Once Upon A Time…In New Zealand

Routeburn Track

Routeburn Track

……I spent a month or so packing kiwi fruit and another month hiking a few of New Zealand’s famously fabulous trails. I had been travelling for the majority of the time by myself in Australia but rejoined my then boyfriend briefly in NZ.

It’s over twenty years ago now (which explains the quality of the photos a bit) that I was in this slender country, long before I moved to Canada. Once here in British Columbia I felt that I recognized aspects of New Zealand in the landscape and coastline of my new home – and of my old home. Something of the coastline and mountain ranges were echoed in BC while the rolling green hills and ubiquitous sheep reminded me a little of England.

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I was rubbish (apparently) at picking out the not-quite-good-enough kiwi fruit from the production line as we packed them in boxes. What I lacked in discernment I made up for in enthusiasm and speed. Instead of being fired I was relegated to marking up the boxes for shipment. I didn’t mind, I was working in the same warehouse as my boyfriend, we were able to pay the rent and buy food and when a month or so was up we left to go hiking on the first multi-day trips I’d ever undertaken.

Those strenuous outings stood me in good stead for living in Canada and all the cycling, snowshoeing and hiking I have done and do here – not just in laying the groundwork for a good fitness base, but also for what not to do. Like not having enough food. To reduce the weight of our gear (sometimes we tented it, if there was room we stayed in one of the trail huts with their excellent wood stoves) we took red lentils, dark rye bread and biscuits. We took or filtered water as we went. That was it. We lost a lot of weight, just not in the right way. And I can’t believe now we didn’t have coffee.

Abel Tasman Track

Part of the route along the Abel Tasman Track

Or we failed to pay enough attention to the weather. We hiked the Routeburn and Greenstone Tracks so late in the season that we found ourselves wading through rain-swollen streams and rivers as we traversed a valley floor; water cascaded down the mountainsides. Our boots remained sodden for almost the entire time. As we progressed along our route we noticed fewer and fewer hikers until we were completely alone, everyone else had either turned back or finished their hike already. And the night before we set off on what I think was the Anatoki/Waingaro Ciruit I was so cold thanks to an inadequate sleeping mat that I lay awake shivering uncontrollably until we got up the next morning. Hiking tired isn’t great, I stumbled and sprained my ankle on the first day. Soldiering on we made it to a hut set cosily in a meadow between treed hillsides. It was already inhabited by two fathers and their young sons (we weren’t the only late season hikers) and who thankfully had a roaring fire going. When we woke to a blanketing of snow we decided enough was enough and packed up for the return journey. I still remember looking back as we left the clearing and seeing four faces peering out at us through the window.

Occasionally we badly misjudged our distances. To the point that one long, long day – having decided we could fit two stages of hiking in one – we ended up stumbling down a rocky trail, in the dark (I don’t remember even having a head-lamp) led on by lights from a hut and falling, exhausted, through the door.

We were idiots. But it was a fabulous time, our naivety and ignorance aside. New Zealand is one of the best places, I still think, to hike. The routes are well maintained, the huts handily placed along the way in scenic spots – I recall one right next to a roaring river, the swing bridge conveniently located just moments away – the forests, mountains and ocean outstandingly beautiful. The convivial atmosphere on the trails was lovely and we were met with great kindness by New Zealanders who never failed to help out when they could. The island boasts remarkable birdlife, native fish, lizards and frogs but no bears or mountain lions, poisonous reptiles or vicious insects to think about when you hike.

I think it might be time for a return visit.

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Cape Foulwind, west coast South Island

 

Quadra Island

In early September we drove north on Vancouver Island as far as Campbell River and from there it was a ten minute ferry ride across to Quadra, one of the so-called Discovery Islands that resides along the Inside Passage seaway between Vancouver Island and the mainland and which sits at the edge of the Great Bear Rainforest.

Despite the often unreliable weather reports in this part of the world we’d planned a break for a couple of days, naively trusting the forecast of ‘mostly sun’. Although the latter did pop out now and then from behind banks of clouds as if to say ‘boo!’, surprising us with its warmth and brightness, it was more often a metallic grey sky that accompanied us on our walks during the time we spent away. That grey, and the rain, has its own beauty though.

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Steel-grey skies

 

The island has a lovely rural feel to it. As we travelled around on the quiet, leaf-strewn roads we spotted small farms, goats and sheep wandering in fields and signs advertising bags of apples. A woman we met walking her dog mentioned she had an overwhelming amount of berries she’d had to freeze following this year’s bumper crop. We also found Quadra unexpectedly mountainous (at least on the north end) with a surprisingly busy forestry industry. A friend told me he remembers being flown in with a group of workers by helicopter to do some tree planting over thirty years ago. For the last twenty years there’s been an inspiring and protracted push to protect the environment and the effort seems to have paid off. The island also has a distinct and prosperous indigenous presence. The We Wai Kai band of the Laichwiltach people (part of the Kwa’ Kwa’ Ka’ Wa’Kw First Nation) largely reside in Cape Mudge, one of three main villages on the island.

We drove through verdant forest thick with trees, moss and ferns, until the road we were on ran out. After parking we walked to the waters edge, chatting with another couple we bumped into who were hoping to spot whales (they never appeared), and gazed across the rain-stippled water at a homestead, it’s back protected by a wall of trees.

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There’s a great hike (one of many on the island) up a lovely area called Chinese Mountains. A few steps off the road into the forest and after that we didn’t meet a soul for the next couple of hours. It was mulchy and damp on the trail, banana slugs strewn around as if they’d been thrown there. We tried to avoid victimizing them with an unthinkable squelching as we picked our way around them, attempting to avoid slipping on a trail that was largely made up of wet, sharp rocks. It was only lunchtime and already the mossy greenness seemed to be getting darker; the rain was moving in but we wanted to get to the top for a view of the Coast Mountains and Vancouver Island.

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Use all four limbs to climb up this part of the trail

Despite the fog and mist obscuring most of the vista the truncated view was worth the effort. We huddled under a tree eating a chocolate bar as the rain started to get heavier. I was antsy and wanted to retreat before it completely poured, I had visions of us barreling down on our backsides in a torrent of water. As it was we had to be careful to pick out the occasionally obscured trail as the misty dampness roiled around us, at one point backing away from a sheer drop we had somehow managed to walk ourselves out to.

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View from the top

Appropriately, now that I think about it, the north end of the island was enveloped in mist, cloud and rain the entire time. It was on the south end that we enjoyed some sun. It made an appearance when we were taking a look at Cape Mudge lighthouse, one of the few accessible by road in Canada. It’s manned too, which is rather cool (although the romantic in me was a bit disappointed to find out the lighthouse keeper – isn’t that a lovely vintage sounding phrase – doesn’t actually live there, but in a building behind the lighthouse). The latter sits on the edge of a sandy beach where we found a comfortable log to lean against and fell asleep for a few minutes in the sudden warmth. Our hopeful whale watching friends had mentioned that they’d heard the whoosh of a blowhole from a whale whilst they had been here. We of course heard seagulls, the plop of waves….. and the distant throb from tugboat engines.

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Cape Mudge lighthouse

Actually it felt as if we were seeing the world in a micro rather than a macro way for our entire stay. On the way back from a lodge after dinner we spotted several deer, of mostly bambi size, and even a tiny frog that leaped heroically away from the glare of the car headlights (we drove very slowly) and at the small but fascinating salmon hatchery we spotted an undulating group of tiny salmon hatchlings sheltering at the shallow end of their nursery pond. Whether it’s small or large wildlife, whether it rains or shines, it really doesn’t matter.

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Looking out from Rebecca Spit, east side of Quadra Island.

Two Cycle Routes in The Okanagan

For four days in June we’d made an escape to one of our favourite campgrounds on the far side of Skaha Lake, across from Penticton in the Okanagan.

sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ  Provincial Park, formerly Okanagan Falls in the town of the same name, is now managed and run by the Osoyoos Indian Band. The name means ‘little falls’, and although the falls themselves for which the park is named no longer exist – in the 1950’s they were blasted to make way for a flood control dam – at night we can hear the rushing water of the Okanagan River by the side of the campground. It’s challenging to describe the allure of this spot, jammed as it is between the river and a road just off the highway. It’s small, it has very limited amenities (certainly no showers), there’s little to no privacy for each site. But its compact size is part of the charm; tucked around the corner of the mountainside as it is, the highway noise is eliminated.  The riparian vegetation encourages birds and bats. As so often happens in campgrounds, despite the open tent sites, there’s an unspoken agreement to  preserve the illusion of privacy. A friendly nod as you walk past sites and then eyes are politely averted.

The weather was mercurial during the week we stayed. Thunder and lightning the first night accompanied by cool rain. Perhaps we hadn’t brought enough warm gear? Then the sun broke with a vengeance, the temperature shot straight up to 30c and suddenly the swim gear and sun umbrella for scrubby Skaha Beach didn’t seem to be out of the question anymore. It also meant we needed to tactically time a couple of bike rides, we both cycle better in slightly cooler temperatures.

Holidays to me don’t mean getting up at six or seven in the morning, even though I was the one harassing us to get moving this time, so thank goodness for coffee. And food, ahhh food! I do love it so (I have to segue here and mention a great little compendium of recipes created and put together in a book I bought called Bike. Camp. Cook by a couple who have bike toured a huge amount, who clearly appreciate good food and who wanted to eat well and nutritiously on their trips. I originally stumbled across their book on Kickstarter but they now feature it on their website Going Slowly. They recommend a cooking set that we purchased and it has made our lives so much easier. I’ve followed their recipes for french toast, mango/avocado salsa, baked bananas, feta cheese and zucchini fritters, all so good. I photocopied the recipes I wanted to use, a useful way to save weight).

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Mango and avocado salsa, I added tomatoes.

Fortified by caffeine and french toast we struck off for what was actually a short (one hour) ride, but a pretty one. At the far end of Okanagan Falls we turned onto McLean Creek Road, a popular local cycling circuit. It wound up a couple of steep turns then levelled out into a gently winding route past farms and well tended, prosperous looking ranches before dropping down to the east side of Skaha Lake and so back to the campground. As we started out the sun was already burning (hence the arm protectors), the sky a gorgeous blue.

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Early morning light. Photos by Scott

A day later we woke to a hot but overcast day, the sky an oppressive stony grey. Our circuit this time took us in the opposite direction for a two or three hour ride. We tackled two outrageous hair pin turns on Green Lake Road which runs beside the campground, passes a vineyard or two and turns onto White Lake Road, leading to Twin Lakes Road and thence to Highway 3A and back again. There’s a beauty to this sage-filled landscape that can’t be denied. During most of the time riding out and back to the campground we rarely saw a car, sometimes a motorbike and as there were no fondos on at that time (it’s a popular area for group rides), just a few  cyclists. Once we’d reached the highway we spotted a nearby gas station and stopped outside to drink chocolate milk and stretch. As we relaxed in the shade a red-faced dad, mum, teenage son and daughter, all impressively geared up in matching cycling gear, rolled up, ran inside and emerged with the largest ice creams I think I’ve ever seen. We exchanged ‘hellos’ and route suggestions. People are friendly here anyway, it’s part of what brings us back each year, but I’m nearly always struck by the camaraderie of the cycling world, it’s a lovely thing.

If you like cycling there’s so many more routes to ride nearby, this is just a taster of this beautiful and diverse area, and you can always stop off for a glass of wine at one of the many vineyards. We certainly did.

White Lake Road

White Lake Road

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Four Nights, Three Days and Some Cycle Touring

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Fulford Harbour

We were itching to do some cycling touring, to stretch out our legs and be entirely (or mostly, ferries notwithstanding) self-sufficient. To that end we decided to ride back to a favourite southern gulf island in BC, Salt Spring, and combine it with a visit to our friend in Victoria on Vancouver Island. It was wonderful, around 130kms of moderate riding over the course of four days ( a perfect amount in hot weather and for a more relaxed break) incorporating a gorgeous island, some farm stands to munch local fruits and veggies from, scenic roads to ride, fresh water lakes to swim in, some freezing ocean to dip in, and a leafy city to wander around near the end of the trip.

We did our special of stealth parking in the quiet back streets of Tswwassen itself and belted up the causeway (about 7kms on a bike route) to the ferry terminal and rolled onto one of the frequent ferries that makes its way across the Georgia Strait to Swartz Bay. I love being the first on and first off the ferry and the fact that you’re saving about $160 when you don’t take a car (insanity! When did it become so expensive to travel by ferry to nearby islands, and on the same note, when did BC Parks get so expensive? Salt Spring is still bearable at $20 a night for a tent site, with no showers, but most now seem to be up to $30 or more, and don’t get me started on the private campgrounds. No wonder more people want to wild camp where they can, it’s something we might have to look into. End of Rant). Once at Swartz, we rolled our bikes over to the connecting ferry for Salt Spring, which deposits you roughly twenty-five minutes later at Fulford Harbour on the island. In the summer you can take a direct ferry to Salt Spring or a meandering one which stops in at Galiano, Mayne and Pender Islands en route and takes about 3 hours. Both latter choices dock at Long Harbour, the main ferry terminal at the other end of the island to Fulford. It takes us about two hours to ride from Long Harbour to reach the campground we stay at on the island. If you want a longer ride it’s a great route.

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local apples

If you ever do this trip I recommend that you immediately head to the Salt Spring Mercantile Store in Fulford village which is about a minutes walk from the harbour entrance (Fulford is tiny) and pick up several of the house-made Giant Cookies. They. Are. Amazing. We bought nine of them over three days. A bit cheekily I asked if the recipe might be available. It’s not, naturally, but they were so reasonably priced I would’ve happily bought dozens more. At the Mercantile, one of those lovely and increasingly rare local grocery stores that stocks a bit of everything, you can buy the basics like milk and bread, coffee and more exotic fare like in-house spanakopitas, gluten-free quiches and, of course, cookies.

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Ruckle Park farm

It’s then about a 9 or 10km ride to Ruckle Provincial Park. It doesn’t sound much, and it isn’t but……there is no straight bit of road. It’s all hills and corners, which is why it’s so special really. The first hill out of Fulford is a bit brutal, there’s no getting around it. We felt every pedal turn as we pushed up the first steep corner out of the village with our panniers laden with tent, sleeping bag, food, tent pads etc. (Why is it that when you pack you need as much for three or four days as you do for ten or fourteen? It’s a mystery I’ve never been able to solve. It’s probably because we take a lot of food.) A car passed me as I toiled up the steep corner and a woman yelled out the car ‘you got it!’. I nearly rode into the ditch in surprise but it made me laugh. After that it’s rolling hill after rolling hill as you pass farms stands, a couple of lakes, pastures and orchards. It’s pretty idyllic, as is Ruckle Park. The park was first homesteaded in 1872 by Irish immigrant Henry Ruckle and his descendants have farmed the property since. The Ruckle family donated their land to BC Parks in 1972 but still operate an ‘active farm’ area of the park. Sheep wander around spacious fields whilst turkeys stalk freely across the road you ride in on.

I love the campground, you’ll have to forgive me for waxing poetic about it once again in this post. Some tent sites are tucked away in the woods, others occupy spots close to the shore, all have plenty of space. It was as peaceful as ever. I caught the tail end of the Perseid meteor shower one evening as several fireballs streaked through the sky, one leaving a distinct vapour trail. Another night two owls flew across the campground, landed in a nearby tree and hooted away for a while before taking off again. I realized it’s been years since I’ve heard owls. Deer, rabbits, raccoons (pack away your food!) and apparently mink (I’ve yet to see one) abound. We read books, wandered around the shoreline and rode back along the road to one of the lakes for a swim in significantly warmer water than the ocean.

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evening in the campground

Considerably lighter after we’d eaten most of our food, we headed back to the ferry for the Victoria leg of the trip. Sixty or so kilometers round trip on the Lochside Trail after a convivial evening in the city spent wandering around tree-lined streets whilst we talked and caught up on life with our friend. Not a bad way to spend three days.

 

Thoughts From a Small Island

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Our trusty steeds and tent

Slowly I came to in the tent, the nagging sense of ‘damn, I need to pee’ nudging me awake. I lay still as my senses attuned to the enveloping silence of the campground, the darkness and the gentle breathing (with the odd snuffling snore) of Scott beside me. After a half-hearted attempt to try to get back to sleep to avoid the hassle of backing out of the tent like an uncoordinated small animal emerging from its den, I found myself shuffling around in the dark on damp grass as I tried to quietly find a spot to make use of without disturbing anyone, overcome by the physical need to respond to the call of nature.

So here I was, back in a campground again. A couple of days earlier I’d been burrowing into our messy cupboard digging out shorts, t-shirts, fleece leggings, waterproofs – who knew what the weather would be like with our luck lately – and I’d wondered why we were headed out for another camping trip, the third in the space of five weeks of four or five days each. Our first four days had been characterized by torrential rain and a deepening lake forming each night on top of our tarp, and the second by thunder and lightning crashing overhead the first night as I’d wrangled vegetables into a frying pan over our camp stove.

Now, a couple of hours drive and three ferry rides later accompanied by sporadic rain, we were on Hornby Island, a Northern Gulf Island sitting in the Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Hornby, famous for several soft sand beaches that slope gently and shallowly enough that the sun (if it’s around) makes the water the warmest in the area, enjoys the moniker of ‘Little Hawaii’. The ocean in its salty freshness was some of the clearest I’d seen in this region although I’m not sure the tropical waters of Hawaii are the most apt comparison considering the invigorating temperature of the sea here, but then I haven’t been to Hawaii yet so, hey, it might be so. Driving to the end, literally, of the one main road on the island we’d pitched tent in a peaceful campground, characterized by family groups and one shower shared amongst twenty or so sites. Any food scraps we had we were asked to throw to the resident chickens who scratched around in a coop and came running up to the fence when someone walked by, excited at the prospect of some leftovers.

For the next four days we pursued the sun as it made its sporadic appearances. The shadows from Douglas Fir with their chunkily scabrous bark, Western Red Cedar and the orange-red coastal Arbutus trees crisscrossed the not-so-gentle ups and downs of rough pavement as we explored this tiny but varied (and hilly) island on our bikes, often passing deer unconcernedly chewing roadside grass. We ditched the bikes and walked through a forested park on paths packed with fir and pine needles, suddenly opening out to high undercut bluffs made golden by grasses, a fitful and contrary wind blowing hither and thither, showering us with rain one moment and pushing clouds aside another to bake us in sudden heat. Scattered amongst the grasses and Arbutus were Garry oak trees, so gnarled and fantastical you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d spotted an elf peeking out from behind the branches.

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Golden grasses

Alternating with sandy beaches we found pancaked layers of rock where we sat patiently by intertidal pools. These oceans in miniature came alive with tiny crabs pushing aside shells and seaweed, scuttling around each other in a complex dance of deferment and domination. Parts of the seashore offered rock eroded by sea and weather, looking as smooth as cream until we brushed our hands against the stone and felt the roughness chafe our skin.

Bald eagles soared on thermals over the island, their wickedly curved beaks turned to the left then right as they scoured the area for prey. Sea lions popped their heads out of the water, checking out their surroundings, and us, from their watery home, whiskered noses lifted to the air.

We nodded at two cycle tourists we’d noticed on the ferry who arrived late the first evening at the campground and who escaped the drizzling rain to crash out in their tent. Over shared coffee the next morning we chatted with them for a couple of relaxed hours, swapping cycling stories, even revealing personal struggles and adversities that had been overcome, the state of the world and how travelling opened (hopefully) our eyes and our minds. All so nourishing, and yet, and yet…..

It was as I was inching my way back to the tent that night that I heard it, the voice in my head that said ‘look up’, a reminder from other trips where my first reaction as night set in was to crane my neck and peer at the stars. I’d omitted to check out the night sky on this particular excursion. I looked up, and it was spectacular. Pinpoints of light filled the sky and my eyes swept back and forth, to and fro, taking in the tiny fraction of the cosmos that I could see. For a while I stood outside just looking, enjoying the solitude of the moment, this experience of the night. Finally, as I chilled down, I crept into our tiny tent and still I couldn’t stop looking. I kept the fly open for a while longer, wrapping my sleeping bag around me and gazing at the sky. It was a complete moment. I’d remembered why we make this effort to get away. To experience the deep silence and darkness of the night far from city traffic and light pollution, to be lucky enough to spot wildlife in a relatively unspoiled corner of nature. To smell salty ocean air, fragrant earth and to sit on a rock or bench sipping coffee under the benign shade of a tree, looking out to sea with barely a thought in our heads.

This is why when we get home, we’ll unpack the camping gear, wash our clothes and get ready for the next trip.

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Not so Sunny Sunshine Coast.

I should have known things weren’t going to go according to plan when I glanced at the weather report the day we set off for the Sunshine Coast (ha!) and Powell River a short hop away from Vancouver. After weeks of sun and warmth, to the point that grass was already turning brown, the line on the weather graph suddenly took an unexpected plunge downward about a day after our departure date. I didn’t really believe it, the weather reports here are notoriously let’s say, incompatible, with what’s actually happening outside the window.

We set off in glorious sun to catch the ferry taking us from Horseshoe Bay to Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast. As we sailed across calm waters we spotted a couple of Orcas in the distance as they broke the surface of the water. It was thrilling to see them, a hint of the wildness that we live on the edge of here. A scenic drive from Gibsons on a winding road with views of islands dotted along the shoreline brought us to the next ferry at Earls Cove, ultimately depositing us at Saltery Bay with its lovely green campground and one of several thoughtfully placed benches by the water.

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Pretty much after that the rain set in. And we realized we’d forgotten toothpaste. And soap (not such a big deal), and mayo, and Braggs seasoning and the ultimate, Frank’s Red Hot Sauce (a very big deal). In deciding to car camp with the bikes on the back – in the expectation we’d park the car at various points and go off for long day rides – we’d in fact over packed. In went an umbrella for lounging on beaches (for the blinding sun and suffocating heat of course), pillows, tons of food to fuel up after all the riding we’d be doing, far too much clothing, extra pairs of boots in case we wanted to go hiking, the list was endless. By taking stuff we’d never normally think to pack, we completely blanked out on the essentials like toothpaste. Lesson learned. Keep it simple.

We barely used the bikes, except to take advantage of a lull in the weather to cycle to a grocery store halfway to Powell River for toothpaste. After two nights of rain in Saltery we drove damply into Lund, a tiny fishing village basically at the very end of Highway 101 and spent the following couple of nights getting up to drain water from a lake that was forming on the tarp over our tent. There was no point in taking a water taxi to nearby Savary Island or renting a kayak to explore Desolation Sound. All we could do was laugh at our misfortune and ineptitude, enjoy campfires and the odd break in the weather to wander around the village marina.

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and look over the water at the start of Desolation Sound.

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It was a two week holiday that turned into one as we admitted defeat and headed for home to dry out. But I’d go back in a heartbeat, to listen to the frogs at night, to the quiet, to see the richness of the forest green, the clarity of the water, the eagles circling. Only next time we’ll just take the bikes. And maybe not go in Juneuary.

 

Riding the Lochside Trail

It’s been a while since we threw on the bike panniers and took off for even a quick overnight stay anywhere without a car; the feeling of freedom to ride at the pace we want with our gear, of being under our own steam, thoroughly taking in our surroundings which the speed of a car inevitably denies you.

A friend of ours had recently moved to the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island and it seemed like a good opportunity to catch up with his new habitat and to visit another couple we knew who called Victoria home. I’d heard that you could ride into town from the ferry terminal and it turned out to be a wonderful route through some picturesque countryside, only taking a couple of hours at a leisurely pace. It’s lovely. An often tree-lined route that takes you away from the highway past fields, small farms, through quiet residential areas and at times close to the shoreline.

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Schwartz Bay ferry terminal

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Picking up the trail

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We shared the path with other cyclists, walkers, horses and at one point a goat called Syrup, trotting after her horse pals and riders. Small farms peppered one section as we passed dozing pigs and chickens scratching in the dirt…..

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The trail is roughly 30km from the ferry terminal to Victoria. It does cross over roads and is often multi-use, so we kept an eye open for traffic and farm vehicles, although cars seemed few and drivers were considerate. Lots of sections are free of vehicles and incorporate lovely wooden bridges spanning waterways.

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As we entered Victoria Lochside turns into the Galloping Goose Trail, with another 60km or so to the community of Sooke – and access to the Juan de Fuca Straight, a migratory route for gray whales. We’re saving that section for a camping trip later in the year. For now we just enjoyed exploring Victoria and catching up with friends. (Victoria used to have a bit of an, ummmm, how shall I say it, unflattering image, one that used to be summed up with the phrase ‘newly wed and nearly dead’.  It’s no secret though that for a while now Victoria  has been growing in popularity as a vibrant area with more affordable housing than on the mainland, hip cafes and restaurants and cool new condos and town homes around its harbour.)

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On the way back to the ferry

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Leaving Schwartz Bay, for now……

 

 

A Little Italian Village in Wales

Yesterday was the beginning of spring, yay! The chickadees are chirping, the cherry blossom is already starting to fall – largely because of a torrential downpour of rain last night that sounded like it was coming through the roof – and I’m sitting here coughing away as I nurse a cold/flu. Scott is home iterating some sort of complicated lighting system with tacs and bits of Harvest Crunch cereal box (living with an industrial designer is always an education) so I thought I would do something passively constructive and take a trip back in time to five or so years ago when I visited Portmeirion village with my family. It is the most outrageously pretty and unexpected spot you’ll find in Gwynedd, North Wales, on the estuary of the River Dwyryd. I didn’t take a lot of photos then, too busy walking and enjoying the misty, soft air, but there’s enough hopefully to get the idea.

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Portmeirion is a bit mad really but with a supremely sane reason for its existence. It’s an Italian style village built by the architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975. Williams-Ellis was inspired by the Mediterranean and maintained that buildings should enhance rather than detract from the surrounding environment; he  wanted something more romantic and appealing to the senses than the usual mechanistic mode of construction. Fake facades to buildings, carefully painted windows that don’t open, a ‘ship’ constructed into a pathway so you can walk on and off the ‘deck’, statues, fountains, flowers, bright colours and acres of wooded walks that lead to the estuary.

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Hotel Portmeirion

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Oh, those walks! The smell of mulchy leaves underfoot, the floweryness of the flowers we stumbled upon, the mossy greenness of the trees. It’s all a bit Gerard Manley Hopkins, or perhaps more Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: ‘last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again….’ without the drama and mystery, although…….the hotel did tragically burn down in the 80’s and have to be completely rebuilt (an accident rather than a mad housekeeper destroying a family mansion). Back to the walks though…..one trail runs through a ‘haunted’ area, rhododendrons run amok in wild garden settings and create arbours of flowers to walk under, other paths twist and turn, double back and generally try to confuse the heck out of you. I always loved trying to find the way back to a particular spot; sometimes it was a Japanese garden or  movingly a graveyard for dogs where pet owners had written tear-inducing tributes to their companions who used to bound happily through the trees.

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Mossy trees

At almost every turn there is the unexpected, the cheeky and the fantastical, all  created with beauty foremost in mind. What results is a lyrical, magical and imaginative environment. It obviously nurtured the imagination of others too: Noël Coward wrote Blithe Spirit whilst staying in the village, the cult 60’s show The Prisoner was shot there, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright visited as did George Bernard Shaw, Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. I imagine they too took long walks on the sand revealed at low tide…

The estuary

The estuary

Truth be to told I’ve been there a few times with family during my childhood. We all loved it, including my grandfather, not a fan of the fantastical. A couple of generations of our pet dogs have been too. You can rent one of several self-catering cottages for a more budget friendly and independent trip (the way we always did it) or stay in the subtle luxury of the Hotel Portmeirion. We would treat ourselves occasionally to a coffee in front of the lobby fireplace or an evening meal in the dining room overlooking the estuary……a little of Italy in the wilds of Wales.

hotel portmeirion

 

Lavender Revisited

In my previous post The Sweet Smell Of Lavender I mentioned I was in the midst of writing an article about Provençal lavender for the British Columbia Association of Practicing Aromatherapists (BCAPA). The article will be published in the spring newsletter but as the latter isn’t available to the general public it’s been agreed that I publish it on my blog. Hope you enjoy it and if anyone has any comments, corrections or observations to add, it’d be great to hear from you.

Cycling the Fragrant Road: Perfumed Provence Under Threat

Lavender is the soul of Provence

So said Jean Giono (1895-1970), a beloved French author who lived and wrote in Provence and whose love of the natural world, reflected in his mini novel The Man Who Planted Trees, made him an early precursor to the modern ecological movement. René-Maurice Gattefossé (1881-1950), the so-called father of Aromatherapy and the man who coined the term itself with his seminal work Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles Hormones Végétales, held Provence and the lavender it produced close to his heart.

While undertaking a cycling tour of rural France in the summer of 2014, noting the haze of purply blue flowers that swept to the horizon, there was no doubt in my mind that the intertwined relationship of lavender and France was an indelible part of the cultural and economic landscape. But the bucolic scenes of lavender fields stretching into the distance under a blazing sun belies a furious battle on two fronts to preserve a way of life that has its roots in the Middle Ages.

rural France

Whilst aromatherapists here in Canada have felt the bite of Health regulations in recent years – with the implementation of Natural Health Product Regulations, natural product numbers and product licences – spare a thought for the embattled growers of herbs and distillers of essential oils in France for a moment. The focus of an intense regulatory spotlight is amply personified by the lavender growers of Provence as they seek to resist an attempt to have lavender oil (along with other essential oils) labelled as chemical toxins under the European Unions REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) program to be implemented by 2018. It is an unthinkable development given the long history of the herb as an alternative therapeutic addition to home and garden and a dollop of salt added to an open wound. Lavender and lavandin – the latter a massive provider of essence for the cosmetic and perfume industry – have been struggling against climate change over the last two decades. A blight has destroyed almost fifty percent of the lavender crop in recent years in the region. A mini cicada has thrived in unusually hot weather, transmitting the micro-bacteria stolbus phytoplasma, which drought-weakened plants have trouble resisting. The disease is contagious, and in the early stages the plants fail to show signs of infection. There is real concern that lavender could disappear from the landscape in twenty or thirty years time.

harvesting lavender

The regulatory struggle farmers face emerged later the same year that I had been travelling in France; news stories featured photos of signs posted in fields we either hadn’t spotted at the time, or went up after we’d left: ‘lavender is not a chemical.’* Concerns that such a designation would mislead the general public with its bold black and red ‘hazardous’ labelling are matched by the troubling fact that the cost of chemical analysis and classification would be a significant difficulty for smaller farmers and producers. Classifying a product that is dependent on the sun, soil, altitude and a myriad of other natural conditions would be challenging in itself. As such a real economic blow to the industry looms on the horizon. At present the blue-gold of Provence is worth over 100 euros a kilogram; according to the French association APAL (Association des Producteurs d’huile essentielle de Lavande AOC de Haute Provence) approximately 50,000 acres of land is cultivated for lavender, with 2000 producers and 120 distilleries. The lavender industry provides 25,000 related jobs that include a tourist industry comprising thousands of visitors to the south of France who come for the panoramic views of the lavender fields in bloom. Draconian regulations and a blight; the potential impact to the region could be incalculable.

lavender fields

Revered for its perfume and therapeutic qualities, lavender has a powerful place in history thanks to its healing and aromatic properties; it is a versatile oil that blends well with almost any other essence. Kurt Schnaubelt noted that the French lavenders are characterized by a high ester content (i), esteemed by perfumers worldwide. Therapeutically lavender has been found to have a marked sedative activity (ii), and the true or ‘fine’ lavender grown from seed, the Lavandula Angustifolia P. Miller that APAL protects so rigorously, is calming and balancing. Recommended for respiratory ailments, asthma, spasmodic cough, influenza, bronchitis, tuberculosis and pneumonia (iii), lavender is often used directly on the skin to treat anything from cuts and scrapes to insect bites and burns. This was famously demonstrated by Gattefossé after an explosion in his laboratory resulted in burns that became infected. Applying lavender oil to his burns Gattefossé was astounded at the antiseptic and healing properties of the essence.

In France the seriousness and scale of lavender essential oil production, and the use of oils in the therapeutic and perfume industries in general is tangible. In the last three years Bulgaria has overtaken France in its production of lavender oil and as the challenges besetting French lavender growers have intensified and production has exponentially decreased, Bulgaria has profited, although ultimately the EU regulations will affect Bulgaria as a member country in the same way. Yet even a Bulgarian producer acknowledges the superiority of true French lavender: ‘At the same time we can’t praise with better quality, though, as French lavender oil remains the standard.’ Only four areas of France produce the highly sought after AOC (now AOP) labelled lavender oils, the departments of Drôme, Vaucluse, Alpes de Haute Provence, and the Hautes Alpes. The AOC designation – Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – can only be used for Lavandula Angustifolia and is the standard against which lavender oil is still assessed. The fine or true oil must come from plants grown at a minimum altitude of 800 meters.The product must pass a double series of tests both analytical and olfactory and the individual batches are sampled and examined under anonymity. The standard is high, the tests for quality rigorous.

For our cycling tour of the Vaucluse – the heart of Provence – we opted to stay in the charming town of Sault, situated like so many other villages in the area on a rocky promontory on the Albion plateau. It was an ideal spot for not only the cycle friendly accommodation and scenic roads but for access to the local lavender growers and businesses that make up a large part of the economy of the region. The Albion region is the top producer of lavender, yielding 40% of the country’s production, the majority of which is dedicated to creating perfumes, supplying therapists with high quality oil and manufactures of lavender products with raw materials. A local sign describes the region a little: ‘The landscape here is structured around a large north-south depression from Aurel to Monieux between Mont Ventoux and the plateau of Albion. Villages and towns are strategically built on rocky spurs, offering them good views as well as protection. The scent of lavender, golden fields of cereal crops and flocks of sheep have been part of the lives of Sault inhabitants for several centuries’. Cutters or ‘coupeurs’ of lavender supplied the flowers to the Apothecaries of Carpentras in the 19th century and distilleries were later installed to produce the essence of lavender. Lavandula Angustifolia began to be seriously cultivated at the beginning of the 20th century at the request of the perfumers of nearby Grasse – world capital of perfume production – and by the beginning of the 21st century was established as the centre of fine lavender cultivation. In 2008 lavender growers signed a joint charter with the national Minister of Agriculture dedicated to the sustainable development of lavender, countering the trend towards mass production with its potential side effects of reduced quality and increased pollution.

The scent of lavender even relatively early in the growing season is omnipresent in the area. The day we cycled into Sault was midway into the second week of June and midway through an unexpected heatwave. By early afternoon the temperature had climbed to nearly 40c with no sign of abatement and the feeling of being utterly parched had become the overwhelming sensation. On the climb up the last of what had been many hills that day into town we were happily distracted from our aching limbs and dry throats by the smell of lavender. It was barely in bloom, really only just in the first blush of flowering, but the aroma was tangible. We found this over the entire region; combined with the heat, the quantity of the crop let alone the local shops selling soaps, oils, bouquets and other related products, the fragrant air was imbued with lavender. In the town centre we found delicious lavender ice cream (made using the flowers) at a local crêperie that we fell on with the desperation that only the overheated can appreciate; the weekly market sold bulk lavender and we were presented with a bar of lavender soap by our hotel patrons on our departure.We reciprocated with a local lavender infused honey found at a farm stand by the side of the road the day we rode back from a monumental climb up nearby Mont Ventoux.

lavender ice cream

Leaning over one of the walls overlooking the valley below Sault, it becomes quickly apparent the entire area is filled with lavender fields, interspersed with pockets of spelt, photogenically arranged in opposing directions and angles. The more popular routes to Mont Ventoux and into the surrounding countryside were well marked with signs for following a lavender trail. We were lucky one day to choose a quieter road in the quest for a few hours of relaxed riding with a good meal at the midpoint. We circled around the valley and back up into the hills to a high point over the plateau to earn our delicious ‘cyclists lunch’ (meaning substantial and reasonable) at a local restaurant. A wonderfully scenic route past fields on tree shaded roads led us to stumble across a gem of a local lavender farm. In the village of Ferrassières in the adjoining Drôme department we met a farmer called Natalie who was putting together bunches of lavender flowers to sell at local markets. Sacks of lavender flowers were stacked against the walls of her shed, and from her shop I bought a bottle of oil that had been distilled from the previous years crop. Answering the question I’d posed in broken French, she nodded that ‘oui’ the oil was the fine lavender, or true lavender found at higher altitudes in Provence, the angustifolia family that is considered the ‘nobler’ plant. On arriving back in Canada I opened up the coveted bottle of lavender oil and it smelt wonderful; subtle and rich, not overpowering, fully meeting the high expectations I had for a true French lavender.

As our holiday in France was to end with a couple of days in Paris, it made sense to visit the Fragonard Museum – the Fragonard perfumery is one of the oldest perfumeries in Grasse – to sample some of the end results of the work in Provence, and to place in historical context the growers and producers of plants and their essences in the region. The museum is small, private and no cameras are allowed inside, but it gives a fascinating insight into the story of perfumery. Numbered vials of solid perfumes tempt you to test your smell perception to detect more unusual scents: strawberries, pineapple, sandalwood or perhaps sweet pea. Lavender, rose, jasmine, orange blossom and mimosa are just a few of the flowers supplied by Grasse and its surrounding areas for perfume making, the art of cultivation culminating in the exquisite art of perfumery.

Fragonard museum

There is perhaps some hope on the horizon for the lavender producers of Provence. A collaborative three-pronged effort is underway between the local growers cooperative France Lavande, a French fragrant plants research organization (CRIEPPAM) and Givaudan, a major company in the fragrance and flavour industry. Givaudan is financing the supply of healthy lavender plants from CRIEPPAM to the cooperative members in the hope that the decimation of lavender plants can be mitigated and production increased. At the time of writing there is no further news on the EU regulations, although there has been vigorous opposition to the proposed rulings and concerns aired in discussions with EU officials. An online petition challenging the regulations had at last count garnered 22,429 signatures. The hope remains that lavender can perhaps be designated as an agricultural product and thus bypass the complexities of chemical classification.

Exploring what remains at present, despite the struggles, a dynamic and thriving region on exquisite country roads made riding a delight and an ideal way to experience first hand the artisanal lavender farms and the scenic surrounds at a pace that allows full appreciation of the area. As it was France we of course felt obliged to indulge our gustratory senses (sublime cherry clafoutis anyone?!) whilst learning more about an exceptional plant and the commitment of the people who grow it to achieve the highest quality possible. There is great pride in lavender, the economic support it provides and the identity that comes with this beautiful blue flower. Hope that this way of life continues is tinged with disbelief at the thought that lavender might one day disappear from the horizon. Lavender is, after all, the soul of Provence.

* It should be noted that whilst the belief is essential oils should not be classified as ‘chemicals’ and are wonderful substances to have in your home, they are highly concentrated products and should be treated with respect. Keep out of the reach of children and pets, do not ingest, do not use undiluted and use as directed on the label or by a qualified practitioner.

Bibliography:

(i) Advanced Aromatherapy, Kurt Schnaubelt (1995)
(ii) Essential Oil Safety, A Guide for Health Care Professionals. Robert Tisserand, Tony Balacs (1995)
(iii) Aromatherapy for Health Professionals, Shirley Price, Len Price (second edition, 1999)

Sources:

APAL
France Lavande
Givaudan
CTV News, Canada
The Guardian, UK
BHP Radio Bulgaria
CRIEPPAM

© On A Small Blue Planet by Amanda 2016

The Sweet Smell of Lavender

In the summer of 2014 we undertook a great cycle tour (my first) of France, which I described in a couple of posts, A Nightingale Sang and The Joy of Eating. As an aromatherapist essential oils are a crucial part of my work, and being a big fan of lavender we of course had to take in the some of the lavender routes in Provence, which I talked about a bit in The Fragrant Road. I’ve been doing a little research recently about lavender, writing an article for my aromatherapy association newsletter which I hope to post a link to once it’s published (or post online in full on this blog) with more details of the serious issues facing lavender production in Provence. I hadn’t realized it at the time of our holiday, but the plant is under serious threat, a bacteria is attacking the lavender crops and EU regulations are looming on the horizon wherein the oil (and other essential oils) could be labelled as chemical toxins, something that could inhibit the general public from feeling confident about using these lovely essences*. A bacteria and draconian regulations could seriously affect the economy of Provence – a tragic development given the long history of lavender in the region.

As I looked deeper into these issues I stumbled across some real attempts to a) salvage the crops from the devastating blight and b) fight the EU regulations and perhaps have lavender oil classified as an agricultural product, so avoiding the chemical designation. And the French Institute  CRIEPPAM – Regional Center for Medicinal and Aromatic Plant Research – has combined forces with a German perfumery company, Symrise, to introduce a new harvesting machine that removes only the flowers of the lavender plants, excluding the stems, resulting in a fresher more modern scent at the same time as reducing the environmental footprint of harvesting. Some people tend to think that lavender can smell a bit ‘old-fashioned’ – depends how you use it I think. A true lavender is gorgeous, and when added to a blend can impart a rich, subtle and balanced aroma.

Lavender oil is probably one of most well-known of essential oils, but if you haven’t tried it the ‘true’ therapeutic lavender, Lavandula Angustifolia, is a fantastic oil to have in your arsenal of helpful essences. I’ve used it (diluted) for bites, stings, burns (sunburn and otherwise), spots, massages, in a facial oil, in the bath and to smooth and give body to oil blends. It’s healing, hypotensive, relaxing and calming. Not bad for one little herb.

IMG_3120

* It should be noted that whilst the belief is essential oils should not be classified as ‘chemicals’ and are wonderful substances to have in your home, they are highly concentrated products and should be treated with respect. Keep out of the reach of children and pets, do not ingest, do not use undiluted and use as directed on the label or by a qualified practitioner.