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In and around Banff

We spend the first and last couple days of our visit to the Canadian Rockies exploring Banff.  We feel lucky that our first day ends up being the last day of straight months of rain.  Everyone we pass for the rest of the trip are in such high spirits that summer has finally arrived.  That said, our first, rainy day is spent exploring nearby towns, window shopping, brewery touring, ice cream eating, and taking a short hike up Tunnel Mountain when the weather breaks.

Banff is a little oasis nestled between tremendous peaks. Along with beautiful views, strenuous hikes, manicured gardens and river sport options a plenty, there’s also surprisingly good food, historic hotels and cute little coffee shops.  We feel right at home.  In many ways, it feels reminiscent of early weekends we spent exploring small towns in New England.

If you happen to find yourself in Banff, we loved our meals at Eden and Sky Bistro.

Cycling the parkways

The Icefields Parkway, a.k.a. Highway 93, is heralded as a top drive of a lifetime.  National Geographic rates it as one of the top drives in the world.  

This road is well-traveled, especially when nearing a magnificent view point like Lake Louise or Moraine.  Getting to experience each lake late at night, then early in the morning, and getting to approach each vista by bicycle is now the only way we could ever imagine doing it.  All vistas require a climb, and biking that climb makes the view all the more beautiful.  We crest a hill, we pause, we photograph, we snack (a lot!), we hydrate, and we marvel.  The longest day we ride is 110 km, the shortest is 50 km, and the climbing never stops.

We bike from hotel to hotel, and the views from our rooms don’t disappoint either.

Canadian lakes

The lakes of the Canadian Rockies come in every shade from light teal to dark blue, they’re all mirrors to their surrounding mountain peaks, and they’re around every corner of the parkway.  The science of why these lakes do what they do doesn’t ruin any of the magic.  The glacier melt, which feeds the lakes, carries something called glacier silt or rock flour.  This sunlight-reflecting silt comes from the glacier grinding along the rock underneath.  And not only does this silt reflect the sun, it also stays suspended in the water giving the lakes that spectacular uniform, full look that reflects anything it can.  From Lake Moraine to Lake Louise to Bow Lake to so many others that we passed each day on our bicycles, the surprise of their color never gets old.   

Banff’s Bow Valley Parkway

Like a fairytale complete with tree-lined rolling hills and train whistles on the regular, the highway is our thoroughfare as we bike through Banff’s famous Bow Valley Parkway.  The snow-capped mountains surrounding us tower towards blue skies, and the color of the river running next to us is that same surreal teal that fills the lakes.  We own the uphills, we relish the downhills, there are no flats.  There’s no better way to explore the Canadian Rockies.

Bear spray

“If you want, we can lend you some bear spray” is a helpful tip we receive upon asking for hike suggestions around Banff.  

Lindsey doesn’t flinch, so I’m not sure whether I should be making it a bigger deal or not.  I look at her for a cue, and then realize.  “Hun, I don’t think they’re warning us about mosquito bites, I think they’re protecting us from grizzly and black bears.”  

For someone who I know is so afraid of bats, I can’t imagine such comfort with the idea of crossing a giant bear on the trail.

“Oh! Oh wow! Ya – I didn’t get that at all.”  Lindsey continues to think through some of the implications.  “If we see one, we spray it?  Do we run, act big, roll over?”  Okay – maybe she didn’t say the roll over part, but that’s for dramatic effect in the retellings of the story.

“If you encounter a bear, the first thing you should do is…”  There’s a short pause, but long enough for someone else behind the counter to chime in.  At the same time, we hear, “run” and “definitely don’t run”.  It’s conflicting advice, but at least now we’re armed with the most intense pepper spray (a.k.a. bear spray) we’ve ever had.

The level of fear from everyone we ask about bears is cautious but not scared, and so over a couple days, we also try to develop a similar attitude.

During the orientation of our bike tour, we’re presented with some more information on bear safety.  Stay 100 meters away if you see a bear, unless it’s right on the side of the road, and then just don’t stop.  And if a bear starts chasing you, hope you’re not the slowest cyclist – bears are fast!

On day 2 of our ride through the Canadian Rockies, we pass a black bear cub within feet of the side of the road.  A couple cars are stopped to witness this adorable cub without mama bear anywhere in sight, or so we think.  Per our directions, we keep moving.  Definitely gets our heart rates up, but it’s all part of the adventure!

Mosi oa Tunya (a.k.a. Vic Falls)

Our honeymoon has been indescribably epic. It only stands to reason then, that we’d end our trip at one of the most epic waterfalls in the world: Victoria Falls. 

We see the falls from the Zimbabwe side, switching cars three times each way as we’re escorted over the border. We emerge soaking wet from the spray, laughing and amazed at the mini-rainforest that the constant fall of water has created. 

We say goodbye to the falls, happy to end our trip on such a high, only to learn that it was about to get even better. Our travel agent has booked us a surprise viewing of the falls… by helicopter! 

Our honeymoon was the trip of a lifetime and the coolest thing we’d ever done. We’re so grateful for this experience and cannot wait to return, hopefully next time with a family to share it with.

A village tour

In Botswana, the small population is supported by a government that has done well using diamond profits to provide free education and healthcare to all 2.2M citizens. Zambian people have not had the same luck. 

Livingstone is known as the tourist town, and is largely supported by the tourism industry. Our hotel in particular, has been created largely to support the local villages. Profits have been used to build a school that grows by a grade level each year. Children age 3-8 walk up to 3k every morning to attend, believing strongly that education is their way out of poverty. In the coming years, the hotel hopes to pay the bill for any student who wants to continue their education into high school or college. 

The hotel also supports the local villages by hiring locally. The boat driver at the hotel shows us his home in the village and introduces us to his wife and family. His salary, he tells us, supports 30 members of the village. It had also been enough to pay the lobola (dowry) for his wife – a common practice in Southern Africa where the eldest uncle determines how many cows his niece is worth. 

After hearing about the poverty in Zambia and visiting craft markets where people asked to trade goods for our used socks, it felt like one of the few true solutions to a more systemic problem: education and opportunity.

The birds and the bugs

When we tell our guide that there are almost no bugs in San Francisco he says, “Wow… What happened?” The people of Botswana and Zambia, we come to find, have a necessarily different relationship with bugs. When we arrive at the Island of Siankaba, we’re told there are very few bugs, but shine a light on anything that you’re eating at night, and you’ll surely find a few small friends that have taken a liking to the dish as well. (Best to not shine the light.) In the bush, we ate more bugs than we likely would in a year at home, but that’s the bush for you. Now we’re in a 5-star hotel in Zambia, close to Livingstone, so I’m more squeamish when I see two big bugs on our table the first night we arrive. We skip the cheese plate to rush back to our room – I’m anxious for the sanctuary of our tent.

The tent is a gorgeous room set high on stilts, making it feel like we’re staying in a treehouse. Each of the six rooms overlooks the Zambezi river, a quiet haven along the waterway that leads to Victoria Falls. The rooms are connected by raised walkways and bridges that swing as you walk, and as we’re on a literal island, a boat or mokoro must be taken to the mainland.

I’m skittish when we arrive back to our room that night, and we’re careful to close the door quickly to avoid more bugs inside. We turn on the light and I scream. “Really, hun?” But then he sees it too. There’s a bird in our room, flying fast and aimlessly. Andrew runs for help as I duck and cover in the bathroom, unfortunately open at the top to the main space. It had apparently escaped by the time the staff came to catch him, but still I was grateful for the mosquito net keeping me safe.

The next day I tell another guest about the bird. He’s from Zambia and his brother works at the hotel, so I assume he’ll find the story funny and not scary. “We had a bird in our room last night!” “Wow, a bird and a bat?!” “No, just a bird,” I say. “Oh, I heard you had a bat.” “A bat?” I look at Andrew. He’d struck a deal with the staff to not tell me it was bat migration season due to my newfound phobia.

Busted.

On our last night in this resort, there’s another. But this time I know what it is, this time it meets me in the bathroom and this time Andrew chases it out of the room himself. My husband has become quite a man of the bush.

Cats

There was a spotting last night of leopard tracks on the western bank of the Khwai river not far from where the hyena den sits.  Definitely wasn’t a lion.  Lions tracks are larger and almost always travel in groups – there was only tracks from one animal here.  Wasn’t a cheetah either.  They usually show off an indentation from their sharp claws.  Same goes for hyenas and wild dogs.  If there are no claw prints, wasn’t them.  Thus, our mission if we choose to accept it is to track down the leopard. (Note: the only thing we’ll be shooting are photographs.)

First thing, the tracks are now stale, but luckily there was a light rain over night wiping clean our etch-a-sketch of earth.  The temperature is still cool at 5:45am in the morning, and as we close in on the location of the tracks, we find fresh ones pointing due east in the direction of the rising sun.

We cut the engine and listen and wait and listen some more.  Birds are just waking up, the wind rustles through the leaves, the hippo laughs at a corny joke just beside the river.  Then we hear it, an alarm call.  Many of the birds sound an alarm upon spotting a predator, but one that we’ve become attuned to is that of the Starling.  We scan the branches looking for the culprit of the sound.  We find the bird and strain our eyes to see where it’s looking.

We test the boundaries of the vehicle hoping not to get stuck and drive around looking in branches and under trees for the amazingly camouflaged feline.  Although the truck sounds like thunder, we keep our voices to a whisper.  Our heartbeats are louder than our words as we scan.  We circle the patch of bushes once, twice, three times, and cut the engine again to listen.  The alarm is gone and so is our leopard.

The magic of safari and the adrenaline that follows is that it’s not a zoo.  There are no guarantees what we’ll see, when we’ll see, how we’ll see.  The only certainty of the day is its uncertainty.  And so we continue, and as we go, we rest to enjoy the hippos, impala, giraffes, zebras and elephants. And every so often, we hear what might be an alarm call, stop the car, listen, hunt, and repeat.  And every time we do, I’ve got my camera locked and loaded waiting for the perfect moment.

After feeling so close for most of the morning, we finally catch our break.  The alarming Starling looks deep into the brush, and we try to see what it’s seeing.  I’d love to take credit, but our guide eyes a spotted tail.  We drive around to see if we can get a better look, and eventually we do!  There’s a blue-eyed leopard carefully watching us through the cloak of leaves all around.

And then, when we’re already satisfied, the leopard starts to move.  It has spotted a baby impala not too far.  It’s steps are so slow, so methodical, so quiet.  We wait and don’t even whisper to each other not wanting to disrupt the moment.  After much maneuvering by both parties, the impala comes within striking distance of the leopard.  The leopard, also being too young, misses its opportunity, wagging its tail in disappointment.  But what a moment.  We’d have loved to see more action, but the suspense and beauty of the slow motion chase is still a thrill.

Whenever Lindsey or I sneeze, we’d also hint that our cat allergies were giving us another clue, but that one was much less reliable than the tracks and the birds.  But whenever a real clue would show itself, we’d become detectives and enjoy every moment of the hunt.  Each exotic find equally exciting.  We got to see lions and cubs up close, we came across several leopards, and were even lucky to stumble upon the elusive serval cat.

Christmas in the bush

Botswana is a primarily Catholic country, so Christmas is just as important to the staff as it is the guests. The meals are made for celebration and eaten at a special table that accommodates both camps. We’re treated to a wonderful performance of song and dance by the giddy staff, a mashup of styles between the tribes. It’s our guide’s birthday, so we spend the afternoon crafting makeshift wrapping paper for a gift we bought from the gift shop. (Temple tipped us off on a hat he’d had his eyes on. It was so fun seeing him open it.) Our night game drive reveals few animals, but an incredible lightning storm filling the sky from all sides in an open plain: Christmas fireworks.