Camping on Maligne Lake

Camping on Maligne Lake is the ideal way to experience Spirit Island, one of the most popular attractions in Jasper National Park which frequently lands on “Most Photographed Places in Canada” lists.  Tourists come to Canada from all over the world see this tiny island.  Set against a backdrop of turquoise water and surrounded by massive glacier capped mountains, it’s hard to blame them.

Most opt for a 90 minute boat tour that drops you off at a view point where you get a hurried 15 minutes to soak in the view and snap as many pictures as you can.  As we began researching it quickly became clear that not only was this an Alberta Bucket List destination, but that the most Zen way to enjoy this world class sight would be to paddle the length of the lake  and camp along the way.  No doing things the easy way in a tourist boat for us! Continue reading “Camping on Maligne Lake”

Winter Zen at Emerald Lake

Emerald Lake in British Columbia is an enchanting destination in both winter and summer although it is often overshadowed by its more famous counterparts such as Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. While the crowds flock to Banff National Park in Alberta, those in the know head further afield to Yoho National Park, near Field BC, roughly an hour west of Banff along the TransCanada Highway. While not in Alberta, we decided it should be included in our Alberta Bucketlist because it is something extraordinary that can be visited on a weekend trip from Calgary or Banff.

Where to Stay at Emerald Lake

A site as captivating as Emerald Lake deserves equally exquisite lodging to round out the experience, and nowhere is more worthy than Emerald Lake Lodge. This iconic hotel is serious about allowing you to get away from it all.   There is no cell phone reception in the rooms, no Wifi (except at the lodge itself), and the rooms do not have TVs.  Instead, most rooms offer wood burning fireplaces, at the lodge itself there is a bar made of salvaged wood from an 1890s Yukon saloon, there is an outdoor hot tub with a view on the premises, and a few excellent restaurants, including one right on the lake.   Continue reading “Winter Zen at Emerald Lake”

Local Zen

Aside from a short jaunt to California to visit an old friend, we at Zen Travellers have been staying pretty local this year. In light of the sticker shock we experienced in the US after the Canadian dollar sunk, a wedding to plan, and bigger travel plans on the horizon, we’ve taken to trying to make the most out of our local surroundings. Luckily for us, Alberta and its environs deliver in spades.

Continue reading “Local Zen”

Zen Revisited

“I haven’t been everywhere but it’s on my list.” – Susan Sontag

Travel can lead to conflicting emotions and priorities. Consider the oft repeated Susan Sontag quote above and what it inspires. Most travellers know that it’s hard not to agree wholeheartedly with Sontag and want to keep exploring new places for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile they also know that it’s true that there is value in slowing down and savoring their surroundings in the present. That is the Zen way after all. But instead of being diametrically opposed, these conflicting priorities can be reconciled in order to achieve travel Zen.

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Stone Cold Zen – Embracing Canadian Winters

I wrote recently about how difficult it was to keep my spirits up when I was dealing with a serious knee injury last year. Part of why it was so difficult was because I was unable to do so many of the activities I loved like skiing and hiking. That got me thinking about Canadian winters and how they can be both brutal and beautiful at the same time. West coast winters are very rainy and dreary, but less snowy than other parts. The rest of the country typically experiences sub zero temperatures and big snowfalls. That is, unless it’s an el nino year like this one where winter comes all at once and then melts leaving everything brown and hardly conjuring images of the winter wonderland that people expect Canada to be.

Continue reading “Stone Cold Zen – Embracing Canadian Winters”

Rain and Hindsight in the Rwenzoris

Even the most Zen of travellers knows that keeping your spirits up in bad weather can be challenging. Especially if you are cold and wet, physically tired, mentally exhausted, or experiencing any other common travel-related ailment. Yet more often than not there are hard-won views, memorable experiences or at the very least, an important lesson to learn to make continuing on worthwhile.

After an inspiring time in Murchison Falls National Park, Philip and I headed to the Rwenzori mountains in Uganda full of anticipation. To us, the Rwenzoris would be a welcome change of scenery from the Canadian Rockies, where we usually play, which are craggy and barren but only climb to just shy of 4000m. The Rwenzoris reach up to 5109m and the highest peaks are snowcapped year round even though they are in the equatorial zone. Since they are so close to the Equator, they are lush and tropical despite their sky high altitude, so we would be hiking through a rainforest at similar heights that would have us on a rocky summit back home.

We’re used to hiking in scenery like this. I know, hard life right?

After several hours of African massages in the back of our driver Bosco’s car, we arrived at our beautiful stopover at Ruboni Community Camp near Kasese in Uganda.

Thea inspects a flower on the way to the hut. 
Our hut at Ruboni

Ruboni is a community-based guesthouse right outside of Rwenzori Mountain National Park (RMNP).  From the camp you can do hill walks up the sides of the Portal peaks, cultural tours in the nearby villages and interpretive nature walks in the forest. There is also a restaurant at the top of the property that has a nice view, provided the clouds break long enough to notice.

After being showed our room, we dined on spaghetti in the restaurant while our driver worked out the details of the trek. For other parts of our trip, we had done a lot of the research and planning ourselves, so it was bit strange for us to leave it in someone else’s hands.

We should have clued into what we would encounter on the mountain when after dinner, the front desk clerk handed us each a hot water bottle to take back to our room. The night at Ruboni camp was a chilly one to say the least.

There is not a lot of information about the shorter hikes that can be done in RMNP, and our original booking to overnight in the Trekker’s Hostel and hike to “scenic vistas” was oversold so we planned on doing the new Mahoma Lake Loop 2 day hike. After a restful enough sleep at Ruboni, we headed up the mountain with our guide, cook and porter from Rwenzori Mountaineering Services (RMS), organized by the otherwise stellar Amagara Tours.

There are two main trekking outfitters for RMNP, Rwenzori Trekking Services and RMS. We had read some horror stories about RMS on Trip Advisor, but put our trust in the very well-reviewed Amagara tours for a portion of our time in Uganda since our itinerary was pretty ambitious. Of our 11 days on the Amagara organized tour, these were the only days that left us less than impressed.

For starters, despite telling the RMS guide that we were more interested in animals, they sent us the plant guy who solicited a tip before we even left for the hike. We couldn’t hold it against him too much though, since he did find us the rare 3-horned Rwenzori chameleon within a few minutes of starting hiking.

This guy! He was probably the highlight of the trip, but he doesn’t know it. 

Our enthusiasm began to wane when we climbed and climbed steeply through dense forest with very little scenic vistas to speak of. In addition, our guide was more interested in impressing the female trainee that he brought along than helping us understand what we were trudging through and rain clouds seemed to threaten to foul things further.

Thick forest obscures any “scenic vistas” for most of your trek. 

It rained off and on as we snaked through dense forest, sometimes so thick the guide had to swipe at the branches with a machete. We eventually climbed to the camp at about 2:30 in the afternoon and not a moment too soon. Pretty much immediately after we arrived, the skies opened up and poured for hours. Our lovely cook Johnson prepared us a nice meal of veggie spaghetti, hot tea and cookies which we devoured gladly. Afterwards, Philip and I wondered what to do with the rest of the evening. The hut was cold, dark and wet and we sat at the kitchen table playing cards, huddling in our sleeping bags and wishing that we had brought more warm clothes to Uganda (or hot water bottles for that matter). Our boredom was interrupted only by a brief view of the Portal peaks when the clouds cleared for a moment.

A “good” view of the Portal peaks after climbing to 2651m. 

The next day we carried on being ignored by our guide while climbing up to 3500m to our destination, the “lake.” Mahoma Lake is really nothing more than a slough which you view from a narrow bank. This is one of the only occasions where the pictures do more than enough justice for a place.

Mahoma Lake at 3500. 

Elephants were seen on the trail the day before so a Ugandan Wildlife Authority ranger had joined us to escort us down. It was a good thing since he ended up being an amazing guide. While at Mahoma Lake, he pointed out a brief view of Mount Luigi so at last we actually set eyes on one of the Rwenzori mountains. Our RMS guide hadn’t even bothered to identify any of the peaks for us. The UWA ranger also informed us that we were hiking the hardest part of the “Central Circuit“, a multi-day trek that takes you to 6 huts on the mountain at various elevations. Knowing that we had already done the hardest part of a worthy challenge only made us want to finish the whole circuit, but we didn’t have the time.

Mount Luigi, 4626m.

Despite Bosco having told RMS that we had a very long day transfer ahead of us after the hike, we had a big trek out of the park. About 18km one way and lots of elevation gains and losses, to the effect of 900m gain and over 1000m loss. So in other words, a long, challenging day even for seasoned hikers like us, which was meant to be accomplished in half a day. We struggled to keep our spirits up and wondered why we couldn’t have done the trek in reverse in order to have a shorter second day. Meanwhile, our guide kept telling us to keep walking since it the trail was “gentle and rolling” to the end.

We trudged through lush green hills, bamboo forests, and dense rainforest until finally descending to the park gate without having ever really been rewarded with a great view, or a guide that cared enough to truly show us around. For how steep and long the hike was, we felt like we had worked really hard to achieve the same result as a short, interpretive nature walk in the Park would have offered us. Despite not being treated well by the guide, we also felt obliged to give a good tip since it would go to the him, the porter and the cook Johnson, who was fantastic, but we did not really like our overall experience with RMS.

We were rewarded with a little bit of sunshine during the long descent. 

The Rwenzoris demonstrated potential, but it seemed like they are best visited if you have ample time. In hindsight, since we weren’t able to commit to attempting a summit in RMNP like Mount Baker or complete the Central Circuit, we would probably opt for the nature walk or hill climb with the people from Ruboni. They were so kind and RMNP just does not deliver as much as an eager hiker might hope in a short amount of time.

Even our driver was mad about having to wait so long since it meant he had to drive in the dark along Uganda’s infamously scary roads to our next adventure: gorilla tracking in Bwindi National Park. Still, we could not say that we regretted going, only that we had wished that we had booked with Rwenzori Trekking Services and that we had more time to do a hike that may have been more rewarding.

At the very least, the trek was instrumental in getting us shape for the increasingly difficult adventures that we had planned ahead of us. In addition, we learned that even when relying on a tour company to organize a trip, it is worthwhile providing feedback to the organizer. We simply should have told Amagara to book our hike with RTS instead of the poorly-reviewed RMS. Amagara may have had their reasons for partnering with RMS, but at the end of the day, it was still our vacation, so we had the final say. Finally, the experience also endowed us with a tendency for healthy scepticism every time a Ugandan guide refers to something as “gentle and rolling” which would serve us well during our adventures to come.

How we Made our Travel Dreams Come True in 2014

2014 was a banner year for us at Zen Travellers. Hard work, and deliberate and consistent budgeting meant that we were able to make one of our biggest travel dreams come true: a five week adventure in East Africa.

I had been dreaming of going back to Africa since my first time there in 2010. I had spent 5 months working in West Africa, and a month in Morocco touring around after my contract was over. The experience was incredible, but I still wanted to see the Big 5 on safari, watch the Great Migration, track gorillas in the jungle and watch more majestic African sunsets.

Sunsets like this (oh can I please go back??)

Unfortunately, I had that pesky grown-up business of student debt to pay off, monthly bills to pay and a retirement that hopefully involves a lot of travel to save for. When I returned to Canada from Africa the first time, I was broke having just finished grad school and not being paid exceptionally well during my internship. Still, I knew I had to get back, so I took contract job after contract job until I landed something permanent. After Philip successfully got me addicted to the insanely fun, but expensive sport of downhill skiing, I returned the favour by infecting him with the even-more-expensive travel bug. Together, we made a plan to scrimp and save as much as we could in order to make our travel dreams come true. At the same time we made sure to get out and enjoying the Canadian Rockies as much as possible since mountains make us insanely happy and too strict of budgets fail. Luckily for us, hiking and cross-country skiing are practically free. Downhill skiing on the other hand, requires some creative budgeting at times.

If you’re happy and you know it, put your tips up!

Our first order of business was to pay down our student debts, which we achieved in 2013. I had been making monthly payments as much as $1500 to pay it down as soon as possible. Every windfall from a bonus or gift or selling my car went straight to my student loans. Once they were paid off, I was used to living on less than my whole paycheque so I simply transferred equal amounts into savings.

Philip on the other hand, likes spreadsheets and percentages which he’ll likely do a guest post about sometime, so he saved by having a certain percentage taken directly off his paycheque every two weeks.

Other methods we used to save money for trips were:

1) Booking travel on points:
I had a mass of Air Miles that I had been collecting for ages and never put to use. So in 2013, I was able to fly to Winnipeg for a wedding, to Los Angeles to see the Rolling Stones and to Arizona for a family reunion for just the taxes and fees. These little, inexpensive trips satisfied my travel bug without breaking the bank, and I could continue to put money into savings for our East Africa 2014 dream trip. Another example is Philip used his Capital One Aspire MasterCard  to buy his flights to Africa and was reimbursed over $700.

Hiking in the Superstition Mountains in Arizona: a budget activity. 

2) You know those friends who say you can stay on their couch? Take them up on that: 
In 2013, we flew to Ottawa during the summer to enjoy Ottawa Bluesfest and Montreal Jazz Fest. A friend of mine from grad school had offered her couch numerous times and we finally took her up on it. By having somewhere inexpensive to stay, we were able to enjoy the festival and have a wonderful visit with our friends in Canada’s capital which is delightful in the summer. In the absence of a nice friend’s couch, try AirBnB or even Couch Surfing. As Ottawa Bluesfest spans almost two weeks, we saved vacation days for our African adventure by working from “home” during the weekdays which worked out perfect since most shows didn’t start until after 5pm.

3) The early bird gets the discount: 
Booking early is also a way to save money on travel as well. For example, we saved $75 each on our Bluesfest tickets by buying them early and our train between Ottawa and Montreal was only $50. If we had waited, the cheaper seats would have been sold out. When planning our East African adventure, we also saved over $100 by prepaying for our SCUBA lessons too.

4) DIY everything: 
It is amazing how much money you can save by doing things yourself. Whether it’s making your own meals or getting around East Africa on your own, DIY is one of the best ways to save money for travel and while travelling. For example, during our 5 weeks in East Africa we only spent a week and half on an organized tour. Although it meant a lot of research and planning on our part, we were able to spend 5 glorious, action-filled weeks in Zanzibar, Uganda and Kenya for what one tour operator would have charged us for 3 weeks in only Uganda. Personally, another benefit of DIY is that I feel a certain satisfaction from finding my own way around.

One drawback of DIY travel: this can be your view for several hours. 

5) Travel during shoulder season:
Travelling during shoulder season can also be a way to save money on trips. We made it to one of my favourite places on Earth, Whitefish Montana, twice during 2014 shoulder seasons. Prices for accommodations were substantially less in May and we were able to go hiking in Glacier National Park before the trails were cleared of snow in Alberta. Later, in November we celebrated Philip’s birthday at a VRBO condo right on the mountain for half of what it costs during the peak seasons. Saving on these little getaways meant that we didn’t have to hold back during our big East African adventure and caught the Great Migration, even though that meant travelling in Kenya during expensive peak season.

Amazing early season hiking in Glacier National Park

Now for 2015, we are planning on using a lot of the same tactics to make this year’s travel dreams come true. They include a week in Cuba, skiing in Colorado and Northern California, hiking in the Grand Canyon if we get a permit, and Lollapalooza if we can get tickets. So much to look forward to!

How do you make your travel dreams come true?