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The Spirits of the West

Miriam Matejova

© Miriam Matejova

As Matt slams on the brakes, the car sways and skids on the loose gravel sprinkled along the highway.

“That was it, ” he says matter-of-factly and rotates the steering wheel in preparation for a U-turn.

“I don't know... it doesn't seem like a road to me. ” I eye the narrow track we've just passed. It is barely visible from across the highway. It is lined with a mixture of wet dirt and dust, medium-sized puddles and small rocks. A few shabby bushes frame its entrance.

“It's a ghost town, ” Matt says sarcastically. “There sure won't be a nice paved road leading to it. ” He turns the car around and takes it across the empty highway.

I stick my head out the window, attempting to get a good view of the dirt road. It disappears, slightly uphill, into a seemingly uninhabited plain, which is abruptly cut off by a mountain.

“Why exactly must you visit this ghost town? ” Matt shoots me a sideways glance and grabs the steering wheel with both hands. It is shaking as the car's wheels bounce on the uneven dirt.

“It's an unfulfilled desire I've acquired from my Wild West books. ”

“Wild West books written by that German guy who has never been to the Wild West…?” Matt smirks and then slightly jumps in his seat when a small rock hits his window. He murmurs something under his breath. I assume it's a swearword, so I don't ask him to repeat it.

“He has been to the West. ” I let a few seconds slide by. “After he'd written those books. ”

“Ha! ” Matt barks out, having expected my addendum. Then he turns the steering wheel abruptly to the left to avoid a large mud puddle. The right front wheel catches the edge of the puddle anyway, sending a shower of muddy droplets and lumps of earth across the front windshield.

Minutes of silence pass. They engulf us as the car rolls to a stop in front of a rugged logging road barred by a large abandoned truck and decorated by both a directional sign for Garnet and a derisive yellow detour sign.

“Damn your German books, ” Matt growls as he turns the car in the direction of the detour. The road narrows, becomes dustier and begins curving up and around the mountain.

I turn away from his frowning face and stick my head out of my window once again. “But now that I think about it, Karl May never wrote about ghost towns. My unfulfilled desire must have come from the Donald Duck comics, ” I yell into the breeze that is hitting my face. My effort to be heard is unnecessarily, since the vehicle is not moving fast enough to generate wind that would make my voice inaudible. The growing abyss just outside of my window, however, forces my voice to quiver as I say the word “comics. ”

In the distance I see rolling hills covered with neat rows of deciduous forests. Fog is snaking around, filling the depressions in hillsides, the gaps between the trees, and the winding valley below. Right next to us, there are no reassuring contours of the dirt road but a grassy cliff side—the kind you usually don't want to be too close to, unless you are secured by a rock climbing rope. As we approach a switchback, the road narrows and Matt slows the car down to a crawl.

“There are tons of ghost towns in BC, ” he says, his voice rising in exasperation.       

© Miriam Matejova

“But we're not in BC now. We are in Montana, ” I reply, pulling my head back into the car. I glance at the thick tourist book I've picked up at one of Montana's visitors centers. It is now lying by my feet on a dusty rubber car mat that is in dire need of vacuuming. The cover features two cowboys riding into the sunset toward a black silhouette of a petroleum tower. I kick the book to emphasize my point, even though Matt cannot see it.

After several more switchbacks, detour signs and sideways glares, we reach the top of the mountain. At the edge of a deserted parking lot surrounded by lush pines, we find a series of detailed information plaques and a small forest walking trail that allegedly leads to Garnet. After a few meters the trail opens into a natural viewing platform, offering a quasi-aerial view of the town. The accompanying information sign names Garnet as one of Montana's most intact ghost towns.

Garnet doesn't seem intact to me; it is divided by vegetation – pines, shrubs, grass – all keen on reclaiming their former territory. The sight of dark wooden cabins spread over a small hill in no apparent pattern clashes with my idea of a symmetrically built town with colourful buildings, porches, and straight, distinct dust roads. Garnet reminds me of my children's games when I used to pick up poorly molded plastic models of Wild West settlers' towns and scatter them over a green playing mat.

“It's eerily quiet here. You could hear coyotes howling at the moon, ” I say when we reach Garnet's first buildings at the foot of a small hill.

“It's eight in the morning. You can't see the moon, ” Matt replies drily.  

Ignoring him, I take in the view of the first ghost town I have ever visited. Garnet came to being in the 1890s as a result of the combination of long-term geological activity, several lucky strikes and ever-present human greed. The gold-bearing quartz shone bright enough through miles of inaccessible thick forest cover and rugged mountainside. In 1898, at the beginning of the boom, the town had a population of some 1,000 people. Seven years later, this population shriveled to some 150.

Garnet's sudden abandonment stirs my imagination. “You can hear the wind in the trees, the crickets in the unkempt grass, tiny rat feet running across a dusty street... ” I say, enthusiasm rising within me. “A lone miner returning from a long shift, exhausted yet empty handed…” I turn around to enjoy Matt's appreciation of my atmosphere-setting skills, but he is gone. The town is still. The only discernible noise comes from the wind that is slowly moving the branches of the surrounding pines.

I shrug and turn toward the most appealing building in sight. The saloon (one of the 13 that used to operate in Garnet back in the 1890s) is a lone two-story building, unremarkably small in size, with a couple of windows both downstairs and upstairs. I draw my face close to one of the downstairs windowpanes, placing both hands next to my eyes to keep out the glaring sun. “Can you hear the piano tinkling? ” runs through my head, a mental imprint of one of the parking lot's information signs. I tilt my head sideways. A ghostly sound of a saloon refrain resonates throughout the building.

There is an old piano in one of the corners of the main room, its once vibrant wooden parts faded into dusty gray. I imagine eerie music drifting through the shadows. A beam of the morning sun illuminates dust particles suspended in the air – they are slowly falling on the planked floor. The floor creaks as heavy miner boots cross to the bar where the beer glasses are already clinking.

The gravel just off to the right of me rustles. I jump away from the dusty window and turn toward the unnerving sound. I see nothing but a rusting black mine trolley. It has been parked in an uncut grassy area, amidst a few scattered sun-bleached boulders. Its four wheels are resting on a piece of track that goes nowhere. 

Warily, I walk up the gravel road, eyeing the mine cart as I pass it. I briefly stop by Garnet's last standing general store. There is a blackened old poster featuring a drawing of a handsome young man enthusiastically recommending “a mild sweet chew. ” The dark brown and black smudges are eating away parts of the fellow's head and curling up the unpinned edges of the poster. Avoiding the rusty nails, I run my hand along one of the framing planks. I imagine the wood's grooves hold snippets of sounds long gone: children's giggling, small feet shuffling, hands gliding across the planked wall, incomprehensible whispering that precedes a planned mischief. 

I pull my hand away and step back. Then, I continue up the gravel road, uphill toward a cluster of miners' cabins. I pass a magnificent structure of a hotel, standing three stories high, with dark-stained wood and once-carved doors. Across the road, dwarfed by the hotel's size, is Garnet's blacksmith shop. I can almost feel the heat of the forge as I hurry past its low-placed window.

Garnet's miners' homes are small log buildings daubed with mud, grass and moss. Built quickly and with whatever material was available, they now stand in empty silence, their hasty simplicity clashing with Garnet's fulfilled promise of the riches. Missing doors and windowpanes are tempting my inner adventurer but dissuading the child part of me that used to climb into my mother's bed in the middle of the night, terrified of the moving shadows.

The cabin I walk into is nothing but a small, sparsely furnished room, built without firm foundations and abandoned. A small stove, heavily spotted with rust, stands in a corner amidst the debris of some miner's simple life. The faded remnants of clothing hanging on two large rusted nails above the stove move in a wind that isn't there. I can almost hear the crackling of the fire and the scraping of the chair as a heavy body pulls it closer to the radiating heat. The cabin logs release a faint smell of pine; they are beginning to overheat. The dripping of water leaking in through the board roof echoes against the metal curves of a large black pot.

The floor creaks behind me, prompting me to swiftly turn around. Matt is leaning against the doorframe. “Have you seen the jail? ” he asks, his earlier irritability replaced with an enthusiasm of an impatient adventurer.

I breathe out. “I don't think so, but a few buildings here would qualify. ” My claustrophobic tendency seeps out with my words.

“It wasn't actually used, ” Matt offers. “Only once – for some guy who got drunk and killed someone's dog. Now that's a true Wild West story. ” He doesn't wait for my reply but turns around and walks out of the cabin. I follow him.

“Karl May was a great literary figure, ” I say to Matt's back. He chuckles but doesn't turn around.

I continue: “Although some may call him a delusional fraudster, he learned all the facts from books and supplemented them with a great, although at times heavily idealized, imagination. ”

Matt's shoulders shake slightly. He keeps walking down the gravel road ahead of me. “Idealization used to sell back then, ” I shout and run down the hill to catch up with his receding form. He grabs my hand and we step up a forest path, leaving Garnet behind. A cool wisp of air swirls around my shoulders. I shiver and look up toward the treetops. The old pines are motionless. “Imagination, too, ” I murmur as I lose sight of the last wooden building of Montana's most preserved ghost town.  

Miriam Matejova holds a BA (Hons) in International Studies from the University of Northern British Columbia and an MA in International Affairs from Carleton University. Presently, she is working as an economist at Environment Canada in Ottawa. Miriam also volunteers as a translator and reviewer for the TED Open Translation Project and writes academic papers on environmental security and Canada's foreign intelligence.  


Smitten with Yosemite

Clive Branson

Glacier Point Lookout © Clive Branson

By the time I reach Coarsegold, a hiccup of a town infested by former bikers and hippies now operating flea markets of t-shirts and tie-dye merchandise, it has been a four-and-a-half hour drive from Cambria. RVs are reconfigured like circled wagons and used as kiosks selling knick-knacks beside posters of bikini-clad females postulating next to beer products. The only thing missing is a hemp store. I continue onwards and slowly ascend to the town of Oakhurst, noted for its tacos, burgers, and zucchinis. I'm sure this backwater town depends heavily each year on another injection of summer tourists arriving bumper-to-bumper. I eat at a grease parlour and notice the tourist brochures advertising the Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, the Mercer Caverns, and the eternity of Jesus's love.

It is a small fee to enter Yosemite National Park. At the entrance, you have the option of turning right to the Mariposa Grove and the view the magnificent giant sequoias or turning left to Yosemite Park. I have time before my expected arrival at Yosemite's Curry Village, so I venture off to explore the largest living things in the world – the Sierra Redwoods. You can identify these giant sequoias by their swollen or buttressed base and cinnamon-coloured bark. These natural wonders are not to be confused with the smaller Coast Redwoods. The Sierra Redwoods are only found in isolated pockets along the central and southern Sierra Nevada. The Mariposa Grove claims 500 mature giant sequoias, some dating back 3,000 years and reaching staggering heights of between 5,500 and 7,000 ft. The Grizzly Giant, a 2,400-ft.-high behemoth with a volume of 34,005 cubic ft., is so large that park-rangers were able to build a pedestrian tunnel through it.

Half Dome © Clive Branson

By early May, obstinate piles of snow are still nursed under a cool, deep-hued canopy of trees. The sinuous ribbon of road undulates like a bitten, dying serpent as my car plods its way up Glacier Point Road, narrowly averting tour buses bullying their way in the opposite direction. Every couple of minutes a road sign signals another ear-popping 1,000-ft. elevation. By 7,000 ft., all traces of snow have vanished under a radiant sun while a pine-resin fragrance fills my nostrils. The summit's view of Yosemite Valley from 8,000 ft. is breathtaking. The landscape beyond seems to unfold in layers of imposing mountains, celestial waterfalls and wide, vaporous skies. The flesh of the land is covered by stubble of prickly pine. Here, the monoculture of tourism hasn't defiled the scenery with its modern face. Everything is beautifully preserved. It is with gratitude to John Muir for his diligence, President Theodore Roosevelt for his foresight, and Ansel Adams for his inspiration that we may enjoy the majesty of Yosemite, an area produced and packaged by nature.

There are over 800 miles of trails for hikers and horseback riders in Yosemite. April and May are ideal months to arrive here. The waterfalls cascade with thundering amplitude, the streams and lakes are gin clear, and though the temperatures during the day range from welcoming to hot, the evenings can be surprisingly nippy. Summer brings the crowds and the blooming flowers, but the heat saps and drains the waterfalls. Autumn displays its kaleidoscope of colours and winter brings a cathedral hush, blanketing the whole scenery with snow that looks more like sugar powdering on a chocolate cake.

Upper Yosemite © Clive Branson

The road to Curry Village plunges past the tree tips of sequoias and drops into a mountain tunnel. Upon exiting the darkness, all my senses are immediately suspended in slight disbelief. Before me, revealing all her glory, Yosemite lies prostrated like some dazzling centerfold. It is a valley of tree temples and granite skyscrapers. The names alone conjure up omnipotence: Cathedral Rock, El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite Falls, and Sentinel Dome. To give you an idea of size, El Capitan, the world's largest granite mass, measured at 3,000 ft., is double the height of Gibraltar. The valley's geological formation can be observed from this observation point. To think that it had been submerged for two million years under a mantle of snow and ice only to be revealed by a receding glacier some 14,000 years ago. The glacier was a conveyor belt of debris that clawed its way back, leaving a trench of naked peaks and smooth domes. The remaining snow and ice turned into lakes that eventually dried up and became the present-day valley.

Half Dome, the main attraction in this pantheon, displays its bold and bald granite face like some old but dignified statesman. It is North America's sheerest cliff at only seven degrees from vertical scale. The northwest portion of the rock appears cleanly sliced off, like shaving cream removed by a razor blade. Such a severe slice of granite makes me strongly suspect that this dissection was caused by the receding glacier, but in fact, as the glacier melted away, the 8,842-ft. iconic emblem was exposed in its present state, and it has remained unaltered for 87 million years. That is until March 28, 2009, when a seismic 2.5 earthquake provoked a large rockslide, bulldozing hundreds of trees and burying a portion of Mirror Lake trail. The rock takes half a day to climb (10 to 14 hours round trip) and is off limits during an electrical storm – and for good reason: the Half Dome is a lightning conductor. Stories recall the tragedy of a group foolhardy enough to be stranded up there on such an occurrence. On August 1985, five hikers climbed up the Half Dome late in the day to be met by misfortune. Trying to evade a lightning storm, four of them scrambled into a cave, only to be struck by two ferocious lightning bolts that instantly killed two and gravely injured the rest.

Yosemite Falls © Clive Branson

The four million annual visitors that surge into Yosemite tend to concentrate within a seven-mile wedge referred to as Yosemite Valley, where services are abundant. The valley offers a visitor information center, a museum, campgrounds, stores, restaurants, cafeterias, a post office, a bar, a general store, a medical center, shower facilities, hotels and an Ansel Adams Gallery. Yosemite's aim is to educate and help visitors appreciate conservation through activities such as bus tours, free shuttle rides, biking and hiking, bird and wildlife watching, horseback riding, rafting, rock climbing, hikes up Vernal and Nevada Falls, swims in Mirror Lake, theatre, ranger-led guided tours, and evening events under an indigo sky salted with stars. Accommodation ranges from canvas cabins and guest cottages to a luxury hotel. Prices can vary from $86 to $500/night based on your degree of “roughing it. ”

For accommodation, I choose Curry Village with its 183 canvas cabins. It is the largest lodging complex in Yosemite Valley. Though the cabins look like MASH units suitably but sparsely furnished with green, army steel-framed cots, a boudoir and a chair, it is a great deal and worth every cent. Each cabin is supplied with sheets and a blanket, but you would be well advised to bring a sleeping bag. A propane heater automatically turns on at night when the temperature dips below 55 degree Fahrenheit. The cabin is wrapped in a wooden and canvas skin. It is advised - no, demanded - that all food, soap, shampoo, and anything else with a scent, be placed in a strongbox at the entrance of each cabin to prevent encounters with bears. This is no complacent afterthought for there have been stories of the four-legged carnivores ripping a car roof open like it was a sardine tin just for an orange peel.

There is something a bit unnerving about the stillness of a forest. Whatever is in it can see you, but you can't see it. Still, it would be rare to sight a bear or a cougar, though signs do indicate visitors to be vigilant (I seem to notice these signs only at the end of the trails). Skittish mull deer graze in numbers in the meadows while eagles and turkey vultures soar above. But of all Yosemite's natural wonders, perhaps the 13 waterfalls and cascades are the most popular with visitors. The park's falls are some of the highest in the world: Yosemite Falls plunges from a total of 2,425 ft. Some of the most spectacular falls are Sentinel, Ribbon Falls, and the grand-daddy of them all, Yosemite Falls, which is comprised of three separate falls. You can walk through the clouds of mist to hear the pounding of Lower Yosemite Falls, or for the adventurous and fit, hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls, a 3.6-mile trail that climbs 2,700 ft. and takes hikers to the very precipice of the fall's edge.

Yosemite was established as a national park to preserve natural scenery and habitat unmatched anywhere. It has three major features: High Sierra wildlands, groves of giant sequoias, and the fertile Yosemite Valley. But what I like most about it is that it tries not to compromise itself to excessive commercialism, though I'm sure it's under constant threat. The park expects you to be responsible and respectful, and in return it offers visitors the opportunity to be overwhelmed not only by the obvious beauty but also by the quality of peace found here. It's a humbling experience.

Clive Branson is an advertising creative director/copywriter and a freelance writer/photographer whose work has been published internationally. Some of his work can be viewed on his website http://www.provocadv.com.


The Grand Canyon,
One Step at a Time

Nicole Farn

On the North Kaibab Trail © Nicole Farn

My husband, Troy, once told me that sometimes, right before he turns off the shower, he swings the tap all the way to cold and stands under the icy stream for a few seconds to, and I quote, "cut a streak of mental toughness." Seriously. This is the thought that entered my mind as, after seven hours of hiking down from its North Rim, we reached the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park, a World Heritage Site and popular tourist stop in northwestern Arizona, encompasses over a million acres. It offers a record of three eras of geological time, houses undisturbed ecosystems and rare plant and animal species, and provides a coveted photo op for enthusiastic sightseers and impassioned bucketlisters. Most of the five million people who visit Grand Canyon National Park annually take in the panoramic landscape from one of the overlooks located along the South Rim, the most accessible part of the park.

Dwarfed by Nature © Nicole Farn

From this vantage point, there is no denying that the view as far as the eye can see is spectacular. The canyon's colorful rainbow of rock layers, intricately carved out by the Colorado River, ripple down the canyon walls. Images of the inner canyon, however, are left to be conjured up only by the mind's eyes. Far below the rim, the canyon walls converge, and the impressive opening of the earth is reduced to a network of deceptively fine fissures concealing what lies even deeper inside. Short on imagination, with an abundance of curiosity, and a desire to be included in the less than 1% of visitors who venture into the canyon's backcountry each year, we had felt compelled to take a closer look.

At 5a.m., by the paltry light of our headlamps, with our backpacks loaded and our hiking boots double-knotted, we set out from the trailhead on the Grand Canyon's less-visited North Rim to begin the 24-mile hike from rim to rim. Although we opted for self-propulsion, our options for exploring the inner canyon had also included riding mules, rafting down the Colorado, and hiring a helicopter. Troy rejected the mule idea outright (something about chafing he said I wouldn't understand). A rafting trip was ruled out given that booking a year in advance is typically required, and our pockets were not deep enough to contract a chopper. And so, with every footstep that propelled us, every switchback that teased us, every rock face that dwarfed us, and every eco-toilet that relieved us, we experienced the Grand Canyon, one step at a time.

Prickley Pear Cactus © Nicole Farn

At mile 5.4, on the Pump House message board presumably intended for communicating trail updates and warnings, I eagerly (albeit unoriginally) scrawled, "Nicole and Troy were here!" Somewhere between this show of enthusiasm and the Bright Angel Campground (our day-one destination at mile 14), I became acutely aware of sweating in places I hadn't thought possible. I was losing water seemingly faster than I could replenish it, and certainly faster than my moisture-wicking clothing could wick, and I found myself questioning our capacity for rational decision making. We had been cautioned at the Backcountry Information Centre about the risks associated with desert hiking. We had been counselled on the importance of hydration and the risks of dehydration. We had also been warned that 350 requests for hiker assistance are made from the canyon each year. And yet, we had not been deterred.

Silver Suspension Bridge © Nicole Farn

The dial thermometer mounted on the sign that welcomed us to Bright Angel Campground boasted 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and I couldn't help thinking about – fantasizing about, really – a very cold shower. I also allowed myself to contemplate whether my husband's theory about the acquisition of “mental toughness” was particular to the endurance of cold temperatures or just extremes in general. Because to be honest, despite a past that does not include showering rituals bordering on the certifiably insane, I was feeling particularly mentally tough in the punishing heat of the moment.

Standing at Bright Angel Campground, more than halfway across one of the seven natural wonders of the world and 5,800 feet below the Grand Canyon's North Rim, I found myself smugly relishing every bit of my accomplishment. I wanted to pump my fists in the air and shout, "Hey Grand Canyon, is that all you got?" Achievement celebration, however, gave way to energy replenishment. I shed my backpack, wiped my brow, tipped my head into the meagre shade of a prickly pear cactus and, recognizing the novel presence of a reliable drinking water source, I chugged the rationed contents of my water bottle with the veracity of a Mountain Dew snowboarder. Only then did I proceed with the fist pumping and the shouting. And, to my delight, the walls of the Canyon answered back.

Staircase to the South Rim © Nicole Farn

Soaking my sore-yet-satisfied body in Bright Angel Creek, having earned my place inside the unspoiled splendor of the seldom-seen inner canyon, I managed to find fulfillment in spite of physical discomfort. Sleep, however, would prove more elusive. Our sweltering night included a two-man tent housing four sticky limbs vying for space free of contact from one another, a chorus of "You're touching me," and one frustrated, yet futile, attempt (by Troy, not me) to beat the heat by stretching out naked on a picnic table. We abandoned sleep in the early morning hours, once again donned our trusty headlamps, and resumed our quest for the South Rim, hoping to get a head start on the sun.

What lay ahead was a 5,000-foot climb. We braved the Silver Suspension Bridge, 65 feet above the thundering Colorado River, by moonlight. At first light, we ascended rock staircases that carved their way toward the horizon. At sunup, we relished the dewy smell of solitude inside the oasis of the Indian Gardens, and in the light of day, we yielded to mule trains making their way into the canyon. Finally, under the full strength of the sun, we were greeted with binocular-toting tourists as we reached the South Rim.

Splendour from the South Rim © Nicole Farn

Rising to our Grand Canyon challenge had come down to a matter of shear will overcoming the body's desire to protest. The resolve to simply put one foot in front of the other had proven, without a doubt, to be more fulfilling than foolish. Five hours into day two, with burning quads and a blazing desire for a shower (cold or otherwise), and having, in my estimation, cut a respectable streak of mental toughness, we found ourselves once again taking in the panoramic landscape from one of the overlooks on the South Rim. Only this time with the satisfaction that the Grand Canyon is indeed spectacular as far as the eye can see. And beyond.

Nicole Farn lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Together with her husband, she spent a year traveling around the world seeking adventure, volunteer opportunities, and a new perspective. What she found was a desire to explore even further, a passion for social justice, and a love of storytelling. Today, Nicole Farn is part writer, part editor, part engineer, and all restless explorer.


A Shadow of the Past

Miriam Matejova

Pajstun's defence tower © Miriam Matejova

“ He was decapitated. ” Lynn placed her nearly empty beer mug down on a wobbly wooden table and snickered. The table was a component of sparse outdoor paraphernalia that belonged to a small pub – one of the two taverns you could find in the village of Borinka, situated in the Little Carpathian Mountains about 20km from Slovakia's capital, Bratislava.

“With a saber,” my friend continued, her narrative selection seeming to stem from the ways-you-would-not-want-to-die list. Her brown eyes narrowed as she drew breath in preparation for enlightening me with some grisly details. “Blood spraying everywhere, brains splattering against the rocky terrain…” Her voice trailed off into a raspy whisper. She must have learnt that from the myriad horror movies we used to watch together as children.

“One, two, Freddy's coming for you…” involuntarily echoed in my head.

“And,” Lynn swiftly added, raising her chin slightly, grabbing her beer again. “His head was never found.” She grinned, then gulped down the rest of her beer and slammed the mug on the table.

I furrowed my brows. “Tatars didn't use sabers. They used bows and arrows.”

“Details!” Lynn rewarded my knowledge of ancient war habits of violent nomadic Turkic hordes with a snort and got up. “We better get going. As much as the ruins are fun at night, the view in pitch darkness is nothing special.”

I rolled my eyes and followed her, deciding not to start an argument about Mikulas' gruesome (and questionable) death. Mikulas the Fifth: one of the owners of the Castle Pajstun, an 800-year old ruin and a favourite weekend destination for the apartment dwellers of the city of Bratislava. Owned by generations of powerful Central European families, Pajstun used to serve as a border defence structure until the early 19th century when its defences failed to resist Napoleon's canons.

I hadn't been at Pajstun Castle for years, but from what I remembered, the hike was dreadful. It entailed at least 40 minutes of tramping on an unpleasantly steep forest trail. The image of slippery fallen leaves and a strong smell of mushrooms had accompanied every one of my Pajstun memories. Yet, all I saw now, standing on a shabby sidewalk near Borinka's pub, was an inviting wide gravel path commencing at the establishment's entrance and disappearing a few metres ahead in a cluster of beech trees. Perhaps my memories were embellished. It may just be that when you are a child, everything is slightly exaggerated.

Or not. After roughly 15 minutes of pleasant strolling, the wide gravel path turned into a steep, narrow forest trail. The hill was as arduous as I remembered. Moreover, it was infested with mosquitoes eager to feast on our blood, ignorant of the vast volumes of Off Lynn and I kept spraying on each other as we sweated our way upward.

“How can… still keep… biting me?” I puffed, struggling to catch my breath. “There is no… oxygen left… in me.”

Lynn, who was a few metres ahead of me, turned around and grinned, walking backwards. “Exactly. You're puffing too much, creating a great CO2 bubble around you and graciously inviting mosquitoes to a delicious… ah…damn… go away!” she started spitting. Both her hands sprung to her face, waving around, fending off an invisible fiend. Somehow, she never stopped walking backwards.

I, on the other hand, had to pause and lean against one of the slanted trees, as laughter, not compatible with steep hill hiking, took more of my breath away. And that's when I saw him. He was short and stocky, and it seemed as if he had been sneaking behind us since we left the village.

“Better hurry up!” I yelled at my friend and promptly caught up with her still-twisting form. “You are creating a wonderful CO2 bubble.” I laughed as I mercifully sprayed her with some unpleasantly odorous bug repellent, which unmercifully reached her eyes. I got nothing back but expletives and ingratitude. I didn't alert Lynn of our suspicious pursuer.

Among the trees, I caught a glimpse of faded bricks, the building blocks of Pajstun's entrance gate. The gate was a massive wall with a parabolic-shaped gap and a few high-set window openings. There was once a portcullis, but the only evidence of its past existence was an easily overlookable elongated depression in the crumbling brick wall.           

“Damn,” I muttered as I walked through the gap. Lynn was yet again ahead of me, continuing on the steep path that was now approaching vertical status. It was winding upward and covered with fallen debris from the deteriorating and once magnificent grounds we'd just entered.          

Entering the grounds of Castle Pajstun © Miriam Matejova

“Why didn't we just cut it through the other side of the hill? It may have been a faster way up!” I yelled at my friend, impatiently kicking a piece of stone in my way and unwillingly wondering from where it had broken off. Every piece of these ancient walls lying around – the boulders with sides a little too perfect to have never been touched by a manmade tool, the dusty remnants of sturdy red bricks, a massive stone face of a lion detached from a much larger and much more elevated structure – all these spoke of times long gone. They also spoke of the nostalgia for what shall never repeat, of a helplessness to return the lost splendour to these walls, to stop them from merging with the surrounding landscape.        

“There's no other way up!” Lynn yelled back from somewhere ahead of me. “It was common to build the access road on the right-hand side. Defence planning, really.”        

“That doesn't make sense,” I said, finding my way to the source of Lynn's voice. “If you make it within the shooting distance on one side…” I stopped as I walked around a trail bend and saw her sitting on top of a small grassy knoll. Only from a certain angle was it evident that the oddly shaped mound used to be one of Pajstun's chambers.

“A photo?” Lynn grinned and snapped a picture of me. I dropped my backpack and climbed up to sit next to her. The view was spectacular. The typical red roofs of Borinka were visible among small fields that were crisscrossed with wires and electric poles scattered across the rolling green hills of the Little Carpathians. From our spot we could also see most of Pajstun's grounds. To the right, there stood a large defence tower – or what was left of it – with grey stones and red brick plates shaped into an enormous prism that looked as if some giant had taken a bite out of it.

Further to the right there were remnants of walls, hiding in the wildly growing forest cover. The positioning of windows in these walls made little sense. The openings were of uneven sizes and in random locations, which made the walls highly climbable, although it was certainly not advisable to climb them. Unless you like making your way up on crumbling brick, positioning your feet into abundant but sharp cracks, fumbling around with your hands and receiving a shower of dirt in your eyes in exchange for every solid hold you manage to find. The solidity of these holds was always questionable and never guaranteed.

“You know, these ruins have always invoked such a sense of creepy nostalgia in me,” I said. “A few hundred years ago, there were people walking through here.” I pointed at the defence tower. “…Women in long gowns, men in embarrassing tights…” I moved my head slightly to the right, toward a massive wall with three-story windows. “…Preparing food, making love…”

“I think that used to be a toilet,” Lynn said wryly, following my gaze. She then burst into laughter but stopped abruptly. “Who's that?” she lowered her voice and focused her eyes on the access road we had wandered off of. The pursuer was walking up slowly, carefully avoiding the fallen debris. His pace was steady, his easy movements suggesting he had completed the hike many times before.

“I have seen him down on the trail.” I shrugged, then stopped watching the pursuer who had ceased his ascent and stood in the shadow of a large poplar.

“They say a man on a horse roams these ruins.”  

“A ghost?” Lynn grinned.  

“Technically, two.”  


“Not sure. He gallops through the ruins, jumps on the highest wall and disappears. With practice, you could do all of that without a head.”  

Lynn nodded towards the small figure. “Maybe he just wants some food.” As if he understood, the pursuer lifted his head and wagged his tail. The dog had a good motivation to trail hikers, as Pajstun's grounds housed a few actively used fire-pits. Time permitting, Lynn and I planned on using one, too.           

The top part of Pajstun's entrance gate © Miriam Matejova

Leaving our lookout, we moved around a cluster of beech trees toward the most accessible of Pajstun's grounds. We walked on the rocky ledge separating the grounds from a deep ravine lined with dense forest that hundreds of years ago served as a natural defence against conquerors. We tested the sturdiness of the remaining gargoyles sticking out over the chasm and pondered the significance of “don't throw rocks” spray-painted in red on a side of the cliff. Then we leaped backward in frightened unison as a hand reached out from the depths of the ravine.

“Rock-climbers,” Lynn breathed out, her heart likely pounding at the same speed as my own.

“Don't throw rocks!” I laughed and she shot me a disgruntled glare.  

We turned our backs to the climber who was scrambling to pull his upper body over the edge of the cliff. The sun was setting, pulling shadows as it went. We had to leave soon. Descending the forested hill in pitch darkness would be eerie and, if not suicidal, certainly pain-inducing.          

Before we found our way back to Pajstun's entrance gate, we left a couple of uncooked hotdogs on a flattened boulder for our furred stalker. Then we set out on the hike back. Darkness was slowly engulfing the ruins. We passed through the gate and turned to make our way through the murky forest. The pursuer followed. 

Miriam Matejova holds a BA (Hons) in International Studies from the University of Northern British Columbia and an MA in International Affairs from Carleton University. Presently, she is working as an economist at Environment Canada in Ottawa. Miriam also volunteers as a translator and reviewer for the TED Open Translation Project and writes academic papers on environmental security and Canada's foreign intelligence.  


Making like a Rocky Mountain Snowshoe Hare

Gary Pearson

The Troop © Gary Pearson

Ascending slowly toward the summit of Sunshine Village in Banff National Park, Alberta, we were easily entranced by the imposing Canadian Rockies, whose snowcapped peaks dominated the skyline. The wind, brisk and forceful, shook the gondola to and fro, so that it resembled a pendulum perpetually swaying. A cramped chairlift completed the climb, elevating nine adventure seekers to 8,900 feet above sea level.

With snowshoes in hand the first threesome, anticipant of the prospective trek, scampered clear of the disembarked chairlift. The mercury had dipped below - 22° Fahrenheit. The wind, howling like a wolf trying to rally its pack, accosted us without restraint.

“Get your snowshoes on as quickly as possible,” bellowed Michael Turcot, his voice muffled by the prevailing gale. “Then we can get moving.”

Before most of us had our snowshoes on, my father, Raymond Pearson, discovered first hand the callous nature of extreme weather at high altitude. Turcot, a snowshoeing specialist and guide working on behalf of White Mountain Adventures, noticed a pronounced, ghost-like whitening of Pearson's earlobes. Early stages of frostbite had commenced. Pearson's toque had failed to cover the entirety of his ears, leaving his lobes vulnerable after only minutes of exposure. Since he was the only one to have fitted his temporary appendages, Turcot saliently sprang, like a snowshoe hair, to my father's aid.

“Rub your ears as quickly as you can,” implored an urgent Turcot. “Time is of the essence; you need to build some friction.”

Drive Forward © Gary Pearson

The group's attitude had already visibly shifted from exuberance to skepticism and uncertainty. Pearson had thought a first snowshoeing adventure would be a unique and memorable way to commemorate his 60th birthday, which sounded a desirable proposition before this tussle with the Mother Nature's wrath. I wished my father's February birthday hadn't coincided with winter's harshest fury.

Boundless thoughts of relaxing in one of Banff National Park's many soothing natural hot springs infiltrated my mind, propelling me into dreamlike state. The stinging blasts of wind-driven snow, however, hastily whipped me out of reverie.

Although Pearson's ear was swollen, gruesome and of ashen complexion, Turcot confidently assured the frostbite-stricken 59-year-old that his lobes, if properly attended to, would heal completely and regain their pinkish undertone. I would have offered words of encouragement had my jawbone not felt like it was frozen in place.

“It will get warmer once we descend and get out of the open air,” said Turcot, instilling the group with hope through positive reinforcement. “With the weather and the snow it changes everything; every time you come up here it is a different day.”

Snowshoeing: a centuries-old pastime

Straddling the border of Canada's farthest-reaching western provinces, I took a moment to fit the gigantic flipper-like shoes before crossing the Continental Divide into British Columbia. Modern snowshoes – consisting of lightweight metal, plastic and synthetic fabric – are easily fastened. Once a strap is pulled snug against your heel and clasped shut on both snowshoes, you're set to partake in a centuries-old pastime experienced by adventurers, hunters, fur traders, trappers and explorers alike. In fact, snowshoes can be traced back to pre-Christian days when Armenians are said to have used an antiquated version – comprised of a clunky hardwood frame with interwoven rawhide lacings – to scour the snow-laden Caucasus Mountains in search of food, fur and refuge.

“They're easy to use, cheap and need almost no maintenance,” said Turcot, whose fervent enthusiasm for the great outdoors, like an airborne contagion, started spreading throughout the group.

Making an impression

After ensuring everyone had his or her bumblebee-hued appendages secured, Turcot set forth across the unmarked 16-foot snowpack. He trampled the fresh and feather-like snow, making an impression with every step. The rest of us, like a herd of elephants, fell in line and followed our entrusted chief. Adapting to our elongated feet – to everyone's bewilderment – was fairly seamless. Snowshoes disperse weight over a large area so as to not sink deep into the snow – a process called flotation – making it possible to cross the easily compressed surface.

“Try making your own trail,” said Turcot without breaking stride, his technique encompassing a wide gate that allowed for balanced strides. “Now that's when the work really kicks in.”

Immediately following his advice, I excused myself from the group to make new tracks. Friend Shira Hutton and my brother, Kevin Pearson, followed suit, sprouting off in different directions. I sank like a hapless soul in quicksand, my legs smothered by powdery snow. But the more effort you put in – unlike when sinking in quicksand – the better the results.

“Keep your knees high,” reiterated Turcot, who broke free from the shackles of his office job in Mississauga, Ontario – his hometown – to travel west in pursuit of this adventurous life.

I quickly realised Turcot was not embellishing. Trudging through deep snow is gruelling work. Gasping for air, I could see that Kevin and Hutton shared my sentiment. We took a moment to admire the incongruent trails we had made, acknowledging that our handiwork would vanish with the next snowfall. As we gradually descended, Turcot pulled up just shy of a steep hill.

“Those wanting to try test their skills, here is where you can do it,” he said, grinning ear to ear. “Try running down the hill. Just remember to keep your knees high.”

Bailing © Gary Pearson

Hutton, Kevin and I responded with gusto. Our skills, or lack of, almost immediately shone through. Maintaining high knees we accelerated down the hill with reckless abandon, all of us toppling head over heels. It was like falling onto a goose-down duvet. The unsullied snowpack broke the fall, its composition much more forgiving than our travel companions. Our entourage laughed in unison as we came to terms with trying to stand up in the cumbersome shoes, a task more difficult than I thought possible.

Awe-inspiring scenery

After clambering to find steady footing, the majesty of the environment with which we were enmeshed emerged. We were situated at the foot of a valley on the British Columbian side of the provincial border. Encased by hills, we were sheltered from the wind's might. For the time being all of its merciless power and rage had been quelled like a sedated cougar.

Other than some barely discernable snowshoe hare tracks, the landscape appeared undisturbed. Welcoming the silence that had enveloped the group, I scanned the terrain, admiring its uncompromising beauty. Lodgepole pines, whose branches sagged from the weight of freshly fallen snow, stood eminent across the vast expanse. The trees stood unified and defiant, resilient to winter's torturous touch.

“I rarely see anyone else out here,” Turcot pronounced, breaking the serene silence. “Usually we are on our own back here – it's fabulous that way.”

We moved forward like nomads of yesteryear, exiting the valley's comforting and sheltered enclosure.

Walking on water

As the land flattened, so too did the snow beneath our tennis-racket-like shoes. The snowpack hardened, each step accentuated by a loud crunching sound. The landscape, with no imperious trees in sight, assumed a form more desolate and barren.

“Let's cross the bridge,” said Turcot, momentarily confusing us. “We're in Assiniboine Provincial Park and you're standing on a lake.”

We began crossing the sizeable, frozen body of water. Walking on water – albeit water frozen solid to a depth of at least four inches – felt surreal and empowering, like a mystical right of passage.

“A lot of people visiting Banff don't make it up here,” the outdoor enthusiast quipped. “And they definitely don't get to walk across a lake. If you don't get out and appreciate what is here, you can't see what you're missing.

“We have people snowshoeing into late June; hikers wonder when they get their turn. It truly is a winter wonderland.”

Spiritually regenerated, the entourage began its gradual ascent towards the Alberta border. The gales had dissipated, warming the conditions considerably. Minutes later we reached the hill's summit, all of us visibly weary from the arduous climb as we crossed back into Banff National Park.

“It's mostly downhill from here,” said Turcot, an outdoor extremist who prefers uphill challenges, like the time he had to make camp in a self-built igloo in the Yukon Territory.

Before continuing downhill for the remaining half mile of our three-mile voyage, I looked upon the snow-swept, frozen ravine with adulation. I felt relieved that the group had swept aside its trepidations and eventually embraced the spiritually enlightening pastime. Snowshoeing atop the Canadian Rockies left the collective yearning for subsequent encounters with one of the worlds' most humbling and mystique-endowed environments.

Gary Pearson has freelanced on behalf of the Canadian Press, the Edmonton Journal and Blaze Magazine, the official magazine of the Calgary Flames – a National Hockey League team. Recently he contributed to the Prince Albert Daily Herald as a sports reporter, and prior to that, completed his internship as a member of the City and Region team at the Calgary Herald, the city's most read daily newspaper.

All images © Gary Pearson


Dempster, Canada's Highway
of Discovery

By Claire Smith

750 km of gravel road in the middle of nowhere – this is the wilderness. This is an element of our humanity that we are often unable to recognize or connect with. You might argue with me and say that wilderness doesn't exist anymore and traditional ways of life are gone, that the uncharted and undiscovered Canadian frontier has for generations existed only in history books. I have learned otherwise.

At times our worlds are very small and it is hard not to want to escape the frozen dark of our urban lives to gallop across the globe and experience the geographic and cultural diversity that lies beyond our doors. I myself have been to many countries, from Paris, France to Sydney, Australia. I have traversed the globe, crossing the International Date Line, the GMT Line and the Equator all before I was 21. I have a list of countries yet to visit and am fueled by this self-entitled wanderlust. I have struggled to forge a career path that will allow me this ultimate pleasure. I have even set the foolish goal of physically crossing all the imaginary lines on the world before I'm 30. Through all this I have seen that there is a world out there that many people believe has been lost; I have seen that real wilderness with fascinating people that eke a living out of it does exist outside the history books.  

I'd never placed too much value on exploring my own country until a couple of years ago when I promised my ailing grandmother I would do two things in Canada she wished she could have done during her quiet prairie life: visit the Rocher Percé in Quebec and travel the Dempster Highway in the Yukon. She smiled at my bold youthfulness and gave me a little wink. Last month, once again unemployed, facing my upcoming quarter-century birthday and uselessly equipped with a bachelor's degree and a poor-girl-in-the-making set of passport stamps, a note of crushing defeat was encroaching upon my upbeat attitude. A friend suggested a road trip along the Dempster Highway in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Here was a way to mark my 25 years with pride. I could cross the Arctic Circle and fulfill one half of my promise to my grandmother in one quick little trip.  

3 friends dawson city © Claire Smith
Three Friends in Dawson City © Claire Smith

After purchasing a $700 flight from Calgary then paying $500 in rental car fees each, three friends and I hit the road, taking the Klondike Highway out of Whitehorse. First stop, Dawson City, home of the Canadian Gold Rush, complete with original wood, false-fronted stores and a can-can-girls gambling hall called Diamond Tooth Gertie's. We stopped at the visitor centre to check road conditions, drank a whiskey sour toe at a local bar (where you must kiss a mummified toe in your drink), played the slots, and then sought out a plot of land and banged in our tent pegs with rocks and rolled into our sleeping bags. Soon after we were bumping along to the gravel pinging against the underside of our SUV. How could we have known about the majesty and formidable loneliness that awaited us?  

The first day of the Dempster consisted of a six-hour drive, an exciting sighting of a mother grizzly and cubs, a moose, a night of mosquito hell and a brief stop for gas and ice in the lone hotel that forms the town of Eagle Plains. The next day, underneath a giant sky and grey clouds, we crossed the NWT/Yukon border and then the Arctic Circle, tightly gripping the steering wheel against the squishy, wet gravel and mud. I didn't have the triumphant or satisfying feeling I expected. I felt lost. My insignificant self did not belong there. I felt un-welcomed by the silent mountains, and the vast tundra stole my breath away. Gazing transfixed at the massiveness of nature, I knew I was without the knowledge or fortitude that could help me survive on the landscape's bountiful expanses. At the corners of the earth there is a kind of isolation that seems to warn you of your own vulnerability by bringing your weaknesses into focus.    

After two ferry rides with the friendly ferry guide Waylon Snowshoe, a drive through the hamlets of Fort McPherson and Tsiigehtchic and another several hundred kilometres of snaking single-lane gravel road, we arrived at the town of Inuvik. A government- planned community designed to forcefully relocate Northern residents away from hunting and fishing and aim them toward a wage economy, Inuvik is roughly only 50 years old. Home to one of the last Indian residential schools, the community teeters atop the permafrost in a harsh and punishing climate. We learned about the community garden in the old residential school hockey arena and took a beading class from a skilled local Inuvialuit elder named Rosie Arthur. We found Inuvik to be a smaller, rougher and more desolate version of the NWT capital, Yellowknife.  

 © Claire Smith
McKenzie Delta © Claire Smith

Eager to explore more of the region, we paid $530 each for Up North Tours' excursion on the Mackenzie River Delta to see the landscape and get an intimate look at the more traditional Arctic Ocean community of Tuktoyaktuk. Departing at 6 AM, we got into a tiny boat and motored up the river delta for five hours. One engine breakdown and one bathroom break later, we arrived with relief at a whaling camp on the edge of the Beaufort Sea. Here we met Stanford and Clara, Inuvialuit hunters who kindly shared the last of their food stores with us. We peeked inside their smoking hut and were invited into their mosquito tent for swan stew, dried fish, fish stomach, caviar and muktuk – dried, smoked and aged beluga whale meat and blubber, a favourite eaten with HP sauce.

Whale hunters bring in up to three whales in the span of a few short weeks of calving season and supply their whole community with food for the entire year. As we ate, the hunters spotted belugas surfacing and feeding in the distance, but our time was up and our guide insisted we had to go. Reluctantly we reboarded the boat. Many of my fellow tourists left disappointed at not being able to get better pictures of the gentle and rare creatures, but I left satisfied having had a glimpse into the lives of the local people. They had generously chosen to share their culture with us and they lived with dignity. I respected their decision to keep important cultural traditions private. They practiced a thousands-of-years-old way of life that was not for show or sport.

We finally arrived in “Tuk” and boarded a little bus to tour the community of only 900 people. We enjoyed a skinny dip in the Arctic Ocean in 30°C sunshine and a tour of the community freezer buried deep into the permafrost at -12°C. As our guide bid us goodbye and turned us over to the pilot of our six-seat Cessna to fly back to Inuvik, I had a feeling that, though he had told us much about the people of the Arctic, he was holding back. I felt there was more to the cultures here than he was willing to tell.  

Our ten-hour drive to Tombstone National Park was along a road as smooth as a gravel road can be. Here we met a Han-speaking Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nations interpretive guide named Georgette McLeod, who took us up the mountain on a private hike. She explained the oral history and language recovery work she has done with local elders. The Yukon has eight recognized Aboriginal languages, the NWT has nine and Nunavut has two. Many of this country's first languages may soon be lost as the last fluent generation ages. In the Yukon, a mixture of gold rush events and residential school assimilation all but obliterated local cultural traditions and languages. During the peak of the gold rush, Georgette told us, their Chief, Isaac, concerned about cultural survival, travelled across the mountains to a potlatch in Alaska and purposely taught Han songs to an Alaskan nation. He asked for them to be held in safekeeping. More than a hundred years later that same Alaskan nation returned those songs to a group of young Han learners who crossed the mountains into Alaska to begin rediscovering their own culture.

As we headed down the mountain and drove the remaining 100 km back to Dawson, I no longer felt unwelcome or lost in the wilderness. Instead, I felt as though I had peeked behind the magician's curtain and seen that my earlier feelings of isolation from wilderness and the cultures within it were an illusion of my own making.

 © Claire Smith
Rural Sprawl © Claire Smith

On the lonely gravel road, I had remembered what it meant to be human. Like all wilderness creatures, I would always be vulnerable and in constant transition. The stability and predictability I searched for – my “successful life” – was the illusion I had tricked myself into believing. Like my grandmother, I must learn to be more content with the flow of time and space.

So when you are struggling, get in your car and put some miles between you and yourself. Push your limits and expose yourself to the wilderness and the people who call it home. It will return to you the perspective on humanity you never knew you needed.

Originally from Calgary, Alberta, Claire Smith is a community developer working with youth leadership and volunteer service programs across the Canada. With a Bachelor's degree in International Relations, she is an avid traveller who has already sailed the remote Polynesian Islands, exhausted the museums of Paris and London, and backpacked solo through Australia and New Zealand. Living in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories for the last year has opened her eyes to exploring the beauty of her own country of Canada, especially the North.  You can find more of her writing on her blog Frannie's Rock Here. All images copyright Claire Smith.


Stanley Park,
Vancouver's Backyard Retreat

By Brad Zembic

English Bay © Brad Zembic
A Glimpse at English Bay © Brad Zembic

The alarm clock strikes 4:30 a.m. but I am already awake – partial insomnia either from being robbed in my sleep one year in Cameroon or terrorized by my older brother when I was a kid. It may sound like a curse, but to a recluse like me being sleepless when most people are still enjoying their slumber is actually a blessing.

I pick up the morning paper. Breezing past the Syrian slaughter, the flying bullets at Toronto's Eaton Centre and the notorious Canadian Psycho, I head straight to the weather section. There is a little promise in this, one of Vancouver's coldest and soggiest Junes. I glance out the window and gage just how far along the swollen, steel-coloured clouds are in delivering rain. The forecast is for a dry morning with showers beginning in the early afternoon, but here on British Columbia's south coast, it's really only guesswork.

Stanley Park © Brad Zembic
Next Stop, Nirvana © Brad Zembic

I am prepared for this. I have already shaven and bathed and laid out my cycling kit the night before. I have also prepared a short breakfast of coffee and biscotti, and after I've eaten I'm off – a pre-work jaunt around Vancouver's Stanley Park at a time of day when the only person I am likely to meet is a bell-rattling Buddhist named Johnny, emerging from yet another cold, wet sleep in the bush.

By the time I have completed the section of the bicycle route that circumnavigates trendy Yaletown and the beach side of the city's West End it is 5:30. There is the odd jogger bounding along the pedestrian way that winds its way like a tentacle at the edge of English Bay, and a few trucks are unloading bottles of wine and beer for local bars. Cargo ships lay like giant toys on the glassy sea; in the distance fibrous clouds thread around hazy mountains. Everywhere there is birdsong. I inhale deeply the salty Pacific air. This is my nirvana, I muse, my great break from city bustle and the complexities of human interaction.

Once my wheels spin onto the park's duck-head-shaped peninsula, Vancouver disappears all together. I am afforded only glimpses of the bay through the summer foliage. A lofty community of blue herons perched high in oaks and maples at the park's southern gateway is rampant with squawking as a bald eagle threatens overhead. Heronries in Stanley Park have existed for nearly a century, but the Beach Avenue site, flanked by West End apartments, is a just a feather over a decade old. At its peak in 2005 the heronry was nearly as densely populated as the neighbourhood it shares, with 170 nests crammed into an area the size of a penthouse suite.

Coal Harbour Urban Jungle © Brad Zembic
Coal Harbour Urban Jungle © Brad Zembic

Further down the trail a crow chases a black squirrel into a tree and a solitary worker at the lawn bowling club prepares to trim the already manicured grass. A trio of raccoons trundles across my path, briefly stopping to check me out; a redheaded woodpecker hammers away at a Douglas fir. Some days a quirky collection of musicians performs a seaside concert as the sun glints off the snowy peaks of the north shore mountains. The rare human early bird I meet jogging or cycling seems as affected as I am by the surrounding innocence and utters a hearty “Good morning!” This is a completely different side of the concrete forest I call home.

I cut through the southeast side of the park to reach Coal Harbour and come across Johnny and his shopping cart piled high with brassware, bells and bric-a-brac – a ramshackle stupa on wheels. I first met Johnny a few years ago outside a supermarket where he politely asked me to buy him a slab of cheese. His gratitude was authentic and in exchange for my generosity he offered his intuition and tips on how I could enhance my physical wellbeing. Our conversations have been growing longer – and deeper – on every encounter, and now each evening before a ride I prepare an extra one and a half breakfasts: one for Johnny and an additional half of one for the dog that protects him from the perils of open-air urban living, which includes theft from other park dwellers. Johnny repays me by humbly pressing his hands into prayer position, and then, as I continue my way through the cathedral of trees, by jangling a cluster of bells that will, he claims, give me power.

Hotel for the homeless by night, recreational wonderland by day, Stanley Park is something for everyone. It's a 400-hectare garden oasis in one of Canada's largest cities and one of North America's most renowned urban green spaces. It's also the traditional home of the Burrard, Musqueam and Squamish first nations who for thousands of years forged their livelihoods from the abundance that nature provided. After their first contact with Europeans in 1771, however, things were never the same. Several decades later, the British government recognized the peninsula's valuable military importance and in the 1860s, partly in anticipation of an American invasion, it was designated a military reserve. The city proclaimed the region a park in 1888 and named it after Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley, Canada's Governor General – not something that sits well with the Squamish. Recently, Chief Ian Campbell of the Squamish nation tried to convince the Canadian government to honour his people by adding Xwáýxway, the name of a Squamish village that once occupied the site, to the park name. Politicians averse to upsetting the park's internationally recognized brand rebuffed his request.

midway © Brad Zembic
Midway Point © Brad Zembic

Aside from its nearly ten-kilometre, coast-hugging seawall, Stanley Park is a paradise of beaches, rainforest trails, gardens, cafes, restaurants, and tourist activities and attractions. The only thing it lacks, it seems – apart from a first nations nickname – is a zoo. Although the park boasts having Canada's largest aquarium, animal exhibits – for ethical reasons – were phased out in 1994. In 2011 the popular children's petting farm was dismantled, its wards – chickens, goats, bunnies, and the like – adopted out to compassionate families and, reportedly, to a Fraser Valley farm that passed them on to a local abattoir. Even without domestic critters to play with, though, there is much to entertain the over eight million visitors that walk, run, drive, cycle, rollerblade or skateboard through the park each year. A miniature train toots along a two-kilometre track, carrying passengers through theme-oriented settings; an outdoor theatre holds concerts during warmer months; the Variety Kids' Water Park ensures a cool down on a hot summer day. It's no wonder this emerald parcel of property that squats like a goose at the edge of the city's downtown core is so popular.

But what attracts me to Stanley Park isn't the cluster of totems at Brockton Point, the horse drawn buggies that clip-clop through the cedars or even the orca show at the aquarium. My purpose is deep and personal. It's born from a crying need to escape the concrete, the crowds, the commerce, the machines and, for a brief time, to be in a place where nature isn't produced solely by design and where I can, at least before the sun rises, belt out a song without anyone questioning my mental health. I cycle Stanley Park to hear the surf's yogic rhythm and the robins' throaty warble, to marvel at the Canada goslings and the rolling mist on Lost Lagoon and, frankly, to experience as close as I can the world in a state of grace.

Facing West © Brad Zembic
Facing West © Brad Zembic

One morning last week I stopped near the lighthouse at Prospect Point to breathe in the fresh sea air. A gentle flip-flop sound alerted me to something long, dark and furry making a beeline across the path behind me. A three-foot-long sea otter had climbed the granite steps from the water and made for the safety of the underbrush. “Cool, huh?” a passing cyclist commented, his face a beam of light. I've seen Solitary Ollie many times since – swimming in the shallows or munching on a crustacean breakfast – and each time I am held in awe. I watch blue herons eating, too, their elegant necks extended upward to ease the passage of a meal. And bald eagles foraging in the tidal pools. And seals flipping back fish. Every cycle around the park feels, to me, pristine, as if I am experiencing a glimpse of Eden. And I get all this before a freeway commute and a hectic workday.

As I leave the park, after my 40-minute pedal, the city is just waking up. Couples are strolling along the seawall, coffees in hand; dogs on leash are towing their masters from tree to tree; trim joggers in trapeze-like spandex, some as colourful as a circus, are dodging each other on the narrowing walkway; a restaurant is already blaring its piped music onto the street, hoping to attract the breakfast crowd. I'm entering a different world than the one I'm leaving behind. But I take heart and think ahead: I'm just two freeway rides, one workday, and one more short sleep away from another visit to my own private retreat, to the state of grace called Stanley Park.

The Great Blue Herons of Stanley Park © Stanley Park Ecology Society

To learn more about the Stanley Park herons and other conservation efforts in the park, visit the Stanley Park Ecology Society website

Brad Zembic is a Vancouver-based writer of travel stories, book and film reviews, and fiction. His work has been published in the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun, the Cape Argus and the Cape Times.

All images © Brad Zembic


Taking the Plunge:
Swimming with Sharks

By Gary Pearson

Turkish © Gary Pearson
Turkish © Gary Pearson

“Take deep breaths and whatever you do, don't panic.” Scuba diving instructor Sinan Halaçoğlu conveyed the imperative message prior to my first plunge into the deep blue.

“If you panic you are done,” the veteran diver reiterated, his formidable, uncompromising shark-like gaze penetrating my defences.

Though powerful, direct and of the utmost importance, Halaçoğlu's message was of little comfort. In theory staying calm should be easy enough, I thought, still trying to absorb other tidbits of information necessary for a successful maiden dive.

Set in front of the lavish backdrop of the Iberostar Resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Dressel Divers provided the opportunity for my maiden scuba dive. The area is renowned for its serene, picturesque landscape.

After a quick, informative classroom session, my two fellow Canadians – Shira Hutton and Mike Perrin – and one Englishman – Danny Kelleher – and I yanked, stretched and pulled our wetsuits snug.

The sun, although blanketed by dense cloud cover, quickly heated the foamed neoprene suits, rendering any movement exhausting and slow. Like an overheated penguin, I waddled to the pool and toppled in, finding instantaneous relief.

A crash course followed. Equipped with flippers, a regulator (breathing piece), a compressed air tank, a mask, and a weight belt to ensure stable buoyancy was maintained, Halaçoğlu imparted some practical underwater knowledge. After learning skills ranging from how to inform fellow divers all is well – by forming a circle with your index finger and thumb – to alerting others of a depleted air supply – by slicing your finger across your throat in a decisive, deliberate manner – I exited the pool gleaming with confidence. Halaçoğlu, who recognized my unwarranted hubris, smiled cheekily, recollecting his first dive when he, too, brimmed with undeserved confidence.

“When I first start I think I was the best,” said the 30-year-old, whose career started with building garish underwater hotels for Turkish soccer clubs. “I think I know everything, when I realize that underwater everything can happen in a second and you can die. I had a couple close calls, not knowing where up, where down is. That changed everything.

“She,” he continued, pointing at Hutton, “is only one ready for dive.”

My confidence, along with my air-filled jacket, deflated. Prepared or not, the dive fast approached. Hutton pulled me aside.

“I don't feel ready,” the 24-year-old Canadian said. “I feel claustrophobic when I am underwater.”

Overcast skies and slightly blustery conditions made for a challenging first dive. Halaçoğlu said good underwater visibility is all weather dependent, which favours – due to water's amenability to refraction – crystal-clear blue skies.

After double and triple checking the equipment and air supply – 250 bars for a full tank on the metric system – we shuffled across the silky, cushioned sand, bypassing numerous least grebes, whose chatter paused briefly, as if our presence interrupted an important parlay. The waves, gentle and uniform, caressed the beach, creating a serene sound that I often use to combat temporary insomnia.

As we jumped aboard the six-metre boat, my anxiety and excitement, and the prospect of encountering sea life, ensured I would remain wide-eyed. Our mercurial diving instructor's expression mirrored my own. Halaçoğlu, whose vast experience has seen him sojourn to nine countries in as many years – including Turkey, Thailand, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Indonesia, Mexico and, currently, Jamaica – still retained a youthful glow. Over 3000 dives and 7000 hours submerged, he still exuded a boyish exuberance. Looks, however, can be deceiving. Life as a nomad has forced the impassioned diver to make innumerable personal sacrifices. Relationships are constructed, but implode when Halaçoğlu inevitably relocates.

“My life is like being in prison,” he said, staring vacantly into the distance. “No relationships, no friends, no PlayStation – just diving.”

Scuba diving continually restores his faith. While underwater he clears his mind and longs for nothing but an endless supply of oxygen. He lives for diving. Below the surface nothing else matters; he achieves tranquility and inner peace.

“I will play with the animals. This I do for free,” he quipped. “How you know if they don't like to be touched until you try. Some love being touched. Some not so much.”

I suppose it's a fairly logical thing to say, in a convoluted sort of way.

“They call me the shark diver,” he continued, raking his hands through his scraggly, wispy beard.

Sharks posing no threat to humans, he explained, are easily – albeit fleetingly – wrangled when sleeping. Typically blacknose, Caribbean reef and lemon sharks are most commonly spotted in the Caribbean Sea. Halaçoğlu, who embodies a mixture of fearlessness and foolhardiness, enjoys most the company of blacknose sharks – a species stretching to over a metre in length.

“I'll come over. A couple of my friends seen it before. I hug and he (the shark) cannot go anywhere,” he said, frantically embracing the air. “He shakes me but I have all the control – for a second anyway. You cannot do it with a bull shark or tiger shark. They are going to kick you ass.”

Halaçoğlu, dubbed “Turkish” by his colleagues, as his nationality reflects, was not always so blasé about shark encounters. While diving the notorious Andaman Sea off Thailand's coast, he was forced to draw from maneuvres in his then-inexperienced repertoire to evade a fully matured nurse shark. Halaçoğlu's sightline was blocked by a school of barracudas. The shark speared through, appearing only metres from the startled diver.

“The shark came within a whisker,” he said, animated as ever. “It was the first time I saw a shark. I don't remember. I just react. I just swim away. People was laughing at me.”

Reassuringly, the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the University of Florida has recorded only six shark attacks in the Caribbean since 1997, 17-fold less than in North America. However comforting the numbers, I had every intention, if the situation arose, of letting sleeping sharks lie. With my fears heightened and curiosity piqued, the boat – with two more experienced groups aboard – propelled forth to the dive site, which is known as the Canyon.

Packed on like sardines, the three instructors went about their daily routine, robotically cleaning the masks. Passing beach-goers wading in tepid, 29°C water while sipping Dirty Bananas – consisting of rum cream, Crème de Cacao, milk and aged bananas – and parasailers dangling precariously above the ocean, the weathered boat bobbed up and down, darting through shallow cyan- and azure-hued water. The further we travelled from shore, a darker shade of blue the ocean turned. The captain reversed the throttle. We had reached the Canyon. Noticing her apprehensiveness, our wily instructor asked Hutton what the matter was.

“I don't feel comfortable,” she retorted without hesitation. “It feels unnatural.”

Hutton, a university student, was in the same boat as the rest of the group, both physically and mentally. She, however, was the only one with enough guile to be heard. It, too, was her first dive. The tension could have been sliced with a shark's fin.

“Just remember to equalize,” Halaçoğlu enforced sternly.

Montego Bay Beach Scene © Gary Pearson
Montego Bay Beach Scene © Gary Pearson

Somehow amidst the frenetic scene, I almost forgot what it meant to equalize. “Pinch your nose and blow as you descend,” I remember Halaçoğlu saying during our brief stint in class. “Your ears will pop, neutralizing the effect of increasing pressure.” Pressure injuries, referred to as barotrauma, can be painful and potentially fatal but are uncommon as long as proper procedures are adhered to. Just as Hutton and the others appeared at ease, our forthright and candid instructor imparted some last-second words of wisdom.

“Stay calm; if you panic you are done,” he said, snapping his mask into place as he disappeared over the boat's hull.

Easier said than done. As I waddled to the boat's edge, his parting words circled my mind like a shoal of sharpfins. Richard Hooker's famous proverb, “He who hesitates is lost,” hit me like a bag of bricks, compelling me to leap. The first of the group to reach the rope connected to the buoy, I watched the others jump cumbersomely overboard. In unison, we started our descent. The need for constant equalization became immediately evident. Pressure accumulated rapidly, compressing my head like an excavator crushing a Toyota Corolla.

After descending cautiously and meticulously, we reached a depth of 10 metres – industry standard for a first dive – and kneeled on the seabed awaiting our leader's instruction. Perrin kneeled across from me, our eyes locking. He gestured, giving me the universal OK sign. I reciprocated. Finally, I was awarded a chance to scan the unfamiliar surroundings. The coral reef was teeming with plant life, resembling an underwater rainforest.

Conscious of maintaining a composed breathing manner, I inflated my vest a touch to reach a suitable equilibrium. Again, I tapped the inflation device. This time, however, I overcompensated and ascended like a helium balloon. Like a missile, Halaçoğlu darted to my aid. After deflating my jacket a tad he motioned to his flippers, demonstrating how to ascend. It dawned on me. I must simply kick my flippers. Slightly embarrassed, I faulted the Halaçoğlu's classroom lesson for neglecting to teach common sense.

Hiding behind my mask, I quickly forgot about the slight blip and followed the others through a labyrinth of narrow passages. Arms stretched out, I could touch the reef on both sides. Some parts were mossy and soft, while others, like a porcupine's quills, were hard and unforgiving. French grunts, yellowtail snappers and ocean surgeonfish seamlessly scoured the reef, popping in and out of the coral's porous foundation.

Swimming free of the confined passage, Halaçoğlu motioned to the sandy seabed. I thrust forward, attempting to gain a better vantage point. Its beady eyes barely visible, a stingray blended into the clayish canvas exhibiting its aptness to camouflage. As promised, the shark diver cradled the resting stingray. It lay motionless, appearing to be in the midst of a mid-afternoon siesta. This was my chance. In his element, Halaçoğlu delicately handed over the stingray, like a newborn being passed from mother to father for the first time. Praying the pacifier pass didn't set off its venomous defense mechanism, I carefully held on to the tropical dweller. Slippery and rubbery, its skin was comforting to the touch. The stingray suddenly stirred and wiggled free, fleeing into the murky abyss. The moment, however brief, will be perpetually inscribed to memory.

This is how Halaçoğlu must have felt when he swam with whale sharks and manta rays. Well, maybe not, but I was still on Cloud 9. Nothing was going to burst my bubble, except maybe the depleting oxygen supply. My air supply stayed steady at 50 bars, the minimum air level permitted underwater. It was time to swim to the surface. As we hopped aboard the bobbing vessel, the experienced diving groups boasted of their encounter with a blacknose shark.

“We must have just missed it,” Halaçoğlu despairingly pronounced. “But we touched a stingray and there is always a next time.”

For the first time I understood why the conflicted Turk is drawn to a world so mysterious, unusual and perplexing. It offers an unparalleled escape from reality; nothing else matters while exploring the deep blue.

Gary Pearson has freelanced on behalf of the Canadian Press, the Edmonton Journal and Blaze Magazine, the official magazine of the Calgary Flames – a National Hockey League team. Recently he contributed to the Prince Albert Daily Herald as a sports reporter, and prior to that, completed his internship as a member of the City and Region team at the Calgary Herald, the city's most read daily newspaper.

All images © Gary Pearson


A Wild Time in iMfolozi

By Brad Zembic

iMfolozi Rhino © Brad Zembic
iMfolozi Rhino © Brad Zembic

“Eh-nes-tuh,” our Zulu game scout patiently repeated for our fledgling Canadian ears. Unaccustomed to his accent, we struggled to mimic every nuance of his pronunciation, wanting to respect the integrity of a name, which for all we knew, may have been borne by generations of Zulu royalty.

“Eh-nes-tuh,” we laboured, being sure to stress the second syllable, allowing our voices to taper off on the final. Proud of our linguistic skills, we were left alone on the African veld with our tongues, our determination and our first Zulu word. That evening around the campfire Russell, our English-speaking guide, asked if we'd enjoyed our chitchat with Ernest.

Cathy and I were to enjoy many experiences in our three-day/four-night walking safari through the pristine and mystical Wilderness Area in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. Most were not as light as our introduction to Ernest and the Zulu language, but each left us with a deep appreciation of the African bush.

We spent our first night in iMfolozi at Mdindini camp on the banks of the White Umfolozi River. Our tent was slightly raised above the elements and only mildly comforting after our briefing on what to expect during the next three days of hiking. “If a rhino charges,” Russell told us in a low, grave voice over the campfire, “find a tree and stand behind it. It doesn't matter what size of tree. A rhino will lose sight of you, then forget what he is doing and go about his business.

“If a lion attacks,” he continued, “stand absolutely still. A lion is as afraid of you as you are of it. If it charges, it is testing you. If you run, you are prey; if you stand your ground, it will think you are a threat and retreat.”

I seriously wondered about our choice of holiday that night. We could have been frolicking in the warm surf on the South Coast near Durban or sauntering through the Company Gardens in Cape Town. Being mauled by lions, trampled by rhinos, or devoured in segments by crocodiles was not my idea of a rest. However, it was not without some kind of charm. So call it machismo; call it vacation grandstanding. That night in my tent, nestled between the whoops of hyenas and the thunderous grunts of lions, I decided to have a good time.

Our first day took us and three other trailists through thirteen kilometres of undulating bushland. Winter in the northern areas of the country is the ideal season for game viewing: grass is low, trees have few leaves, and the weather is normally warm and dry, guaranteeing pleasant, bug-free days and evenings.

Soon after leaving camp we spotted small herds of grazing impalas and nyalas and watched an enormous Cape buffalo foraging in a reedbed. We followed game trails rather than blaze our own and were surprised at the great variety of animals that inhabit the veld. Out of a seeming indiscernible tangle of spoor, Ernest unraveled the footprints of bushbuck, giraffe and zebra, and was even able to identify for us their states of mind and the approximate time that each animal had passed.

A few hours later we heard the frantic screeching of a baboon troop a kilometre into the brush. We followed their sounds and noticed five large white-backed vultures hovering above a thinly grassed area. We hiked up from a dried riverbed and discovered the source of the excitement. On surveying the site, Russell found the mangled remains of a young baboon. “Ingwe,” Ernest reported. “It was a Leopard.” Cathy and I glanced at each other with a mixture of apprehension and delight.

For the next few days Russell and Ernest, armed with high-powered rifles, zigzagged us through cool ravines and valleys forested with buffalo thorn and tamboti trees. They led us along rocky escarpments that claimed panoramic views of one of Africa's first parks. The area has been left untouched by the modern world thanks to the efforts of Ian Player and other visionary conservationists of the KwaZulu/Natal Parks Board. “The lions here,” Russell announced proudly, “are direct descendants of those hunted by the great Shaka, king of the Zulu.”

And not much has changed since Shaka's time. One still comes across the dried dung floors of Zulu huts and finds ancient Zulu artifacts just as they were left nearly a century before. One afternoon we passed a rocky cairn near where a Zulu warrior had been buried. “This is isivivane,” Ernest informed us reverently. “It is a sacred place.” Zulu tradition dictates that anyone who encounters the cairn must pay homage to the warrior's spirit by spitting on a stone and adding it to the pile. According to Russell, one person escaped certain death at the horns of a rhino because he performed the ritual.

We spent our second and third nights in the park at Ngilandi, a remote camp whose name is a corruption of the word “England,” so named because to access the camp one must cross a “great water” – the White Umfolozi River. Here we sat around the fire with Russell and our trail mates singing songs and talking enthusiastically about the game we had seen. A hundred pairs of green eyes sparkled in the darkness outside the glow of our campfire, reminding us that any personal business that would take us into the bush that night had better be completed soon. Amenities in the veld were simple—a shovel with a point in the direction of the nearest dried streambed and a shower that consisted of a water-filled bucket suspended from a tree. Environmental awareness is a cornerstone of thinking in the Wilderness Area, and the park wardens are careful to maintain iMfolozi's pristine character.

After a hearty breakfast on our second day in the wild, we stalked a pair of juvenile white rhinos as they grazed unconcernedly in a nearby clearing. Their massive bodies reminded me of military tanks as we crouched together behind a tree that seemed slim cover from being impaled by a horn thicker than my forearm. Though we were upwind from the prehistoric-looking creatures, they somehow sensed our presence and, after letting out a threatening series of snorts, stamped off into the forest.

In the afternoon we climbed an escarpment and watched a pride of iMfolozi lions dine on a buffalo. When it seemed they had finished their meal, we carefully descended the rocky cliff for a closer look at the kill. It had taken the lions just a few hours to devour the unfortunate beast, leaving only its head and skeleton for the hyenas and other scavengers. A vigilant Ernest made us aware of the nearness of the pride. “Perhaps they are not yet done,” he said, his well-trained eyes scanning the bush for movement. We anxiously posed for several pictures before hastily making our way back to the river.

Our hike that day was similar to a Tarzan movie: wildlife seemed everywhere. We saw a small herd of giraffe galloping through the forest, their heads bobbing above the tree line and their ears flapping like the wings of giant butterflies. We spied a dainty little antelope called a duiker and watched a lone hyena on a sandbar feed on a kudu, a majestic buck with enormous curling antlers. At night four white rhinos grazed peacefully near our tents, their dark silhouettes moving ghostlike beneath the starry skies. iMfolozi is home to the world's largest white rhino population. Once endangered, they have made a magnificent comeback, and the park is now exporting them to other parts of Africa.

Left Overs Again © Brad Zembic
Left Overs Again © Brad Zembic

We spent our final day on safari walking mostly barefoot through the White Umfolozi. Because winter is the dry season in KwaZulu/Natal, the waters are especially shallow and local crocodile populations move north to the Hluhluwe section of the park. As we approached Mdindini and the end of our hike, we began to step proudly. Having lived three days and nights in the wilds of Africa, our tension diminished and our spirits began to elate. No longer were we trudging rank and file behind our fearless leader, eyes skimming the veld for signs of danger. We were seasoned bushwalkers; we had seen it all and had survived to talk about it.

Cathy and I, smug at our savviness, began to sing and play little pranks on each other. Nature, however, especially African nature, is on the lookout for the unalert, and before we knew what was happening, the members of our group were banging into each other like dominoes. Stretched across our path and reared chest-height above the ground was a black mamba, the deadliest of African snakes. It swayed its enormous body back and forth and flicked its thick tongue at us before reaching into a tamboti tree and disappearing. The seven of us were left in awe at such a rare and potentially deadly encounter.

Back at Mdindini we were served up a final dinner of buffalo stew as we once again sat around the campfire. This time it was the mamba that was the focus of conversation. Cathy and I sat quietly outside the circle of light listening to the soft murmur of voices and breathing in all we could of iMfolozi's wildness. At dawn, after a peaceful night's sleep, we took our coffee down to the riverbank, squatted among the reeds and watched the sunrise. A flock of Egyptian geese flew overhead, and we heard the early morning whoop of a hyena. “The Umfolozi is flowing in my veins,” I said to Cathy. We looked at each other, sad to be leaving but filled with something permanent and indefinable.

Brad Zembic is a Vancouver-based writer of travel stories, book and film reviews, and fiction. His work has been published in the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun, the Cape Argus and the Cape Times.

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is situated approximately 270 kilometers north of Durban. Trailists are expected to make their own way to the park. Public transport will take them as far as the town of Empangeni, approximately 100 kilometers from the park's east gate.

Trailists must be moderately healthy. Travel covers approximately 10-15 kilometers a day through undulating bushland, with occasional more extreme elevation gains. Gear is carried from camp to camp by donkeys, so there is no need for trailists to be laden with anything but lunch during the hike. Malaria precautions are advised as the park is located in a malaria belt, though I've only met one mosquito the two times I've done the trip (both in South African winters).

Booking: Book trails and accommodation through the reservations office, PO Box 13069, Cascades, Pietermaritzburg, 3202, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Book by phone at 011-27-33-845-1000/1067. Email: trails@kznwildlife.com or mftrails@kznwildlife.com.

Visas: Canadian don't currently need visa to visit South Africa. All images © Brad Zembic


Was Jah My Pilot, Too?

By Jane Spencer

Le Petit Piton © Jane Spencer
Le Petit Piton © Jane Spencer

We are not people to loll on the beach for long, so when my husband said he was going to hike up a dormant volcano in St. Lucia, I said, “I'm coming, too.“ He was referring to Le Gros Piton, which at 797 metres is higher but less steep than Le Petit Piton. The two pitons are the trademarks of St. Lucia, appearing ubiquitously on the national flag, food packaging, soaps, T-shirts, brochures and beer labels. The reality of them does not disappoint: two emerald triangles slanting up from the azure waters of the Caribbean. 

We could have booked the hike through the hotel as an excursion; instead we hired a handsome Rastafarian on the beach who owned a water taxi and tour business. His name was Solomon, and yes, he could find us a guide for the following day at a very reasonable rate.

Most people approach Le Gros Piton by land and start trekking from an interpretation centre parking lot. We started from sea level. Solomon picked us up at our hotel and drove us down to the jetty in the town of Soufriere where his boat was docked. He delivered us twenty minutes down the coast to a beach at the base of Le Gros Piton.

Rastafarianism adds flavour to this island. The red, yellow and green stripes on Solomon's hat matched the stripes on his boat, “Justice,” which matched those on a decal reading “Jah is My Pilot.” St Lucia has a history of slave rebellions with many emancipated slaves even returning to Africa. Since the Labour Party had been voted back into power two days earlier, there was a popular pride bordering on militancy in the humid air. The gentle Solomon had hand-painted a message on the bow of his boat: “The blood of Jesus Christ shall fall on us and let us live.” In my mind, it all seemed to mesh: rebellion, justice and faith.   

Solomon pulled into a cove, deserted save for a wooden shack and two weathered palm umbrellas. It looked like the setting for Robinson Crusoe. The water was too shallow for the boat to land. I knew if I waded to shore, I would never get the sand out of my toes, and that would make for a painful hike. Three people and a dog grew visible on the beach, and before I could manage a refrain from Bob Marley's “Don't worry 'bout a thing,” a tall lean Rasta man waded into the water in his rubber boots. He shouted for my husband to jump on his back, piggy backed him to shore, then came back for me, gathering me up in his arms like a new bride. This was our introduction to Marcellus, our trekking guide.   

Marcellus – dark sunglasses, scruffy beard, dreadlocks down his back, and a cap emblazoned with the words “The Lion of Judah” – passed us each a wooden pole and said, “You'll be needing these. Ya, mon.” We followed him uphill into the bush. He walked slowly and guided our steps carefully. “No one has ever been injured on one my hikes,” he attested. I was so busy watching the ground for slippery tree roots, loose rocks and sporadic boulders, that I slammed forehead first into a fallen tree. There went Marcellus's record. When the dizziness passed, I gave the thumbs up to continue.

Yah, Mon © Jane Spencer
Yah, Mon © Jane Spencer

We were hiking through history. When the British fought the French for control of St. Lucia, Le Gros Piton was one of the strongholds for brigands, slaves who escaped the plantations. The brigands set up camps there, growing cassava, corn, cucumber, plantain, pumpkin and sweet potato. They foraged for fruits, hunted parrots, and caught crayfish and crabs in the ravines. High up they could signal other communities by smoke and drumbeat, and easily run down to ambush their pursuers or raid plantations for supplies.

At the one-quarter mark of our hike, we met a middle-aged man, red-faced and panting, resting on a rustic wooden bench. He could not continue, so he was waiting there for his wife and guide to return. By this time we were soaking wet from the humidity, trying to maintain an equilibrium between water intake and perspiration. The journey was proving to be more challenging than we thought, but it was too early to rest.

The second quarter entailed squeezing our feet between huge boulders and grabbing the next rock or tree trunk to haul our bodies upward, using our poles for balance. This was a barely discernible path, and I figured we were ascending at a 45° angle. At odd spots, railings had been nailed diagonally to trees; the other side was a drop to the sea. Marcellus cautioned us to keep away from the edge and the railings. 

We eventually passed the wife of the man who had quit earlier. She was coming down after making it halfway, which was just ahead. Here, we would rest. The halfway point presented us with clear view of Le Petit Piton rising dramatically from the sea. Marcellus handed us torn pieces of succulent papaya, saying “I picked this just this morning. It will give you energy. Ya, mon.” 

I loved this guy who quoted the bible, labeled trees and hummed tunes with equal unaffectedness. Every so often, he turned his eyes skyward chanting, “Shine, Shine, Shine” – his mantra to ward off rain. I passed him a hunk of chocolate, though he didn't seem to need more energy. Another couple soon staggered down toward us and slumped to the ground. “We can't go any further,” wheezed the woman. “Last year, we hiked up and down the Grand Canyon, and this is much harder.” They had barely passed the halfway mark when they decided they'd had enough.

I was having second thoughts. My husband had recently hiked to Everest Base Camp in Nepal and had walked the 800-kilometre Camino de Santiago across Spain. Sure, he could do this. Meanwhile, a group of exuberant twenty-somethings came traveling down at a rapid rate; they had made it to the top and were on the descent. I reached for my asthma inhaler, took two puffs and proclaimed, “I am ready to go. I can do this.”  I had one advantage over my husband – I loved the heat.

The third stretch of the trek rose through rain forest – verdant, slick and super-sized. I recognized potted plants from back home, which here looked to be on steroids. We passed a stretch of green and purple wandering Jew several metres long, shoulder-height birds of paradise, golden gum trees and hanging “Tarzan” vines. Steam rose through shafts of light, and fecund earth smells permeated the air. Being midday, it was eerily quiet. 

After two hours of trekking uphill from the beach, we reached the three-quarter mark, where we rested in front of a three-hundred-year-old mango tree on which people had carved their initials. I was doing okay, but I wondered about negotiating my way back down. Our guide was ever optimistic. “You will make it. Imagine people coming all this way and not finishing. What a shame, not to finish. By the grace of God, you will make it.” The path ahead, if you could call it that, now tipped at a 55° angle. 

If Jah wasn't my pilot, his disciple Marcellus surely was, because I did make it to the top of Le Gros Piton. We celebrated with fist bumps, high fives and hugs all round. Sitting on a rock, I peered down at the scattered farms, villages and low-lying green hills graduating up from the Atlantic Ocean side of the island. Just as I was welling up with reverential thoughts, a curtain of cloud drew across the sky and closed the scene. Oh well. I would devour the rest of my chocolate and brace myself for the climb down. 

Jane Spencer is a retired teacher who has claimed the world of adventure travel as her new classroom. When not travelling, she's writing about it, daydreaming about it or planning her next trip. She lives in Ottawa.


A Modern-Day Cowboy: Cycling the Canadian Prairie

By Brad Zembic

Greeters at the Commercial Hotel © Brad Zembic

Greeters at the Commercial Hotel © Brad Zembic

I thought I'd sussed out the perfect place to sleep – behind the tourist information building at Walsh, Alberta, a hamlet only a few kilometres from the Saskatchewan border. It was dark, the grass was thick and comfortable, and I laid my sleeping bag out feeling like a modern-day cowboy (except for the campfire). I even heard the yapping of coyotes from somewhere out on the prairie. A million stars glittered above me, and I marvelled that after almost a decade of car dependence and twenty years since my last long-distance bicycle trip, I was still able to pull off a good half-day on the saddle without whining for a hot bath.

At about 2:00 a.m. the water began to fall. It was funny – I remember thinking – rain on a clear prairie night. Then it dawned on me why the surrounding countryside was bone dry and brown as a badger's back while the grounds of the Travel Alberta tourist information bureau were green and succulent.

“Sprinklers!” I moaned, as I quickly gathered my sleeping roll and ran to a part of the surrounding park that wasn't being spit upon. I spent the remainder of the night reinacting the scene, jumping like a jackrabbit from dry patch to dry patch as each section of the park was watered in turn. It was sleepless, that first night on the trail, but I felt excited that my adventure had really begun.

I started my ride at Medicine Hat, just east of Calgary, and chose my native Winnipeg as a destination because, as a prairie dog by birth, I was taught very early the importance of returning to the den. After driving the 13,000 km from my new home in Vancouver, I ditched my car on the edge of town and proceeded to cycle down the long asphalt snake commonly known as “Number One” – the Trans-Canada Highway. Forty kilometres later, a road sign emblazoned with a wild rose the size of a grain silo bid me farewell from Alberta's foothills, while another with a giant sheath of wheat warmly invited me into Saskatchewan, “Canada's breadbasket.”

My first real taste of prairie life was Maple Creek, a small town nestled like a grouse at the edge of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, a 25,000 km2 island of rolling pine and spruce woodland that once gave refuge to Sitting Bull after his military success at Little Big Horn. Established in 1882 near a major post for the North West Mounted Police, who were trying to halt the flow of illegal whiskey from the United States, the town still maintains the charm of a bygone era with its sleepy, shaded streets, its grain elevator, and its quaint shops. I was discouraged and saddle sore, so I decided to hole-up in the historic Commercial Hotel, where I enjoyed a hot bath as the acrid scent of rotting crab apples drifted in through my open window.

Not Another Tim Hortons © Brad Zembic

Still Not Quite Tim Hortons © Brad Zembic

The following morning, after a hefty prairie breakfast, I cycled back to the main highway, praying that the soft southwesterly breeze would turn into a gale and blow me all the way to Regina. It wasn't to be. As I approached the Trans-Canada the wind shifted, and I was soon facing a second day of blustery resistance.

I left the Trans-Canada for Highway 363 near Swift Current and was greeted by a landscape as featureless as a sea. The terrain was treeless and flat, the long stems of wheat waving like mermaid's hair in a great ocean. In the distance I could make out farmhouses and imagined them as freighters carrying cargo to western shipping ports. Silver grain silos glinted in the sunlight and everywhere crickets chirped, grasshoppers jumped and telephone wires buzzed. The mid-day sun was relentless, and I instinctively began scanning the horizon for a place to replenish my supply of water.

“Only four more kilometres 'till Neidpath,” I said as I surveyed my map. I peddled faster, anticipating a cold glass of ice water from yet another prairie-town cafe. What I found, though, were the scattered remains of what was once a flourishing south Saskatchewan village. A parched skeleton of a decrepit grain elevator, some fallen buildings, a pile of rusting farm equipment and the wooden shell of a little farmhouse were nearly all that was left. In the end I cycled further up the road where, at a homestead concealed behind a wall of cackling poplar trees, I was fed well water by a burly Jehovah's Witness who encouraged me to relocate to Saskatchewan.

“It's paradise here,” he said. “And land's cheap. Where else can you get a view like this?” He swept his arm across the open prairie as if he was trying to part a sea. I had to agree. The view was stunning – a rich tapestry of rolling farmland and a sky as clear and blue as the eyes of an angel. The idea of cheap rural property was attractive, I admitted, but life in Vancouver had thinned my blood and one blast of a cold winter wind here, I knew, would send me galloping for the coast.

My goal for the night was the dusty, agricultural outpost of Hodgeville, and two hours later, feeling like a lonely, half-broken drifter too many hours on the saddle, I checked into the only hotel in town.

”Room's 'er upstairs,” the plaid-shirted hotel clerk informed me. “Pay as you leave.” I tethered my bicycle to a post in front of the hotel and was escorted up the stairs to a paddock-like room with a bed, a table and chair, and a washbasin.

“Bath's down the hall,” the clerk continued, pointing a finger as sharp as a wheat stalk to the end of the passage. “Y'er the only one here, so it odda be real quiet.”

An Ocean of Wheat © Brad ZembicAn Ocean of Wheat © Brad Zembic

It was Saturday night, and I was determined to immerse myself in a little prairie town culture – a shot of whiskey, perhaps, after a hard day's ride. I walked down to the hotel watering hole hoping for a set of saloon doors like in Gunsmoke, Miss Kitty leaning against the bar and fell'ers with bristling whiskers, broken teeth and cowboy hats. Except for the barman (who was also the desk clerk), however, the bar was empty.

“Saturday night's the same as Sunday durin' harvest,” the barman explained. “Everyone's tired, and they godda get up early.”

The next morning I gazed out my second floor window, trying to figure out which way the winds were blowing. There are, I discovered, all sorts of ways to judge the direction of even the slightest breeze. One sure way is to watch how leaves fall from trees. Another is to track the seeming chaotic flight of butterflies, or to watch the direction small birds fly. This day the birds were soaring east, a sure sign that I had paid my dues and was in for some enjoyable cycling.

I ate breakfast in the Hodgeville Café, a rundown restaurant with yellowing walls, wooden booths and coffee that tasted like slough water. There were a few customers scattered around the room: trio of pot-bellied farmers talking about last year's fires in Alberta, a town drunk and a mousey-looking woman dressed in a winter coat. I struck up a conversation with May, the café owner, a friendly immigrant from Canton. She spoke enthusiastically about Vancouver and was contemplating a move there.

”Business is bad. There's no people left here,“ she lamented. “They're all moving to Regina or Winnipeg.” Indeed, many small prairie towns may soon resemble Neidpath as rural people seek a more urban and comfortable lifestyle in the big cities.

Hoodooing © Brad ZembicHoodooing © Brad Zembic

For the next four days tailwinds pushed me closer to the Manitoba border along roads as flat and sizzling as a frying pan full of Canadian bacon. The sun beat down mercilessly, and I daydreamed of rivers filled with ice-cold lemonade. White-tailed deer pranced away through the wheatfields at my approach, their heads bouncing like dark balls on a golden floor, and operatic meadowlarks sang to each other – things I would have missed, I thought, if I'd been in a car. Misty mornings were followed by blazing days and warm evenings, when the western sun slouched over the plains, crowning the fields with a brilliant halo.

On my last day I cycled a whopping 160 km, travelling through Manitoba farm towns that seemed as small as dots on a map: Rivers, Wheatland, Brookdale, Wellwood, and through to Melbourne – nothing like its namesake Down Under.

At Portage la Prairie, 100 km from my destination, one of my brothers caught wind of my arrival and drove out from Winnipeg to take me home. As we travelled through the night in his Ford pickup truck, grasshoppers splattered against the windscreen and the clover-scented prairie air flooded through the open windows. Kenny Rodgers was blaring from the radio, singing something about a woman dumping her husband before the crops had been harvested.

“Right across the prairies, eh?” my brother asked, his head bobbing like the head of one of those wheatfield deer. “I guess you had enough of that torture.”

I nodded, too, reflecting on my nine days on the road – the freedom, the fresh air, the people I'd met – and I promised inwardly to abandon myself more often to the call of the wild, to one day jump back on the saddle, slip my feet into the stirrups and, like a modern-day cowboy, cycle more of Canada's country roads.

Brad Zembic is a Vancouver-based writer of travel stories, book and film reviews, and fiction. His work has been published in the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun, the Cape Argus and the Cape Times. All images © Brad Zembic


Embraced by a Nation: A Canadian's Bicycle Tour of South Africa

By Brad Zembic

Weaver's Nest © Brad Zembic
Weaver's Nest in the Karoo © Brad Zembic

I've always felt an inexplicable bond with South Africa because of its wide-open spaces, its wildlife, and its passionate people, and every year, tired of another harsh Canadian winter, I rush to the nearest travel agency to buy an airline ticket to the country where I feel particularly at home. It's become, for me, a sort of migration, like animals following the distant sound of thunder. I light-heartedly refer to my irrepressible draw to that part of the world as Africanitis, a magnificent disease whose symptoms are well known to my friends and colleagues: incessant talk about everything from Kalahari sunsets to Xhosa manhood rituals, and endless hours on the Internet trying to find the best photograph of South Africa to wallpaper my computer screen with.

Recently, I decided to deepen my relationship with South Africa by travelling as unhurriedly as the early Dutch settlers must have during The Great Trek, visiting areas of the country that lay well off the beaten path. I had previously bicycled the length of my own nation and was well prepared, I imagined, to tackle the immense, sparsely-occupied plain known as the Karoo, an area whose heat, I was told tongue-in-cheek, would burn the wool off a sheep.

Arriving in South Africa was like landing in a dream. The veld appeared lush after a spring rain, and streets everywhere were mauve with fallen jacaranda blossoms, making me feel as if I'd just missed a wedding. After a week of cycling through Guateng and the fallow fields of the Free State, I crossed into an area that was neither colourful nor promising of bounty. The landscape around me became dry, with thorn trees and clumps of golden grass clinging to the rocky earth. Places to get food and water appeared, on my map, unreasonably distant, and visions of sun-bleached bones lying next to a rusted bicycle with a faded Canadian flag swirled before me.

night ride in the karoo © Brad Zembic
Night Ride in the Karoo © Brad Zembic

On a small gravel road somewhere between Douglas and Hopetown, a mere dot on the edge of the Karoo, I passed a lonely-looking farmhouse with a lawn as green as an Irish heath. The sky was cloudless and the air heavy with afternoon heat. A kilometre beyond the house, the lower gears on my bicycle wouldn't shift, and I discovered my chain hanging like a necklace from the rear changer. I'd lost a jockey wheel. I searched for two hours for the little rubber piece, without which I'd be left with only five upper gears and a struggle to reach any place with a repair shop. Unsuccessful, I sat in the shade of a leafy kareeboom and, with the stench of a nearby rabbit carcass riding toward me on the hot breeze, tucked into a cheese and vegetable pie before limping off in the direction of Hopetown.

Caution suggested I refill my water bottles. Hopetown was still forty kilometres away, and there was no guarantee I wouldn't experience some other kind of breakdown and need to spend a night in the open veld. This was not a scenario I was averse to, since one of my purposes for travelling across South Africa by bicycle was to enjoy the serenity of its vast stretches of uncultivated land. I saw a forced night under the glittering stars of the Northern Cape as an opportunity rather than an inconvenience, though the softer side of my nature rooted for a comfortable bed and a hearty meal in more civilised quarters.

I rode back to the farmhouse with the lovely, green lawn and was greeted by a garrulous woman, whose daughter and friend—clad in bathing suits—bolted, like springbok, to escape my detection. My arrival by bicycle at this out-of-the-way estate was treated as a matter of course. Other cyclists, the woman reported, had used the road and had also stopped in for water. I was offered glasses-full of cold orange drink and a late lunch before being introduced to a neighbour who, along with her husband, owns a nearby game ranch that caters to the wildlife interests of overseas tourists.

karoo estates © Brad Zembic
Karoo Estates © Brad Zembic

For the next hour, or so, my new friends schemed ways to help me along my way. Kenneth telephoned his father in Kimberly to see if he could obtain the missing bike piece for me, then offered to transplant the jockey wheel from his own bicycle. Anna Marie recommended I hitch a ride into Kimberly with her the following morning to look for a decent bicycle shop; I could stay with her and her family until the repairs were done. What had been a mere request for water suddenly became a community effort to save the Canadian cyclist, and I was touched by everyone's concern and the lengths they were willing to go to help a stranger.

I did procure a replacement jockey wheel from yet more helpful people in Kimberly, and for two days afterward, continued to enjoy a break from cycling at Anna Marie's game ranch, Fort Richmond, with its tranquillity, blue skies and endless vista of the veld – things which were among my reasons for travelling South Africa's back roads in the first place. On my final day, my hosts departed for a two-week holiday on the east coast, leaving me with the house keys and instructions to lock the door whenever I should decide to leave.

That evening, as I walked down a sandy road that led deep into the veld, I reflected on my trip – the places I'd seen and the friendly people I'd encountered. The silvery light of a full moon shone brilliantly, even as the setting sun brushed the horizon with soft rose and lemony hues. Zebra and wildebeest galloped away as I approached, leaving clouds of dust lingering spirit-like in the air. South Africa, I thought, is filled with beauty and its people are hospitable beyond imagining. It's believed South Africa is the cradle of humankind. Perhaps that's the reason I'm so at home there, embraced, as I've been, and rocked in the arms of a nation.

Brad Zembic is a Vancouver-based writer of travel stories, book and film reviews, and fiction. His work has been published in the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun, the Cape Argus and the Cape Times.


Expeditions with Ordúñez

By Amanda Hale

Roberto Ordúñez © Amanda Hale
Roberto Ordúñez © Amanda Hale

There is an element of mystery in the world of archaeology. Despite all the scientific evidence and carbon dating available in our time these investigations are fraught with a puzzling and fascinating invitation to use one's poetic imagination and to call on a sense of déjà vu. This, together with comparative notes on the Mayan people of Guatemala and Mexico, and the First Nations of North America, fuels my conversation with archaeologist and anthropologist, Roberto Ordúñez.

As we sit in the front room of his house Ordúñez holds a stone sculpture in his hand – a head resembling the huge Olmec heads of the Mexican Gulf area. This miniature version is sculpted with clear features of eyes, nose, mouth, ears, all scored with sword marks – a message left by a Taíno survivor perhaps, a graphic depiction of a grisly discovery. When we had explored the site where this relic was discovered, one of our group had climbed to a second level of caves secreted in the rocky cliff face, and there found a complete bone from a forearm, indicating perhaps an attempted escape by one of the Taíno who nevertheless died from his wounds.

My first meeting with Roberto Ordúñez was at the archaeological museum in Paraíso during my first visit to Baracoa, on the south-eastern tip of Cuba, seven years ago. The museum, created by Ordúñez and his colleagues, is situated in a series of caves high above the town of Baracoa, even higher than the cemetery with its stone angel, arms and wings spread, watching over the town. There I discovered a wealth of evidence of the Taíno culture which flourished in the area until the arrival of the Spanish.

During the past four years I have been fortunate in visiting several archaeological sites with Ordúñez and his colleagues in the outlying areas of Baracoa, Cuba's ciudad primada – first city – where the Taíno presence remains strong. One can see Taíno features in the faces of people on the street in Baracoa. Like many indigenous groups, the Taíno are generally thought to be extinct but, along with the Maya, they endure, a quiet and generally unknown presence in the world.

Birthing Cave © Amanda Hale
Birthing Cave © Amanda Hale

Yesterday we examined a recently discovered site near the village of Boma along the coast – a cave rich with bone fragments, teeth, and other evidence of a massacre. There were also carbon fragments, perhaps evidence of the fact that a group of Taíno were cooking in the lower cave when surprised by the Spanish. Some of the bone fragments were burnt, indicating that some fell into the fire as they were slaughtered.

This was my third time to Boma, a visit which included the greeting of old friends. Carlos and his wife welcomed us with thick sweet coffee, and later served us a meal of homegrown fare – caballero beans cooked in coconut milk, root vegetables of malanga, ñame, boniato, platanos, and rice, tomatoes, tiny sweet bananas, water melon with its juicy red flesh and abundant black seeds. Lunch was followed by a visit to the local school where children ranging from six to twelve years clustered for a photo as we delivered packets of pencils, pens, pencil sharpeners, and exercise books. Oscar and Ana Ibis, their teachers, told us that the children study well and are good readers.

Boma School© Amanda Hale
Boma School© Amanda Hale

On this trip to Boma we re-visited a spectacular set of caves with vaulting roofs studded with tiny bats – nothing but the sound of water dripping from the roof and the distant thrum of ocean waves. These caves led to an open area where we found ourselves in a large bowl looking up at a maze of twisted roots and branches, surrounded by recessed caves where the more peaceful remains of a Taíno burial ground were discovered some years ago and where now a ceramic artist's rendition of a Taíno burial rests. A tiny brown body curled into a foetal position faces away from us, his black hair long and abundant, his ankles circled with caracol shells, ceramic ritual offering bowls at head and feet. The sculpture is so realistic that my heart leaps in reverence for the dead with each visit.

Later, on the road to Yumurí further up the coast, we stopped to greet Ordúñez's mother-in-law, Serafín, with her black hair and brilliant blue eyes. As we rested on the beach in front of her rustic house we watched two fishermen patiently hunting for octopus. On the roadside close to Yumurí there is a well-hidden cave. We squeezed into it through the narrow opening and descended into a small bowl where we saw evidence of recent ceremonies – bunches of dried leaves, candle stubs.

cobbled street © Amanda Hale
Cobbled Street © Amanda Hale

Ordúñez led the way with his powerful torch lantern and soon we saw the familiar pictograph. It seemed fainter than last year, but still visible, red against the creamy ochre stone. It clearly represents a figure in birthing posture, and this cave perhaps a birthing room, the entrance mirroring an entry into the womb of the earth, with the inevitable exit of the birthed child. The pictograph is instantly recognizable as the universal symbol woven into fabrics all over the world – a lizard with bent limbs held away from the body and tail extending down from the body like an umbilical cord – then a break in the cord, continuing an inch later – the cut umbilicus of the new born.

The Taíno sites closest to Baracoa are Las Terrazas de Yara, a day's excursion from sea level to a dizzying height which looks out over the bay of Playa Caribe where the Taíno first saw the ships of Columbus approaching. These are not isolated sites. People live on and around them. The ancient road, made of small blocks of stone embedded in the red earth, still exists and people travel up and down this cobbled street every day, on foot or on horseback.

Three Generations © Amanda Hale
Three Generations © Amanda Hale

Three years ago we visited a family where four generations live together. The old man whose skin pigment had broken down giving him a mottled effect, was almost one hundred years old. He stood next to his son and grandson for a photo. The difference in height and development with the generations was marked – better nutrition, evolution. Despite Cuba's “Special Period” of the early 1990s when many people were starving, despite her ongoing difficulties with food production and distribution, these campesinos are progressing and probably living a healthier and less stressful life with provisions from their own land than the townfolk who often live in crowded conditions in tiny rooms and run to la bodega after work to buy whatever might be available.

The plateau of Las Terrazas is a coconut grove harbouring a wealth of potsherds. Fragments of Taíno pottery are there for the taking. As in Mexico and in many other areas of the world, we walked over layers of historical remains too abundant to excavate. Wherever you may dig you will unearth treasure – the true treasure of bones, teeth and the enduring evidence of our ancestors' creativity in clay and stone.

Amanda Hale has published three novels and a recent collection of short fictions set in Cuba – In the Embrace of the Alligator. She has worked as a journalist and playwright, and is a creative writing teacher. All photographs © Amanda Hale


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Hiking Zimbabwe-Style

By Brad Zembic

Hwange GiraffeHwange Giraffe © Brad Zembic

Serena gratefully lifted her cup of instant cream-of-asparagus soup to her weathered lips. “Smells good,” she offered as she whiffed its curling steam.“Did you have to walk far for water?”

After having hiked ten kilometres in the African heat, the idea of covering any more ground was daunting. The only water nearby was a series of springs that helped feed the seasonally flowing Deka River. Our Zimbabwean guide Chuma and I were only able to fill the water bottles after a dozen elephants left the springs to forage for food in the surrounding forest, leaving the pools of otherwise pristine water dung-filled and murky. After boiling the water for safety, I added the pouches of dried soup, wondering how my stomach would react to the concoction. “Bon appetite,” Serena said before downing the creamy mixture and refilling her cup. “Aren't you having any? I smiled weakly as I reached into my pack for a rusk, claiming lactose intolerance.

Mealtime deep in the African bush was only one of a number of adventures that we experienced during our two-day walking trail through Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Although walking was an unorthodox way of seeing the countryside, I had previously travelled through African game parks in vehicles and felt, being secure in my mobile fortress, that I was missing something significant and entirely essential. Travelling by foot through the backcountry, I decided, was the only way to get a true feel for the fast-vanishing African wilderness.

We began our walking safari at Hwange's most westerly port of entry, Robins Camp. Nearly a kilometre from Robins's well-maintained cluster of olive-coloured chalets, administrative buildings and campsites, the air was still bustling with the sounds of human activity. Gradually, however, the bongo rhythm of African voices and the groaning of diesel engines were replaced by the shrill vibrations of cicadas, and I had a blunt feeling of having entered a realm where safety was as illusory as human dominion.

Established as a national park in 1949, Hwange consists of nearly 15,000 km2 of grassland, sandveld and teak and mopani forests that give refuge to one of the greatest densities of wildlife on the planet. The area was once the exclusive royal hunting ground of Kings Mzilikazi and Lobengula of the Ndebele nation. During the late 1800s, it was annexed for the British Empire by Cecil Rhodes's British South Africa Company and was nearly stripped of wildlife by Europeans who turned much of the land into cattle ranches. It was largely through the conservation efforts of landowner Herbert Robins – whose house still stands as a ranger station in the camp that bears his name – that the new colonial government realized the region's rich potential. After trading a new house and water system for some of Robins's property in the 1920s, the authorities began in earnest to claim additional land and lure back animals as a legacy to all Zimbabweans.

We hiked our first day along meandering game trails that led us through dried realized kloofs, or ravines, that revealed highways of animal spoor in the sand, and through areas thick with golden grass that reached over two metres in height. The lookout tower at Robins stood behind us like a periscope above a canopy of trees and sank slowly below the horizon with each step we took. After walking for several hours through flat savanna, we broke for lunch in a grove of scraggy acacia trees, denuded of foliage by the dryness of Zimbabwe's winter. We huddled into their vein-like shadows to avoid the sun and watched a pair of Burchell's zebras trot across the parched terrain.

Further into the bush, we crossed several dormant rivers and streams that in winter act as roadways for wildlife in search of food and water. The sandy watercourses are fed by the summer rains, which normally fall in November and December, before flowing northward to join the great chief of rivers, the Zambezi, on its trek to the Indian Ocean. While climbing from a dried streambed, we noticed a small herd of elephants with cute Dumbo calves casually ripping bark and foraging for leaves. “Move slowly back toward those trees,” Chuma whispered excitedly, pointing to a stand of mopani trees and cocking his high-powered rifle. “Elephants are aggressive when they have babies. ”

We backed away, careful to avoid detection, only to realize we had manoeuvred ourselves into a closing circle of the mammoth creatures. Being upwind from a second group, our presence was soon echoed in a jazz festival of trumpeting and ear flapping that alerted a big-tusked and protective matriarch. The earth below us seemed to tremble, either from the weight of her charge, or the shaking of our knees. Chuma ordered us to stay put and, after firing his rifle into the air, our attacker stopped, and then gave a final snort and head swing before retreating with the herd.

We trudged on for another five kilometres, skirting a rogue Cape buffalo and lone elephants along the way. Hwange's elephant population numbers over twenty thousand in the dry season when the animals travel from other parts of Southern Africa to congregate at the park's permanent waterholes. In summer, however, when water is plentiful, many migrate beyond Hwange's borders to areas as far as the Okavango Delta in Botswana, allowing the park's fragile ecosystem to partially recover from their destructive appetites.

“We will sleep here,” Chuma finally announced after nearly fifteen kilometres of hiking. ”These fallen trees will serve as a boma. They will keep the animals away.” My jaw dropped at the thin network of branches meant to protect us from being dragged away in the night by hungry predators, and I began questioning the wisdom of not carrying a tent. As Serena unpacked her rucksack, Chuma and I scavenged for wood for an all-night fire.

Darkness falls quickly in Africa and, after a meal of sadza—maize-meal cooked into a porridge-like consistency—with a chicken soup topping, we settled into our little enclosure and watched the fire while enjoying the sounds of the African night. We heard the ghostly hoot of a pearl-spotted owl, and somewhere a lone jackal stabbed the air with its piercing yap. The sky was brilliant, as if the spirits of a million fallen Matabele warriors had built their own tiny campfires to fend off the night. Gazing around me, I couldn't help but feel a strong connection with something primeval and long forgotten.

The wood smoke swirled around us like incense, and we were soon lulled to sleep. I was awakened, however, by the sound of loud grunts and racing feet from somewhere in the bush. “There's something coming,” I whispered loudly to a snoring Chuma. In the flash of a second, he was lying poised with his rifle cocked, ready to confront the danger. The animal galloped past our camp just outside the circle of firelight, snorting and snuffling as it made its way deeper into the forest.

“Hyena,” Chuma reported casually. “It is being chased by a lion.” The faint snarl of a big cat confirmed Chuma's evaluation. “It is afraid of the fire,” he continued, anticipating my question. He then rolled himself tightly in his sleeping bag and resumed his gentle snore. I turned to Serena, who appeared to have slept through the entire event, and then got up to search for the biggest log I could find to add to the fire.

On our second day in Hwange, we travelled along game trails through dry grassland and mopani woodlands, frightening small herds of graceful impalas along the way. A pair of bat-eared foxes pranced into the forest, and we startled a group of giraffes as they browsed the higher branches for leaves. A grey lourie perched itself on the top of an acacia uttering its characteristic “g'way,” a call that has caused locals to nickname it the “go-away bird,” and we came across a massive communal nest of the social weaver that covered almost an entire tree. Over four hundred species of birdlife inhabit the region during the humid summer months. Colourful birds such as the lilac-breasted roller, carmine bee-eater and blue waxbill make Hwange a birding paradise that attracts enthusiasts from all over the world.

That night we camped safely within the walls of a game-viewing hide next to the Masuma Dam. On previous trips to Hwange the reservoir had been full and teaming with wildlife. Crocodiles lay in waiting, their bulbous eyes protruding like stones above the water's still surface; screeching baboons chased each other; and enormous elephants bathed themselves, while herds of zebras, kudus and impalas frolicked and sipped at the water's edge. This time, however, the reservoir was empty. “The pipes that bring the water from the pump are broken,” Chuma explained. “There is no money to fix them.”

Water any time of year can be a problem in Hwange, whose sandy terrain is an eastern extension of the Kalahari Desert. As a result, Ted Davidson, the park's founding warden, devised a plan that included building a series of boreholes to ensure a year-round supply. Zimbabwe has fallen on hard times, however, and although the pipes have since been repaired, the high cost of maintaining the pumps threatens these artificial watering holes, a necessity for wildlife in times of drought.

zimbabwe stormStorm Brewing in Hwange © Brad Zembic

Despite being surrounded by a one-metre-high stone wall, our last night in the bush was our most sleepless. The Robins area is renowned for its high concentration of predators, of which Hwange boasts over twenty-five different types, and soon after we bedded down, the roars of a lion pride began to thunder across the veld. Our senses remained alert as the roaming felines moaned and grunted to each other in the darkness while scouring the bush for prey. The air seemed to tremble with the electricity of what South African writer Laurens van der Post called “the most miraculous of sounds.” Their booming voices filled me simultaneously with dread and joy, and I lay awake for hours listening to their conversations.

We were greeted the next morning by the gentle coo cooing of doves and the excited cackle of guinea fowls as they scurried about the dried pan. The sky was layered with soft bands of rose and peach hues, and trees were set ablaze as a blood-coloured sun climbed slowly above the horizon. A Landover arrived to take us back to civilization. Its grinding diesel engine spewed black exhaust and suffocated the sounds of nature. As we packed our gear into the vehicle, Chuma showed us the spoor of a large lion that had passed by in the early hours of the morning. I felt oddly comforted by the lion's closeness. Remembering conservationist Ian Player's idea that “we feel the soul of Africa through the soles of our feet,” I placed my own foot onto one of its paw prints and realized that walking in Hwange had put me in touch with something significant and entirely essential.

Former Winnipeg boy Brad Zembic just can't seem to sit still, which is probably why he calls so much of the world home. While nourishing his obsession for travel, his forays to places off the tourist trail have given him insight and appreciation of our planet's extraordinary people and places.

Images edited by Kamer Guzel

Shifting Gear in Africa's
Kalahari Desert

By Brad Zembic

Obsessed with sighting a black-maned lion in the Kalahari wilderness, a tourist learns about Nature's genius.

black maned lion copyright angela and craig

The morning sun was shining over Cape Town as my rented VW Golf slowed, shuddered, then stalled along the shoulder of the N7. After showing me the basics of how to drive a standard, my friend Serena was gracious enough to escort me to the outskirts of town. She parked her Opel GT behind me and walked to where I sat, gripping the steering wheel as if the car might suddenly decide to leave on its own.

"Now remember—," Serena said, snickering, as she leaned through my open window, "gear down when you're decelerating, and be sure to start in first." I was mystified by the hieroglyphic-like lines on the gearshift and berated myself for not having spent the few extra rands on a car with automatic transmission.

"And in South Africa," she continued, "the slow lane is on the left." I nodded, realizing why so many other motorists have been honking at me. The complexity of operating my first standard vehicle in a country where driving is a mirror image of what I'm used to stunned me, and for a moment my vision blurred.

I put the car into gear, depressed the gas pedal, and tried to sense, Jedi-style, the exact moment when I could release the clutch. This intuitive method failed, and I lurched northward along the freeway wondering if I would make it alive to my destination—the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the southwest Kalahari Desert, Africa's first formally declared international park.

I arrived at Twee Rivieren, the park's most southern access, just before dusk the next day, and even in the fading light it was easy to see why European settlers shunned this remote area: sand dunes and peppercorn scrub stretched as far as the eye could see. Everything, including the crisp winter air, seemed dead, leaving my senses straining to fill the void.

The region may well have remained isolated if it hadn't been for General Louis Botha's planned invasion of German South West Africa during World War I. In anticipation of the march northward, Botha built a series of boreholes to supply his South African troops with water. The invasion never happened, but the presence of permanent water sites made the southern Kalahari more accessible to hunters and migrating southerners. Accompanying them was the characteristic slaughter of wildlife which, years later, prompted conservationists to lobby the government for the area's protection.

The park, whose 38,000 km sq of sand, duneveld and savanna is jointly administered by neighbouring Botswana, isn't blessed with spectacular scenery or even big game such as Cape buffalo, elephant or rhino. It's also difficult to get to—a long sixteen-hour drive from Cape Town (ten for those with experience driving a standard). What drew me to this far-flung South African wilderness was the chance to see the fabled black-maned lion made famous by Mark and Delia Owens in their book, Cry of the Kalahari. Since reading about the Owens' adventures in central Botswana, I have been obsessed with the feline and became nearly giddy at the prospect of seeing one outside the book covers.

"Be sure to come back before dark," a park ranger warned me as I set off from camp for a sunset look-about. "There are many lions!" That was good news and, after slipping into what was possibly first gear, I chugged off in search of my prey.


My route followed the bone-dry Auob River, one of the two watercourses that comprise the sinewy pair of main roads that on a map resemble twin spines. Rivers flow only sporadically in this part of the Kalahari. The rains, which fall irregularly between November and April, are often not heavy or prolonged enough to give them sustained life—the Auob fills only once a decade and the nearby Nossob once every hundred years. Summer's short cloudbursts often leave only trickling pools of water for wandering game. These evaporate, though, or are quickly sucked up by thirsty sand that soon becomes adorned with a confetti-like carpet of brilliant flowers.

Soon after the thatched-roof buildings at Twee Rivieren disappeared into the distance, life seemed everywhere. A small flock of black-plumed ostriches pranced across the veld at my approach, and a pair of majestic gemsbok, one of Africa's largest antelopes, descended from the dunes for a drink of water at a borehole—one of General Botha's, I assumed. They stopped briefly to evaluate the danger I might pose before sauntering lazily to the overflowing cistern. Later, the desert became dotted with thin-leafed camel thorns, shepherd's trees and acacias—slim cover for any of the Kalahari's predators. I stopped to listen for the telltale grunts of lion, but the air was still, the only sound the shrill tone that seems to accompany absolute quiet.

The next day's drive to Nossob Camp, in the northern section of the park, was effortless and serene, though I occasionally became intimidated by the mounds of copper-coloured sand that had formed across my path. The broad, grassy bed of the Nossob River offered unimpeded sightings of game—springbok, blue wildebeest, gemsbok, the "prince of the Kalahari," and ostrich. Occasionally a Cape fox or a wildcat, an animal that through generations of domestication developed into the modern housecat, scurried across the road.

"It's an incomplete place," commented Sandra, a Nossob conservationist, during a guided nature hike. "Everything here seems to be waiting for something. The valleys are waiting for the rivers; the yellows and browns are awaiting the greens. And many people come here feeling incomplete. They want to reconnect with something that's missing from their lives, something that can only be found in the wilderness.

"But others," she added disappointedly, "only feel complete after they've seen a lion when there are so many spectacular things right in front of their eyes." I glanced awkwardly at the other hikers, who were nodding their heads in agreement.


The most remarkable thing about the Kalahari, of course, is that anything can thrive in such a seeming wasteland. The severe environment, where the extreme temperatures and lack of water can be fatal, demands creative means by which animals can survive. The eland's light-coloured coat reflects the sun's burning rays and helps keep it hydrated; the gemsbok's body temperature can rise to as high as 45 degrees Celsius, causing the animal to lose heat to the outside environment. At the same time, a series of blood vessels in its nasal area acts as a radiator by cooling the blood before it reaches the brain.

"Even the plants have developed ingenious ways to survive," Sandra announced proudly as she picked something from the ground. "Take the bushman's grass, here. Its seed waits for a good wind, then sails away across the veld, alights on the sand and burrows itself in to germinate." I gazed for a moment at the golden piece of fluff with its feathery prongs, long stalk and the tan-coloured seed that hung like a parachutist at the end.

"What's so spectacular about that?" I whispered sarcastically as I scanned the riverbed for lion. Sandra blew the seed from her palm. The gauzy projectile drifted awkwardly to the ground and, with the help of the chilly morning breeze, dug itself into the sand with a rotary action. I stooped for a closer look at the embedded seed and admitted I was impressed with the engineering.

"The magic of the Kalahari is that everything here has adapted perfectly to the harsh conditions," Sandra continued as I glanced for feline movement among the grass and camel thorn trees. The only creature in sight, though, was a blue wildebeest, standing forlornly in the middle of the Auob.

During the next hour or so, Sandra, along with her colleague Riaan, who peddles venomous snakes during his free time, introduced me to many of the Kalahari's exceptional creatures. There was a species of rat that lives in trees and a communal bird that builds a condominium of nests so large that it can cover an entire tree.

"There's safety in numbers—a hundred pair of eyes are better than one at watching for danger," Riaan explained.

My guides also pointed out plants and trees that have been used medicinally for centuries by nomadic San, or Bushmen. The wormbark false thorn is an effective de-wormer also used to treat ulcers and rheumatism; the hoodia gordonii cactus suppresses hunger; and devil's claw is now sold around the world as a remedy for everything from arthritis to skin disorders.

"The Kalahari is a natural pharmacy," Sandra said as she plucked a leaf from a nearby bush and slipped it into her mouth. "Anyone want to try one? They make a lovely candy and are sure to take care of morning breath."

On my return to Twee Rivieren, I gazed less through the wintry trees in hope of spotting lion and spent more time thinking about the brilliance of nature and how life, even in the most difficult circumstances, seems to find ways to adapt. I had become expert, I imagined, at identifying the small bushes and grasses I had previously thought valueless and was more aware of the area's magic.

As I proceeded along the dusty road that would take me back to Cape Town, I remembered Sandra's description of the Kalahari as an incomplete place and realized that not seeing a lion during my visit somehow seemed right. I would remain incomplete, like the desert I was about to leave. As with all life in the Kalahari, though, the waiting eventually ends: the summer rains fall; the valleys turn green; and the veld flowers blossom. Near the camp gate, a family in a white pick-up truck flagged me down and told me of a lion kill only a kilometre away. I arrived at the scene and was treated to the sight of two lions sprawled beneath a shepherd's tree chewing on the bloody remains of a felled gemsbok.