A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about refugees

Chapter 26 - Volunteering with Refugees - Greece

By Neil and Nkki

sunny 29 °C

It was the image of this little boy, 3 year old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, washed up on Bodrim beach in Turkey, having drowned at sea in September 2015, that galvanised the world into action for the tsunami of refugees that were arriving in Europe from the Syrian War. He’d been trying to get from Bodrim in Turkey to the Greek Island of Kos in a tiny rubber raft.

The body of 3 year old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey after the boat he was trying to escape Syria in capsized, killing him, his infant sister and mother. Only his father survived.

The Kurdi family were trying to reach Canada, a place which for many seeking asylum has been considered the ultimate safe haven.

If a photograph can be powerful, so can music. An Australian musician, Missy Higgins, was so moved by Alan Kurdi’s death, she wrote the song ‘Oh Canada’. Both the music and imagery are searing.

An image from the video to the song ‘Oh Canada’ by Australian artist Missy Higgins (search ‘Youtube Missy Higgins Oh Canada – Official Video’ to listen to and watch this beautiful tribute).

This only firmed the resolve of Nikki and I to volunteer in a refugee camp in Greece during our Big Trip.

The Thermopylae Refugee Camp near Lamia, Greece.

“Thermo-pylae” is Greek for “hot-spring” and the sulphurous natural springs at Thermopylae in Central Greece have existed for well over 3000 years. There is an old abandoned hotel near the hot springs and about 12 months ago the Greek government decided it would be a good location for a refugee camp.

The Thermopylae Refugee Camp – Greece. One of the accommodation blocks.

There are about 800 refugees in the camp. About 120 are school aged children. Approximately 75% are Syrian, 15% Kurdish and 10% Palestinian.

We volunteered for an organisation called Happy Caravan, whose primary goal is to provide English, maths and music lessons, as well as cinema and dance activities, for the children in the camp.

The Classroom at the Thermopylae refugee camp.

Before describing our time there, I wanted to give some background around the refugee situation for those interested…..

The Refugee Situation in Europe

Take a look at the immigration of non-EU nationals between 2010 and 2013 (in green). Its sitting at about 1.3 million per year.

Now take a look at the asylum seekers (orange) and illegal border crossings (blue). Prior to 2014 they were about 400,000 per year. Then in 2014 it starts to spike up to 900,000.


In 2015, however, the wave became a tsunami.

Mediterranean sea arrivals to Greece and Italy from January 2015 to September 2016.

Yes. In October 2015 about 215,000 people arrived in Greece by boat. Over a million in a 12 month period, into Greece alone. And these were the lucky ones. They made it across the Mediterranean to the refugee camps. An estimated 10,000 for the period 2015 - 2017 did not survive the crossing.

(The “EU-Turkey” deal refers to an agreement that any people arriving in Greece from Turkey would be returned to Turkey).

Where were the asylum seekers coming from?

Sea arrivals into Greece and Italy in 2015

The chart below shows that, whilst I’ve called this section ‘The Refugee Situation in Europe’, you can see that the countries with the highest number of refugees are Pakistan and Turkey, with over 1.5 million and 2.7 million respectively. It also shows that around 4 million refugees have come from Syria, and 3 million from Afghanistan.

Chart showing where refugees are coming from and going to in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

The Story of One Refugee – Alaa Eddin Jnaid – Founder of Happy Caravan.

In 2013, Alaa was a 29 year old bloke living in Aleppo, Syria when war engulfed his city.

Map of Syria.

Alaa was just an average guy, living and working away in Aleppo. Then bombs started dropping on his city. One day, while he was eating his dinner, a bomb landed on his car out the front of his house destroying it completely. Then Islamic State came into Aleppo. Alaa was working for the Jesuit Refugee Service. Due to this work, his name was ‘put on a list’ by IS and he realised that if he didn’t flee, he would be murdered.

Alaa Eddin Jnaid – Netherlands citizen – Syrian Refugee – founder of Happy Caravan.

He swam across a river to Turkey and eventually got on a boat to Greece. The boat landed on the island of Samos, on a remote rocky outcrop against a sheer rock face. With no help in sight, a dozen men, including Alaa, decided to climb the rock face to try and find assistance. During the climb 3 men fell to their deaths. However, there was no choice for the others but to go on. The people on the beach had no water or food and risked dying of exposure.

At the top they eventually found assistance and made it to a Greek refugee camp.

But What Happened Then?

So, it’s time for a bit of Asylum Seeker/ Refugee Class 101.

I said in an earlier blog that the United Nations was formed out of the crucible of the Second World War. This is also true of Human Rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt, the leader of the international effort to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with the Spanish version of the Declaration. It was ratified by the UN on 10th December 1948.

The Declaration forms the cornerstone of Human Rights Law in the world. Important for Asylum Seekers, Article 14 (1) states:

1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution

I think probably Article 2 and 3 are then important to note:

Article 2:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status……

Article 3:

Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.


Now, onto the Refugee part:

Once again, following the Second World War and the millions of refugees that that conflict caused, the UN started working on a Convention for Refugees. This became known as the 1951 Refugee Convention and was ratified by the UN in July 1951.

Of course, the cornerstone of the convention is the definition of a Refugee. This is defined in Article 1 of the Convention and is:

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, and nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The assessment of whether an asylum seeker meets the requirements to be a 'refugee' is made by the government where asylum is sought, or by the UNHCR (if requested by that government). (More on this from an Australian perspective later on).

Once someone has been granted refugee status then the rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention come into effect. These, in simple terms, give refugees the same rights as the local population with respect to welfare, healthcare, education, housing, employment, etc.

Regarding resettlement, however, under Article 34 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, it states:

‘The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings’.

BUT!!! I ain't a lawyer but note that it doesn’t say ‘will’, or ‘must’. This means that states are obliged but not compelled to resettle refugees. However, the European Union appears to have taken the 1951 Refugee Convention in the spirit in which is was written. It’s set up the European Asylum Support Office and the Dublin Regulation and the EU Emergency Relocation Mechanism. The Dublin Regulation is a European Law that determines by fingerprinting the EU Member responsible for an asylum seeker claim and is linked to the EU Emergency Relocation Mechanism which is where the number of refugees each country in the EU should resettle is allocated.

In addition to the amazing efforts of Germany in 2015, the EU Emergency Relocation Mechanism is making real progress. Not all of the countries of Europe are meeting their obligations, with some refusing to take any refugees (Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are all subject of legal action by the EU Commission for failure to meet their obligations under the Agreement). However, the number of refugees now in Greece is around 60,000 and the resettlement into Europe is underway. But Greece, and no doubt the other countries, are struggling to provide basic services for the refugees coming to its shores, including schooling for the children (which is ad hoc at best).

Back to Alaa’s story:

After a while in refugee camps in Greece, Alaa decided that he needed to get to a third country in order for his application for asylum to be processed. He paid people to get him to the Netherlands and in around 2015 was granted asylum.

However, as soon as Alaa finally found a safe haven for himself, he found that he could not abandon the others facing the same fate in Greece and Italy. Alaa went back to Greece and volunteered his time with a number of refugee organisations, before he founded Happy Caravan, hoping to provide education to the children in refugee camps.

Alaa on his 33rd birthday being given presents by some of the Happy Caravan family…

Alaa is a magnetic individual. At times animated. At times, retreating to fight the demons scarring his psyche. Engaging. Empowering. A true leader. Alaa has the ability to attract and motivate talented individuals and then let them “fly”. He has strengths and can attract people who can fill his weaknesses.

He set up Happy Caravan only 5 months ago with nothing; no money, no equipment, but with a zeal to help. And now, there is a classroom, a large and steady stream of volunteers, a project manager to run the program at Thermopylae, an apartment for the volunteers, and teaching equipment.

Nik and I cooked a birthday dinner for Alaa. In the photo we have Zakrya, Alaa, Audrey, Nik, Hannah, Yvonne, Piotr, Agatha, and me.

If you are interested in a greater perspective about the true human impact and cost of war, Alaa previously completed an interview about his experiences. It can be found by searching the net for "Alaa Jnaid YouTube (Little things can make a difference)". Please be aware this interview is an incredibly honest and personal account of Alaa's experiences and is confronting. It is however, also a rare first hand account of the trauma caused by the Syrian war, a perspective often missing in today's media.

Happy Caravan:

When we arrived at Happy Caravan there were 5 other volunteers, a truly international contingent; 2 Spanish, 2 Polish and one Dutch - plus Alaa!

Piotr, the Polish bloke is an associate professor in Art and taught Art in an inclusive, inventive, and ever-changing way. One day getting the kids to make masks, the next painting a big cardboard castle.

We were driving from Lamia to Thermopylae and Piotr saw an enormous folded cardboard box. We stopped the tiny “Ford Ka”, put the cardboard through the back, against the roof of the car, and there was, in his mind, a castle for the children to paint.


There was gorgeous Agatha, who had taken on the mantle of Program Organiser for her 4 week stay. She sorted out the schedule and the plan for the centre, as well as coordinating all of us while we were there (no small job, I assure you!).

And our beautiful compatriots from Espana, Carla and Angela! These two amazing women taught English and Maths to the children with such fun and passion, it was inspiring.

Angela and Carla who taught English and Maths before Nikki and me.

And finally, but far from least, the amazingly creative Lisette from the Netherlands taught Art and all sorts of creativeness to the children, who absolutely loved her and her infectious smile!

Lisette. Art maestro!

Nikki getting a girl hug


There are two groups of children at the Happy Caravan school. The first group, older children aged from around 7 to 14, came to morning lessons. The second group of mainly younger children, came for a shorter afternoon session. There could be anywhere from 5 to 20 children in each class, depending on the day.

A surprise farewell for Lisette

We were lucky enough to have two Arabic speaking volunteers from within the camp assisting us, Zakrya, a 46 year old from Aleppo, and Khaled, a student from Syria. Zakrya had a successful air conditioning business, 2 houses, a wife and four kids before the war. His business and houses were destroyed during the conflict and he and his family fled to Greece. Zakrya’s wife and children have already been granted asylum and are waiting for him in Hamburg, but due to ongoing bureaucracy he has been waiting in Greece over a year to join them.

Zakrya having fun in art class...

Khaled is a Petrochemical student who had had to flee Syria due to the conflict and is waiting for resettlement.

Khaled sporting the glasses that Nik kindly made for him….

The classes for the first group started at 11am and went until 1.30pm, and from 2pm to 4pm for the second group. From 4.30pm each evening all the children would come to the school for English movies or cartoons, and of course popcorn! Or occasionally music…

Zakrya and I teaching that Old MacDonald had some weird animals on his farm…

One day Nik and another one the volunteers, Audrey, took four of the older teenage girls to the beach. Too old for school, too young for independence, these young women spend their days confined to their family rooms, never experiencing anything so normal as a day shopping or coffee with their girlfriends. Nik and Audrey tried to give them a taste of this. Afterwards Nik said “What makes me so sad is that these girls could be anything - scientists, doctors, lawyers - but each day in this limbo they fall behind their peers - making it harder for them to achieve their dreams”. Writing that I can’t help but think about my own kids, the education they’re getting, how they are fulfilling their potential and how I’d feel if their lives were suddenly torn apart and put on hold.

Nik and Audrey with the teenage refugee girls they took to the beach. Each day in the refugee camp makes it harder for them to reach their potential.

And then I think about the waste that is each day that these people are in limbo.

With all of that said, we found the children to be wonderfully warm and accepting. There were of course issues and tensions at times, especially between the Syrians and Kurdish children, but overall they seemed to be coping better than we had hoped, at least in the school environment. They genuinely wanted to attend school and learn.


Sitting down and thinking now, a week after we left the camp, I reckon that Greece is doing a really good job with the refugee crisis. Yes, it could be better, but I think in light of their own troubles, they are making a commendable effort.

Alaa is a truly inspirational individual. Similarly to Berenice, the manager of the Manos Amigas charity in Colombia, he has that selflessness that leaves me full of admiration.

I really, really hope that Greece lifts it’s game to provide education for these kids soon.

I really hope that Europe, at a minimum, meets its self-imposed refugee quotas soon.

I really hope that the Syrian conflict stops soon.

Which brings me to war and conflict.


The Syrian War, and War and Conflict in general.

I’m sure I’m not alone in having only a poor knowledge of the war in Syria.

The clearest explanation I’ve seen is in from the Wikipedia pages on the Syrian Civil War. It includes this diagram of the protagonists in the war and their relationships:

A diagram showing the protagonists in the Syrian Civil War. You don’t need to be able to read the names in the circles to appreciate that it’s a horrible, convoluted, interconnected mess.

The map below shows, at present, who’s in control of which parts of the country:

Map of the current (Sept 2017) situation in Syria. Red = Syrian Government, Green = Syrian Opposition, Yellow = Rojava (SDF), Grey = Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, White = Tahrir al-Sham (formally known as the al-Nusra Front).

Sources also refers to the Syrian Civil War as the ‘Iran – Saudi Arabia Proxy War’.

Based on the above, it’s clear that peace in Syria will be a long time coming. But it will come. I was convinced in the 1970’s, 1980’s and early 1990’s that peace in Northern Island was not possible. The animosity ran too deep. There had been too much death. Too many murders. And yet, in 1998 the Good Friday accords were signed and there has now been peace for over two decades.

We were in Colombia when the protagonists in the Colombian War signed the peace deal that, interestingly, President Santos of Colombia had based on the Good Friday Accords. The Colombian War had been going on for 60 years.

Which brings me to writing about War and Conflict in General. Since the Second World War the United Nations has mediated 172 peace agreements. And yet between 1956 and 2016 there have been 43 genocides resulting in the death, the murder, of 50 million people. There have been dozens – no hundreds – of wars and conflicts. And, having just volunteered in a refugee camp in Greece, we read about 400,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing from Myanmar into Bangladesh. You’d think that, as a human race, the world would be better than this. There are many simmering tensions in many countries in the world. What is it that suddenly, or seemingly suddenly, makes a tension boil over into full blown conflict? One thing is for certain, things have to fall to shit in a massive way before people will flee. Plus, given a choice, many people would prefer to go “back home” if the situation became “normal” again.

In my view the United Nations, which encourages the “talking is better than shooting” ethos is a positive start. But it isn’t enough. Nik has said that I should look to the history of humankind which shows a natural tendency toward war and conflict, but I think that, whilst that may be true, we as a species should be, and can be, better.

I am sure that we are, we must be, we can be, we will be, better as a human race……..


Australia, Asylum Seekers, and Refugees.

Australia. The Lucky Country. The Rich Country.

I’ll try to put this down as factually as I can and you can be the judge of what you think.
The 1951 Refugee Convention states that it is common that an Asylum Seeker may not follow the normal paths to enter a country and that “Contracting States”, ie states that have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention (which Australia has), should give due consideration to this when considering the treatment of an Asylum Seeker. The Australian Government, and the Australian Opposition have given due consideration to this and both agree that Australia is, and should continue to be, the only country in the world with indefinite mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

You’ll have read earlier in this blog that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (of which Australia is a founding signatory), states that “Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. The Australian Government, and the Australia Opposition, both have a policy that, if anyone arrives by boat, and actually gets to Australia, they will under no circumstances be granted asylum. In addition, not only will they be put into indefinite mandatory detention, but it will be offshore. Aussies out there will be interested to know that the Australian Government, whilst admitting no guilt, has just settled a class action bought by the asylum seekers in off-shore detention for pain and suffering caused by their incarceration. How much did the asylum seekers win? AU$70 million + costs.

You’ll have read earlier in this blog that if an asylum seeker is granted refugee status, that brings with it considerable privileges; education, welfare rights, employment rights, etc. The Australian Government, and the Australian Opposition, both support stretching this process out for years (1 to 5 years). All the while this process is stretched out, the asylum seeker is locked in a concentration camp with no rights of any kind, including that of safe or sanitary living condtions.

And there are many, many more examples of where the Australian Government, and the Australian Opposition, support Australia not meeting it’s international Human Rights, Asylum Seeker, and Refugee obligations and commitments.


Yeah but what about letting in terrorists? And they’re queue jumpers! And they’re not Aussies (or French, or German, or [Insert nationality here])! And they’re all on welfare and wont get a bloody job! And they’re Burqa wearing Muslims! And it’s leading to the rise in Ultra Right-Wing Parties!

I want to tackle these head on. I absolutely believe in the Voltairean principle of “I might not like what you have to say but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it”. And if people are free to say comments like the above, I’m free to respond.

Let’s take the last point first. The rise in the Ultra Right-Wing Parties. There always have been, and I suspect always will be, people that support the far right of politics. However, I think perspective is needed. And a really good example of this is in the recent German election. After having granted asylum to over 1 million refugees between 2015 and now, (i.e. 1 refugee for every 80 German citizens), 87% of the German electorate voted either for the present Chancellor, Angela Merkel, or for other non Far Right parties. That, I reckon, is a resounding vote of confidence in the Chancellors actions.

Next. They’re not Aussies (or Germans/ French/ or [insert nationality here]). Righto. Let’s take Australia first. 1% of Australians are “real” Australians, i.e. haven’t “blown in” over the past 230 years. I.e. they’re Indigenous Australians. The rest of us are blow ins.

The package for Heinz tomato ketchup that makes reference to 57 varieties. This has led to the comment some peoples cultural heritage is a bit of a “Heinz 57”, ie like Heinz Tomato Ketchup, they’re made up of 57 varieties.

Nik is a case in point. She has German, Irish, Scottish, and English blood, plus I’m sure a few more varieties. In Australia we’ve had waves of migration including the Irish in the 1880’s, the Greek’s and Italian’s post the Second World War (Melbourne had for a time the second largest Greek city in the world after Athens), the Vietnamese in the 1970’s, the Indians and Chinese now. Whilst working for AGL Energy in Melbourne about 8 years ago we had a Sri Lankan Buddhist Australian, an Italian Catholic Australian, a Malaysian Hindu of Indian origin Australian, a South African Protestant Australian, me (an English Protestant) Australian, and a “Heinz 57” Australian all working together in a team. The team was stronger than a monocultural team. The different viewpoints, the different cultural heritages, the different psyches made us stronger.

As for Europe. Crikey! Everyone’s invaded/ been invaded by everyone else over the centuries.

People have their right to their view, even if, in my view, it is bigoted and wrong.

They’re queue jumpers! So you’re rotting in a camp in Indonesia having lost everything in Syria. You’re hoping you’ll get resettlement but when? What would you do?

Well, I’ll tell you what Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser did in the mid 1970’s. He didn’t want people dying at sea, so he set up centres in Indonesia to process asylum claims.

Whilst I was researching this blog I learnt that, following the death of Alan Kurdi on 3rd September 2015, Australia announced that it would issue Permanent Residency (PR) visas to 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees. This was in addition to the existing quota of 13,750 refugees that it had committed to issuing each in 2015/16 and 2016/17, i.e. 39,500 in total. The actual number issued? Less than 23,000. Having just come from a refugee camp, I am bitterly disappointed, but not surprised by the misleading actions of the Australian Government. There is so much need and yet the Australian Government is not even doing what it committed to.

And they’re Burqa wearing Muslims! Yeah, and that’s just the blokes. Crikey! Live and let live. Living in Australia where in the 1880’s there was vehement partisan comments against a boatload of Irish Catholic Orphan Girls being allowed to settle in Australia “They’re Catholics! They’ll breed like rabbits and we’ll be overrun”. Then after the Second World War, there were the Greeks and the Italians (“We’ll be overrun! They never work! They’re not Australian!”), etc, etc. I have zero time for that silly racism.

And they’re all on welfare and wont get a bloody job! Ok. I’ll start with the anecdotal evidence first and then move onto research based evidence.

So, Mr and Mrs Gupta arrive from India. They open a corner store. How many hours is it open? All the hours that God sends. They have kids. How do Mr and Mrs Gupta feel about education? Rather strongly! What jobs are the kids likely to get? Doctors, lawyers, etc.

Now onto the factual stuff.

The research by Philippe Legrain, former economic adviser to the President of the European Commission, shows that each Euro invested in resettling refugees gives a return of 2 Euros within 5 years. Labour organisations have also shown that local wages are not detrimentally affected by resettling of refugees.

Also, I included in Chapter 23 of this blog, The Australian Goat Story that showed the benefits that two Lebanese brothers have brought to the Australian economy.

Lastly, what about letting in terrorists? For this I’m going to go straight to the research…..

A paper by Alex Nowrasteh from the Cato Institute in September 2016 showed the following statistics for the period 1975 to 2015 for America:

- The probability of an American being murdered by an American is 1 in 16,000
- The probability of an American being murdered by a foreign born terrorist is 1 in 3,900,000 (3.9 million)
- The probability of an American being murdered by a refugee is 1 in 3,640,000,000 (3.64 billion)
- The probability of an American being murdered by an illegal immigrant is 1 in 10,900,000,000 (10.9 billion).

QED. Quod erat demonstrandum. Thus it has been demonstrated. It has been demonstrated that the concern about terrorism from letting immigrants (and particularly refugees) into a country is unfounded.

That doesn’t mean that countries do not need to keep focussed on terrorism and its causes including radicalisation, ensuring integration into the communities in a country, and investigating rogue elements in a community, no matter what their cultural background.


Wow. Exhausted? I am. But thank you for sticking with me on this one. The crisis that the world is facing due to conflict is one which we in Australia are so often removed from and are able to avoid by simply changing the channel on the TV. Both Nik and I have often felt powerless in trying to help as each, seemingly endless, disaster or conflict unrolls before us. This trip provided us with an extraordinary privilege in not only witnessing some of the reality first hand, but more importantly, showing us that there are ways that everyone can step up and help. Both of us feel more inspired about how we can contribute going forward. And are more appreciative than ever of the amazing opportunities we have been so lucky to have and of the incredible people we are so fortunate to call friends.

Posted by capetocape2017 10:13 Archived in Greece Tagged greece happy syrian caravan refugees thermopylae alaa eddin jnaid Comments (1)

Chapter 19 - Canada, Alaska and Climate Change

By Neil

semi-overcast 17 °C
View Cape to Cape on capetocape2017's travel map.

“And then the Bear bit my face.”

“What happened then?” said the aghast woman on the bus.

“Well, I’d broken both of my hands trying to fight the bear off, so I was pretty defenceless. Then the bear started to bury me”, said the rugged looking man sitting behind us on the bus from Victoria to Campbell River, Vancouver Island, Canada.

Nikki doesn’t like spiders. No, it’s more like a phobia. A big phobia.

Nikki doesn’t like bears either. She’s convinced that, given half a chance, they’ll eat your face off. I told her that when we’re in British Columbia, Yukon and Alaska, that all of the Bears were on holiday in Alberta.

And now here we are, on our first bus in British Columbia, and there’s a bloke saying, not only that he’d seen a bear, not only that he’d been attacked by a bear, but that he’d been bitten on the face by a bear! Not only that, but the bear had then tried to bury him to eat him later!

A friendly bear

“What happened then?” asked the wide-eyed woman.

“The bear cubs started calling and the bear walked away”.

Nik and I didn’t discuss anything about the conversation until we got off the bus.

“Did you hear that conversation behind us on the bus?” asked Nik.

“Yes” I said. “But that was in the past and the bears are all on holiday now”.

Nik didn’t look convinced.


Beautiful British Columbia (BC)

Vancouver Island.

After a brief overnight stop, we left Seattle via a 3 hour ferry ride to Victoria, Vancouver Island. Even from afar it was extraordinarily beautiful. If there was one common theme in our discussions with people about places we “had to go to” on the trip, it was that Canada is awesome. And, well, look at this:

On the ferry from Seattle to Victoria, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada

Another thing we found was that BC is very big, and to get to Anchorage in time for our flight Russia, we were going to have to travel fast.

Map of British Colombia (where we visited Vancouver Island and Prince Rupert), Yukon (where we visited Whitehorse and Dawson City) (Both Provinces are in Canada), and Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

Hence, we bypassed Vancouver and went straight to Vancouver Island. We had time for lunch…

Praise the Lord! Lunch in “The Empress Hotel”. We’re back in a land where the Head of State is the British Monarch. “The Empress” referred to is Queen Victoria who was also the Empress of India… (see the photos on the wall behind me…)

This was the first time I’d been in Canada since 1986 (discounting an overnight stop in 1992). I’m sure that the next gap won’t be 31 years. Apart from being stunningly scenic, there is also a great chilled out vibe with the Canadians, and a similar sense of humour (well, at least they get ours).

After a brief stop for lunch in Victoria, we caught the bus straight up to Campbell River for a couple of nights. From there we took a day trip across on the ferry to Quadra Island. It really was very pretty, especially the secluded beaches of driftwood and pebbles that we found after hiking over the island to the eastern shore.

Quadra Island, looking towards to British Colombian mainland

Bald Eagle on Quadra Island.

Deer on Quadra Island, wandering in someone’s front yard.

We then took another bus ride north to Port Hardy, from where we planned to catch the overnight ferry to Prince Rupert. It was here that I had to admit that maybe, just maybe, I might have been telling a bit of a fib about the bears.

We decided to go hiking along the estuary near the town. All very civilised and quite populated. Nothing to worry about, right? Then, it kind of started with an information sign that said “You’re in bear country”. Then it continued with this:

It’s possible that there may be bears in Canada.

A bit more cautiously we kept walking, both thinking “yes, but not really”. Then we saw a tell-tale sign on the trail and we looked at each other and said “Um, is that bear poo?”. Now I’m no First Nations tracker or anything, but it looked pretty fresh to me.

As it had started to rain, we took shelter under a bush shelter with Les, a Scottish Canadian.

“Are you worried about the bears?” we asked.

“No, but I do carry a whistle now after I met one on this track last year. Oh, talking of which, there she is over there”, he said, pointing to a black bear about 100 metres away.

It’s possible that the black blob in the middle of this picture, close to the water, could be a black bear.

Only 10 minutes before the bear had been on the path we’d been walking on, leaving her mark. It started raining and, discretion being the better part of valour, we decided to retreat to the hotel … in Les’ car…

It was at this point, that we started thinking about the little jaunt that we were on.

At Port Hardy we had got to a latitude of 51 degrees north. The last time we were this far from the equator was in January when we were on the Navimag ferry in Chile travelling north between Puerto Natales and Puerto Montt.

Neil and Nikki in the Americas!

We had started on 26th December 2016 from Adelaide, Australia. We’d flown to Ushuaia, Argentina (54 degrees latitude south), and taken the ship Australis down to Cape Horn (at 56 degrees south). It felt like there was a nice symmetry of south and north as we fast approached the end of our time in the Americas.

It was now time to take the ferry up from Port Hardy, on Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert (54 degrees north), on the British Columbia mainland. It was a 20 hour trip and it lived up to it’s reputation as being one of the most scenic trips in the world, through the Inside Passage. After preparing for a night sleeping in the bleachers, we even managed to score a cabin for night – luxury!

Looking out the back of the Ferry from Port Hardy, Vancouver Island, to Prince Rupert, BC, Canada

Sunset from the ferry travelling from Port Hardy, Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert, BC, Canada.

Prince Rupert, Stewart and the Salmon Glacier (BC)

Whilst we have tried to travel as much as possible by land, the trip from Prince Rupert to Whitehorse in the Yukon was the choice between doing 42 hours straight on a bus, or a 5 hour flight. We decided to go for the 5 hour flight. This also gave us the opportunity to rent a 4 Wheel Drive in Prince Rupert to go and see the Salmon Glacier, close to the town of Stewart, BC. We’d been lucky enough to meet up with a German/Swiss bloke and an English woman on the ferry who wanted to go to the glacier too, so they joined us for the road trip.

Both the road trip and Stewart itself were awesome. We stopped at the Bear Glacier for photos and, well, for bears on the way too….

Bears on the way to Stewart, BC, Canada.

The Salmon Glacier is biggest glacier you can see from the road in Canada. Well, a windy snow-covered dirt track. In order to get to the Glacier from Stewart, you have to cross the border briefly into the US at the tiny ‘ghost town’ of Hyder. After 20 or so kilometres you’re back in Canada and winding your way up the mountainside toward the glacier. It was easy enough to drive across the border into Hyder, but the Canadians took crossing back in pretty seriously – even though there is only one road in/out and we had waved at them on the way through only hours before!

The Salmon Glacier, BC, Canada. With Nikki and Neil!

A Little Bit on Climate Change

It was at this point that the subject of climate change came to the fore.

I can’t copy the images because of copyright, but the link to the webpage is in the public domain (http://www.explorenorth.com/library/roads/images/salmon_glacier-retreat-1975-2015.html)

The retreat of the Salmon Glacier shown in the images from 1975 and 2015 above is stark.

The last Ice Age finished about 12,000 years ago, and since then the glaciers have been retreating. The rate of change as planetary CO2 has been rapidly rising, has increased markedly. This was to be first of several tangible signs of climate change that we would see in the far north on this trip.

The Yukon (Whitehorse and Dawson City)

The flight from Prince Rupert to Whitehorse was via Vancouver, but was painless.

Whitehorse is in the Yukon and is at 60 degrees latitude north. We were now at the furthest we had been from the equator on this trip. The Yukon is roughly the same size as the Australian State of Victoria, which has a population of 5 million. The Yukon has a population of 34,000, of whom 26,000 live in the capital Whitehorse!

The first thing about Whitehorse is it’s the first place I’ve been to that has stuffed duelling mountain caribou in the airport….

Stuffed Duelling Mountain Caribou at the Whitehorse airport…

Whitehorse was only an overnight stop but, my lord, the Yukon Brewing Company do a fine job! And this is what an Elk looks like:

An Elk

And it tasted very good.

An Elk Burger…….

There is one part of me that looks at the beautiful Elk above and thinks well, it’s beautiful. But hunting has been part of the way of life up here for thousands of years and well…

The bus journey from Whitehorse to Dawson City (at 64 degrees north) was, once again picturesque.

Dawson City went off like a frog in a sock in 1896 when gold was found at Bonanza Creek. The population of Dawson City, now 1,400, was between 30,000 and 40,000 at the peak of the goldrush. Bonanza Creek flows into the Klondike River and the gold rush became known as the Klondike Gold Rush. As with all gold rushes going on at the time it was, so to speak, a flash in the pan and by 1898 the population was falling like a stone.

However, Dawson City is fabulous. It was incredibly well preserved and all new buildings have to be built to the 1905 building standards (well, for external appearance anyway). We found a beautiful organic café in town using local produce. The owner had built the café himself from scratch - including cutting down the trees, and dragging them to the site of his cafe. This is just one example of the very proud local and slow food movement that seemed to be a part of Dawson. It was certainly a tourist town, but there was also lots of young people, great food and beer and a vibe that was unexpected in this remote location.

Street views of Dawson City, Yukon, Canada

For the first time since we were in Brazil and saw the Rio Negro (Black River) joining the Rio Amazonia (Amazon River), we once again witnessed the meeting of two different rivers, where the waters did not mix for many kilometres. In the photo below you can see the very noticeable “split” when the Klondike (black) and the Yukon river (brown) meet.

Yukon - Klondike River Colour -2

Yukon - Klondike River Colour -2

Photos showing the Klondike River (black) meeting up with the Yukon River (brown) at Dawson City, Yukon, Canada.

Interestingly, when we left from Oakland railway station, they had a place next to it called “London Square” named after Jack London (1876 to 1916).

Jack London wrote, in particular, “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”, two books that I devoured when I was in my pre-teenage years.
Jack London went up to Dawson City in 1897 and stayed for about 12 months before returning to San Francisco after suffering from scurvy. But the 12 months or so that he spent in Dawson City were the inspiration for many of his books.

The pictures so far do not represent, if you like, the real Dawson City. I find it difficult to really comprehend that the rivers you saw above were frozen only 7 weeks before we arrived.

The Frozen Yukon River. It is frozen for about 8 months of the year.

The sign on the Yukon River that is connected up to sensors to give the time that the river first starts moving.

There are sensors on the river that measure when the ice starts to move each year. This is where, once again, we see the effect of the increasing rate of climate change because the date of the first ice move has been recorded each year since 1896. In summary, 8 of the 10 times that the “first move” has occurred in April have been in the last 30 years. In 2016 the “first move” was a full 5 days earlier than it had been in any year since 1896.

Date of the first moving of the Yukon River at Dawson City, Yukon between 1896 and 2016. In 2016 it was the earliest first moving of the Yukon river by 5 days, 23rd April.

Of course, the other point of interest is the sunrise (3.48 am) and the sunset (12.58 am) in Dawson City. Just in case you’re like me and weren’t 100% sure on why the days get longer and shorter, look at this:


In short, the earth is not perpendicular to the sun, it is non-perpendicular by 23.5 degrees.


Canadian Politics

The Frogs and the bloody Poms. Good Lord, are they always in a bun fight?

I mentioned in a few previous blogs that the Poms (Prisoners of Mother England, a derogatory term for the British), the Frogs (a term of adoration for our French friends), and the Spanish (a term meaning “Please can you bring me some of your excellent shaved ham, and a gin and tonic”), got into a bit of argy bargy in about 1756 to 1763 in an imaginatively called “7 year war”. The Brits must have done reasonably well out of all this, because in the Treaty of Paris, Spain and England swapped Florida for Cuba, and France gave up Louisiana to the Spanish.

Also, at that point, there was a lot of fuss over beavers. Beaver hats were all the rage in Europe and there were a lot of beavers in Canada. The French were there in force, and the Brits were too. The French were in Quebec, the Brits were elsewhere in Canada. The French gave up Quebec as part of the 7 year war.

However, les Francias in Quebec thought “Merde!”, and have been battling ever since for political, if not national, independence.

So political leadership in Canada is a tad tricky. But, when they were looking for a leader in 1968 and the son of a French Canadian father and a Scottish/French Canadian mother wanted to be Prime Minister, well, Bob’s your Uncle. And he was completely bi-lingual. And had a French surname. He was ahead of the pack. His name was Pierre Trudeau.

Three years later in 1971, he had a son called Justin Trudeau who in 2015 became the Prime Minister of Canada.

So now we get on to the whole “My political leader is hunkier/betterer than yours”.

Canada Wins.

There have been two recent incidents of an overload of Canadian official and news websites; once was the Canadian immigration website when the present US President won the election, and the other was when a picture emerged of a bare-chested Justin Trudeau emerged on the internet.

Photo of the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau at a charity boxing competition in 2012 that emerged in 2015 and caused meltdown of a number of Canadian websites…

That is all fluff and junk until you consider that Trudeau is, in my view, among the best leaders in power at present. Why?
- He has equal numbers of men and women on his cabinet (and they are not all sitting in the front row!)

The Canadian cabinet of Justin Trudeau.

- He (knock me over with a feather!) appointed a military person to be the minister of defence,

Harjit Sajjin – Canadian Minister of Defence – 2015 to present

- A doctor to be minister of health, etc.

Dr Jane Philpott – Canadian Minister of Health – 2015 to present

- He welcomed the first Syrian refugees to Canada personally

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcoming the first Syrian refugees at Toronto airport. “Tonight they step off the plane as refugees, but they walk out of the terminal as permanent residents of Canada”, he said.

- He went to visit them again after they’d been in the country for a year
- And, in my view, very importantly, doesn’t need to put his ego on the table during negotiations.

In short, he rocks.

Overland from Dawson City to Alaska

John, the bloke driving the shuttle van taking us from Dawson City to Fairbanks, said the road up to the Canadian/American border was his favourite in the world. It is called the ‘Top of the World Highway’, winding along ridgetops for hundreds of kilometres, allowing a view to distant mountain ranges and river gorges. Bloody interesting bloke by the way. A kayak rowing fisherman who spent decades in the logging industry, as well as 11 years in a Buddhist retreat….

To sound like a broken record, it was very pretty.

View on the way from Dawson City, Yukon, Canada to Fairbanks, Alaska, USA. The second photo shows the devastated pine forests after a bushfire a number of years ago that wiped out the spruce forest for thousands of hectares. Unfortunately they do not regenerate and other species are replacing them.

We arrived in Fairbanks on the 19th of June, which is only 2 days before the summer solstice and there was a festival on in the town to celebrate. We had a wander and lovely dinner in town and then went off to bed, in the day light. Nikki got up to take this photo of sunset/rise at 1.30 am. This was as dark as it got that night – a combination of fiery sunset and bright summer evening!

Photograph taken at 1.30 am from the hotel window in Fairbanks, Alaska

Fairbanks is the furthest north we go on our trip, at 64 degrees 50 minutes north.

Finally, onto the last part of our travel in the Americas; the train ride from Fairbanks to Anchorage. Twelve hours, including travelling through Denali National Park, the location of North America’s highest mountain at 6,190 (20,156 feet) – called Denali or Mount McKinley.

Views on the train ride from Fairbanks to Anchorage, Alaska.

Anchorage is the largest city in the largest state in America (Alaska is 1.7 million square kms, or a quarter the size of Australia).

And I’m afraid that my fibbing about bears came to the fore again:

Er, maybe there are bears in Alaska..

And we heard about a tragic theft in Dawson City. The Downtown Hotel Sourdough Saloon is world famous for its “Sourtoe Cocktail” that contains a real human toe. You don’t eat the toe, I hasten to add. Infact there’s a $2,500 fine if you do, but there is a toe in the glass and you are meant to ‘kiss’ it when you drink the cocktail. Anyway, this happened:

The actual human toe from the “Sourtoe Cocktail” in Dawson City, Yukon, Canada, has been stolen!

Yep, we’re not in Melbourne any more…..


The end of the Americas

So here are the statistics:

179 days

18 countries

9 time zones

61,140 km’s (4,627 km’s by boat, 2,577 km’s by train, 25,361 km’s by Bus/ car, and 28, 576 km’s by plane (of which 16,075 km’s was getting to Ushuaia, Argentina from Australia).

It’s been amazing. And so, we say goodbye to the Americas. And hello to Russia. We are very excited.

We’re starting our Russian adventure here:

The Russian Far East in the context of Russia as a whole.

Or more precisely, we’re taking an expedition ship called the “Spirit of Enderby” up the Kamchatka Coast to Anadyr:

Route we’ll be taking on the expedition ship, the Spirit of Enderby.

The Spirit of Enderby, Kamchatka Peninsula, Russian Far East.

So, let me say: Dasvidanya y spasiba….. Goodbye and thank you……

For now at least…..


Posted by capetocape2017 16:14 Archived in Canada Tagged alaska politics canada canadian british columbia change bears climate justin yukon refugees trudeau Comments (1)

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