

Up top on the bunks – Essentially sleeping on the luggage racks, albeit slightly wider and with a mattress. Advantage of not being trodden on, but the ever present danger of falling off adds an air of danger to proceedings.

Opted not to head up there with my record of falling off top bunks (drunken incident in Irkutsk) and after all the bunks were filled on the opening night drive, only a few hardy souls have ventured up since.

One of the totem poles at the Indian village at ‘Ksan

On the tables – The other option not high on my list of places to try. They are the two tables either side of the aisle halfway down the bus with the seats lifted up to provide a sleeping platform.

The cubby hole – Originally not fancied as it is a bit dark and cramped down there, but having spent a couple of cosy nights down there, it is now my berth of choice.

Admittedly you are a bit close to the pile of stinky shoes and it takes a bit of effort to get in and out, but it is the only place where you can neither fall off nor be trodden on.

The back area – The mattress-covered area at the back which provides the major seating (well, more sort of slouching and lying down) area during the day, it is certainly comfortable.

But with up to seven people on there it can get a bit cramped one point found me completely trapped with Pam and Dave managing to lie on the opposite edges of my sleeping bag.

Room with a view – Our campsite at Hazleton

The front area – Largely the same as the back with the front benches extended out to the full width of the bus.

My place of choice when we are camping and it is not fully converted, it is a bit of a pain during toilet breaks while driving as you can get trampled in the rush to get off the bus.

It also rules out any chance of a lie-in as it is always the first place to be packed away to let people off and give full access to the food cabinets beneath.

There is a sixth option with the small bench and table at the back which Freddie claimed as his own from day one. Quite why somebody who is 6ft 2in would want the smallest sleeping area on the bus is anybody’s guess, but he seems to like it.

A night drive hits the road any time between 10pm and 4am when the driver emerges from his personal cubby hole and sets off into the night.

Twin Falls
Twin Falls at Smithers – Excellent

The bulk of us disappear off into whatever town we have set up shop in and find whatever the locals do to amuse themselves – basically, an open invitation to sit in a bar until we have to clamber back on the bus and go to bed.

The general rule is that the first on board go to the back and we work forward until the last one on gets the space right at the front.

At least that’s the plan.

In reality, Mary and Duncan obey the rules and head to the back early, only to be woken when the late arrivals turn up to find people sleeping at the front, beds not made up and sleeping bags nowhere near where they were left.

It can be quite amusing to lie back and watch the chaos unfold.

But enough of that, let’s rewind to where you left us with another strange sleeping option looming – a sun lounger on the aft deck of a ferry.

Not too many stuck it out all night on the trip from Petersburg to Prince Rupert and back into Canada as it proved a fair bit colder and less comfortable than the previous ferry.

Icefield Parkway
Mt Fryatt on the spectacular Icefield Parkway

The reward for those who did – and we even let the others join in – were the delights of Prince Rupert which don’t amount to much, so after about 45 minutes walking its largely quiet streets, we jumped back on the bus.

Our destination was the small town of Hazleton, where the first evening in North America where it got fully dark at a relatively normal hour was whiled away playing frisbee golf, cribbage and stoking our addiction to wi-fi whenever it is available.

An early morning trip to the neighbouring Native American museum was followed by a short-ish drive to Smithers (excellent!) and the chance to yomp up to a couple of waterfalls, followed by a much longer drive to the much larger Prince George, our base before driving off into the night.

With free rein to spend all night in the pub, we were fairly restrained in Shooters Bar as we munched on massive portions of food, watched the second game of the Stanley Cup finals and took part, scandalously, in a trivia quiz.

Sad to say, our two teams’ solid performances in the general knowledge section was let down by our complete inability to identify most of the songs in the musical sections – apart from Freddie.

Icefield Parkway
View from the Athabasca River running alongside the Icefield Parkway

His encyclopaedic and surprising knowledge of nauseating modern pop trash and bland American rock ensured one of our teams walked away with the prize – free beer – in the first round.

It was only later that our youngest traveller confessed his perfect score had been achieved with the help of an application on his all-singing, all-dancing, all-cooking, all-knowing phone.

Having gone to bed in Prince George sometime after 1am, we awoke rather late in Jasper National Park at the Miette Hot Springs.

Apart from the delights of swimming, hot springs are greeted with glee as they come complete with showers and, on this occasion, a decent fry-up.

Icefield Parkway
Stutfield Glacier on the Icefield Parkway

The rest of the day was spent on the bus as we clocked up mile after mile en route to our next destination, Banff.

If around seven hours on a bus sounds boring, this was anything but as we glided down the truly spectacular Icefield Parkway, the undoubted new leader in any competition to find my favourite road in the world.

For mile after mile the bus windows were filled with spectacular views of mountains, rivers, lakes, forest, glaciers, icefields and, for a few magical moments, a bear.

Sightings of wildlife in the last couple of weeks have been fairly regular, but this black bear stole the show as he meandered along the side of the road seemingly oblivious to the cars, RVs and big green buses parked up to take his picture.

He was also an obliging soul, saving the day when one latecomer backed his huge 4×4 between us and him, crossing the road to give the Green Tortoise inhabitants a perfect view.

BearA stunning highlight to a wonderful journey and there was more wildlife on view on the banks of Lake Louise.

Whether it was a big porcupine or a wolverine is still up for debate, but he too hung around for the cameras as we decided that Lake Louise does not live up to its billing as the prettiest lake in the world.

The bear poses for the cameras after crossing the road to give us a better view

It’s pretty, yes, just not that pretty. But it is somewhere which has been on my places to see list since skiing at the resort just down the road back in my younger days.

Those two trips to Canada were based in Banff, so it was with some excitement that, after a whirlwind meal and setting up of the tents, a group of us waltzed into town to see what it has to offer.

Plenty of bars were as remembered – although the Barbary Coast has sadly been renamed and reborn as the Elk and Oarsman and the Rose and Crown was a bit dead – but we settled on one which had previously carried a fear of line dancing, Wild Bill’s Saloon.

Line dancing was, happily, off the menu, replaced instead by a night of karaoke as the locals unveiled a penchant for soft rock, Bryan Adams and country.

Lake Louise
Lake Louise

But very hospitable the locals were, even applauding and dancing along to Nick and Dave’s rendition of Sweet Child of Mine.

Strange these Canadians.

Mossie update: Thankfully, we are out of their territory for a few days, although still seem to be finding new bites in strange places.

My hands, head and arms are, on the whole, clearing up, but my legs are now home to some really lovely scabs where my trousers have rubbed the top off the bites.

And how those two huge red welts got on my foot is anybody’s guess.


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