Afternoon Adventures through Arches

Arches National Park is located just outside Moab in Utah, USA. For a state that has such strong religious communities, it seems ironic that it is also home to many national parks that stun visitors with their complex geological formations. Whether a higher power made them or not, the sights in Arches are magnificent enough to make you bow your head in respect. Covering all the areas and 2000 recorded arches in this 76,519 acre park would make an even longer post than my usual ones (‘is that even possible?’ I hear you say) so below are some highlights from the sections I visited during my afternoon in Arches.

A winding uphill entrance leads you into the park, which was originally classed as a National Monument in 1929 before being upgraded to national park status in 1971. In the ‘Windows Section’, Balanced Rock stands out like a defiant fist punching for freedom amidst gloomy clouds. A random collection of fins in the distance is common as you drive on, quickly losing the desire to take photos in favour of just absorbing what you are seeing.

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The Cove of Caves looks like it would have been a suitable ‘home’ area for the humans who occupied this park 10,000 years ago. Don’t judge people pulling an inevitable “Stayin’ Alive” pose at the Turret Arch – it’s rude to point a finger. In this section you also have the North and South Windows, popular with climbers (experience being optional…)

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Driving on further, Delicate Arch is the most photographed in the whole park, as you can see by the dots of people surrounding it. Its name perhaps comes from its rather delicate-looking placement down the side of a slope. The weather wasn’t too cheerful and having to compete with fellow tourists for a photo is never fun, so it was skipped. *Gasps of horror from other Arches-lovers*

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Upon arrival in the Devils Garden section in the north of the park, the sun decided to come out. First up was Tunnel arch, with the hole’s shape so seemingly symmetrical that it’s easy to imagine someone coming out at night to sand down its edges.

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See that tiny green figure to the right underneath Pine Tree arch? That’s me, not a tree. Try not to step on a cactus or make the ants angry as you tread the sandy paths after it. There’s a great place for sand jumps nearby.

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The most popular arch in the Devils Garden section is Landscape Arch, which boasts the title of longest recorded arch in the park (if not the world?) with a measurement of 93m across. Its thin frame has formed from three separate occasions since 1991 of sandstone falling away. Who knows how long it will hold together?

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Partition Arch follows shortly after, but thankfully fewer tourists do too, so there’s more space for shameless poses…

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As you carry on along the fins of the Devils Garden Trailhead, you could be forgiven for forgetting that you’re still on planet Earth. With the park located on the Colorado River, its bewildering landscape has been formed by a continual geological process taking place over millions of years. Beginning as a salt bed caused by an evaporated sea, eroded rock sediments have been carried by a sea current and crushed together to make sandstone, before being layered and re-layered on the salty sea bed. Some layers were thrust up above the surface as salt domes, with a continuous process of erosion breaking off segments of these to give the rocks their distinctive arch-like shape.

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You’ll often stumble across random arches here and there. I’m still not sure of the names of all the ones I saw, such as the one below. But it’s the sights – not the names – that are important. Soaked in a sea of red, you’ll also sometimes encounter an animal with a colour distinct from the sandstone.

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The Tower of Babel and the Organ have a domineering presence in the Courthouse Towers section near the entrance and exit of the park, especially on the morning after a stormy night. Their titles perfectly suit their tall, rigid structures.

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Meanwhile, here I am eating breakfast whilst the Three Gossips have a chinwag behind me…
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The Courthouse Towers Viewpoint looks exactly like its namesake – a row of judges standing up in a high courtroom, summoning the audience’s attention as they deliver their verdict on the tiny green men below them.

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Being imprisoned on this planet wouldn’t be such a bad thing though. There are plenty of areas to run away to, and nooks and crannies to explore. Let yourself get lost in the red maze of arches and enjoy a brief escape from Earth.

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Here is my latest Huff Post article on my experience of Arches

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Travel Connections: The Weird & Wonderful Westmann Islands

One of the things I soon learned after travelling on my own for the first time was how small the world is. One can make so many random or unlikely connections between home and the new country. As the number of coincidences increases, it becomes difficult to believe fate can’t exist. The place where these ideas hit home most was in Iceland, when I visited the Westmann Islands (Vestmannaeyjar).

The majority of these 15 little islands clustered just off the south coast of the main land were formed by volcanoes under the water around 11,000 years ago, with the biggest and only inhabited one, Heimaey, previously being the home of Keiko: the famous orca whale from the ‘Free Willy’ films. With many hours of my childhood spent wishing I was Jesse swimming with this orca whale (until I realised with immense disappointment years later that those scenes had actually used an animatronic one),  I knew not going wouldn’t be right. Heimaey is also famous for the immensely destructive eruption of 1973 that smothered a third of the town in lava. Eldfell, or ‘Mountain of Fire’, was the volcanic memento that resulted, and I wanted to hike it.

I was spending a second night in Skógar before heading to the islands. The American ladies from the night before were no longer around, and I felt relieved by the prospect of no more snoring. Instead I was joined by what looked like three generations of a Chinese family – the grandparents, parents and a young girl who watched me re-fill my backpack curiously, hiding behind her hair shyly when I smiled at her. She must have only been about eight, and the experience so new and strange. I’ve never been to China, yet I knew this country’s landscape was the complete opposite of what she would be used to, with the Northern European features of the people seeming so alien. I felt a little awkward as I brushed my hair before bed, feeling their eyes on me. Catching the grandmother’s eye in the mirror, she smiled at me fondly. Then she burped. I immediately stopped what I was doing in surprise,  wondering whether I should laugh light-heartedly to prevent any potential awkwardness. But the lady didn’t seem to have noticed, instead just looking around the room in a non-fussed manner. Then she did it again…and again a few minutes later. Suddenly snoring didn’t seem so bad…

The day ahead would involve a lot of connections. To get to Vestmannaeyjar, one needs to take a local bus from Hvolsvöllur to Landeyjahöfn, and then catch a ferry from the Herjólfur ferry terminal. By buying a ‘Beautiful South’ bus passport, you can easily jump on one of the early Reykjavik Excursions buses heading through Skógar to Hvolsvöllur. The Chinese family nodded and smiled at me as I called a ‘goodbye’ to them the next morning before leaving the hostel to catch one. The door of the bus opened and with a wobbly jump off the bottom step, who should appear but ‘Timmy’, the driver from two day’s before! I watched admirably as he proceeded to ask two good-looking girls where they were from, only to raise his eyebrows at them cheekily and remark with a goofy grin: “Italy..? Bonjourno!” We took a slight detour to go pick up some passengers from a bus that had picked up a fault, and began making our way over a narrow gravel road riddled with potholes that eventually takes one to Pórsmörk. At one point we had to turn around, and the coach was pretty big. Getting off the bus to assess how much space he had, poor Timmy looked nervous. His funny comments in the microphone to the passengers stopped as his attention was focussed completely on the task at hand. I willed him on silently. But he made it without causing any damage, turning round in his seat afterwards to flash the Italian girls a flirty nod.

Hvolsvöllur is a handy connection town as it has a bank and a supermarket where you can stock up on supplies. Other than that, there really isn’t anything to do. With the clouds leaking open again after managing to hold themselves in yesterday, I went to sit inside the petrol station for the remaining hour long wait. 10 minutes later the door opened and the room became a vacuum of jabbering Spanish. I looked up to see a flurry of white and blue infiltrate the room, and a group of about 12 young men moped along the aisles, looking for chocolate and magazines and calling across to each other loudly.  Their presence caused quite a stir, with old ladies gazing at them like children admiring gifts under a Christmas tree.  Once they’d stocked up on sufficient supplies the men came over to the seating area and pulled up chairs around me, to the extent that I was effectively surrounded. An elderly lady eventually came over to ask what they were up to. “We play football,” one replied simply, as he slouched in a chair leafing lazily through a magazine. She continued to look at him, nodding absent-mindedly with a dazed smile of admiration on her face. I kept my head down reading as they chatted boisterously around me. They didn’t seem to have noticed me, and I felt a bit like the plain, quiet kid in American films who never gets picked for the baseball team. Then my bus arrived and I stood up to put my backpack on. Suddenly the footballers stopped their incessant rambling and turned to look at me with perplexed intrigue, as if they’d just spotted me for the first time. Hoisting a heavy rucksack onto your back is never an attractive motion, and I felt my cheeks go bright red as they continued to stare at me and my backpack with baffled faces. ‘Thank God I’m never seeing them again!’ I thought as I hurried through the door feeling like a 12 year old girl.

Whilst the drivers of Reykjavik Excursions coaches speak excellent English, don’t expect the same on local buses. My incoherent mumbling of Icelandic received a bemused look in response and a ticket with lots of figures on it that I didn’t understand. The journey to Landeyjahöfn takes 30 minutes. Raindrops pattered against the window pane. I paid 2520ISK for a return ticket at the terminal and found a seat in the waiting area. Five minutes later, impatient Spanish chatter filled the air again as the flurry of blue and white reappeared. Ah crap. The footballers were obviously heading to Vestmannayejar too. But I couldn’t understand why – it seemed like the most unlikely place for a bunch of young men from the Mediterranean to visit. This time however they were joined by one or two blond-haired players who I assumed were Icelanders, and one of them was very good-looking, with some of the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. Not a great day to be wearing tracksuit bottoms and no mascara. A few minutes later Eye Candy got up to go to the bathroom, and I watched him go with dreamy eyes. As I lowered them I caught the eyes of a woman who was instantly recognisable – it was the mother from the Chinese family in my dorm. I involuntarily grinned and waved at her, as she patted the arm of her mother eagerly. Upon seeing me the grandmother’s eyes lit up and she greeted me with a delighted smile…followed by a burp.

But it was a touching moment all the same – I felt like I’d made some sort of connection with a bunch of strangers, without having even spoken more than a few words to them. We were simply united in that moment by the shared familiarity of the other. And it was a nice feeling; one that I’m not convinced could be acquired as strongly if it happened with a stranger of the same nationality in one’s home country.

The ferry crossing to Vestmannaeyjar takes 40 minutes. Wrap up warm if you decide to go outside! Rain whipped at my cheeks like ropes flailing wildly from a wicked sky, leaving a sting as I gazed over the side of the boat at the roaring waves below. The blue and white swarm of Spanish wasps transcended around me again, buzzing away in sulky tones as they shivered in their tracksuits, glaring at the sky above and wondering how they’d diverted so off-course to end up in this climate. Occasionally one or two of them would look at me with the same baffled facial expression, as if I had two heads. I finally broke the ice by offering to take a photo of them when someone got their camera out. “What are you doing on the Island?” I asked one, who nudged his friend and nodded at me, muttering “English”. His friend proceeded to tell me that they were playing football. Shocker! “But why here?” I asked him, wondering what point there was in flying to Iceland for a training camp. He shrugged and said simply, “There’s a game.” I looked at him, still not understanding. Then he asked if I supported a team, and following the male contingent in my family I replied with “Manchester United.” He smiled and said “Do you know David James?” I was pretty sure he had never played for this team, and rolled my eyes slightly as I said yes. Then he asked why I myself was going to the islands and I told him I was travelling. “But why here?” he asked with a frown. I shrugged and said simply, “Just to look around.” The man looked at me in slight disbelief. We both couldn’t comprehend why the other would want to come to such a small, random place for such activities. But I knew there was more I could have said about my intentions that would justify my coming to the island; it’s not everyday you see a volcano, but a football match could be played anywhere. I couldn’t see how the two could be of similar significance. When he said “Are you coming to watch the game tonight?” I made a face and replied “Probably not.” ‘Why would I bother watching a bunch of guys kick a ball around?’ I thought to myself sceptically.

On arrival at Heimaey, an untidy jumble of square white houses with red and blue roofs are littered out in front of you, like dirty socks left lying around a room carelessly. It’s not a sight that exudes much character. I left the footballers and wondered up an empty street to find my accommodation for the night – Guesthouse Heidrid. A few seconds after I told someone outside that I was looking for a lady called Ruth, a door opened and a lady with frizzy hair appeared, looking a little flustered as a large dog squeezed between her legs to get out. “Yes! I’m Ruth,” she said breathlessly, and before I’d had a chance to properly introduce myself she’d handed me a key to my room, saying over her shoulder, “You can pay me later tonight, I’ve just got to go to the other house,” before shooting up the road. I’d got the impression from a few website features on Vestmannaeyjar that Ruth was quite a big name on the island, being responsible for the running of the town’s Volcanic Film Show. She also seemed to be a big fan of puffins – photos of them covered the walls of my cosy room. But I liked how laid-back she was – it made me feel welcome.

A must-see on the island is the House Graveyard – the resting place of 400 buildings buried under lava in the 1973 eruption. Amongst large piles of rock, wooden signposts indicate the name and position of each deceased establishment. Reading from a sign that a swimming pool was situated under your feet 30 years ago is an inconceivable concept – I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been, and there’s something quite haunting about the area, as if the spirits of the building are still lurking around you.

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The base of Eldfell is about 10 minutes away, and teasing drops of rain fell every now and then as I began the ascent. Just as I was beginning to feel grateful for my sturdy hiking boots, I spotted a group of three teenagers ahead, walking over the crumbly reddish terrain in normal trainers and carrying nothing but what looked like a newspaper between them. Their casual dress seemed to undermine my perceived significance of the activity I was undertaking. The final 100m of the hike is quite a thigh-burner, made worse by the wind and rain slapping your cheeks mockingly. But when you get to the top and gaze at the volcanic cone of Helgafell in front of you before the ocean to the south, it’s a great feeling. There were a few others up on the summit, but the moody skies around seemed to put them off staying too long. I wanted to give the weather a chance though, and sure enough, a window began to open slowly, letting sunlight gradually stream through. Tuffets of cotton-wool clouds formed in the sky and the ocean began to shimmer as the sun finally broke through determinedly. I’d made the right choice.

I wondered over the narrow ridge at the top of the volcano, only to see the three teenagers sat in a crevice, reading the newspaper. They seemed to represent the standard teenager: bored and frustrated. As someone who’d just experienced something completely new, I found it difficult to understand their emotions. Afterall, it’s not everyday anyone can casually go and read the news on a volcano. One of them then got out a lighter and set the paper on fire, watching it burn with a disinterested expression on his face. I wondered how the three of them felt about tourists from all over coming and invading their tiny homeland. Suddenly I was reminded of my own thoughts growing up in my tiny hometown, when I’d see a collection of cars parked up on grass verges, or walkers trampling over the heather. Sometimes I’d resented it, as if I felt they were rudely intruding on my private property.  As I’d got older I’d craved a change of scene, struggling to grasp why people wanted to visit the area much, simply because I’d lived there my whole life and it was all I was used to. And that was maybe how these kids felt too; they’d forgotten the significance of this place, from taking its constant presence in their life for granted.

A few minutes later the teenagers lumbered back down the mountain, and I was left to myself. I felt like a lone wolf at the top of a mountain, surveying the land and sea below for approaching enemies.  Thinking about home after seeing the teenagers prompted me to turn my phone on, and I sent a text to my parents with the line ‘Greetings from the top of a volcano’. Reading those words was so bizarre, and I kept wondering to myself, ‘How dangerous is it that I’m up in this volcano alone..?’ I stayed up there a while longer, until I heard a hissing noise from a hole in the ground and started to get a little nervous…

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When you reach the bottom of Eldfell, head further south to the coast, making sure you say hello to the Icelandic ponies on the way (just beware of the electric fence). On the coast near the gold course, you’re bound to see puffins sitting nobly in the cliff crevices. These animals are a national symbol of Iceland, and a popular dish too! The rain began to fall again, and I made a mad dash for cover in what seemed to be an empty workshop just off the golf course, wondering whether this counted as trespassing. Cheering sounded from the distance, and I suddenly remembered what the Spanish footballer had said about a game. ‘Sounds pretty rowdy for a kickabout,’ I thought to myself, and I decided to have a quick look once the shower ended.

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English-style chants in an Icelandic tongue grew louder on approach, and I looked around in bewilderment as I saw small groups of people clustered on the banks outside a tiny stadium. A boy with a yellow-coated dog stood in front of me, occasionally making excited comments to a guy with a ponytail smoking nearby who, with his fluorescent jacket, I assumed was on security. Feeling liked I’d just turned up to a small house gathering only to find that it had been gate-crashed, I scrutinised the players on the pitch. One team was in white, the other blue. Suddenly I recognised the Spanish player from the boat who’d referred me to the English speaker. ‘But what is this for?’ I asked myself in confusion. The boy with the yellow dog seemed too focussed on the game to ask, since his dog was busy getting its lead caught around its legs without him noticing, so I approached an old man instead. “Afsakið, talar pú ensku?” I asked uncertainly. He nodded with a warm smile, and I continued “What is this match for?” He gave the names of two teams, and seeing my blank expression said, “It’s like the Icelandic Premier League.” Ohhhh. I looked on the field again. The Spanish guys had just scored, and the boy with the dog swore furiously. I watched the goalkeeper get to his feet. He looked familiar, even from the far distance. I turned to the man again, as it slowly dawned on me. “The goalkeeper for the Vestmannaeyjar team…is that..?” The man smiled, “David James, yes!”

Suddenly everything clicked into place, after I’d previously missed the connection. A few seconds of feeling sheepish for being so cynical about the Spanish guy’s comments were followed by a burst of self-deprecating laughter. As the match finished and hoards of people filtered out of the stands,  I walked amongst them back to the guesthouse, almost in a daze as I ran through the bizarre events of the day. This experience had been so surreal and unexpected. Of all the things I thought I might come across in Iceland, this link back to England wasn’t one of them, especially as a follow-up to me chilling on top of a volcano by myself for two hours. I’d gone from an experience that felt so weird – because of it being completely unusual in my normal life and surroundings – to something that seemed even weirder because of its stark familiarity with home in contrast. Never before would I have put volcanoes and footballers in the same sentence. For some reason, the idea that Iceland would have a similar sports institution to England had gone over my head. Just like the teenagers on Eldfell struggled to appreciate the remarkable value of their hometown’s natural monument to tourists, I’d assumed there couldn’t be any significance in a game of football, because it was such a familiar element in my life.

It’s moments like this that make travelling such a fantastic thing – the weird coincidences that you experience on the way supplement the wonderful sights that you see. And most of the time, these links occur during the process of locomotion. Getting around on different forms of transport can be tiring and tedious, but events like this add entertainment and make what one assumes to be the most boring aspects of travelling become an open ticket to another special memory. Even though I would have still finished that day able to tick ‘Hike a volcano’ off my life to-do list, the state of having an awesome experience on the Westmann Islands wouldn’t have been reached without the various travel connections made during the day. 

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Waiting for a Spark: Skógar & Skaftafell National Park

My first day in Iceland had left me intrigued by the paradox of the country’s landscape, with its archaic features on a youthful base. The pessimism that I’d felt at the beginning of the trip had reduced slightly, but I was still unconvinced about the prospect of seeing anything here that would blow me away. I really believed having to remove Skaftafell National Park from my itinerary would take the spark out of the trip. Discovering that there was no accommodation left had produced the same feeling of disappointment when one realises their crush isn’t at the party; the balloons had deflated and the question ‘Is it even worth staying?’ momentarily popped up.

On the evening of my second day I was heading for Skógar, home of the famous Skógafoss, and the beginning of the extended hiking route to Landmannalaugar. I’d decided to attempt to walk half the 23km route to Pórsmörk on my third day, telling myself that I’d tag along with fellow walkers so I wasn’t alone. ‘It’ll be fine,’ I kept telling myself as I sat in the bus station reading my guide book. But the words ‘tough terrain’ and ‘bad weather’ jutted out from the page like metal barriers from a concrete road, threatening to block my progress. I wasn’t optimistic about getting through them successfully.

With 15 minutes to go before my departure I sat slumped in a chair, reluctant to get up. The couple next to me stood up to catch their bus, leaving a pamphlet on the seat behind them. I absent-mindedly cast my eyes over it, then suddenly came alive and like a poor beggar who’d just spotted a pile of gold, snatched it up excitedly. It was promoting a day tour to Skaftafell National Park. In other words, I’d be able to visit it without having to worry about finding a place to sleep for the night. I held the pamphlet in my hands like it was a precious gift that I was scared of damaging – Christmas had arrived early, but at a high price. Could I really justify spending the equivalent of £80 on one day tour, when I had the rest of my budget to think about? I tapped my foot on the floor impatiently, glancing hesitantly at the clock every 15 seconds or so. Then with five minutes to go before my bus arrived, I got up to buy the ticket. Spending so much money in one transaction had never filled me with so much relief. As I hoisted my backpack over my shoulder I felt revitalised, as if the trip was finally beginning. Something inside told me this was a decision I wouldn’t regret.

Today’s bus driver was a strawberry-blond haired man with short chubby legs and a goofy face, his childish looks only made more bizarre by the punky ring dangling from his left ear. He reminded me a little of the character ‘Wormtail’ in Harry Potter, and I decided to nickname him ‘Timmy’, laughing to myself as he waddled along the bus asking each passenger where they were from, before attempting to speak a sentence in their language.

The evening sun cast a healthy glow over the hills as our journey commenced, bringing new life to the land. I’d heard that the love interest was actually about to set off to the party, and my excitement was reflected in the radiance of the land’s complexion. A couple of hours later a giant cake of a mountain came into view on my left, its frosty icing oozing over the chocolate sponge of the land. It was a volcanic glacier, and not just any volcanic glacier, but that of Eyjafjallajökull: the sweet treat that caused so much trouble in 2010 when it exploded and sent clouds of dusty flour and hot sauce into the air, turning people everywhere crazy for ruining their European party plans. Knowing that I was seeing the sight of such controversy through my own eyes made my tummy bubble up in a frenzy, as if I too was a volcano about to erupt. The boy I wanted to see at the party had told me he was on his way.

About 20 minutes before Skógar, you’ll then see out of your window the gorgeous sight of Seljalandsfoss, a tall waterfall with wispy columns of water that seem to fall in slow motion, resembling flakes of icing sugar pouring into a mixing bowl.

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As we approached Skógar I realised that I didn’t actually have a map of the village, and hoped my hostel wouldn’t be too difficult to find. But you can guarantee that you’ll have no problems finding anywhere in this tiny place. ‘Village’ was too generous a term. As I stepped off the bus and said bye to Timmy, the only sound I could hear was crashing water in the distance. The hostel and its campsite are situated about 400m from the famous waterfall, and as soon as I’d checked in I bounded over to have a look. The sight of people setting up tents and lighting stoves opposite the river Skógá made me feel warm inside, reminding me of family holidays as a child. A bed of black sand welcomed my walking boots, and my face was painted with the spray of the water dropping 62m from the top. If you climb the steps going up the hill beside the waterfall, there’s a great lookout point from halfway up. Unlike at Seljalandsfoss, the water looks so strong that you almost feel if you were to jump out with your arms open, you’d be able to grip it like a thick piece of rope and reach the ground securely.

I went back to the hostel, only to find that the three American women who’d been on my Golden Circle tour the day before were sleeping in the same dorm. Hearing them whine about their sore feet made me feel relieved I wasn’t going to have to tag along with them to Pórsmörk the next day. I went for a shower to escape them for a bit, breathing a lazy sigh of content as I turned on the tap. The water gushed out and I sprang back in surprise, overwhelmed by the strong smell of rotten eggs. For about a minute I stood in the nude awkwardly, looking around my cubicle as if that would provide some sort of answer, before realising that this smell is normal for showers in Iceland, because of the sulphur in the springs where the water comes from. After a few minutes you get used to it…

There was no need for an alarm clock the next morning, as sunlight through the window woke me. I jumped out of my bunk and got dressed eagerly, hoping I wouldn’t wake the (snoring) Americans. There was a fresh snap in the air as I headed out to see Skógafoss again. After absorbing its cool vapour I climbed the steps all the way to the top of the waterfall. Your quads will burn after but it’s worth it for the view. Horses and sheep grazed together peacefully on the hill opposite, with the blue sky pouring a faint rainbow over them. If you climb over the stile into the field where the famous hiking route to Pórsmörk begins, you’ll see Eyjafjallajökull poking above a hill. I couldn’t get over how close I was to it.

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The tour bus stopped specially in Skógar to pick me up. When I saw it pull up I breathed a sigh of relief, as if I’d just seen my crush’s car, having originally feared he wasn’t going to show afterall. The bus was pretty busy and I took the middle seat on the back row. A young English couple sat next to me on the left, with the girl moaning about the lack of WiFi, saying she hoped the journey wouldn’t take much longer. As we drove past acres of lava fields, I couldn’t understand how she was more interested in looking at a screen than outside the window. On my right was a complete contrast, with two ladies from Hong Kong excitedly taking photos of pretty much everything…We stopped at one point to walk onto the lava fields. The rocks are an earthy-green colour and resemble bubbles dotted with holes – a continuous land of Mint Chocolate Aeros! It was hard to imagine waves of hot lava streaming ferociously over the land.

An hour later the bus turned off for the tourist centre of Skaftafell National Park, part of the huge Vatnajökull National Park. The love interest had got out of his car and was walking up the driveway. Whilst the girl next to me slumped back in her seat with a bored expression, I unbuckled my seat belt eagerly like a little kid arriving at the seaside thinking something might be missed by not getting off the bus first. I had four hours to myself in the park, and spent the first half it walking the approximately 2km route to Svartifoss (the Black Falls). I had a new energy in my legs, and strode effortlessly up the pebbly path, overtaking panting walkers who stared at me in envious wonder. The landscape had changed drastically from my first day touring the Golden Circle – the tidy paths were lined with green bushes, the clumpy vegetation of the area giving it more of a Mediterranean feel. Rustic signs pointed in all directions to other little nooks and crannies. Sandy deposits sat beside a calmly-flowing stream, which then seeped languidly into a waterfall. There was something very serene about the water here, as if it was in no rush to get anywhere. The landscape had softened.

Svartifoss comes into view about 600m before you reach it – the whiteness of the water acting as a lighthouse amongst the green ocean of vegetation. Once you arrive in front of the falls it’s as if you’ve descended into a gloomy Church; tall dark walls of basalt surround you, the columns hanging rigidly like pipes on a giant organ, standing to attention as the waterfall delivers its solemn sermon. It’s this bizarre structure of the rock, rather than the waterfall itself, that makes Svartifoss so popular with visitors. Sit for a while and admire the view.

Svartifoss

I’d saved the best view, however, till last. Skaftafellsjökull is an easy 30 minute walk from the tourist centre, and as the air gets a little colder on approaching it, so too does the anticipation build. In sight comes a mouth-watering mess of melted ice-cream decorated with chocolate curls – the glacier, dusted with ash, sits comfortably between two hills before a placid lake dotted with mini icebergs. Signs warned about loose sand, but I wasn’t looking at my feet as I trod, mouth open, over the black sand, as if heading towards a pool of treasure. The solid ice in the water stood still like a collection of gargoyles, with the only noise around me being the occasional lap of water against the ‘shore’. I walked up a crumbly path and perched on a rock, feeling like a newly-inaugurated Queen on a throne surveying my kingdom down below. The Prince I’d been waiting for at the party had arrived and made his presence felt with a ‘bang’, as if someone had just pulled a partycracker inside my chest.

Finally I’d experienced the feeling I’d been waiting for – the skip of a heart beat and the lack of words. And yet what was so interesting was the fact that the view in front of me wasn’t even one that could be described as ‘beautiful’. It was too messy for that, the surrounding colours too dull. But not all boys are perfectly formed, and yet still have something about them that makes them so attractive. What the view was was simply stunning. It was the untidiness of the glacier that made it so marvellous – a true natural wonder. I smiled to myself a genuine smile that Iceland hadn’t seen yet. “This is why I’m here,” I said aloud. I laid my head back on the rock feeling completely fulfilled. Nothing was happening in front of me – I was looking at nothing but a mere canvas of idle nature – but I didn’t want to leave that spot. The spark had been lit and it felt like the party had only just begun.

Back on the bus, the English couple had thankfully moved to the front, but even their underwhelmed attitudes couldn’t have rubbed off on mine. I was smitten and nothing would change how I felt. The two ladies from Hong Kong sat on either side of me, nudging me excitedly when they spotted a huge rainbow out of the window. One of them offered me a green-tea flavoured biscuit and, upon asking where I was from began to say, “The English accent is very -” before nodding her head sharply with pursed lips and a frown to demonstrate what she was trying to say. A few seats in front of me an American guy tried to flirt with the brunette Swede sat opposite him, casually taking hold of her camera to look at her photos, and telling her about his Masters degree. After a few minutes she looked quite bored, and turned to chat to the older German man next to her who looked like he had a lot of money. American man leaned in, desperate to get involved in the conversation, before realising he’d blown it and sitting back in his seat in sulky disappointment.

Our bus stopped briefly in the small town of Vik (full name ‘Vík í Myrdal’), which is the most southerly village in Iceland with a lovely beach. The light was dimmer outside but the sky was still a fantastic blue, casting a tranquil aura over the land. Perch yourself on the pile of rocks leading out to the sea and admire the Reynisdrangar in the distance. The ‘troll rocks’ are so named from a myth that states they resemble former trolls who drowned after taking their boats out into the wild sea. The village of Vik is tiny, but if you’re planning a road trip along the south coast, it’s worth taking advantage of the hostel and staying one night, just to embrace its romantic charm.

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As the bus dropped me off back at Skógar, I wished my friends from Hong Kong a pleasant trip and disembarked onto a land of sweet content. Eyjafjallajökull caught the sunset beautifully and greeted me with a warm glow. It was the perfect evening to end the perfect day. My instinct had been right – the tour had been worth every penny, even if I would have to spend the rest of the week living off cheap biscuits and raw carrotsticks. I walked up the road to catch a sight of the Westmann Islands in the distance. The state of being lovestruck was making me daydream and I didn’t even notice at first when a car pulled over to ask if I was wanting a lift somewhere. The islands lay basking in a golden haze of sun. I would head there the next day, recharged by this new spark that had given me a greater zest for the country and what it had to offer.

 

 

Iceland’s Golden Circle: First Impressions vs Land Expressions

I’d been curious about Iceland for a while before I visited it in August 2013, simply because I knew so little about it. It seemed like such a quiet country with its remote location and modest geopolitical influence, yet so loud too with its unique ecological landscape capable of causing so much trouble –  a reserved teenager constantly bubbling up with hormones of fire and ice that could be released at the most unexpected moment. After booking a cheap flight in June with no specific plans apart from to see a whale and climb a volcano, I received further inspiration after glancing over some of my late paternal Grandfather’s memoirs from WW2. Keflavík served as an air base for the Royal Air Force, and on a break from service, Grandpa Jack had gone on a road trip with two friends around the south. A simple sketch showed the places he’d visited, and I made it my aim to retrace his footsteps. But I chose not to read his descriptions too much, wanting to go there with a fresh opinion. As a result, I had no idea what to expect from Iceland. People who had been before would tell me about the lack of things: the lack of people; the lack of industry; the lack of activity outside Reykjavík, leaving me wondering what exactly there was there.

The first week of my two-week trip would be spent touring around the south of the island. Despite only being set to last a week, this part of the trip took a lot of organising. There are no railways in Iceland, so people get around by bus, car or sometimes plane. Reykjavík Excursions is the country’s most popular tour operator, offering both transport services and guided tours.  Their bus passports are designed for independent travellers who want to see many places rather than stay in one area. But the strict bus schedule made it hard to co-ordinate some of my plans, meaning on some occasions that I might miss a bus connection by 10 minutes. I momentarily considered renting a car, before deciding this would be too expensive and more stressful than fun. Car-pooling websites are great but in my case I had no luck finding anyone heading my way at the same time. These transport issues, combined with accommodation options, made things pretty complex.  In the summer months hostels get full very quickly, leaving only expensive hotels or campsites as an option. I didn’t intend to lug a tent around with me for two weeks, but some places I really wanted to visit either didn’t have hostels in the vicinity, or they were full. Finding couchsurfing hosts outside Reykjavik is a laughable concept, and consequently I had to sacrifice some destinations from my itinerary. One of these was Skaftafell National Park.

All these peer reviews and practical complexities led to me feeling unsure of what to expect from the trip. But I wasn’t just unsure of how good it would be; I also wasn’t sure how I’d get on alone. Watching documentaries and reading about Iceland highlighted how the sudden change in weather and unpredictable terrain in isolated landscapes could catch hikers off guard. ‘What if that happened to me?’ I kept thinking anxiously. I knew I had to be realistic about what I could do alone, unable to rely on the prospect of meeting a travel companion whilst there. As I packed my backpack I felt more than I ever had before that actually, my opportunities were going to be limited because of travelling alone.

***

On August 15th my plane was received reluctantly by a bed of grey clouds, and my faint sense of pessimism was reinforced.  Raincoats rustled as tourists boarded a bus that would take us to Reykjavík. I looked out of the window, the rivers of raindrops that flowed down the glass imitating my declining mood. I’d hoped to be instantly revitalised by a land of youthful vibrancy. Instead the landscape looked so barren and bleak – almost medieval, as if it was still 871 and the Norwegians were arriving. There seemed to be no cultivation whatsoever, the only signs of human intervention being the stone piles that popped up every now and then. ‘There really is nothing going on here,’ I thought to myself, thinking back to what I’d heard my peers say.

My first night would be spent in Reykjavík, and the bus driver directed me to my hostel with perfect English.
“Halló! Ég er frá Englandsi,” I said confidently to the lady on reception. She looked at me blankly so I repeated myself more slowly, but she still looked confused.
“Oh! Englandi” she suddenly exclaimed with a laugh. “Are you learning Icelandic?”
‘I guess not,’ I thought as I laughed with her awkwardly.

The lady let me leave my backpack in reception, and I put on my walking boots and set off to the bus terminal, the rain still pouring. The streets were so quiet, the only real sounds being the occasional splursh of a car’s wheels driving through a puddle. There were hardly any people around, and as I walked to the bus terminal I felt like a kid who’d turned up at a birthday party only to find I’d got the time wrong and it had already finished.

I’d booked an afternoon tour of the Golden Circle for my first day, but it looked like there was no chance of gold appearing in the sky anytime soon. A softly-spoken man in his sixties was our tour guide. His calming voice made me suddenly feel tired, a lack of sleep at the airport from the night before catching up with me. When I woke we were in Haukadulur, a valley home to many hot springs. We were left to explore the area on our own, and I got off the bus groggily only to be startled into life by the strong smell of sulphur from the geysers. Bubbling bogs of hot water hissed at me deviously, daring me to come closer. I managed to avoid falling in their trap and walked towards the famous ‘Strokkur’, which spurts out a huge column of water every 5-7 minutes, teasing tourists who wait with cameras in hand to capture its moment of projection. After two sightings my attention was diverted towards people walking up a stony path to a lookout point, and I followed them tentatively over the slippery mud, picturing myself falling over without a change of clothes. Rainclouds stopped me seeing anything special and I continued to feel quite underwhelmed by the overall landscape as I walked back down to the bus, completely drenched and hoping the driver wouldn’t notice my dirty boots too much.

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Bare fields and the rocky slopes of hills continued to dominate the scenery as we drove onto our next stop. I was starting to feel bored, wondering if this was the only sight I’d see for two weeks. Then we arrived at Gulfoss and my mood lifted immensely. Even if they didn’t have the sheer velocity of Niagara Falls, something about the ‘Golden Falls’ with their continuous gushing of water over a vast area was really captivating. The area was so natural and untouched, contrasting immensely to the commercial-frenzy that one is greeted with at Niagara. There the water collapses into a pool, ending so abruptly, but here the torrents continue to surge onwards as if on some eager journey; different sections of water cascade precariously onto lower levels, but all with the same purpose of mixing together again in the river. From here steam rises up through the narrow ridge like fizz from a potion – a chemical reaction of natural elements. I thought of Grandpa Jack coming here all those years ago and appreciated that the view would have probably been the same back then – an untouched phenomenon that just lets the human eye enjoy what it’s seeing: the satisfying sight of nature running its course.

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We next drove onto Pingvellir National Park, passing a large building on the way which the tour guide in his slow wise voice told us was an old housekeeping school for women, back in the days when “they learned their natural trade.” The bunch of American women sat opposite me gasped in offence, obviously not realising he was being sarcastic. The two Italian men sat behind them on the other hand looked rather approving of the idea. I soon learned that Icelanders are big fans of mythology. The tour guide gently explained how one could tell the weather would improve tomorrow by looking at the change in behaviour of the horses, who he said had a ‘sixth sense’. Icelandic horses are a symbol of pride in the country, famous for their ‘tölt’ which is said to be the most comfortable gait in the world. Groups of all different colours could be seen grazing on the grass, not enclosed by fences but just left to roam freely, completely at one with the land. Efforts to maintain their features are so tight, that once exported, a horse is not allowed to re-enter Iceland. And don’t even think about calling them ‘ponies’…

Pingvellir (pronounced ‘thing-fet-ler’) means ‘Parliament Plains’ – a reflection of the fact that the general assembly of Iceland was established here in 930 until 1798. Through soothing tones the tour guide explained that major events of history had occurred here, meaning that it’s a highly cherished area of the country. I looked out over the huge silver shield of Lake Þingvallavatn, its unperturbed surface reflecting the sun’s arrows of light through the grey clouds. Steam rose from the geysers on the mountains in the distance like smoke from the battlefield. If I closed my eyes I could easily picture such a scene from centuries ago. It’s perhaps its potential for stimulating historical imagination that led to the park being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, 60 years after the Republic of Iceland was declared here in 1944 (a year after my grandfather was in Iceland).

The Eurasian-North American tectonic plates move past each other in South Iceland, with it being estimated that the plate boundaries move apart from one another by 2cm each year. The last earthquake to be caused by such movements was in 2000. At Pingvellir, the two plates split, caused by a burst of pressure that had accumulated over a long time.  The end result is a substantial rift between two large segments of rocky land. I walked through the gap trying to get my head around the concept of walking unassumingly on top of so much underworld activity. Who knew what was going on underneath my feet? I was becoming more and more mesmerised by the paradoxical landscape. There was something so ancient about it, yet so youthful at the same time; an old man with the heart of an 18 year old, or a child wearing the clothes of an 80 year old – I couldn’t decide which way round it was. It was a land constantly undergoing explosions of activity underneath a serene and humble surface; a land storing its poisonous chemicals in a secret cellar, but unable to control their sudden leakage.

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As the bus took us back to Reykjavík, I developed my own meaning behind the tour name of ‘Golden Circle’. Gold can lie undiscovered for years, only to be found and cause hysteria, just like a geyser or earthquake can erupt unexpectedly, causing gasps of surprise. Gold is a pure element found in the earth, and there was something very pure in the sights I saw that day. They were like young princesses who forever maintained their chastity, refusing to be corrupted by the demands of the foreign prince greedy for financial and territorial conquest.

I realised that it’s this fantastical element of Iceland that is making it more and more of a popular destination for tourists. People come here to remind themselves of what nature really is, and in the process are transported back to a time when the environment is left to enthral its audience on its own, without being spoiled by commercial additives. The ‘laissez-faire’ approach adopted by the country’s tourism industry means that the unique value of the subtle landscape may be under-appreciated by some visitors who don’t take the time to really think about what they’re seeing and what it represents. It was such a fresh change to have a day tour that didn’t involve an eccentric guide emphasising through sensationalist language why everyone should be completely astounded by what they were seeing and take lots of photos, before asking for a tip in return for the ‘service’. Instead it was up to the tourists to learn these things by looking at and listening to the land themselves, as it should be.

When my grandfather was in Iceland, there would have been no opportunities for ‘guided tours’ like today. The thought of him discovering these places (perhaps unintentionally) with his friends in his Jeep and being stood in the same place as me made me smile. I wondered whether he too had started with a pessimistic outlook, only to gain greater curiosity and appreciation throughout the duration of the day. I felt bad for feeling so discouraging at the beginning, but I can imagine it’s an emotion that many people experience on first visiting the modest state of Iceland. Just like it takes time to get to really know someone, it takes time to absorb the significance of some things you see here.

I ended the tour feeling not completely blown away by what I had seen, but certainly a lot more intrigued about the country. I was still unsure of how the rest of my trip would go – (would the sun ever shine?!) – but in the space of 10 hours I’d been reminded that sometimes, less really is more. It was the perfect lesson in how unjustified it can prove to be to make first impressions before giving the relevant object a chance to express itself. In my case, the old warrior had risen from his chamber below the ground and shown me that rather than lying dormant as I first believed, he still possessed the same fresh and unpredictable powers of a young soldier. I went to bed determined to be more positive about the rest of my trip, blissfully unaware of just how much better it was going to become.

Three Days in the Canadian Rocky Mountains

I spent three days exploring Alberta’s Rocky Mountains back in August 2011.  Three days is of course inadequate for covering the whole of this vast area, but it’s enough time to get caught in its majestic spell. Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise are ideal stops for acquiring a taste of the Canadian Rockies.

Day 1

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Banff National Park is the third oldest of its kind in the world, having been established in 1885. The town itself is also the most populous in the region, and I was glad that my hostel was located away from Banff Avenue with its bustling tourists. Banff Y Mountain Lodge is situated right next to the Bow River, which is lovely to walk along during sunrise or sunset.

A bus from the town will take you up the base of Sulphur Mountain, and if you don’t have time or desire to hike your way up, it cost just under $35 (at the time of writing) for an adult ticket to take the 10-minute ride on the Gondola. This might seem pricey but the views are definitely worth it. Imagine being surrounded on all sides by nothing but jagged mountains studded with fir trees, as you look down like a royal on your kingdom below. I could have happily stayed up there all day. The gondolas run from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. in summer so technically, you could.

Views from Sulphur Mountain, Banff

Banff’s Central Park was heaving with midday activity. Lying down basking in the sun, head resting on my backpack, I was reminded of childhood camping trips as mothers dealt out food to their excited kids on picnic tables. It was such a pretty area, but I couldn’t help but wish there were fewer people around. There was something very commercial and glamorous about Banff Town, and if anything I felt slightly left out in my untidy outdoor clothes. I could see hardly anyone else with a backpack, and anyone who did have one was likely to be kitted out in fancy clothes that screamed ‘all gear no idea’. But maybe that was just because the more experienced travellers were out hiking on a mountain somewhere.

I’d heard that Jasper, also a World Heritage Site, was quieter than Banff and contained more wildlife, so had high hopes as I boarded my Brewster bus in the early afternoon. At one point in our journey the bus slowed to a halt. I looked towards the front, wondering if we’d broken down and starting to wish I’d stocked up on more food at the supermarket in case. But no, the bus driver had simply spotted a black bear on the side of the road. I scrambled out of my seat to look through the window on the other side and just caught a view of its large rear as it sneaked behind a bush. A few people on the bus laughed at those tourists who’d got out their cameras excitedly. This was obviously a sight they were used to.

Continuous mountains towering like statues above sparkling-blue lakes dominated the scenery as we carried on along the Icefields Parkway. The air conditioning on the bus stopped working and I grew more impatient, itching to be on my feet again. I instantly noticed a difference upon getting off the bus in Jasper Town. It felt more homely and natural here. I’d booked two nights at the HI-Jasper, which was located 7km southwest of the town. The staff at the tourist information centre will happily book a taxi for you, as buses run less frequently in the evening. A guy in his twenties with long hair picked me up. He must have been drinking coffee all day because he was full of energy, constantly making jokey observations about the tourists as he nodded his head in time to ‘Give it Away’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers whilst the taxi climbed the steep hill up to the hostel.

I walked up some steps into a rustic building, where Fleetwood Mac was playing in the reception. My dorm contained 28 bunk beds and I was reminded of those hospital wards you see on films about World War Two. A tiny Vietnamese girl was in the bed above me. I introduced myself and asked if she wanted to go for a wander outside with me – a decision I soon regretted as I found myself being attacked by midges. Her name was Wen and she was painfully shy and with limited English. If I’d been slightly anxious about travelling alone in a country that spoke my first language, I couldn’t imagine how apprehensive this girl was.

Day 2

I rose early and packed a small bag, excited for my busy day ahead. Jasper Tramway was about 20 minute’s walk up the road from the hostel. Unlike the Banff Gondola, larger carriages carried groups of us up to Whistlers Mountain, which stands at 2464m high. Puffy clouds surrounded us and the cold air hit me immediately as I stepped out of the tram. As I stood waiting for gaps in the clouds to appear and reveal the view below, I was joined by a group of Chinese tourists who insisted that I be in a photo with them.  After my two minutes of feeling like a celebrity I proceeded with the 1.5km hike up to the summit of the mountain. As I climbed higher over the loose rocky terrain, the air gained a greater sting in its bite and I began to regret wearing a playsuit that showed my bare legs.

Teeth-chattering views in the Canadian Rockies

The views were even more incredible that those on Sulphur Mountain. I was stood level with the mountains, their sharp snow-capped peaks poking up for miles in front of me, with wispy clouds floating lazily between them. I stood gazing in mesmerisation, until a man approached and asked dubiously “Aren’t you cold?” Feeling like I’d been woken from a dream, I turned to him and insisted I was fine. “I’m from Yorkshire,” I joked. He didn’t look convinced. I didn’t want to leave but ten minutes later the chattering of my teeth told me it was probably a good idea.

There was a souvenir shop at the bottom of the tramway and I appreciated the fact that, for once, I could find my name on the gifts! A shuttle bus ran down to Jasper town, from where I would begin my afternoon tour with Sundog Tours. There were only seven of us and I was the youngest and only sole traveller, but because it was a small group I didn’t feel swallowed up. If anything, I felt like everyone was looking out for me, even though I didn’t crave it, and it was quite touching. Our first stop was Maligne Canyon with its steep gorges and gushing falls. Then we were driven onto Maligne Lake, slowing every now and then to make way for a group of care-free mountain sheep taking over the road.

Our group joined a few others as two young guys with ear plugs took us out on a boat trip to Spirit Island, where the magic really began.  The name ‘Maligne’ (or ‘malignant’ in English) at first seemed unsuitable for an area of such beauty, but I soon started to understand its relevance. The views were spellbinding – like something from a fantasy film. Huge glacier mountains looked down on the shimmering water, the colour of which was a turquoise-blue unlike anything I’d ever seen before, surrounded by forests on either side. It was an infectious sight, and one could almost believe that there was poison in the lake to make it such an incredibly rich and unique colour. The lake was placid and so inviting, but who knew what secrets were hidden underneath.

Majestic views of Maligne Lake from Spirit Island will put a spell on you

When the boat got back to shore we went for a hot drink in the cafe. A Belgian couple sat with me and asked where I was from. Upon learning that I was English the woman sat up with interest and said “Oh! So, do you know how Amy Winehouse died?” I couldn’t help but feel amused. Of all the questions she could have asked me, this was the first one! The man remarked how unusual it was to see people my age on their own here, and that made me feel quite special. As the bus took us back through the Maligne Valley and passed Medicine Lake with its sinister grey water, I realised that I was living in dreamland, and pinched myself when I thought back to the stunning places I’d been that day. My thoughts were interrupted by the bus stopping again, this time because the driver had spotted an elk in the bushes. I could just make out its huge horns.

In the hostel that evening I met a girl from South Korea, an American woman and an Australian girl who was taking the same tour as me the next day. Four people from different areas of the world chatting together – that was a new and exciting experience for me during my first solo travel adventure.

Day 3

On this morning I got kitted out well and truly professionally: big rugby shirt, jeans tucked into warm socks and trainers. My friends back home would later tease me for how funny I looked. The first stop on today’s tour was Athabasca Falls, with more gorges of sheer velocity. Next we stopped at Columbia Icefield, halfway between Jasper Town and Lake Louise and evidently the largest icefield in the Rockies. A special coach with huge tyres driven by a tall hunky man took us down slowly over the icefield and onto Athabasca Glacier, where we were allowed to get off and walk around. The tour guide used a metal pole to show us how deep the ice went. Luckily there were no crevices nearby for us to fall into.

The tour continued on until we stopped again at another viewing point. I wasn’t sure what we were looking for and followed the others along a path curiously, only to gasp at the view that appeared below. Peyto Lake was even bluer than Maligne Lake and didn’t look real. There were clouds in the sky but they failed to dim the brightness of the water that shone like a diamond, with forests surrounding the lake like a guard protecting a rare jewel. Looking at my photos was like looking at an oil painting. If you go to the Rockies, this is a must-see.

The sneaky surprise of Peyto Lake will make your jaw drop open

Peyto Lake

Finally the tour brought us to the famous Lake Louise. It was more enclosed by mountains than Maligne Lake, and dotted with kayaks. I wanted to jump in and join them. As expected the place was brimming with tourists, many of whom wandered over from the fancy Fairmont Chateau nearby. I resented how busy it was, but at the end of the day, you could understand why.

My hostel was situated just north of the quaint village. I went for a wonder round and sat by a river, glad to see less people and hear nothing but bird song and the gentle lapping of the water on the rocks. There was something charming about this little place, and it felt fitting that my last night in the Rockies would be here.

Even though I’d managed to pack a lot into my three days here, it felt way too short. There was so much more to see, and just that brief taste I’d got had made me hungry for more. The next morning I boarded a bus that would take me on into British Columbia. As we wound our way past the mountains with Neil Young entering my head, I felt rejuvenated. My adventurous mindset had been unleashed. I can’t wait to come back and see even more of this amazing part of the world.