Melbourne, goodbye for now

During my last week in Melbourne, I was determined to fit in as much as I could, so my roommate and I went on the speediest tour of the city’s cultural points. We visited the Old Treasury, where blocks of gold were stored during the gold rush, and got the closest we’ll probably ever get to $26m.

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Next up was Parliament House. Both the Old Treasury and Parliament offer guided or self-guided tours for free, making it perfect for any travellers on a budget looking to explore the city’s history. We did the self-guided tour at the Old Treasury, and wandered around the spooky brick holes underground. Understandably, you aren’t allowed to walk around Parliament House unguided, but the tours run every half an hour, and are incredibly detailed. Ours was 45 minutes long, and we were taken into the chambers, the library as well as down numerous corridors and open spaces.

Stepping into Victoria’s Parliament was just like walking around Westminster; they even have the embarrassingly few number of women MPs and speakers as we do back home.

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Being poor and eager to get out of the rain, we were all too happy at the amount of free things you can do in the city, so we ventured over to the National Gallery of Victoria. It’s free, and has an amazing variety of exhibitions: from Aboriginal art to modern art installations, it comprised everything that makes Melbourne what it is today.

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As my last week drew to an end, Melbourne slowly started to resemble home more and more. The temperature dropped, barely making 16/17-degrees every day, there was constant drizzle in the air, and the grey clouds were permanent fixtures. One night we went out down one of St Kilda’s busier streets, and the club we were in was full of northern English men, bringing to Australia exactly what I’d hoped to be escaping from. On that note, it was time to leave, and start my journey up the east coast. Melbourne is the most incredible place – the people, the buildings, the spirit, the atmosphere – and I’d be incredibly surprised if I’m not back within a year.

It was the perfect place to start my time in Australia, and start my time travelling alone, and I’ve been so overwhelmed by the kindness and love I’ve been shown while in the city.

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The beginning of the end

Following my stay in Mildura, I rushed back to the city with open arms, thoroughly enjoying the crowds of people, flocks of pigeons and general city-ness that comes with walking through a main train station at rush hour. I’d chosen to leave the CBD hostels in favour of a smaller place off Chapel Street in Windsor. On arriving at Back of Chapel and being offered alcohol before stepping through the door, I knew I’d made the right decision.

I’d previously been staying on Flinders Lane, in Greenhouse Backpackers, and while it was clean and central, it had the atmosphere of Tescos and the key-cards required the precision of a surgeon to buzz in correctly. Having explored St Kilda and the surrounding streets while in Sandringham, I knew this was the place I had to be in: Chapel Street is perhaps the best street I’ve ever walked down in my life. The smells, colours, people and shopfronts are utterly overwhelming, and it takes a lot of willpower to not blow my entire budget on sampling food, cocktails and coffee from every cafe and bar I walked past.

So, feeling much more settled and almost at home, it was time to make the most of being in Melbourne for the last time (this month, anyway). First up was another trip down to central St Kilda, namely Aclan Street, the pier and the beach. Everything about this place makes me want to cancel my flight home and live here permanently: from the art-deco shop fronts, to the leftover gothic architecture, no two buildings are the same. The lack of chain stores and name brands is refreshing, while the rows of bakeries and patisseries are too tempting for their own good.

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My roommate and I struck gold with the day we chose: it was hot and sunny, and a school of sailboats were hovering over the horizon. The warm, crystal clear (crocodile free) bay water is something I’ll miss the most once I leave the state. We headed over to the St Kilda pier next: it doesn’t look like much, but the colonies of water rats and fairy penguins make it a top destination for most people visiting the city. Sadly, the penguins were playing elsewhere when we went, but had they been there I just might have been arrested for stealing wild animals.

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After having tried to get to the Melbourne Botanic Gardens about four times, I finally made it with the help of a few friends at the hostel. Before we made our way into the Gardens, we visited the Memorial Shrine: a combination of monuments built to commemorate the lost soldiers in the World Wars, and every war the army has been involved in since. The World War One memorial was majestic, towering over the surrounding forecourt and Gardens. Inside is a sunken plaque, reading ‘Greater Love Hath No Man’, and at 11am on Remembrance Day, a gap in the ceiling is opened, allowing a beam of sunlight to travel across the stone, resting on the word ‘love’ after 11 minutes. It was a poignant place, built for widows and families to grieve for their loved ones, especially when bodies could not be returned, or even found graves for.

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The Gardens themselves are stunning: we visited as a family years ago, and there are many, many awful pictures of my brother and me posing with giant trees, and despite barely remembering much from our last trip, I could still recognise the trees from our photos (though I suppose they don’t change much in ten years). Despite being 23, 25 and 19, the hidden pathways and bamboo tunnels proved too hard to resist, and instead of following our strictly planned route, we ran in and out of paths in the forested areas.

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Melbourne is full of so many things to do for free – or incredibly cheap – that it’s every budget traveller’s paradise.

Parrots and panic attacks

As most people who know me can tell you, I’ve always preferred animals to people, so it was taken for granted that my travels were going to include a lot of nature. Australia’s wildlife is so far removed from home; seeing cockatoos, rosellas and galahs flying around the back-garden is ever so slightly different to the normal flocks of blackbirds, pigeons and magpies at home.

My last week in the Mornington Peninsula was chock-full of plants, birds, animals and trees, starting with a visit to Australia Gardens, the botanic gardens in Cranbourne. I’m not the biggest fan of looking at hedges and flowers, but these were landscaped in such a beautiful way that it felt less like trawling through a garden centre, and more like exploring different parts of the Australian bush. From red sand deserts to waterfalls and wetlands, Australia Gardens incorporated segments of the country into a bitesize section.

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Next up was Healesville Animal Sanctuary. I can never decide how I feel about zoos: is it ever acceptable to keep a wild animal locked up, in a country it isn’t native to? Main example being Calgary Zoo – animals like lions and zebras were living in minus temperatures (and housed next to each other; the male lions were agitatedly pacing up and down the wire fence, staring at the lone zebra opposite them). However, Healesville is different. It only keeps animals native to Australia, and in enclosures suited to their size. It has a huge emphasis on conservation, and much of the park is geared towards education: even the birds of prey and parrots in the Spirit of the Sky demonstration (which is definitely worth watching), come with a message of ‘Wipe for Wildlife’ (which is about asking people to buy recycled loo roll, to save on the millions of trees destroyed every year).

What impressed me the most was the Tasmanian Devil work. While many zoos boast brilliant conservation schemes, I’ve yet to hear about any that work – or that release back into the wild (although this is partly due to the fact I don’t do much research on zoos). At Healesville, they’re working to repopulate Tasmania with the near-extinct animal, and are doing well at combating the contagious facial cancer that destroyed so many of the species. The animal, despite its name and reputation, is obscenely cute. We met a young female who was hand-raised, and due to this, followed the handler around like some weird cat-dog hybrid. She won’t be released, but her future children will.

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After a brief visit with a pet dingo (the next reason on my ‘why I should move to Australia’ list), I went for a swim with seals and dolphins. Here’s a bit of background information you should know: I can’t swim very well; doggy paddle is the only stroke I’ve mastered, and I’m as happy in water as a cat in the bath. Despite this, it sounded like a good idea, and we set off into Port Philip Bay.

Decked out in a wetsuit, flippers and a snorkel, I sat on the gently bobbing boat and wondered how hard all of this could actually be: the sea was calm, all you have to do is kick, and the distance between the boat and the first dive spot (a hut structure swarming with seals) was minimal. The instructors offered us foam noodles and buoyancy aids, but feeling rather positive about the whole thing, I slid off the boat with nothing.

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As soon as I hit the water, I realised this was possibly the stupidest decision I’d ever made, and I was most likely going to drown as a. the water was actually very wavey and the two colliding tides very strong, b. there was nothing to grab on to, c. I cannot swim, and d. the instructor and the seal hut was about two-million miles away. Luckily survival mode kicked in, and I managed to doggy paddle for my life in the direction of inflatable help, and only disappeared beneath the surface a few times. At one point, I almost grabbed hold of a seal for help, but realised there have been no animal-rescue films involving seals. Had it been a dolphin, orca or dog, things may have been different.

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So, despite a rocky start, once I found myself a foam noodle and paired up with a couple from England, I felt a lot calmer, and could enjoy the sights of the seals. They were completely unafraid of us, and spent half an hour looping around us, swimming beneath us, and playing with our flippers, their graceful, sleek bodies cutting through the waves.
Once we finished with the seals, it was off for more dolphin spotting (unsuccessful), and another swim in a marine park. As the water was much calmer, swimming was easier and almost fun. Snorkelling took a while to get used to, but the novelty of seeing underwater outweighed the fact I forgot how to breathe. I may have survived, but sadly my camera didn’t – so if anyone knows where the best (and cheapest) place to get a decent digital camera in Melbourne is, please let me know!

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Water is so far out of my comfort zone: I love to sail, but being in it – well, it terrifies me. However, I did the swim, I survived and am now contemplating a scuba dive with sharks.

Cowboys and Calgary

As we rolled through the mountainous surroundings of Banff, heading towards Calgary, the landscape slowly began to change, as though someone was dragging an eraser across the tops of the Rockies. They gradually diminished in size, until all that was left were rolling hills, valleys and fields as far as the eye could see. After two weeks of glaring white snow covering the ground, the advance of yellow, straw-like grass was heaven. I’ve missed fields, grass – and horses, obviously. As tempting as it was, I managed to remain inside the coach, despite the number of herds we passed, the horses out naked, their fluffy coats visible from the wide Canadian roads.

Everywhere we’ve visited so far has been entirely different to the place before, and Calgary is no exception. There’s a faint smell of dusty barn and old horse equipment that lingers in the air, and Stetsons sit firmly on the heads of mustachioed men as you walk around.

On our first evening, we headed over to watch the Calgary Hitmen, and witness our first hockey game. Being somewhat apathetic towards the majority of team sports, I wasn’t too sure I’d enjoy it, but as soon as we entered the venue, you could tell it was going to be incredible. We were sat eight rows from the rink, right behind the Hitmen’s scoring side and in among some serious Hitmen fans (my favourite being the 70-year-old woman wearing a giant hockey jersey. I can only hope to be as cool when I’m her age).

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The Hitmen play at the highest level of junior hockey, but you wouldn’t think they were under 20 while watching them. The clashes were aggressive, they flew around the rink like they didn’t have knives attached to their feet, and the number of fights that were (sadly) broken up rivalled the amount in top league games. Despite the violent tackles and ruthless hockey-stick swipes coming from the players, the crowd were the complete opposite. Docile, quiet and respectful towards the opposing team’s fans, they were not what I was expecting. Maybe that’s the case: when a sport is fairly tame on the field, the fans are testy and riot-inducing (not looking at you football, not at all…), and when the situation’s reversed, the fans are far calmer.

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Either way, it was a brilliant night out, and far cheaper than going to see a team like the Canucks. For rink-side seats, we paid $25, and I’d happily pay that again.

On our first full day, we explored the city itself, wandering around the streets only dictated by the green men on traffic lights. Being English and able to cross roads without the direction of lights, Sophie and I have been jaywalking our way around Canada (it’s a surprise we haven’t been arrested for it yet), and the look of shock on people’s faces still isn’t getting old.

Seeing as we were in cowboy land, visiting a country and western ‘club’ had to be done, so Wednesday night we rallied round and went to Cowboys – a strange place located in the middle of a casino. Walking in, we were greeted by Stetsons, boys with their shirts undone, Shania Twain’s guitar and Cotton-Eyed Joe. Country music alternated with standard club music, and as the night progressed it became clear why people go out in Canada.

They don’t seem to go out to drink – they go out to dance. As country songs took over, couples took to the dancefloor, showing off their moves. Guys span girls around their heads, legs, arms and across the floor. I’ve never been so impressed, and Sophie and I stood in a semi-daze, pointing at whoever was whacking out the best moves.

When one of the dancing cowboys asked if I wanted to try it, I had little choice but to say yes (Sophie is very persuasive when she’s shouting YES DO IT GO NOW and pushing you out). That night, I learnt three things about country dancing: a) you can do it without having a clue what’s going on, b) your partner doesn’t give you any warning before back-flipping you 360-degrees around their arm, and c) it’s so much fun and makes Dirty Dancing look as impressive as big-fish-little-fish-cardboard-box.

Beautiful Banff and a lack of bears

It’s our last evening in Banff before we move onto Calgary (which then signals the end of our time together), and despite the cold, it’s been one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited. We swapped hostels, choosing the HI over the Samesun which we’d been in previously, and knew almost instantly that we’d made the right decision (especially when we received free bus passes into town, and I shotgunned the dorm’s double-bed).

Over the last few days, we’ve probably managed to walk nearly every trail surrounding Banff, taking in the natural hot springs (and their stomach-turning smell of sulphur), the lakes and the valleys, all nestled at the bottom of the Rockies. The formation of ice and snow around the creeks of hot spring water is incredible: it hangs in shiny drops, constantly on the verge of melting and freezing.

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As some of the Banff springs mark the beginning of National Parks across Canada, we decided to head to the museum dedicated to them: Cave & Basin, aptly named for the cave and the basin it contains. The cave is the site of the first hot spring discovery, while the basin marks the geothermal source where it all starts. Entry to the museum was just under $4, and with the amount of exhibitions it displays, is well worth it.

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We wandered around the rest of the site, alternating between playing with webcams and watching cheesy Canadian films about the springs. There was a visiting exhibit from Buffalo National Park, which featured a planetarium, but after waiting in line with several large and loud families, decided it wasn’t the best move, especially as it looked so warm and dark, and we’d probably fall asleep.

Being the museum nerds that we are, we also planned to venture over to one of Banff’s many halls. However, one burnt down, and the other wasn’t open (nothing in Banff opens for half the week, and when it does, it’s only for the afternoon).

Next on our list was to climb Tunnel Mountain, an easy 1,600m high lump of rock and snow opposite our hostel. We set off in the best of intentions (or Sophie did at least), hiring hiking boots and cleats, and once we layered up, we set off for the mountain.

Or at least we tried. We followed several different sets of footprints, unable to find the signposted trail that would take you up to the summit. Soon enough the footprints petered out, and we ended up wading through knee deep snow (again, Sophie did at least. It was like watching a puppy in its first snowfall, though when half of her legs disappeared into whiteness, I did panic a bit). As the paths disappeared, I began to lose feeling in my foot, and couldn’t put any weight on it (limping up a mountain: not as easy as it sounds), and even with a boiling hot hand warmer in my sock, there was no feeling.

No one tells you how mentally hard it is to be outside doing something strenuous in below-freezing conditions. While it was warmer than Lake Louise, the temperature hadn’t risen above -20. The combination of being both physically and mentally unprepared (homesickness is a bitch of a thing), we ended up following a makeshift trail back down. However, we did end up on a ledge of sorts, and had some incredible views over the surrounding area.

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Since being in Canada, I’ve learnt a LOT about bears, and come to realise that we’re oh so very similar in a number of ways: I’m not a fan of people scaring me, I don’t like it when people don’t share food with me, and I’m more than happy to curl up throughout the winter with a well-stocked supply of books (so not quite the same as a bear’s pile of food, but it’s all more or less the same thing). Seeing as Banff, being in the mountains, is prime bear territory, there are loads of leaflets telling you what to do if you see a bear, and what to do if a bear attacks (the best advice being ‘decide whether it’s a defensive or aggressive attack’, still unsure how you’d be able to distinguish this, especially while being mauled by a teddy bear with teeth).

Even though most sensible bears (and people) are tucked up somewhere warm during this weather, they still come out to hunt every now and again, and despite being in such an urban area, we made sure we were loud and as obvious as possible while we walked through the woods and up deserted trails (apparently if you see a bear, you have to speak to them in a ‘normal human voice’…). As we made our way up to Sundance Canyon, we spotted two very claw-like shapes on the path. A while later, we passed a sign forbidding people to follow certain tracks, due to wildlife. Slightly unnerved, we continued on, making a joint decision that they hadn’t been bear claws, but the foot of an elk. The subject of how the elk got separated from its foot remained unspoken about.

Our last close encounter came as we walked back from Vermilion Lakes (where we may or may not have walked on frozen lakes again, and may or may not have forgotten all phones and cameras in one of Banff’s most beautiful locations). As we cut through the last section of woodland, something behind us roared. We leapt together, my heart almost stopped beating, then continued at 300mph, until we realised it was a creaking tree. Pulling our hats slightly above our ears, we continued back to the road at a much quicker pace, only stalling when four black legs emerged from behind a tree (although these belonged to two hikers on closer inspection).

Despite wind burn and ice burn and mysterious bruises and the can’t-catch-your-breath-it’s-so-cold weather, Banff is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, and it’s definitely on my list of where to visit in the summer (something which has absolutely nothing to do with raised chances of seeing a bear, obviously…)

Never walk on frozen lakes… apparently

When it’s -23 outside, with a wind chill of -32, there’s not much else to do in Canada but put your bikini on and head for the hot springs. After our eventful night bus journey from Vancouver to Banff, we pretty quickly decided that a trip to the area’s geothermal springs were definitely in order.

It’s surreal to be sat in an outdoor pool in February at the best of times, but when you can touch snow and see mountains, it upgrades the strangeness to a whole new level. The hot springs were less than ten minutes from the centre of Banff, and easily accessible by bus – we considered walking, but half way there decided that would’ve been a mistake (mountain roads are quite steep). The springs cost us around $7 to get into, and thanks to our HI discount, we knocked a bit more off. At this price, if I lived in the area, I’d be going every day.

Following a brisk run from changing room to pool, we sat almost completely submerged in the 38-degree water. Sophie started to look like Rogue from X-Men, as the front of her hair frosted over, and our white eyelashes were reminiscent of costumes from The Hunger Games. The springs recommend that you only spend 10 minutes in the water, so after 40 we both became a bit (i.e. very) light headed, and quickly made our way to the nearest cafe.

We left Banff for a few days after that, and headed up to Lake Louise, where we were greeted with -34 temperatures, and a very solid decision to not move for a very long time. However, you can’t visit the area without visiting the lake (and while the hostel was nice, it wasn’t that nice), so the next day we set about making plans to walk up there.

The first sign that this could be a bad idea came when even the most hardy Canadians were complaining about the cold (it still hadn’t warmed up from -34). A sign by the restaurant had a fact of the day, merely reading ‘it’s cold’, and a host of visitors stood by the front door, their cars too cold to start.

Undeterred by this, we chatted to the reception staff about whether we’d need hiking equipment. After taking one look at my so far reliable and wonderfully trustworthy Nike Airs, a guy laughed, said it would “be an adventure” and recommended a helmet. Seeing as I’m like Bambi on ice on solid, non-frozen ground, this did worry us both a bit (i.e. a lot). Either way, we stocked up on ‘oatmeal’ (why not call it porridge? Is there a discernible difference?), and I learnt that you can quite comfortably fit a pair of tights and a pair of leggings underneath TopShop skinny jeans.

So, the hike began. It was only 3.1km, and after blasting around Stanley Park’s 10k, we felt rather optimistic. The ground was fine, the footing was easy, and it was like walking through Narnia. Snow fell off trees in clouds of glitter, and the sun threw cascades of colour over every snow-covered branch. It was beautiful, serene, and so bloody cold I thought I was about to die.

We made it half way before either of us realised how tough this was going to be. My legs were so cold it became a struggle to move them, and the tiredness seeped through them as though I’d just run a marathon. It was hard to believe we’d barely touched 2k at this point, but we soldiered on, only dropping our pace slightly.

Next came altitude. Ah. We both ended up needing rest breaks in every small sliver of sunlight, and the air was so cold and thin it felt like trying to breathe underwater. It was impossible to catch your breath until you stopped moving, and as soon as you stopped walking, fears of leg amputations quickly rooted themselves into your mind.

We slowly struggled up the last kilometre, stopping to watch a dogsled team get prepared/try and inhale as much oxygen as possible. At this point, I felt safer: if my legs got colder, I could quite easily ask for a husky to sit on them until feeling resumed. We stayed on the road after that, deciding to leave the steep mountainous trail for the time being. As we rounded the last corner, the mountains surrounding the Lake appeared, and the sight of civilisation gave us enough momentum to keep going.

Once we’d sat in the lobby of the poshest hotel I’ve been in, and thawed out, we layered back up again, and headed out to the lake. When Sophie said how beautiful it was, I didn’t quite understand, but seeing it in person I could understand why it was worth almost losing two legs and a lung to get there.

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The lake was completely frozen over, and had rinks dedicated to hockey and skating carved into the snow, and so, disobeying every piece of advice we’d ever been given about standing on frozen lakes, we went for a walk over the ice.

Say hello to the coupliest couple in Canada

Say hello to the coupliest couple in Canada

We opted to get a taxi back down, rather than risk losing any limbs to the cold, before heading back to Banff for the rest of the week.

27-hour trips, and David Tennant

After an interesting last night in Vancouver, we headed out to Victoria, British Columbia’s capital. We had a two hour ferry ride through some beautiful scenery – it was quite similar to Sweden’s archipelagos – and you could see why it’s such a popular place to be in the summer. You can apparently see killer whales on the way, but we didn’t (incredibly gutted). What we did have was a v. brave Sophie though; compared to our ferry journey to Ireland where we had to sit outside next to a lifeboat for three hours, we could actually sit indoors.

When we arrived, we were both shattered: two nights without sleep a combination of buses and the ferry had knocked us out, so we were more than happy to chill at the hostel and witness some of the worst open mic night performers I’d ever seen. The woman on the hostel’s reception had told us that David Tennant was in town doing some filming, so we made sure we had enough space in our plans to fit in a day or three of Dr Who hunting.

After the first good night’s sleep in ages, we were ready to explore a very rainy and dull looking Victoria. Before leaving, I learnt a valuable lesson: don’t stand fully clothed in front of a shower when you’re trying to figure out how to turn it on. The city, despite the weather, was beautiful, and we spent a ridiculous amount of time floating between thrift shops and bookshops.

At the recommendation of a guy at the hostel, we headed out to a place called Big Bad John’s that night, where we were given a bucket of unshelled peanuts – you crack them, and throw the shells on the floor. It’s a thing apparently, as was visitors leaving bras tied to the ceiling. Fun, but unsure how other women could leave them lying around. It possibly the most redneck bar I’d ever been in, and was fully expecting a cowboy to ride in at any point. The next bar we moved onto was much more inclusive of nut-allergy sufferers, and we bumped into someone who could understand Sophie perfectly, but had no idea what I was saying. He did, however, manage to translate my accent well enough to make a judgement of me; “you’re really weird and fun”.

The next morning the David Tennant Hunt began. We got on a bus that we thought might get us there, and after 15 minutes, and spotting giant orange signs saying “CAUTION FILMING”, we got off a bus quicker than I thought possible, and got a brilliant glimpse of the man himself filming a scene for ‘Gracepoint’.

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That afternoon we decided to something less creepy, and made a plan to climb Mount Douglas (more of a hill than a mountain though). As we entered the woods at 3pm, we made a deal that if we hadn’t made it to the summit by 4, we’d have to turn around and come back, just in case it got dark and bears came out. By 3.37 we’d reached the top, climbed up ridiculously steep rock faces (the perks of travelling with someone half human and half mountain goat), and seen an eagle, as well as getting the best view over Victoria.

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Saturday morning was the beginning of our 27-hour trek to Banff, comprising of four buses, one ferry and two trains. We had another whale-less but Brave-Sophie ferry journey, and after stocking up on enough sugar to last us a year, got ready for the night bus. So, in Canada, when buses break down in the dark, in the middle of snowy mountains, and the driver apologises, people don’t get angry. There was a rally of “don’t worry”s and “it’s not your fault”s from around the bus – but feelings got considerably colder when he announced it was due to a fuel shortage.

After a three hour wait in a tiny bus station, we were finally on the second leg of our journey, and luckily managed to grab some sleep. I’m unsure whether the highlight of the trip was breaking down in the snow, or the entire coach listening to a somewhat dubious sounding film a woman was playing on her iPad, unaware that her headphones weren’t plugged in (turns out they were in her phone…).

So, we’re in Banff now, and it’s COLD. I tend to hibernate when temperatures get lower than -2, so being in -25 (including wind chill) is a slight shock to the system. Despite the cold, and not having any feeling in my hands, face or legs, it’s such a picturesque town, and the adventuring we’ve done here has been like walking through Narnia.

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Canada, eh?

Seeing as I’ve spent nearly 23 years trying to escape the clutches of Reading, I’m not sure why I was surprised when 5,000 miles from home, it still clings onto me like a koala on a tree. We arrived at our hostel in Vancouver, and started chatting to the guy working at reception. He asked where I’m from, and on hearing Reading, says that his geographical knowledge of the UK is pretty limited, and everything he knows comes from watching his fave TV show – Motorway Cops. I already know where this is going, and he proudly announces that he knows all about Reading and Slough (“you spell it s-l-o-u-g-h, but it’s not pronounced ‘sluff'” he added, clearly happy to avoid the general pronunciation fail of the town). 

So, after being reminded of all the things my town is known for (bad driving and boy racers, clearly), we went for a wander through the city. Sorry family and friends, but I don’t think I’ll be coming home. Vancouver is the prettiest, friendliest, buzziest (most buzzing..?) city I’ve visited, and was well worth the ten hour plane journey to get here. Strolling through downtown Vancouver, British Reminder Number Two pops up: posters advertising a Biffy Clyro gig at a fairly small venue next door to our hostel. Unluckily, we won’t be in Vancouver when they play, but it was pretty surreal seeing such a big British band playing such a nondescript venue here.

After my jetlag began to disappear, we headed to Stanley Park for a 10k walk. It’s easy to see why Canadians are always so happy and friendly: with mountains, the sea and beaches less than 10 minutes from the city centre, there’s little reason to be miserable about anything.

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Stanley Park is amazing: from beaches to mountains, you’ve got scenery that you wouldn’t catch anywhere apart from on the front of a postcard. Sophie is somehow coping with my scatty-injury-prone-self (strained foot and mild concussion from bunk beds) like a pro, and I couldn’t be much more thankful to have someone who knows the ropes showing me around/how not to die.

Talking of not dying, crossing roads here is brilliant. You have to wait for the man to go green (jaywalking is a thing here), but if there’s no traffic lights, pedestrians have right of way.

As if Vancouver doesn’t get much more perfect, the available post-night-out food ranges from giant slices of pizza to tubs of ice cream in any flavour you want. Literally, perfect. 

Please believe me when I say I’m not exaggerating: everyone in our hostel is Australian (I’m slightly worried that there won’t be any left in the country when I arrive…). The next two days are going to be pretty manic, celebrating Australia Day in Australian time, and then Canadian time. If we survive that, it’s off to Seattle on Monday for my birthday.

[insert sappy Instagrammed quote]

I hate goodbyes. Always have done, always will do. If it was my choice, I’d be sneaking out my window at midnight, without telling anyone I was going – but I’d probably end up with half of Berkshire’s police force out looking for me. They say practice makes perfect, but I’ve never gotten any better at them, regardless of whether it’s people leaving, or horses.

These have been some of the hardest goodbyes I’ve had to do in my life, and while I know it’s not forever and no one’s dying (hopefully), it still sucks. Saying bye to certain people (and certain horses) felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach a fair few times, except with that kind of pain you can dose up on Ibuprofen and it goes away. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so SO excited, and everything will be fine on the plane, but I still wish goodbyes weren’t a part of leaving.

Now I’ll stop whingeing on about nothing, and let Winnie the Pooh be far more articulate on the subject than I could ever be.

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But oh well. Ten hours from now (ish) I’ll be in Vancouver, and one step closer to finding a bear and getting a tan, so life really isn’t bad in the slightest. Here goes what will hopefully be the best months yet.

Packing and planning

Since deciding to leave the country back in May 2013, I’ve done absolutely nothing in the way of planning, packing or getting remotely ready for this trip (minus booking flights and telling people I’m attempting to leave the country). It’s a pretty standard way of organising things in my life: planning and I tend to end up in a deluge of stressful lists and post-it notes that multiply every time I look at them.

It’s the final six days before leaving, and currently I’m surrounded by a pile of clothes, some extremely tiny travel towels (lesson number one: don’t just guess that you’ll probably fit into a 45x90cm towel. You won’t. Unless you’re a very small person or a child), and a snazzy new rucksack that I picked up for £45 in a sale at Black’s.

Seeing as some of my uselessness might be helpful to other people who are even more rubbish at planning than me, here’s everything I’ve learnt during the run-up to going:

1. Getting a guide book doesn’t mean you’re automatically planned and ready to go. However, it does make it seem like you’re being a very well-prepared and productive individual, so there’s that. I’m now the proud owner of a stack of Australian guide books, all of which I’ve flicked through maybe four times (in eight months), and selected a few obscure and most-likely unrealistic activities to try. Guide books are great for inspiration, but mine have turned out to be slightly more distracting than helpful – though saying that, I’m sure they’ll come in handy when I land and start really planning (haha).

2. The fewer clothes the better. I’m one of those people who packs eighteen different outfits for a weekend away, and then wears one religiously: ‘ruthless’ and ‘packing’ rarely appear in the same sentence with me (unless it’s “I’m not very ruthless with my packing”, obviously). Deciding to visit Canada in the depths of its winter and then go onto Australia’s manic summer may not have been the best move, but it’s certainly honing my packing skills. I’ve gone for a load of thin tops, t-shirts and a few jumpers, with the idea that I’ll just wear everything every day at the same time in an attempt to stop from freezing in Canada, and then probably wear nothing and die in a pool when I get to Australia.

3. No one tells you how crazy you’ll feel before you go. I can safely say I didn’t think it was possible to feel happy, excited, scared, nervous, sad, forgotten, impatient, and relaxed all at once. People say things like this are an ’emotional roller-coaster’ but that’s a lie. Roller-coasters have a very definite end in sight, and they go up and down in a very uniform fashion. This is more like being in an emotional tumble-dryer. Anyone who’s ever travelled will probably say this all settles down soon, but I won’t lie, the prospect of journeying to the other side of the world on my own is terrifying.

4. Phones are confusing these days: I have no idea if my iPhone’s unlocked, whether it’ll work when I get out of the country, how I use the internet on it, and if I can listen to music on the plane on it (although I have an inkling that’s what flight mode is all about…). Luckily I’ve invested in a cheap century-old flip phone to keep me in touch with the rest of the world, but honestly, when did technology get so complicated (slash when did I turn into a ninety-year-old?)

5. It’s totally fine to forget stuff (as long as it’s not your passport/tickets/visas/money). Now this lesson I learnt a few years ago while travelling around Ireland: other countries have useful, day to day essentials too. You don’t need to buy a 5-litre bottle of Coke just in case. Very unnecessary. Obviously I don’t know if I’ve forgotten anything yet (and knowing my luck, it’ll be my passport), but this is one thing I’m very confident about – I can simply buy it somewhere else.

6. Roll don’t fold when you pack clothes. This little tip was a lifesaver going on holiday to Spain with only hand luggage: it’s amazing how much you can fit in a fairly medium-to-small bag when you roll everything up as a clothes-sausage, instead of folding it. Less creases too.

7. Make sure you’ve got copies of everything and important phone numbers written down. I’ve possibly gone a bit over the top on this, printing out everything and anything that has any bearing to the journey, and leaving long instructions and lists of details for my parents, just in case someone steals all my money/my identity.

Pretty certain that’s all I’ve learnt so far, but seeing as that’s been gathered over the last few days, I’m not off to a bad start.