Cycling the Canadian Rockies – From Banff to Jasper

July 2017

Julie’s sister and brother-in-law invited us to join them on a Backroads cycling trip in the Canadian Rockies. The trip would be 7 days from Banff to Jasper with some side-trips and other activities. On Saturday, July 8th, we flew from Orlando to Calgary via Houston, where we caught a 90-minute shuttle to The Buffalo Mountain Lodge in Banff. There, we met up with Julie’s sister, Pam, and her husband, AJ., for a walk through town and a light shawarma dinner. After dinner, we took advantage of the late setting sun and the free bus service to visit Lake Minnewanka. Many things in Canada were free or reduced this year since it was Canada’s 150th anniversary! At the Lake, we saw deer and a mountain goat, and enjoyed a brief walk, although many trails were closed due to the extensive bear activity in the area.
Sunday morning, after breakfast, we met our Backroads guides, a Canadian named Cameron and the leader, a woman from California named Hannah. They would work the week with us, along with logistics support from Samantha. After a brief safety talk and overview, it was off to fit our bikes and to start our first trip. As always, the Backroads bikes are excellent, custom titanium frames with carbon-fiber forks and Garmin GPS route electronics. The 4 of us were joined by 9 others – 3 couples and 3 singles. Julie and Pam, and another guest, Kathy, rode e-bikes – bikes with a battery-powered “assist” that is applied to each pedaled stroke. We then rode a route of 22km out of Banff, past Two Jacks and MInnewanka Lakes, to a picnic spot for lunch. After lunch, we rode another 25km up a 1300’ climb up Mount Norquay, a popular winter ski resort, before heading back to the Buffalo Mountain Lodge. Rocky actually rode an extra 12km, having returned to the hotel first before following the correct course. On Julie’s the way down Mount Norquay, a downhill skateboarder crashed, was bleeding from his head and needed medical attention. But our group all did well, and then met later for an excellent “Welcome Dinner”. (59km daily, 59km total)

Ascent of Mount Norquay


View of Banff from Mount Norquay

July 10th would start early with breakfast and picture-taking of a herd of elk grazing behind our room while we were prepping for the day’s ride.

Roaming Banff Elk Herd

We started riding in a light rainfall, as we left Banff, circled the golf course and then passed Vermillion Lakes, before heading north on Highway 1A through beautiful forested hills and valleys. On the way out of town, we passed a large bull elk with a full rack. After cycling 36km, we stopped for lunch at Johnston Campgrounds, where we ate and also took a short 2-mile hike to Johnston Falls, a popular tourist attraction along a narrow, suspended walkway through the canyon. The afternoon we rode another 37km to Deer Lodge at Lake Louise. Along the way, we saw another bull elk, and watched helicopters longline-ferrying supplies over the rough terrain. After checking in to Deer Lodge, we explored the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a famous original hotel located next door. Then, after a fine dinner of Walleye Pike and Bison steak, we walked halfway around the north side of the lake before returning to our rooms after 10pm. (73km daily, 132km total)

Lake Louise


View Back of Lake Louise & Chateau Fairmont

Tuesday, after breakfast, we rode the challenging 14km up to Moraine Lake and the Valley of Ten Peaks. From here, one gets the spectacular view recreated on the former Canadian $20 bill.

Picturesque Moraine Lake

From there, we descended and rode another 20km, entering the Icefields Parkway (93N), to our original planned lunch stop at Herbert Lake. However, since our group was relatively fast and it was so early, we continued another 21km to Mosquito Creek Campground. After lunch, it was a short 12km ride past the Crowfoot and Bow Lake Glaciers to the Num Ti Jah Lodge, located on the shores of Bow Lake, and the headwaters of the south-flowing Bow River. This Lodge is an original log cabin building with many stuffed animal heads and a long, colorful history. After checking-in, a group of us assembled at the lake’s edge for a polar plunge into the 40-degree water. Since we arrived early, there was still time for the 5-mile hike around the lake to the Bow Falls overlook. The hike took 2-hours and took us over braided stream moraines and up a cliff bluff via a ridiculous set of “stairs”! After fighting off the hordes of mosquitoes, we arrived back in time to clean-up and enjoy an excellent dinner of mushroom soup, venison and lentil loaf. (67km daily, 199km total)

Bow Lake


Polar Swim in Bow Lake


Climbing the stairs to Bow Falls

Wednesday, July 12th started with a 4am fire alarm and evacuation from the hotel! Apparently, someone left a pot and burner on in the kitchen, creating smoke that set off the alarm. After 30-minutes, we returned to our rooms, cold and groggy. With breakfast at 7am, we got ready for the longest day, yet. Today’s route would take us further along 93N Icefields Parkway, but started with a 5km climb to the Peyto Lake viewpoint. Including another brief stop at Saskatchewan Crossing for hot coffees, we rode the next 59km to our lunch stop at Coleman Creek. Along the way, riders saw bears, deer, elk and goats, as this remote area is home to a variety of wildlife. After lunch, there was a brutal 2000’ ascent of Sunwapta Pass, (a 7-9% grade), at an elevation of 6675ft. After completing the 37km after-lunch ride through weather ranging from 90-degree heat to near-freezing rain, we arrived at the Glacier View Lodge, at the base of the Athabasca Glacier. At 5pm, our group met for our tour and walk on the Athabasca Glacier. Buses took us from the hotel to the “Glacier Entry” Center, where we transferred onto special “ice crawlers” – 6-wheel drive vehicles specially made for ascending and descending the lateral moraines, and for transporting over ice. We traveled out onto the Glacier, where we had ½-hour to walk around and take pictures. Since we were here 13 months ago, the Glacier has receded nearly another 60ft, causing the visiting area to be moved, and giving estimates are that these types of tours have only 10-15 years left available. That night, we had dinner at the hotel’s “Altitude” restaurant while watching the sun set on the Glacier. (90km daily, 289km total)

View of Athabasca Glacier


Athabasca Glacier Up Close


Walking on Athabasca Glacier

Thursday morning, we left the hotel soon after breakfast, and began the 52km ride to Honeymoon Lake for lunch. This route gave views to the most wildlife, yet, with roadside viewings of bears, elk, deer and goats. After a picnic lunch, we began the afternoon 53km ride by leaving the newer Highway 93 for the original Highway 93A, a bumpy, isolated ride with very little traffic. However, this road also gave access to quite a bit of wildlife viewing. Along the way, we stopped at the Athabasca Falls where we walked to the scenic bridges and overviews, and had a quick snack. At the end of the route, we entered the town of Jasper, we cruised past quaint stores and country-style shops. After leaving town, we rode to the Tekarra Lodge, overlooking the Athabasca River. After checking in, we walked to mile back into town to explore further and to shop. That evening we ate Boar Belly and Bison short-ribs followed by specialty coffees. Our rooms were small efficiencies with stove, refrigerator and microwave and fireplaces for the chilly evenings. (105km daily, 394km total)

Roadside Black Bear

Friday, we had the option to take a short bike ride, or to raft the Class 2 Rapids of the Athabasca River. Eight people chose the rafting trip, while three chose to ride bicycles, two went exploring/hiking. The rafting trip was a great experience, with our guide, a young woman named Emma from Adelaide, Australia. The trip took about 1-hour and journeyed us past the Tekarra Lodge. After returning to the hotel, everyone assembled for the journey via vans back to Banff. The four of us were dropped off at the Fox Hotel for the night, where we shopped the stores of Banff, and ate a dinner of pizza and beer!

Rafting in the Athabasca River


Taking a Wave while Rafting on the Athabasca River
Relaxing by the Athabasca River

Saturday started with an early shuttle back to the airport in Calgary, and flights back to Houston and Orlando. After arriving home at 1am Sunday morning, we settled in for a well-deserved good-night’s sleep in our own bed.

Young Male Elk Graces our Departure

Adventures “Down Under” AUS

January 2016

After nearly 3 weeks in lovely New Zealand, we could not return home without spending at least a little time in Australia! Since the east coast of Australia was only a few hours away, we flew from the end of our Backroads Trip in Queenstown to Sydney, Australia.
Part-3: Visiting the Cities of Australia’s East Coast
We arrived at the airport in Sydney midday on Thursday, and caught a taxi to The Swiss Hotel, where we would be spending the next few nights. It was located in the middle of downtown, near the Metro train station, but within walking distance of the harbor, bridge and opera house. That afternoon, we explored the streets and shops around the hotel, stopped for sandwiches and a bottle of wine, and spent the evening planning and making reservations for our activities over the next few days.

Julie & Pam under a large fig tree at the Sydney Conservatory of Music
Julie & Pam under a large fig tree at the Sydney Conservatory of Music

Friday started out rainy, but it did not deter us from walking to the Conservatory of Music at the entrance of the Government House, built in the 1850’s. It was an historic building that was nearly fully restored, and it was surrounded by old and magnificent gardens, including 160-year-old fig trees that dwarfed anything around them. As the weather began to clear, we strolled down to Sydney Harbour and along the waters of Farm Cove to the iconic Sydney Opera House, where we had reservations to tour the building. The Opera House had a long, storied history as it was built from a design mimicking sails, submitted by Jorn Utzon of Denmark, without any certainty that it could actually be built. The early cost estimates were in the $12 million range, and at the end of the day, it ended up costing over $100 million! Jorn oversaw the construction for the site preparation and outer shells of the buildings, but disputes drove him from the project back to Denmark, and he never set foot in Australia again. The infrastructure goes 5 stories down beneath the opera house and studios that everyone sees, as this is where the offices, delivery docks, and infrastructure is all located. We toured all of the buildings and took “peeks” at rehearsals and sets in the playhouse and studio theaters, as well as the opera house and symphony house. After the Sydney Opera House tour, we took a ferry for the hour-long trip to the town of Manly, located near the entrance to the Harbour, and home of iconic surfing legends. Once there, we walked on the Manly beach, watched the surfers and surfing classes, and explored the town and local botanical gardens. After a nice Mexican lunch at the wharf, we caught the ferry back to Sydney. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped into the famous Queen Victoria Building, a palatial building converted into a high-class shopping mall, full of stained glass windows and ceiling, and decorated with beautiful and colorful floor tiles. Hanging strategically within the mall are two large animated clocks that play on the hour. That night we ate Chinese before returning to the hotel for wine and a rousing game of Eucher (cards).

View of the Sydney Opera House from the top of Sydney Harbour
View of the Sydney Opera House from the top of Sydney Harbour


One of the famous clocks suspended in the Queen Victoria Building
One of the famous clocks suspended in the Queen Victoria Building

On Saturday, we walked to “The Strand” and ate an Aussie breakfast – Italian style. Then we purchased “Opal Cards” for $10 each which would get us free travel all day tomorrow (Sunday) on the Metro train (and bus, and ferry) system. We then walked through Hyde park to St. Mark’s Cathedral, which had preserved its original wood buttresses and relics of the dead. Then we headed over to the Sydney Botanical Gardens, where we had lunch, and then, finally back down to the water’s edge onto Mrs. Macquarie Point, where we each sat in Mrs. Macquarie’s chair and took pictures of the water, flowers and ourselves. From here, we stopped for a tour through the New South Wales (NSW) State library to see the “What a Life” rock music photography display by Tony Mott, and an emotional flower exhibit in commemoration of the nearby Martin Place Siege of December 16 ,2014, where Sydney residents lost their lives. We then walked to the Sydney Harbour Bridge for our sunset hike to the top of the bridge. Upon arriving, we had to undergo a breathalyzer test before changing clothes into jumpsuits, where every single thing on your person could be hooked on or clamped down – no watches – no earrings – no cameras! After passing through metal detectors, we were strapped into harnesses that connected each of us to a stainless steel cable that would run the length of the climb and tour. Our small group of 12 then climbed through and up the beams of the heaviest steel bridge in the world, until reaching the top of the upper beam, which we then proceeded to walk on, until we reached the summit at the middle of the bridge, just as the sun was setting. Our guide took pictures of each of us, and our group of four, and Julie and I sent Mike his 35th Birthday Wishes via a short video. We then made our way back down with the whole trip taking nearly 3 hours. That night, it was simple burgers for dinner, and, after having walked over 25 miles that day, we simply had a few nightcaps and went to bed.

Rocky & Julie at the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge
Rocky & Julie at the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge

Sunday morning, we used our Opal cards to negotiate our way onto a Metro train out of Sydney to Featherdale Wildlife Park. The hour-long train ride was followed by a brief bus ride to the gates of the Park just in time for its daily opening. Inside, we were treated to seeing much of the native wildlife of Australia, including its huge crocodiles, its numerous types of kangaroos, and it strange assortment of birds, reptiles and other mammals. We had the good fortune to pet a koala bear, to feed an assortment of wallabies and kangaroos, and to see the “little penguins” eat close-up. After the day there, we had a late lunch before taking the bus and train back to Sydney. Once in Sydney, we walked back to the Harbour Bridge to climb to the top of one of the bridge’s massive pylons for a final scenic view of the city. After taking pictures there, we stopped in a nearby pub in an area known as “The Rocks” to have dinner and to watch the Green Bay Packers play their NFL Playoff game on Australian television. To A.J.’s dismay – they lost! We finished off a great day with a game of cards in our room and an Australian bottle of wine.

Julie petting a Koala Bear at Featherdale Wildlife Park
Julie petting a Koala Bear at Featherdale Wildlife Park
Rocky feeding a Wallaby at Featherdale Wildlife Park
Rocky feeding a Wallaby at Featherdale Wildlife Park


Australia's "Little Penguins" getting ready to eat
Australia’s “Little Penguins” getting ready to eat


View of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from its pylon
View of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from its pylon

It was now Monday, January 18th, and time to leave Sydney. After a taxi ride to the airport, we caught a flight to Melbourne, Australia and taxied into the heart of town to the Pegasus Hotel. Once checked in, the four of us explored Burke street and went to a local restaurant on the corner for dinner. Again we gathered to make plays for our time in the city, to enjoy a lively game of cards, and to drink the local wine, before calling it a night.
Tuesday’s are Market Day in Melbourne, and so we walked over to the nearby, massive “Farmer’s Market” for breakfast and shopping. After exploring the wares of the locals, we walked through the city’s Central Business District and shops to Federation Square – an eclectic set of building featuring cultural and artistic centers. Then we walked over to Melbourne Park, where the Australian Open Tennis Tournament was just getting underway. It is easy and convenient to get around in downtown Melbourne, since there are street cars nearly everywhere, and in the Center of Town, they are free! After the Tennis Expo, we walked to an area in the park where Cook’s Cottage is preserved. Although Captain Cook is credited with “rediscovering” Australia, his cottage was actually in England, until the City of Melbourne bought it, had it disassembled, shipped, and reassembled. Now, one can explore the history and life of the man, and dress up in period-clothes and costumes from those times. After a long day exploring the gardens and town, we made our way back across the river to our hotel for “Happy Hour” before heading down the street to a Chinese Restaurant for dinner.

Rocky & Julie at the Australian Open Tournament
Rocky & Julie at the Australian Open Tournament

Wednesday, after breakfast, we trammed and walked to the “Old Treasury” Building. This is the building that stored that vast gold bars that characterized the great Australian “Gold Rush” that turned Melbourne into a thriving metropolis. We then returned to town and visited “The Ugg House” – home to UGG boots and shoes, and Pam tried to find a pair that we just the right shade of pink to suit her. For lunch, we had reservations on The Colonial Tram Restaurant – a traveling restaurant that only consists of 3 cars that travel the tracks at lunch time serving a spectacular 4 course meal with free drinks over a 2.5-hour journey. We took a tour of the city while we were served an outstanding Aussie meal including champagne, wine and port – duck, steaks, and deserts – all with excellent service. Then we explored the waterfront where the river meets the harbor and where old sailing ships and restaurants abound. Finally, we made our way back past the hotel to the Wednesday Evening Market, where live bands and street vendors abounded. We joined with the locals to have a BBQ dinner with wine and beer here tonight before heading back to the hotel for the evening.

The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant - a traveling restaurant
The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant – a traveling restaurant

The next day, we took a combination of tram and walking to make the journey to the Carlton United Brewery. This major Aussie brewery is the result of a uniting of a number of local breweries to compete with the local hotels who used to brew their own beer. Today, it consists of 7 major brands, including: Carlton, Fosters and Peroni. We toured the entire operation and finished up with a large tasting of their many brands. While there, we were treated to be able to get up close and personal with the Carlton Clydesdales while they were hooked up to a typical beer wagon. After returning to town, we toured the Royal Botanical Gardens – a series of footpaths and walkways that wind through manicured examples of rainforest, meadows and gardens – all beautifully and carefully taken care of. Finally, we spent our early evening shopping before getting dinner along the River and returning to the hotel to pack.

Impressionist photo of Pam & Julie behind a waterfall pane
Impressionist photo of Pam & Julie behind a waterfall pane

Friday, January 22nd, and we prepare to finish our month-long visit to the land “Down Under”. We showed up at the airport, only to find that our return flight is cancelled due to weather problems over the Pacific. Instead, the airline put us up at the Mantra Hotel in North Melbourne for the night so that they can fly us to Sydney the next morning to connect us to a flight that returns us to the USA via San Francisco. That all goes well, but when we get to San Francisco, (1 day late), our flight to Washington, also cancelled, this time due to the snow storms in the northeast. Rather than spend another couple of nights stranded, Julie and I fly to Houston to spend two nights with our friends, Dave and Angie, before finally getting home 3 days late.
What a great adventure!!

Cycling the “Down Under” South Island NZ

January 2016

After spending 10 days ushering in the New Year, 2016, in the North Island of New Zealand with our Backroads Multisport Adventure, we headed to New Zealand’s South Island where we would begin Part 2 of our adventure, with a challenging cycling trip along the island.
Part-2: Backroad’s Cycling Trip in New Zealand’s South Island
We arrived in Christchurch at the airport fresh from our North Island adventure on Monday, January 4th, and immediately took taxi’s to our hotels near the train station. We gathered up at Speight’s Ale House for dinner and made our plans for meeting everyone for the first day of our new trip the next morning. It had been a long day, and we called an early night after a dinner of burgers, beer, fries and wine.

Tower at Railway Station in Christchurch.
Tower at Railway Station in Christchurch.

The next morning, we gathered with all of our gear at the train station, fully dressed ready to ride bikes. The six of us were joined by 16 other people this time, and they came from Brazil to Canada. Our guides, Bradley and Darren, would be supported by two other staff, Grant and Sophia. After loading up all of our gear into luggage vehicles that Grant, Darren and Sophia would drive, Bradley joined the rest of us on the train for a cross-country scenic tour through the Southern Alps, from the east coast to the west. Along the way, the scenery was gorgeous, and, in addition to a dining car, there was an “open air” car without windows where one could take pictures. As we climbed into the snow covered passes, however, most people stayed to the inside cars. Near the midway point, the train stopped at Arthur’s Pass, allowing us to stretch our legs outdoors and view the local flora.

Julie & Rocky at Arthur's Pass.
Julie & Rocky at Arthur’s Pass.

We finally disembarked before the coast in a small town of Moana on the shores of Lake Brunner for lunch at the Station House Café. After lunch, we fitted out our bikes and then began our first ride – 26.5 miles from Moana to the coast. We followed the Arnold River down from the hillsides, crossed the Grey River and passed the mining town of Rununga, to end up at a “beach pub” in Rapahoe. There, we gathered for a quick drink while others made their way in, before taking the van a short way north, up the coast, to the Punakaiki Resort, located on the beach. After cleaning up and a relaxing stroll down the beach, we met up with others for drinks and dinner at the hotel and discussed the upcoming day.

View of Sunset over the Tasman Sea from Punakaiki Resort
View of Sunset over the Tasman Sea from Punakaiki Resort

The next morning, after breakfast, we took a brisk walk up the coast on the side of Highway 6 to the “Pancake Rocks” – stacks of limestone layered into amazing formations, eroded by the runoff from the mountains and the pounding surf.

Pancake Rocks hike north of Rapahoe
Pancake Rocks hike north of Rapahoe

From there, we boarded our bikes to begin a 27-mile ride south along the Coastal Highway and then to the city of Greymouth. After crossing the Grey River bridge, we all met up at another Speight’s Ale House where we were free to order whatever we wanted for lunch. After lunch, we rode another 12 miles to the coastal town of Hokitika – an historic gold mining town that morphed into a quiet resort community. The town is also known for it “driftwood art” that springs up along the beachfront on unexpended occasions. Once we were checked into our hotel, we met a local historian for a walk-about around the historic buildings of the town. That night we traveled to a local working farm restaurant called The Stations Inn for wine and dinner, before settling in for the night.

Driftwood Art at Hokitika Beach
Driftwood Art at Hokitika Beach

The next morning, we were up for breakfast early before shuttling a short distance to the town of Ross, where we boarded our bikes for the most challenging day yet – a morning 30-mile ride along the Kakapotahi River and through the Waitaha Reserve to the town of Hari Hari to take lunch at the Pukeko Tearoom. After lunch, it was another 37 miles, but this time with over 2000’ of elevation change making our way over Mt. Hercules and through the Whataroa Reserve to the Te Waonui Forest Retreat in the town of Franz Josef. It was a grueling but rewarding ride, and we were met with a fierce but friendly Maori warrior, and guided to the nearby geothermal pools to soak and recover. It was a long but adventurous day, and we all gathered for dinner at the hotel restaurant and made plans for the next day’s exploration.

Biking up the Kakapotahi River Valley
Biking up the Kakapotahi River Valley


Rocky with Maori tribesman at Te Waonui Forest Retreat
Rocky with Maori tribesman at Te Waonui Forest Retreat

It was now, Friday, January 9th, and we were free to explore the local area and town on this day. After breakfast, we traveled a short distance to the entrance to the Franz Josef Glacier terminal moraine. There, we hiked through the temperate rainforest to the river where one had the option to hike up to the Franz Josef Glacier’s retreating ice-face. Unfortunately, it was raining and chilly, but Rocky hiked in to check it out, while the rest of the group headed back to the hotel. Thankfully, the weather cleared enough to make a great hike, but not enough to allow us to take a helicopter to the top of the glacier. Therefore, after walking 3 miles back to the hotel, Julie, Pam and A.J. joined Rocky in returning to explore the glacier’s retreating moraines and ice-face once more. The glacier has retreated over 2 miles since it was discovered in the 1800’s, but it is still an impressive, massive ice sheet, hundreds of meters thick. This time, on return to the town, we explored the local shops and made reservations for dinner in town – again at a Speight’s Ale House! After over 15 miles of hiking that day, a few drinks, and some steaks, we called it a night.

Rocky holding ice from Franz Josef Glacier in the background.
Rocky holding ice from Franz Josef Glacier in the background.

Today we would cycle further into the South Westland National Parklands and along the wild and sparsely populated New Zealand’s West Coast. However, before leaving, we were again treated to training in learning a Haka from the local tribesmen. It was great fun, and will certainly be the source of numerous pictures and movies. Then we boarded our bikes and began our 38.5-mile morning ride from Franz Josef through rolling fields to the Salmon Farm Café for lunch. The Café is surrounded by pools of salmon in various stages of maturity. After a light lunch of chowder and salads with a coffee boost, we took off again for another 17-mile long ride to the Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge – a quaint retreat on the shores of a small lake, in the middle of a Reserve, only a few miles from the coast. It turns out that it was originally a Worker’s Camp during the construction of the Western Coastal Highway in the 1960’s that was rescued and improved by Dr. Gerry and Anne McSweeney. They then petitioned and actioned to get the surrounding area protected and preserved from development. The area now serves as a home for many native species of temperate rainforest trees and flowers, and is home on the coast to colonies of New Zealand’s “little penguins” and fur seals. Before dinner, Dr. Gerry gave us a brief walk through the rainforest, pointing out the native species, including the massive trees that served as inspiration for the movie “Avatar”. After returning, cleaning up and having dinner, we again followed Gerry, this time into the night in the search of “glow worms”. These are centimeters long worms that glow with a fluorescence, and that are usually found making webs in areas located in overhung embankments. In the dark, the banks along the road looked like a million stars, glowing and twinkling as the breeze rustled the foliage around them.
The next day, we skipped a short morning bike ride to explore the area on our own. We hiked down to nearby Munro Beach through rainforest trails to check out the nesting site of local penguin colonies, but we were too late in the season to see any remaining penguins. We wandered upstream along the glacial Moeraki River to look for the large native eels that populate these waters, and where we have the option to feed them. Finally, we returned to the lodge where there are kayaks available to go further upstream into Moeraki Lake. After lunch, Dr. Gerry took a group of us on a challenging hike through a more secluded part of the rainforest to a deserted portion of the beach, where we clambered along surf pounded rocks and avoided large waves to make our way south to a fur seal colony hanging out at a point on the shore. The seals were numerous and wary of us, but we did not get between them and the water, and so it went well. Along the way, we stopped to pick up sea urchins and to sample them raw straight from the shell and to take an afternoon coffee. The way back involved pulling ourselves 500’ vertically up with an extended rope and crude steps carved into the cliff face. It was the most physically challenging part of the entire trip, but everyone who went made it, with a little help. It was then back to the hotel for showers and dinner and the sharing of excited stories.

Hike along Coast to Seal Colony near Lake Moeraki
Hike along Coast to Seal Colony near Lake Moeraki


Fur Seal Colony on Tasman Sea
Fur Seal Colony on Tasman Sea

In the morning, we left the Lake Moeraki lodge early, knowing that this would be the most challenging day of the trip. Today, we would ride our bicycles from the coast, inland and uphill through the Mt. Aspiring National Park, past a series of scenic lakes, and over the Continental Divide of the Southern Alps, to the scenic town of Lake Wanaka. Our morning portion of the ride consist of 48.5 miles, with over 5000’ of elevation climbing, including a steep ascent over Haast Pass. Today, A.J., Peter and Rocky decided to tackle the challenge together. It then became clear that both Peter and A.J., and especially A.J. are “hill animals” when it comes to ascents. We all made it, however, to our lunch stop at the Makarora Café. Then, after a quick and light lunch, we took off again for the afternoon challenge of another 60 grueling miles! This time, Peter and Rocky supported each other and rode together past the pristine lakes, stopping to briefly enjoy the scenic overlooks and to keep hydrated. After replenishing their water supply, Peter and Rocky rode into the vacation town of Wanaka, and to the Edgewater Resort Hotel with their odometers reading over 110 miles of travel that day each! Of the only 6 individuals that completed the whole challenge that day, they arrived first! Meanwhile, while the boys were finishing their ride, the girls cut their ride short, and had explored the local area around the hotel, including a nearby winery. However, such an accomplishment by everyone called for drinks at the bar before our celebration dinner.

At the top of Haast Pass - The Southern Alps Continental Divide
At the top of Haast Pass – The Southern Alps Continental Divide

The next day was Tuesday, January 12th, and we were free to explore town or take a plane ride over the Southern Alps to Milford Sound. Again, the weather’s high winds did not permit the flying option, and we chose to spend our morning with Julie and Pam bike riding and Rocky, A.J., Peter and Nikki hiking. The bike ride was a short, but challenging 24 miles out to Treble Cone ski area and back, and the hike was a 5 mile climb up Iron Mountain with a hike back down and into town. We all met up at the hotel and walked up to Rippon Winery for a scenic lunch overview of Lake Wanaka. That night, we went back to town to have dinner at a local pub where we watched the NCAA Division 1 National Championship Game on TV. After strolling 2 miles back to the hotel, we all met up in Nikki and Peter’s room for nightcaps and camaraderie.


View of Wanaka Lake from Rippon Winery
View of Wanaka Lake from Rippon Winery

Wednesday would be our last day on bikes in New Zealand – The “Final Ride!” It would encompass a challenging morning ride of 37 miles along the Clutha River to Bannockburn and the Otago wine region. Along the way, we coasted through “Old Town” Cromwell historic district, before heading out along country roads lined with vineyards. Our destination for lunch was Wild Earth Wines, a restaurant across the Kawarau Gorge ravine, with a small suspension bridge leading to it. The restaurant is built upon the ruins of an old mining village where cables, buckets, and wash-nozzles are scattered about. Here, we loaded our bikes up onto the vans for the last time, and proceeded to enjoy a great lunch of wine-barrel BBQ and local vino, before loading ourselves into the vans for the hour-trip to Queenstown. Upon arriving in Queenstown, we checked into the Sofitel Hotel in the center of town. Queenstown is located on the waters of a large lake, and is one of the recreation capitals of the country. After checking in, one could explore the upscale shops in town, walk the picturesque waterfront, explore the local Arboretum, or take on bungee jumping from the original bungee jumping venue in the world. New Zealanders A.J. Hackett and Henry van Asch built the sport here in Queenstown from observing vine-jumpers in Vanuatu, opening this first venue in 1988. That evening we gathered in the hotel bar for a group cocktail hour, and then walked next door for a “last meal”. Everyone had been challenged and had a great time.

Silver Fern Art in Queenstown
Silver Fern Art in Queenstown

The next morning, some of us met Bradley for a final walk and tour through the local Arboretum and lawn bowling club. Many of the trees there were hundreds of years old, and the flowering shrubbery was fully in bloom. Then it was back to the hotel for shuttles to the Queenstown airport for our flight to Australia, and the third-leg of our adventure. As we climbed away from the runway, we said “good-bye” to the country that had hosted us for the past 3 weeks with adventure, beauty and hospitality. We will miss it!

Backroads Guides Bradley and Darren
Backroads Guides Bradley and Darren


The State of Lagos Street Soccer Championships

On Thursday, October 2nd, I received a call from the American High School Football,

 (Soccer), Coach, Columbus, asking me if I wanted to accompany him to a soccer competition on Saturday.  In addition to coaching at the American High School, Columbus runs a Football Academy nearby on the Lekki Peninsula.  The Lekki Peninsula area is relatively upper-middle class in Lagos, and most of the people in the area are hardworking and educated with a modest income.  However, our adventure this weekend would take us elsewhere.


In January, 2008, the Lagos State of Nigeria decided to host a year-long “Street Soccer” 5 vs. 5 Tournament, open to all registered Football Teams within the Lagos State.  The purpose was to identify new, upcoming Nigerian Talent and allow young footballers to emerge.  MTN, one of the major local cell phone providers, provided major sponsorship, the State Government provided guaranteed medical insurance to the players, and thousands of teams were registered for the event in January.  Competition began in February, and by this weekend now in October, the competition was down to the top 80 teams – 10 teams each at 8 different sites spread around the State of Lagos.  The competition this Saturday would be a strictly 1 game each knock-out competition to reduce the number of teams to 40.  These 40 would then be regrouped into 10 brackets of 4 for round-robin play, with 2 teams from each bracket moving on to a “finals” championship in November.  The Tournament winning Team will receive 2,000,000 Naira, (~$18,000), and trips to Brazil to play, Runner-Up with 1,000,000 Naira and trips to South Africa to play, and 3rd place with 750,000 Naira and trips to Ghana to play.


I met Columbus at the American School at 8:30am to travel to one site of the competition.  Columbus’ Academy has an under-19 group, but half of the players would be at exam today, meaning that they would have to play without any substitutes.  Also, they were drawn to play today at “Maracana Field” in Apapa…a hotbed of football for Nigeria in the middle of some of the most densely populated poor slum areas of Lagos.  This particular pitch is named in honor of the famous stadium in Brazil – their homage locally to the sport.  Columbus had himself grown up in the area, but had not been back to this hallowed ground for over 16 years.  Numerous of Nigeria’s professional footballers grew up and learned a passion for the sport here, and I was eager to see the ground for myself.


Maracana Field was not easy for us non-locals to find.  After traveling to the Apapa area, we found ourselves on very narrow streets during Saturday morning market hours, surrounded by a busy, bartering mass of humanity.  There is no doubt in my mind that I was likely the only “Oyinbo”, (pronounced ‘ow-wee-bo’ – meaning ‘white person’), within a few miles, among over a million Nigerians.  In many ways it way humbling, but mostly, it meant I was a curiosity there.  After winding our way through 20 blocks of dusty, dirt, potholed roads, and moving the throngs from in front of us through persistent horn-blowing and car-creeping, and stopping to ask direction 3-5 times, we finally found the pitch at 9:20am.


Unfortunately, I had forgotten my camera, but I can describe the scene for you clearly:  The area was the size of 3-4 full size pitches with only a modicum of grass remaining at the extreme edges.  Although the ground was dirt from the constant local play, it was not sandy or soft, and without wind or rain, would allow a technical game to be played.  There were permanent goals, and sets of smaller temporary goals around, and the perimeter of the field was lined on 2 sides by the walls and kitchen windows of the surrounding neighborhood.  The 3rd side was bounded by the wall of the local school, and the 4th  boundary was the classic galvanized steel fence we customarily find lining an automotive salvage yard in the U.S.  Finally, the scene was held together by people playing – no organized play, just groups of kids from 4 years old to 19 years-old playing 1 vs. 1, 4 vs. 1 keep away, playing little 6-a-side soccer, etc.  There was no actual field, but clearly on this Saturday, one would be needed.


The games this day were slated to start at 9:00am, and would consist of 5 games on 45 minute intervals, with 10 minute halves each.  At 9:30am, they started to create the pitch!  The Rope-Man and Ruler-Man worked together to lay 60- by 40-yard touchlines, and the Liner-Man put fresh sawdust and wood clippings along the rope to create the boundaries.  Two goals were moved into place, 10 boards were moved to the sidelines for sponsor banners, and 20-ft tall wind-sails, with ‘MTN’ on them, were erected around the field. The Commissioner’s Tent was erected, the referees arrived, the Teams were warmed-up, and by 10:45am play was started.  I was introduced as a visiting Coach from the U.S. and given an excellent viewing seat of prominence under the tent with the Commissioners.


Before the matches, I met Columbus’ Team, and their Assistant Coach Martins, who had just returned from receiving his USSF “B” Coaching License in the U.S.  Columbus’ Team drew the third match of the day, and the first two matches were skillful and entertaining.  All players were fast and technically skillful – some very much so.  However, there was clearly a strong differentiation in the players’ tactical and decision making ability.  The first game was dominated by errors that cost one team a 2-1 loss, although they dominated possession and chances on goal.  The second game was evenly matched until late when a goalkeeper ventured too far forward on a offensive corner kick, and got caught terribly out of position, a 1-0 loss.


Columbus’ Team played skillfully, and tactically smart for a team having no subs.  They shot often, and occasionally from distance, as it served to allow them to pace themselves for the whole game, and they won handily, 2-0.


After the game, some of the staff wanted to say “hi”, and asked about coaching, coaching courses, and football in America, both professional and in Colleges.  The little boys at the field were excited, but shy, to come up and say “hi” to the Oyinbo, but you could see their eyes were wide with wonder and delight.  We gave Columbus, Martins and  Columbus’ brother a ride back to the American School to catch their local transport, but as is typical on mainland Lagos on Saturday afternoon, the traffic made for a 90 minute trip back.


All in all, it was an exciting and educational day, and a great chance to see the emerging talent within the Nigerian football world.  Watch out, World!  By the way, the FIFA Under-17 Boys World Championships will be in Nigeria in 2009 – I hope to get to see some matches, and who knows – maybe some of the boys I saw today.


The Ikoyi Club – 1938

As one of our “horizon expanding” activities, we decided to take up the game of golf more seriously in Nigeria.  With the combination of close availability to a golf course, company-sponsored joining fees, and more available recreational time, we joined the only Golf Club in the area – The Ikoyi Club – 1938, a very famous and venerable organization celebrating its platinum anniversary this year.  On September 29th, 1938, the Club was founded with the merging of the European Club and the Lagos Golf Club.  Until 1976, the Club was run by Expatriates, but today, it is a shining example of diversity and inclusiveness.  It currently occupies 456 acres of prime real estate in the middle of Ikoyi Island, just blocks from our residence.  In addition to a full par-71 18-hole Golf Course with Driving Range, the Club boasts 3 swimming pools, a professional Table Tennis Arena, a Tennis Complex, a Snooker/Billiards Section, a Squash Court Complex, and various restaurants, meeting rooms, a library, gymnasiums, and weight room.



Joining the Ikoyi Club – 1938 starts with finding two full members, (full-members for at least 2 years), to sponsor you.  With their escort, one enters the Club’s Business Section and purchases a Preliminary Application Card for ~$65.  Upon completion of the Card by yourself and the Sponsors, one returns and is allowed to purchase a full Application Card for another ~$100.  Upon completion of this paperwork, and after securing approval from the Sports Section Chairmen, and after submittal with fees amounting to ~$6500, one becomes a Junior Member, (our current status).  We will remain Junior Members until being called with our Sponsor before the General Committee and being approved to become Ordinary Members.  Junior Members have all the privileges of the Ordinary Members except for voting rights.  However, full Ordinary Membership usually takes a number of additional months to secure.


With all memberships, use of all Club facilities is free – no green’s fees or facility charges.  Buckets of 50 balls at the Driving Range is only ~$1.75, and Caddies, (which are required), are only $5-$8 for a round of golf.  Drinks and food are extremely reasonable, even by U.S. standards.  To get started at the Golf Course, one must play 5 rounds with existing members to set a handicap, and then they are free to play whenever they so desire.  Since Julie is just beginning, she scheduled a set of lessons with the Club’s Golf Pro, Jacob.  She has started out with the more open-faced clubs, and is working her way up to the long irons and woods.


Overall, it’s really wonderful to get outside, away from the traffic and cement of Lagos, and into the greenery of the golf course and the dominant sounds of nature.  We plan to spend some hours there, at least a couple of days per week.



    Come join us for a round…

Myths & Truths of Port Harcourt

The most often asked question of us from family and friends not in Nigeria is one of security.  Many have read the reports of kidnappings and pipeline sabotage which dominate international news reports.  Most of this activity is well south of Lagos, down on the river delta, centered near the city of Port Harcourt.  There is an active dispute between the people of the state in that area who believe that they were promised a larger fraction of the area’s oil wealth from the Nigerian Federal Government.  That, coupled with the opportunity for immediate riches from O&G theft and corruption, has fueled a serious security issue for all people in that area.  Because of that, Shell expatriate staff who are located in Port Harcourt, are not allowed to leave the security of the Shell protected residential area or work office complex without a Shell provided armed security force escort.  This is unfortunate, because the Port Harcourt area is a lovely and vibrant community that is now off-limits to Shell staff.


Since a number of my staff live and work in Port Harcourt, I have had the fortunate occasion to visit the area for a few days at a time.  The trip starts with an hour’s ride from our residence in Ikoyi to the Lagos airport, to the new Domestic Terminal which is as modern as any elsewhere, and which is a huge improvement over the International Terminal on the other side of the airport.




After a pleasant, but brief flight (less than 1 hour), on a modern 737 Aero airline plane, one disembarks at a small domestic airport outside of Port Harcourt.  Shell, (as does each major company), provides a small bus with hired Federal security in front and behind to escort the passengers the 1 hour trip from the airport to Shell’s secured Residential Area.



Shell’s Residential Area, (RA), consists of a large Clubhouse with sports and entertainment facilities, a restaurant and bar, a 9-hole golf course, a modern school, the Patani Guest House, and tropical bungalow 3-4 bedroom houses for staff to reside in.





Unfortunately, since the security issues began 1-2 years ago, many expatriate families with children have moved to Lagos, and the RA is now only half occupied.  However, it is wonderfully quiet and peaceful, and a great place to go for a walk or jog, or to socialize with friends at the Club.  Each morning, Shell provides escorted busses from the RA to the Shell Offices in the Industrial Area, (IA).  These offices are a collection of buildings, infrastructure and storage on a protected campus, where all operational, technical and non-technical staff work. 



At the end of the work day, the expatriate staff return to the RA via escorted busses for another evening with family and friends at camp.  Items needed for everyday living are brought to camp by approved vendors, or can be secured in town by sending local Nigerian staff from camp into town to shop for you.  All I can say about the town of Port Harcourt, (PHC), is from what I can see from the bus, and what staff that used to be able to get out and about have to say: that it was a vibrant and friendly society, where people mixed freely. 




Few Oyinbo, (white people), wander the streets of PHC any longer, since the risks are now considered too great for the possibility of them being taken and held in exchange for money.  There are many in Nigeria pushing for a solution, but those profiting from the current situation are also strong.  For the sake of the Nigerian People, let us all hope a solution is found soon.





Sanitation Saturday

Here in Lagos, there isn’t broad, regular community garbage pick-up.  Oh, of course the major businesses, hotels and apartment complexes have daily pick-up, but the average “Joe-resident” simply piles it up at the street.  Therefore, once a month, on the last Saturday of each month, the State of Lagos declares “Sanitation Day”.  On Sanitation Day, all businesses are closed and no one other than State Authorities & Sanitation Workers, are allowed on the streets between the hours of 6:00AM until 10:00AM, under penalty of arrest!  Therefore, this Saturday, we asked our driver to pick us up a bit later, at 1:30PM, to go on an inspection tour of our apartment, and to do a little shopping.  This would allow him enough time to get into the city, pick up our car and get to us.  Well, at about noon, our driver calls and says he will be late because he has to go to the police station.  It turns out that since it was Sanitation Saturday, he took the opportunity to sleep-in late in the morning.  His wife, who had gotten up earlier, decided that it would be a good time to go down street to get breakfast while he slept.  And so, (you guessed it), she was arrested for being out on the streets and taken to jail!  His friends came and got him, but now he had to beg and borrow 10,000 Naira, (~$85.00), to get her out, or she would have to spend 3 months in jail!  Now, the average Nigerian makes just 100-200 Naira per day, and our driver, who has a very enviable job, makes about 1500 Naira per day, so this was no small sum.  He finally made it to pick us up at 3:30PM, after successfully getting his wife out of jail, and a very frustrating day!  However, by then, every other person in the city was also going somewhere in their car, and we were in Lagos gridlock.  We went to our apartment, (~3 miles away), checked it out, cut our trip short and made it back to the hotel by 6:00PM.  And so goes a day in Nigeria, where the rhythms of this country are vibrant but unpredictable, and where life can move at lightening speed at one minute, and come to a crawl at the next.  It is simultaneously exciting and frustrating, inviting and aloof.  It calls you with the friendliest people that you’ve ever met, and warns you with a lawless freedom.  It is Nigeria!

A New Home

Well, it was an adventurous week for both Julie and I.  I’ve finally gotten my office equiped with a Linux Workstation, I ventured for ~1 hour driving on Nigerian streets for my Nigerian Driver’s license, we went to the most amazing market – (Lekki Market – more on this in a future blog), and the best news of all – we’ve been assigned our residence where we will be living for the forseeable future!

Our residence will be Unit B3 of Queen’s Drive Complex on Ikoyi island, a very new set of apartment buildings just across the road from the main body of water, (Five Creek), separating Ikoyi from Victoria Island to the south.  Our Unit is a 3 bedroom flat containing large rooms with windows on 2 sides.  Here is a picture of the complex looking north from across Five Creek on Victoria Island:

Apartment Complex seen from Victoria Island

The complex has a beautiful pool, exercise room, tennis courts, and a racquetball/squash court.  There will still have to be a detailed inspection, and our furniture won’t arrive until after the end of July, so it will be awhile before we can get in.  Meanwhile, there will be window coverings to make/buy, and appliances for the kitchen to aquire.  The complex is just now getting moved into, so we will be the “founding” group of residents, which will be a great chance to set some traditions for future residents, (“happy hours” and barbeques)!  One hurdle…we’ve been told that all furniture re-assembly will be our responsibility!  I’m already lining up a craftman for the pool table.

This week, I hope that I can start spending less time getting settled, and more on the work challenges at hand.  Drop us a line and let us know how everyone’s doing.



Shopping Saturday

After a busy week of paperwork, orientation and company direction, we decided to get out of the hotel and spend some time learning new places to visit and getting our bearings.  Laurens Gaarenstrom, a Shell friend from back in The States is also staying in the hotel, so this morning, we picked him up and went to a little French Import Market called “La Pointe”.  After picking out a some cheese and crackers, we went to pay and had a little adventure at the counter as we tried to pay with 50 Naira currency bills given to us as a gift back in the U.S.  Image our surprise when we found out that these bills, (we have 100 of them), are about 8 years old, and Nigeria has replaced them with a slightly different version, and that these are now worthless, (locally referred to as “trash”)!  Oh well, 5000 Naira out the window, (it’s only about $43)!  It was embarressing, however.

We then went for cappacinos at a wonderful little place called “Chocolat Royal”, and finished up with a Lebonese lunch at “Cactus” resturant, looking over the water from Victoria island to Ikoyi island.  There, on the water’s edge on the other bank and next to “The American Club”, is the Queen’s Drive Apartment Complex, where we have requested permenant accomodations.  Keep your finger’s crossed for us.

Tonight, we’re off for dinner with a group of expats who are old friends.  So far, life is tense, but wonderfully warm and easy.  Certainly, it will take a little time to build a comfortable routine, and truely settle in.

Until then, ciao…   …Rocky

We are here

We’re Here!

Sorry it took awhile to get a posting to everyone, but getting IT up and working took a few days. Our trip over via Atlanta was pleasantly uneventful, and although we’re in the rainy season, it has yet to rain a drop in the 2 days in which we’ve been here. The weather has been beautiful, with a high of ~82F each day. We’re living in ahotel for the time being, until our furniture arrives and we get into permenant housing.

Keep in touch, everyone!