Tag Archives: Landscapes

So: Costa Rica, eh?

Friday 7th April 2023 – Rather later than the “couple of days” promised in my last post, here are some valedictory thoughts about Costa Rica, which are worth exactly as much as you’ve paid for ’em.

Overall? We would heartily recommend it for a holiday (or even for travelling). The people are amazingly friendly and helpful, the country is safe and the sights are interesting.  The wildlife is rich, varied and occasionally fascinating. There’s a great variety of microclimates to choose from – cool (and damp) cloud forest to hot (and humid) Caribbean beaches; as well as wildlife watching (which was the main reason we went) there are many activities to choose from –  swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, ziplining, lying around poolside, white water rafting, hiking. This site gives a good overview.

Some research is necessary to ensure your visit is as pleasurable as it can be.

Timing of your visit is important.

  • The rainy (or “green”) season lasts from May to November.  If you don’t like it when it rains, probably best to avoid these times – and anyway bear in mind that in many parts of Costa Rica it can rain at any time, which is why all the hotels provide umbrellas.  Outside the green season, the rain tends to be in sharp showers rather than continuous downpours.  You can find more information here.
  • If you want to see specific phenomena, check your seasons.  In Ostional, turtle season is February. In San Gerardo, Resplendent Quetzal season is March. And so on.

Location is important.

  • If you want to swim in the sea, the Caribbean coast is probably the best place to go.  It’s rarely safe on the Pacific coast, where rip tides are a feature.
  • If you want to have a base and drive around, then there are certain places to avoid, such as the Nicoya peninsula, where the road surfaces are not conducive to driving pleasure. Also, journeys take longer than you might think.  It’s difficult to average more than about 30mph anywhere and often this speed is aspirational rather than achievable.  Twisty roads, trappy road surfaces, and slow traffic due to heavy lorries all mean that patience is a virtue when driving from A to B.

Driving: the country is small enough that a car is a decent way to get around.

  • Every community (which may be as small as a handful of dwellings) seems to have a school for young children.  The areas around the schools are marked in the roads – “ESCUELA” – and on signposts.  The speed limit goes down to 40kph and then 25 kph around each of these areas.  I started off by observing these limits and then realised that no-one else paid them any attention at all so I stopped being so particular about this.
  • However, many (but not all) of these zones are guarded by speed bumps (“Reductor”), many (but not all) of which are painted yellow and/or signposted.  So it pays to be alert. Some of the speed bumps are aggressive.
  • There are also speed bumps to guard some (but not all) junctions with other roads.
  • Most major road surfaces are actually pretty good, although vigilance is required to avoid the occasional guerilla pothole or other degradation of the surface.  Once you get off the major roads, you’re either on dirt tracks, which are by and large fine provided you’re in a reasonably robust vehicle, or the surface is randomly paved and hence treacherous.
  • There was a reasonable supply of fuel stations wherever we went, and we covered most of the country.

Wildlife viewing: having a guide is essential, unless you are very sharp-eyed and expert at spotting small, well-camouflaged and occasionally deadly creatures.  Guides know what to look for when they hear the faintest noise; they know where to look for particular animals and they know the signs to look for that indicate nearby wildlife. And, once they’ve spotted it, they can tell you what it is that you’re looking at and will be able to use your mobile phone camera through a spotter scope to get a photo for you. I really believe that if you go walking unaccompanied you’ll miss 90% of the animals that are nearby.

Photography: if you want to take photos of these animals, for top image quality I recommend that you have with you a camera with the equivalent of a 400mm lens attached.  My particular kit was a Nikon Z6 with a 100-400mm zoom lens, which I used almost exclusively at the 400mm end – and I wished that I had a teleconverter to extend this to 560mm (but it didn’t arrive until after our return, regrettably).  There are other options:  a bridge camera such as the Sony RX10 IV will do a fine job; and increasingly there are mobile phones which will enable you to capture photos and video.  I can recommend the Samsung S22 (or, these days, S23) Ultra, whose 10x zoom capability will enable you to get good results if the light is adequate. And, as I said above, the guide accompanying you (you did arrange one, didn’t you? Good) can often get a decent photo using your phone and his/her spotter scope.

Spending money is easy.  Virtually everywhere we went was equipped to accept cards and, more often than not, phone transactions.  For cash, US dollars are accepted almost universally, and in one or two cases the dollar was the only currency accepted.  We did get some local currency (colones) out of an ATM, but never really needed them.  Some ATMs will dispense dollars as well as colones. It’s worth having cash available for tipping guides.  It’s not obligatory, but if the guide does a good job, I believe it’s the decent thing to do.

The only security tip we received was this: never leave anything in your car.  We were pretty careful and only left the car with anything in it a couple of times – and one of these was in a supermarket car park which had a security patrol.

Our favourite place? The Tranquilo Lodge. Superb in every way.

Our travel organiser? Pura Aventura. Equally highly recommended.

I’m a firm believer in the Reithian diktat which shaped the BBC in its pomp – I try to inform, educate and entertain and I hope I’ve achieved this in some small measure. These pages will go quiet for a while, until either something photographically notable happens to me or we go travelling again.  Whichever it will be, I hope to see you back on this site in the fullness of time. Until then…

Pura Vida!

Signalling the end

 Wednesday 5 October 2022 – Sitting in the departure lounge at St. John’s airport, as I typed the headline, I felt a small spasm of sadness, because I’m about to describe the last day of our holiday in Alaska and Canada.  Even though it’ll be nice to get home to our own shower, ease of laundry and some control over what we eat at breakfast, we shall be sad to come to the end of a two-month odyssey across North America, because it’s been such a great holiday. Yesterday’s wanderings were a positive contribution to the overall experience.

We started off attempting to remedy an omission from the day before;  we’d passed Kilometre (or Mile) Zero of the Trans-Canada Trail without stopping to take account (and a picture) of the formal marker post that Jane had spotted on an internet search just beside the Rail Museum building.  Our first stop, therefore, was to take a look at it.

Or, rather, take a look for it.

We could find no sign of the marker board that Jane had seen earlier photos of, even though we bumbled about aimlessly for a few minutes, which is our normal search strategy.  We did, however, notice a gazebo set up over some noticeboards.

one of which noted that this was a memorial setup.  Reading the information display gives the impression that this is now the formal beginning of the Trans-Canada Trail and the T’Railway we pottered a few steps along the day before,

We then addressed ourselves to the main task of the day – getting back to the top of Signal Hill where driver Basil had shown us our very first glimpse of St. John’s.  This time, however, we would be under our own steam.

We passed a rather faded memural (a Steve Walker patented portmanteau neologism – not a typo) to the days when the railway was such a critical part of the history of St. John’s,

and then walked along Duckworth Street, which is one of the main downtown roads in the city. It has its share of the attractive Jelly Bean houses that make the place so individual – even the modern apartment blocks are things of beauty –


and, of course artwork.  Above you see part of a long mural which depicts a lot of the traditional ways of life of St. John’s and Newfoundland including

men carrying fish around (cf ladies doing likewise yesterday).  We assume this must be salted fish of some description. Duckworth Street is world famous in Newfoundland for being the home of The Duke of Duckworth, a British-style pub.

Tempting as the thought was, we didn’t stop in for a beer, but carried on, past the sort of sights which make St. John’s such an individual place

including an Air Force memorial and a Portuguese memorial (spot the azulejos – blue tiling).

Duckworth Street turns directly into Signal Hill Road, so one could just carry on walking.  However, we wanted to follow a trail that took us through The Battery, the cluster of attractive houses we’d walked out to photograph the day before.  Where Signal Hill Road carries straight on, Battery Road is a right-hand turn; it also leads past the Battery Cafe

which, I can report, serves damn’ fine coffee.

Battery road goes down a bit and then up quite a lot, giving progressively better views back over the town

as you reach The Battery

and continue up the hill

to the St. John’s Lookout.

At this point, we were at the foot of Gibbet Hill, beside attractively-named Deadman’s Pond. Gibbet Hill is the lump of rock behind the cottages we photographed from the other side of the harbour yesterday…

Apparently only one person was ever hanged on Gibbet Hill, but the name, erm, hung around nonetheless.

Passing Gibbet Hill took us back on to Signal Hill Road and we walked up to the Cabot Tower at the top, past George’s Pond.

Since the hill is pretty much the highest point hereabouts, it’s unsurprising that it gives a great view back over the town

but we were also interested to explore the tower and its history.  Construction of the tower itself began in 1898 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s discovery of Newfoundland, and also Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  John Cabot, by the way, was actually Giovanni Caboto, an Italian, and there’s a sister tower, of very different architecture, but with the same name and serving the same purpose, in Bristol, UK.

The St. John’s edition of the Tower has a slightly chequered history, in that the town was agin building it in the first place on account of the town having been burned to the ground a few years earlier and the banks going broke an’ that. But there it is, and there it was for its best-known part in the development of the world as we know it – the first successful receipt, on December 12th, 1901, of a radio transmission across the Atlantic Ocean, by Guglielmo Marconi (the origin of the signal, the letter “S” in Morse code, was Poldhu in Cornwall).  Its prime use, though, was for flag signalling, it being in a good location for that purpose, visible for miles around in all directions.

We went into and up the tower, and a room at the top has signal flags neatly pigeon-holed all around it

as well as an installation to do with its role in radio telegraphy,

including a picture reconstructing how Marconi set up his receiving configuration.  (We read that scientists at the time pooh-poohed his idea that transmission across the Atlantic was possible, but that’s because they didn’t realise that the radio waves would bounce off the ionosphere; I don’t know whether Marconi had realised this or not, actually).

As well as the various old-style cannons visible around the site

and the nearby Queen’s Battery

there’s a more modern one

which we found out about when it went bang.  We were actually still quite a way away from the tower at this point but even so it was startlingly loud; heaven alone knows what it was like for the spectators.  It is one of the various Noon Day Guns which seem to be popular hereabouts (as well as in Hong Kong).

From the top of the Tower, one can just about see Cape Spear,

the rather uninteresting-looking flat bit of land on the left of the photo above.  It is the easternmost point of North America.  Just so you know.  Also, there’s one of those really helpful signposts telling you how far away you are from civilisation.

So, now you know that Poldhu is a mere 3,468 km away.  Given that more civilised northerly and industrial parts of the UK, e.g. Liverpool, are even closer, it’s hardly surprising to learn that British fishing fleets started coming over to Newfoundland in the summers and ended up basically controlled the fishing industry here from about 1600 onwards, having seen off some upstart Portuguese (we were at war with them then).

The other planned component of the day’s walk was to visit a place called Quidi Vidi, recommended by both the mother of the whingeing, squirming brat and the ever-helpful Ian Burley. It’s pronounced Kiddy Viddy, by the way, which sounds to me more like a child’s entertainment.  There’s a trail leading there from Signal Hill.  It’s a decent trail, albeit a bit rocky and up-and-down in places

but basically very well-maintained in those places where it counts.

We caught sight of Quidi Vidi village fairly soon after starting on the trail

(you can just see the eponymous Quidi Vidi Lake to the left) and before long we were down in the village, at the Wharf end (where the lake debouches into the Atlantic).

It’s ridiculously pretty.

It also has attractions beyond the simply visual.

To be honest, we knew there was a brewery there – Ian B had told us – and so I had a plan which involved a certain amount of quaffing – and the place has a splendid bar and patio for those in need of fluid replacement therapy.

Having partaken of a couple of their offerings

(frankly, Day Boil doesn’t sound like a very pleasant brew, but Jane liked it; and their Iceberg lager is excellent), we walked on through the pretty village, past some rather attractive crocheted rock-cosies (reminiscent of what the natives do to trees in the island of Graciosa in the Azores);

past a couple of historic properties: Mallard Cottage, built in the early 1800s by the Irish-immigrant Mallard family;

and the Inn of Olde (sadly shut);

and what used to be a multi-denominational church.

Our route back to St. John’s took us by the banks of Quidi Vidi Lake on a decent trail, quite a lot of which is a boardwalk

past the St. John’s Rowing Club

and, past the lake, some very large and handsome properties on the outskirts of the town.

We ended up on George Street, which has a simply legendary density of bars and restaurants

(mainly bars, I think, with the occasional “gentleman’s club”), and past a final reminder of how attractive it can be to disguise the mundane with some nice artwork, in this case a map of all the other artwork, which I think is rather a neat idea.

And so, 12½ miles (20km) after we started, we arrived back at our hotel at the end of our day’s walking and our North American holiday.  We’ve walked 214 miles (344km – actually not a lot over two months), ascended (and descended!) 4312 metres and enjoyed every minute of it. But we have to go home now – real life, our own washing machine and a defective septic tank await our attention in the UK, but we shall have the memories of all the places we’ve visited for a while and these blog pages for when the memories have dimmed.

For previous holidays, I’ve often penned a summary of our thoughts as a valedictory post.  Canada is too vast and diverse, both geographically and culturally, to be able to do it justice, so I shan’t attempt one.  A couple of things stand out, though:  the helpfulness, politeness and friendliness of the people; the thoughtful approach that Canadians, both citizens and authorities, take to life around them; and the knowledge that we have but scraped the surface of a huge country during a single season – I couldn’t begin to tell you what anywhere here is like during winter, for example. You’ll just have to come and experience it for yourself.

Of course, this is not by any means our last major adventure.  We have a real cracker coming up early next year, in February.  I hope to be able to regale you with our exploits then and we hope you’d like to rejoin us to hear about them.  For now, farewell!



Can we bear the suspense?

Wednesday 28 September 2022 – The mood, as we got into the bus to go to the buggy to spend another day searching for polar bears, was a little muted; everyone was, I think, disappointed that the previous day’s searching, whilst it had shown us some wildlife, had been unsuccessful in its main objective.  Joe took us along a road where there was a possibility of seeing bears – indeed, there was a bear guard in evidence.

We passed the graveyard, which is really quite extensive (and the norm is three feet down rather than six feet, due to the permafrost)

and a site where there is extensive quarrying for stone to support the improvements being implemented to the railway leading to Churchill.

(The railway is one of only two ways to reach Churchill, the other being by air.  It currently takes 18 hours to reach the town by rail from where the road ends, at Thompson, 400k to the south, and the target is to halve that time, which requires a lot of current improvement and then maintenance work on the tracks.  The quarries in Churchill will be active for a while yet.)

All we got, though, was the by now customary opportunity for the more emotional among us to shriek with excitement at seeing some passing Belugas.

As we got to the buggy dock, one of our group, Theo, suggested that we exit the bus facing backwards, to leave the previous day’s bad luck on the bus.  For some strange reason, we all did this.

The buggy route, which of course is constrained by the network of available trails, was pretty much exactly as the day before – 26 miles in total.

I had got my gimbal working, so was able to record some better footage to give an idea of just how not smooth progress is.

However, the day perked up a bit when, just after 10am, one of the eagle-eyed people on the bus spotted a bear!

As you can see, it was quite a way away – my eyesight is not very good (it took Jane a few minutes of patient explanation to enable me to actually locate the bear in the surrounding landscape) and I am utterly impressed that Bob and Jason and Mark are quite so expert at seeing wildlife.  Zooming in, this is what I got out of the above.

Well, it’s identifiably a polar bear, at least.  It was doing what polar bears in the West Hudson Bay bear population do at this time of year, which is, well, not much, really.  The good times for them start when the ice freezes in Hudson Bay and they can get out on to it to catch and eat seals.  Unlike Grizzlies, which can subsist on berries and other such foods, polar bears really need the skin and blubber of seals to fatten up; they convert over 80% of such fat to their own adipose tissue.  Until the seals can be hunted, the bears are basically fasting.  Of course they’ll gorge on anything they can find, such as a Beluga carcass on the beach or some such, but basically they’re just waiting around for the freeze – and being careful not to expend too much energy.  So this bear did really not very much for quite a while.  On the other side of the buggy, we could just about make out a bald eagle, perched on a rock,

and there were some shore birds (Lesser Yellowlegs it seems) to keep us amused

whilst we waited to see what the bear did.  There was excitement when it stood up and walked a few paces

but then it lay down in the vegetation and basically disappeared from view.

We moved on, hoping to find more bears.  We passed the Frontiers North Lodge, by now expanded from yesterday and almost ready to receive guests

and we noted that the Tundra Swans had got a couple of other birds trying to get in on their act.

But, apart from a distant dot on some distant rocks which Bob declared to be a sleeping bear, that was it for the rest of the day on the buggy.  We got back to the dock just after 4pm having bagged just the one bear.  It was a lovely sunny day and the temperature was quite high – nearly 20°C, so there was some, erm, very scenic scenery. Jane caught this nice example of fall colours in the landscape.

At the buggy dock, Joe was on hand to take us back to town, on a route which took us past the rocket base that was once such an important part of Churchill’s military role.

It’s disused now, and the ugliest building – the concrete blast bunker – has, of course, been the recipient of a mural to try to pretty it up a bit.

As he drove us on a roundabout route towards the town, Joe actually spotted more bear!

At first, we thought it was a mother and a cub, but it turned out that there were actually two cubs with their mother, who seemingly just wanted a bit of peace and quiet but had to keep rounding up her boisterous cubs.

We watched them for a while and I recorded some video.

They’re quite a way away, but at least the bear quotient was rising.  Jason pointed out that visible on the other side of the bus was an arctic hare.

It’s a shame it didn’t move to give us a better look, but it was just resting in the shade – why would a sensible hare move under those circumstances?

The mother and cubs disappeared and Joe took the bus along a road which we hoped would take us a bit nearer.  I’m not sure he succeeded in that; but all of a sudden we saw yet another bear, quite a bit closer than the previous encounters.

The experts on the bus eventually came to the conclusion that this was a lone male, and he, like the others, was basically just mooching about.

I got some video of him, as well.

So by the time we got back to the hotel we were a much happier band of bear seekers. We were late for our appointed dinner slot, but since we were basically the only tour in town, I don’t think we inconvenienced people too much.  Had this been later in the season, with multiple tour groups going through the town, we would have had to have limited our time watching the bears, which would have been a shame.

After dinner, Jane went to a reportedly enjoyable presentation at the Parks Office (which, you’ll know because you’ve been paying attention, is housed in the Railway Station)

whilst I toiled away sorting through the vast number of substantially identical photos of bears in various places and combinations to decide what to include in this entry.  I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing and reading about the fruits of my labours and the group’s success in achieving the main objective of our visit to Churchill.

Our time here is almost over.  We have greatly enjoyed it, despite the initial disappointment of yesterday’s fruitless quest.  Things here are workmanlike rather than luxurious, but the hotel was comfortable, the food was good, hearty and well served, and the people we’ve met have been delightful.  There’s a real sense of community here, which has been a pleasure to see in action.

There are a couple of excursions organised for tomorrow before we leave Churchill to get back on our eastward journey and I will, of course write about them here.  Please keep in touch with these pages to see our final activities in this engaging place.