An exercise in extreme sports in Canada.
Now Canada is a pretty big piece of real estate and distances on a map can be a bit deceptive (Australian analogy: British backpackers who want to drive from Cairns to Sydney in one day). So when we decided to drive ‘around’ Newfoundland, we actually traveled around 4,500 kilometres in the car during a ten day period. Just driving from one side to the other on the only highway is around a 900 kilometre one-way trip.
The first challenge for us was driving for the very first time on THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD, and the opposite side of the car. Of course to be polite, we should say the OTHER side of the road. As a result, this was our first attempt at extreme sports in Canada.
In case you were wondering (which we were), there is interesting history behind which side of the road various countries drive on – apparently it has something to do with England and France’s continual battles through history and who won. Right-handed savages on horseback (think about which side the sword would be on, difficulties dismounting) resulted in driving on the left, and the concept of ‘egality’ after the French revolution (aristocracy on the right please, okay, everyone on the right now) determined the right side.
After mistaking the wipers for the indicator, and moving to the wrong side of the car to get in as the driver, and then continuing to do that for the next twelve days, the first thing we notice less than a kilometre out of Halifax airport is a ‘prancing’ moose sign. The remainder of our trip we encounter road signs showing various moose caricatures, poses and ‘danger’ signs but alas, we weren’t to see a single moose on our trip and after almost 8 weeks in Canada, sadly, still no live moose. We notice several signs advising of the 600+ annual vehicle accidents involving moose last year in Newfoundland, so it was perhaps fortunate we didn’t see any. Locals tell us there are actually more moose than people living in Newfoundland, but we aren’t so sure.
We made it from Halifax airport, to the harbour town of North Sydney (also near Sydney and Hawkesbury – NSW anyone?) around 350 klms away, where we overnighted at the comfortable Harbourside Inn B&B, Nova Scotia.
The ferry service to Newfoundland departs from North Sydney for Port-aux-Basques at 11am and 11pm each day. We chose a day crossing because we didn’t want any further driving challenges. Driving a left-handed vehicle onto a massive ferry was another new experience for us. The ferry has around seven floors for vehicles, semi-trailers, seated passengers and cabins. The airline-type seats had heaps of room and there’s plenty to do in the six hour, approx. 200 kilometre journey. On board was a café, restaurant, shop, internet and tv. During the crossing we took the opportunity to go out onto the deck and look out over the deep, dark Cabot Strait. On a really clear day you can see both the ‘mainland’ and Newfoundland.
Arriving towards our final destination at Port-aux-Basques, you understand why Newfoundland is affectionately known as ‘The Rock’. Tiny coloured houses seem to cling to the edge of massive cliffs. We stayed overnight at the plain but comfy Caribou B&B where we arrived without a booking, and got an interesting dose of Newfoundland history from the host. We found early during the month of September, we were mostly able to just turn up to motels and B&Bs in Newfoundland, and get somewhere for the night. During peak season (July/August) you might not be so lucky however. During mid-September however many places start to close down for winter, as the province gets pretty snowed in. Not only did we miss seeing moose, but we also missed whales, icebergs and puffins (they left three weeks earlier). If we were to visit Newfoundland again, we’d probably go around June to try and catch the wildlife.
We set off for the top western part of Newfoundland and stayed overnight at Southern Brook cabins, which were a bit desserted and at one point made us feel like we were in some type of horror movie scene…two girls, in a log cabin by a deserted lake on a dark night…, but put it down to the full moon.
The following day we drove the short distance to L’Anse Meadows, which was the site of a historical archeological dig in the sixties that identified a viking village established in that location around year 1000, and has Canada Parks staff re-create what it was like to live in those times. Despite the somewhat cheesy-ness notion of this, it actually was a really enjoyable experience. We also discovered that Weps’ surname appears to have Viking origin. She shall now be known as Weps ‘Wooded Forrest’.
One thing we quickly noticed about Newfoundland is their understatement of natural place names. We saw Brooks and Ponds (and there are certainly plenty of them) the size of Sydney Harbour. Newfoundland is covered with bog, ponds and rock.
Driving Newfoundland in September was an amazing display of nature - massive pine and birch forests just starting to show their beautiful, rich autumn red and yellow colours; MASSIVE mountains; beautiful wind-swept rugged and stark coastlines with the wild Atlantic ocean smashing into rocks; flat, watery bogs and eerie mist as thick as soup - sometimes reducing road visibility to 20 metres (OMG, how on earth will we see a moose in this!).
Newfoundland has an interesting house style known as Saltbox – typical of houses build between the early 1800’s and 1900’s, originally made from timber and more recently with coloured siding in what’s known as Jellybean palletes – tint colours with interesting names like Bakeapple jam (a faded yellow) , Mollyfodge (grey), Blasty bough, Bubbly squall, Dory buff, Iceberg alley, Lassie Buns and Dark Tickle. We did however we see plenty of old timber houses, some at rather odd angles from years of winter gales.
Another interesting observation is the influence of various cultures on Newfoundland’s history. It seems that the Basque, Irish, Scottish and French all discovered the amazing cod fishing to be had around the place years ago, and you’ll find an interesting mix of all those influences, including a couple of towns that are exclusively French (Port au Port Peninsula), and most others with varying degrees of dialect. In a place that speaks English as its native language, we actually had some language difficulties (asking for ‘wheat’ bread often got us white). The accent has been described as a mix of Canadian-Irish while chewing a mouth full of cod. Newfoundlanders also have a wide vocabularly of slang and their own set of words for things (G'wan b'y meaning 'are you joking?')
Driving through Newfoundland you see quaintly (and unusual) named places such as Little Heart’s Ease, Hearts Content, Blow Me Down, Come-By-Chance, Pothead and Dildo - we didn’t stop for a souvenir, but did get a photo.
A stay in Cow Head Bay, and an amazing boat trip in Gros Morne national park followed (the boats were lifted in on Helicopter). We did a couple of the smaller trail walks around the area and felt like we were the only people on earth. Driving back from Gros Morne, we saw tiny villages stacked with lobster pots, crooked old timber houses from years of Newfoundland gales and more massive mountains.
Newfoundland is not for vegetarians – the food culture is founded on deep-fried everything and seafood. The more unusual foods we tried included fish’n’brewis (fish, bread & gravy); scrunchions (deep fried pork fat); toutons (fried dough pancake) and an amazing selection of home-made jams (bakeapple). Whilst we didn't see any moose, I ate some in a burger at a roadside servo stop. At the same stop, we also saw a local gentleman move his hunting guns in his vehicle. Obviously, we were the only non-locals who seemed the slightest bit concerned by this.
We finally made it to St Johns (and some real coffee!) on the other side of the island, which has a population of around 500k however drivers still stop to let you to cross the road when there’s no pedestrian crossing (another driving challenge...). We were almost blown away at the historic Cabot Tower (70 klm/hour winds) and had a visit to the interesting Rooms museum, and out to Cape Spear (the eastern most point in North America). Weps begins her love affair with Poutine for the first time (more on this in the Quebec chapter).
Newfoundland has some fairly remote places, including a few towns accessible only by boat. Our second last day in Newfie, we drove the 90 klm round trip from Port-aux-Basques to the lighthouse at Rose Blanche, passing Dead Man’s Island – an erie and beautiful fishing village. The lighthouse is run by a descendant of one of the original lighthouse keepers, who told us the road to Rose Blanche was only built in the late 60s. Prior to that, access was only by boat. Across the bay through the usual Newfoundland fog, we could just make out a tiny outpost village which has some 20 people remaining. Many remote villages in Newfoundland were resettled with populations being moved (including the floating of houses to new locations) to bigger towns with better infrastructure. On the drive, we noticed the irony of the stillness of internal ponds next to the wild, windy seas.
On our last day in Newfoundland, we had a quick drive through Port-aux-Basques (it took ten minutes) and noticed a tiny cemetery in the centre of town, with houses built up to the edge, and displaying a sign - ‘no playing in the Cemetary’. I’d love to know the stats for drink drivers in this place ending up in the ocean – houses are built literally right up to the waters edge and roads suddenly end with only metres before the water.
We were fortunate to make it back across Cabot Strait on the ferry as a massive storm came in, canceling all ferry services for several days. We’re off back to Halifax (eventually), and then other places in Canada!