Polar Aircraft

Aircraft of Canada

I’ve taken A LOT of photos over the past couple of years. Since getting my Nikon D5200 I’ve been habitually taking more photos than I could ever need, primarily due to my theory that if I take a lot, there will be more good ones in the mix due to the sheer probability of the thing. Also, taking more = practice, and practice makes, err, better… I’m a few years clear of the selfie generation that’s currently pressurising the intertubes with oversharing of their day-to-day lives, so I prefer instead to take pictures of what I see that interest me and places I’ve been to that I’d like to capture and recall. I don’t take photos for other people, I take them for me. So I can remember how I felt wherever I was when I took the picture.

This results in a lot of photos of mountains, abstract shapes, to the annoyance of my friends and family back home who seem to want to see pictures of me, in the holiday photo style of standing in-front of a monument or landmark, squeezing out a cheesy smile for the camera as it’s held by a passer by who I’ve just met – I do that occasionally, to keep the fam happy, but that’s just not very me.

One consistent theme however is that I take almost as many photos of metal things with engines in as I do landscapes that I like the look of, including planes. So I’m cheating again this week with the whole “one post a week” challenge; here’s another video. 😛

A 2014 Restrospective

I’m forcing myself to take a couple of hours off to review the last twelve months, because I realise it’s been over 3-months since I wrote anything on here, and fun stuff like writing is one of those things that stays at the bottom of a todo list unless you force it to the top on occasion.

I had grand plans to keep this blog updated multiple times a week, with insights gained on my travels and gorgeous photos of Canada’s natural beauty and rich, exciting urban centres, that wasn’t to be. I changed my approach when I was only in my third province, partly due to the fact that I was stacking up way too much draft content and actually finishing none of it, partly because I had more photos than I knew what to do with (~21,000 since I landed on Canadian soil so far, yes really) and partly because it takes time to write things up into something worth reading, and I wanted to enjoy the experience of being in these places that I was traveling through, rather than just being a meat-camera, capturing and regurgitating visuals and anecdotes to be deposited on the interwebs.

Nikon D5200 with 50mm 1.4G Nikkor lens

I’m not going to document every last place that I visited, as if I did that I’d have nothing to tell you when we next meet up. Instead I’ll start gain from here, and I’ll include some photos of my travels as and when;

I now have my own personal stock photo library (a major bonus to travel that I hadn’t considered before setting off) – so some advice: do not hit the road with a crappy camera. I still hate to look at the grainy crap that I got out of the first generation Epson digital camera that I took to South America more than a decade ago, I’ve always been an early adopter like that, but in retrospect a film camera would’ve recorded the experience way better (even if it was cool to be the only person I knew with a digital camera at the time).

My camera choice this time however, was boss. It’s that thing in the image above; a Nikon D5200 body, with Nikkor 50mm 1.4G lens on it. I also took a borrowed Nikkor 55-300mm (thanks Mum). In retrospect I could’ve done with a shorter focal length lens for close shots, but the combo was perfect for landscape and environment shots. The 50mm in particular absolutely killed it for night photography, and I’m so glad I had it when I was up in Whitehorse checking out the Northern Lights.


 

Highlights (in no particular order)

British Columbia

The float plane flight around Vancouver was spectacular. I’ve always wanted to go up in one of these and my Harbour Air experience did not disappoint.

plane

 


 

Yukon

As I’ve mentioned before a lot, the Northern Lights in Whitehorse was an incredible sight and one that I didn’t expect to see on my trip (it was a last-minute “ah sod it, now or never” decision to fly up from Vancouver). Though the people I met up there was as much of a highlight as the location. The Yukon is now one of my favourite places, anywhere.

norlights


The Rockies

Solo mountain-biking in Jasper was another highlight. I got some incredible photos, but actually being there was mind-blowing. You can’t believe that you’re not viewing something that’s been photoshopped at times. It’s not cheap, and it’s super-touristy downtown, but if you can get out of the urban area a little there’s still a whole lot of wild Canada to explore.

outofthecamera


 

The Arctic

I didn’t expect to get as far north as Dawson City, so I definitely didn’t expect to find myself in the Arctic on the way to it. A completely random series of events ended up taking me to Inuvik by prop-plane. The view from the window on the flight up made me re-assess my understanding of the concept of scale. Seeing the rivers become dog-sled highways was as surreal as it was exciting.

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Icebergs!

These huge lumps of Canine Gin & Tonic (Eh? … 😉 ) float their way down from Greenland’s ice sheet, loiter off the coast a bit, then end up in a bottle of one kind or another. There are actual boats with huge grabber things on them that pluck chunks of ‘berg for the sole purpose of being put into alcohol production. I’ve now drunk iceberg in both beer and wine formats; both are delicious.

iceberg


 

The Maritimes

If you’re going to skip these provinces on your Canadian travels, you’re doing it very wrong. Best seafood you’ll ever eat in your life, and you can probably see the boat that brought it in! If you’re not into fish? Err, best stay west. Unless you like Timmy’s; there’s always a Timmy’s.

marit


 

The wildlife

In rural England, the most exciting thing you’re likely to see is a Fox. Not so in Canada; big, National Geographic-worthy wildlife is everywhere!

wildlife


 

Overall however, the best thing about this past year has been the people I’ve met, they make the experience. It’s why I chose to go for hostel accommodation most of the way around Canada, because it’s impossible not to meet people that way.

That’ll do for now; it’s been a year to beat!

Challenge accepted. 😛

Cheap and Cheerless: tackling a 57-hour bus journey

Taking the cheapest way from Banff to Toronto, whilst breaking my own personal record on the amount of time on a bus, seemed like an ok idea and very cost-effective at only ~$200. The train wasn’t running when I needed it to, and the flight was going to be $322, plus $18 fare for a bus to Calgary. $140 is a lot when you’re trying to make your money stretch out, and as I didn’t have any deadline to get anywhere, I traded time for money and went with the Greyhound. That alone was a tough decision, after they lost my bag last time…but they’ve pretty much got the route locked down, so no other operators had an equivalent journey for me to take.

So the bus was definitely the right choice this time. I was convinced. But you can’t be right all of the time.

I wrote the odd fragmented note into a draft on Evernote, one of the apps that I recommend for travel when you’re not sure if you’re going to have an internet connection the whole time.

6hrs in

This isn’t so bad.

9hrs in

I’m snoozing a lot. I’m doing a pretty good impression of a nodding dog. Or was, up until I executed a perfect headbutt onto the edge of my MacBook. I’m awake now, with a deep red line on my forehead… I am quite awake now, a throbbing head will do that. Need coffee.

12hrs in

Is this a dream or am I still awake? Weird twilight in Sasketchewan doesn’t help – flat prairie could just be my mind running out of ideas in my dream. A single tree on an endless plain? Come on, that’s gotta be fake. “Kzzzzrt” the bus driver’s voice crackles onto the overhead speakers. No way…this is real?! That sky is blatantly photoshopped…

16hrs in

Ow wow. I need some fruit. My stash was NOT big enough, but I’m damned if I’m having a Timmy’s for breakfast. I found some bags of nuts at the services. Pretty salty, but at least they’re whole foods.

24hrs in

Couldn’t wait any longer. The serial gum chewing wasn’t cutting it. Brushing my teeth at a bus depot; new personal low. I both look and smell like I’ve been camping. In a bin.

36hrs in

If there’s an airport in the next town, I’m getting a plane to Toronto. Screw this. No come on, you’ve come this far. It’s just a bit of sleep deprivation kicking in, you’re fine. You’re right. Who said that?

40hrs in

Why isn’t my phone charging? What?! The power’s broken?? Damnit Greyhound! At least I got to sort through some older photos before the power went out. My primary form of entertainment currently is writing on Facebook about how terrible bus travel is.

48hrs in

So close… Need caffeine if I’m going to salvage my sleep pattern here. Day and night are becoming meaningless terms. Coffee and a greasy McDonald’s bagel is in order – healthy eating be damned. I NEED comfort food.

52hrs in

I’m going to have to burn these clothes…

56hrs in

I’m in Toronto! I walked up and down some streets unnecessarily for a while as I was phone less by the time I got here; battery flat by now obviously. Thanks Greyhound… So this is actually on my laptop when I arrived.

I need to get some sleep and a proper meal. Or, you know. Go on a bar crawl with some new friends I just met at the place I’m staying. That’s a tough one…

“You can’t wear a MacBook”

That’s my first thought, and I giggled to myself at the ridiculousness of the situation. It’s 3:30am, I have just arrived in Jasper, I have nowhere booked to stay, and the bus company has just lost my bag. I’ve been on a bus for 32hrs and I am in severe need of a shower and a change of clothes. That’s not going to happen – the bus driver tells me that it must be on the bus to Edmonton, and it won’t be back through Jasper until Saturday. I had all of the gadgetry of the modern-day flashpacker in my camera bag that I carried onto the bus, but only the increasingly pongy clothes on my back to wear.

DSC_0022

My mind flashes back to the connection at Prince George bus depot; I had the presence of snoozymind® to walk over to the last bus and check that there was nothing left on it, but was shooed away by a bag zombie who said that no customers could be near the coach during loading. At the time I wasn’t that bothered, and quite keen to get on the next bus and resume my snooze, but now I was now kicking myself for not pressing the matter and keeping eyes on my bag.

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I sat on a bench and got my Mac onto the WiFi at the closed train station. I had received an email from Mike at the WTF hostel, which I’d booked for the following night, saying that I could just grab a bed in the dorm when I get in as there are beds free. Top bloke. I headed there and got a few hours kip in.

Not Jasper train station (actually Dawson Creek), but I didn't have a photo of the Jasper one!

Not Jasper train station (actually Dawson Creek), but I didn’t have a photo of the Jasper one!

First thing in the morning I headed over to the Greyhound office at the train station, tooled up with indignant rage, ready to kick some metaphorical arse. I arrived to a see a little smiling old lady, who said

“Ah, Matthew? We’ve found your bag dear.”

Ah, bugger. That’s not what I was expecting. I was sort of looking forward to a ruck.

“Oh, uh, thanks!”

How, or where was a mystery to her, as it was left inside the door of the office when she got in in the morning. Regardless of how the bag fairy did her magic that night, the problem was solved. It was however a valuable experience, as I had to (for the second time this trip) go through a worst-case scenario checklist in my head.

Here are some tips for if you ever get into such a situation, and what to do upfront in order to mitigate the pain should it ever happen to you.

1. Know your cover

Are you covered by travel insurance? For total loss, just delays or both? The time that you need to know this is when you panic, that’s when you need to know if you can book into a hotel and relax until you’re thinking straight, or if you need to find a 24hr coffee place to sit in whilst you deal with the situation. Most importantly you need to check what your delayed baggage allowance is, so you know how much you can spend whilst delayed without being out of pocket in the long run.

2. Take photos of all of your stuff, including new things you buy on your travels

I was a bit anal about this and laid out all of my kit on a table before I left so that I could document what I was taking with me. But I didn’t always do this once I’d started to acquire things along the way, so if you treat yourself whilst away (to a new backpack for example) make sure that you take a photo and show off to your mates – it’ll actually come in handy if it ever goes missing and you need to prove that you owned it.

3. ALWAYS keep your passport with you when in transit. ANY form of transit.

This seems like a “duh” point, butI had been a bit lax in the previous few weeks. When I first arrived in Vancouver my passport was in a zipped pocket all the time, always on my person; I was in UK city mode. After that I had moved it to my documents folder which is too big for my camera bag so lives in my rucksack – I wasn’t crossing any national boundaries so it seemed overkill for a bus trip.

I had decided when I was in Whitehorse to rearrange my rucksack, as I had way too much crap that I didn’t need in there. In doing so I transferred my passport to my camera bag, as when I get to an airport eventually I’ll have to dig it out of my rucksack anyway and it’d save me some time in the future, as I tend to be that guy whose name gets the last call over the PA system. This turned out to be an excellent move.

It meant that when I was stranded in Alberta with nothing but gadgets, I had the “fly the **** home” option in my back pocket. That’s a nice thing to have.

4. Don’t panic

People are cool, and you can blog about it later. 😉

DSC_0058

 (as ever, the majority of these photos have nothing to do with the post, but they were taken in Jasper!)

5 essential apps for backpackers

The whole point of my little trip to Canada was that I wanted it to be almost entirely unplanned. Having worked in an office where I knew I was going to be every day and what I needed to be doing ages in advance, I wanted my travel to be a little more unpredictable. Fortunately technology makes that sort of trip both easy and economical.

The following are the apps that I find myself using on a daily basis; I have no association with any of them, I am sharing this info because I genuinely find them useful. I hope you do too!

1. Skyscanner Flights

This is hands down my favourite way of booking a flight, on a mobile or otherwise. It works like the flight comparison sites, but it far slicker than most and is optimised for mobile use.

You can create multiple tabs for specific searches to refer to later, so if you are planning a series of ‘hops’ and want to tweak the specific dates and airlines, you can do so by creating a tab for each journey and switch back and forth between them for comparison.

By far the best feature of this app is the price comparison chart (see vid above), especially if you aren’t constrained by when you have to fly. Enter the origin and destination airports, select ‘Any’ in the Depart date field and hit search. You get a horizontally scrollable chart showing dates along the bottom, and bars of different heights representing flight prices on each date.

For the ultimate in random, cheap flight searches, choose ‘Everywhere’ as your destination airport and see the cheapest place that you can fly to on any date from whichever departure location that you choose! Great for an unplanned, last minute weekend getaway.

2. TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor app gives you the same information as the website, but uses less mobile data

TripAdvisor app gives you the same information as the website, but uses less mobile data

This is no secret really, and every hotel or hostel I’ve been to has had a sticker in the window, such is the pervasive reputation of this tool. The app is better for limited bandwidth connections, because… *geek-out alert, skip to the next app if you’re not interested*, the mobile app uses a text-based API, so it only exchanges the data that is needed to update the information that is seen in the app, whereas the website version also loads images and background JavaScript libraries required to make the site work, making the required download much larger. So if you’re on a roaming data plan, download the mobile app over WiFi before you leave, and use the app rather than the website when you’re out and about using mobile data.

You’ll save mb’s, and it’ll be a much smoother experience.

3. Evernote

Screenshot of Evernote location-based notes screen

Evernote location-based notes

Nothing beats this for keeping track of little snippets of information that you learn from people that you meet along the way. You could use a Moleskine if you’re an analogue type, but if you lose that little book, it’s gone. Evernote backs everything up, and can record where you were when you took down the note so making it easier to refer back to to later: “Which hotel did that guy in Tofino recommend again?..”

I also use it for keeping track of touristy maps and leaflets, partly so that I don’t end up with a bag full of paper, but also because it makes you look less like a tourist if you’re just checking your phone, as opposed to unfurling some A1 sized glossy map on a bench somewhere (I prefer to blend in and not look like a tourist where I can, especially when traveling solo).

Check out Bod for tea’s great crowd-sourced post on other uses if you’re blogging about your travels as you go.

4. Google Drive (desktop and mobile combo)

I use Drive for keeping hold of reservations, confirmations and electronic boarding cards for flights, which are increasingly used at airports to reduce the amount of wasted paper involved in frequent travel.

I sync my ‘Travel’ folder from my desktop, so when I make any bookings with my laptop, the PDF print-outs are synced to my phone automatically, so when I get to the baggage check I can just get the QR code on the screen scanned rather than having to dig around for a crumpled card pass jammed somewhere in a side pocket.

It’s a great feeling to check in online, from a WiFi-enabled shuttle coach en route to the airport, then walk past the check-in queues straight to the departure gate with a smartphone boarding pass, fifteen minutes before take-off. That’s how air travel should always be.

Worried about privacy? Please…you’re using the internet to book flights. Google already knows where you’re flying. 😉

5. OwnCloud

OwnCloud screenshot

For photo-backup. This is a bit trickier to set up, but worth the effort. OwnCloud is a Dropbox-like cloud storage system that you install on your own machine; be that server or home machine that’s always-on. Once set up, you can install the app and have your phone camera photos backed up automatically when you’re in range of WiFi (or even over mobile data, if you’re really brave/have unlimited data!).

Unlike Facebook or Google+, the full-sized image file is uploaded, with all of the extra EXIF data, geolocation and original timestamps, so you don’t lose detail or resolution when it syncs. It reassures me that if my phone breaks or goes walkies, I’ll still have all of the photos that I took with it on a server back in England. It also allows me to delete all of my photos from my phone to free up space to take more!